Bella Jakubiak has a lot on her plate. She’s on the phone from Bella’s at Tallagandra Hill, the 40-seat restaurant she and husband James Webster run at a winery outside Canberra, and is so busy she hasn’t had time “to wash my hair or shave my legs”.
So, real life is a long way removed from being on national TV? Bella laughs: “Being on TV looks more glamorous than it is.”
The 34-year-old chef should know. With sister Sammy, 30, she won Seven’s My Kitchen Rules in 2011 and has worked in the television industry since, including four years as resident chef on The Morning Show.
Even spicier, Bella’s husband of a year is also a former reality TV contestant. James, 40, was a ‘groom’ on the first series of Nine’s Married at First Sight, although it was only a few months before his TV wife ditched him.
Bella’s awakening into how real reality TV is came when she and Sammy were first cast on MKR.
They were initially pegged as “The Devil Wears Prada girls” because they both worked in fashion, Bella said. A backstory was shot of the pair dressing up at work and “that was the angle for our story”.
Not for long. As filming went on, producers “realised that was not who we were. We were family oriented. So we reshot our backstory”.
Despite having her image recalibrated, Bella insists she “never saw once” producers handing out running sheets for how the day’s shooting should unfold, but said voiceovers are shot “for five or six hours” and “If one tiny thing happens, they’ll catch it”.
Her lowest moment on MKR came in between takes for the pressure-cooker final. “I just lost it. I crawled into a ball and I started crying on the floor on set. I couldn’t get out of my ball for 10 minutes,” she says.
Meanwhile, cameras were rolling.
“I didn’t know they were filming me. I think they had an overhead boom which came across quietly.”
The meltdown scene went to air, but Bella shrugged it off: “I signed up for a show that is the real me. I don’t feel exploited by it.”
Maybe, but the filming of what was essentially a private moment is a window into how much a finished reality TV product drills down and has been tweaked and finessed into something that is sensational, heartwarming, tragic, dramatic – or all of the above.
Elena Duggan, 35, loved her experience winning MasterChef in 2016, but also admitted being asked a couple of times to beef up her answers to make them more emotional.
Her biggest gripe, though, was the editing of one incident that “made me seem emotionally disturbed”, she says.
Elena was hit in the mouth when uncorking champagne while poaching peaches.
“It felt like when someone throws a ball in your face and you can’t help but cry,” she recalls.
“I turned around for the nurse, but it just showed me walking away like I was having a meltdown. Never showed the champagne, just showed me crying.
“I was emotionally stable throughout the whole show and this was maybe the only opportunity they had. I just don’t know what the motivation was.”
When Gracia Seger, 27, won MKR with sister Tasia, 28, in 2016 – they now own Indonesian restaurant Makan in Melbourne – two versions were shot of the grand final, and they didn’t know until the finale was screened if they’d won $250,000.
“It was so stressful,” says Gracia, when asked if she felt manipulated just to create a TV surprise.
“When they revealed our score first that we had won, we thought we had won. Then they filmed it again. They don’t give you any warning.”
Contestants being kept in the dark about plot twists and endings is standard. And what audiences see is a fraction of what is shot.
“There’s, like 169, hours of filming for one-hour episode,” says Cat Henesey-Smith, a 24-year-old jewellery designer who was one of the bachelorettes on this year’s The Bachelor.
Cat is in a room at the Ten Network in Sydney on September 5, along with fellow Bachelor evictees Romy Poulier, 29, and political adviser Alisha Aitken-Radburn, 25, dissecting their reality TV experience for The New Daily.
The night before, a “mortified” Romy was booted from the mansion on national TV, and said watching herself as one of 28 women scrambling for the affections of leading man Nick Cummins was “like watching a show that I didn’t know”.
On the show, all three were painted as villains. In person, they’re friendly, open and slightly shell-shocked.
“I just didn’t remember it being like that,” Romy says. “I couldn’t watch and enjoy any of it. I just felt sick every week. I’m so glad it’s over because it was really confronting to watch.”
Billed as a photo shoot director on The Bachelor, she is also an actor (Home and Away, The Elephant Princess) but denies rumours she was a “plant” and insists she went through the same audition process as everyone else.
“But you just sort of jump into your role when you’re there. You get bored. You see the Bachelor once every two weeks for like five minutes and you barely get a word in with him.”
One thing contestants do get a lot of? They’re “questioned, and questioned, and questioned five different ways about the one thing” until producers get what they want.
“We’re given a topic, we’re given a story. It’s a television set. It’s not scripted, but it is produced,” Romy says.
“It’s not a documentary. It’s entertainment.”
Not always. In 2018, former Married At First Sight star Clare Verrall claimed she attempted suicide because of anxiety and social media pressure after her series of the Nine hit wrapped.
Another MAFS alum, Susan Rawlings, was scathing about the lack of post-show support for contestants who are attacked on social media based on their TV personas.
In response, Endemol Shine, the company that produces MAFS, issued a statement this year saying “all participants have access to psychological support”.
Self-help book author Tracey Jewel, 35, is fine with her own MAFS experience. She became a reality TV cause celebre this year on the show when her screen ‘husband’ Dean Wells had an ‘affair’ with a second contestant, Davina Rankin.
Despite having her life exposed and criticised on TV, Tracey says MAFS is “not scripted at all” and quite true to reality.
“Yes, sometimes you have to repeat yourself, but what we say is what we say. And sometimes you don’t like what you say, especially after a few drinks,” she says.
“But that’s life, isn’t it?”
Would she do it again? “Probably not. Once is enough. But I don’t regret it, not at all.”
Bella Jakubiak tells how when husband James was on MAFS, producers used “sleep deprivation” as a tool – he suffers from sleep apnea – when he was on the show.
“He worked full time, and they came to film him at home at the crack of dawn and late at night on a daily basis, so he was exhausted. And tired people are grumpy people with short tempers!” Bella says.
Even now, James is “extremely critical” of MAFS.
“His comment is, ‘It’s not just romance, you’re playing with people’s hearts’. They are playing with the mental health of the contestants,” Bella says.
But she has an even bigger gripe about reality TV.
“Anyone who tells you they were edited badly is bollocks. Nobody forces you to say horrible things. They’ve chosen you because you are like that.”
– Reporting by Scott Ellis, Jennie Noonan and Louise Talbot