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Reputation Rehab: can reality TV rescue public figures from a lifetime of cancellation?

Brigid Delaney
·4-min read

We’re living in a moment in which everyone’s 15 minutes of fame is just as likely to become 15 minutes of being cancelled. Now reality TV, the space in which reputations are so often made and then ruined, has decided to come to the rescue.

Hosted by The Checkout’s Kirsten Drysdale and Zoe Norton Lodge, ABC’s Reputation Rehab promises to find Australians with bad reputations and restore their good names. But is un-cancellation possible?

The first episode takes up the mantle for tennis “bad boy” Nick Kyrgios. Old footage shows him swearing on court, breaking racquets, and sighing every time he fronts the media. When the Reputation Rehab team asks a selection of “normal people” what they think of Nick, the answer is that he’s “a bit of a brat”.

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But what if he’s not a bad boy, the hosts ask? What if he’s just misunderstood? What if he’s just caught in a narrative he can’t escape? What if a lot of the criticism he gets is actually kinda racist? And really, why is it any of our business if he prefers basketball to tennis?

This is the premise of this very funny and clever show: that the narratives we make for public figures lock them into a grim caricature of hero or villain. We know people in real life, including ourselves, are complex: we are all a mix of good and bad, a combination of poor decision-making and wisdom, yet somehow we don’t extend the same licence for nuance and complexity to people in the public eye.

Take Abbie Chatfield, The Bachelor’s 2019 runner-up and so-called villain, who we meet in episode two. Some viewers didn’t like her and tweeted her abuse and death threats. What did she do to deserve that? Did see commit a genocide? Strangle kittens? No. She said something cute but silly about being a Gemini and was immediately pegged as the show’s dumb blonde.

The team from Rep Rehab shows us how a “villain edit” is done on reality television. First they interview a gun producer (surely the true villain?) who icily spills all the secrets of reality television. Then they get a real-life couple and do a Bachelor number on them, showing how editing can twist the words of really very nice people.

Kyrgios, though, has had a different sort of villain edit, with the media deciding almost unanimously that he’s a certain type of person and consistently framing him that way in their coverage. But the 25-year-old is extremely disarming and warm when the team visit him in his Canberra home to interview him and his mother. For each of his supposed flaws that the media pounce on to build a case that he’s a brat, Kyrgios provides a perfectly reasonable defence.

The beauty of Reputation Rehab is that the format not only unpicks the negative narrative to show us where it began, it then confronts the very people who contributed to or amplified the celebrity’s bad reputation.

Sydney Morning Herald tennis writer Malcolm Knox is a good sport and comes on the show to defend negative articles he’s written about Kyrgios. Trolls are contacted and asked if they still hold negative opinions about Chatfield or if they’ve softened over time. In episode three, all about Covid-19 shaming, journalist Andy Park – who tweeted footage of people having a fight on a train about coughing that then went viral – is asked if he regrets shaming strangers on a train.

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Drysdale and Norton Lodge are warm, inquisitive hosts but it’s with this device that the show succeeds. It takes the villain, their accusers, and the system – be it elite sport or a reality TV show or a viral tweet – and cleverly dismantles it, interrogating how warranted a person’s bad reputation really is.

Cancellation, though, isn’t something that just affects the already famous. In the future, it would be good to see them taking on some harder cases, people without the looks, talent, money and profile of Kyrgios, or the natural charm and intelligence of Chatfield.

The already-famous still have the power to attempt to create redemption narratives for themselves; I’d like to see the show help people who’ve genuinely had their lives destroyed by a tweet or a post and found it impossible to rebuild. They may genuinely need this show – as do we, the people who just accept the two-dimensional depiction of some of our most interesting public figures.

• Reputation Rehab is showing from on ABC TV and iView from Wednesday 28 October at 9.05pm