I’m a Celebrity’s Black female contestants never stood a chance

This series of ‘I’m a Celebrity’ has seen its only two Black female contestants booted from the show first – keeping alive an odd tradition that’s affected everyone from Alison Hammond to Adele Roberts. Nicole Vassell asks how long the show can choose to ignore it

Tuesday 22 November 2022 13:00 GMT
Charlene White and Matt Hancock on ‘I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!’
Charlene White and Matt Hancock on ‘I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!’ (James Gourley/ITV/Shutterstock/iStock)

Twenty years in, you know what you’re getting with I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!. Soap actors will nibble on fried genitals. Spiders will crawl across singers’ foreheads. Black women will be voted out first. In 2019, Adele Roberts was the inaugural camper to be given her marching orders. Eighties pop queen Sinitta placed 11th in 2011. Even This Morning staple and universally adored national treasure Alison Hammond barely squeaked into 10th place in the 2010 series.

After two weeks of the ITV series’ 22nd season, the tradition holds steady: newsreader Charlene White and TV presenter Scarlette Douglas have been the first and second contestants to be eliminated from the competition. It’s not as if other candidates couldn’t have filled those unenviable boots. Matt Hancock’s inclusion in this year’s camp roster has dominated many viewer discussions, while the outspoken singer Boy George has proved a polarising presence. Yet, even without being involved in any on-air scandals or major disagreements, the first two eliminees from I’m a Celebrity have been Black women. Calling this a coincidence isn’t sufficient. In truth, it’s a glaring reflection of who the British public sees as deserving of their support.

At the start of this season, things didn’t look quite so grim. White, in particular, completed the first fearsome challenge – dangling from a high building before leaping off a ledge. It should have been the making of her, bravery being one of the most respected qualities in a show of this nature. But it didn’t take long for viewers to decide that there was simply something off-putting about the Loose Women co-host. Social media posts claimed her maternal habits in the camp were “smothering”; her initiative in the camp kitchen was deemed “bossy”.

Perhaps her ultimate crime stemmed from her interactions with Hancock. After the MP’s late entry to the jungle, White was the first to question him about his reasons for taking part. As a journalist, she was one of the contestants most expected to hold Hancock to account. Yet when she didn’t give him as soft a reception as others in the camp, she seemed to be punished for it. Some viewers went so far as to accuse her of “bullying” the former health secretary. Later, she refused to sleep in an RV with Hancock, eventually explaining that she didn’t want to risk compromising her journalistic integrity by sharing such close quarters with a working member of parliament. While other campmates were understanding, rearranging their own sleeping positions to accommodate her preference, commenters online balked: White was “selfish”, “annoying” and “self-indulgent”.

“If Charlene won’t sleep in the RV then let’s all make her sleep in a hotel,” one Twitter user suggested. Thousands liked the comment in apparent agreement. When an underwater Bushtucker Trial resulted in White panicking and tearfully ending the task early, swathes of commenters relished seeing her struggle. Finally, when she received the fewest “votes to save” on Friday, many rejoiced in seeing her booted from the show. “Glad to see the dreadful Charlene is first out,” one viewer wrote, later adding: “How’s it feel to be LESS popular than Hancock, Charlene?” Although everyone has the right to not like what they see of someone on reality TV, reactions like these seem excessive for a news anchor who they simply didn’t click with.

Two days later, hosts Ant and Dec announced the second person culled by public vote: former A Place in the Sun host Scarlette Douglas. As a friend to all and a popular swatch in the fabric of the camp, Douglas was sad to leave, with her fellow celebrities – and viewers alike – confused at her early departure. Especially when compared to other, less impactful contestants. Interestingly, the other campmate at risk of elimination was comedian Babatúndé Aléshé – another figure who, despite several memorable moments, clearly isn’t receiving as many votes as the likes of Hancock, radio DJ Chris Moyles or Coronation Street’s Sue Cleaver.

Although its prominence has slightly waned, I’m a Celebrity still pulls in enormous numbers – the launch show earlier this month peaked at 10 million viewers. It remains an annual staple of British popular culture, which makes the fact that it’s easy to predict the fate of its Black contestants even more disappointing. To be worthy of attention, Black contestants seem to need to fight harder and prove their worth in a way that their white counterparts don’t.

In 22 seasons, there has never been a non-white winner of I’m a Celebrity. Boxer David Haye finished in third place in 2012, while the closest a Black woman has come to the top was singer and presenter Fleur East in 2018. She placed fourth, and she’s also no stranger to disappointing public votes. East is currently competing on Strictly Come Dancing over on BBC One and, as a result of fan votes, has faced the dreaded dance-off twice despite consistent high scores from the judging panel. On Saturday, she and her professional partner Vito Coppola received the first perfect 40 score of the season, proving her high level of talent. She’s certainly an excellent dancer, but going by her two near-escapes so far, a Fleur East win doesn’t feel likely. Elsewhere in the programme, former England footballer Tony Adams always received enough votes from the public to save him from the dance-off, despite receiving the lowest score in seven of the nine weeks he competed. If he hadn’t withdrawn from the competition due to injury, Adams could still be stumbling his way towards the Glitterball trophy while East’s fate hangs in the balance.

No one needs to cast a vote for a TV show contestant purely because of their race. But when it’s so easy to predict who will face viewers’ wrath – or find their time being abruptly cut short – it’s important to call it out. Part of I’m a Celebrity’s charm is how little its format has changed over its many seasons – its sturdy reliability has always been a balm in an unstable, chaotic world. But its refusal to acknowledge the biased, consistently dismal treatment of its Black female contestants remains its biggest shame.

How the rest of this year’s run goes is yet to be seen, with the king or queen of the jungle still undecided. But even by the second elimination, we know that the winner definitely won’t be a Black woman. It’s worth asking who gets to be perfectly middle-of-the-road on these shows and coast on their general likeability – or afforded, like Hancock, a hero narrative and overall redemption arc – and who gets cut for it. The answer may be an uncomfortable one, but I’m a Celebrity’s future as a fun, universal TV treat depends on exploring it.

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in