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Miriam: Death of a Reality Star review – as grubby as the cruel show that ruined her life
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Miriam: Death of a Reality Star review – as grubby as the cruel show that ruined her life

It was, all in all, a moral quagmire of a TV format. In 2004, There’s Something About Miriam saw six men vie for the attention of Miriam Rivera, a 21-year-old Mexican model who unbeknown to them had a “secret”: she was transgender. Even before it aired, this British reality-dating show had whipped up a tabloid frenzy, fuelled by the news that the contestants who had wooed Rivera were mounting a legal challenge to stop the show from airing. Lawyers claimed their lack of informed consent equated to a conspiracy to commit sexual assault.

Miriam: Death of a Reality Star retells the story of this queasy moment in pop culture, while also delving into Rivera’s traumatic early life and suspicious death. Yet despite looking back disapprovingly, this three-part documentary attempts to have its cake (sanctimonious dismay) and eat it, too (milking exactly the same tawdry titillation as the original did). There’s Something About Miriam’s horrifying denouement – one of the men reacted violently to the news that Rivera was trans – is teased throughout, meaning the documentary is also powered by the promise of that reveal. (While the original series was removed from circulation by Sky, this documentary re-airs so much footage that it doubles as a worst-of clip show.) Later, it stages a superficial investigation into Rivera’s death. Reality TV was – and still is – grounded in exploitation.

From the start, Miriam: Death of a Reality Star struggles to tell a nuanced story. Woven through the account of the reality show’s chaotic production is a portrait of Rivera’s early life. From family and friends, we learn that she was subject to staggering transphobia at home (her father arranged an exorcism) and dropped out of school after her boyfriend discovered she was trans. Yet there was also joy: Rivera found solace in New York’s ballroom culture and was scouted to join Speed Angels, a UK-based trans pop band.

Speed Angels never took off, but it did lead Rivera to be cast in There’s Something About Miriam. At the time of broadcast, the public perception of trans people was mired in misunderstanding and mockery; this show was, according to its makers, an attempt to remedy that. Considering it was entirely predicated on the eventual shock and horror of the men involved, that argument doesn’t quite ring true.

This documentary doesn’t set out to villainise those men; the two contestants who take part, Toby and Aron, are clearly victims, too. But we get a cartoon baddie in the production executive Jo Juson. She comes across as unrepentant (“Do I think it went beyond any moral codes of conduct? No”) and displays so little empathy that airing her thoughts feels irresponsible.

Generally, however, we are invited to reflect smugly on how far we have come. Yes we can watch agog as shows such as Harry Hill’s TV Burp and Have I Got News for You make eye-watering jokes about Rivera, safe in the knowledge that they would never be told today. But this satisfaction is hollow. The exploitation at the heart of the reality genre remains steadfast: formats still rely heavily on hoaxes (most recently on Hot Mess Summer and The Underdog: Josh Must Win); it’s not hard to see why the former Channel 4 boss Michael Grade called contemporary TV “cruel” just this month. Meanwhile, the marginalisation of trans people in society is by no means a thing of the past.

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That dangerous marginalisation comes to the fore in the final episode, as we are told of Rivera’s attempts to cash in on her celebrity through escort work. What happened next remains sketchy, but her last years were seemingly filled with unimaginable horror; there are suggestions of addiction, kidnap, sex trafficking and, ultimately, murder. Rivera’s death was officially ruled a suicide, but her mother and others close to her believe she was killed.

This documentary is willing to entertain numerous possibilities, but doesn’t present any new evidence about Rivera’s death. It does, however, ask her brother to re-enact the moment he found her body. We conclude with the camera trained on her father, as he weeps over the responsibility he feels for his child’s death

Amid the reckless speculation, this show wrings content from a family’s trauma. Has TV learned anything about basic human decency over the past 20 years? Judging by this grubby documentary series, the answer has to be a resounding no.

Source: theguardian.com