Reality TV is almost as old as television itself. The groundwork for the genre we know and love today was laid by Allen Funt in 1948 when he adapted his hit radio show Candid Microphone for the small screen. Candid Camera (which secretly filmed ordinary people being confronted with extraordinary situations) inspired numerous other reality-based shows in the years that followed, but the idea of investing our time in complete strangers didn’t become a mainstream one until the mid-90s when MTV dropped The Real World.
The "reality" portrayed on The Real World was questionable at times, and, years later, cast members confirmed that certain parts of the show were set up by producers. Today, viewers pretty much accept that some behind-the-scenes manipulation goes on in the name of entertainment, but there’s one harsh reality that no producer can fake.
Death can inject some genuine realness into the manufactured "real lives" of these TV stars and, sadly, it can also do wonders for ratings. Grab some tissues, because we’re taking a walk down memory lane and remembering the reality TV stars who passed away while their shows were still in production.
Jenni Rivera (I Love Jenni)
Singer and reality TV star Jenni Rivera was one of the best-selling Mexican artists of all time. When she died at age 43, Rivera was the single most successful woman on the Billboard Latin charts and had just finalized a deal with ABC to star in her own sitcom, though sadly we never got to see it. On Dec. 9, 2012, Rivera and six others perished when the plane they were on plummeted 28,000 feet into a mountainous region of northern Mexico.
According to CNN, investigators questioned if the plane’s pilot, who was 78 years old, should have been flying.
Fans later got to see how the Rivera family coped with the tragic loss thanks to the docu-reality series I Love Jenni. The late star was in the middle of filming the third season of the show when her plane went down.
The circumstances of her death were shocking, but not quite as shocking as the family secrets that came out afterwards. Her ex-husband Jose Marin was sentenced to 30 years without parole for the repeated molestation of Rivera’s sister, Rosie, and Rivera’s daughter, Chiquis (via Billboard). Rivera had also suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a man during her life — the Latin songstress was raped just off a California highway soon after filming her first music video for the song "La Chacalosa." According to Deadline, a biopic based on Rivera’s life has been in development since 2016.
Russell Armstrong (Real Housewives of Beverly Hills)
There have been a number of spousal deaths on the Real Housewives franchise over the years, but none have been as explosive as Russell Armstrong’s. The husband of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Taylor Armstrong took his own life in a Mulholland Drive house he’d been sharing with a friend after his wife filed for divorce. According to coroner Kristy McCracken’s report (obtained by E! News), Russell used an extension cord to hang himself in his bedroom. Speaking to Entertainment Tonight after her ex’s death, Taylor revealed that she’d allegedly suffered abuse at his hands.
"He grabbed me by the neck and shoved me up against the wall, and he said, ‘If you ever make my children a pizza without a vegetable again, I’ll kill you,’" Taylor recalled of one instance.
"He would grab me by one side of the hair on my head, and bang the other side of my head against the car," she revealed. "He would say to me, ‘I’m afraid I’m going to kill you one day.’"
Taylor’s accusations took an even darker turn when she claimed that she was expecting the first time Armstrong hurt her. "I was pregnant with Kennedy and he grabbed me by the throat and held me against a wall," she said. "I saw his ability to go from zero to 60 that quickly." Taylor released her tell-all memoir just months after Russell’s suicide, reportedly angering her castmates.
Shain Gandee (Buckwild)
Trashy reality shows have been MTV’s forte for decades, and Buckwild (described as a cross between Honey Boo Boo and Jersey Shore by CNN) was a prime example of that. Running for a single season in 2013, Buckwild followed a group of young adults from West Virginia who did whatever the hell they wanted, which — more often than not — involved drinking copious amounts of alcohol and mudding, or driving one’s vehicle around in mud. According to former Buckwild star Shain Gandee, it can be quite the romantic experience. It can also be a dangerous one.
Gandee was found dead in his vehicle in April 2013, after he went mudding on a remote road and got stuck. The 23-year-old’s uncle and friend were also present. According to local law enforcement, all three died of carbon monoxide poisoning. MTV was halfway through producing a second season of Buckwild when Gandee passed away, which convinced execs to pull the plug. The show’s producer J.P. Williams was absolutely furious with the decision.
"This is the network that has shows about teen pregnancy," Williams told The Hollywood Reporter. "They’ll stick by a show that allows you to abandon a child, but a kid dies by accident doing what he does for a living [mudding], and they cancel the show? There’s something that smells of s*** here on every level."
Ryan Dunn (Jackass, Proving Ground)
Ryan Dunn was no stranger to danger having willingly put himself in harm’s way for MTV’s Jackass and its spinoffs over the years. Dunn and his Jackass co-star Bam Margera started out making skating videos spliced with stunts under the name Camp Kill Yourself. Unfortunately, Dunn’s reckless ways eventually caught up to him. On June 20, 2011, Dunn’s Porsche 911 came off a Pennsylvania road at 130 mph and crashed through "40 feet of trees before exploding into flames," the Daily Mail reported.
The car was so mangled that it was impossible to determine whether it was the collision or the subsequent fireball that ended the lives of Dunn and his passenger, Jackass assistant Zachary Hartwell. "The automobile actually came apart," Police Chief Michael Carroll told Radar Online. "It was unbelievable, and I’ve been on a lot of fatal accident scenes. This is by far the worst I’ve ever seen."
Speaking from the crash site, a tearful Bam Margera told local TV station WTXF that Dunn was "the happiest person ever" and had "so many things going for him" (via the Daily Mail). Dunn had just started filming a Mythbusters-style video game reality show called Proving Ground when he died.
Diem Brown (Battle of the Exes II)
When Diem Brown first appeared on MTV mashup Fresh Meat: Real World/Road Rules Challenge in 2006, she had just kicked cancer’s ass. She took part in several seasons of The Challenge over the next decade, coming out the victor in a second battle with ovarian cancer during that time. There would be no third comeback, however, as the disease returned once more to claim her life. Brown was sidelined during an episode of Battle of the Exes II after she began experiencing excruciating abdominal pain, and she was later medically evacuated.
The 34-year-old’s flight from Panama to a New York City hospital was featured on the show, and her final words for viewers were extremely difficult to watch. "I’m at a point in my life where I want to just live life," Brown said (via People), admitting that she wished she’d moved faster with her goals. "I want the white-picket-fence dream: I want to get married, I want to have kids."
Her prolonged troubles with ovarian cancer had forced her to have her ovaries removed, but Brown still intended to have a child via surrogacy one day. Sadly, that never happened.
"I have been the girl that’s terrified of commitment," she’d admitted on the show. "I’m realizing that, no matter how organized your ducks are, life can turn on two seconds. So, you can’t keep on waiting. Because, if you keep on waiting, it’s gone." She passed away in November 2014, just weeks before the show premiered.
Gerald Babin (Koh-Lanta)
Gerald Babin was a contestant on Koh-Lanta, the French version of Survivor. The 25-year-old collapsed on the first day of filming the 2013 season and was initially treated for dehydration, but, when his condition didn’t improve, he was airlifted to hospital. Sadly, he would never make it — Babin went into cardiac arrest en route and died as a result. The autopsy report confirmed that he had an undiagnosed heart condition, but the Babin family still felt as though the show’s production was in some way responsible.
French prosecutors looked into bringing criminal charges against Adventure Line Productions and host Denis Brogniart after whistleblowers told Closer magazine (via The Hollywood Reporter) that Babin’s treatment was intentionally delayed so the filming schedule wouldn’t be impacted. According to one insider, a helicopter evacuation was considered "too costly" an option and was authorized way too late. Brogniart denied that he or anyone at ALP was to blame, telling French radio that they had nothing to hide.
"It is the misfortune of a family and a young man who died from a heart condition," he said (via THR). "He could have died at home or in the weight room." Koh-Lanta‘s long serving on-set doctor Thierry Costa took his own life after the allegations broke, committing suicide in his hotel room. In his parting note, Costa insisted that he had treated Babin "as a patient, not as a contestant" and explained that he couldn’t go on living because his name had been "sullied" in the media.
Mitchell Guist (Swamp People)
One of the many reality shows to document the daily lives of obscure regions in America, Swamp People follows, well, swamp people doing swamp things. Mitchell Guist was featured on the show up until his sudden death midway through season 3, which shook the Swamp People family to its core. "Right now, we’re thinking about him almost every minute," executive producer Brian Catalina told CNN after he learned the news. "We’ve lost a really important part of our family and a treasured friend."
A man who hunts alligators is always going to be living on the edge, but Guist’s death wasn’t caused by a gator. The bearded Cajun was working on a new houseboat on the Intracoastal Waterway in Louisiana when he suddenly collapsed, according to local law enforcement.
"He fell backwards as if he’d had a heart attack, stroke or some sort of seizure," Sheriff Mike Waguespack said (via Los Angeles Times). Mitchell’s brother and bestie Glenn (who appeared alongside him on Swamp People) vowed to complete the houseboat in his honor. "The two were inseparable," Catalina added. "These guys were born in the same house that they both still lived in, up until yesterday. They were two peas in a pod for sure. Neither had ever married. They were just as brothers as you could be."
Phil Harris (Deadliest Catch)
Man’s man Phil Harris starred in one of the few reality shows to bear any semblance to reality, Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch. The chain-smoking fisherman was known to have ongoing health issues, and he suffered a devastating stroke while off-loading crab in Alaska during the show’s sixth season. Engineer Steve Ward found the captain and part owner of the Cornelia Marie on the floor of his room, unable to move. His son Josh made the 911 call.
"The whole left side of his face was in paralysis, and that was hard," Josh told People. "He couldn’t move his arms or anything, he was just paralyzed on the floor." Harris was put into a medically induced coma and underwent extensive surgery. He asked for his family and friends after he came around, and, for a few days, it looked as though he was going to be okay. But on Feb. 9, 2010, things went downhill fast.
"He said, ‘Danny, I don’t feel as good as I did yesterday,’" the late star’s best friend Dan Mittman revealed. When doctors told Mittman to leave the room, he knew in his heart what was happening. Harris died later that day. "I think that miraculous recovery that happened so rapidly and blew the doctors’ minds away was so that he could say the things that he had to say to the people he had to say them to," Mittman said.
Najai Turpin (The Contender)
On paper, The Contender was simply a televised boxing tournament, with a defeated fighter leaving the show each week. In reality, it was much more than that. Not only was there a cash prize of a million dollars at stake, there was also a personal aspect to the show, with cameras given access to the contestants’ families and everyday lives. For Najai Turpin, the two were very much linked — he wanted to win that money to give his loved ones a better life.
According to host and executive producer Sylvester Stallone (via CBS News), Turpin was "a tough, punchy street kid from Philadelphia fighting for a better life for his family," but it was a fight he couldn’t win. After being eliminated from the competition, the 23-year-old took his own life outside the Philly gym at which he trained. Sitting in a car next to his girlfriend, the troubled boxer shot himself in the head.
The rules of the show dictated that none of the contestants could fight until after it aired, and Turpin’s former trainer Percy "Buster" Custus believes this may have been a factor in his suicide. "It wasn’t about the money," he told the Philadelphia Daily News (via CBS News). "Fighters want to fight. He was frustrated, because he was, like, training for nothing." The show came to an end in 2009 after four seasons, but, in 2018, Deadline confirmed that premium cable network Epix was in the process of producing a comeback season.
Steve Irwin (Ocean’s Deadliest)
Steve Irwin’s childlike fascination with animals endeared him to millions. He was taught how to "second-guess" crocodiles by his dad, Australia Zoo founder Bob Irwin, and later put these skills to use on The Crocodile Hunter, the Animal Planet docu-series that made him famous. Irwin adopted the moniker Crocodile Hunter going forward, and many believed his unusually casual relationship with the dangerous reptiles would lead to the reality TV star’s death. In the end, it was a far more placid creature that killed him.
In 2006, Irwin was out in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef filming a new show called Ocean’s Deadliest when he noticed a huge stingray. Speaking to Australia’s Channel Ten (via the Telegraph), cameraman Justin Lyons explained what happened next. "All of [a] sudden it propped on its front and started stabbing wildly, hundreds of strikes in a few seconds," he said. "It’s a jagged barb and it went through his chest like a hot knife through butter."
Lyons discovered that Irwin had "a two-inch-wide injury over his heart" and rushed him back to the boat, but sadly the 44-year-old’s injuries were just too severe for him to be saved. "I was saying to him things like ‘Think of your kids Steve, hang on, hang on, hang on’, and he calmly looked up at me and said ‘I’m dying’, and that was the last thing he said."
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).