The staying power of reality TV—and the constant demand for
competitors from all walks of life—has created a critical category of
television professionals: the experts who help vet potential contestants
through a battery of physical, psychological and criminal- background checks.
One such expert, clinical psychologist Suzanne Zachary, Ph.D., has done
psychological profiling for more than 30 reality shows, including CBS'
Big Brother, UPN's America's Next Top Model and NBC's
Average Joe. “We're not there to judge
them,” says Zachary. “I tell them: We're not perfect, and we don't
expect you to be perfect. We're trying to get to know you in a very short
period of time and put you into an appropriate situation so you will enjoy the
experience.” She spoke to B&C's
Deborah Starr Seibel about the occasionally imperfect science of identifying
candidates who might embarrass or undermine a production.
How does the weeding-out process work?
It works in three parts. First, the candidates are given a four-page
questionnaire about their medical and psychological history: any stresses in
their life, job or family. We don't give out specifics because we don't
want candidates to hide any part of their background. Then they're given a
standardized psychological assessment. This is a series of written
psychological tests, well-accepted tests used within the psychological
industry. The tests would be scored and evaluated. And finally, they would have
an interview with me that is private.
Are any of these take-home
No, they are never taken at home. A lot of what we do is in hotels, in
conference rooms. All the candidates are in the same room and are given the
same test. They have an unlimited amount of time to do them, and there is no
pressure to get them done. The candidates are monitored during the test. They
are not allowed to use cellphones or talk to each other. It's a little like
taking the SATs.
How long do the written tests
In general, the testing takes about three hours. The private interview
takes approximately 30-45 minutes more.
What are you looking for in the
We're looking for background information, use of medication for
chronic physical conditions, any prior medical diagnosis, a history of
significant psychological stress. I would ask them about recreational drug use.
I would ask them about alcohol. I would ask them how they would describe their
personality and what kinds of things bother them about other people. It's
really a full background about how they function in the world and what they
hope to gain from the experience.
Do you find that these potential
contestants are truthful?
I would say that the greater number of candidates are reasonably
truthful. You never know for sure because people do misrepresent themselves.
And you will always get that person who will lie to you. It's inevitable.
If they're on medication, does that
mean they're automatically disqualified?
No, depending on what type of medication and for what reason, they would
not be automatically eliminated. But they would need to have a letter from
their prescribing doctor allowing them to participate in the show.
What about drugs and alcohol?
A past use of marijuana or going out with friends on the weekends and
drinking alcohol would not eliminate them.
Does anything automatically disqualify a
It's not my call to disqualify anyone. What I would do is take the
information to the producers and say: These are the personality
characteristics; this is information that you really need to know. The
producers are the ones, with the network, who decide what to do. Sometimes
I'm included in the final casting decisions and sometimes not. I'm not the
one who says, over my dead body.
Is it ever based on gut feelings?
No. It is not based on intuition or gut feelings.
What percentage of potential contestants
I would say approximately 20% of the people who are presented are not
appropriate for one reason or another—usually for past or current emotional
problems. And then there are the people who are eliminated because the
producers feel they don't fit into the group they're trying to put
together, but that's a different story. That's casting.
Are you on call during the entire
On most shows, I am. And I'll do an exit interview after the show is
over or after someone is eliminated if it's a competition.
Is that done in person, too?
Sometimes. But I usually speak with them by telephone to see how
they're holding up. I tell them a little about what they can expect: that
people will recognize them after they see the show, that they won't be quite
as anonymous. I give them some strategies to cope with that.
Are they upset after getting booted off
A lot of people are not the least bit upset about being eliminated from
a show. They'll say, I loved it, I had a fabulous time, I would do it again
in a minute. In fact, that's most people.
What about after they go home? Are you
available for what is known as “aftercare”?
There's not very much demand for it. I tell each and every person that
they have someone in the production company that they can contact and that I am
There have been maybe one or two people who experienced some depression
or some concern after they went home from the show. But it always worked out
fine. I don't think it had anything to do with the show. Maybe they just
moved and are having adjustment problems moving to a new city. I honestly
cannot say that I've ever had anyone who I thought was negatively affected by
being on the show who contacted me and required any ongoing intervention.
So these reality shows aren't
For most people, it's been a positive or a neutral. I would not say
that I personally have knowledge of people who have long-term negative effects
from having participated.
Did you consult for NBC's The
Contender (the show where one contestant committed suicide well after the show
I didn't work on that show. But my experience with the production
companies and the networks is that aftercare is always made available. Always.
On every show that I've worked on—and that's somewhere between 30 and 35
Is there a personality type drawn to
You get all kinds. But usually, they are outgoing, energetic and quite
Do these contestants really know what
they're getting themselves into?
I think it's like most things in life: Until you've experienced it,
you really have a hard time knowing exactly what it is. And some shows are more
stressful than others. I think Big Brother,
for example, would be very difficult. But as we've seen, some people have
Has consulting for these shows boosted
your private practice?
[Laughs] Not one person has said they wanted to come and go into
Have any of the producers asked for your
[Laughs] No, not in any ongoing way.