Review of podcast series – Harsh Reality: The Story of Miriam Rivera

Introduction

The Story of Miriam Rivera is a podcast which looks at the reality TV series broadcast in 2004 called There’s Something about Miriam.  The ‘something’ was that Miriam was a man, who hadn’t yet had his tackle removed (we even hear that Miriam has undergone a medical inspection).  Miriam’s affections were to be pursued by a bunch of hot blooded 20-something men.  Set in an idyllic villa in Ibiza, the lads were asked to complete a series of tasks for a chance to win £10,000 and a trip with Miriam somewhere on a boat.  Tim Vincent, fresh from presenting Blue Peter, did the hosting gig and refused requests to be involved in the podcast series.  Wise. 

2004 was also the year that Nadia Almada won Big Brother Series 5.  The Gender Recognition Act had also come in, but this fact is strangely omitted, despite its saliency. 

The podcast is part produced by Morgan M. Page, of the Cotton Ceiling workshop fame and TransLash Media, a production company who ‘tell trans stories to save trans lives’.  It’s narrated by the actor Trace Lysette, who revealed that he was male pretty as soon as he found professional acting success.

How reality TV series are thrown together is nothing more than base manipulation with a heap of gladiatorial ethics thrown in. One day, hopefully, someone will do a really good expose.  This podcast, however, is not it.  That’s not to say that it isn’t without some revelations and insights.  It’s main problem that it is trying to sell a certain narrative about Miriam, who is presented to us at all times as a sort of Helen of Troy figure, yet who ultimately comes over as incredibly one-dimensional. Worse still much of the primary sources used, Miriam’s blog and audio clips from the show, directly contradict the presented narrative. The podcaster makers are so arrogant they think that listeners won’t realise and/or they don’t care if they do.

Again and again throughout the podcast we are reminded of how utterly beautiful Miriam is, how beguiled the men were, how they had no idea of her secret.  The repetition is draining.

At the beginning of each episode we are warned that the episodes contain ‘transphobic language’ and ‘transphobic violence’ and the pop song Immaterial by Sophie is a recurring musical meme. It’s a very painful listen indeed.

Sophie was a trans-identified man who died in what has been described as a ‘sudden accident’ in 2020.

Episode 1 – Something About Miriam

In the first episode we learn the basics.  Miriam still has a penis.  The men chosen as suitors were picked for their gullibility and their openness to adventure.  The youngsters were plied with alcohol and beautiful women paraded before them.  It was only when they got to the airport that they were handed inch-thick contracts to sign. 

The first challenge the boys had to complete was swimming across a stretch of open sea water with the winner being the first one to the boat with Miriam on board.  One contestant almost drowned and had to be saved by the production crew, just mentioned in passing, like it’s nothing. 

The first man to the boat kissed Miriam (as no doubt the production team hoped and suggested) and spotted immediately that Miriam was male.  Predictably when he returned to his compatriots he shared his suspicion with them, all caught on camera.  

We learn from one of the production team of There’s Something, a gay man, that the sociological point of the show was to push at the boundaries of the men’s sexual orientation.  ‘Hm, okay,’ we say out loud to ourselves.

Episode 2 – Outlaw Superstar

A half-hearted attempt to look into Miriam’s past.  He was born in Mexico and had been subject to an exorcism.  We are told this is because he was found wearing girls clothes, but there is no attempt to corroborate this with witnesses.  He had been active on the New York drag scene with a friend called Nicki, who is interviewed.  We learn that Miriam lived with other ‘trans women’ and sometimes involved in prostitution.  

Audio clip footage is used from a Jerry Springer show in which two young trans-identified men, tell their two unsuspecting boyfriends their little secret.  I happen to remember the episode in question because it also featured on Ruby Wax’s programme about the Jerry Springer Show and I particularly remember one of the boys tell Jerry Springer that he thought the news would hurt his boyfriend ‘mentally and physically’.  Needless to say, neither side took the news sitting down. 

The narrator tells us that there was ‘pure hatred’ of trans people (as they weren’t known back then) and that it was acceptable to be disgusted. 

One true thing about Miriam, was that he did want to be famous, and he had a brief foray being part of a transsexual pop group called Speed Angel, which didn’t take off.  Miriam believed, or at least we are told he believed, that There’s Something would make him famous, which seems a reasonable assumption. 

Again we hear from one of the production team that the purpose of the show was to altruistically push the sexual boundaries of the heterosexual men (who they purposely chose for their avowed heterosexuality). 

Then we find out another production assistant became aware that the boys knew the secret and worried how they would pull off the big ‘tell’ at the end.  There appeared to be a gentleman’s agreement between the production team and the contestants not to mention this fact – too much.  However, the production team think up ways that they could cast doubt in the contestants minds, with a tampon casually on display in Miriam’s handbag being one suggestion.  There is a real fear that they won’t be able to make the full 6 shows.  A lot of money is riding on the project.

Predictably the first man to be voted off by Miriam is the man who met him first and realised and told everyone else that he thought Miriam was male.

As part of the grooming process of the contestants, they are asked to dress up in women’s clothes and to share secrets.  Again the producer tells us this was sociological enquiry, rather than exploitation.  One man admits he once kissed another man.  Another slept with his best friend’s girlfriend, which is broadcast.  The men are aware that their (very drunken) conversations are being listened into all the time, but also sometimes forget.  When they remember they take their mics off and go into the toilets to have private conversations with each other. 

Then one of the men sings a song around the pool about Miriam having a cock.  He is the next to be voted off. 

We are told while all of this is going on Miriam is in the villa by himself and able to hear all of their ‘hurtful’ comments and the narration still tries to spin that he is somehow really desired and wanted and that the secret is not known.  Very odd. 

A supposed spa day that one of the contestants win with Miriam is nothing but.  Just a few minutes whilst the team get the shots they want for the final product.  This speaks to the real artifice of reality TV.

Episode 3 – Champagne, Canapés and Clubbing

The stakes are upped amongst the contestants and we are reassured by the makers of the podcast that the contestant who snogs and gropes Miriam for a bit, did really mean it.  One female producer tells us that the ‘animal attraction’ was palpable and couldn’t possibly be faked.  They are, of course, hoping that we are forgetting that £10,000 is the prize money, the lads have been drinking all week and are being drip fed a diet of how wonderful and desirable Miriam is. 

In an attempt to ramp up the drama we are told a psychiatrist has to be bought over to Ibiza.  He is interviewed and tells us how worried he was that Miriam might be duped into believing that one of the men might really fall in love with him.  The podcast makers tell us that the psychiatrist believed that Miriam was very beautiful and attractive. 

The psychiatrist is well seasoned looking after contestants post-reality show, being a Big Brother regular, and therefore knows that the ones who do best post-production, are the ones who have real life connections with family and friends outside of the show, who will be available to deal with the fallout.  Miriam, apparently, had these things. 

We are told that aged 16 Miriam had been captain of the girls soccer team at school but was not ‘out’ as transgender.  It is also claimed that he was living with adult ‘trans women’. Any responsible journalist would want to know how a 16 year old had ended up living away from his family with adults – not this podcast.  Was Miriam a victim of grooming by older men?  We never learn.  There simply isn’t enough interest in the real person to find out, unfortunately.

We also are told that in his teen years Miriam had misled a boy into thinking he was female and had been violently attacked.  This was apparently why Miriam didn’t want to live ‘stealth’ anymore and presumably why he agreed to be part of a TV series which celebrated just that …

The psychiatrist tells us that one of the risks he found on assessment of the situation is that the group dynamic had the potential for violence (a rather logical conclusion given that they were all young men who had been drinking heavily during filming and pre-production).  On top of that the production team had deliberately chosen men who were macho, so there was a martial arts expert and a marine.

Episode 4 – Sh*t Show

As the final reveal approaches, Miriam is filmed on silk pillows under a gazebo and the two final competitors have to complete one final task.  The two finalists are Scott, a martial arts expert, who declined to take part in the podcast, and Tom who provided an interview. 

We hear the audio clips of the two men deliver their poems of love to Miriam.  They are so awful and not entertaining or clever in anyway.  It also lacks any drama, despite Tom pretending to be jealous of his rival.  It is clear from the delivery that both men simply want to win the £10,000.  And why not? 

However, the narrator tells us yet again what a perilous situation it was.  That the boys didn’t know Miriam’s secret and the reaction Miriam may face might well be a violent one.

When Miriam’s decision is finally delivered all the men are bought back to the villa to hear the final result and Miriam’s secret.  We are told for the millionth time how beautiful Miriam looks, how desirable he is.  One of the TV production crew reports that he felt bad that the lads had been deceived.

We are told that 4 or 5 bouncers were hired for the final scene, nominally to keep the peace, but it occurred to me it was for the aesthetics and to also direct the men into the behaviour expected of them.

We hear an audio clip of Miriam tell the assembled crowd ‘I tried to be honest with all of you’.  A line no doubt fed to him by the production team and presented in the podcast as if it weren’t.  Let’s face it, at no point did Miriam try to be honest with anyone, he signed up to gameshow with the specific aim of withholding a secret until the very end.  That was the whole point of the show. 

Another audio clip from the big reveal moment, we hear that all the lads are laughing uncontrollably.  ‘I knew it,’ says one.  Tom, the ultimate winner, sounds completely unphased by it all, yet the narration still tries to spin that the men’s responses were aggressive or ‘transphobic’. 

More believably, we are told that Miriam was very nervous, because so much of the drama depended on that single moment. 

Tom is told that he can only have the money if he accepts the cruise trip with Miriam alone.  He duly accepts, the lads still snickering and urging him on.  Only the boat goes nowhere and there is no holiday with Miriam really.  Again, another artifice revealed to us, but not explored in any meaningful way.

Final reveal scene – erm, where are the bouncers that the podcast details? Anyone?

(One thing the podcast makers haven’t considered is that the audio clips comes over very differently than the filmed versions. In the film version here I think that Tom is genuinely shocked, something lost in the audio alone.)

The psychiatrist tells us that he had a session with Tom post-win, but we don’t learn whether this was necessary or not. 

After the cameras stopped rolling we learn that one of the women on the production crew broke down crying and apologising to the lads that they had been deceived.  The men themselves began to wonder how they might be portrayed when the series was aired and met with a Fleet Street journalist, who recommended they sue. 

Episode 5 – Scene of a Crime?

Post-production the editors have the task of making the clips look like something cogent, but there are two factions; the gay male producer with a political agenda versus those who see it as rubbishy entertainment. We are told by the narrator, Trace Lysette, that men who date ‘trans women’ (i.e. other men) are not gay. Not confusing for the audience at all.

Sky are slapped with a lawsuit from the men as a group action who used formidable law firm Schillings. Allegations that health and safety protocols weren’t observed (e.g. the almost drowning on day one, endless supply of alcohol) and the conspiracy to commit sexual assault. One Sky producer tells us, with indignation, that Miriam had been chaperoned at all times. Another is ‘appalled’ that the allegations include that they were encouraged to have sex.

The podcast talks about Miriam throughout in terms of being a ‘transgender woman’ – a phrase not in parlance at that time – and fails to grapple with the fact that all concerned would have regarded Miriam, at that time, as not even being transsexual (remember Miriam still retained male genitals). This makes the discussion about deception in this segment redundant as the two narratives collide and the show makers can’t bridge the divide.

The winner of the show, Tom, decided to decline the prize money and it sounds like the group realised that collectively they could get much more money out of Sky than the paltry £10,000 originally offered (a figure of £150,000 each is suggested later).

And then Alex Sharpe, Professor of Law at Warwick University, pops up to talk about sexual deception, and how it’s okay really. Sharpe has written a book on this topic called Sexual Intimacy and Gender Identity ‘Fraud’: Reframing the Legal and Ethical Debate.

Sharpe has submitted evidence to the GRA consultation

Sharpe tells us that as long as one doesn’t say something explicitly misleading to a date, then they can’t get you. Not for one second do you think you are listening to a woman’s voice, so presumably Sharpe has no experience of ‘stealth’. Trace Lysette, the narrator, reminds us of all the things we don’t reveal on a first date. Sharpe points out that people don’t have to reveal if they are ‘mixed race’ or if they have a ‘criminal conviction’. Scraping the bottom of the barrel, Sharpe suggests that having ‘chicken fillets’ (i.e. filling out your bra) could be a regarded as a similar deception. Not only that, but why should a date even have the right to know [your sex]? Where is ‘cis peoples’ concern for what disclosure costs? And, what do you do if your life is seen as deceitful?

Ultimately the men settled with Sky and the show was aired with good audience ratings. Miriam experienced his 15 minutes of fame, very much cashing in on the fact that he was a ‘chick with a dick’, including starring in Australian Big Brother (again in ‘stealth’ mode, but the housemates spot him straight away). We are treated to the umpteenth painful description of how beautiful he looked on entering the house. Miriam also did an interview with the Sun and had an appearance on This Morning. A pop song was generated called Don’t Fall in Love with Me. Sadly it appears that Miriam believed he might end up with his own TV show.

Interestingly when Miriam is asked in an interview whether being a girl meant that he wanted to do the housework too, he responds that he wanted to be a princess. Erm, quite.

About a year after the reality show ended Miriam was back doing drugs in a more serious way than before and back in prostitution. A violent possessive man came into his life. In the next episode this man is not mentioned again.

Episode 6 – Speed Angel

Next we hear that in March 2007 Miriam suffered horrific injuries and the old friend Nikki tells us that Miriam was perhaps struck in the head by a hammer and then fell four storeys out of a window. No attempt is made by the podcast to clarify whether this was an accident (as it is referred to later in the podcast) or an attempted murder. Indeed in the Sun article after Miriam’s death, an ‘accident’ is alluded to. This seems like a very important fact to get right, because it may well have played into Miriam’s subsequent suicide (although the ex-boyfriend is allowed to suggest that it may have been murder but the evidence is flimsy).

Whether it was an accident or an attack, we are told by the friend Nikki that Miriam spent three months in ICU in a whole body cast and that Nikki visited every day.

A few years later, Miriam was travelling Europe and partying again and also back in prostitution and doing drugs.

Then a man called Robbie is interviewed who appeared to know Miriam well. He tells us that drugs and prostitution are a vicious circle and in this segment we are told by Trace Lysette that Miriam was pushed from a window. Crucially Robbie doesn’t corroborate this and it’s almost as if the narration is trying to put words in his mouth. Bittersweet music plays as Robbie tells us that he and Miriam cuddled the whole night and that his dad thought they looked like they were in love.

According to reports Miriam was found dead by hanging in 2019, just a few days after his 38th birthday. Robbie tells us that he doesn’t believe that Miriam would ever commit suicide, because Miriam’s brother had done the same and there was no way he would do that to his mother a second time.

Daniel Cuervo, Miriam’s partner at the time, tells us that Miriam called him earlier in the day to report that he was throwing up blood and then later was told of the suicide by Miriam’s brother. He claims that he received a death threat and decided not to travel back to Mexico.

The podcast makers have no interest in really interrogating the conflict of the stories and perceptions of Miriam’s friends, so we are left confused as to whether there was foul play, or whether Miriam acted in a moment of desperation and took his own life. It’s an act of disrespect on behalf of the podcast makers that they have so little interest in the real Miriam that they can’t be bothered to clarify the story.

Tom, the bloke who won the contest on the reality show, tells us that he was flooded with accusatory messages from trans folk on SM blaming him for rejecting Miriam and therefore causing his death. He was so incensed by the criticism he wrote back to some of them to tell them he was a liberal. We learn this is why he had agreed to do the podcast, because he wanted a seat at the table if he was going to be discussed and it’s cut in such a way that he just sounds cold and calculating. It seems Tom has learnt nothing about the media.

Finally the gay male producer who thought he was doing sociology is put in the hot seat and asked how Miriam could have been treated so badly, in particular why was a man in a white coat there to confirm that Miriam still had male genitalia? He finally breaks and admits that it was an entertainment format, meant to be humorous but that it was done in full consultation with Miriam. But he isn’t pushed on this. Another wasted opportunity.

Then Trace Lysette tells us that things for ‘trans women’ are still not so different since 2003, since they are still exploited and we are back to the Helen of Troy comparison. Then some complete nutter – and I do really mean that – a trans-identified male who we have not heard from so far, starts crying about how important Miriam was and that if he had the chance to do a show in which he withheld his sex from potential dates, he would.

The last six minutes is the annoying Sophie pop song, with audio clips from the previous five episodes transposed over the top of its dance beat. It’s absolutely excruciating.

Summary

So that’s how it is left. Almost five hours of documentary and we have literally no idea who Miriam was. Crucially neither the accident (?attempted murder) nor the suicide (?attempted murder) are looked at in any great detail and the one testimony we have from a family member (the brother) sounds like it might have been taken from another interview. In the final analysis Miriam was treated no more cruelly than any other reality TV show contestant, but he deserved better than this fake tribute of a podcast, which basically repeats all the insults of There’s Something About Miriam, and then some.


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