Between blazing rows, gratuitous nudity and the shamelessly fame-crazed media personalities it’s helped spawn, ‘Big Brother’ is responsible for some of the most shocking TV moments of the 21st century. But for all its (admittedly, numerous) flaws, there’s no denying that, for a lot of viewers, the reality TV juggernaut was an introduction to a world far more diverse than they might have known before.
In its early years, when it was still billed as a ‘social experiment’ and not the circus it has become, ‘Big Brother’ helped put a face to previously abstract labels that people had only ever heard about - often disparagingly - before. Labels like ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ and ‘transgender’ might seem commonplace, and even passé, in 2016, but even as recently as 15 years ago, they were strange and unknown to many. A lot of people got their first glimpse of gay culture through the lens of reality TV, and I know this because I’m one of them.
I was nine years old when ‘Big Brother’ first aired (alright, I probably shouldn’t have been watching it, but that’s an issue you can take up with my parents), and vividly remember Brian Dowling’s time in the house, during the second series.
For the first time, the gay man on my screen wasn’t a fictional character in a soap or a sitcom, who would go back to his wife and 2.5 children at the end of a long day of filming. Nor was he an abstract statistic on the news, or a punchline in a trashy tabloid headline. He was actually real, going about his business on TV, making friends, squabbling, being, well, pretty much like every other person in the country in their early 20s.
I also remember his presence being a surprisingly divisive one among viewers, especially for a sweet-natured flight attendant from Ireland. But despite some people’s hesitations about having a young man as flamboyantly and unabashedly camp as Brian on the television and - shock horror - actually being gay, he managed to win everyone over as the weeks went on, and by the time the live final rolled around, there was no question who was going to be crowned winner.
Brian wasn’t actually the first gay housemate to make it to the ‘Big Brother’ final, though, as “lesbian ex-nun” (as her tabloid precursor became in the weeks before and after her ‘BB’ eviction) Anna Nolan finished in second place in the very first series, a year earlier.
Anna tells HuffPost UK that although her intention in applying to ‘Big Brother’ wasn’t to increase gay representation on TV (“I just wanted to participate”), she does acknowledge: “Before I applied for ‘Big Brother’ there was very little lesbian visibility on television.
“Rhona Cameron, a Scottish comedian, was possibly the most visible, along with another comedian - Donna McPhail. But apart from those two, there were no lesbians on mainstream television.”
Of making it to the final, she adds: “I now realise how important it was to the LGBT community. When I came out of ‘Big Brother’ I received lots of letters - people wrote letters back then! - from men and women, who found it a positive thing that I was a gay woman on a prime time television show. And someone who, for some reason, their parents also liked!”
The fact that both Anna and Brian went on to carve careers in television (Brian’s stint at the helm of ‘SM:tv’ made him the first openly gay presenter to front a kids’ show on British TV) speaks volumes about the way the public welcomed these new gay personalities into their living rooms.
In the years that ensued, ‘Big Brother’ introduced a variety of LGBT+ figures, such as in 2004, when bisexual dancer Becki Seddiki, lesbian political activist Kitten Pinder and hairdresser-turned-singer Daniel Bryan all shared a house. For me, though, it was law student and former Samaritan Marco Sabba whom I identified most with in that series.
By this point I was a young teenager, certain I was gay and, quite honestly, not feeling all that great about it. My flamboyant mannerisms were becoming more and more noticed by the people I went to school with by the day, and it was getting me all kinds of unwanted attention. Without urging you to get your violins out, it was honestly a very isolating and lonely time.
You can imagine my joy, then, when 21-year-old Marco rocked up on my TV screen, giggling away with a limp wrist and a spring in his step, and was actually popular with his housemates. They were laughing with him. When the men in the house made fun of him, he and the girls he befriended laughed it off. And for his brief stint in the house, I felt like I had a compadre, a kindred spirit (even if Marco himself has later admitted his dissatisfaction with the way he was portrayed on the show).
However, the most iconic moment of that series (and, arguably, ‘Big Brother’ full stop) came on finale night, thanks to a lady named Nadia Almada. Nadia was the last housemate to enter the house in 2004’s live final, and viewers were swiftly informed that she was transgender, a secret she was hiding from the rest of the group.
Whether or not producers put her in the show as a move of inclusivity, or an attempt to sensationalise, we’ll never know. Regardless of intent, Nadia was a transgender woman in what was at that time one of the most-watched and influential shows on television - and she won it.
Throughout her ‘Big Brother’ journey (sincere apologies for using the word journey, but there’s no denying that’s what Nadia went through over her time in the house), Nadia repeatedly spoke privately in the diary room about her desire for “acceptance”. How guilty she felt for keeping her past from her housemates, and how nervous she was for her impending return to the outside world.
And then… this happened.
Nadia’s ‘Big Brother’ victory is a video that won’t ever not make me emotional, because it felt like a real pinnacle moment. It felt like a step in the right direction. And it also felt like a victory for a woman who was able to show viewers that she was so much more than just a label.
Mark Frith, who was then editor of Heat magazine, told The Guardian shortly afterwards: “Yes, she’s been on this journey, yes, it’s all very serious. But there’s this other side to her that’s all about this incredibly infectious laugh and how entertaining she is.
“Considering what she’d been through, it was even more admirable that she was kicking back and having the time of her life, putting the hose-pipe over her head and singing ‘It’s Raining Men’.”
The next series alone gave us openly gay Derek Laud, the first black member of the Conservative Monday Club, and Craig Coates, whose unrequited feelings for eventual-winner Anthony Hutton were the talking point of the series. There was also Kemal Shahin, who entered the house in a traditional sari and spent his time on the show strutting his stuff in a pair of heels (since entering the house, Kemal has come out as transgender and is now known as Zuleyka Shahin).
During the next decade ‘Big Brother’ threw a plethora of LGBT+ housemates at us, with a variety of different backgrounds and stories to tell. Over the years, there was Pete Burns in ‘Celebrity Big Brother’, and Sam Brodie, who identified as female in series seven but now lives as a cisgender man. Gerry Stergiopoulos and Seany O’Kane gave us the first kiss between two men in the house in 2007, while Kellie Maloney arrived in the ‘CBB’ house just weeks after coming out as trans in 2014. Finally we had the more recent flirtation between Christopher Hall and Mark Byron, which culminated in their frequent disappearances under the covers in the bedroom.
Eight years on from Nadia’s victory, in 2012, ‘Big Brother’ fans met Luke Anderson, the first transgender man to appear on the show, whose transgender label eventually took a back seat as the weeks rolled on, and he was able to show different sides to his personality.
Speaking to HuffPost UK, Luke admits that his specific intention was to increase trans visibility on screen, explaining: “I wanted to apply to help others who may have been in my situation and felt trapped. I wanted to go on the show to prove that it does get better.
“I knew that if I was successful, I would be the first transman to appear on the show, and felt that there was a pressure not to disappoint our community.”
Luke, who was eventually crowned that 2012’s ‘BB’ champion, continues: “I still can’t believe I won, I was completely shocked and so thankful for being accepted by a majority. I definitely felt like it was a win for the whole LGBT community.
“Even now I get contacted by trans people and their parents who ask for advice. I always do my best to help. After all that’s the whole reason why I applied.”
There’s no getting away from the fact that, at its worst, ‘Big Brother’ isn’t exactly representative of the best of British. Drunken arguments, explicit conversations and even accusations of racism have all blighted its reputation during its time on the air.
But at its heart, ‘Big Brother’ is still able to put a smile on viewers’ faces. It’s a show that has created solid friendships, even marriages. It’s provided viewers with some genuinely side-splitting moments. And on occasion, it’s also been able to give a platform to some people who might otherwise not have had the chance to shine.
As series one finalist Anna Nolan herself notes: “I think ‘Big Brother’ has cast a wide range of people over the last 16 years. And I think they have never shied away from casting lots and lots of people from the LGBT community. They should be applauded for that.”
Since this article was first published in April 2016, a number of other important moments have taken place within the ‘Big Brother’ house, relating to queer culture, including the romance between Hughie Maughan and Ryan Ruckledge, drag queen Courtney Act’s ‘CBB’ victory and Cameron Cole coming out to his fellow housemates in the last ever Channel 5 series.