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Mormons reflect on experience of being on reality TV

Published: Friday, Feb. 21 2014 1:00 p.m. MST

Dawn Meehan, an English professor at Brigham Young University, has competed on "Survivor" two times.

CBS

Since the advent of reality television, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been a casting staple. No longer a pop culture novelty, Mormons are well-represented in the reality TV community. Along with endearing themselves to audiences, several say they have strengthened their own personal testimonies and even had opportunities to share the gospel with others.

Reality TV: A brief overview

The year 2000 was a revolutionary year for television. With the emergence of a genre of programming called “reality TV,” pop culture was changed forever. Many give the lion’s share of the credit to Mark Burnett’s breakout show, “Survivor,” which stranded 16 normal people on an island with little more than a machete, a bag of rice and a film crew.

According to Nielsen, more than 15.5 million people tuned in to Burnett’s series premiere on May 31, 2000. As the season picked up steam, more and more viewers tuned in every week to get a candid look at those ordinary people in an extraordinary situation. More than 51 million people watched Richard Hatch win $1 million on national TV that summer as he defeated Kelly Wiglesworth in the season finale.

Wiglesworth, who was raised Mormon, became part of what some reality TV junkies consider one of the most infamous moments in the history of “Survivor” when Sue Hawk, another cast member, compared Hatch and Wiglesworth to a snake and a rat, at one point telling Wiglesworth, “If you were laying there, dying of thirst, I would not give you a drink of water. I would let the vultures take you.”

'The Mormon Moment'

Since the year 2000, more than 90 members of the LDS Church have appeared on reality television programs.

Mormons have accounted for three top-10 finishes on “America’s Got Talent,” four top-10 contestants on “American Idol,” eight Mirror Ball trophies on “Dancing with the Stars,” an Emmy Award, several award-winning cooks, winners on “The Rebel Billionaire” and “So You Think You Can Dance?,” two Sole Survivors (with three runners-up), two Undercover Bosses, three Biggest Losers and more than 2,800 pounds of weight lost.

In 2012, Time magazine referred to the prominence of Mormons in society as “the Mormon Moment.” However, J. Michael Hunter, author of “Mormons and Popular Culture: The Global Influence of an American Phenomenon,” explains that Mormons carved themselves a place on national TV way back in the 1970s with a squeaky-clean group of musical brothers named the Osmonds.

Hunter explains that a negative shift in perception during the 1980s made the clean-cut, eternally optimistic Mormon stereotype a thing of parody. Mormons, he said, came to be seen as cheery and well-behaved but also as unreal, out-of-touch and naïve.

When former Brigham Young University student Julie Stoffer made a controversial appearance on MTV’s voyeuristic program “The Real World” in 2000, Mormons were thrust back into a national spotlight. Stoffer, a practicing Mormon who was highlighted on the show as a sort of “fish out of water,” was ultimately suspended from BYU for her involvement with the show.

But in the past 14 years, Mormons have put some positive stamps on American pop culture — and they’ve done it on a nationally televised stage.

Why Mormons?

In his book, Hunter mentions Eric and Matt Van Wagenen, who were raised Mormon and have produced reality shows such as “Survivor,” “The Amazing Race” and “The Apprentice.” Hunter said that Matt Van Wagenen sees Mormonism as an “exclamation point” punctuating an already interesting personality.

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