Insights into litigation, sports law, media and legal culture

7 legal things to consider before you become a reality star

VAIL, CO – FEBRUARY 24: Ryan Sutter and Trista Sutter attend Veuve Clicquot Celebrates Clicquot In The Snow Tube a Thon Benefitting Habitat For Humanity on February 24, 2011 in Vail, Colorado. (Photo by Riccardo S. Savi/WireImage)

Clearly, you have what it takes to be a reality star. You are attractive and enthusiastic about sharing electricity-charged dates with a bevy of women. Or your cooking is more Iron Chef than Come Dine with Me. Or your voice is so good Mariah Carey would be jealous, if only she knew who you were.

The producers have noticed you and they want you in their show. Lucky you! Fame, fortune and the chance to show case your talent and glittering personality are only 30 episodes away!

A contract has just been emailed to you and the producers would like it signed and returned this week.

The fountain pen is in your hand and hovering over the execution clause. Perhaps you are like Laurina Fleure from The Bachelor who reportedly took the view: “To be honest I didn’t even really read it properly. I just signed my life away and thought it would be worth it for the opportunity.”

STOP! Before you sign, let us look at seven things in the legal fine print. Then you can decide whether this type of fame is for you.

To help, we have available the Season 10 American Idol contract (see link via and an example of a Masterchef contract (see link via SMH)

Item 1: Seeing your family and friends is a privilege not a right

If you enjoy a positive relationship with your partner, children and parents, you may not like being told: “any such contact with my friends, family and regular environment shall be in the sole discretion of Producer” (American Idol contract) [emphasis added].

In other words, here you are entering a legally binding contract in which you hand over your right to access your family and friends to someone else.

How much contact will be permitted? In the American Idol contract, there is a genuine prospect of no contact whatsoever. In the Masterchef contract, such contact is likely to be “limited”. This is a good example where you must check the fine print and talk to the producers to see how much contact is likely.

You might be happy to do this for a few weeks. A shot at fame is worth it, you might say. However, what if you could not see your friends and family for 6 months (American Idol contract) or for 25 weeks (which is kind of like 6 months, per Masterchef contract)?

One person’s detention centre may be another person’s sorority house. This requirement may bother some more than others. However, it is a good example of why it is important to understand what you agree to, before you sign on the dotted line.

Item 2: You have no contractual right to dignity or authenticity

The nature of the show determines, to a degree, how much of an idiot you might look. For instance, the format of Masterchef is cooking-based, and how you react under pressure is interesting to the viewer. Will your soufflé look like a fluffy cloud or a pile of puke? Will you look serene or sweat?

The show is otherwise not intended to ritually humiliate you and this is reflected in the Masterchef contractual terms. They are relatively benign. True it is, your contribution may be edited at the producers’ discretion, but that is something you would likely expect.

Contrast this to the American Idol contract. What do you think of this clause?

I understand that I may reveal or relate and other parties may reveal or relate information about me of a personal, private, intimate, surprising, defamatory, disparaging, embarrassing or unfavourable nature, that may be factual and/or fictional.” [emphasis added]

So, not only are people on the show entitled to say awful things about you, but it is perfectly fine if they are lies. You may also be required to say untruthful things as well.

For example, when it was time for Bachelor Blake to meet the parents of the last three girls in the last series of Australian The Bachelor, Lisa greeted him at the door of her parents’ palatial Noosa pad with the words “Welcome to my home”. Except, according to SMH, this was neither Lisa’s home nor her parents’ palatial pad, but a place rented for the show by its producers.

Consider: Being interesting is more important than ‘reality’.

Item 3: You have zero right to complain if the experience is worse than you thought

Catapulted from the reality show, your dreams in tatters, you might have found the experience more horrendous than you ever imagined. You might be looking for someone to blame.

Expect the producers to have thought of this in advance when the contracts were prepared. Most have very broad waivers, releases and indemnities.

For instance, the American Idol contract says:

I understand that the conditions surrounding the production of the program may expose me to severe mental and physical stress and /or illness both during and after my participation in the Program.”

Further, contestants are required to acknowledge that their appearance may expose them to “public ridicule, humiliation or condemnation”.

This is definitely a case of ‘buyer beware’.

Item 4: They can change the rules and you can do nothing about it

The producer usually has complete discretion to change the rules.

For instance, it might surprise you that the producers of Masterchef are not obliged to award any prizes. They grant a prize at their sole discretion.

Accordingly, if you enter a competition at all interested in winning (rather than, say, using it as platform to launch your shoe / perfume / lingerie line), face the prospect that the producers have the right to pull the pin.

Item 5: If you mislead the producers you are in big trouble

You might love the idea of being famous and having the world know some of you, just not all of you.

However, you must provide a full background history to the producers before going on the show. They need to know everything so they can control all the dynamics as part of their own risk management process.

Almost all reality show contracts will contain a clause prohibiting the contestant from being misleading or untruthful to the producers in any way.

In other words, whilst they may have the contractual right to lie about you, this right is not reciprocated.

Therefore, it is now time to mention your hidden past. For instance, America’s Next Top Model contestant Angelea Preston was controversially disqualified as a result of her ‘escort’ past for alleged breach of contrast. She is now suing for the prizes she claims she lost (see Cosmopolitan’s story here). She says the producers knew all along. What the producers knew, or did not know, will likely be a key issue in the case.

Consider: your dark secret might just make you interesting to the producers. Do not hold back.

Item 6: Confidentiality is king

Keeping the secret of the show is crucial. If you are a member of Generation Share, this might be quite difficult to do.

Likewise, if your body starts shaking involuntarily at the prospect of deleting your Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and SnapChat accounts (which some shows require whilst the show is on foot) have a think about whether the show’s format is for you.

It is also tremendously important that the show’s reputation as a ‘success story’ be maintained. Most contracts contain a clause by which you must not do anything which might bring the show into disrepute (see Masterchef contract).

James Garrison found this out to his peril when he ‘blew the whistle’ after appearing on Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition. James lost 313 pounds (142 kilograms) in 365 days. He later claimed the weight loss process was unhealthy and the side effects dangerous. He blogged about his experience in a way the producers claimed breached his contractual obligations. The blog has now disappeared but a report of it remains.

Item 7: After the show your earning ability may be constrained

Your ability to earn money is vital. Some of the contracts curtail how you can go about it once the show is over. If there is a single reason to bother reading a boring, largely impenetrable legal document, it is to check whether this might apply to you.

Look at the American Idol contract and Masterchef contract and consider these possibilities:

  1. You may not be allowed to do anything other than promote the show for some months after the show is over.
  2. You may be required to promote the show for up to a year afterwards even if you had a horrible experience.
  3. You may need permission from the producers before you can pursue any further opportunities for a period of time.
  4. You may need to pay the producers commission (e.g. 15% for 3 years per Masterchef contract) for any media career that might eventuate as a result of the show.

The upshot

It sounded so exciting at the beginning. And maybe it still does.

However, at least now you know that the bargain likely involves exchanging the right to see your family and friends, for living with strangers for many months. Those strangers may say derogatory things about you. Those things may not even be true. Even if you suffer mental health problems from the stresses of the show, you accept this risk.

The producers control everything, and you control nothing. You must disclose all those skeletons in your closet. You must not reveal any of the show’s secrets.

And if, after all this, you manage to get some further opportunities once the show is over, you may need the producers’ permission first, and you may also need to pay them commission for future money earned.

For further tips, see this excellent Huffington Post article by a former reality show contestant.

A brighter note

Now that you have received pessimistic news, your feet might be dragging as you leave this virtual office. You might wonder whether the dream is in fact a mirage.

Just remember, there is a reason why lawyers are lawyers, and why you are about to become famous.

Look no further than Trista and Ryan. Of course you remember them. Trista Rehn, the cheerleader who chose Ryan Sutter, the Colorado firefighter in Season 1 of The Bachelorette. Married in 2003, they were paid US$1 million for the right to televise their wedding ceremony, which was broadcast as the finale of a three-episode special called Trista & Ryan’s Wedding. The miniseries apparently drew over 26 million viewers, making it one of the most widely viewed episodes in the history of reality television.

Ten years’ later, the two are going strong. According to People, the pair celebrated with an “intimate vow renewal ceremony” which aired on ABC (USA), no doubt for a tidy sum and to millions of viewers.

So, have a look at the photo accompanying this post. See how Trista and Ryan found their true love, are flopped into a snow tube in Vail and are enjoying flutes of Veuve Cliquot champagne?

If it can happen to them, it can happen to you.


6 Responses to “7 legal things to consider before you become a reality star”

  1. Daniella

    Loved reading this -I am sure you can imagine how much I am missing “reality television & the law” discussions!! Good to know there is still time for you to keep up to date on The Bachelor amongst all your studies!

      • Daniella

        Can’t lie, I am eagerly anticipating the next installment of the Real Housewives of Melbourne. Can’t get past all the shots of Gina in her robes casually walking around the city -please keep me updated if you make her acquaintance!! (which probably would be worth it for the guest spot on the show that you would inevitably receive!)

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