Disturbing Things That Happened On Reality Shows

We all know that despite its common usage over the last few decades, the term "reality show" is, well, not terribly accurate. Setting aside the fact that everyday folks seldom find themselves stranded naked in the jungle or dating a celebrity, for example, the structured nature of television simply makes it impossible for any such show to be too off-the-cuff. For every genuine moment captured on camera, there are likely a dozen or so that are heavily scripted — or at the very least, embellished or cleverly edited for the benefit of the viewing audience.

Unfortunately, though, there are times when emotions, tempers, and even bodily functions actually do get out of control — and at these moments, the temptation to keep the cameras rolling can be very real (because obviously, drama makes for good television). Here we'll be looking at moments from reality television that shocked the heck out of audiences and put the reality show participants in real danger — and while it's fair to wonder just how responsible it might have been to bring some of them to air, one certainly can't accuse the shows that presented them of being boring.

The following article includes allegations of domestic abuse, child abuse, addiction, and sexual assault.

The 'Flavor of Love' poop incident

Debuting in 2006 and running for three seasons on VH1, "Flavor of Love" was one of the weirdest dating shows ever. In it, a slew of young women convened in a lavish mansion to compete for the affections of William "Flavor Flav" Drayton — the famously, er, eccentric Public Enemy hype man and proponent of using giant clocks as fashion statements. The first season ended with Flav somehow failing to find the girl of his dreams, but became a hit for VH1; the second season dropped in 2007, and it commenced with a bang. A brown, smelly bang.

It should be mentioned that in the series, Flav gave each contestant a cutesy nickname, and in the opening episode of Season 2, Tykeisha Thomas — known to viewers as "Somethin" — had a bit of an accident during the season-commencing group toast. Her fellow contestants immediately noticed a funny smell, Thomas quickly excused herself, and before long, the worst had been confirmed by way of a poop that Thomas had (quite accidentally, mind you) deposited on the floor of the mansion. 

Needless to say, she didn't last long on the show. In a conversation with YouTuber Lacey Sculls, she was surprisingly upbeat about the "s***uation" (her term), saying that the response from fans was "not as negative as people would probably imagine" and calling out the show's producers for encouraging the girls to drink copious amounts of liquor, which she said contributed to her accident.

The 'Big Brother' knife incident

"Big Brother" is a long-running series with about a billion international versions, and a pretty simple premise: a group of a dozen-odd strangers live in a house together, with no contact with anyone outside the house, and are continuously monitored by ubiquitously placed cameras. Contestants are subject to eviction at regular intervals, and they're all vying to be the last one standing, or lying on the couch, or whatever. Random hookups and fights are all par for the course, but on the second season of the U.S. edition of the series, things went totally off the rails with one volatile contestant.

Justin Sebik had quickly made a name for himself with his aggressive behavior, including throwing stuff and threatening violence, and was generally unpleasant to be around. But a makeout session with severely intoxicated fellow contestant Krista Stegall turned frighteningly weird. As cameras looked on, Sebik first mocked swinging a push vacuum at Stegall's head ("Would you get mad if I cracked you over the head with this?" he asked jovially); he then, after a bit more making out, asked her, "Would you get mad if I killed you?" He then picked up a huge knife and repeated his question, putting the knife to Stegall's throat. 

Stegall laughed this off in the moment, but Sebik was swiftly ejected from the house, and the show's network CBS subsequently found itself the target of a lawsuit from Stegall.

'The Real World' was the site of an alleged sexual assault

One less-known fact about MTV's long-running series "The Real World" is that it may be the first true reality show; it is, you may remember, "the true story of seven strangers, picked to live in a house and have their lives taped — to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting "real." That simple premise has produced a lot of drama over the years since the show debuted in 1992 — but the 2004 edition, "Real World: San Diego," got too dramatic for comfort.

In late 2003, before the season premiere, it was reported that a 22-year-old woman told authorities that she was taken to the house the show was being shot in by a friend of one of the cast members; she was allegedly drugged beforehand, and sexually assaulted on the premises by that friend. Multiple cast members told the cops that they saw the woman at the house, unclothed and disoriented, and that the friend had bragged about the encounter (via the Los Angeles Times). The woman reported the alleged incident the next day, and authorities went so far as to actually raid the house to collect potential evidence — but ultimately, there was nothing damning enough to merit prosecution, and no charges were brought against the man.

'Toddlers and Tiaras' was accused of sexualizing children

TLC's "Toddlers & Tiaras," which focused on the intense world of child beauty pageants, aired for nine seasons between 2009 and 2016 — and nearly from its beginning, the series drew criticism for the same reason as the pageants themselves. It turns out that some folks find it somewhat inappropriate for 3-year-old girls to be strutting their stuff in beauty competitions, and "Toddlers" drew the ire of many a media pundit for its perceived condoning of the sexualization of small children. The parents of said children, of course, tended to disagree — but in the case of the TLC series, the "nuh-uh" defense didn't play very well after one mother dressed her daughter up as a literal sex worker, albeit a fictional one.

In a 2011 episode of the series, pageant mom Wendy Dickey was struck by the inspiration to dress her 3-year-old daughter, Paisley, as Vivian Ward — Julia Roberts' character in the classic rom-com "Pretty Woman." The backlash was swift and ferocious, but Dickey somehow saw absolutely nothing wrong with it, despite taking it on the chin from the Ladies of "The View," several of her fellow pageant moms, and the Parents' Television Council (PTC), to name but a few. 

"The entire premise of the show is troubling," said Tim Winter, the president of the PTC. "When you have them portraying the character of a prostitute ... you're taking away the youthful essence of these little girls" (via ABC News).

'Teen Mom' star goes to the slammer

First airing in 2009, MTV's "16 and Pregnant" followed the real-life tribulations of its pregnant teenage stars. That same year, the inevitable spin-off "Teen Mom" detailed the lives of the series' participants after giving birth, and needless to say, their lives weren't always smooth sailing. One, though, seemed to have a particularly tough time adjusting to life as a new mother: Amber Portwood, whose relationship with boyfriend Gary Shirley was volatile even before the birth of their daughter, Leah. 

That volatility boiled over in the fourth episode of "Teen Mom," in which the cameras caught Portwood physically attacking Shirley in the presence of their daughter. It was later reported that this was not an isolated incident, and in November 2010, felony domestic assault charges were filed against Portwood. Unfortunately, that was only the beginning of her legal troubles.

In 2012, she pled guilty to felony drug charges and later opted out of a treatment program, which caused her to be slapped with a five-year prison sentence. She only served about a year of that sentence, but in 2019, she was again charged with domestic battery and sentenced to two and a half years of probation after attacking her new boyfriend, Andrew Glennon, while he was holding their infant son James. As of mid-2024, Portwood is free and clear of pending legal issues, and is dating a new guy — also named Gary.

'Fear Factor' or gross-out factor?

For six seasons between 2001 and 2006, NBC's "Fear Factor" delivered on its title. The show challenged contestants to take home cash prizes by confronting situations that would have anyone in their right mind screaming "HARD PASS!" while bolting for the nearest exit. Hosted by lovable, objective-reality-challenged scamp and famously scandal-prone podcaster Joe Rogan, the series put participants through a wringer of varyingly terrifying, disgusting, and icky tasks; eating worms and bugs, confronting phobias such as heights and enclosed spaces, and engaging in dangerous stunts were all par for the course. One season 6 stunt, however, went way too far — and likely contributed to the show's subsequent cancellation.

In the tough-to-watch clip, twins Claire and Brynne Odioso — with $50,000 up for grabs — were made to drink ... erm, multiple types of body fluid from a donkey. They actually completed the challenge, and while the segment popped up online, it did not make it to air after considerable (and understandable) backlash. The series bit the dust shortly thereafter, and while multiple reboots have been attempted — one by NBC in 2011, and one by MTV in 2017 — that appalling donkey-fluid stunt hobbled both comeback attempts, neither of which succeeded.

A cruel outing on 'Survivor'

"Survivor," in which contestants compete in grueling challenges in remote locations while forming alliances, making enemies, and voting each other out of the game, is known to get pretty cutthroat. During the episode-concluding "Tribal Councils," when it is decided who will be going home, it's not uncommon for contestants to stab friends in the back, throw their support behind enemies, or otherwise make sudden, often confounding shifts in strategy. Season 34 of the series, dubbed "Challengers," pitted seasoned contestants against each other — and in one Tribal Council, competitor Zeke Smith was the target of a truly jaw-dropping shift by fellow contestant Jeff Varner, which became one of the biggest scandals to hit "Survivor."

The two had previously been allies, but when Varner saw the writing on the wall and began to realize he might be on the chopping block, he used his intimate knowledge of Smith's life to attempt to prove his "duplicitousness" — that is, he outed Smith as transgender in front of everyone, to the shock and dismay of the entirety of the cast. The "strategy" backfired spectacularly; in what was perhaps a first for the show, Varner was sent home without a formal vote, everyone simply nodding their agreement when host Jeff Probst suggested his time was up. 

In a subsequent piece for The Hollywood Reporter, Smith reflected on the experience. "[I] hope that he understands the injury he caused," he wrote. "I have hope for Jeff Varner. I just choose to hope from afar, thank you very much."

An outing in 'The Real World' that got physical

Unfortunately, the precedent for an unkind and non-consensual outing was set in the early days of reality TV, way back in 1998, and on an episode of "The Real World: Seattle." 

Early on in that season, housemate Irene McGee voluntarily left the house, and years later, in a 2013 piece for Vulture, described how the producers had fostered a toxic atmosphere in order to provoke more juicy arguments between cast members. Whether or not that's true, it certainly wasn't the producers who said the following to Stephen Williams, a then-closeted gay man: "A marriage between you and I would never work out. You know that. Because you're a homosexual, Stephen." 

McGee proceeded to walk out of the door and jump into the passenger seat of a waiting car, but was chased down by Williams, who offered a parting shot of his own; that is to say, he jerked open the door, slapped McGee upside the head, and departed. It was, of course, a moment tailor-made for reality television — but in her Vulture piece, McGee appeared to have gained an admirable perspective on the situation. "[It was] a terrible thing ... to say to him, when that was not what he was putting forward on the show," she wrote. "I am not proud of it at all. In fact, it's one of the meanest things I have ever done to another person in my life."

'I Wanna Marry Harry' was full of tortuous gaslighting

There are disingenuous reality show premises, and then there is "I Wanna Marry Harry," which debuted in 2014 on Fox, and which may stand as the most egregious example of extended, televised gaslighting in the history of the reality genre.  

Fox, you may remember, is the network that brought you "Joe Millionaire," a TV show that seriously crossed the line, in which a bevy of female contestants thought they were competing for the affections of a rich guy who actually just ... a guy. The premise of "I Wanna Marry Harry" was quite similar, only the contestants were told that the random dude they were courting was not just rich, but the actual Prince Harry.

In order to help maintain the illusion, the women were kept from consuming any outside media or even from talking to each other off-camera; when some of them started to have doubts as to whether their prize was actually the prince, "psychiatrists" were brought in to literally gaslight them into thinking they might be flippin' crazy for wondering whether a British royal would agree to marry an American rando on a reality TV show. While the entire series did air in the U.K., stateside audiences were only treated to four episodes; the plug was pulled after virtually every media outlet in the U.S. lambasted the series up one side and down the other for being objectively awful, shockingly dishonest garbage.

An eye-watering groin injury on 'Naked and Afraid XL'

One of the more hardcore contestants in the history of the infamous Discovery Channel survival series "Naked and Afraid," E.J. Snyder — a career military man, survival and tracking specialist, and honest-to-goodness drill sergeant — appeared in the first season of the series. He then went on to feature in multiple seasons of spin-off series "Naked and Afraid XL," which divides contestants into teams and ups the ante by requiring them to spend a whopping 40 days naked in the wilderness instead of a mere 21. If anybody is suited to such a task, it's Snyder — but in a 2021 episode of the series, what appeared to be a minor fall from a tree branch into a swamp turned into a nightmarish injury to his groin area.

That is to say, Snyder managed to lacerate his scrotum on said branch in multiple places, an injury requiring stitches which Snyder unbelievably chose to have done right there in the middle of the freaking woods. This was despite being given the option to exit the game and receive care in an actual hospital, which he declined. The considerable risks associated with this decision notwithstanding — infection, septic shock, loss of his genitals, and even death — the very fact that Snyder was able to endure the pain of the injury and remain in the competition should tell you pretty much all you will ever need to know about the guy.

Marking territory on 'The Surreal Life'

Debuting in 2003, "The Surreal Life" was a series that attempted to answer the question, "What if 'The Real World' starred loads of washed-up celebrities?" Every season, an exceedingly diverse selection of the formerly very famous — folks like Vanilla Ice, Ron Jeremy, Charo, Jordan Knight, Da Brat, you get the idea — were brought together to stay in a massive mansion for two weeks. There they would take part in weird challenges, make friends and enemies of each other, and generally be their weird selves for the cameras. On season 4, one of the participants was Verne "Mini-Me" Troyer — who didn't even make it one full day before creating one of the most bizarre moments in the history of television.

The miniature-sized Troyer had a king-sized issue with excessive consumption of alcohol, which presented itself early and often on the show. On the first day in the mansion, he got blackout drunk and began tooling around the house on his motorized scooter while butt-naked; then, feeling the need for a pit stop, he disembarked and took a pee in the corner of the mansion's weight room. Nearly two decades later, the scene stands as the gold standard of reality show weirdness; Troyer, unfortunately, continued to deal with alcoholism. In 2018, he passed away due to acute alcohol intoxication.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, may be the victim of child abuse, is dealing with domestic abuse or has been a victim of sexual assault, contact the relevant resources below: