Never before has a reality TV show sparked a diplomatic incident. But Britain's "Celebrity Big Brother" is blazing uncomfortable new ground.
The show features the typical group of C-list celebrities. Among them Jermaine Jackson, Dirk Benedict (of "A Team" fame), a former Miss England who was stripped of her crown for sleeping with one of the judges, and a British woman named whose only claim to fame is that she came in third on a previous edition of "Big Brother."
The show's producers tossed in one genuine star into the mix: Indian actress Shilpa Shetty. She wasn't a household name in England, but she's a Bollywood superstar. Glamorous and beautiful, Shilpa Shetty is (as one newspaper columnist here put it) "a pedigree among the pit bulls."
Her female housemates have ganged up on her. Every night, they make merciless fun of her.
"I think she should f*'ing go home," the Ex-Miss England Danielle Lloyd said. "She doesn't even speak English properly!" Nevermind that Lloyd's Scouse accent is thicker than The Beatles before Ed Sullivan!
Jade Goody, the ex-"Big Brother" contestant, threw a downright tantrum at Shetty last night. "Go back to the slums," she said. "You're not a princess here!"
Shetty shouted back, "Well at least my claim to fame is not this!"
Her enormous fan-base in India is eager to avenge her. Demonstrators in one city burnt "Big Brother" in effigy. The Indian Parliament has lodged a formal complaint with the British government. Apparently outrage over the racist bullying of a Bollywood star is one thing Hindu nationalists and Muslim separatists can agree on.
The British Chancellor of the Exchequer, now on a trade mission to India, has faced a barrage of questions. He has reassured Indians, as much as he can, that Britain is a nation of fairness and tolerance. But the incident has reopened painful wounds from India's days as a British colony.
In London too there's been a backlash. On the floor of the House of Commons, no less, Prime Minister Tony Blair was asked his opinion. He begged off, "I have not seen the program in question, so I cannot comment upon it," said Blair. But he went on to reaffirm his opposition to "racism in all its forms."
The show's main advertiser, the Car Phone Warehouse, today withdrew its $6 million sponsorship of "Big Brother." The British TV regulator Ofcom has logged upwards of 30,000 complaints. That officially makes "Big Brother" the most complained-about show in British history.
On Thursday, local police launched a hate crimes investigation after Shetty identified the bullying as racist.
"This is what today's UK is," she told a sympathetic housemate. "It's scary."
But on Thursday's broadcast, she retracted that charge, acknowledging that people say mean things in a fit of anger.
Actor Dirk Benedict was less charitable. He nominated Shetty's main tormenter Jane Goody for eviction. "She has issues," he said. "She has more issues than the Democratic party in America."
On Friday, either Shetty or Goody will be evicted. The viewers decide.
Sequestered in the "Big Brother" house, the contestants have no idea how the fight is being perceived by the outside world. Goody will be surprised to learn that an anti-bullying charity she supports has dropped her as a spokesperson, or that today British stores started pulling her line of perfume from the shelves.
She represents a particular type of British working class hero. Known as a "Chav," she's been described by one news reporter as a person for whom "no heel is too high, no tan too fake." But other Chavs are turning against her.
British bookies say the smart money is on Shetty to stay and win. Having kept a brave face through all this abuse, her star is on the rise.
London video store owner Deepak Pattni said, "She's going to be an even bigger star now. Everyone is asking about her movies."
Apparently even on "Big Brother," dignity has its rewards.