what happens when reality tv stars are frozen in time

From ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ to ‘Love Island’, the rediscovery of old seasons of reality TV on streaming services can be both a blessing and a curse.

by Isobel Lewis
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14 June 2019, 6:45am

When Jay Jackson first walked through the workroom door on RuPaul’s Drag Race -- and death-dropped to the floor with the words, “Come on season six, let’s get sickening!” -- he never thought he’d still be reliving this moment every day five years later. Appearing on the show in 2014 as the tongue-popping, weed-smoking drag queen Laganja Estranja, Jay remains one of the show’s most memorable contestants and one of a huge number of reality TV stars who are introduced to new audiences every day through streaming services.

This contemporary phenomenon meshes together our loves for both live tweeting TV and binge watching it, leaving contestants unable to move on from reality TV in a whole new way. When initially faced with a negative public reaction to his speech style, catch phrases and performance on Drag Race, Jay attempted to reset his image by returning to the aspect of drag he loved best. “After the show, I worked hard to change the public perception by going out and performing,” Jay tells me. “When it went on Netflix and I started getting hate mail again I was like, ‘What?’ I thought we had gotten over this.” But new fans couldn’t get over something they were only just discovering for the first time. Drag Race may have first aired on Logo back in 2009, but it was Netflix that made it the global phenomenon it is today. In the UK, the show first took off around 2016 and is marketed as a Netflix Original programme, leaving fans catching up around the world to innocently meet Jay as his on-screen antagonistic character, rather than the person he is now.

Following the tragic deaths of Love Island’s Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon, as well as the cancellation of ITV’s The Jeremy Kyle Show, the conversation around mental health and reality TV has largely focussed on aftercare, and how production companies help contestants adjust to life after their 15 minutes of fame. Aftercare, however, implies that the stars will be able to move on at all -- something made all the more difficult when they are forced to relive their time on the show as new fans continue to discover it on streaming services.

Speaking to The Guardian, Jeremy Kyle guest Dwayne Davison spoke about the debilitating effect his time on the show had had for his self-image, saying that the real damage had come from ITV’s decision to upload clips of him to YouTube. Racking up millions of views, Davison said that the fresh stream of abuse these videos prompted, as people watched his appearance for the first time on YouTube, undermined the show’s minimal aftercare process, adding: “It’s like stabbing someone in the back multiple times and then asking if the person is OK.”

Like The Jeremy Kyle Show, Drag Race is a highly produced programme that plays into stock characters in order to make the show compelling and interesting to watch. Unfortunately, the fans who find the show later on through Netflix are often younger, and struggle to realise that what they’re watching is fiction. “Because it’s on Netflix, it’s going to be relived until the day I die,” Jay says. “I’m going to constantly have new people find my character and tell me over social media how annoying I am.”

Like many reality stars, Jay struggled to readjust to life post-reality show and the attention that came with it, battling with an alcohol addiction he has since worked through in therapy. When attention on season six started to pick back up again, he knew that going back to that dark place wasn’t an option. “Over the last six years I’ve developed a tougher skin and these comments don’t affect me as much as they once did,” he says. "But I’m a human and nobody likes being told they’re annoying: even though it’s hard to relive some of the trauma and downfalls, I try to believe that it’s good the show is on Netflix.”

The good part is that the show’s streamable presence affords its former contestants a much bigger platform. Without appearing on an on-demand video service, a growing reality show leaves contestants from earlier seasons behind. With Netflix, all Drag Race queens can benefit from the show’s exponential growth, in particular internationally. Barely a weekend goes by when a contestant from the show isn’t playing a concert hall, theatre or gay bar in the UK or across the world, and with RuPaul’s Drag Race UK hitting BBC Three later in the year, this audience can only be expected to increase.

Someone who also knows about a reality TV programme blowing up after their appearance is Chris Williamson, a 31-year-old company director and the first person to walk into the Love Island villa in 2015. In the run-up to the show’s highly anticipated fourth series, Netflix uploaded the first two series to their platform in April 2018, encouraging fans to binge-watch these while they waited for the new season to arrive. Originally watched by half a million people -- Chris refers to the first series as “a full budget pilot run” -- the first series was released online to build hype for the four million people who would go on to watch series four.

“I saw a significant uplift in social media attention,” Chris says. “People were asking me questions about stuff that had happened three years ago, when I couldn’t remember what I’d had this morning for breakfast.” While the comments Chris was met with tended to be in good jest, he can see how the upload could negatively impact a former contestants mental health. “I can imagine if you were painted in a bad light perhaps, and were getting negative attention at the time, then that may reignite it,” he adds.

No matter how clearly produced reality TV may be, it’s easy to forget when watching a series back on catch-up that the action on your screen isn’t occurring in the present day and that the contestants are no longer the people they were on the show. This was never clearer than with Drag Race’s Gia Gunn, real name Gia Ichikawa. While Gia first appeared on the show in 2014 as a gay man in drag, behind the scenes she was in the process of exploring her gender identity. Coming out as a trans woman in 2017, the idea of new fans discovering her every day as a different gender on streaming services is particularly frustrating.

“Not everyone’s following you on Instagram or your day to day life, and people do come up to me in the street, not knowing that I’ve had transitioned or had surgery,” Gia tells me. Like Laganja, Gia was known for being an antagonist while on the show, as well as knocking out quotable catchphrases, which to many seems at odds with her activism online. “We’re people outside of Drag Race and we really don’t want people to just address us with our catchphrases or things that don’t fully represent who we are as people,” Gia says, although she can ultimately understand it. “Really, I’m fortunate to have had catchphrases that people are so drawn to and that keep me relevant.”

While “reintroducing myself to the world as a woman” played a big role in Gia’s decision to return to Drag Race in 2018 on the fourth All Stars series, there were also bigger forces at play. As a trans rights activist, Gia has spoken out against RuPaul’s comments on the trans community and felt like she couldn’t miss the opportunity to represent and open doors for her brothers and sisters, no matter the personal cost. “Was it the right time?” she ponders. “Was I in the strongest mental state of my life? No. But I did it. I bit the bullet and went on a show that was uninviting to my kind of people and I will forever be considered the first openly trans woman to be on Drag Race.”

Returning to reality television may seem like a former contestant is giving up and resigning their life to be dependent on the format, but it’s more than that. For shows that are more entertainment based and less overtly exploitative, the stars are genuinely grateful for the platforms they have been given, but want to use it to do something more. For Gia and Jay, this is their activism: Gia regularly appears on roundtable discussions and advocates publicly for trans rights, while Jay vocally supports the legalisation of cannabis.

For Chris, his ‘something more’ is Modern Wisdom, the educational interview podcast he presents and calls “the closest thing to a higher calling as I’ve found for myself.” While fans may have found the podcast thanks to a few Love Island themed episodes, the overlap between consistent listeners and the dating show’s avid tweeters is fairly minimal. To Chris, this makes the achievement all the greater. “To be an independent podcaster who’s now beginning to get in the big leagues feels a lot more of an achievement than getting a million followers on Instagram from going on a TV show,” he says.

Simultaneously grateful for and frustrated with their former reality shows, the contestants facing this phenomenon are navigating a previously undiscovered territory every day with little support available. Streaming platforms hadn’t reached their full potential when Love Island started a mere four summers ago, but platforms like Netflix and hayU have drastically altered the way audiences interact with TV stars. With the mental health of reality stars finally being taken seriously, the Groundhog Day effect bought in by video on demand services must be acknowledged in the reality show aftercare process in order to prepare its contestants for life post-show. It’s not just the 15 minutes of fame anymore: it’s a lifetime.