It’s no secret that reality TV thrives on a heavy dose of brutality to coincide with the drama already playing out on screen. It’s also no secret that reality TV is notoriously… straight. The golden age of reality TV in the ’90s and ’00s was also the golden age of people using the terms “gay” and “queer” as slurs. After nearly a whole generation of LGBTQ+ people were wiped out in the AIDS crisis, those who survived were tormented by hate crimes and policies like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” We digress. Reality TV did not often feature LGBTQ people (until recently), but when it did, it did so with cruelty.
That is what Wondery’s “Harsh Reality: The Story of Miriam Rivera” is looking at. It’s a snippet of history, specifically how transgender people were used and abused in the name of salacious entertainment. And truly the only people who can tell Miriam’s story properly are those who aren’t influenced by the same gender biases of the producers of There’s Something About Miriam. “Harsh Reality: The Story of Miriam Rivera” was produced, partly-written, and narrated by three trans women: series executive producer Morgan M. Page, host of One From The Vaults, writer Agnes Borinsky, and hosted by Trace Lysette.
“Harsh Reality” is just six, 45-minute episodes, diving into the life of a woman who was nothing short of a pawn in the cruel game: There’s Something About Miriam. The 2004 reality dating show featured the beautiful and mysterious 21-year-old Mexican model Miriam Rivera and six gorgeous men vying for her heart. Over the course of the six-episode season, the men would try to woo her until she picked a winner in the final episode.
But there was one cruel twist: the men, and the audience, were kept in the dark about Miriam’s gender identity until the final episode. It was supposed to be shocking, a huge reveal that no one could see coming and, ultimately, made Miriam the butt of a joke. The winning man initially accepted the £10,000 prize money and the romantic trip with Rivera on camera. Except off camera, he flew into such a rage that he destroyed parts of the set, rejected the prize, and joined the other contestants in a lawsuit that sought to prevent the airing of the show.
And the lawsuit did briefly delay the premiere of the show. The men alleged conspiracy to commit sexual assault, defamation, breach of contract, and personal injury in the form of psychological and emotional damage by the show. The men eventually settled, and the show aired in 2004.
“Harsh Reality” goes beyond the show, though. They revisit Miriam’s childhood in Mexico, where she knew that she was different from her brothers. She came out as trans to her family at 12 years old, and they were supportive. “Harsh Reality” tells her story of growing up, when boys she had crushes on learned she was assigned male at birth would react with disgust and spread the news through the school until she had to drop out. Basically, everything she had been through leading up to There’s Something About Miriam nullified the entire point of the show. Miriam did not have a secret – she was an out and proud trans woman. It was the producer’s secret, one that they wanted to be as scandalous as possible.
It’s an exceptionally well-told story that doesn’t come around often. And it’s not something that needs to be avoided, nor is it a fixation on the sensitivity of pronouns and the ever-politicized concept of gender. The whole podcast is an unflinching look at not only the show’s transphobia against Miriam, but making a spectacle of the contestants.
Sadly, Miriam’s story doesn’t end happily, as you will hear in “Harsh Reality.” But this podcast tells her story in a way no television program could. Audiences will hear that no one was the true winner from this show, even if Miriam did become the first-ever out reality TV star and went on to participate in Big Brother. But it was truly what the title makes it out to be.