From Drag Race To Big Brother, Why Are So Many Reality TV First-Outs Contestants Of Colour?

"Big Brother started as a social experiment. So what have we learned about society when Farida and Zak are the first two voted out?”
The 16 new stars of Big Brother UK
The 16 new stars of Big Brother UK

As reality TV has become more and more of a fixture on our screens, audiences and experts alike are naturally going to notice trends in the way these shows play out. Think the relationship-ending curses of Strictly or The Real Housewives, or the doomed side hustles of stars from TOWIE and Love Island.

When it comes to reality competition shows, there’s another trend that viewers are noticing – the curse of the first-out contestant. The trend has already played out on the newest season of Big Brother (which returned to our televisions earlier this month after a five-year break): the first contestants out – Farida and Zak – were people of colour.

Some may say it’s just a coincidence, but out of sixteen housemates, two out of the six contestants of colour have already been evicted two weeks in. Farida and Zak join the likes of Ajoa (BB16), Beinazir (BB10) and even the nation’s sweetheart Allison Hammond (who was the third housemate evicted on BB3) as contestants from ethnic minorities booted out of the show in the early stages.

Another reality competition that’s taken over the pop culture zeitgeist is RuPaul’s Drag Race. Since 2009, the show has created drag superstars in the US and internationally, and many of them have been queens of colour, from Monet X Change to Raja, Jaida Essence Hall to Symone and most recently, Sasha Colby.

However, queens of colour have also historically been many of the first to sashay away across the show’s fifteen seasons. In fifteen seasons, seven of the first eliminated queens have been of colour, including names like Shangela (Season 2), Dahlia Sin (Season 12) and Kahmora Hall (Season 13). While the likelihood of a queen of colour going home first can depend on the demographics of the cast, there are a number of examples where queens of colour make up a large proportion of bottom placements on a number of season.

For instance, after Vanessa Vanjie Mateo was eliminated first on season 10, the next two queens eliminated, Kalorie Karbdashian and Yuhua Hamasaki, were of colour, and on Season 11, the next three queens to be eliminated after Soju were too (Kahana Montrese, Honey Davenport and Mercedes Iman Diamond). Over on the show’s All Stars spin-off, half of the first out contestants have been of colour, including Coco Montrese and Jasmine Masters. Most recently on All Stars 8, so were the first two queens, Monica Beverly Hills and Naysha Lopez.

Why is this happening?

On a normal season of Drag Race, Ru decides who leaves at the end of each episode, whereas on All Stars it’s down to the queens themselves. For the latter, a number of factors come into play – from previously formed alliances to trying to knock out the biggest competition. During a regular season, it’s usually who hasn’t performing the best out of the group, and ultimately, whoever loses the lip sync. However because these subjective decisions lie with one person (and potentially the other producers of the show) – over the years they have been contested.

Fans have argued that queens of colour have been overlooked, faced double standards and often, had their place in the competition disregarded for queens who may not be necessarily performing as well in challenges, but who have the potential for bigger (and more outrageous) storylines.

The thing is for Drag Race, it can be a bit of both. An eliminated queen could very well be the worst in the challenge and flop a lip-sync and deserve to go home (here’s looking at you Alisa Summers), but she may have also been hideously overlooked and never given her flowers when she did perform the best in a challenge: think Anastarzia Anaquway’s runway for the first episode of Canada’s Drag Race, Jujubee’s hilarious impersonation of Eartha Kitt for All Stars 5’s Snatch Game, Gia Gunn’s talent show number on All Stars 4 or Trinity K. Bonet’s Beyoncé during All Stars 6.

A microcosm of society

For Big Brother, the issue is entirely different. The show has always been designed as a microcosm of society, pulling people from all corners of life into a house and showing the good, the bad and the ugly that comes from it. As Drag Race UK star Tia Kofi so aptly summed up on X: “Big Brother started as a social experiment. So what have we learned about society when Farida and Zak are the first two voted out?”

In the last ten years especially, tolerance and attitudes towards ethnic minority communities in the UK have become more and more polarised, with extreme right wing attitudes filtering into mainstream society’s conscience and politics. Hate crimes against these communities are the highest reported type of hate crime in the UK, and attitudes towards issues like immigration and police brutality and white privilege have left the public divided, which isn’t helped by misinformation spreading online like wildfire. While things feel more shaky now than they have in prior years, it’s also important to note that in it’s 20 year history, there’s only been one winner of the show that isn’t white – BB8’s Brian Belo.

And although the public have a part to play in Farida and Zak’s evictions, so do the housemates that nominated them. Farida was criticised for being loud, opinionated and for coming off too strong, yet for housemates like Olivia, these aspects of her personality are a part of her charm. Zak was nominated for sitting on the fence and being a people pleaser, yet white housemates like Chanelle, Jenkin and Paul who haven’t been as loud or divisive with their opinions haven’t received the same treatment. This double standard we see is a reflection of how society unfairly regards communities of colour, and it exists on other shows too. For instance, who could forget The Vixen and Eureka’s spat on Drag Race Season 10? The Vixen, a Black queen, was billed as aggressive and a troublemaker while Eureka, a white queen, was never reprimanded or called aggressive for her behaviour, which instigated many of their disagreements. At the season reunion, RuPaul famously told The Vixen to think about how she reacted to the situation, but never told Eureka to reflect on her behaviour which kicked things off in the first place.

Of course, the chances are that most of the time every housemate will receive a nomination from time to time, and I’m not calling anyone who nominated Farida or Zak racist. It’s part and parcel of the game, and the housemates are entitled to their opinions – they’re the ones living together. But I’m simply pointing out how unconscious bias can manifest during these programmes. It’s like how Noky admitted to trying to avoid the “forceful, aggressive, imposing” stereotype that Black women have been historically lumped with by withholding her opinions and feelings and thinking carefully about how she’s coming across - which her white counterparts don’t have to worry about.

Ultimately, reality TV shows are made for our entertainment and someone always has to go home first. And that’s absolutely fine, because where would the fun be if everyone was a winner? But it’s important to be aware that the stereotypes, microaggressions and unconscious biases that exist across our society exist in our favourite shows too. It’s called reality TV for a reason.