Racism, or Entertainment, on 'Celebrity Big Brother'?

LONDON, Jan. 18, 2007 — -- Britain's popular TV show "Celebrity Big Brother" has become embroiled in an international uproar surrounding allegations that contestants have made racist comments about an Indian film-star-turned contestant.

It was enough to knock the British chancellor's high-profile visit to India off the front pages.

Reality doesn't get much more surreal than this. Maybe that is what provocative reality television is all about.

It is unlikely that the four participants at the center of this controversy -- Indian Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty, glamour model Danielle Lloyd, singer Jo O'Meara, and tabloid fixture Jade Goody -- had any idea of the global fracas that would erupt when they had the first of their many run-ins a couple of weeks ago.

The four women are housemates in "Big Brother," the original version of the show that was brought to the United States and helped jump-start the reality TV craze.

The contestants, some are actual stars in this version, are "incarcerated," along with five other contestants, until weekly public voting evicts them from the show.

But this time, the battle to be the last man (or woman) standing has assumed some ugly, allegedly racist undertones.

It all began less than two weeks ago when Goody's mother, Jackiey, a former contestant on the show, refused to refer to Shetty by name, calling her "the Indian." Then, Lloyd and O'Meara took to mocking the actress's Indian accent.

Last weekend, the griping began in earnest, with Goody saying that Shetty "makes my skin crawl" and Lloyd likening her to "a dog."

And on Monday night, the three women refused to eat a roast chicken prepared by Shetty, complaining that she had touched it with her hands. "They eat with their hands in India, don't they -- or is that China?" Lloyd asked before adding, "You don't know where her hands have been."

After yet another row Wednesday night, both Lloyd and Goody -- herself the product of mixed parentage -- told the actress to return home and, in Goody's words, to "go back to the slums."

Shetty's response to all this has been surprisingly Gandhian. The actress -- who has a black belt in karate -- has spent most of her time either crying to other, more sympathetic housemates or retreating into silence.

In an uncharacteristically frank moment, she revealed to a fellow contestant that she believed she was being racially abused by the three girls. But hours later she retracted that statement, saying that the differences between her and the others were not connected to race.

Predictably, Shetty's fans in India have not been so sanguine about the affair. Wednesday, a group of youths marched in protest against the show in the eastern state of Bihar, carrying placards and burning effigies of the show's producers.

The discontent has not permeated any further into the public realm, according to Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr., a Delhi-based columnist, who told ABC News that "Indians display their own racial prejudices quite openly, so this has not come as a great shock to the majority of them."

Nevertheless, the intense media attention, both in India and in Britain, has managed to cloud the visit of U.K. Chancellor Gordon Brown to the country. To that effect, he has spent the last two days defending Britain's multicultural identity and insisting that Asians -- of all colors and hues -- are welcome there.

Back in the United Kingdom, other politicians have not hesitated from jumping on the bandwagon. Labor MP Keith Vaz -- who's of Indian origin and represents a largely South Asian constituency -- brought up the issue in parliament, calling "on the program to take urgent action to remind housemates that racist behavior is unacceptable."

Speaking to ABC News, Vaz said that in one day alone, his office received more than 250 e-mails protesting Shetty's treatment. "You can't walk away from racism," he said, adding "this show is racism masquerading as entertainment."

Today the show's broadcaster, Channel 4, issued a statement refuting these claims, saying that Shetty was not a victim of racism but was actually caught up in a "cultural and class clash."

The actress's mother and publicist also addressed the media in Mumbai, India, saying that they had "complete faith in Channel 4 that they will not allow any mistreatment of Shilpa to take place."

Some viewers would maintain that the mistreatment has already taken place. Kalpana Moorthy, a London psychologist, is one of many who called and complained to Channel 4 about the show's recent episodes. "When I moved to the U.K. 35 years ago, these are exactly the kinds of things people said to me," Moorthy told ABCNews. "And I worry that plenty of those people and their children are enjoying Jade Goody's racist, bullying antics, cheering her on."

But not all Asians living in the United Kingdom feel the same way. Raja Narayan, a retired businessman who has lived in Great Britain since 1972, finds the behavior of Goody and her compatriots not racist as much as founded in "a general lack of understanding about India and the Indian way of life. The show has done us all a favor by bringing this issue into the open, where it can be discussed."

In the meantime, after Wednesday's massive row, both Goody's and Lloyd's spokespeople have issued statements denying that their clients are in any way racist.

For Goody, though, this rebuttal may have come a little too late. The Perfume Shop -- a nationwide chain of stores -- has already withdrawn her celebrity fragrance from the shelves despite its outselling scents promoted by Britney Spears and Sarah Jessica Parker.

And the show's chief sponsor, Carphone Warehouse, suspended its sponsorship Thursday, saying it did not wish to be associated with claims of racism.

But one outcome of all this fuss has been a massive increase in the audience numbers for "Celebrity Big Brother." Although the show has received a record 20,000 complaints, its audience jumped by 1 million in a single day to nearly 4.5 million viewers Tuesday.

And British bookmakers, Ladbrokes and William Hill, have made Shetty the favorite to win this year's contest on account of -- well -- public sympathy.

It seems like everyone's a winner in the world of reality television, if not reality itself.

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