Reality TV's blatant racism problem is even worse than we imagined – can a 'diversity drive' fix it?

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Michael Hogan
·10 min read
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Alexandra Burke and her dance partner Gorka Marquez
Alexandra Burke and her dance partner Gorka Marquez

Change is coming to a screen near you. Yes, British film and television “must put their money and practices where their mouths are” to tackle systemic racism - that’s according to an open letter signed by more than 4,000 prominent producers, writers, directors and actors. 

They said that while messages of support for the Black Lives Matter movement are “a first step”, broadcasters and media companies must do more “after decades of enabling racism in your ranks”. The BBC duly announced that it will spend £100m over the next three years on creating “inclusive” content and ensuring that 20 per cent of its off-screen workforce come from under-represented groups.

The diversity drive is welcome - albeit arguably too little, too late. As well as casts and crews, though, TV badly needs to address the racism problem that surrounds its tentpole reality contests. Somehow, despite progress slowly being made elsewhere, the treatment of black contestants - especially black women - continues to be one of the most unsavoury aspects of 21st century mass entertainment.

Anyone who previously waved away this issue - breezily putting it down to “bad losers” who were “playing the race card” (that old chestnut) or non-white contestants being “just not as likeable” (hmm, wonder why that is) - might just have found their unconscious bias challenged by two high-profile victims coming forward over the past week.

First, former X Factor contestant Misha B accused the ITV series of having a "corrupted agenda" and ”throwing the ‘angry black girl’ narrative at me” when she participated in 2011. Speaking on Instagram, the 28-year-old singer claimed the show "created this storyline of me being over-confident because I'm black”. 

She’d been favourite to win until, after one live performance, she was accused by judge Louis Walsh of bullying another contestant, while Tulisa Contostavlos suggested "being so feisty can come across as mean". Misha was 19 at the time and said her experience led to suicidal thoughts in order to "end the pain” and a diagnosis of PTSD for which she’s still in therapy now. And all this over a glorified karaoke contest.

Within days, motivated by Misha B and believing it was “the right time”, Alexandra Burke uploaded a worryingly similar video to her own Instagram page. Burke has found fame in two of TV’s biggest, shiniest franchises - she won The X Factor in 2008, when the show was still in its star-making pomp, before reaching the Strictly Come Dancing final in 2017 - and opened up about her experiences on both series, as well as the music industry. 

The 31-year-old sobbed while recalling how she was painted as a “diva" during her time on Strictly, while dealing with an injury and her mother's death. On The X Factor, she was promised a record deal before the executive in question reneged: ”The reply I got was 'I've already got one black artist, I don't need another’.” 

Burke was even told to bleach her skin and how to wear her hair in order to appeal to a white audience: “They said. 'You are going to work 10 times harder because of the colour of your skin. You can't have braids, you can't have an Afro, you need hair that white people understand.'”

Depressingly, Burke's comment echoed those recently made by fellow X Factor champion Leigh-Anne Pinnock. The Little Mix star, 28, revealed she was told she’d have to work harder than her white bandmates and that she was judged negatively without even speaking.

Do these three young women - emboldened by Black Lives Matter but still risking a backlash from online trolls and potential career blow-back by speaking out - have a point? They undoubtedly do. Our reality TV contests need to take a long, hard and likely uncomfortable look at themselves. So does the media. TV viewers, too.

As this newspaper’s Strictly correspondent - yes, I realise it’s hardly reporting from war zones - I followed Burke’s travails in the contest closely and was dismayed by what I witnessed. She was clearly one of the most gifted dancers in the field but was given a rough ride from the start. 

She was hounded by tabloids, who ran anonymously sourced stories about “backstage tantrums”, “furious bust-ups” and “epic meltdowns”. She became the target of digs at everything from her emotional reactions (deemed by detractors as “fake” and “put on” for the cameras) to her previous dance experience - something for which her rivals were never targeted, even though Debbie McGee, Mollie King and Joe McFadden all had choreographic training of their own.

The cruelty reached its peak in the contest’s home stretch when, despite being the highest scorer of the series, Burke was consigned to the dreaded dance-off for two weeks running. She was eventually compelled to defend herself. She’d declined an interview request and been called “a diva” to her face by one showbiz reporter - but it was the day after her mother had died and Burke was afraid that if she spoke, she would break down. 

Gorka Marquez and Alexandra Burke performing in Strictly Come Dancing 2017 - BBC
Gorka Marquez and Alexandra Burke performing in Strictly Come Dancing 2017 - BBC

On another occasion, when she was supposed to have been “throwing chairs around” backstage, she was getting physio treatment for an injury. Without naming him, she directly addressed the hack with an agenda, telling him “all the lies you published” had “mentally taken their toll”.

Much of the criticism directed at Burke had the distinct, rank whiff of racism and misogyny. Was it merely coincidence that one of the contest’s two black women (Holby City actress Chizzy Akudolu) was knocked out first, while the other (Burke) was widely accused of diva behaviour? 

Judging by current evidence, it wasn’t. Part of the appeal of these contests are the human dramas they throw up and the soapy plots that develop. The “angry black woman” trope thrust on both Burke and Misha B has become one of the staple storylines - up there with “curse of Strictly”-style showmances and “triumph over tragedy” sob stories.

Such stereotypes aren’t limited to the BBC ballroom or The X Factor stage. Big Brother has been guilty with its representation of housemates like “gangster girl” Alexandra De-Gale and “fiery, feisty” Charley Uchea. The Apprentice has portrayed candidates Joanna Jarjue and Bianca Miller as coldly hard-faced, despite business being a field in which shrewd unflappability is supposedly prized.

Don your sunglasses and look at ITV hit Love Island. In every series-opening “coupling” ceremony for the past five series, a black contestant has been picked last. The ITV2 contest has only had one black winner out of 12.

Amy Dowden and Danny John-Jules on Strictly Come Dancing - PA
Amy Dowden and Danny John-Jules on Strictly Come Dancing - PA

It’s not just black women who suffer either. On the series of Strictly straight after Burke’s, it happened all over again with Danny John-Jules. Statistically, the Red Dwarf actor was the fifth best dancer in the contest but he finished in ninth place - knocked out before Blackpool in the wake of bullying allegations. It smacked of another smear campaign motivated by skin colour. 

As well as trial-by-tabloid, factors such as production strategies, editing decisions and even styling all play a part in how black participants are portrayed. It all feeds into the narrative, as do the judging panel’s comments. The opinions of voting viewers all too often follow. In terms of sheer talent, Alexandra Burke (a glitterball trophy runner-up) and Misha B (who finished fourth on The X Factor) should have won their respective contests.  Other considerations came into play and neither got what they deserved. 

Looking back at Strictly’s 17-series history, many celebrities have arguably been eliminated much too early. However, a noticeably high proportion of those have been black: the likes of Alison Hammond, Tameka Empson, Melvin Odoom, Jamelia, Charles Venn, Vick Hope and especially Aston Merrygold. It happens time and time again, far too often to be ignored. 

Love Island contestant Amber - ITV
Love Island contestant Amber - ITV

Stats back this up. Research in 2016 demonstrated that ethnic minority contestants are 71 per cent more likely to be in the show’s bottom two than their white counterparts. Being both black and female, as Burke and others have discovered to their cost, increased those odds to 83 per cent.

In last year’s Strictly, one of the most promising celebrities - Radio 1 DJ Dev Griffin - was shockingly sent packing in week three. Later in the contest, CBBC presenter Karim Zeroual “did an Alexandra Burke” by appearing in the bottom two twice, despite consistently high scores. 

He was criticised, almost laughably, for being “too good”. Once he was described with that dreaded word “cocky”, Zeroual was doomed never to win. So it proved. Similarly, three months ago, Perri Kiely should've beaten Joe Swash in the Dancing On Ice final. He scored an average of four points higher for each skate yet was denied victory.

Strictly’s defenders - and don’t get me wrong, I genuinely love the show - might well point out that it’s had four non-white winners in 17 series: Mark Ramprakash, Louis Smith, Ore Oduba and Alesha Dixon (the sole black female, significantly). There are currently two black professional dancers in its ranks, Oti Mabuse and Johannes Radebe, and a black judge in Oti’s sister Motsi.

It’s admirably diverse but Strictly's respectable record can’t be used as a sort of human shield against any further debate. It’s like shrugging off racism with, “But one of my best friends is black.” Are the production itself and the people who work on it prejudiced? Unlikely. Is the BBC? Also unlikely. The Corporation attracts huge flak for being overly PC, so it seems rich to suddenly accuse it of racism.

However, is the dialogue that surrounds the show (and others like it) sometimes freighted with racist subtext? Uncomfortable as it might be to admit, most definitely. Black contestants continue to be marginalised, stereotyped and held to different standards

On Strictly, unconscious bias creeps into choreographic critiques. While white dancers are “improving” and “on a journey”, their black rivals might be “fun” but “wild”, “too loose” or “lacking technique”. Don’t even get us started on how they’re often “fierce”, “cool”, “funky” or “sassy” with “great rhythm”. 

Meanwhile, black contestants on other shows get characterised a  “difficult” rather than determined, “fake” rather than sincere, “cocky” rather than confident. 

The age and attitudes of the judges don’t help here. Apprentice boss Lord Sugar is a 73-year-old who has faced a backlash for racist tweets. The X Factor’s Louis Walsh, 67, has a cringe-inducing tendency to tell any black singer auditioning they reminded him of a “young Chaka Khan” or “a young Tina Turner” - or, most infamously of all, “a little Lenny Henry”.

The TV race debate might have been reignited this week by Alexandra Burke and Misha B but it’s not just the Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor who need to do better. Nor even the BBC and ITV. It’s every aspect of the reality TV process: from talent bookers to producers, from newspaper reporters to social media users, from judging panels to voting viewers themselves. 

TV talent contests are often described as a guilty pleasure. When guilt starts to outweigh pleasure, it’s time to take action.