Reality TV Turned These Kids into Villains. YouTube Gave Them a Chance to Set the Record Straight
Portrayed as brats on ‘structured reality’ shows, former reality TV kids are changing the narrative on YouTube
In January 2012, two million Americans watched 14-year-old Payton Ackerman turn into a villain. Looking cherubic with her sleek brunette hair securely scraped back and adorned with a white bow, in an instant Payton’s bright red lips formed into a grimace as she argued with her dance teacher, Abby Lee Miller, on Lifetime’s Dance Moms.
“I thought I was better than most of the people,” the teenager declared, seemingly insulting her fellow stars on the reality TV show, which follows young dancers as they compete for prizes. The audience turned on the teen — and they didn’t forget. “I really hate Payton,” reads the top comment on a clip of the dancer uploaded to YouTube six years after the episode was first broadcast.
For Ackerman, the hate is nothing new. When the teen’s home phone number was leaked during the show’s fourth season, she and her family began receiving death threats.
Viewers would frequently call her home between the hours of 2am and 4am, forcing her father to disconnect the landline. In 2014, Ackerman left the show for good.
Yet just before Christmas in 2018, Dance Moms’ fans performed an abrupt and dramatic pirouette.
Their opinions changed. Suddenly, Payton Ackerman was a hero.
“THE TRUTH: MY JOURNEY ON DANCE MOMS” is a 12-minute YouTube video that has been watched nearly a million times. Ackerman uploaded the video last year to set the record straight. According to her, the line about being “better” than other dancers was fed to her and selectively edited. Ackerman claims she said it about other dance troupes in the competition, not her fellow dancers on the show. Dance Moms’ production company, Collins Avenue, declined to provide comment for this article.
“Everybody believes that reality TV is reality because there’s no script, but really, it’s the farthest thing from it.”
“I just wanted to come clean without there being the ability for my words to be edited, like they always were,” Ackerman explains now.
YouTube commenters believed her story. “I’m really ashamed to say that I was one of the people who fell for the producers’ evil editing,” reads a post with over 800 likes. “Payton seems genuinely sweet,” reads another.
Uploading the video gave Ackerman, now 21 and a dancer in hip hop troupe in LA, closure. “I feel like the other girls felt all the way throughout the show, because the other girls were so loved, and I never felt that,” she says. “Everybody believes that reality TV is reality because there’s no script, but really, it’s the farthest thing from it.”
Ackerman isn’t the only Dance Moms cast member to take to YouTube to share their side of the story. Her fellow dancer Nia Sioux gained a million views on her video “DANCE MOMS SECRETS REVEALED”, while another star, Chloe Lukasiak, reacts to old Dance Moms clips on her two million subscriber-strong channel. For young women who grew up being judged every week by millions of TV viewers, YouTube has become a space to reclaim their identity.
“To this day I’ll meet somebody and they’ll be like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re so nice, we didn’t expect it’,” Ackerman explains. “I don’t want to walk into a room and be known as a brat before I even meet the person.”
Children who starred on other shows are also using YouTube to fight back against public perceptions. From early noughties programmes like MTV’s My Super Sweet 16, to more recent shows like Channel 5’s 2018 Rich Kids Go Skint, videos entitled “My experience on…” are an easy way to garner attention and earn money on the site. But beyond clicks and cash, the format allows adults to gain the autonomy that they didn’t have as children on TV.
When Alicia Guastaferro appeared on Wife Swap as a 15-year-old in 2008, she had dreams of being an actress. She claims producers used her ambitions against her by feeding her lines and telling her to “act brattier”. Her episode is one of the show’s most infamous — in it she says she “feel[s] sorry for people that are not gorgeous”, demands daily presents from her parents, makes her father give her a spray tan, and makes her mother do her homework.
“It was scripted. Repeat after me, line after line. We would do a scene anywhere from two to three to four times over,” says Guastaferro, who is now in her mid-20s and works as a DJ in upstate New York. ABC did not respond to a request for comment, but in 2010, Guastaferro sued the network, claiming she felt suicidal as a result of the allegedly staged scenes. The lawsuit was settled out of court.
Guastaferro maintains that life after the show was a “living hell”. “I ended up having to switch schools. I was literally pushed into lockers, kids would throw books at me, food at me,” she says. “I was called every name, even names I didn’t know existed.” In one incident, Guastaferro received a text from a friend asking to meet at the local Dairy Queen. When Guastaferro arrived, a car full of teenagers beckoned her over and Guastaferro peered inside to see her friend. The teenagers then grabbed Guastaferro and began to drive, dragging her along the pavement beside the car.
In June 2019, a series of old Wife Swap clips were uploaded by an anonymous YouTuber and caught the attention of YouTube’s algorithms, pushing them onto the homepage of many users. Thousands of people watched the re-upload of Guastaferro’s episode, which has since been deleted along with the channel that uploaded it (it is unclear if YouTube deleted the channel for copyright reasons, or the owner themselves deleted their channel and the clips). Before it was deleted, Guastaferro left a comment on the video sharing her side of the story and received hundreds of likes.
“I never got to speak out back then. I thought maybe they’d actually listen for once,” she says. Leaving YouTube comments like this is not an uncommon way for former child stars to regain control of their image. The top comment on a YouTube upload of a BBC documentary, Growing Up Poor, is purportedly written by one of its subjects, Amber Hudson. “I would just like to say how embarrassed [I am] and how this young girl in this is no longer me,” the commenter writes. “There was a lot more to this than shown on here… I was still as child as well.”
Leaving YouTube comments is not an uncommon way for former child stars to regain control of their image
Like Ackerman, Guastaferro has also uploaded a YouTube video that shares her side of the story. In her original song “Reality TV” — presented as a “diss track”, a staple of YouTube drama — she slams her Wife Swap experience with the lyrics, “They showed a lie and said it was me” and “Don’t believe everything you see”.
“The point of the song is that there’s no reality on TV and yet people believe it,” she says. Although some YouTube commenters have been kind to Guastaferro, others used the re-upload of her episode as an opportunity to leave insulting messages. As such, Guastaferro has found solace in another video app — Bigo.
On Bigo, Guastaferro dances and sings as a full-time streamer. “I absolutely love it as a place to promote positivity. People can know the real me.” It’s another example of ex-reality TV cast members using online video platforms to reclaim their identity.
“It doesn’t surprise me that [former reality TV stars] are trying to use means to try and control what is out there about them. They might be unhappy about the way that somebody could see them as a child, and they want to portray themselves now,” says Marion Oswald, a law professor at the University of Winchester, who has researched the legal and ethical issues related to the portrayal of children on a British reality TV show starring toddlers. When watching the show, The Secret Life of 4 and 5 Year Olds, she became concerned how children were being typecast into characters such as “the naughty one”.
“Obviously we want to see children on TV, we want them to participate in discussions about their lives, but some of these programs are not giving the children the opportunity to participate,” she says. “They’re making them objects that we stare at for an hour for our entertainment.”
When she was 16, Freya Huntingdon appeared on the Channel 5 show Not So Sweet Sixteen and was permitted to see her episode before it aired. Yet like Ackerman and Guastaferro, Huntingdon has still used YouTube to set the record straight.
Questions remain about today’s new breed of reality stars — children who are famous because their parents vlog them every day
“For once it feels like you’re your own person, you get to say what you want to say without any regulation,” the 18-year-old from Hampshire explains. “It sounds silly but you can stick up for yourself. Obviously, on TV you can’t do that.” Huntingdon calls her channel an “honest portrayal” of her true self. Although she doesn’t feel she was dramatically misrepresented on TV, she says “cutting and editing” removed the nuances of her character, and claims she was asked to do things she wouldn’t normally do, such as go on a yacht.
Although she allowed the final cut to air because it “wasn’t as bad” as she “thought it was going to be”, Huntingdon didn’t really have control over her image. “On YouTube, you can pick how other people see you and you have full control. While with TV obviously what they say goes.” The platform removes all of the access barriers in traditional TV, allowing Huntingdon to directly talk to an audience.
As reality TV continues to fill up viewing schedules, it is likely we will see more former child stars vlogging about their experiences. Yet questions remain about today’s new breed of reality stars — children who are famous because their parents vlog them every day.
Vlogging doesn’t intrinsically allow autonomy — children who have been filmed by their parents since their births have no more control over their image than children directed by TV producers. The risks remain the same, and arguably the legislation needs to be updated. While in 1939, the Coogan Act first began protecting American child performer’s earnings, on YouTube there are very few safeguards for child stars whose parents are cashing in on their cuteness. In the UK, the National Network for Children in Employment and Entertainment admitted to me in 2017 that it is difficult to regulate YouTube child performers.
YouTube’s child superstars are unlikely to use the website to regain their autonomy, and instead speculation abounds about future lawsuits, or how they may be empowered by the EU’s “right to be forgotten” legislation. We are yet to see what happens when YouTube-famous children grow up, or whether their feelings will be the same as former reality TV stars.
How will they regain their autonomy in the future? Will they simply log off? Ackerman, Guastaferro, and Huntingdon’s experiences show that ultimately, the power is only in your hands when the camera is on your tripod.