Why Do Reality Stars Lie on Camera?
They know they'll get caught. Are they just putting off the inevitable?
Photo illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
Approximately three minutes into the premiere episode of the sixth season of Vanderpump Rules, Bravo’s wildly popular and often sickeningly boozy restaurant-bar reality show, Jax Taylor told a lie. Taylor is the 39-year-old on-and-off bartender at the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Lisa Vanderpump’s Sexy Unique Restaurant (SUR) in West Hollywood, and a longtime star of Rules. He was attending his co-worker’s masquerade-themed birthday party with his girlfriend, Brittany Cartwright, when the trouble began. Like most parties that are filmed for reality shows, this one was full of drama and rumors; at this party, specifically, the rumor was that Taylor had cheated on Cartwright with another SUR employee. Oh no. Did he really? Well, yes, he did. But when he was presented with evidence of this cheating on camera, he denied it.
I have been puzzling over this moment since it aired on Bravo over a year ago. Very quickly, Taylor was forced to tell Cartwright the truth (or at least most of the truth) about his cheating, because so much evidence was already recorded on camera. His first instinct was to lie, even though he knew, eventually, that he’d be caught.
Of course, people lie all the time for all kinds of reasons. But reality stars tell these kinds of easily fact-checked lies frequently. They say they are faithful to their significant others even when there is video evidence of them fooling around with people who are not their significant others. They profess to be sober when they are really only sort-of sober. They tell everyone they are working very hard on their perfume lines when we can see that they are actually on vacation. Why? What motivates these beautiful people to lie to the camera when they know, at some point, they’ll be found out?
I had hoped to ask Taylor directly why he lied about cheating on Cartwright, especially since this was not the first time on Vanderpump Rules that he’d denied an accusation that could quickly be proved true. In previous seasons, he lied about having a one-night stand with a woman in Vegas, hooking up with fellow cast member Kristen Doute, and stealing a pair of designer sunglasses from Freaky Tiki Tropical Optical in Honolulu on a cast vacation. (One could argue that lying has become an integral part of Taylor’s character, in life and on the show.) Unfortunately, Taylor’s representative did not respond to my requests for an interview.
Still determined to make sense of Taylor’s behavior, I turned to the experts. I wanted to find out why Taylor, and so many other reality stars like him, lie in the face of incontrovertible evidence. Just this season on Vanderpump Rules, another cast member, Lala Kent, lied about having sexual relations with SUR bartender Ariana Madix, and then, minutes later in the episode, admitted the lie in a confessional interview. This kind of bold-faced lying, followed by (sometimes coerced) confession, has become part of the fabric of reality TV, so much so that viewers have become accustomed to this narrative arc and the “gotcha” moment of proving the person has said or done something different in the past. But why do reality stars keep falling into this trap?
Honey Langcaster-James, a British psychologist who works on set with reality TV participants through her company On Set Welfare, said there are a few reasons why people like Taylor lie. First, she said, the reality TV format can make people feel liberated from the boring social conventions of normal life—telling the truth, being kind, etc. If they are otherwise inclined to lie, reality TV gives them the freedom to go for it.
This kind of bold-faced lying, followed by (sometimes coerced) confession, has become part of the fabric of reality TV, so much so that viewers have become accustomed to this narrative arc and the “gotcha” moment of proving the person has said or done something different in the past. But why do reality stars keep falling into this trap?
“Sometimes when people are taking part in a show, they themselves see it as being not real, what they’re actually taking part in,” Langcaster-James told me. “That detaches them a little bit from the normal rules of social engagement, so they start to think that the normal rules don’t necessarily apply because they’re doing it in the context of a TV show. And that can sometimes liberate people from the conscience that the rest of us might feel.”
Jo Hemmings, another psychologist who has worked on entertainment and reality shows, like Good Morning Britain and Big Brother, said it is important to consider the kind of person who signs up to be on a reality show. Typically, she argued, reality TV stars are motivated to pursue fame at any cost, which makes them more likely to exhibit narcissistic behavior, such as lying.
“They’re far more narcissistic than anybody else,” Hemmings told me, pointing to a 2006 psychological study, and later book, by Mark Young and Drew Pinsky (the latter of reality television fame himself, on Celebrity Rehab). Young and Pinsky found that, in general, celebrities scored higher on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory than a control group. Reality stars, specifically, scored even higher than other kinds of celebrities like actors and musicians. As far as I know, Jax Taylor has not taken the NPI, but he did complete an “Are You a Sociopath?” quiz during a fifth-season episode of Vanderpump Rules. (According to the quiz, which was proctored by his ex-girlfriend Stassi Schroeder, he is.)
Langcaster-James was hesitant to ascribe reality TV stars’ bad behavior to any kind of mental health issue, however. “Sometimes human beings do behave in less than pleasant ways to each other, and we shouldn’t immediately start looking for an explanation in terms of mental health or personality disorders,” she said.
Both Langcaster-James and Hemmings noted that career reality TV stars, like Taylor, are the most likely to lie and otherwise behave badly on camera, because that behavior has been reinforced for as long as they’ve been on the air.
“I think for some individuals who do go from one reality show to another reality show, or who make a career out of being well known, I think the lines between what is real and what is part of their job become quite blurred… They do learn that actually they get more column inches and more media coverage and more time on air for behaving in more and more kind of outrageous ways,” Langcaster-James said. “As a result, there’s a kind of psychological reinforcement process that goes on when someone behaves in a certain way. If that gets media attention, and particularly if it leads to more work for them or paid employment on other shows, then it can reinforce that kind of behavior, and that isn’t necessarily how that person behaves in their everyday life when the cameras aren’t rolling.”
“Why wouldn’t we put them on-screen when they’re lying?” Hemmings said. “[It’s] much more interesting than people telling the truth, from a TV perspective, and therefore, they get more attention, which is what they’re craving, and so lying will seem to be an OK way to do it for them.”
Stars like Taylor may even help bring their friends together when they lie, Hemmings said. If the lie makes their lives seem more interesting, that helps everyone on the show succeed. “A blue lie is something which is told to help, not just themselves, but to help the group they’re with generally,” she explained.
So one could argue that Taylor was actually doing something, hm, good when he lied about cheating on his girlfriend at the masquerade party. It was a blue lie. In any event, his decision to lie hasn’t slowed him down in the slightest: On the premiere episode of this season of Vanderpump Rules, he proposed to Cartwright. She happily accepted, and the whole cast celebrated together.
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