True crime: The murder that changed reality TV
Before Ryan Jenkins murdered Jasmine Fiore, his wife of five months, he called her repeatedly from the Mexico set of I Love Money 3. The year was 2009, and Jenkins — who had married Fiore in Las Vegas shortly after filming another VH1 reality series, Megan Wants a Millionaire — was determined to win the $250,000 prize for his new bride.
"He kept telling her on the phone, 'I'm going to win this, and you and I are going to have the life I've always promised,'" recalls Mark Cronin, co-founder of 51 Minds Entertainment, the production company behind Money, Megan, The Surreal Life, and the majority of VH1's wildly successful "celebreality" shows of that era. "Then he would ask her, 'Where were you last night?' Because he's in Mexico shooting the show, and she lives in Las Vegas. He was very jealous and very suspicious of her. We were actually making a story of it on the show. We were like, 'Look at this guy, he's obsessed with this [model] he married,'" Cronin continues. "It was funny, until it wasn't funny at all."
On August 15, 2009, soon after I Love Money 3 wrapped, Fiore's strangled, mutilated body was found stuffed in a suitcase and tossed in a dumpster in Buena Park, California. As Jenkins went on the run, TMZ uncovered his previous criminal record — he was arrested in 2005 for assaulting a girlfriend in Calgary — which VH1 and 51 Minds said did not appear on his background check. By the time Jenkins was found dead by suicide in a British Columbia hotel room on August 23, the reality TV industry was reeling. Though Jenkins was never violent on the set of Megan Wants a Millionaire or I Love Money 3, the fact that he murdered Fiore so soon after filming two reality shows inextricably linked his crime to the booming TV genre. The outcry that followed — were reality TV shows doing enough to keep contestants safe? — prompted some intense soul-searching for the industry. "It's the worst thing to ever happen to me in my career," says Cronin. "When something comes that close to home, that's a really scary thing." Adds Erika Worth, whose background check company Collective Intelligence was caught up in the aftermath of the scandal, "The effects of it were devastating. However, I am grateful, because I feel like it changed reality TV forever."
Ryan Jenkins and Jasmine Fiore
Twenty years ago, the modern reality TV genre exploded with the arrival of CBS' Survivor in 2000, followed by Fox's American Idol, ABC's The Bachelor, and MTV's The Osbournes in 2002. In 2005, VH1 launched its "celebreality" block anchored by The Surreal Life, a comical spin on The Real World in which C-list celebrities — like Christopher Knight (Peter from The Brady Bunch) and Flavor Flav (the clock-wearing "hype man" for Public Enemy) — lived together while cameras rolled. Surreal was a hit, and VH1 asked 51 Minds Entertainment to start cranking out spin-offs.
That's when they found Megan Hauserman, a former Playboy model who appeared on season 3 of the WB-turned-CW reality competition Beauty and the Geek. (She and her partner, Alan "Scooter" Zackheim, took home the $250,000 prize.) With her bombshell looks and sassy wit, Hauserman became a fan favorite on Rock of Love with Bret Michaels (think The Bachelor, but with Poison's Michaels as the prize) and its spin-offs I Love Money and Rock of Love: Charm School. 51 Minds decided to give the model her own show, Megan Wants a Millionaire. "The funny thing about Megan was her stated ambition, which was to marry a millionaire," says Cronin. "So we said, 'What if we filled a house with millionaires and they were competing for you as their trophy wife?'"
VH1's casting notice for Megan called for "single men of the highest pedigree… with the net worth of $1,000,000 or more." Casting producers placed ads on radio stations and threw "casting parties" at nightclubs looking for qualified and telegenic candidates. They found 32-year-old real estate developer Ryan Jenkins in Las Vegas, where he won the team over with his cocky charm. "Ryan Jenkins had one of the best personalities on this planet," says Christopher Catalano, who worked as a senior casting producer for 51 Minds from 2007 to 2011 and is now a senior casting producer for CBS' Big Brother. "He was intriguing, he knew it. He wasn't the best-looking guy in the world — he just had this charisma."
In 2009, as today, there was no standardized system for vetting potential reality show contestants. While the specific process varies by network and production company, generally candidates first fill out a detailed packet of personal information containing "every address you've ever had, every job you've ever had, everything from your mortgage to your car," says Jodi Wincheski, who competed on CBS' The Amazing Race in 2009 and now works as a casting producer for Survivor. Then comes the psychological evaluation, which includes written testing, a psychiatric history, and an interview with a psychologist. During her Beauty and the Geek screening, Hauserman says "they even went so far as showing you, like, ink-blot tests."
The other key component is the criminal background check, which involves, in part, searching court and arrest records in every county a candidate has ever lived. When it came time to run checks on all of Megan's potential millionaires, VH1 turned to Collective Intelligence, a Washington state-based company the network had been working with since 2003. But Collective only specialized in U.S.-based criminal searches, so for Jenkins — a Canadian citizen — the company subcontracted out the search to another firm, Straightline International. Ryan Jenkins' record came back clear, and he was invited to join the cast.
Megan Wants a Millionaire debuted August 2, 2009. Though only three episodes ended up airing, Jenkins (who described himself in the premiere as "a little bit of a Prince Charming, a little bit of a bad boy") made it all the way to the finals. Hauserman liked him from day one. Sure, she saw some "red flags" related to Jenkins' millionaire status — he wore fake Rolex watches and only brought one pair of pants for the five-week shoot — but he was "so sweet." Today the star of the show admits that Jenkins came closer to winning than anyone realized. "I actually really liked Ryan and I wanted to pick him as the winner," reveals Hauserman, who recalls looking Jenkins up on Facebook one night in her hotel room. "I got his phone number and called him when we weren't filming. We would talk on the phone at nighttime. We were having a phone relationship outside of filming, which nobody knew about. I basically told him, 'I'm going to pick you.'"
But when Hauserman let producers know which millionaire she wanted in the end, they had other ideas. Jenkins, the producers explained, "wasn't likable in his interviews" and was just "putting on a show" for her. Though they never explicitly told her not to choose him, producers made it clear to Hauserman that viewers wouldn't want Jenkins to win, and strongly encouraged her to rethink her options. She did. In the penultimate episode, she sent Jenkins home. "He was really upset," says Hauserman, "and I was upset also."
There were only three days of filming left, so she planned to call Jenkins once production wrapped and smooth things over. "I figured that I would just call him and explain to him that, you know, it's a TV show and the story wasn't going that way, and that I wanted to pick him and couldn't. And then I would just meet up with him afterwards. I really thought that," she says.
When they finally spoke, though, Jenkins had some even bigger news. "He called me and said, 'I have to tell you something. I was so upset when I left the show, I went to Vegas and I met a girl. She's my soulmate, and we got married,'" remembers Hauserman. Cronin notes that in retrospect, Jenkins' quickie marriage made a strange kind of sense. "He was really desperate to have a trophy wife," he explains. "When he eventually lost the show, he very quickly found himself another blonde in Vegas and married her. I think that was him trying to win the show in the end."
Hauserman (back row, center) with her fellow contestants on Rock of Love: Charm School
About five months later, on August 19, Hauserman was staying at a friend's apartment in LA when the news broke. "I was in the shower and my friend came running into the bathroom screaming that [Ryan] was on the TV," she recalls. "They showed his face and said he was a suspect and that they found [Fiore's] body. I thought it was an accident. My first thought was, I didn't think he did it on purpose."
While we don't know what led to Fiore's death, what happened to her body was deliberate — and gruesome. When the model's corpse was discovered, her fingers and teeth were missing; authorities were only able to identify Fiore after tracking down the serial number on her breast implants. "The details were horrible," says Cronin, who remembers pulling over to listen to the Buena Park Police Department's press conference that named Jenkins as the prime suspect. "I felt like, 'Wow, he's looking at this like a challenge on the show.' We would do challenges on [Megan] all the time, like, 'Make a presentation to our board of directors about how you're going to make your next million,' whatever. I thought, 'He's gone into a challenge where he killed her, and now he's got to figure out a way to get away with it.'"
Erika Worth, a private investigator who founded Collective Intelligence in 2001, was at home in Vancouver, Washington when her phone rang at 11 p.m. "I get a call from my PI surveillance partner. He's like, 'Don't you do the background checks for that show?'" says Worth. "I turn on the news and see the footage of [Ryan Jenkins], and I see that there's a manhunt for him. I said, 'Oh my God.'" Worth's team had been conducting reality TV background checks for Viacom-owned MTV and VH1 since 2003, and the media giant was Collective Intelligence's biggest client. "In the years that we worked with them, we did 500,000 background checks," says Worth, "and we never had a single incident, ever."
The next morning, she immediately contacted Straightline International, the company that did Jenkins' background check, asking for any backup they had — official documents from the Calgary courts, names of court clerks they spoke to, any kind of record outlining how the check was conducted. Once TMZ reported that Jenkins had a previous assault conviction on his record, Viacom began calling Worth "frantically" to find out what had gone wrong, she says. But Straightline was no longer responding to her emails or calls. "At this point, the story is blowing up and [Jenkins has] now escaped to Canada and all hell's breaking loose," says Worth.
Within days, the media backlash began: "How did model's accused murderer get on TV show?" asked a headline in the Los Angeles Times, while the New York Times ran a piece called "Killing Raises New Reality TV Concerns." Awash in negative press, VH1 issued a statement distancing itself from Megan Wants a Millionaire — calling it "an outside production, produced and owned by 51 Minds" — and took the show off the air. 51 Minds, in turn, distanced itself from the firm Viacom hired to do Megan's background checks: "According to Collective Intelligence, Ryan Jenkins' criminal record in Canada escaped notice… as a result of an error by a Canadian court clerk."
For Collective Intelligence and 51 Minds, the result was catastrophic. Viacom severed ties with Collective Intelligence, and Worth had no choice but to lay off 13 employees, almost her entire staff. "We literally lost everything overnight," she says. (CI eventually sued Straightline for breach of contract, and Straightline ultimately agreed to pay an $810,000 settlement.) 51 Minds, meanwhile, became an industry pariah. "Our names were mud," says Cronin. Two days after Jenkins was found dead, VH1 canceled Megan and I Love Money 3, which had yet to premiere. Cronin says the network insisted 51 Minds reimburse them $12 million for the loss.
Even before the Ryan Jenkins saga, VH1's tawdry "Celebreality" dating shows were starting to lose their ratings appeal. By 2010, the network began pivoting toward docuseries, like Fantasia for Real, about American Idol winner Fantasia Barrino, and Bret Michaels: Life as I Know It, chronicling the former Rock of Love lothario's adventures as a family man.
The scandal with Jenkins and the hand-wringing about reality television eventually faded away, too — though for many in the industry, Jasmine Fiore's murder is never far from their minds. "I have never taken an easy breath since this happened 10 years ago," says Worth, who spent years building Collective Intelligence back into a thriving business. (Today, at least forty percent of the company's billing comes from reality TV, including 11 seasons of Project Runway on Lifetime.) Worth not only does supplemental searches on reality candidates at her own expense, over the years she's also noticed "a lack of budget concerns" from networks and studios looking to vet contestants. "People just really want a thorough report."
Cronin, who went on to create the successful Below Deck reality franchise for Bravo, says the incident "lenses every conversation [I have] during the approval process for a contestant or a cast member." And that vigilance doesn't cease once production ends. "We are more careful after the show stops taping to keep in close contact with everybody," he explains. "We keep an eye on them. We had a woman on Below Deck who needed psychological counseling after the show… There were danger signs, she was crying out for help in different ways, and we made sure she got professional counseling."
Survivor casting producer Wincheski says the long-running CBS reality hit grows "more and more cautious" with each passing season, even though it means they sometimes lose out on "amazing" candidates. But in reality TV, as in life, you simply cannot eliminate every risk. "People are people. They have free will," says Wincheski. "It's hard to know what anyone's going to do." The show recently found that out the hard way when it pulled contestant Dan Spilo from the game following complaints that he engaged in unwanted touching during the Island of the Idols season in 2019. It was the first time the show has ever removed a player due to inappropriate behavior.
The network had a casting snafu incident of a different sort in 2017 when Big Brother season 19 contestant Megan Lowder, then 28, suffered severe anxiety and "self-evicted" eight days into shooting. "I couldn't eat, I couldn't keep food down," recalls Lowder. "I was having hallucinations. It was bad. The show doctor came and took me to the hospital." What producers didn't know at the time was that Lowder, who served in the U.S. Navy prior to her time on Big Brother, was suffering from PTSD which she says began when she was sexually assaulted while stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. Producers didn't know because she didn't tell them — a decision she made, says Lowder, because someone on the show advised her not to.
Big Brother 19 contestant Megan Lowder
Early on in her audition process, Lowder was on the phone with a female casting producer. "She asked me what the worst thing that has ever happened to me was," recalls Lowder. "And I kind of stumbled, because when people ask you that, it kind of hits you again, you know? I had to take a deep breath and tell her." After apologizing for what Lowder went through, the producer "was like, 'Just don't tell them about it. They probably are going to think you're not going to want a showmance, and you know how big the show is on showmances.'"
Figuring that the producer "knew what she was talking about," Lowder kept her past trauma a secret all through the Big Brother vetting process — including the meeting with the show's psychologist. A few days before production began, Lowder stopped taking all of her prescribed medications for anxiety and depression, because she hadn't disclosed her history of anxiety and depression to producers. After just two days in the Big Brother house, the withdrawal symptoms combined with the intense pressure of being filmed constantly hit Lowder hard. "My anxiety was so severe. I vomited multiple times," she says. By day eight, she hit a breaking point ("I was literally in the diary room sobbing and shaking uncontrollably for an hour") and was taken to the hospital.
It was only during an exit interview with Big Brother executive producer Allison Grodner and other top staffers that Lowder revealed her personal history. "They asked me, 'Why didn't you tell us about this?' and I told them," she says, adding that she has "no complaints" about how the show handled her departure. "They took good care of me. They were amazing." She's since spoken to other Big Brother contestants, who say producers now put extra emphasis on talking to candidates about their mental health. "They literally sit people down like, 'Hey, if there's anything that you're hiding from us or keeping from us… we'll work with you. If we think you're a good fit for the show, your mental health isn't gonna hold you back.'" (CBS had no comment. The female casting producer Lowder initially spoke with is no longer working for the show.)
Today, Lowder doesn't regret her brief time in the Big Brother house, but she does have some advice for anyone else who might apply for their 15 minutes of fame. "Make sure it's something you really, really want to do," she says. "Reality TV will change your entire life. It's life altering. So make sure you're going in with it with the right mindset." Hauserman, who's now happily married and living in Florida with her husband and young son, says she still looks back on her time as a "celebreality" star fondly, even though it ended horribly. "I think I had the most fun anybody can have in their 20s," she says. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience." Asked if she thinks there's anything that could have been done differently to prevent Fiore's murder, Hauserman is thoughtful. "Who knows? I mean, if I didn't talk to him outside the show, maybe he wouldn't have been so upset and run off and married a stranger," she says. "Maybe if he didn't get cast. You can't really say. I think it was just like this sick storm." As for Catalano, who remembers thinking there was "something about" Jenkins that gave him pause, the casting director says his gut feelings about candidates are "louder" today — and he always listens. "I'd rather be wrong than end up with another Ryan Jenkins."