In a dry legal setting – but suitably glamorous fashion – the curtain of mystery around the casting of reality TV’s plum roles was rudely yanked aside in August.
Elyse Knowles, winner of Nine’s The Block in 2017, sued her former manager Sean Anderson – Jennifer Hawkins’ high-profile representative – claiming he didn’t deserve the $60,000 commission he charged for her appearance on the renovation show.
The model, 25, claimed she applied for The Block without her manager’s help and wanted his fee refunded.
But Mr Anderson had a different story: He said he pitched Knowles and her partner, Josh Barker, “organised their auditions, negotiated her participation agreement with Nine, managed all her publicity”.
Hold the bus – Elyse Knowles didn’t just drag her hair into a ponytail, whack on work boots and talk candidly and charmingly into a camera for a homemade audition video?
The legal drama was a fascinating public defogging of the smoke and mirrors around the ways people get onto reality TV. And it’s a far cry from blind luck or pure talent.
Truth is, behind every tizzed-up hopeful on The Bachelor or tear-jerking backstory of The X Factor unknowns, there’s an army of casting experts, talent coaches, managers and producers charged with making a TV ‘drama’ with a narrative arc that includes conflict and triumph.
And because of that, nothing can be left to chance.
“I have been aware of the labels handing down a mandate at the start of a TV show season looking for a particular type of artist,” says Lee Bradshaw, a Melbourne independent record producer and voice coach of 20 years.
“What the ramifications are for anyone not fitting that criteria, you can work out for yourself.”
So how do you get on a reality TV show?
Andrea Marr, a Melbourne singing coach for 22 years, has helped dozens of singers navigate their reality TV experience.
Her clients include Tim Omaji, aka Timomatic, who appeared on So You Think You Can Dance and Australia’s Got Talent, then was a judge on Seven’s 2018 Dance Boss.
First step for any hopeful: Marr trains people in interview simulations, and they submit a video. Based on their looks alone they might get a call back before their backstory is vetted. And that’s crunch time.
“Producers love a story,” says Marr, who in 2009 was at a festival with her band when she was asked to audition for a TV talent show. She did – but then producers were keen for her to talk about her father, who had cancer. She declined because it was too personal.
“They want you to be really pathetic and broken,” Marr says.
“I’ve done years and years of work to lift my profile, get better work, better pay. And they are going to ask about your sick cousin, your limp, whatever.”
Bradshaw has had “many” clients try out “against my advice”. What the public doesn’t know is “there are several ‘management’ companies who identify singers who I would describe as ‘TV friendly’,” he says.
Those contestants are put forward to shows, bypassing the cattle call and often fast-tracked through the audition process, Bradshaw says.
The aim? It “enables the show to identify ‘characters’ for the TV drama they are creating”.
He is “personally aware of several contestants” whose backstories have been fabricated to qualify them as specific characters.
“From what I understand, a contestant on The X Factor was told by his management to tell the show that he couldn’t attend or finish school as he had to work to support his family. Which is untrue,” he said.
Reality TV coach Emma Ashton’s job includes assessing the background, skills and personality of aspiring contestants to best craft their application.
She says “of course” people change their look, personality and life story to get on TV. Her advice? Be typecast immediately: “If you’re going for The Bachelor and you want to be seen as ‘The Vixen’, don’t wear your Pollyanna dress.
“And vice versa if you want to be cast as ‘The Nice Sweet Girl’, don’t wear your short tight skirt.”
Keira Maguire – The Bachelor, I’m A Celebrity, Bachelor in Paradise – is the poster girl for a perfect reality TV strategy, adds Ashton: “It’s well known villains get more airtime … and therefore will have a better shot at a post-series career.”
Before ABC radio journalist Tim Brunero was a 2005 Big Brother housemate, he carefully crafted his on-screen application and persona with the help of a friend, The Chaser’s Chas Licciardello.
“We sat down for hours and hours and hours working out strategies and how we were going to attack it,” Brunero admits.
They had a list of rules and a “very strict” plan, although the strategy was tweaked during the three months Brunero was in the house when he realised his key to victory was to evolve from “little, scrawny, inner-city nerdy unit” into a gym junkie.
“Be like Madonna,” he tells wannabe stars. “Change your character, change your persona. Have an adventure. You’re evolving and changing every week and it’s interesting.”
To Brunero, anyone going into a reality TV show without a plan is “stupid … it’s a game show,” he said, advising contestants to script lines and “rehearse them over and over” to appear authentic.
“And if you haven’t been watching and seen that someone with a great backstory – their parents are killed in a plane and they’ve brought their younger brother up – is the kind of thing that will win a show like that, then you’re a moron,” Brunero says.
He identifies a number of end goals: “You either want to win the money or get a little scrap of fame that you might be able to trade up into a role in the media or write a book or something else you can monetise.”
The verdict from experts and insiders on which shows are the winners when it comes to manipulating viewers and stars?
Despite music, tension and drama and fast action countdowns, Ten’s MasterChef comes out as the show with the most integrity. Its producers “all the way from the top down” are genuine and act with professionalism, insiders say.
The biggest loser? Seven’s for-now defunct The X Factor. Bradshaw bags the show outright, saying music is a by-product at best and drama is the goal.
“My view is that the Arethas, Billy Joels and Elton Johns of the world simply would not pass through this criteria,” he says.
“Let alone the Bob Dylans.”
– Reporting by Scott Ellis and Louise Talbot