Fame eludes winner of ultimate 'Big Brother'

It was the reality show that would never end. But a year on it's been canned and the winner is ignored by the paparazzi, the media and even his neighbours. What went wrong? Ruth Elkins meets Michael Knopf
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The Independent Online

"It'd be nice to get out of the house," admits Michael Knopf, when I ring to arrange a meeting. "I haven't got much to do at the moment." That just doesn't make sense. For a freshly crowned Big Brother winner, Knopf, 34, has way too much time on his hands.

It was not meant to turn out this way, of course. Last week, Knopf became the winner of the world's first real-life Truman Show, a twist on the Big Brother formula that was supposed to last for ever. The dental technician from Berlin spent more than five months in Big Brother: Das Dorf (Big Brother: The Village), living in a purpose-built reality-TV town near Cologne where the inhabitants became stars in a "real life soap opera", their every move watched by 100 cameras 24 hours a day. Knopf, the winner, should be a star.

When Das Dorf was launched in February 2005, the programme's producers at Endemol Deutschland thought they had a major hit. Never before had the Big Brother format been taken so far. The "TV Trumpton", as one observer dubbed it - with church tower, daffodil-framed square, car workshop, fashion design studio and working farm - seemed to have all the ingredients to ensure addictive television. The villagers were split into "social classes" and made to work for a living. The rich "bosses", who lived in a swish townhouse with hot tubs, were pitted against the poor "workers" in a council house with no hot water. There was talk of babies being conceived, marriages, divorces; maybe even a few deaths. Nothing seemed impossible. And the public appeal seemed limitless.

But viewing figures dived soon after the show went on air. By the time Endemol announced in December that it was pulling the plug, only 700,000 Germans were watching. Some say the failure of Das Dorf is the failure of the Big Brother concept. Michael Knopf could just turn out to be last man standing in a TV formula that has run its course.

But surely Knopf has had lots of TV offers? "Not a thing," he says. Do his apartment block residents recognise him? "I'm not sure they know who I am." His neighbours just push past him, he says. But then, most people would. Knopf is the kind of man you would ask to take part in an identity parade: blandly handsome, he blends effortlessly into the background.

So isn't he a bit peeved? "Not at all." Hang on; didn't he want to become famous? Why else go on the show? "For the experience," he shrugs. "I thought it would be a bit of fun."

Big Brother used to be the road to C-list fame but, in Germany, all that has gone. Nobody watches BB, and it has ceased to be a celebrity factory. It has also created a different kind of contestant from the British shows. Only one Dorf-er, car mechanic Giuseppe, has released a record. Most were more realistic about their chances of achieving lucrative notoriety. Even Gina, 19, peroxide blonde, who had sex in the village pool, said: "It would be stupid to regard Big Brother as a springboard." As the series limped to a close, a careers adviser was sent into the village to talk to contestants about their job prospects. Gina said she would study interior design.

So what did they do in Das Dorf? Knopf becomes animated. "Well, we had this Sudoku challenge. It was great! And a 'Piss Quiz' where we had to drink 1.5 litres of water and answer questions. There were rhyming matches. The very best moment was watching a lamb being born."

It sounds about as interesting as a wet afternoon in Cleethorpes. I can see why I and the rest of Germany didn't bother watching. Anything else? "Umm, they sent a Paris Hilton lookalike over from England," Knopf says. "But she was from Essex and we couldn't understand her." She, of course, was Chantelle, the non-celebrity winner of the British Celebrity Big Brother in January.

The BB format was always such that nobodies could become winners, but the big switch-off in Germany has changed the psychological dynamic of the show. The contestants became hard-headed, secretly negotiating to carve up the winnings between them. In the end, it was Knopf, disliked by his fellow villagers, who received 165,000 votes and bagged the €250,000 (£170,000) prize for himself.

Knopf was doing quite well before he entered the village. "Taking part was a big risk," he says. A freelance dental technician, he wound up his company before he left for Das Dorf. But was he really ready to spend his life in there? "I don't honestly believe RTL2 [the broadcaster] planned the show to last for ever," Knopf says. "Come on: there were only three houses in the village."

Knopf has been "out" for only four days when I meet him in a Berlin restaurant. He seems unnerved by his freedom. "The worst thing is not knowing what to do with yourself," he says. "In there, you don't have responsibilities, you're told what to do. It's very confusing now that I can do what I want." He stops and looks around the room warily. "It's almost as if I've forgotten the social skills I had to deal with real life." Like leaving prison, I venture. "Worse," he replies.

This kind of disorientation is a recognised phenomenon in Big Brother shows. "Some people get addicted to the BB lifestyle," said Boris Brandt, Endemol Deutschland's chief, as he showed journalists around the Big Brother village. "It's a far happier world. You get fed, you get money, you don't have to think for yourself." When the series before Das Dorf ended, many of the contestants had lived in the house for a year. Many didn't want to leave.

Yet Knopf suffered severe stress inside. "I'm a sensitive kind of a guy," he says. "I'd be lying if I said it didn't get a bit much in there sometimes." Life in Das Dorf was lonely. "I missed my family and friends terribly. It was really hard being in there without them. My mum's so glad I'm back again. She ripped open my suitcase and wanted to do my washing the minute I got home."

At Christmas, Knopf broke down live on TV when Endemol gave him presents from his family. Now he suffers from stomach problems, stress-related, he thinks. He wouldn't do it again. "Has taking part in Big Brother left a scar? It's too early to tell. I hope not."

For me, Knopf is the Truman Burbank who never was; the man who should have been famous but wasn't, a winner who became a loser. "Truman; he escaped from the village, didn't he? I probably would have made a run for it as well, if it had gone on much longer."

Knopf falls silent, then says: "You're disappointed, aren't you? You wanted me to be some fame-hungry idiot, desperate to release a record or get on the cover of a magazine. But why should I? It's far nicer that I can sit here and talk to you about my experience without hundreds of people asking for autographs and wanting to take my picture."

Knopf's mobile rings, and he has a hushed, hurried discussion. An interview? A TV appearance? "Your big break?" I ask. "Nah," says Knopf, putting on his jacket. "It was my mum. She wanted to tell me my washing's done."