'Big Brother,' 'Survivor': Winners aren't 'here to make friends'
With the news that Willie Hantz, the younger brother of Survivor villain Russell Hantz, will join the cast of Big Brother this season, the birth of a new reality villain dynasty is upon us. Not only is Willie (pictured, right) the spitting image of his brother, but he is shaping his persona within his brother’s mold. He told Zap2It, “I’m willing to do whatever it takes to win half a million dollars. Whatever it takes. If my mama was on the island with me, or on the show with me, I would vote her out first because she would get sympathy votes.” It’s safe to say that doing “whatever it takes” won’t involve making friends.
Though the Hantz brothers’ penchant for ignominy seems counterintuitive — why would someone would go on a show predicated upon alliances only to alienate everyone around him? — it has become a tried-and-true strategy as reality TV has evolved these past 20 years. EW talked to experts and insiders, from reality-obsessed academics to some of the genre’s most notorious villains to find out why being mean is often the best plan.
According to Max Dawson, a Survivor super-fan who taught a course on the show at Northwestern, Russell “is an embodiment of the new sort of reality TV show contestant whose entire motivation seems to be to leave that real world behind and to move into this world of reality TV stardom where unless you’ve done something outrageous and despicable in the first three to six days, you run the danger of being forgotten.” Given Willie’s cocky proclamation that the only difference between himself and his brother will be that he’ll win, the game plan is in place.
When series like An American Family and The Real World first aired, the then-unnamed genre of reality TV was very much about “making friends,” or at least exposing the inner working of relationships. Enter Survivor. Season 1 runner-up Kelly Wiglesworth was the first reality contestant to utter those six fateful words: “I’m not here to make friends.” A catchphrase — and indeed an entire ethos — was born.
Though Wiglesworth came up short, victor Richard Hatch didn’t endear himself to anyone by traipsing around in the nude and manipulating his teammates. He certainly didn’t make a lifelong friend in competitor Susan Hawk, who deemed Hatch a snake (and Wiglesworth a rat) in her final jury speech. Regardless of her disapproval of Hatch’s tactics, she appreciated his gamesmanship and ultimately helped secure his victory. It was simple to Hawk: Hatch played the best. “What does ‘the best’ mean?” asks Mina Tsay, an assistant professor of communication at Boston University. “At the end, it doesn’t mean making friends.” She adds, “If it failed, this [“not here to make friends”] concept would not be such a popular technique.” Instead, the strategic use of underhanded conduct has insinuated its way into reality TV’s core.
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Reality shows today are “a calculated, planned-out experience,” says David Showalter, who organized a University of Chicago-based academic conference on Jersey Shore. Willie’s out-of-the-gate war cry (“My strategy is, I just want there to be as much drama and chaos… ’cause the more that goes on, the more it’s off me”) certainly bears that out.
“Boston” Rob Mariano, another iconic Survivor villain who appeared on the show four times, took an approach akin to Willie’s. Beginning with Survivor: Marquesas in 2002, Mariano knew his mission: “If I’m going on a competition show, you bet your ass I’m going to try to win. I’m not going out there for a vacation. I’m going out there to win, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to win.”
But some contestants need a little time to catch on to the strategy. Another infamous reality personality, Justin “Rated R” Rego (pictured, right), insists he didn’t go on The Bachelorette in 2010 intending to play a specific archetype, but admits he did prepare by watching episodes of the previous season. He knew the stakes. “I remember telling my younger sister, ‘Watch. You’re going to see me on the cover of one of these [celebrity] news magazines,'” he says. “I did know going there, I didn’t want to be one of those people you never see in any episodes. I wanted people to see me.”
When Rego began to suspect he was getting the Villain edit (producers ultimately staged a call between Bachelorette Ali Fedotowsky and a woman who claimed she was Rego’s girlfriend in his native Toronto), he says he “knew from that point on, like, ‘This is the person I’m going to be. They’re going to make me do this.’ After that night, I thought, ‘Why not? This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Why not just go with it?'” He continues, “When you’re in that scenario, with the cameras around you and you’re trying to be the center of attention, it can really easily get to your head to the point where you’ll really play it up for the camera.”
Rego is not alone. With each new reality series, competitors become increasingly deliberate. This self-awareness, says Showalter, is “a product of the contestants growing up watching these shows and knowing what’s going to be expected of them.” And what’s expected of them is to be nasty.
Tiffany “New York” Pollard from Flavor of Love certainly felt that way. “When they introduced everyone for the first time, I’m looking at these other 19 women and I’m, like, ‘Yeah. I’m not making any friends,'” she says. “I approached it as, ‘I don’t want to be anybody’s friend. I’m here in the name of love, and I just want to catfight with them all!’ I was looking forward to creating drama and trying to win this guy’s heart over. I was going to do whatever it took.”
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There is an incentive to being reviled on TV these days. “You see a lot of immoral behaviors being positively rewarded or justified in reality television,” says Tsay. “We have different standards and rules in an entertainment context than in the real world. If we saw any of our friends or family members behaving like this, we would definitely have a different reaction.” Dawson agrees. “Behaving badly is rewarded on reality TV right now and it always has been to a certain extent. Think back to Colby Donaldson [from 2001’s Survivor: The Australian Outback]… it’s been so long since Survivorhas produced a hero.” He notes, “So often the people who win are the ones who are willing to place their scruples to the side and really immerse themselves in the game.”
As spin-offs and all-star editions facilitate that immersion, the villain character becomes even more important: It’s not the pushed-around Nice Guy who asks for a second go on the reality roller coaster. So, as the bad guys return again and again, it’s almost an inevitability that the tides of public opinion will shift in their favor over time. Take Mariano. “Now he’s become the hero,” says Dawson, “not necessarily because he’s changed his tactics or changed his demeanor or anything like that, it’s that we’ve changed. We see what he does now not as despicable or villainous, but we see it as admirable,” says Dawson. Corroborates Mariano, “Everybody knows they have certain baggage or an image from the past, and you have to accept that and try to figure out a way to make it work to your advantage like I did on Redemption Island,” where he beat out 17 competitors, including Russell Hantz, to win the $1 million prize.
Audiences also seem willing to accept players’ baggage. In fact, they delight in it. “In reality TV, it’s the audience that betrays its authentic self, as opposed to the participants,” says Dawson. “Reality TV allows us to unleash and experience and immerse ourselves in attitudes and experiences that otherwise might be forbidden.” For example, viewers cheered when Brooke “Pumkin” White launched a loogie in the face of Pollard (pictured, left) during Flavor of Love‘s season 1. Just five months later, they couldn’t help relishing Pollard’s pot-stirring return for season 2. She would eventually get her own series, I Love New York, and admits that she gave special attention to suitors who declared they weren’t “here to make friends.”
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And as the downsides of playing the villain diminish and the prospect of fame becomes ever more a safe bet, the temptation to act up isn’t exclusive to competitive shows. From Real Housewives to Jersey Shore‘s The Situation, many have openly courted infamy. Says Dawson, there’s an “emerging sensibility among people who are participating in those shows…that you weren’t there to make friends, you weren’t there to have the experience of a lifetime, you were there to get famous.” He continues, “That is the real thing at stake on a lot these shows: ‘What can I do to make it so that my life never has to go back? I never [want to] have to go back to not being famous again, even if that means I’m going to be hated.'”
Though Mariano (pictured, right) objects to this M.O., he acknowledges, “A lot of people now see reality TV as a way to get noticed.” Pollard has also stayed the course in Hollywood. While she pursues another reality show, she pals around with loathed Apprentice alumna Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, her wing woman for batting off reality’s latest crop of bad girls. “There’s competition in the game,” Pollard says. “There’s always a new villain trying to rise to the top, but my whole thing is, ‘Respect the work that came before you.’ For instance, there are a couple of girls — I won’t mention their names — and I ran into them and saw them being a little disrespectful. I kind of checked them on it, like, ‘Look, I’m the first HBIC, you better recognize it, or I’ll have to put you in your place.'”
And occasionally (though less often than in the past), the system will regulate itself. Just a few weeks ago, The Glass House‘s “Prime Time 99” Alex Stein asked viewers if they wanted him to become “the most epic villain in the history of reality TV.” They voted yes, and Stein unleashed a torrent of insults about his housemates’ weight and bowel movements. He was ejected, and America had the option to vote him back into the house. They did not. Unfortunately for Stein, says Tsay, “People get most interested in watching these shows when they’re unpredictable.”
And in that respect, perhaps Mariano has been one of the genre’s greatest surprises. He points out, “I probably got a better friend than anybody” — his wife of seven years, Amber Brkich (now Mariano). The two met on 2004’s Survivor: All-Stars and have since taken part in two seasons of The Amazing Race, starred in a wedding special and follow-up reality series about their relationship, and had three daughters. They’re currently developing a TV pilot through their new production company.
This new venture is probably the only time they’ll mix business and pleasure, Mariano assures. “I joke about it all the time: If I went out there again, and my wife was on my same team, if I had to do what I had to do to win, would I do it? That’s the real question,” he says. Then again, “[We’re both] competitors at heart. I’d probably have to watch my back before she’d have to watch hers,” he says, laughing. As Survivor fans will recall, it was Amber who won the million dollars eight years ago. All’s fair in love and reality TV.