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Hell Yes Reality Television Stars Should Be Unionized
Every industry should.
For the past month, former Real Housewives of New York cast member Bethenny Frankel has been calling for reality stars to unionize and join actors in the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strikes — because hey, there’s some seriously unethical behavior happening in that industry, and they’re not getting residuals, either.
On Thursday, SAG-AFTRA responded to a letter written by attorneys representing Frankel and several reality show performers who chose to remain anonymous about the compensation and exploitation issues on these shows with a statement saying that they are on her side and ready to work with reality show performers who do want to unionize.
“We stand ready to assist Bethenny Frankel, Bryan Freedman, and Mark Geragos along with reality performers and our members in the fight and are tired of studios and production companies trying to circumvent the Union in order to exploit the talent that they rely upon to make their product,” the Union said in an official statement this week. “We encourage any reality performers and/or members to reach out to SAG-AFTRA’s Entertainment Contracts Department so that we may work together toward the protection of the reality performers ending the exploitative practices that have developed in this area and to engage in a new path to Union coverage.”
Frankel first started pushing for unionization in an Instagram post in which she was talking about how reality show performers should be striking in solidarity with the actors and writers, pointing out that reality shows have been historically used to lessen the blow of these strikes and to ensure that people still have something to watch.
She also noted that she only received about $7,000 for her first season of RHONY and has never received any residuals, despite the fact that people (me) are constantly rewatching and streaming that season, that show and other shows, notably The Hills and Jersey Shore.
Not only are she and the Housewives not getting residuals, but they are required to pay Bravo a portion of the proceeds of any business they start while on the show. This is often referred to as the “Bethenny Clause” as the network started including it in contracts after Frankel sold part of her SkinnyGirl company for $100 million. “People should never sign that,” she told Salon.
The differing contracts and pay structures also causes tension between castmates. Part of the reason Real Housewives of New York: Legacy never got off the ground was because former Housewife Jill Zarin (Team Jill) wanted to get paid the same as everyone else on the show. She told Frankel in their one-hour YouTube reunion recently that this was just about respect and that she would have taken a dollar if everyone else was paid a dollar. Still, many responded to that as if she were acting like a diva instead of just wanting things to be fair. (Once again, Team Jill)
Frankel and her attorneys also sent a letter to Bravo, accusing the network of
Deliberate attempts to manufacture mental instability by plying cast members with alcohol while depriving them of food and sleep.
Denying mental health treatment to cast members displaying obvious and alarming signs of mental deterioration.
Exploiting minors for uncompensated and sometimes long-term appearances on NBC reality TV shows.
Distributing and/or condoning the distribution of nonconsensual pornography.
Covering up acts of sexual violence.
Refusing to allow cast members the freedom to leave their shows, even under dire circumstances.”
I mean, anyone who watches these shows knows that many of these things are just very obviously true. There is a very famous episode of RHONY, traditionally referred to as “Scary Island,” in which model and Housewife Kelly Bensimon goes directly off the deep end, accusing Bethenny of plotting to kill her, telling castmember Alex McCord that she was “channeling the devil” and saying completely random and unrelated things that made no sense.
Bensimon literally did say that she hadn’t slept and it was clear that she was, you know, not well.
Sleep deprivation of reality performers has been in the spotlight lately with several castmates from Netflix’s Love Is Blind filing a lawsuit against producers they say deliberately deprived them of sleep, didn’t give them enough to eat and then purposely filmed them while they were tired, drunk and hungry. Sleep deprivation has also been an issue for contestants on shows like Project Runway and Top Chef.
Frankel isn’t the only Housewife to say that producers pushed them to drink in hopes of stirring up drama, and this has been an issue for performers on other shows as well. The Bachelor has been accused for years of giving contestants too much to drink.
Nene Leakes of Real Housewives of Atlanta, likely the most famous Housewife in Bravo history, previously accused the network of racial discrimination as well.
Predictably, many are accusing Frankel of biting the hand that fed her, but she’s not wrong. At all. And the fact is, she’s made more money off of being a Housewife than any of them, so she could absolutely just say “I got mine, fuck you,” but she wants things to be better for other people and good for her. That seems to be Kandi Burruss of Real Housewives of Atlanta’s take, which I do not find remotely surprising given that she doesn’t think she should have to pay her employees Atlanta’s $15-an-hour minimum wage and that she is still standing by not saying anything to Marlo when her nephew, who worked at Kandi’s restaurant, was murdered.
"I myself wouldn't not be a part of that. It wouldn't make any sense for me to be a part of that. To me, if I'm working with somebody, and I feel like they're not doing something that they should be doing, I address it right then,” Burruss told Entertainment Tonight. "I don't feel like you should wait for after. You are not gonna check with them no more, and then come back and try to go for their throat. That's just how I feel."
"So me, any problems or thoughts or concerns I've had, I've said them. I speak up, you can tell I speak up." she added.
Ah, classic anti-union propaganda.
Whatever anyone thinks of reality television and those that appear on it, these people make unbelievable amounts of money for these networks, often receive minimal payment, sometimes no payment at all (as is the case with The Bachelor) and occasionally ruin their own lives in the process. They deserve fair compensation, like any other workers.
It’s also, as Frankel has noted, something that will help the whole industry. If networks can’t rely on reality shows to more or less scab during SAG-AFTRA strikes, writers and actors will benefit as well.
Personally, I can’t wait to see the industry get unionized, least of all because it will make me feel less gross for binging Housewives as often as I do.
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