Miriam Rivera was the first trans person I came across. I remember seeing the ads for Big Brother with the teaser “there’s something about Miriam.” Queue footage of a generically attractive woman rolling around on a bed with white sheets. The caption comes from the British reality series that preceded her appearance in the fourth Australian Big Brother, and was the ethically ambiguous catalyst for her fame. The plot line unravels as you would expect – she enters the scene and the other contestants are not aware she is trans. This secret is meant to allude to an ethical dilemma brought on by deceit. In hindsight it’s easy to see how this social experiment reads like some questionable psychological study that brought great progress in a research design yet wouldn’t pass a modern ethics committee. It feels wrong to gawk at trans women and use them as a plot line to add shock value. Yet in the podcast series Harsh Reality, Trace Lysette takes a look at Miriam’s enthusiastic pursuit of fame via reality tv, where she capitalises on her trans identity. In a world where podcasting is stereotyped as a couple of white guys talking as if they were the most interesting specimens, this series shows the capability this platform has for people to tell their own stories, on their own terms. Harsh Reality paints a glamorous picture of Miriam, narrated by a trans woman.
Despite never watched Big Brother, memories of Miriam’s advertisements flooded my memory. I found it strange that this cultural artefact lingered in my queer brain, yet not the brains of the trans people I asked. We are so far from a point in history where trans people can respectfully live their lives quietly. We live in a time where people are likely to remember the first trans person they encountered. Laverne Cox is likely the first transgender actor many of us saw on our screens. Every trans person you encounter is likely to be some categorical first. Yet the very first trans person I came across didn’t hold such prominence. Miriam’s pioneering didn’t occur to me until I listened to this podcast. I hadn’t thought about Big Brother in years. As the brief memory of those advertisements came flooding back, there was no feeling attached to it. I don’t remember being shocked that a woman with a penis was on the show, nor finding that fact strange or unsettling. This isn’t a humble brag, it’s a testament to Miriam’s presence. This podcast paints a picture of her that reinforces the accuracy of my memory of her effortless charm in that fleeting clip. It goes beyond her status as the first of anything, as trans people are still destined to become. Miriam’s charisma is captured in every episode of this podcast reporting on her rise to fame and disappearance from the spotlight prior to her death. Its intriguing to see how Miriam’s status as the first trans person in her category unraveled a little differently to trans pioneers today. She wanted to be famous. And she had the aesthetic, charm, and humour that made it very easy for her to achieve that in the early naughties.
Miriam Rivera on Big Brother Australia
What I find exceptional about Miriam is how her legacy goes beyond her tokenism. There are various radio interviews, tv hosts, contestants and other people using transphobic language towards her, yet she takes it all in her stride. Her grace enchants you to remember her for her personality, rather than her status as a first. Likewise the presenter speaks of transphobia and other trans experiences without an air of defensiveness, simply taking it in her stride. It sets her as an ideal storyteller expertly providing social commentary on trans women in a neutral, almost defeated tone. When a former contestant of the British reality show speaks in the podcast, there is a sympathetic undertone. It’s hard to tell if it stems from compassion for Miriam or a desire to protect his ego. Regardless, these moments insert a heteronormative perspective when appropriate by giving representation to the majority without undermining the trans voices for whom this story is told. This all unravels without retracting from the celebrity focus on Miriam. It tells her story without centring on her trans-ness, nor over-explaining for the benefit of non-LGBT or otherwise unaware audiences.
This isn’t just a podcast about transgender stories. It is also a podcast about reality tv. The dating show that launched Miriam to fame had men competing for her affection to win a sum of money. It is not until the end of the series, after the winner is announced, that the contestants are made aware of her trans-ness. It is not difficult to imagine how shock value was utilised a a key element in the show. Reality tv isn’t a genre with a reputation for delicacy. Miriam’s spectacle occured somewhat as a result of her own autonomy. We can’t know for sure how much control she had over her narrative in this show. Her continuance in the spotlight shows it was at least enough to achieve her goal of fame. Yet how far does fame entitle audiences to amusement at someone else’s expense? In the podcast episode replaying the moment Miriam’s trans-ness is exposed, despite knowing what was to come I was holding my breath and grabbing at the chest of my shirt as I waited to learn how the straight men took the news. Despite the lack of suspense in the dulcet tone of the podcast, the moment still retained intrinsic impact. This illustrates the power of reality tv that exceeds cliffhangers in the initial release. A more recent example of this can be found in another alternative platform: memes.
A raw moment in the Real Housewives of Beverley Hills exposes a vulnerable moment in a star’s life that resulted in an image that has been replicated endlessly with various punchlines in the captions. You’ve probably seen the meme of a woman yelling and pointing, with the next frame cutting to a white cat sitting at the dinner table. You may not know that the woman in the first frame is in a scene from a reality tv show. The screenshot comes from a moment where Taylor Armstrong was talking bout her experience with domestic violence. This vulnerable moment immortalised in a meme is an illustruous example of the toxicity of reality television. Miriam’s story could have easily met a similar fate given the transphobic attitudes that were prominent and accepted at the time. Yet there are minimal pop culture artefacts of this reality tv star. Around her death in 2019 she lived a quiet life with a regular job. And her story was immortalised in a podcast of transgender people telling stories of transgender history, as nature intended.
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