The Multichoice / Africa Magic reality show, just like many others, is basically like a bungee jump: it takes you from zero to a hundred in no time. It's, however, not without its troubles.
Fame is a hell of a thing; a flaming double-edged sword. Its allure: oftentimes wealth, adulation, preferential treatment, access and the many other benefits that accompany it are almost irresistible, at least to many. However, regardless of how enticing the perks are, the classic trope is that almost every famous person would rather not be famous. Of course, the spotlight comes with its challenges: it’s hugely intrusive, sometimes nerve-racking as well as exacting. It’s like living in a fishbowl unless you’re willing to move to the woods, in the middle of nowhere, and have anyone that manages to come in contact with you sign a water-tight non-disclosure agreement. And even that doesn’t guarantee full privacy. Just ask Enya.
Tavi Gavinson, an American actress and writer, in an interview with Elle describes it both succinctly and perfectly: “Fame and conventional success are conditions. Fame isn’t a hug. It’s a dangling carrot saying, ‘I’m about to go away!’ And it’s human to want it”. It’s why if you took a poll amongst a group of celebrities, asking if they would like to live a different life, one where they’re not famous and are stripped of both its advantages and disadvantages, you’re more likely to find many who would rather remain famous. In all fairness, while a private, normal life has its merits, it does not necessarily guarantee anything, especially in a country like Nigeria — the odds are you’re plagued with the average Nigerian man’s numerous problems and then some more — so many weigh their options and assess their chances: cry in a Rolls-Royce Starlight Headliner than in a cramped up Suzuki minibus with no leg room, right?
This reasoning is partly why most, if not all, are constantly in a never-ending rat race. It is also why thousands of people apply to Big Brother Naija, arguably the fastest and surest route to fame in the country and even across the face of the continent. The Showmax reality show, just like many others, is basically like a bungee jump: it takes you from zero to a hundred in no time. Unknown faces become brand ambassadors of multinational companies in a matter of weeks, housemates (as the contestants are usually called) get endorsed by some of the biggest names around while they also amass gazillion fans and stans who are mostly rabid and fiercer than the Dothraki. It’s the perfect launchpad.
But it's a given, fame is a hell of a thing. The least you want to do is be prepared for it, or more realistically, ease yourself into. Unfortunately, this is a luxury many aren’t afforded, especially reality TV stars like the Big Brother housemates who get thrust into fame. “I didn’t like it. I was always paranoid. It wasn’t what I was used to before I got into the house but I found a way to manage the entire situation. To be honest, I hated it.” Cee-C, an ex-housemate from the third season of the popular show, tells me one evening in early June.
For Prince, an actor and fashion model who competed on the show’s fifth season, life outside the show has pretty much been a mixed bag. He’s grateful that he gets to live the life he’s always envisioned for himself but there’s a sombre tone with which he speaks of the pressure:
“Regardless of everything, all I can do is be grateful. Grateful of how far I’ve come. It’s like I’m living the dream and I’m hoping more can come out of it. It’s not a bed of roses, you have to work tirelessly. The show itself comes with its pros and cons and when you’re out of the house, you have to work almost three times harder to prove that you’re worthy of everything you’re getting.”
Dorathy, a finalist from the lockdown edition, ran a scanty, private Instagram account that had a measly follower count north of a 100. Weeks after she entered the Big Brother house, her follower count shot up to hundreds of thousands. Now she currently boasts over two million followers on the app with multiple fan accounts that report her every move. Her rise, like many others who have been on the show, was astronomical and most notably, rapid. You’re quickly afforded luxuries that the average man has no access to but in turn, you’re also placed on a pedestal. In the eye of the public, you go from being a regular nobody to this infallible being who has their every step scrutinized. When I ask Dorathy what life has been like after she left the show about two years ago, her reply is sharp and concise: “it is not glamorous [ contrary to what it might seem like] . It is far from that. There are a lot of expectations and you have to become very self aware.”
Erica, one of Big Brother’s most endearing and famous ex-housemates, shares a similar view. While she was primed to be one of the finalists on the lockdown edition of the show, her personal troubles got in the way of what could have been, but that didn’t hinder much. Days after her disqualification, her worth and stock rose expeditiously: her fans crowdfunded thousands of dollars for her in a matter of days. When Erica, however, speaks about the years after the show, there’s a trenchant mix of gratitude and paranoia that accompany her words. She sounds a little beholden to her fans and the show in general for the opportunity and platform she’s been given. Infact, she’ll advise that people apply for the show: “Because we’re in a country like Nigeria where we have resources but they’re not well distributed, if you want to succeed fast and enjoy wealth in your young age, go for competitions or shows like Big Brother. Even if you don’t win, it gives you an opportunity to network and it puts eyes on you. People who could be of help might be watching”.
However, while she might be enjoying massive support and it might seem like opportunities are tripping over themselves to arrive at her doorstep, things haven’t exactly been a bed of roses. Just as I was about to begin the interview, I whipped out my phone to record our conversation and she was noticeably jumpy. She thought I was about to take a video of her and she explained how uneasy she had become when strangers tried to take a picture or video of her without her knowledge. Even when the interview commenced, she took ample time to clarify every statement she uttered so it wouldn’t be misconstrued or become a big, misleading headline. It was a poignant indication of what life had become for her. “I think life after Big Brother is glamorous for the people watching the life but maybe not so much for the people actually living the life.” she tells me midway into our conversation.
Now, one might ask or wonder: didn’t these people ask for this? They willingly applied to be on the show, knowing fully what might follow. They obviously wanted to be famous; there’s a price to pay for fame. But, it's not that simple. Very few things are that simple. Moreover, more often than not, the problems that accompany fame are incidental rather than structural. People speak about the troubles that exist within the pathology of fame like it's some divine or natural occurrence rather than actual man-made issues that they are. The inevitable pattern of vitriol, scrutiny, stalking, undue pressure to be perfect, all of these things are perpetrated by people just like them — humans. For a lot of these ex-housemates, entering the house was simply a way out of a moribund career or life. It’s an attempt at a better life, something that everyone, one way or the other, desires.