A new British TV series, “The House of Extraordinary People,” premiered March 18 on Channel 5, and has been met with mixed responses. The show brings nine people with physical differences together to live in a shared house for 10 days and is billed as a way for the participants to confront the prejudices they face in everyday life. A majority of the cast members live with an illness or disability, while several have undergone elective procedures to modify their body and change their appearance.
Since promotion for the show began, some have criticized the premise of the series, referring to it as a “modern day freak show” and opportunity for voyeurism. Others have judged and criticized the cast members themselves for their unusual appearances.
Danielle Wootton, head of marketing at U.K. disability equality charity Scope, expressed concerns the weekend before the show’s premiere regarding its intentions and the effect it will have on viewers.
“Disabled people are massively underrepresented across our screens. We hope that this programme is inclusive and gives disabled people a positive platform where the public can hear their voices, and gain a greater understanding of their lives,” she said. “But there is a fine line to tread between insight and understanding, and voyeurism and exploitation. We’d like everyone in the media to actively challenge negative perceptions and attitudes towards disabled people in everything they do.”
Though some have raised concerns that “The House of Extraordinary People” turns those with physical differences into a “spectacle,” several cast members have spoken up to defend the show.
On the talk show “This Morning” on Monday, cast members Harnaam Kaur and Rachael Reynolds spoke about their experiences on the show and how they’re embracing being “different.” Kaur is a 28-year-old motivational speaker, social activist and model who lives with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder that causes her to grow excess facial hair. After struggling with bullying for years, Kaur decided to fully embrace who she is and let her beard grow out. Reynolds is a mother of four who has neurofibromatosis type 1, a rare genetic disorder that causes numerous noncancerous tumors (called neurofibromas) to grow on and under her skin.
During the talk show, Kaur also addressed some of the criticism surrounding “The House of Extraordinary People.”
“I’ve seen people call it a freak show, and I’m thinking, ‘Don’t label us as that,'” she said. “It’s funny because as soon as someone looks different and they go on TV, we’re made fun of, but if someone looks ‘normal,’ you don’t see any headlines like that. We’re not freaks. We’re people. We’ve got high self-esteems, and we’re going to live life amazingly.”
In a later comment to Sun Online, Kaur added, “There are shows out there that are so fake but this show is real and can help people who are marginalised. It’s 100 per cent positive and it’s going to help a lot of people so it’s horrendous that people are calling it a freak show. It’s offensive and degrading.”
She and Reynolds went on to recognize that some people might watch the series from the perspective of the voyeur, while others might watch to genuinely learn. While both are bound to happen, the women hope that sharing their experiences openly on TV can ultimately help promote a greater understanding and acceptance of people who have physical differences.
“It’s more to educate society that, you know what? We’re different. But we’ve got families, we date, we’ve got partners, and we’re not going to hide away from society. We’re on TV. It’s one of the hardest things that anyone can do is be like, ‘You know what? I look different, I’m going to embrace it, and I’m going to show the world exactly who I am. And it takes a very strong person to say that,” Kaur said.
In addition to Kaur and Reynolds, other cast members include Lucas Hayward, who was born with a facial deformity called oculo-auriculo-fronto-nasal syndrome; Bashir Aziz, who has vitiligo, a condition that causes patches of skin to lose their pigment; Kristin Riley, who, at 36, is one of the oldest people in the world to have primordial dwarfism; Rowdy Burton, who had his legs amputated as a toddler due to a genetic condition called sacral agenesis; Aly Stosz, who’s one of the tallest women in the world at 6 ft. 9 in.; Dan Cooper, who voluntarily had his leg amputated due to body integrity identity disorder (BIID); and Ted Parrotman, a man who has gotten tattoos and undergone multiple body modifications to look more like his parrots.