Why we came out on reality TV: 'I hope parents can see my dad was cool about it'

TV fans have seen some incredible coming out scenes in fictional shows such as Heartstopper and Brooklyn 99, but what about those who’ve come out as LGBTQ+ in real life on our screens? Four reality TV stars tell their stories to Metro.co.uk.

Brian Dowling appeared on Big Brother back in 2001, just two days after his sister, Michelle, helped him come out as a gay man to his parents in Ireland when he was 22.

Little did he know just how warm the embrace he would receive from the UK and Ireland as his authentic self would be, going on to win the second series of Big Brother and becoming a national sweetheart.

After his stint on the series was such a success, he landed a job on SM:TV Live as the first openly gay kid’s TV presenter and in 2020, became part of the first all-male partnership on Dancing With The Stars in Ireland alongside Strictly Come Dancing professional Kai Widdrington. 

He recalls ringing his mum the day before going into the Big Brother House, hours after his sister told them about his sexuality.

They thought he was ‘trying to be fashionable’.

‘For me, I really found out who I was and I really came out to everyone, including my extended family, in the summer of 2001 on national television to so many people,’ he tells us. ‘I don’t think people were surprised, I’m sure people did care, but I was so lucky on that show that even to the housemates my sexuality was never an issue, and leaving the show my sexuality was never an issue.

‘I feel like all of the UK and Ireland supported me regardless of my sexuality but I do believe being embraced by England and Ireland helped me with my coming out, it also helped my family fully understand and embrace me. Me being gay has never been an issue.’

The Irish star also made history as the first openly gay children’s TV presenter at the age of just 23, popping up on SM:TV live.

‘At SMTV Live, there had never been anyone that was openly gay hosting a kid’s TV show so for me the transition was seamless in a way and I think that’s down to me being fully embraced by the public. 

‘Back then, Ireland could vote, so I feel like all of the UK and Ireland supported me regardless of my sexuality but I do believe being embraced by England and Ireland helped me with my coming out, it also helped my family fully understand and embrace. Me being gay has never been an issue.’

He went on to share those touching first moments after being reunited with his parents following his spectacular win on Big Brother, sharing: ‘I remember the first time embracing my mum and dad, 27th or 29th of July, 2001 and I remember leaving the house as the winner, which you don’t expect, walking down and hugging my mum and dad, for me I kept asking would my parents be here if I make the final? 

‘I wanted to see my parents, to hug my mum and dad, for me, was what it was all about – pure love and pure joy. That was the first time my parents had really seen me for who I actually was – it was full transparency.’

Brian’s decision to come out on TV over 20 years ago paved the way for countless other stars, including another Big Brother winner, Cameron Cole. 

Cameron, originally from Norwich, got a place on Big Brother for its final ever civilian series back in 2018. Like Brian, he told his housemates about his sexuality while in the Elstree studio, having only shared that he was a gay man with his best friend Bex. Oh, and he’d half-told his mum.

He’d actually hand-written letters for family members, which he still has to this day, explaining to them what he’d been hiding about himself, and was convinced telling his fellow contestants would ‘go down really badly’ with them, the public and his loved ones.

‘I thought people would question its authenticity,’ he says. ‘I was pretty aware that’s what people would do. I thought no matter what happened (he thought he’d get evicted the following week), at least I’d spent one week in this house, one week living my dream as myself. That was the kind of motivating factor. Plus it saved 90 to 100 really difficult conversations!

‘Once you come out on TV, you can’t really do it again. I just don’t even think about it now because there’s no point hiding it. It is out there everywhere, and for that, I’m very grateful. [If I hadn’t done it] I probably wouldn’t have been living my true life which is never obviously a good thing.’

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Even in 2018, Cameron did receive ‘daily’ homophobic abuse online after the coming out to millions, and found it ‘hard not to’ read messages, and kept much of it to himself.

But he says: ‘I had a good support network sort of around me, thank goodness. It was hard and unfortunately, there’s not really a lot that people can do.

’I got so used to it because it became something I desensitised myself to, which I guess is a good thing but also quite a sad thing.

‘I’m proud I’ve done, it in the sense that where my life is now. I’m my authentic self, everybody in my family knows, and my friends all treat me the same.

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‘Those that don’t, I’m obviously not interested in them and there are no family members that have done that so in that sense, I am very happy [I made that decision]. It made it a lot easier in a weird way.’

Cameron is now a student in London studying psychology and is in a long-term relationship with his boyfriend after meeting in the city. But he does miss Big Brother still. ‘Not necessarily even just the show, the whole experience I miss massively. The experience and the aftermath itself was just like nothing I could ever describe to anyone.’

Coming out stories are becoming more frequent on constructed reality TV shows too, with more and more people feeling they can become their true selves on screen. Last season of Ru Paul’s Drag Race saw five of the season’s 13 contestants come out as transgender, with four of them coming out publicly either during or after filming.

Ollie Locke came out on Made in Chelsea in 2011 to best friend Binky Felstead and is now married to husband Gareth Locke, with the pair currently documenting their ongoing surrogacy journey. 

Two of the programme’s current stars told us about their journeys on-screen, with Inga Valentina telling her dad about her bisexuality in gorgeous scenes which aired last year.

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Inga wanted to start dating girls in her late 20s and was keen to bring that part of her life onto the series. She hoped that by coming out to her dad, who was immediately accepting of her sexuality, it would help others gain the courage to come out to their families too.

She said: ‘I felt like being fully open would give people more of an understanding of who I am as a person. We all bring our lives to the camera and there’s stuff that maybe people don’t see. [Being bisexual] was such a big part of me that it was important for people to see it. Bringing that representation to the camera could only be a good thing. 

‘Once I did it, there were so many girls and guys sending me messages; people were saying that they felt the same way as I did. It really helped them to gain the courage to do it themselves and speak to their parents.’

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Inga feels lucky to have been brought up in a really ‘free-thinking’ family and added: ‘I knew no matter what I said, my dad would be cool and he’d be accepting. It was almost an easy thing for me to do; I know that a lot of people haven’t had that easy experience and won’t have that easy experience, and I just hope that some parents can watch just how cool my dad was about it, and take that on board. If my kid ever came to me to talk about their sexuality, I would behave in that way too.’

The landscape of reality TV has clearly changed drastically in recent years, with the star noting: ‘Maybe 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, it started to be clear that things aren’t just black and white – they’re colourful, and there is no one label that fits all.

‘The more and more representation that keeps coming every year, it is just generating that awareness. This is what will lead people to understand everything so much more. There are even things that I know I need to understand more. But the moment someone speaks out on camera, that’s how we learn because we might not educate ourselves on these things.’

The Chelsea favourite isn’t the only cast member to have come out on-screen in recent months, with Robbie Mullett opening up on his sexuality as a gay man in 2021 to Ollie, 10 years after the show veteran did himself back. His boyfriend Joel Mignott has also since featured in the series.

Robbie joined Made In Chelsea during Covid, and had previously told his mum he was bisexual before the emotional discussion with Ollie in an episode he remembers being ‘quite a lot.’

‘I’m aware of his arc in Chelsea, he [identified] as straight at one point, then bisexual, and now it appears gay,’ he says. ‘As I mentioned in the scene, I experienced that in a much shorter timeframe. I came out as bisexual to my mother to test the waters and I think that’s something quite a lot of us do because we’re not sure about what our family is going to say.

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‘I am part of the privileged and blessed that my parents were completely accepting.

‘As a new cast member, there’s going to be questions that are raised about who you are and how you arrived at the spot. It was such an important conversation for me to have in order to explain a bit about myself.

‘Obviously, it’s a very central part of my journey into being an open and confident gay man, which I certainly wasn’t before. So I think it was a necessary insight.’

Robbie was also praised heavily for speaking openly about his journey with taking PrEP (Pre-exposure prophylaxis), a medicine which helps to protect against HIV. It is proven to reduce the risk of getting HIV from sex by about 99%.

His conversation was the first time the medication was spoken about on a reality show in the UK.

‘I’ll take that little trophy, for what it’s worth, he says. ‘But it seems to be worth a lot. The response that I got from that scene was overwhelming.

‘I even got a message from an NHS nurse working in sexual health – I actually kept a couple of screenshots that I thought were so touching – and she really praised that it would reduce stigma. That was the common theme amongst the feedback that I got about reducing stigma, which I was aware of.’

The law student called the drug ‘miraculous’, noting he’d had hardly any side effects and is monitored every few months. 

‘I had a family member that I never got to meet [who died in the Aids epidemic]. When I was in the closet, there was no way of me deciphering what my family’s reaction would be because there was no gay figure, so to speak – there was no one gay in the family.

‘When I actually came out is when I discovered that this person existed.’

He also thanked the ‘powerful’ nature of It’s A Sin, penned by Russell T Davies, for helping to kick-start a wider conversation about HIV and Aids:

‘You can’t travel back in time and see what was actually occurring. You can read about it on paper, but you don’t really appreciate it until it’s depicted in that kind of medium. That all feeds into the theme of privilege being on television as well, that influenced me to have that kind of conversation.’

Metro.co.uk celebrates 50 years of Pride

This year marks 50 years of Pride, so it seems only fitting that Metro.co.uk goes above and beyond in our ongoing LGBTQ+ support, through a wealth of content that not only celebrates all things Pride, but also share stories, take time to reflect and raises awareness for the community this Pride Month.

MORE: Find all of Metro.co.uk’s Pride coverage right here

And we’ve got some great names on board to help us, too. From a list of famous guest editors taking over the site for a week that includes Rob Rinder, Nicola Adams, Peter Tatchell, Kimberly Hart-Simpson, John Whaite, Anna Richardson and Dr Ranj, we’ll also have the likes Sir Ian McKellen and Drag Race stars The Vivienne, Lawrence Chaney and Tia Kofi offering their insights. 

During Pride Month, which runs from 1 – 30 June, Metro.co.uk will also be supporting Kyiv Pride, a Ukrainian charity forced to work harder than ever to protect the rights of the LGBTQ+ community during times of conflict, and youth homelessness charity AKT. To find out more about their work, and what you can do to support them, click here.

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