In 2002, a new British reality TV show started advertising for contestants. Cryptic notices online, on college notice boards and in newspapers teased potentially life-changing fame. “One year, £100,000,” they promised, vaguely, to “characterful, resourceful” and “energetic” participants.
The UK’s reality TV landscape was still in its infancy, but had already become a paradigm-shifting phenomenon, with shows like Big Brother upending the notion that discernible talent correlated to success. This new series – dubbed Project MS-2 – would follow the early reality TV convention of having contestants complete a specific goal for cash. The show’s participants would fulfil tasks around the world for a year – and be supported as they did so – though the actual details of what that would entail were to be guarded by the production company until filming began.
“My thinking was, you know, £100,000 prize money, I’ll have a crack,” contestant Louise Miles tells me. Miles, then 21 years old, is a South African with British parents who’d been living in London for a couple of years. Naturally competitive, she was up for the challenge. “My career hadn't really started then – I didn't have much to lose,” she says.
Thirty contestants in three groups of ten would compete to win £100,000, with a contestant/cameraman hybrid embedded in each team. While initial filming would take place in London, the contracts referenced international travel. Contestants were asked to quit their jobs, leave their housing and, ultimately, untether themselves from their lives for the year.
Daniel Pope, who’d just finished his degree, was one such contestant. Originally from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the 24 year-old headed to London to compete in the show. “£100,000 for touring the world for a year. I thought ‘Yeah, perfect. Perfect gap year material.’”
Auditions were on Raven’s Ait, an island in the Thames near Hampton Court. The man behind the programme was producer Nik Russian, a 25-year-old Goldsmiths English graduate the Guardian later described as a “beautiful, raddled youth in ridiculous Byronic fancy dress”. Russian (his birth name was Keith Gillard) was the third name he’d gone by, having reportedly changed two earlier iterations by deed poll.
The charismatic Russian appeared every bit the confident TV executive. “He had quite a lot of presence, to be honest – big tall guy, he looked legit,” Miles remembers. Russian had somehow convinced the manager at the Raven's Ait venue to provide it for free in exchange for publicity.
“There were drinks and canapés and all sorts of things,” Pope says. “It all looked the works: lights, cameras and people having a good time. You just got pulled into the whole thing.” Assistants and a psychological assessor – Russian’s girlfriend, who he’d met on an English access course – took notes as the hopefuls were passed questionnaires, tasks and exercises. Everything seemed professional.
Pope and Miles were selected for the show, which they were told was slated to air on Channel 4. Russian duly sent through contracts light on specifics, though contestants say they were told leisure money, accommodation, food, travel and support would be provided. “That kind of added to the curiosity of the whole thing,” says contestant Paul Everett, who took his contract to a solicitor. “It was like: ‘Wow, really? We don’t really know what we’re going to do? It sounds very adventurous.’”
Only, almost nothing was as it seemed. The show wasn’t commissioned, Russian wasn’t a producer, nor was there a financial backer supporting the series. Yet the wheels were in motion: contestants across Britain were busy handing in their job notices, moving out from their housing and readying themselves for a year of adventure.
On Monday the 10th of June, the three groups reported to different locations across London with the cameras rolling. Excited, they were ready for their big TV moment – one that might alter their life’s trajectory.
Pope, in group two, was instructed to go to a park in New Cross. “No one knew what the hell was going on,” he says. “Richard Branson was supposed to be sponsoring the series and there was nothing to show it was being officially sponsored. Then the dime dropped when I spoke to one of the cameramen. He said, ‘I’m part of this also, and it’s my camera.’ I thought, ‘Oh, shit.’ Alarmingly, the groups’ first tasks involved finding accommodation and new contestants to fill the gaps, as each ten-person team was short of a few would-be reality TV stars.
Everett says Russian claimed he’d unsuccessfully approached Wheel of Fortune presenter Carol Smillie about the co-presenter role, but ended up giving the job to an aspiring presenter named Lucy.
Lucy, who is in the documentary Channel 4 later aired about the swindle, performed the role with effervescence. On day one of filming, she broke the show’s premise to the contestants: each group of ten was to make £1 million themselves – £100,000 per contestant – rather than winning that amount at the end of the year. They could do that however they wished, but they were fending for themselves – there would be no support provided, contrary to the contract’s stipulations.
Cue pandemonium. An incredulous Miles, in group three, was trying to make sense of the fact she was now homeless, and that the show’s central challenge of making £100,000 in a year was virtually impossible. She repeatedly tried to get answers from Russian, who she says doubled down, claiming she could do anything if she put her mind to it.
Everett, in group one, wasn’t faring much better. When the show’s director pulled out on the eve of filming, Russian approached Everett – one of the show’s contestant/cameramen – about becoming a director, despite having no experience. Now straddling the untenable positions of director and contestant, disgruntled participants pressed him for answers. “‘So you’re the director now? So what are we doing with this? And what are we supposed to do with that?’ And I'm like, ‘I... don't know.’”
The three groups sourced accommodation for the night, ready for clear-the-air talks with Russian on Tuesday. Group two holed up in contestant/cameraman Tim Eagle’s old Dalston flat, which he still had access to. Pope was there, as too, oddly, was Russian, who had nowhere else to stay. “Obviously we weren’t going to do anything to him. But the thoughts that went through our minds about what we should do with Nik...” says Pope, trailing off.
Tuesday’s talks at Bankside destroyed hopes of the show being realised. Russian talked of fictional sales teams and pilots, but the deception was already clear. The hotline that contestants could ring with their queries about the show was run by Russian’s mum, and he actually worked in Waterstones. Pope even says the contract included clauses which stated all funds earned on the show went to NRP (Nik Russian Productions), and that Russian would keep hold of contestants’ passports.
While groups one and three disbanded, Eagle kept filming group two in his flat as they oscillated between raging over the hoax and excitement at what they could create. They watched Big Brother nightly as a guiding beacon and set up a “diary room” in hopes of making a reality show of their own. As Russian continued to kip on the floor, the others dreamt of revenge.
By Thursday morning, they’d locked him in. A local news crew was incoming. “You’re fucking with people’s dreams,” group two member Nick says, in footage used in the Channel 4 documentary, as Russian admits he couldn’t get friends to help shoot a pilot. “That’s, like, sacred that you’re fucking with.”
“I intended to start this part of my career and start my life by doing this,” says Russian, floppy-haired head in hand. His downbeat on-screen apology – in which he acknowledged he’d rightfully become “a figure of hate” – was broadcast on ITV’s London Tonight.
“I still haven’t quite figured out what on Earth he was trying to achieve here, you know?” says Everett. “How can you have a show where you just go out and try to earn money? How would you do that? How would that equate to £100,000?”
“There was one girl from up north, and she even lived with me for a month or so,” says Pope. “She was ashamed to go back to her parents. There were lots of people who gave up a lot in their lives. And Nik just... Nik acts as if he had nothing to do with it.”
After five days, and the short-lived buzz of holding Russian to account and their minor brush with media celebrity, group two disbanded.
The Channel 4 documentary crew managed to track down Russian to a Richmond address two months after the ordeal, and had Pope confront him on camera. Pope nailed him as best he could, as he battled the impulse to whack him.
“I was hoping for a bit of closure, to be honest with you, but Nik was not repentant,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘Nik has not really learnt from this – if he gets another chance, he's gonna try this again.’”
Russian declined to be interviewed for the documentary, and VICE was unable to reach him for comment for this article. As the documentary’s end credits roll, and we see him bounding down the high street with a pep in his step, it’s not hard to imagine another Russian con – but it’s unclear what became of him.
Meanwhile, the contestants had to put their lives back together. All three I spoke to fortunately had accessible housing at the time. Everett and Pope got over it OK, while Miles stewed in the shame of being duped a little while longer. It’s only recently, with age, her career going well, that she told friends in Australia, where she lives, that she was involved in a calamitous reality TV show built on vibes and little else.
“A couple of my friends have watched the Channel 4 documentary while they've been off their face, and thought it was hilarious. It’s just a bit of fun now, as opposed to being ashamed,” she explains. “But horrendous,” she adds, laughing.
Pope, who was invited to discuss the ordeal on Richard and Judy, now works in finance. Everett used the camera he’d bought for the show to create his video production company, which he’s run ever since.
And what do they think of Russian now? Everett says: “Everybody knew the format – we knew that this would work, and obviously it didn't. It didn't really exist. But in Nik's head, maybe it did.
“I still think genuinely, to this day, he believed in what he was doing. He just didn't get the breaks. Obviously, the format of the show didn't make much sense. That's where we fell down, but I think he still believed this was possible.”
Miles reasons, while delusional, Russian was probably trying to get enough footage for a pilot, but hadn’t “thought it through”.
“He was on the cusp of something. That’s what my ex said to me – he was like, ‘It’s almost all happened just after that.’ Do you know what I mean? Look at reality TV now; such a beast.”
“I keep thinking one day I'm going to be interviewing for some role and Nik's CV is gonna come across my desk,” Pope chuckles. “I guess I would have a conversation with him: ‘What on Earth was wrong with you, man?”