In 2007, Gordon Ramsay ripped apart struggling New Jersey chef Joseph Cerniglia on “Kitchen Nightmares,” screaming: “Your business is about to f - - king swim down the Hudson.” Three years later, Cerniglia jumped off the George Washington Bridge. His shocking death was one of at least 21 reality-contestant suicides since 2004 — afflicting lesser-known programs such as “Storage Wars” as well as ratings mammoths like the “Bachelor” franchise, which has lost three former stars to suicide.
Insiders raise questions about the types of people attracted to these shows — and the screening process and support offered. Dr. Richard Levak, a California-based personality expert who has worked on several reality shows, including “Survivor,” says the spate of suicides among reality-TV stars boils down to a chicken-or-the-egg debate.
“Does [appearing on reality television] attract people with a higher rate of instability?” Levak asks. “Are people who are unstable more interested? Or do the vagaries of reality TV precipitate people killing themselves?” Two weeks ago, “The Bachelor” Season 14 contestant Alexa “Lex” McAllister, 31, became the latest fatality when she overdosed on prescription pills. Gia Allemand, from the same season, hanged herself in 2013. Three years earlier, 35-year-old Julien Hug, a 2009 “Bachelorette” contestant, shot himself in the head.
Even periphereal players like Russell Armstrong, husband of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Taylor Armstrong, aren’t immune. He hanged himself in 2011 after his financial woes and marital problems were aired on Bravo. Prior to his death, he told RumorFix of the pressures of being on television. “[It] was pretty overwhelming,” he said. “It took our manageable problems and made them worse.”
Jesse Csincsak, the fourth-season winner of “The Bachelorette,” tells The Post that the pressures and struggles that come with appearing on reality television can drive some people over the edge.“I think people don’t realize the repercussions when they sign up,” says Csincsak, who was friends with both McAllister and Allemand. He says one of the biggest problems is being thrust into the spotlight with minimal preparation for the fanfare, hatred and exposure about to overtake one’s life.
“Over the course of eight episodes, 50 million people saw them. Everywhere they go — walking down the streets, on Facebook — all these people are judging them,” says Csincsak, who had trouble finding a job after his 2008 reality-TV debut (he now works in property management in Scottsdale, Ariz.). “They didn’t sign up to be portrayed as the bully or the slut or the drunk or whatever,” he says, “but they were, because that creates ratings, and ratings equal dollars.”
Eliza Orlins, who starred on two seasons of “Survivor,” recalls perusing an online message board after she completed the show the first time around in 2004. “Half the people were saying, ‘That anorexic bitch should eat a cheeseburger,’ and the other half were like, ‘Oh my God, look at her fat thighs.’ “People aren’t screened [by the shows] as well as they should be,” says Orlins, now a lawyer in Manhattan. “A lot of people have trouble dealing with the aftermath.”
The screening process for reality-show contestants typically starts with casting directors who “make sure [applicants] are emotionally stable enough,” says Lisa Ganz, who owns a Manhattan casting company and has worked withshows “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Nanny 911.” Once they get OK’d, nearly all candidates undergo a thorough background check, including an STD exam if they’re on a romantic show like “The Bachelor,” and a written and in-person psychological test.
Csincsak’s psych evaluation included 1,200 multiple-choice questions, such as “Do you feel sad?” and “Do you ever think about killing your mother?” But the “Bachelorette” champ claims the questions were less about deducing stability and more about gathering ammo for later.
“You say you’re scared of snakes, they’re going to take you to the zoo. If you’re afraid of heights, they’ll make you jump off a cliff,” he says. “Now they’re even more in-depth, and they ask for your best friend’s number and five past girlfriends. They want to know dirt so they can create a story around you.”
Levak admits there’s an allure to having a degree of volatility on TV. “Generally, the producers would like people that I was uncomfortable with for psychological reasons,” he says. “They were obviously the most interesting and attractive,” he adds, noting that a show’s honchos would normally heed his professional advice, even if it required a battle.
But nothing’s a perfect science, Levak concedes, especially when people are willing to sacrifice health for fame. Take Kathy Sleckman. She endured an exhaustive 10-day interview and background check in Los Angeles — all while essentially quarantined in her hotel room — when she applied for Season 9 of “Survivor” in 2004.
“You’re not allowed to talk to the other contestants. You eat by yourself,” says Sleckman. The Wisconsin native didn’t make the cut, but three years later she was called back to interview for Season 16 of the show. This time, she was in LA for two days of meetings. In the intervening years, and unbeknownst to the producers, Sleckman had become a mother and suffered from severe postpartum depression, and was on the antidepressant Zoloft.
“I hid it,” admits Sleckman, who paid for her doctor appointments in cash to ensure there’d be no trail of her psychiatric appointments. She made the cut and quit Zoloft cold turkey when she left for Palau to film “Survivor: Micronesia” with Orlins, among others. “I thought they’d search my luggage,” she explains.Sleckman, now 53, was soon plagued with serious thoughts of self-harm while filming.
“While I was out on the island, my mind went to, ‘My husband’s seeing someone already,’ ‘My daughter’s going to hate me . . . and become a crack whore’ . . . I was mentally going down a rabbit hole.” Not wanting to quit, on Day 19 of filming, Sleckman decided she would chop off the tip of her pinky finger and go out — gracefully — on medical leave.
Instead, Sleckman confided in one of the producers and was sent off-site, where she was given an emergency pack of Zoloft and met with the on-set therapist, Dr. Liza Siegel. She was sent home four days later. Viewers were simply told she had quit the show. Nothing about her mental breakdown aired on the program, which was a surprise to Sleckman.
(Mark Burnett Productions, the creators of the show, did not respond to The Post about Sleckman’s account.) “There’s no family or friends,” says Sleckman. “You’re starving and out in the elements. It’s probably one of the worst situations to be in if you were off your meds.” One producer, who asked to remain anonymous for professional reasons, says that a suicide threat can derail an entire show season.
“We have a responsibility to hook them up with [a therapist] and not shoot again until they’re emotionally stable,” the producer says, adding that the confessional-heavy setup of these shows can expose deeply rooted issues. Some who have lost loved ones, like Joseph Cerniglia’s mother, Patricia Hansen, don’t blame the shows.
“Listen, the restaurant business is the worst business that you can be in,” says Hansen. “We were happy with [‘Kitchen Nightmares’]. It was fun. Gordon was great.” But Csincsak argues that nearly everyone experiences some type of fall after filming. “No matter how you’re portrayed . . . you’re kind of set up for failure down the road,” says Csincsak.
After jetting around like a king to private islands in private helicopters, “you go off the show and back to your job at Target or bartending, and all of a sudden you’re depressed,” he says. “It’s just inevitable.” Csincsak says the networks ought to require a post-show mental evaluation for rejected contestants, rather than liquoring them up and sending them home in tears.
“Maybe they [should] put you in a hotel for 48 hours to decompress with a therapist to allow your brain to process everything,” he says. Dr. Levak expresses worry that as the genre continues to need more and more contestants for more and more shows, “the vetting procedure might be compromised.”
Says Csincsak: “I guarantee you that there are other people, who are on the verge of maybe not wanting to live anymore, on the show, and they see [what happened to] Lex and Gia and they think, ‘Oh, their pain is over with and gone. That’could be me.’ ”