There are certain phone calls you remember forever. They might be job offers, news of a loved one passing, or, if you’re James Kelly, a surprise call from the producers of Teen Big Brother, who’ve somehow tracked you down to an Ibiza hotel.
On that day in June 2003, the 18-year-old James (now 37) was enjoying his newfound status of being legal drinking age by — as is a rite of passage for teenage Brits — wreaking hedonistic havoc on a European party island with 20 of his mates. It was in his hotel lobby that he found himself clutching a receiver, confused, hungover and scantily clad, as he learned he’d been selected to go into the Teen Big Brother house.
“Next thing I know, I’ve got to get to Ibiza airport, into London, and then back the same night — but no one could know,” he recalls over Zoom from his home in Houston, Texas. Sworn to secrecy and now needing to vanish for 24 hours without a trace, James confided in one of his friends, who had to make up a story to explain why he’d suddenly disappeared. “He said I ended up with some girls,” he tells me with a wry smile, his short black hair neatly slicked back. “At first, he made me sound like a bit of a lothario, but then he would add all these little stories, like I ended up on a boat out at sea. Some of those guys probably [still think] I was marooned with a group of girls.” He shakes his head, beams, and adds with a fond scoff: “Gullible drunk Scots.”
Two weeks earlier, and safely on shore, James, from Paisley near Glasgow, had been auditioning with hundreds of others for a chance to feature on Teen Big Brother. A new Big Brother spin-off, the show would see eight 18-year-old housemates live in the Big Brother house for 10 days, and would mostly follow the same format as the main version, with tasks, nominations and evictions. However, there would be no alcohol — a staple of 00s Big Brother — cigarettes, nor live audience, as the series would be pre-recorded. Dermot O’Leary would host, while Marcus Bentley, Big Brother’s long-time narrator, would return to lend his trademark Geordie commentary.
The teen housemates would enter the house a week after season four of the main show wrapped in July, but the teen version wouldn’t air until October.
In 2003, Big Brother — which launched in the UK at the turn of the millennium — was in its heyday. Jade Goody had made an explosive appearance on the programme the previous year, attracting unprecedented press attention and unwittingly ushering in a new era of celebrity and reality TV. Audiences had been given a taste of the wild possibilities this new format could offer — ferocious arguments, drunken sexual antics, manufactured cruelty — and, given the breakout success of Big Brother 3, it seems they were hungry for more. But, as Bentley remembers it, Mark Thompson, the then-chief executive of Channel 4, wasn’t too happy about this. “He wanted the next Big Brother to be more cerebral,” says Bentley. “So they threw everything at Big Brother 4 — but it was a bit of a damp squib. I remember Philip Edgar-Jones (Big Brother’s former creative director) saying something like, ‘Well, that was a shower of shit. Thank God we’ve got [Teen Big Brother] to put us back on track.’ It was definitely their chance of redemption.”
Its appointed redeemers were a motley crew of 18-year-olds, each with different backgrounds and beliefs, but most of whom were still living at home with their parents. There was James, a shrewd and self-assured jester; the solemn but gentle Hasan Shah, a practising Muslim from London; the vivacious, fast-talking Tracey Fowler from Runcorn; Belfast’s Paul Brennan, a vibrant, sharp-tongued queer hairdresser; Shaneen Dawkins (now Mooney) from Leeds, who was straight-talking but self-doubting; Lowestoft’s fiery, playful, but noticeably immature Jade Dyer (now Jade Kirk); Caroline Cloke, a mild-mannered, sheltered confidant from Kent; and, finally, the carefree, charismatic Tommy Wright from Weymouth.
“I was so excited about it,” Shaneen, now a 37-year-old freelance musician living in Leeds, tells me over Zoom. Out of all the contestants, she looks the most like she did when she was 18, save for the two new piercings that adorn her face — a delicate stud beneath her bottom lip and a matching one in her nose. “I remember feeling like it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, something that people I knew just didn’t do.”
But, looking back two decades later, and as Big Brother is set to be revived on ITV2, Shaneen tells me she has mixed feelings about the show — as do all of the other former housemates I speak to. Alongside fondness towards the experience, each of them expresses frustration about the way certain aspects were run, edited and aired. “[Reliving it now] is a little anxiety-provoking,” admits Shaneen.
Although it caused a brief storm at the time — owing to the fact that Jade and Tommy became the first housemates in Big Brother UK’s history to have sex in the house — in the 20 years since, there’s been little talk of Teen Big Brother. In fact, the series has been mostly forgotten. Or, it could be argued, purposely unremembered.
On reflection, many of the housemates feel that 18 — between childhood and adulthood — is too young to be thrust into a situation like Big Brother, especially without the grounding presence of older adults. “We came across young because we really were,” says Tracey, now a 38-year-old stay-at-home mum living in Liverpool. “There was no social media, so none of us had any experience of the world. None of us knew what we were doing or who we even were.”
Back in the summer of 2003, Tracey, like many of the other housemates, felt she was at a crossroads in her life. She was working as a shop assistant and studying beauty therapy at college, but she’d just ended a two-year relationship and was figuring out “who [she] wanted to be”. Likewise, James, a hopeful footballer, was reconsidering the direction his life would take after a string of frustrating and debilitating injuries prevented him from playing the game he loved. Jade was juggling disparate jobs in a bar and a nursery, living between her parents’ house in Lowestoft and a friend’s couch in Great Yarmouth. Shaneen had moved out of her parents’ house and was studying performing arts at college. Tommy, meanwhile, was passing the time in his hometown “drinking and living the good life”.
Each of them has a different memory of how they found out about the show. Tracey was contacted by producers after unsuccessfully auditioning for the main series of Big Brother; James saw a nondescript flyer in a nightclub (he didn’t even realise it was related to Big Brother until he turned up at the audition); Jade was contacted by producers after applying to appear on a different Channel 4 reality show, The Salon; Tommy’s mum put him up for it, submitting his application without telling him; and Shaneen can’t really remember why or how she went for it — though she can remember that her audition tape was “a parody version of Missy Elliott’s ‘Work It’”.
After a handful of auditions that comprised team-building exercises and mild psychological goading by producers (which, explains Tracey, involved interrogating auditionees about a personal secret they’d shared with producers), the final eight were chosen, whisked away from their family homes with little to no warning, and locked in a hotel room for two nights before being driven, blindfolded, to the Big Brother house. “They took the blindfold off, said ‘good luck’, and in you went,” recalls Tracey. “None of us actually knew what was going on — we didn’t even know how long we were in there for.” And with that, the inaugural — and final — edition of Teen Big Brother was underway.
“It was a much smaller crew, like a ghost town,” reveals Bentley, “and it was sort of handled with kid gloves.” During the filming of the main show, Bentley would travel three hours from his home in Canterbury to the Big Brother studio in Hertfordshire, where he’d spend hours going through the day’s script, recording, and re-recording until producers were happy with the final product. Sometimes, he says, an episode wouldn’t be ready until an hour before it was due to air. With Teen Big Brother, however, it was completely different. As it was pre-recorded, Bentley narrated the whole show in one sitting, which, he explains, “is probably why I can’t remember it much!”
Of course, the housemates remember it clearly — even if, as many other former contestants have said over the years, it could be boring at times. “When you first go in, it’s kind of surreal,” says Tommy, now 37, based in Bournemouth, and working in a supermarket. “Because, you know, it’s Big Brother. But after a day, once you get over that initial excitement, you actually have nothing to do.”
As is to be expected of any series of Big Brother, the teen housemates’ 10 days — shown across a week on Channel 4, with each episode condensing 48 hours into one hour — were filled with arguments, romance, gossiping, accusations of game-playing, and Big Brother-set tasks. The latter included unblocking a purposely blocked toilet, successfully simulating a flight from London to Birmingham (spoiler: they failed), and forming a pop group to write and perform a song in Spanish. There were also two sets of nominations, with housemates having to decide on both evictions and the eventual winner, in lieu of a live audience. Hasan was evicted first, after five days, then Shaneen, after eight, and Paul was crowned the winner, while Caroline was runner-up. “It’s quite disheartening to be in a group of people and to know that you are one of the least liked people there,” Shaneen says of being up for eviction. “I remember feeling quite upset about that. It was hard to deal with at the time.”
Because of the show’s compressed schedule, viewers got an even briefer snapshot into each day than they did with the main Big Brother. For example, despite getting a basic shopping budget due to failing their first task, the housemates remember having several takeaways during their spell in the house — something that was never aired. While editing out a takeaway is fairly innocuous, many of the housemates feel certain incidents were more deviously edited due to time constraints. Tracey says an argument she had with Paul was made to look “more huge than it actually was”, while James — who was eventually disqualified from winning for breaking three, pretty mild, Big Brother rules — rues the fact that the context around his rule-breaking was cut out.
Nevertheless, the draw of the show is in the teenagers’ earnest, sometimes childish interactions with each other, like when Caroline asked, “How many one-night stands, how many flings, how many going out?”, during a feverish conversation about sexual partners. Still, while the housemates’ juvenile bickering and candid conversations about sex didn’t differ wildly from their grown-up counterparts, their youth did stand out. “I definitely recognised the lack of adult supervision,” says Shaneen.
To potentially mitigate the ethically dubious decision to do a Teen Big Brother in the first place, the programme was originally billed as an “educational experiment” for Channel 4’s now-disbanded educational division, 4Learning. In fact, its full title was Teen Big Brother: The Experiment. According to press reports at the time, the show was created as part of a push for educational programming aimed at a young adult market. Because of this, it was meant to be shown during the day, rather than at Big Brother’s traditional 9pm or 10pm air times. But, as per the Guardian, it “moved to an evening slot after executives saw the result”. An edited version of the show was later re-aired in early 2004, as part of 4Learning’s morning schedule.
Controversially, the housemates say they weren’t told that there was a chance the show could be aired at primetime before they went in the house — and neither Jade nor Tommy recall being asked if they were comfortable with their sex scene being shown (albeit under the duvet covers). “I personally don’t think they should have shown a lot of the stuff that they did,” says Jade, who’s now 38, currently unemployed, and still living in Lowestoft. “I was a really vulnerable 18-year-old. To expose [us] to the standard that they did was quite bad — it seemed like a bit too much for an 18-year-old to go through.” (Tommy doesn’t feel as strongly about the incident being aired, but acknowledges that society’s misogynistic attitude to sex and women’s sexuality meant that Jade bore the brunt of the criticism.)
Similarly, Shaneen tells me that she felt she could be less inhibited in her conversations in the house because she was led to believe that any adult content would be edited out to make the show appropriate for children. “I shared information about my personal and sex life that I probably wouldn’t have done if I’d known it was going to be broadcast on [primetime] TV,” she reveals.
What’s more, the housemates recall little in the way of rigorous psychological preparation in advance of appearing on Teen Big Brother. They also say they received next to no support afterwards, despite a number of them telling me they felt anxious or withdrawn after leaving the house, or, in Jade and Tommy’s case, were left floundering in the face of frenzied press attention. “I do think they exploited [the sex] a little bit too much,” reflects Jade, “without any consideration of the backlash that me and Tommy would get for it.”
Capitalising on controversial or ethically dubious moments has historically been intrinsic to Big Brother — just look at the infamous, sometimes physical, brawl of season five’s fight night — often without consideration of the ramifications for the housemates themselves. However, particularly in light of the tragic string of Love Island suicides, there’s no longer an appetite for the same kind of orchestrated torture or exploitation on reality TV. “Now there would be a bigger awareness of mental health and the nuances of the experience of people from different identity groups,” says Ruth Deller, the author of Reality Television: The Phenomenon That Changed the World. “Teen Big Brother was early on in the Big Brother franchise, when they just wanted big characters and big drama. These days, you’d hope guiding contestants on the public response they might get will be part of what [producers] are doing.”
The challenge for Big Brother producers today — ahead of the show’s return — is to take all these ethical considerations into account while still maintaining the essence of what it is all about. That is, like Teen Big Brother’s supposed aim, the social experiment side of things. So, it remains to be seen whether the programme can breed its trademark explosive moments and talents without the manipulative techniques it once used to incite them — which, in the case of Teen Big Brother, could simply be the withholding of information. For Deller, Big Brother’s monumental and lasting impact — giving us renowned cultural moments like “David’s dead” — and laying the blueprint for the structure of most future reality TV shows — means it’ll still have a place on TV today. “It’s a format that’s been tried and tested,” she tells me. “They’re sure to get the old fans coming back, who have a bit of residual love.”
As for the Teen Big Brother housemates, although they have some qualms about the show, they all say they’ve come out relatively unscathed — but they partly thank the lack of social media for that. “The only thing that changed is that people kept coming up to me every few minutes,” says Tommy with a laugh. “I couldn’t walk down the road for about five years! But it was a blast, I really enjoyed it.”
Many of them kept in touch after leaving the house, with Tracey and Jade telling me they remained particularly close to Paul, up until his sudden death from a heart condition in May 2022. “He had an amazing life,” says Jade. “He was very brave for being as open as he was on the show, and I think it did him good because he got a lot of respect for that. He became an even more amazing person than he already was.” After winning the show, Paul travelled the world as his prize, before returning to County Donegal, where he later worked with young queer children as part of LGBTQ+ organisation The Rainbow Project’s youth programme. In a letter to Paul’s family after his death, his employer wrote: “Paul’s legacy is the young people who have gained confidence, self-esteem, and the belief that they can be anything they want to be, and know they are deserving of love because that is what Paul taught them.”
“I’ve never met anybody like Paul,” adds Tracey. “His energy and personality were just infectious. His experience [in the house] was pretty much like mine. We just had an absolute ball.”
When I ask each housemate for their favourite memories from their time on Teen Big Brother, none of them can pinpoint a particular moment. While the negatives can be easily identified and picked apart, the positives appear to lie in the mundane, where all that’s remembered is the vibe — the experience of just being together. “I gravitate towards the uplifting moments,” says James. “I wasn’t in there to argue or discuss anything major; I wanted to just have a good time, so when those moments came up, I was all for it. That’s when you saw the best of me.”
Others list half-formed memories, like feeding the chickens — or, in Tracey’s case, being terrified of them — peeking at the cameramens’ feet behind the wall, play-fighting in the bedroom, or being thrown parties that didn’t make it into the final edit.
“What I am grateful to Big Brother for is that it’s [given me] a beautiful snapshot into my life,” concludes James. “As we get older, everybody always harks back to what it was like being 18, and I actually have something [tangible] that I can go back to. And now, I can even bypass all the bits that I feel were BS, and just appreciate it for what it was.”