There was something low-key nefarious about the early days of reality TV, when producers would aggressively mislead and sometimes out-and-out lie to contestants about what they were getting themselves into. There was Joe Millionaire, the show where women competed for the hand of a millionaire who was actually a middle-class construction worker. Or Average Joe, in which beautiful women were hoodwinked into dating some grungy duds. Or The Joe Schmo Show, which, while undoubtedly entertaining, was just objectively fucked-up.
There’s more transparency now. MTV’s reality shows, for example, no longer shy from showing the crew, nor from scenes where contestants ponder how the show could impact their life in the (actual) real world. The line that separates reality and reality TV is woven through the premises of Netflix’s reality slate, including The Circle and Love Is Blind. The deceptive editing remains, sure, though it’s tempered somewhat by the real-time reactions contestants can share on social media, as well as a network’s need to exploit the cast’s inevitable deluge of Instagram followers. From Bachelor Nation to the Housewives, the players are now as integral to the brand as the shows themselves.
It’s interesting, then, to revisit 2014's I Wanna Marry “Harry”, that last gasp of the old era of reality TV, one in which Fox greenlit a series in which women try to woo a Prince Harry impersonator who they’re led to believe actually is Prince Harry. It’s despicable, honestly, but the effort they put into it was admirable. “It is poisonous in concept and stellar in execution, a marvel constructed from shit,” we wrote in our review at the time. “It’s so well done that the skill almost masks the stink of the premise.”
The women stayed in the fancy Englefield House in Berkshire and Matthew Hicks, the 23-year old who played the role of Harry, was kept at distance, hidden behind masks, and swallowed by staged paparazzi attacks throughout the experience. These tricks, plus many others used by the producers to convince the contestants that Hicks was really Harry, are unpacked in a new Refinery 29 piece featuring interviews with Hicks, a handful of the women, and one of the series’ directors.
Kimberly Birch, who was 24 when she appeared on the show, detailed the “brainwashing” that went on to behind the scenes and how she was made to feel “crazy” for questioning the show’s premise. “[The] logical part of my brain was telling me this does not look like Prince Harry. This is an absolute ridiculous premise. This would never happen in real life,” she said. “But the other part of your brain is being completely brainwashed. You’re secluded from your friends and family, you have no access to any sort of media outlet, and you are in this castle [being told that] if you’re questioning if this is Prince Harry or not, you’re crazy.”
The women had no info going in and were mostly isolated from each other during filming. In between shots, they were forbidden from speaking with one another, though one recalls trying to “steal moments with fellow contestants in the bathroom to help them see reason.” Meanwhile, tabloids about Harry’s singledom were not-so-subtly laid throughout the estate.
Only a few actually believed they were carousing with the actual prince. Contestant Meghan Jones, for example, says she played along to ensure she got more screen time. “The more episodes you’re on, the more followers you’re going to get, the more opportunities you’ll have. I went on for the experience, the exposure—and if I met a guy and fell in love, that’d be cool.”
Read the full piece here.
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