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Hooked on love: How Australia became obsessed with reality TV romance

Reality romance shows have become a national obsession. So how did it all happen?

By Helen Vnuk

Dean and Davina's affair on Married At First Sight. The mean girls on The Bachelor Australia. Grant and Eden's secret girlfriends on Love Island Australia. Online or in the office, it seems like everybody is talking about reality TV romances.

But it wasn't always this way.

"Just think back to 10 years ago," The Bachelor Australia's executive producer, Hilary Innes, says.

"I was at ITV [Studios Australia] and we were trying to sell dating shows. No-one here was interested in picking up any dating shows."

So why have we all become so obsessed with watching other people fall in love on TV?

*Love Island Australia* winners Grant Kemp and Tayla Damir were rocked by reports he had a girlfriend on the outside. Their romance did not last.
Love Island Australia winners Grant Kemp and Tayla Damir were rocked by reports he had a girlfriend on the outside. Their romance did not last.

THE SET UP

The Bachelor is the original fairytale romance reality show. It's been airing in the US since 2002. The Australian version, pitched at more of a family audience, is into its sixth season on Network Ten.

It has two weddings and a baby to its credit, plus two spin-offs, The Bachelorette Australia and Bachelor In Paradise.

Casting former professional rugby union player Nick Cummins as the latest Bachelor has seen a lot of men watching the show for the first time.

"We're 17 per cent up this year, which is really amazing," Hilary says. "Nick is very different to the Bachelors we've had before. He's very self-deprecating, very ocker, almost a throwback to a [Paul] Hogan-esque kind of person. I do think you need to be a bit brave with this format and take some risks."

Nick was a different style of Bachelor - and a ratings success.
Nick was a different style of Bachelor - and a ratings success.

Meanwhile, five seasons of Married At First Sight have gone to air, with another on the way. That's despite every "marriage" in every season failing, with the exception of Erin Bateman and Bryce Mohr from season two.

This year's MAFS was a genuine juggernaut, smashing all sorts of ratings records for the Nine Network.

"We did strike gold with the cast," executive producer Tara McWilliams says. "There were so many moments where we were like, 'I cannot believe this is happening.'"

Ryan Gallagher and Davina Rankin were part of the "gold" cast that made *MAFS* a hit in 2018.
Ryan Gallagher and Davina Rankin were part of the "gold" cast that made MAFS a hit in 2018.

Love Island Australia is the new kid on the block. Its horde of hotties holed up together in a sunny Spanish villa drew young viewers to 9Go! and 9Now in the middle of the year.

Executive producer of the show Majella Wiemers says it's not just about the romance and drama, but about the tongue-in-cheek humour and the chance for viewers to get involved online.

"Even though they [viewers] were sitting on the other side of the world and freezing their butts off in winter, they were still buying into the emerging romance," she explains.

FINDING THE ONES

So what's the secret to making a reality romance show that draws people in and gets them addicted? The executive producers agree that it comes down to the casting.

"You can plan these beautiful weddings, you can put them up in nice apartments," Tara says. "But I could go down to some dive of a bar and shoot it. It doesn't matter where you are, because these people are such strong characters. This show lives and dies by the cast."

Casting for these shows is a long, exhaustive process. It involves sorting through thousands of applications, then going on a nationwide casting tour to meet hundreds of people face to face.

But there's a lot more to it than that. Production teams hunt down people who would never have considered applying themselves. They reach out to friends of friends of friends. They approach people on the street who look interesting, which is how MAFS ended up with the quirky Troy Delmege. The show also does "target casting", to fill in gaps such as "woman in her thirties who doesn't have kids yet" or "someone who's been married before".

"If we're looking for an older demographic, we might go to ballroom dancing classes," Tara explains.

Troy Delmege was approached to be on *MAFS.*
Troy Delmege was approached to be on MAFS.

The Love Island crew, meanwhile, put out calls online and go scrolling through Instagram.

"Social media is amazing now for television casting," Majella says. "Having said that, filters are a wonderful thing."

To make it onto Love Island, people don't need to have a back story. They just need to be "ridiculously good-looking", without being completely bland.

"We're looking at these people who are eight out of 10 and above [in looks]," Majella reveals. "But then they still have to give us something."

She says diversity of personalities is crucial.

"You need a mix of people who know when to talk and when to be quiet, and those who don't know that."

DOING IT FOR LOVE

MAFS might not have the greatest success rate when it comes to lasting relationships, but Tara says they do want relationships to succeed, and will only cast people who are genuine about wanting to find their life partner.

Do people really go on the show for that reason? Tracey Jewel, 35, who "married" Dean Wells on the most recent season of MAFS, says she did.

"I was genuinely looking for love, and put my heart on the line," she explains. "I don't think everyone has the same intentions, though, or takes it seriously. It's marriage, not a dating or hook-up show, so I think people should be serious."

Tracey Jewel (with 'husband' Dean Wells) maintains she went on *MAFS* to find love.
Tracey Jewel (with 'husband' Dean Wells) maintains she went on MAFS to find love.

Nasser Sultan, who "married" Gabrielle Bartlett, is more cynical. The 51-year-old says he didn't expect to leave MAFS with the love of his life on his arm.

"You have to be very naïve to think you're going to have your perfect match waiting for you," he says. "Look at the success rate – it's hardly convincing. You'd probably have more luck finding your soul mate by walking into Woolworths and shouting, 'Who wants to marry me?' and choosing someone at random by the hot chicken counter."

Jake Ellis was working in sales and marketing on the Gold Coast when a friend had the idea he'd make a good Bachelor. The mate knew someone at production company Warner Bros and "dobbed" Jake in. He went through the selection process, but lost out to Richie Strahan. Before long, Jake was called up and asked if he wanted to be on The Bachelorette Australia. He jumped at it.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he says. "I thought if I said no, it would be something I'd regret. If I fell in love, that was, I guess, a bonus, an amazing thing. But at the start, it was for the adventure."

Jake, 31, made Georgia Love's top three, but in the end, her heart went to Lee Elliott. He got another chance at love when he was invited onto Bachelor In Paradise. There, he fell for Megan Marx.

"I knew it was something that was possible, but I was surprised at how strong those feelings were," Jake remembers. "You're there for a month, which is quite a short period of time, but you're spending 24 hours a day with those people. All you're doing is talking about your feelings and romance, every day, all day. It definitely speeds everything up."

Jake Ellis and Megan Marx found love on *Bachelor In Paradise.*
Jake Ellis and Megan Marx found love on Bachelor In Paradise.

Jake says he and a lot of the other guys would plan their own private little dates, complete with flowers and date cards. That way, they weren't waiting around for the producers to do it.

"You know that time is limited," he adds.

That idea that things are sped up applies to other shows too. Majella calls it "accelerated reality".

"They say that a week on Love Island is like a month in the outside world," she says. "They're already sharing a bed and farting in front of each other. They're doing the things that most normal people don't do until much later in a relationship."

BRINGING THE DRAMA

Just as being cut off from the outside world helps romances blossom, it also heightens the drama. Majella sees it with the people on Love Island.

"They have nothing else to do all day except be in that house and do whatever we need for content," she explains. "So they'll overthink things. They'll go and have five conversations with five different people about one other person, instead of just going to that person directly, because that's the nature of the house. They can't just put on the telly."

On MAFS, Tara believes the drama happens naturally if they cast people who are prepared to open up about their feelings. Self-described "supervillain" Dean, who cheated on Tracey with Davina Rankin, was a classic example.

"Dean was so honest," Tara says. "Sometimes you were even going, 'Oh, Dean, maybe don't be so honest!' In your head, you were thinking, 'Save yourself, buddy – maybe pull back on the honesty!' Because it got him in trouble."

Dean and Davina's affair, which sparked outrage on social media from viewers who thought the whole thing was staged, was something the two of them approached producers about.

"We didn't help that affair along in terms of making it happen," Tara says. "They came to us and told us they were attracted to each other. It certainly wasn't by our suggestion."

Davina and Dean's affair was one of the most-talked about moments of TV in 2018.
Davina and Dean's affair was one of the most-talked about moments of TV in 2018.

As far as drama on The Bachelor goes, Vanessa Sunshine was at the centre of it this season.

Unapologetically "different", she was targeted by "mean girls" Alisha Aitken-Radburn, Cat Henesey and Romy Poulier. Vanessa wants to make it clear that what she went through was real.

"I copped a bulk of the meanness in the house," she says. "I think it's a cop-out for the public to think it's fake, 'embellished', producer-coerced or that the show is encouraging that in any way."

Others who've been through shows in the Bachelor franchise have their own take. Jake says The Bachelorette is "definitely not scripted", but is maybe "a little bit shaped".

"You had 15 boys together and we would just talk nonsense," he remembers. "The producers would come in and go, 'Hey, guys, that's great. Maybe we should just talk about love, because that's what you're here for.'"

On Bachelor In Paradise, Jake says there was some "clever editing", but he accepts that.

"It's a TV show," he says. "I knew what I signed up for and what could potentially happen."

He doesn't think anyone can blame editing for the way they come across on TV.

"I can see that they might scramble the timing of what you said, or something like that," he says. "But at the end of the day, you still said those words."

Vanessa Sunshine found she was the target of "meanness" in the house on *The Bachelor Australia.*
Vanessa Sunshine found she was the target of "meanness" in the house on The Bachelor Australia.

THE RIGHT TIME

There's no doubt that all these shows deliver on love and drama. The question is, why have they become so hugely popular in the past few years?

Hilary thinks it's tied into the social media boom. Everyone gets to share their opinion on someone else's romance.

"You've got a conversation going on a number of levels," she says.

Another reason is the rise in popularity of dating apps – and their shortcomings. Both Hilary and Tara say that people applying for their shows often say they're sick of using Tinder and the like.

"Particularly with casting the guys for The Bachelorette, a lot of them are saying, 'I want to meet people the old way, face to face,'" Hilary explains.

She thinks many viewers may feel the same way. They're drawn to the traditional romance of The Bachelor, with its red roses and fancy dates.

"The old-fashioned way has appeal," she says.

Are contestants trying to find love the "old-fashioned" way?
Are contestants trying to find love the "old-fashioned" way?

Even the youth-oriented Love Island is old-school, in a way. Contestants are forced to struggle through awkward conversations they probably would have tried to avoid in real life.

"They have to actually have break-up conversations face to face," Majella says.

"They don't have their phones to be able to DM [direct message] someone and then hide."

But, ultimately, the true appeal of these shows lies in one thing: seeing real people fall in love, and being able to believe that the romance might last in the outside world.

Hilary says The Bachelor doesn't need to end with a proposal.

"I would prefer that it's real," she explains.

As for Love Island viewers, they don't expect all the couples to live happily ever after.

"Even if only one per cent find true love, that's enough for people to latch onto," Majella says.

"We're all romantics at heart. I really believe that whether you're 16 or 60, seeing people fall in love is compelling."

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