It's time to stop being fake and start getting real about the Black experience on reality TV.
If you look through your DVR or favorite streaming service, chances are unscripted programs appear at the top of the list.
And while the shocking drama, competitions or eliminations are what get people talking week after week, perhaps viewers should also be discussing the diversity—or lack thereof—that goes into making their favorite shows.
"As much as you turn on the television and see our beautiful faces, you'd be amazed to see who is not behind the camera," Eva Marcille told E! News in an exclusive interview last year. "Who is not in hair and makeup and glam and consulting in all things for Black women."
It's just one of the many important topics Eva, Married to Medicine's Dr. Jackie Walters and former Survivor contestant Lauren-Ashley Beck touched on during a candid roundtable discussion with E! News' Francesca Amiker as they shared their perspective about what it's like to be bold, brave and Black on reality TV.
And while the reality of these ladies' lives isn't always easy—between the fight to have Black producers telling their stories and editors who understand the difference between a jab and humor—it's always real. "We're not trying to give you a fake story," Dr. Jackie said. "We're giving you who we are."
Why Representation in Reality TV Matters
When Lauren-Ashley signed up for Survivor: Island of the Idols in 2019, she knew the odds were against her to outwit, outlast and outplay the competition and win the $1 million prize. "Historically on Survivor, Black people are voted off first," she told E! News. "Black people are labeled as lazy or pinned as the stereotypical angry Black woman. I walked into this experience knowing I was going to be championing this space for Black women."
While she was eliminated on day 38 and became the last member of the jury, Lauren-Ashley said it was a privilege to represent her community. "I feel like I was able to tell not only my story," she explained, "but so many other young Black women that weren't otherwise represented on that show."
As for Eva, she had similar emotions when she signed up for America's Next Top Model in 2004. After spending the whole of season three being surrounded by models who didn't look like her, Eva was shocked to discover she was the winner.
When asked why she was worthy of the prize, Eva remembers being told by host Tyra Banks that "you are relatable."
"That stuck with me my entire career as I choose my jobs," Eva, who is currently starring in season three of All The Queen's Men on BET+, shared, "what I decide to represent as an actor, what roles I take."
The Black Experience Behind the Cameras
While Dr. Jackie's co-stars on Married to Medicine may have their fair share of disagreements on-camera, they all agreed on how important it was to have representation off-camera.
"We've had lots of conversations on who's editing the show," she said. "If you don't understand what a Black woman means when she's saying a certain thing, the way it's edited comes off totally the wrong way. We've asked for Black editors because they understand what we're saying."
Dr. Jackie and her co-stars took it even further. "We need Black producers because we need them to understand when you're in our house," she added. "We need people who look like us because they think like us and they understand us."
It's something Lauren-Ashley wishes Survivor contestants experienced in earlier seasons. According to the TV host, the show didn't always have people behind the camera that knew how to tell Black stories.
"I remember being on that island and being interviewed by producers who could not understand my point of view because they were not a Black woman," she said. "We can talk about diversity all day, but how are we having inclusion in telling these Black and brown stories?"
In November 2020, CBS announced their reality shows including Survivor, Big Brother and Love Island will contain at least 50 percent Black, indigenous and people of color with the CEO of CBS Entertainment Group adding the genre "needs to be more inclusive across development, casting, production and all phases of storytelling."
The Future of Reality TV
For any and all upcoming shows, Eva will be fighting for a diverse glam team to get her ready behind the scenes. "I fight for my locks in all the projects I do," she said before sharing her requests for her 2022 OWN project A Christmas Fumble, including someone well-versed in how to style dreadlocks. "For this movie, I required a loctician. I need a Black makeup artist."
While the production company agreed, Eva admitted her request left them speechless. "They never had a Black head of makeup," she said. "They never had a loctician on set."
But it's not just about appearances. Sometimes, it's simply about celebrating who these talents are. Lauren-Ashley believes Black women in media simply need "grace and the space to be ourselves and be accepted as that."
Dr. Jackie agreed, adding, "We're judged on a totally different playing field than anybody else doing the exact same thing."
(This story was originally published on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023 at 9 a.m. PT.)