The villainous reality TV star is now a well-worn trope, but it wasn’t always a fixture in the genre. When The Real World, our first modern reality show, premiered in 1992, the only thing we had to gripe about was cast member Julie Gentry’s naiveté about roommate Heather Gardner being a drug dealer because she had a pager. But by the second season, David Edwards was kicked out of the house and painted as a villain by producers and castmates for jokingly ripping a blanket off of roommate Tami Roman. The following season, David “Puck” Rainey was booted by his roommates for being a disgusting and disrespectful horror show. Ever since, roommate disagreements have been de rigueur.
Reality TV villainy reached new heights in 2000, with the first season of Survivor, when Susan Hawk pulled out a verbal flamethrower and proceeded to torch her fellow cast members at the final council vote, calling winner Richard Hatch an “arrogant, pompous” snake, and runner-up Kelly Wigglesworth “two-faced and manipulative” rat. It happened late in the season, but Hawk’s mean-spirited rant became a standard for reality TV villains, and we haven’t had a show without one since.
But are you born a TV villain, or do you become one over time?
In the case of The Real Housewives of Atlanta’s NeNe Leakes, it appears to have been an evolution. It was only after seven years that she became a bona fide villain this past season. Prior to that, we watched her laugh and “bloop” her way through grueling vacations, rough friendships, and wig-snatching skirmishes with a smile. We stayed on her side as she propped herself up as the voice of reason, because most of the time she was right. But as her star rose, so did her overinflated sense of self, and “NayNay,” her bitchy alter ego, started to show up more and more. She bullied new cast members and ignored established ones, only to come out the other side with a burgeoning acting career and fewer friends on the show.
This happens a lot on the Real Housewives franchises. As more cast members leave, the remaining housewives tend to nominate themselves as the new group leaders, which generally means they’re willing to loudly shout down anyone new to the crew and declare themselves the ultimate decision makers. Vicki Gunvalson, of the Orange County housewives, has been doing this for years. She shouted down Gretchen Rossi until the day she left the show, and threatens to break off her friendship with Tamra Barney every time she disagrees with her. Vicki even made her new tagline “the O.G. of the O.C.” just in case you forgot who was in charge. The fun-loving cast member—who once surprised her son by showing up with a 12-pack of Coors to the University of Colorado house he shared with his friends, and who laughed so hard during Tamra’s bachelorette party that she peed on Tamra’s bed—has become more and more of a bully as time goes on, and seems to use her villainy as a badge of honor. At least in these instances, it doesn’t feel like producers are urging them to become mean to create drama; it seems like seniority creates an inflated sense of self that, coupled with the arrival of younger and younger housewives, makes them feel like they have to fight to stay relevant by being bigger, badder, and more matriarchal.
Shows that have new cast members every season don’t have the luxury of building and revising the cast’s images over time; as a result, a lot of reality TV villains come out swinging, especially when there’s a prize at stake. Survivor’s Jon “Jonny Fairplay” Dalton used a visiting friend to craft a lie about his grandmother’s death—it got him into the top three even though she was alive and well! Season 1 Rock of Love contestant Lacey Conner tried to get on Bret Michael’s good side by revealing horrible information about every other contestant, only to have it blow up in her face when she got eliminated instead. Wendy Pepper suffered through someone drawing on a picture of her daughter and used it as fuel to claw and backstab her way into the top three Project Runway’s first season, but finalist Kara Saun and winner Jay McCarroll had some fighting words for her before she showed her final collection. Jay was so worn out he actually told her “No one likes you Wendy!” to her face.
They all tried to “play the game,” and most of the time it bit them right in the ass.
Other reality villains are bad from the beginning. Producers want a shit-starter who will create conflict and polarize the audience into passionate camps. If everything is cordial, nobody is tuning in. Of course, some villains are naturally detestable, while others play the role because it’s an important one that somebody has to fill and it might as well be them.
American Idol and X-Factor creator Simon Cowell is reviled for an innate sense of snobbery that he brings to the judge’s chair. On the 2004 season of The Apprentice, Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth clashed with cast members left and right, screaming and threatening them for small acts like waking her up during a car ride and bringing the worst out of everyone with every conversation. Tiffany Pollard wasted no time getting the rest of the girls on VH1’s Flavor of Love to hate her guts, and regularly threatened to assault other contestants when they disagreed with her. It’s like they all came into the world fully formed and fanged, and reality TV only poured gas on the raging fire of their egos.
Reality TV villains aren’t going anywhere as long as mean people and bullies continue to exist in our everyday lives. The only difference is that in real life, villains have to pretend they’re here to make friends—at least until they can cash out their 401K and move to a tropical island fortress.
Check out more from VH1’s month-long Keepin’ It Real reality TV package.