reality tv

The Reality-TV Confessional Shaped Our Digital Lives

We’re all playing it up for the cameras.

Animation: The Cut; Photos: Bravo, Channel 4, E! Entertainment, MTV, Hulu
Animation: The Cut; Photos: Bravo, Channel 4, E! Entertainment, MTV, Hulu

Lisa Rinna wears a pair of sparkly hoop earrings, which bounce as she speaks directly to the camera. “Kathy said, ‘I will destroy Kyle and her family,’” she recalls with deadly seriousness in her confessional interview. Like any former soap actress would, she pauses for dramatic effect before concluding, “‘If it’s the last thing I ever do.’”

To viewers of Bravo’s Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Rinna is describing an alleged off-camera “breakdown” from her co-star Kathy Hilton. Rinna claims that, while on a cast trip to Aspen, Hilton screamed and stamped on her glasses during a vicious tirade about the cast, including her sister Kyle Richards. A tense montage of interviews — from Erika Girardi, Crystal Minkoff, Diana Jenkins, Dorit Kemsley, and finally Richards — explains the buildup to Kathy’s outburst. It’s an incident that sparked months of tabloid speculation and cryptic social-media posts, but only felt real after the women narrated the story like key witnesses in a criminal trial (and we, the captivated viewers, were the jury).

This type of confessional interview appears in every subgenre of reality TV. We see them on competition shows (RuPaul’s Drag Race), dating shows (Love Island), survival shows (Survivor), makeover shows (Queer Eye), and vocational shows (Below Deck, Selling Sunset). But the confessional interview is more than just a feature of some reality series: It is a defining characteristic of the genre, which has helped to make it a cultural phenomenon. And the influence of this type of storytelling goes beyond reality TV. The Kardashians first used their glossy confessional interviews to narrate their meteoric rise to fame, before selling their brand to the world on Instagram. Now, across social media, we too can film, edit, and post our own confessional-style content. Like it or not, the reality-TV confessional has shaped our digital lives.

The first ever reality show — 1971’s An American Family, which followed an upper-middle-class family in Santa Barbara — did not include documentary-style interviews. Nearly two decades later, MTV’s The Real World introduced the confessional when, from the second season onward, contestants were interviewed weekly by producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray. The same approach was adopted by Dutch reality series Big Brother, which was adapted for American and British audiences in the early 2000s. In the “diary room,” housemates would share their innermost thoughts with Big Brother — and the world.

Reality-TV writer Brian Moylan, author of The Housewives: The Real Story of the Real Housewives, cites The Real World’s use of confessional interviews as the moment reality TV really began as a cohesive medium. “Reality TV isn’t just about observing what’s going on,” he explains. “It’s about asking the people how they feel about what’s happening to them. Confessionals give us these thought bubbles from the cast, which is far more interesting than viewing the raw footage alone.”

Why have confessionals worked so well on reality TV, specifically? Alex Baskin, executive producer of Bravo shows such as The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and Vanderpump Rules, says there are practical benefits for the producers. “When you’re editing a show, you want to be able to cut to something. And often that feels like it should be an insight or an observation, so having a confessional is invaluable,” he says. “There’s also something really alluring about hearing someone’s point of view and their unvarnished opinion.” June Deery, author of the 2015 book Reality TV and professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, thinks it goes even deeper than that. Confessionals, she says, are right at the heart of what makes reality TV so appealing: working out what is real. “The confessional could be seen as the quintessence of what I call the ‘staged actuality’ of reality TV — the combination of authenticity and artifice,” she explains. “It appears to be the most candid form of communication but can, in actuality, be highly manipulated.”

On the Real Housewives of New York City, Bethenny Frankel became known for her confessional interviews. In the early seasons, she was the show’s unofficial narrator, introducing the audience to the eccentricities of New York Fashion Week, summer escapades in the Hamptons, and the politics of Upper East Side charity events. (Executive producer and reunion host Andy Cohen once told her he could “fill an entire book” with her zingers.) “I loved doing the interviews. I’m a true storyteller and it’s where you’re able to crystallize what really happened,” Frankel says. “The confessionals are where I shine, because it’s just me riffing — and that’s when I’m at my best.”

Frankel’s knack for confessionals didn’t go unnoticed by her co-stars. One of them even complained to Bravo that her interviews were getting too much airtime. (She didn’t reveal who, but did tell me that my two guesses — Jill Zarin and Ramona Singer — were both wrong.) “I’ve heard so many of my lines in other people’s confessionals too,” Frankel says. “Things that I’ve said to people when we’re talking on the phone gossiping about stuff that happened that day on the show — and it’s annoying because then it becomes their line!”

Joke-stealing aside, there are obvious narrative benefits to the confessional. The story arcs of episodes and the relationships between reality-TV contestants can be captured through interviews with various people instead of one narrator. And with such power comes narrative control: Baskin says his team doesn’t show cast members the confessional questions in advance and strives to make them as “real” and “intimate” as possible, but these interviews give producers the final say on who gets to be heard.

“The reality-TV interviewer has no interest in saving psyches or souls,” says Deery. “They are employed to maximize conflict through leading questions.” Confessionals, she says, “reinforce” the power that producers have over the information viewers get to see. The savvier reality stars are aware of these dynamics and play them up for the camera.

This presents a limitation of confessionals, though: Sometimes they can become a crutch. “The best storytelling happens in the moment,” Baskin says. “We don’t want to be reliant on confessionals and we don’t want to be lazy.” It can be difficult, he says, when people who come across naturally in regular scenes seem stiff in confessionals — or, on the flip side, if it feels like someone only performs in confessionals, after they’ve had time to rehearse their lines. “We don’t want anybody to take on a persona,” Baskin says. “Sometimes participants who struggle in confessionals will say, ‘Just tell me what you want!’ And our answer is always, ‘We want you to be you!’”

Confessionals facilitate a perceived friendship between reality stars and viewers. Sociologist Danielle Lindemann, author of True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us, calls this relationship “parasocial,” or one-sided. “Confessionals play right into that dynamic because the stars are seemingly speaking directly to you and letting you in on the intimate details of their lives,” she says.

No one has monetized this perceived intimacy more effectively than the Kardashians. As executive producers of their own reality shows, the Kardashians have had more control over the narrative than other reality stars, whose portrayal is at the mercy of external producers and editors. “The Kardashians showed what could be done with the confessional as a form, because they had freedom to do it,” says writer MJ Corey, who is also known as Kardashian Kolloquium on Instagram and TikTok. “On other shows, confessionals could be opportunities for exploitation for the sake of drama or the narrative. But as producers too, the Kardashians don’t have that problem.”

Corey calls confessionals the “connective tissue” that brings together the different parts of the Kardashians — businesses, fame, marriages, and family. And as they have become more famous, these interviews are one of the main ways they have responded to controversy. “Confessionals give them the opportunity to retroactively compress or alter our understanding of major incidents,” she says. “By the time an episode is over, their version of the story is the one that gets remembered in our collective memory and treated as fact.”

The Kardashian machine of today was built on personality. From the early seasons of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, their confessionals helped the family craft the personas of individual family members. Whether it’s Kris Jenner solidifying her personal brand as the mastermind who works harder than the devil or Kim Kardashian imitating Paris Hilton’s “bratty heiress-girl persona from the early 2000s” by expressing zero remorse for throwing her mother’s BlackBerry across a ski chalet, Corey believes the confessional is precisely what has helped the Kardashians figure out how to form public personas — and profit from them.

The Kardashians are not the only ones who have evolved their approach to confessionals. Gradually, confessionals have become more polished and glamorous, with expensive and fashion-forward looks. “When I first started filming Housewives, I filmed confessionals in my studio apartment furnished by Ikea and I did my own hair and makeup,” Frankel remembers. “But now it’s like, ball gowns! It’s Joan Crawford– and Joan Collins–level wardrobe!” Moylan, who has noted the “glam arms race” on Housewives before, thinks that confessionals have gotten more pristine as the potential for exposure on social media has become greater. (Confessional looks are now “revealed” by Housewives stars on social media as they film, to excite fans ahead of the upcoming season.) “Getting those fan-favorite looks and memes is its own form of currency,” he says.

The way confessionals are filmed has evolved. In the early seasons of Real Housewives, some confessionals were filmed “on the fly” (OTF), with producers seeking instant reactions from certain situations. (Frankel says she suggested this approach on RHONY, having competed on The Apprentice in 2005, where confessionals were filmed that way.) But since filming OTF runs the risk of interrupting the cast at heightened moments, producers began to film planned interviews more frequently, and they became glossier with each passing year. Moylan points out that Bravo has become more experimental with the confessional format, shooting against green screens for ease of production and even using split-screen interviews on the latest season of Real Housewives Ultimate Girls Trip.

The Kardashians have tentatively embraced OTF confessionals in their Hulu series, which Corey believes is a play to make them seem more relatable as their billionaire lifestyles become even further removed from their viewers’. Fifteen years after they first appeared on our screens, Kardashian confessionals are now about unpacking the experience of reality-TV stardom. “As the show evolved, it became a reality show about a reality show,” Corey says. “And now, the confessionals are very postmodern spaces where they break the fourth wall.”

The “fourth wall” is the invisible barrier that separates reality stars from their audience. But one could argue that all confessionals have always implicitly broken this barrier. Reality stars talking to the camera in front of a green screen, often in full hair and makeup, is an obviously staged situation. On Housewives confessionals, the fourth wall is now deliberately broken more often: We’ll hear the off-screen voices of producers prompting the stars with questions, or, sometimes, the cast will “perform” with props. (Sipping on a drink after dropping a dramatic bombshell is a popular move.) And in the latest season of RHOBH, Rinna alleged that Hilton planned to “take down” the entire show, Bravo, and parent network NBC. In the past, this acknowledgment of “the show” would have been saved for the end-of-season reunion special.

Confessionals alluding to their own artificiality could be a way of trying to make reality shows feel more authentic. Lindemann thinks that, despite being clearly staged, these interviews often feel “realer” than regular interactions “because the confessional can enable people to be honest in ways that would be taboo to do to someone’s face.” Without confessionals, Baskin predicts producers might need to intervene more to engineer specific conversations to move the story along. “When I watch shows that don’t have confessionals, there is often a heavier hand in making sure that participants give viewers enough of the exposition,” he says. “And that can sometimes feel forced.” Adam DiVello’s The Hills, for example, often felt scripted because it did not include confessionals. (A decade later, DiVello created Selling Sunset, which notably features plenty of confessional interviews.)

With confessionals breaking the fourth wall, the resurgence of OTF interviews, and the introduction of self-filmed footage during the COVID-19 pandemic, things have come full circle. What we’re seeing now feels closer to the captivating early seasons of The Real World. Some producers, like Baskin, will incorporate iPhone footage “if someone captured the story authentically” that way. And the most perceptive fans can analyze any changes in behavior between these forms: not just in confessionals versus the regular footage, but the different types of confessionals we’re seeing now too. “We get to see the contrast between all their efforts,” Corey says. “We can work out what feels super media-trained — and what, if anything, feels real.”

The confessional hasn’t just conquered reality TV — it now dominates the digital landscape too. Its most lasting legacy is the birth of the social-media influencer. The Kardashians have made billions of dollars by recommending products to their fans on Instagram, often talking directly to the camera to maintain the illusion of friendship that was first formed on KUWTK. The world’s biggest YouTubers have taken a similar approach — filming, editing, and posting their own confessional-like videos.

Now, as reality-TV confessionals become less pristine, so too is the type of content social-media users are gravitating toward. TikTok and BeReal are noticeably unpolished compared to Instagram, suggesting an awareness of the “fourth wall” on social media and a similar desire for authenticity in a space that feels filtered and edited. Frankel has channeled her talent for confessionals into a successful podcast and large social-media following, most recently on TikTok, where she reviews beauty products. “It’s just like I’m talking to the Bravo cameras,” she says. “It never feels like I’m talking to millions of people.”

It might feel like social media is diminishing reality TV’s influence. After all, people no longer need a TV platform to become famous for being themselves. But it’s still rare for reality stars with large followings to maintain the same level of cultural relevance once they’ve left a show. Moylan thinks the confessional is a key part of why the Kardashians decided to return to reality TV after KUWTK ended. “You can watch Kim Kardashian on Instagram all day and see what she’s doing, or even read interviews with her in Vogue, but seeing her sit down and talk to a camera is very different,” he says.

The role of the confessional in building the Kardashian brand might not be immediately obvious or quantifiable in dollars. But its decades-long influence on reality TV is undeniable. Rinna was loudly booed by fans at BravoCon in New York last week for her role as prosecutor in the case of the Housewives versus Kathy Hilton. The story she told in her confessional has enthralled and divided Real Housewives fans.

Watching Bravo stars descend on the glittery reality-TV convention, it is difficult to see how the reality genre could have become such a cultural phenomenon — and helped to shape our online culture — without the confessional. “You’ll be watching one of the interviews and someone will say something interesting or insightful. And suddenly, you’ll just think, Holy shit, this person is talking directly to me and telling me a story, and I want to hear more,” Baskin says. “Now, I’m going through this with them.”

The Reality-TV Confessional Shaped Our Digital Lives