Entertainment

Remembering the Canadian 'Jersey Shore' That Offended Everyone

‘I’m sorry for hurting people with those racist comments,’ its creator tells VICE.
June 19, 2017, 5:11pm
via YouTube

There have been many moments in history when Canada's right to be smug about its American neighbours were revoked: Ben Johnson, The Real Housewives of Toronto, or Howie Mandel being Howie Mandel all come to mind, though few compare to a moment in 2010 when an aptly named Lake Shore went viral—pegged as this energetic, Toronto-fied edition of MTV's Jersey Shore. I can admit that Jersey Shore was addictive television—like watching two different trains crash into each other every week—the idea of a Canadian version was naturally compelling. Lake Shore on the other hand was the picture of a toddler playing dress-up without ever getting the fit quite right. The short-lived cringe began with an eight-minute sizzle reel on YouTube in 2010, largely meant to resemble the sociological experiment of an MTV generation. We've seen the formula; throw in a bunch of carefully chosen 20-somethings with big personalities—or personality issues—into a living arrangement, and watch the explosions and lifetime regrets play out. Unlike its American parallel that stereotyped Italian-American groups through its "tan, laundry, gym" depictions, Lake Shore had the audacity to go a step further by separating contestants by more than one ethnic background as shown through the gem below:

Advertisement

Creators Maryam Rahimi and George Tsioutsioulas tried with all their might to pass it off as a representation of Toronto's diversity, but the whole, "eight crazy kids from Toronto clubbing, getting boozed, saying racist things" shtick didn't go well with the viewers, or the production companies involved, forcing a premature cancellation. "What do I say to people now?" asked Salem, aka "The Lebanese," during a Toronto Star interview in 2011 after his store windows were broken and vandals scrawled the words " Lake Shore is a joke" on the walls of his designer consignment shop on Queen St. W. in Toronto. "It's been really embarrassing."
It didn't stop there: from accusations of racism from the Canadian Jewish Congress to broken hearts on behalf of cast members. It all compelled me to speak to Maryam Rahimi, its creator years later about what exactly went wrong and if people may have rushed to judge the show.

VICE: I don't want to assume that you had negative intentions going in, so tell me about what the vision was for Lake Shore .
Maryam Rahimi: It's been a few years since. I've been asked to do interviews before but turned them down because it took me time. A lot of people were understandably hurt. But basically, I went in as a young producer at 25 years that just moved to Montreal to Toronto looking to get noticed. I obviously wanted to create something that would put me on the map, something that would have broadcasters come knocking on my door instead of the other way around. At the time, Jersey Shore was this big deal and my friend pointed out that we should have a Canadian version of it, so I thought that I could do something that rode on the hype of the show. A lot of what made it possible was my own strong desire to get noticed for my work.

Advertisement

Given that I don't know how the whole process works, how did you manage to do all this since you were so new to the game?
When you're a production company as small as we were, the ones that make the show, the chances of you actually getting into a room with a broadcaster is slim to nothing. Our idea wasn't picked up in the traditional sense. We played it by using webisodes and launching a successful website that built hype through different PR websites. At one point our website even crashed because we were so transparent and seen as exciting that it started building a following before we even had a show.

The concept was Jersey Shore meets American Idol, and it went viral, from iTunes, to Perez Hilton, to CTV. That's when Entertainment One contacted me about a pro-production deal so I chose them, and that's where I made my mistake. I was young and naive as a producer and they seemed so big and grand. What I needed was a company that also acknowledged my lack experience so I could get the mentorship and guidance that I needed. While I was able to meet with MTV, Bell, and Rogers, I was sold short. There wasn't much training, no practice Q&A sessions. Sometimes I think they signed me on as a way of shutting me down. I don't know. I just wasn't prepared for the behind closed doors meetings, and I was intimidated, so combining those things can mess up a good thing.

So is that what you attribute most of the problems to? Your lack of experience?
Like I said, I was 25, not that there's anything wrong with that, but as a new producer, I really took a bigger bite than I could chew. I had all these visions to build a fanbase before even having a show. I was young, doing this ambitious thing and I needed a mentor, someone that could make up for my lack of experience and I feel like that's when it went wrong.

Advertisement

Was it that lack of experience that lead to airing that one racist comment by Sibel when she claims she hates everyone equally, especially Jews? What allowed a comment like that to happen?
You know, I honestly discussed that with my partners at the time. It was a 50/50 vote. I was Middle Eastern, living in a mainly Caucasian society. It's not like I never experienced racism, but it doesn't get to me, hurt me, or break me. I rather feel pity for the racist. So when we were deciding to keep that comment, I didn't think about it from the general public's perspective. For me, it was meant to draw attention, give us the spotlight, and we were supposed to follow through where Sibel had moments of realization. She realizes that her actions have consequences and she was apologetic for it.

Sibel Atlug, "The Turk"

Her Jewish castmate Robyn Perza actually shares a few moments about the racist comment and I believe Sibel grew positively after the incident. It had a beginning, middle and end, but sadly, we weren't allowed to let the story play out. So people heard this racist comment and that was it. Afterwards, I came off as this racist producer that didn't know what she was doing, just throwing punches just to get noticed.

Were you surprised by the reactions to that scene given that you don't see yourself as a racist?
I was shocked. I didn't see it coming. Mostly because I don't take racism to heart. People do it due to lack of education, life experience or cultural exposure, and I guess in my head, it was something we kind of all deal with every day. I didn't think it would have the negative backlash that it did. It also touched on something. I had calls from Holocaust survivors and they seemed to be the most offended. I kinda had to laugh in a way because I can't believe we reached that big of an audience. It's not funny obviously, and I didn't mean to hurt them or anything. I guess I just didn't think through it carefully.

Advertisement

So what would you do differently if you had another chance?
I probably would have still left in the racist comment to be honest, but within the teaser, where we see Sibel making those statements, we would have also included the effects that comment would have had on her cast members and the society that she lives in. We would of found out why she made such a comment and show how she grew from them, and how sincerely sorry she was for saying it.

So obviously you felt the consequences of that scene as it was and the way the show was portrayed.
Yeah. Hate mail, death threats, I had voice mail up the wazoo. My mail box was full. I couldn't even look through them because there was so much hatred. There was even a time when I got spotted in a club and someone tossed a piece of trash at me or something. It wasn't pretty. People obviously reacted to that comment by Sibel, and all of a sudden, the show became all about that one comment and nothing else. So pretty much all the press coverage we received afterwards was about the negative aspects of it.

Was there anything positive about the experience then?
Well I loved working with my crew and I loved all the participants during the casting process. They were colourful, proud and beautiful. We witnessed their vulnerabilities publicly and privately and showed off their goofiness. Despite their cultural differences in personality class clashes, we became a family for a short while. It was a lot of fun and I miss them. I wish the show could have worked out.

Advertisement

The cast members were portrayed pretty badly, and many of them didn't seem likeable at all. Any regrets on that end?
I made it a point to be as raw and real to their personalities as I could be, because according to me, the show was about confronting people that stereotype other cultures and how they could grow from that. You had the partying and crazy lifestyle to begin with that brought them together, and the arguments, but there were also moments of reflection. There were layers to it.

A bad reality show can be a dime a dozen, but yours didn't make it out there. What have you learned?
I've learned to take my time and have patience. I've also learned to have a maturity towards the media. When you're young, all of a sudden you're in newspaper columns, morning shows… and you're so willing. In the end, they just want a piece of you, want a piece of it. I try to control my message with the media, not the other way around now. I also learned that beyond the entertainment context, the decisions I make are about exactly that— entertainment—but if something comes across as too blunt or offensive, my goal should be to educate my audience so people don't get hurt.

There's a lot of fear in me, fear of not making it, of repeating the same mistakes or the fear of a broken heart with some of my future projects. Right now…I'm just taking my time.

So what do you want to say to those who were disappointed by how this show portrayed Toronto, the show's potential fans, or those who were hurt?
I'm sorry for hurting people with those racist comments. It was not my intention at all. I wanted to show how a person arrives to making such a racist comment and how they could grow from it, which ultimately happens with Sibel. It's just too bad we never got to see it.

And to the cast members?
Thanks for the courage. They're all older now, and I do know that some of them are struggling with the fact that their life went in completely different directions. There is now this part of their life that is online that affects them, and I still think they're courageous to have done it even though they're dealing with the aftermath of it.

Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.