In the summer of 2000, Melanie Hill stepped through the door of the distinctly unglamorous Big Brother house. Reality TV was in its infancy, but racial stereotypes were already sinking their teeth into this new medium, carving out pigeonholes black people would be crammed into repeatedly in the next 20 years.
Producers painted Mel as, in her own words, a ‘shameless hussy,’ playing into the over-sexualisation of black women seen on screen since the dawn of TV. Writing for the Evening Standard in 2002, Melanie recalled watching her ‘best bits’ back, seeing ‘the sight of my bottom — in a bikini, in knickers, being squeezed into a pair of shorts, in the shower — or of me kissing all the boys.’
The production of Mel as overtly sexual started before Big Brother even aired. Prior to the show, Mel says producers asked her to read lines about how ‘sexy’ she was as part of her intro tape. She refused. ‘It was very telling that was the angle they were pursuing,’ she says. ‘If I’d been white or male, I don’t think that would have happened.’
20 years on and there’s very little we haven’t watched people do on reality TV. People have sh**ged in a box on Channel 4’s Sex Box, women competed to win the heart of a Prince Harry lookalike on I Wanna Marry Harry and celebrities repeatedly sign up to humiliate and injure themselves on Splash! and The Jump. One thing remains unchanged: reality TV’s diversity issue. Programmes from the X Factor to Love Island have struggled with representation on screen, often relying on stereotypes, tokenism or completely neglecting to feature black faces at all.
Black women aren’t just made out to be over-sexualised: They’re also portrayed as angry and difficult. X Factor wannabes Gifty Louise, Hannah Barrett, and Misha B, who all stood before Simon Cowell and co in the 2010s, have spoken out about the racist undertones of their treatment on the show.
Misha B was labelled ‘mean’ and ‘feisty’ by judges, wrecking her chances of winning the competition in 2011. Fellow X Factor alumni Alexandra Burke suffered a similar fate on Strictly Come Dancing, where she was branded a ‘diva’ in the press.
The unfair scrutiny of black contestants was a concern for Nicole Dennis, a The Voice hopeful who made it to the semi-finals in 2019. ‘It was definitely a worry at the back of my mind, even though I’m the furthest thing from a diva,’ she tells me.
‘I know editing is part of reality TV, but seeing those young women treated like that was heartbreaking. I can’t imagine what it felt like for them. It’s probably put some people off auditioning.’
Scripted reality shows are an even worse fare. If an alien was to tune into The Only Way is Essex or Made in Chelsea, they’d be forgiven for thinking black people simply do not exist in our cities. In actuality, 40.2% of London residents, 9.2% of people in Essex are black or ethnic minorities.
In the face of calls for better diversity, Towie and MIC have recruited people of colour – but they never get to shine in the same way their white counterparts do. Dr Lulu Le Vay highlights how black people are often ‘positioned as subservient to the white protagonist – usually as a best friend or supportive character, to enable white happiness,’ she says.
The trope didn’t escape Vas Morgan, one of the only black faces to appear in Towie. ‘I felt like I wasn’t given the same development as my white cast members,’ he tells me over a Zoom call. ‘My sensitive storylines – like coming out as gay – were brushed over.’
The experience was frustrating for Vas, who joined the cast solely to serve as a positive role model for young black LGBTQ people. He says, ‘Growing up, there was no inclusion on the shows I was a fan of. When the opportunity arose to go on Towie, I thought saying yes was the responsible decision.’
Following the death of George Floyd in May, the Black Lives Matter movement highlighted the desperate need for racial equality in all industries, including entertainment. In the US, in the wake of a summer filled with protest and unrest, reality stars Stassi Schroder, Kristen Doute and two others were fired from Vanderpump Rules over accusations of racist behaviour, while ABC appointed its first ever black Bachelor, Matt James.
The UK’s reality sphere is long overdue a seismic shift of its own – so, what should that look like? I put the question to Nicole, who answers me with a sigh. ‘I just want racial equality,’ she says. ‘I think it starts from the top: getting more black producers working behind the scenes would be a good place to start.’ Vas agrees having more diversity among people in powerful positions in TV would make it easier for minority cast members to feel heard when they’re experiencing microaggressions. ‘The fact a black cast member has to bring up these issues to a room full of white men is what makes it uncomfortable,’ he says.
For its part, Lime Productions, the company behind Towie, has been proactive in acting on Vas’s complaints. ‘I’m proud of how Lime are dealing with the situation off camera, I’ve been working with them actively on how they can improve, and they’ve hired people to talk to the cast and crew about inclusivity. It’s not just lip service, they are taking action.’
Lime’s progress is mirrored across major networks: The BBC has committed to spending £100 million on diverse content, including reality programming, while a Channel4 spokesperson assured me they have ‘want to go further in driving positive change which is why we have set out clear targets such as tracking black, Asian and minority-ethnic talent representation across our top one hundred shows, as well as committing to being an anti-racist organisation.’
For the white viewer – myself included – there’s still more to be done. A disappointing 24,500 people complained to media watchdog Ofcom over Diversity’s Black Lives Matter performance on Britain’s Got Talent in September. Though Ofcom has refused to investigate as the performance didn’t break any rules, the vitriol by viewers is evidence we need an open dialogue about race, both on and off-screen.
Mel believes the future of diversity on television relies on these conversations. She doesn’t believe she was the target of malicious racial profiling by Big Brother producers, rather they simply didn’t understand the microaggressions associated with the way she was portrayed on screen. ‘It’s all about having conversations,’ she says. ‘Those little minor incidents you dismiss, actually, they’re important. And actually, we need to talk about them.’
Both the pandemonium of the ongoing pandemic and the meteoric force of BLM have thrown the future of reality TV into uncertainty. But hopefully, as we come to adapt to the ‘new normal,’ there’s space for meaningful dialogue around the way we treat people of colour on screen.
It’s only been 20 years in the making.
Black History Month
October marks Black History Month, which reflects on the achievements, cultures and contributions of black people in the UK and across the globe, as well as educating others about the diverse history of those from African and Caribbean descent.
For more information about the events and celebrations that are taking place this year, visit the official Black History Month website.
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