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Opinion – Reality TV is a breeding-ground for exploitation

X Factor star Lucy Spraggan has spoken publicly about her experience on the reality show, describing it as an ‘abusive relationship.’ 

Reality TV has been divisive for about as long as it’s been on air.

Whether you love it or hate it, these shows continue to pull in ratings, luring hordes of wannabe-stars who are ill-prepared for the complexities of fame.

Lucy Spraggan, a former X Factor contestant who found overnight stardom in 2012 (when the show was at its peak), has spoken out for the first time about her experience on the show.

Only 20-years-old at the time, Spraggan left the competition early citing an illness. But she now says her abrupt exit was due to a far darker reality – Spraggan was raped by a member of hotel staff a few weeks into the live shows.

Her story is harrowing, but Spraggan has broken the anonymity legally granted to survivors of sexual assault in order to warn others of reality TV’s dangers.

Show executives had moved Spraggan to the hotel in which she was attacked, away from the glamorous Corinthia hotel where other contestants were guarded by 24-hour security.

Spraggan alleges that the reason she was relocated – along with fellow contestant Rylan Clark – was because she was deemed a disturbance. Both Clark and Spraggan had a reputation for being party animals.

While the lax security offered by the show didn’t directly cause Spraggan’s attack, it highlights a disregard for individuals’ safety in the context of reality TV.

In the years following her attack, Spraggan has described her time on the show as something akin to benign in an ‘abusive relationship.’

‘From the beginning’ she told the BBC, ‘they kind of make you into a caricature of yourself. It’s almost like there’s a storyline written for you.’

Spraggan said the immense pressure contestants were placed under was like nothing she had experienced before. ‘Somebody completely [took] the reins of my life.’

Her attacker – a hotel porter who had offered to help Spraggan up to her room after a night out – pleaded guilty to her attack in 2013 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Despite the severity of her trauma, Spraggan felt that pressure from X Factor execs meant she had to continue with the show. It had been drilled into her, and her peers, that this was the biggest opportunity of her life.

After eventually deciding to leave three weeks into the live shows, Spraggan felt she had to go along with the public narrative X Factor reps had constructed. She says she’s now relieved to be able to tell the truth.

This crucible of pressure, instantaneous fame, lack of emotional support, and the constant narrative of a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity creates an environment rife with toxicity.

The same can be seen with other reality TV shows that have enjoyed ballooning success. Take ITV’s Love Island, for example, which has faced consistent criticism for its slack protection of young contestants.

After three individuals linked with the show – Mike Thalassitis, Caroline Flack, and Sophie Gradon – committed suicide between 2020 and 2022, the show promised to better protect individuals from the overnight notoriety and public backlash they would inevitable face.

But these promises are hard to quantify, and it’s unclear if substantial change happens behind the scenes.

Since Spraggan’s interview with the BBC, Simon Cowell – creator of the X Factor – has issued a public statement describing her attack as ‘heartbreaking.’ But given Spraggan’s confession that she felt like a ‘corporate problem’ in the aftermath, Cowell’s words leave a bitter taste.

Spraggan’s decision to speak out about her traumatic experience demonstrates the need for systemic changes within the industry.

Producers and broadcasters bear a significant responsibility in ensuring the welfare of participants.

They have the power to influence the content and direction of reality TV shows. It is crucial that they prioritise participant well-being over sensationalism and ratings.

Comprehensive mental health screenings, ongoing support, and transparency in editing practices are essential components of responsible production.

Spraggan wrote about her experience in the Guardian last week, where she unpacked fame’s impact on our understanding of trauma.

Recalling incidents where strangers had outright confronted her about the attack in public, Spraggan said ‘In those moments, the story was more important than the fact I was a human being.’

The problem is, reality TV – which thrives off of caricatured versions of reality, and forces people into a box that makes them easily digestible – encourages (whether intentional or not) this act of dehumanisation.

Combined with the pressure to perform and conform to predetermined roles, this can have severe consequences for vulnerable individuals.

‘My experience was […] awful. It has been a terrible thing to live with’, Spraggan wrote. ‘But being in the public eye has meant that every time I spoke to a journalist […] every time they have asked me their version of the same questions, they have inflicted more pain.’

By relentlessly drilling into contestants that a reality TV show opportunity is the most important thing in their life, it becomes hard to quantify our own pain, and impossible to seek support for our suffering.

‘It kind of shows you what kind of world you are in, in what kind of mindset you are in, to not be able to really measure what has happened, and what you should do now,” Spraggan told the BBC.

‘I’ve been petrified of telling the truth in case I lose what I have.’

Spraggan felt like she didn’t get enough support in the aftermath of the attack – and in the following years her mental health deteriorated considerably and she abused alcohol and drugs. She has now been sober for nearly four years.

But she still recognises the positive impact shows like the X Factor can have.

‘We need these shows, because there’s a thriving community of talented people who just don’t have the funds and the opportunity to get there.’

Instead, Spraggan is calling for a structural shift within the industry, where production and broadcast companies make a better effort to consider employees’ and participants’ mental health – setting aside a portion of their budget to invest in mental wellbeing services.

In the end, it’s the simple act of being listened to, and recognised as a human being – not a cash cow – that will have the most impact.

According to Spraggan, Simon Cowell called her earlier this year, after she announced she would be releasing a book.

He told her, ‘Lucy, before you or I say anything else, the first thing I need to tell you is that I am sorry.’

‘It makes me emotional’ Spraggan reflected, ‘because no-one else said sorry. And all it took was this one man to treat me like a human being, 11 years later.’