The explosion in popularity of reality TV over the past decade has raised a plethora of questions about authenticity and culture. And perhaps no one has addressed these issues more pointedly than Susie Meister, star of two seasons of MTV's now-defunct "Road Rules" and five seasons of its sister show, "The Challenge."
MTV reality show star Susie Meister (Susie Meister)
Meister, 34, openly described her journey to the small screen in a recent interview with TheBlaze, diving deep into the negative, damaging, oft-times manipulative -- yet captivating and oddly "intoxicating" -- world she experienced, including a fight with producers to keep her Bible.
"The culture of reality TV in general has definitely become trashier," she said. "The early seasons of our shows were truly documentary-style. Now every aspect of the environment is designed to encourage and incentivize bad behavior."
She admitted that the environment on these shows is "toxic and unhealthy," though she continued going back.
"There is something about it -- the competition, the travel, the exposure -- that is intoxicating," Meister said.
After starring on seven seasons of the popular MTV shows, the reality veteran has her regrets.
Meister said she wished she had been more open about how uncomfortable she was when excessive drinking, violence and abusive language ran rampant.
"Even though I made many friends, there were always a few really noisy people who would bully those of us who didn't want to misbehave," she told TheBlaze. "I also regret not being more forthcoming with production about things that I felt were wrong."
Meister, who recently completed her Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Pittsburgh, penned a piece last week for Salon that goes in-depth about her experience titled, "Confessions of a Serial Reality TV Star."
Her journey began at age 18, when she described applying for "Road Rules: Australia," noting that she was sure she could make a name for herself in reality TV. Sure enough, she was chosen out of 36,000 applicants and was on her way to stardom.
"I had watched the show enough to know that I was cast to play the 'character' of the stereotypical naive, virginal Christian, but I took it as a compliment given the less desirable, alternative prototypes," Meister wrote. "This was way back when Clinton was in office, MTV still played music, and the reality television boom was still a couple of years away."
Since that time, she said that reality TV has transitioned from a "social experiment to a race to the bottom," noting that outlandish behavior has been increasingly rewarded, presenting a number of reasons why shows like "The Challenge," currently in its 25th season, are so over-the-top.
"First, the people you see are cast in part because they lack the discernment found among civilized adults," she wrote. "Second, the cast is banned from bringing books, music, television, phones, cameras, computers, games and other forms of entertainment that would distract from cast interaction."
Meister told TheBlaze after the story ran that she diligently and successfully fought producers to keep her Bible, citing religious freedom and expression as her reason.
Watch Meister speak about her experience below:
In her Salon article, Meister described one particularly disturbing interaction in which a male cast member climbed into her bunk bed. She punched him after he refused to go down the ladder and exit the room.
In the end, despite his purported behavior, it was Meister who ended up drawing the ire of her cast members.
"The other cast members called for me to be sent home for violence and one male cast member said that 'I shouldn’t come on these shows if I don’t want to party,'" she wrote. "Almost everyone on the cast felt it was I, not he, who had acted inappropriately. I was not sent home, and production was supportive of me."
Despite negative experiences, Meister said she found herself continuing to go back to do additional shows, describing her relationship with reality TV programs as "an abusive one." Every time she promised she'd never do it again, a producer called, paid her a compliment and she signed back on.
"Even after having a child, I considered returning because producers told me 'I had a great chance of winning,'" she said. "I considered leaving my toddler for six weeks to go to an undisclosed location simply because my ego was stroked."
Meister, who recently completed her degree and has started a family, admits to still being tempted by the show and hasn't entirely ruled out another appearance. Read her entire article here.