It was 2013. Kimberly Birch and a group of other American women had been shooting a scene for a reality dating show in London. The man they were vying for was a debonair British red-head with a castle, a butler, perfect elocution and a strikingly familiar face.
“Just look straight ahead, and keep going,” the chaperone from the production team said, as the women were hurried back to waiting cars.
Naturally, Kimberly glanced over her shoulder.
She spotted what they’d hoped she wouldn’t. A nearby souvenir shop selling Royal Family masks; simple photo cutouts fixed to sticks. There were Prince William ones, plus the Queen, and… Prince Harry.
Only, the image of the red-head plastered on that mask looked different to the man that she and the other contestants had been competing over — a man they’d been led to believe was the British royal.
In that moment, Kimberly told Splinter, her suspicions were confirmed. The whole show was a lie.
I Wanna Marry Harry: when gaslighting becomes ‘entertainment’.
I Wanna Marry Harry was a 2014 reality show with a sensational premise: 12 US women are duped into believing they are competing for the affections of a then-single Prince Harry. In truth, their ‘royal’ suitor is a 23-year-old lookalike named Matt Hicks.
Audiences were let in on the ruse from the beginning. But for the women, it was a painfully slow reveal. Hicks’ real identity was not confirmed until he selected a winner in the eighth and final episode. The test: Would she still love him for who he is? (More on that later.)
At the time, the ‘social experiment’ (which we all know is reality TV spin for ‘entertainment via second-hand embarrassment’) invited global audiences to relish in the naivety of the contestants who, as Refinery 29 deftly put it this week, “were portrayed as gullible bimbos as best, and prime examples of American idiocy at worst”.
But in the years since, a handful have spoken out about the heavy-handed tactics producers used to maintain the hoax, from physical and social isolation to straight-up gaslighting.
It started from the very beginning of the process.