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How a 'Real Housewives' Suicide Sheds Light on Exploitation in Reality TV

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A SNAPSHOT OF SICKNESS: The bizarre and controversial moments of reality's most vulnerable subjects

A&E's Intervention
A 2009 episode featured a pair of anorexic twin girls who would consume no more than 300 calories a day and follow each other's precise physical movements (including opening and closing kitchen cabinets) in order to ensure the exact same calorie burn.

MTV's Teen Mom
During the 2010 season, star Amber Portwood physically assaulted her boyfriend, Gary Shirley (father of their 3-year-old daughter, Leah), on camera, sparking a Child Protective Services investigation. The 21-year-old mom is hospitalized after a reported suicide attempt.

TLC's My Strange Addiction
The show has featured people who can't stop eating toilet paper, corn starch and rocks. This year, the series followed a man addicted to eating glass. The subject ingested more than 250 light bulbs and 100 champagne glasses and consumed as many as 30 live bullets … in one sitting.

VH1's Celebrity Rehab
Now in its fifth season, the celeb-reality show follows actress Bai Ling, "Long Island Lolita" Amy Fisher and rocker Steven Adler (former patients include the late musician Mike Starr and the late actor Jeff Conaway). During a recent episode, Ling -- who suffers from alcohol addiction and mental illness -- ripped her nameplate from the door and climbed onto the roof of the treatment center in her bathrobe.

 

THE LEGAL ISSUES: Reality TV subjects have little recourse once they sign contracts

it's an oft-repeated question when discussing TV's most outrageous reality shows: "Can't they sue?" The answer, almost always, is no. Waivers typically allow producers to depict show participants any way they choose, and a judge won't void a contract unless it is shown that the person was mentally unsound or agreed to the terms under extreme duress. Legal experts say such an argument might be effective on behalf of someone with clear psychological issues -- like, say, the woman who ate her husband's ashes before being committed to an institution on TLC's My Strange Addiction -- but the case law on the subject is sparse at best. "There is always room to prove that someone was incompetent," says Louis Petrich, a Los Angeles litigator who successfully defended 20th Century Fox in a case brought by two fraternity brothers who signed releases to appear in Borat, then claimed they were too drunk to understand what they did. "But courts are really resistant to that kind of argument because it's so easy to change your mind after you sign a contract." -- Matthew Belloni