TV Editor Molly Schoenfeld interviews former The Circle contestant Tim Wilson, discussing the highs and lows of participating in reality TV and what can be done to ensure better aftercare
Following TV Writer Ellie Reed’s article on the dangers of reality TV for contestants’ mental health, the TV section had the opportunity to speak to Tim Wilson, a former contestant of the second series of The Circle, who shed some light on the matter. An ex-politician, university academic and animator, Tim joined the series in 2019 after being scouted and became the Viewers Champion in the series’ finale. He was evidently popular amongst his fans: indeed, videos of Tim sitting with his cats have thousands of views on Instagram – we were extremely upset that Bey or Hanim did not make an appearance during our Zoom meeting!
Reality TV is increasingly under fire after stories have emerged of former reality TV contestants suffering serious mental health problems, with some tragically committing suicide. Tim ‘had a very positive experience’ whilst on The Circle but offers some thoughts on how contestants’ could be better cared for after the show. He believes that the solution to improving the mental health of ex-contestants is ‘not simply in providing better psychiatric after-care alone’, but that ‘the industry itself needs to be properly regulated’. Indeed, he claims that there are three main problems with the industry:
The first problem, Tim says, is that people claim, ‘well you applied so you knew what you were in for’. Yet, he points out that he ‘didn’t apply to be on the show. I was asked. Most of the people on the show were asked’. Rather misleadingly, in his first interview, he was asked ‘why did you come on the show?’. Whilst one might argue that scouted contestants are still effectively signing themselves up for the show by saying ‘yes’, Tim says that the offer to join a reality TV show is ‘very flattering’ and appealing (particularly when offered during a rainy day in Cambridge!): how could one refuse the glamour of reality TV? He points out that it is very easy for people to imagine themselves saying no to such an offer, but that when in the situation themselves, some might find it difficult to refuse.
Tim argues that the second problem is the rapid ‘acquisition of fame’ one experiences when joining a show. Like the vast majority of reality TV contestants, Tim, whilst having a very supportive fanbase, had his own share of negativity during his time on The Circle. With the prevalence of social media, this is rather impossible to avoid. Tim is still in the public eye today with a very active Instagram account with nearly 100k followers. He remarks, ‘I still feel watched today’ and sometimes even imagines cameras following him like they did during The Circle, revealing the lasting effect reality TV can have on an individual.
Equally, after leaving reality TV, Tim claims that the ‘loss of fame’ for some contestants has a huge impact on mental health. Indeed, ‘after a reality TV show, today, what is the future? Very little actually […] There is an unwritten rule that the talent is not bigger than the show. It is suppressed into advertising bikinis for ASOS or now it seems doing cheap pornography on OnlyFans,’ although quickly adds that he will not be doing either of those things! This certainly raises questions about the lack of support for contestants, both emotionally and professionally.
Thirdly, and most importantly, therefore, Tim says that ‘there’s manipulation during the show (of course) […] it’s very difficult to stop that behaviour. The victims who are on the show continue to get manipulated after the show’. Whilst Tim had a good experience on The Circle, little was sufficiently explained to him before he joined: ‘I made it my business after coming out of The Circle to discover something about reality TV because I knew nothing about it before I went on.’
Additionally, the jobs he was doing before the show ended because he ‘wasn’t allowed to do anything without permission from the studio […] In fact, I’ve done no work since the show’. This is due to the pandemic, but also difficulty getting back into the professional world after his reality TV appearance. Indeed, Tim had problems after the show retaining his role as a Russian university academic given that his sexuality (Tim is in a relationship with Necati Zontul) was publicised on The Circle: under Russian law, ‘untraditional’ sexualities should not be promoted to minors. This was not made clear to Tim, who reflects that he would have thought more carefully about signing up to the show if he had known it would jeopardize his career.
There is therefore a lack of transparency before, during and after reality TV shows, which Tim argues is ‘rather sad’ because reality TV is supposed to provide ordinary people access to the television world and is ‘a hugely entertaining and compelling form of drama. It’s making drama up on the hoof. Ordinary people can be involved in that, but in my experience, ordinary people are not involved. It’s not entirely honest’. To improve this, he believes that ‘the experience after the show generally where people are handed onto PR companies […] could be improved greatly across the board.’ Essentially, contestants place a lot of trust in the crew around them, and ‘that trust is easily abused’ after the show.
It seems Tim is implying that the experience of appearing on a reality TV show is isolating given a lack of support. This is true in a literal sense on The Circle given that the contestants’ communication with one another is reliant solely on technology, although Tim reassured us that he rather enjoyed his own company (and his cat, Bey’s) whilst being on the show! Nevertheless, he said that the ‘incredibly intimate experience’ can be seen as ‘very close to torture: you are kept in a controlled environment. You are not in control of heating, light, you don’t know what time of day it is.’ As a result, ‘You are dependant […] You are going to say anything. You become very trusting. But that doesn’t go away when the filming stops.’
Tim thus offers an interesting perspective on the difficulty of the transition from reality TV to real life. Interestingly, he comments that ‘I have not spoken to anyone from reality TV who is uncritical [of reality TV].’ He argues that ‘without better regulation, we are asking the public to endorse what is increasingly a gladiatorial spectacle’. Perhaps, it seems, increased protections for contestants and transparency about the perils of the process would prevent any more tragic suicides linked to the inevitable, bleak exposure to public scrutiny that contestants experience during (and after) reality TV.
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