Over the past decade, 21 reality stars have committed suicide. Heidi Montag has opened up about how she struggled to maintain the difference between herself and her MTV persona, and Real Housewives' daughters have described how the programs led to harassment. One woman is fighting to improve reality television stars' mental health. Her name is Allison Barnard, and she is a wellness coach to reality TV cast members in Los Angeles.
Barnard is a certified personal coach; previously, she has worked as a wellness coach and a consultant. Three years ago, she decided to create a program catering to reality television stars, an approach she calls the Luminary Program. She uses it for reality stars both before and after they film a series, teaching them how to maintain honest relationships and to find opportunities to help others outside of the celebrity bubble, among other skills.
"It empowers reality stars to focus on their own balance and reframe tough parts of public life so they can leverage them in positive and rewarding ways," Barnard says.
Over the phone, Barnard tells me why she created the program, her views on the reality TV suicides, and how a reality TV persona can make a star forget his or her true identity. This interview has been edited and condensed.
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BROADLY: Why did you decide to create a mental health program for reality stars?
Allison Barnard: I knew someone who had been on a reality show, and I had talked to him a lot about it. I grew up when reality shows had just started to come on [television], and I remember watching them when I was younger. Then I got a glimpse of one about three years ago, and I thought, Oh my gosh! Things have changed so dramatically. So much of what's being shown is not real anymore. I wonder what this is doing to people who've signed up to put their personalities out for consumption?
How did you develop the program?
I called a lot of celebrities. [This] included reality stars who are currently under contract, stars who are no longer on a series but were TV actors, and a high-ranking political figure on the West Coast. Essentially, I asked them what it's like transitioning into a very public life, what the pitfalls were, what they struggled with, what systems they put in place to make things work better, and a number of other questions. Through their answers, I put together what I thought would be the most supportive program for people who are signing reality contracts.
Do networks cast people that may not be mentally fit to experience fame?
I honestly can't answer that—I've been wanting to find that out. I would be sad to find out that that were the case, but I don't know because to be honest, all of the people that I have worked with, none of them have felt severely unstable at the beginning of the work we do together. I feel like the networks are smarter than that, and I think there are too many people involved with these productions who care about the cast members a lot.
If you don't know who you are when celebrity hits, the public will define you.
Producers manipulate plot lines. How does this affect a cast member's psyche?
It's not so much what the show can do to their psyche—it's what the reaction to the show can do to them emotionally. It's a combination of how prepared they are for having an identity crisis or how prepared their friends and family members are to support them as their image is out for general consumption.
I don't think it's specifically the fault of the network; I think they found something that works. There was a huge cultural shift, and the cultural shift was Twitter showing up and Facebook showing up. Social media completely changed the game for a lot of these people. They became more accessible to the general public. It became more possible for them to read the public's thoughts of them, or how [others] perceived moments that maybe weren't actually real on the screen. That—in conjunction with how their loved ones react and how they perceive the public as seeing them—that can create an identity crisis and can create a lot of stress and can create a lot disassociation. They have to be as prepared for that as they can and have some skills and some tools ahead of time so that they can navigate that successfully.
In many reality shows, the cast stays in a house for months without leaving the confines. Do some of them suffer from shell shock when they leave this alternative reality?
Yes. I have one client who did a show based on that. Everybody is so different, but it's very similar for any situation where say you go into a workshop or a retreat—you go into an environment that's controlled and you know what to expect, and then you come out of it and there's this big world. With reality stars they come out of it, and there's this big world with people who are also watching the. It can be a little stressful to come out of that environment initially.
Do they struggle to know their identity since they play a persona on TV?
They can. A lot of times when they sign these contracts, they're younger. They're in their early- to mid-20s, and that's an especially tricky time because you're really [getting to know] yourself. Outside of reality television, you're going to be out experiencing the world. That's how you form your identity. It's how you figure out who you do and don't like, who you feel your best around, and who you feel very uncomfortable around. When you are thrown into a reality world where things are happening in an environment that is manufactured and written, you are an actor who's calling yourself by your own and name and who's using your own face, but when you're in that situation—and you see everyone who's watching it and reacting negatively attribute you to those decisions and those morals—that can make you start to wonder, Wait a minute. If all these people think I'm terrible, am I terrible?
Do the shows affect the relationships they had previously before they went on TV?
Absolutely. That's part of what I do in the program: [help] them to prepare and support their friends and family members through that process as well. They tend to really benefit from being able to have very open and honest conversations with their family members about why they're choosing to go out on a show, what they want from it, what they're going to be losing from it, and offering their support for their family members. That's work that's really important to do on the front end so that they can be a part of the transition process with their loved ones. If they're too disconnected from that, by the time the show is done, there may be a whole group of experiences happening with their loved ones that they have no idea about—sometimes that can hit them like a wall, and then they're overwhelmed and they don't know what to do. The idea behind this program is to get in front of all these things that can come up and have strategies and tools for how to navigate a unique situation.
Do reality stars often struggle because they're famous but might earn little money?
That can come up with reality stars. There are some who are paid quite a bit and some that are paid very little—that sort of depends. Another part of this program is learning how to be very mindful and careful with your spending. It depends on the person, it really does, but there are a lot of misconceptions around how much reality stars make.
Why are so many reality stars killing themselves?
There used to be a buffer between the shows and their personal life. Social media's really opened up the door for them to be targeted and read opinions and experience harassment and trolling that reality stars didn't used to have to deal with.
Do movie stars adjust better to fame because they go from small actor to TV actor to star, where reality stars become famous overnight?
When you are training to be an actor, you in part know what you're signing up for. You understand that you're going to be putting yourself out there publicly. However, actors are playing roles, and when they choose to play a role, the public knows better than to associate them with that specific role. With reality stars, they put out what the viewer is seeing is really them, and that's the risk that they run. Whatever is conveyed in the production, they risk that image being 100 percent associated with who they are, even if that's not the case.
Would these problems go away if reality stars belonged to a union, like SAG, or the government regulated the industry?
That could help. Some people don't sign another contract because they're just so thrown out of whack. If the network wants them on the series, it benefits them for that person to be self-aware.
For me, my job is not to convince them not to be a reality star.
Can fame cause problems even for people who are prepared for the experience?
I've heard a number of celebrities over the years who consider themselves very self-aware say that if you don't know who you are when celebrity hits, the public will define you. It's really worth trying to spend a chunk of time thinking about who you are, who you want to be, what those who love you say is wonderful about you. It's important to tap into those things and really figure out what your convictions are about who you are, because when you get tested—and when people try to pin down what you think you are—you have to be able to overcome that and disassociate.
Why is volunteering good for reality stars' health?
This is the biggest piece of the puzzle in my work. When everyone has their eyes on you—and decisions you make have such an impact, and things you say have such an impact, and everyone is talking or thinking about you—it's critical to get outside that bubble. The best way and most productive way to remain balanced—and hopefully humble, and outside of that bubble in a mindful way—is to find something that you can do for others completely outside of the reality world. It makes you feel like there's always something that you can pivot to when you start to feel unsettled or you start to question being a reality star.
Could stars be better prepared for the mental hurdles of reality television?
It would greatly benefit the reality stars if they had support both going into [a show] and throughout the time a show is happening. I think that they should be very well educated on what's going to happen. I think they can benefit from getting honest, accurate feedback on what's going to be happening. I think putting a support system in place for them is really critical. For me, my job is not to convince them not to be a reality star—my job is, "OK, you've already decided to be a reality star on this show, so I'm going to help you get through that with as much balance and mindfulness as possible." I think the networks would be doing a great service to them by offering them support.