April 1986. Pop sensation, and winner of a Japanese talent show, Yukiko Okada jumped from the roof of her agency’s seven-story offices to her death. Fans instantly began to congregate at the site of her suicide, holding a weird vigil over the stains of blood that were left on the pavement. They were joined, as you’d expect, by a host of television cameras and photographers who set about documenting the gore and grief in every detail. Whilst an extreme and graphic example, the incident is symbolic of the complicated relationship between talent shows and their often vulnerable stars.
Almost thirty years later, the miserable fates of talent-show contestants have become a regular and unsettling trend. The details are different, but the story is basically the same: short lived success followed by sharp decline or horrendous incident.
The last couple of weeks have been no different, with the news that a 12-year-old member of the Japanese pop group 3B Junior had entered a coma after inhaling helium as part of a "voice-changing game" during a variety show. While incomparable to suicide, the incident is a screwed up reminder of the disposable nature of talent show contestants: the un-readied winners of transient glory. The questions raised by these cases are many, but one of the most pressing is what responsibility the producers of programmes have to their participants. And these problems spread much further than Japanese variety shows.
Over the past few years there have been repeated calls from mental health charities for production companies to rethink their processes. Major organisations, and spokespersons such as Jo Brand, have accused program makers of shirking their responsibility to the vulnerable people they feature. Of the countless available on Youtube, one particularly heartbreaking case is that of Alyn James (above), a retired dentist from Neath in South Wales. Alyn had been writing songs since he was 15 and was clearly viewing his Britain’s Got Talent audition in 2010 as the final throw of the dice. He also had a history of mental illness, having been placed in psychiatric units six times since 1988. He claims that not only did the production team know this, but it was apparently what the researcher was most interested in. Watching the audition now, it is clear that Alyn was sent in to provide another segment in a ‘worst auditions ever’ compilation, representing little more than an opportunity for teenage girls to laugh at a troubled man with a moustache. Despite a chorus of boos, he suffers well in the moment, but not long after the auditions Alyn was back in crisis care, judged as a suicide risk.
Another shocker from Cowell’s canon are the auditions of Ceri Rees (below). Despite her first attempt ending badly, the 54 year old returned to the show to audition a further three times, most recently in 2011. After her rendition of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” was rejected, a media storm followed with Rees’s singing teacher accusing the program makers of deliberately exploiting “a frail and vulnerable lady”. The widow, who lived alone after the death of her husband, had been called constantly by the show after her first audition - offered hotel rooms and train tickets if she agreed to perform again and again. Mrs Rees said herself at the time, “The X Factor kept ringing me and hounding me so in the end I just surrendered and went.” The most frustrating and twisted thing about the X Factor’s handling of Ceri Rees is how, despite being near-forced into taking part, the final edit of the show makes her out to be deranged and incessant, never knowing ‘when to take no for an answer’. She is even followed by thunderclap sound effects like she is a small Welsh Dracula. Simon Cowell eventually exasperatedly tells her, “Ceri darling - it’s impossible for you to win a show like this.” Thus affording the viewing public the luxury of peaceably sitting on their sofas chuckling away, content with the mantra that “she needs to be told how bad she is”.
Often these shows just exacerbate existing problems by putting contestants through high-stress situations, but sometimes they create problems that didn’t exist before. Gamu Nhengu grew up in Scotland and had been accepted for a place at Edinburgh university when she applied for X Factor on a whim. She never made it to the finals, but the press attention led to the authorities being alerted to the Nhengu family’s expired visa. Her rise to celebrity was followed by dramatic claims that Gamu was going to be deported. In the heat of the controversy Gamu was assured by Simon Cowell that he would do everything in his power to assist with the situation. She hasn’t heard from him since. Eventually the issue was cleared up relatively easily in a court session and the singer and her family were allowed to stay, but the saga is again symbolic of the laissez-faire approach talent shows apply to their contestants wellbeing. Contestants go from being prized to valueless in a heartbeat, regardless of where that leaves them.
Darkly similar in some respects to the Yukiko Okada case was the death of X Factor USA finalist Simone Battle. Eliminated from the live show in week one, Battle then went on to brief solo success, nearly ending up in a reconfigured Pussycat Dolls lineup and landing a role in a film with Snoop Dogg. The Pussycat Dolls lineup that didn’t happen then became G.R.L. This incarnation of her career brought a little more in the way of success, releasing an album, a collab with Pitbull and securing a track on the Smurfs 2 official soundtrack. However, on the 5th of September last year Battle was found dead in her home with an official autopsy ruling the cause as suicide from hanging. Later probing from perennial gravediggers TMZ raised the possibility that the suicide was the result of depression following financial concerns. It’s not massively beneficial to speculate about exactly why Simone Battle killed herself, but it is true that like Yukiko Okada, Alyn James, Ceri Rees, and the young member of 3B Junior, she existed in a precarious universe. Driven forward by an industry that constantly promised the attainment of something bigger, if she were prepared to give just a little bit more of herself.
So, what exactly can be done about all this? I reached out to the Time to Change campaign, run by the organisations Mind and Rethink Mental Illness to ask them about TV talent shows. Their head of communications Kate Nightingale told us “talent shows and reality TV programmes have a duty of care to look after all participants’ wellbeing, including those with reported or unreported mental health problems. We all understand that TV should be entertaining but not to the detriment of anyone taking part, whoever they might be.” Her words echo an attitude that would have saved the likes of Alyn James and Ceri Rees both from humiliation and a shitload of mental exhaustion. The ‘duty of care’ is an aspect of the talent show process that whilst the X Factor have said they adhere to is frequently negated in favour of bait laughs and shots of Gary Barlow doing his prolific condescending frown.
The main worry with these conversations is that programs deliberately exclude those with mental illnesses from participation ‘for their own safety’. Speaking about Shirlena Johnson (below), an X Factor candidate who was asked to leave the programme when it was revealed she had mental health problems, Nightingale says that “regardless of whether Shirlena hid her alleged mental health problem, this should not automatically have meant she was incapable of taking part in the X Factor.” In attempting to shelter the more vulnerable factions of society, sufferers could end up being denied opportunities open to the rest of us. “All broadcasters have a responsibility to ensure that participants are up to the pressure that these shows can put on contestants. But this doesn’t mean anyone with a mental health problem should automatically be excluded.”
The need to avoid exclusion possibly offers hope for the world of talent television. If someone is genuinely talented, but also suffers from a mental illness, then the programme makers should offer them a safe environment within which to take part. If, on the other hand, someone suffers from a mental health problem and can’t sing for shit then the question is turned on us. Are we really prepared to risk the mental wellbeing of a vulnerable person just so we get to hear them sing Meatloaf badly in a weird shirt? And before anyone adds, “they need to be told how bad they are”, please bear in mind that there are a number of un-televised preliminary rounds. Even then, as Ceri Rees proves, it seems that producers are intentionally seeking out the vulnerable and vocally challenged. I’m not sure they do “need to be told how bad they are” if singing is something that brings them joy, but if they do, I’m pretty fucking certain it doesn’t need to happen on national television.
Maybe if Britain’s Got Talent and the X Factor were prepared to consider mental health more seriously, then the cycles of episodes and auditions could provide a force for some good. They will always produce momentary fame but perhaps, thanks to campaigning from the likes of Time to Change, these fleeting stars can be treated with respect and even challenge public perceptions of those with mental health issues. “If handled responsibly, entertainment TV can be a way to give the one in four of us with experience of mental health problems the opportunity to speak out and to challenge stereotypes and myths. It’s important that anyone, regardless of whether they have a mental health problem or not, is able to take part in entertainment shows if they want to without judgment or ridicule.”
Maybe I’m being optimistic, hoping the TV talent show can improve. Part of me thinks it might just be in their DNA to treat people like lab rats. The very physics of ‘fast-tracking’ someone to stardom suggests that the way down should be just as sharp. Then there is also the reality that if you picture the X Factor without the brutality you are basically left with the Voice, and nobody watches that except Ricky Wilson’s mum. The dilemma really, as proven by the recent discarding of Sam Bailey and basically every other X Factor winner who has been dropped by Cowell’s label before they’ve even left the studio, is that the singers aren’t the real stars. They can change, disappear, be deported or die, but the format will live on, and people will continue to audition.
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You can find out more about the Time to Change campaign here.