in focus

The shameful tragedy of Miriam Rivera, reality TV’s first trans star

The Mexican model was torn apart in the press after fronting the controversial 2004 reality series ‘There’s Something About Miriam’, writes Louis Chilton. A new Channel 4 documentary explores a figure whose terrible story is still a black mark against the British media

Monday 29 April 2024 06:00 BST
Miriam Rivera pictured at Heathrow airport in 2004
Miriam Rivera pictured at Heathrow airport in 2004 (Shutterstock)

The case of Miriam Rivera is a shameful episode in the history of reality TV. Widely described as the first trans celebrity to emerge from British reality TV, Rivera, a trans woman from Mexico, rose to fame as the star and premise of There’s Something About Miriam, a dating show that aired on (the now-defunct channel) Sky One in 2004. In the series, six twentysomething lads spent three weeks trying to win the affections of the glamorous woman, while unaware that she was trans. They discover this only at the end of the series, in a reveal that provoked widespread tabloid fascination, a lawsuit and, later, abject condemnation.

In 2019, Rivera was found dead, having apparently taken her own life. Her story, explored in the new three-part Channel 4 documentary Miriam: Death of a Reality Star, is less well known than that of some other reality TV tragedies, such as the suicide of Love Island presenter Caroline Flack. But it’s also one of the most damning – a dismal story of exploitation, indifference and bigotry. The documentary purports to tell the tale “using Miriam’s own voice and words throughout”, but, mostly, it’s recreated using talking-head testimony from her friends, family and those involved in the reality show, as well as plenty of archival footage.

Rivera was born in 1981 in Mexico. She showed signs of gender dysphoria from a young age, and began socially transitioning and taking hormones while still a preteen. At 14, she ran away from home. “One night, I had a dream,” she later recalled. “I heard a voice as clear as life. She told me to be proud, be strong. She said the world was waiting for me. ‘Trust the future: things will come to you’.” Moving to Tijuana and then the US, Rivera floated around the New York ballroom scene as a young adult. After being scouted for an all-trans girl band called Speed Angels, she was noticed by TV producer Remy Blumenfeld. It was Blumenfeld who cast Rivera in a new British TV project, the series that would eventually become There’s Something About Miriam. At the time of filming, she was only 21.

There’s Something About Miriam was a spin on a premise that had only recently taken television by storm. The Bachelor, in which a roster of women vie for the attention of a pedestalled male singleton, had debuted to great success on American TV in 2002; gender-flipped spin-off The Bachelorette arrived one year later. There’s Something About Miriam took this idea and added a twist: an underlying deceit, obscuring the fact of Rivera’s transgender identity. Only at the end of their televised Ibizan courtship would the contestants learn Rivera’s backstory.

The cisgender public’s understanding of trans people in the early Noughties was much less informed than even now; the show’s treatment of Rivera was deeply problematic. There’s Something About Miriam’s very premise reinforced the transphobic myth that trans people are trying to deceive cis people into sexual relationships without their informed consent. And throughout the show, there were numerous jokes made, via the voiceover, about Rivera’s genitals. As the moment of the “reveal” approached, producers got increasingly skittish; a psychiatrist, Dr Gareth Smith, was flown in to help matters, but only for the finale.

“The last day of filming was the most frightening day of my life,” Rivera said. “Not only was I revealing myself to the guys, I was revealing myself to the world. As well as that, I had to be good on camera, because the whole series depended on the drama of that moment.” When the six contestants were told that she was trans, their reactions were very uncomfortable to watch: awkward laughter; confusion; complete shock. Off-camera, it was said to be even worse. Anger was directed at Rivera, threats at the show’s producer. One of the contestants is said to have torn down parts of the set in a rage. Amid all this, Rivera was whisked away, never to meet the contestants again.

Sky’s series was a point of major controversy before it even aired. The six men who featured on the show launched a joint lawsuit for conspiracy to commit sexual assault, defamation, breach of contract and personal injury, for the psychological and emotional damage the experience had caused them. While this legal battle was going on, Rivera, and the series, became a fixation of the tabloids. Footage from a pornographic video Rivera had shot when she needed money was weaponised by the contestants’ legal team and the media. Eventually, the case was settled for an undisclosed sum of money – in the new documentary, it’s claimed that the men ultimately received around half a million pounds between them, roughly half of which went to their legal representatives.

Miriam Rivera reveals she is transgender

When the series did eventually air, in February 2004, it was a ratings hit for the subscription-only channel, luring in nearly a million viewers. There’s Something about Miriam is no longer available to watch on Sky; the series and its producer issued contrite statements included at the end of the Channel 4 documentary.


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The focus was on the impact the series had on the men’s mental health; no such consideration was given to Rivera. She had signed up to the series knowing what it would entail but nothing could have prepared her for the mass transphobic backlash. The onslaught of negative media attention took a toll on Rivera, who was propelled into a position of precarious celebrity. There’s Something About Miriam was followed by a stint on the Australian Big Brother. Rivera moved back to the US but she was traumatised by the experience, and her life was fraught with personal problems. She traded off her newfound fame as a sex worker, developed a drug problem and became increasingly involved with dangerous people.

In 2007, she was admitted to hospital in critical condition after falling four stories off a rooftop. She described a man coming to her door and attacking her with a hammer; in the Channel 4 documentary, a close friend suggests that Rivera may have known the perpetrator but chose not to identify him. The incident left her with serious injuries, multiple fractures, and she had to undergo brain surgery. But she survived.

Rivera pictured at a magazine launch in Bloomsbury Square, London, 2004
Rivera pictured at a magazine launch in Bloomsbury Square, London, 2004 (Shutterstock)

Much of the last decade of Rivera’s life is hard to piece together with any certainty. At one point, she went missing for six months without explanation, later alleging that she had been kidnapped and been a victim of sex trafficking. Her substance abuse worsened. Eventually, she returned to her home in Mexico. On 5 February 2019, Rivera’s body was found outside her apartment.

Authorities determined that Rivera had died of suicide at the age of 38. This has been disputed by some of those close to her, who have contested that she may have been murdered. Others, including her brother, have said they believe the official explanation.

The public injustices and private mysteries of Rivera’s life were also the focus of the 2021 podcast series Harsh Reality: The Story of Miriam Rivera, presented by trans actor Trace Lysette. But there’s much about Rivera’s life that will always be unknowable. To this day, her story remains a profoundly sad and unsettling one.

‘Miriam: Death of a Reality Star’ airs on Channel 4 at 9pm from 29 April to 1 May

If you are experiencing feelings of distress, or are struggling to cope, you can speak to the Samaritans, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.

If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

If you are in another country, you can go to to find a helpline near you.

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