With five weeks until Australia’s fresh iteration of Big Brother hits screens, we’re casting our minds back to the global franchise’s most outrageous moments.
And not many come close to Celebrity Big Brother UK’s “David’s dead” fiasco in 2016.
One of the most iconic episodes of reality television in history, the moment a contestant flew into hysterics believing a fellow housemate had dropped dead in the next room was seven minutes of pure chaos you simply could not write.
Immortalised in memes and a controversial (now-pulled) line of merchandise, it was the culmination of the most extraordinary comedy of errors: a poorly-timed nap, the shock death of a legend and a small screen star’s lapse of deductive logic.
It was January 2016. David Bowie had just died after a secret battle with cancer. The tragic news had barely broken to the public when Angie Bowie, David’s ex-wife and the mother of his only child, was informed while shacked up in the Big Brother house with a mishmash of celebrities including Liza Minnelli’s ex David Gest.
“David’s dead” a hoarse and red-eyed Angie uttered to US TV personality Tiffany Pollard.
But failing to make the connection that it was the Starman who had died suddenly, and not David Gest, who was sick with a cold and resting in his bed upstairs, a horrified Tiffany broke down.
Cries of ‘David’s dead’ rang through the Big Brother house, and in a moment that was later described as like a scene in a crime drama, contestants rushed to David Gest’s bedside to slowly peel back the blanket (which just so happened to be covering his face, much like a body bag) to check his pulse.
After the flurry of havoc, a handful of small-name British TV stars along with close friend of the Kardashians, Jonathan Cheban (also known as Foodgod), gathered in the garden.
They shook their heads in disgust over what Tiffany believed to be a cruel prank played by the grieving ex wife, who was sobbing in the nearby diary room.
“David Bowie’s not dead of cancer,” Cheban exclaimed knowingly as Danniella Westbrook lit up a cigarette and spat: “That’s f***ing sick mate, that’s sick. She needs to be taken out of here.”
As a shaken-up Tiffany was comforted in a huddle, Eastenders actor John Partridge emerged from the shower wrapped in a towel to set the record straight.
“There’s been a misunderstanding,” he began.
It was something else:
In March this year, former host of Big Brother UK’s “Bit on the Side” Rylan Clark-Neal, revealed what viewers didn’t see.
“We were like this is really, really odd and all of us were like: ‘F**king hell, Tiffany is a really big David Bowie fan’,” he told Metro of how he and the crew reacted as they watched it all unfold live.
Recalling the moment “the penny dropped” for the crew that Tiffany was confused, Rylan said: “She thinks it’s David Gest. All you could see is just a duvet cover, and a lifeless silhouette of a body. It’s three in the afternoon.
“So we’re like, ‘Oh my God.’ So they all run into the bedroom that was all edited in the show. But actually, it was like Silent Witness.
“Darren Day just slowly pulls back the sheet and David Gest isn’t fully made up and is quite pale with his very dark hair … He looked dead.
“And then he moved and they were all like, ‘He’s alive!’ And Daniella Westbrook was like, ‘Holy mother of Jesus.’
“You couldn’t have written it better,” Rylan added.
A few months later, David Gest actually did die, leaving Tiffany to sheepishly pull the line of “David’s Dead” T-shirts she’d released from sale.
Looking back, one can only laugh at the astonishing misunderstanding.
As for the rest of the global franchise’s darker moments, it’s hard to find a snippet quite like it.
Still, there’s plenty at which to gasp in shock:
BIG BROTHER AUSTRALIA
Michael “Ashley” Cox, 20, and Michael “John” Bric, 22, grabbed national headlines and even earned the ire of then-Prime Minister John Howard when they were kicked off the show in mid-2006.
Both were immediately evicted for violating the show’s terms of agreement after John was accused of holding down fellow housemate Camilla Severi so that his mate Ashley could “smack” her face with his genitals.
The alleged incident was streamed live on the show’s website but not broadcast on Network Ten.
In response, John Howard made a statement condemning the show: “I think it is just a question of good taste. Here is a great opportunity for Channel 10 to do a bit of self-regulation and get this stupid program off the air”, Mr Howard said.
In 2009, Cox claimed the incident “ruined his life” in an interview with Zoo Weekly magazine.
“I was branded a rapist on national TV,” he said.
“The hardest part was having no support from anyone.”
In the same interview, Bric slammed the show, saying he’d “lost faith” in Big Brother.
“The show exploits young people. There’s a permanent question mark over our names,” he said.
“The other day a girl came up to me and said I was a predator.”
“It’s a stigma that’s going to be attached to my life.”
Big Brother Up Late was scrapped after the debacle, and according to TV insiders, it led to a stricter alcohol policy.
“Belindagate” murder secret
A drunk Belinda Thorpe let slip one of the most shocking comments in Big Brother history in 2003 — that her sister was involved in the murder of a homosexual man.
Channel 10 cut the livestream footage within seconds, given the identification of a minor involved in a court trial is illegal in QLD where Big Brother Australia was filmed, but not before it spread through online forums and dubbed “Belindagate”.
Rattled by the story, fellow contestants continued to interrogate her for details, leading to Belinda becoming the first housemate ever to voluntarily remove herself from the house,.
The incident caused the show’s website to be flooded with complaints and hate-mail surrounding the comments.
‘Sadistic’ baby stunt
Kate Gladman was left teary and shaken in 2007 after a stunt that was described as “a new low” for Big Brother.
In 2018, she appeared in an episode of ABC’s You Can’t Ask That to discuss the moment, explaining that she went in to the house “with what I sort of thought was a secret”.
“About 18 months before I started the show I’d had a baby that was stillborn and that was the reason that I went on the show, just to forget about that,” she said. “I was deeply traumatised. I nearly died as well.”
Gladman, who is now a barrister, said she didn’t want to talk about her ordeal on Big Brother.
“I felt it was too deep and too real a trauma to be discussed on something as frivolous as a reality TV show,” she said.
“But the producers knew about it. They obviously wanted to get the story out of me.” She went on to recall the shocking stunt that producers asked her to take part in. “So they sat us in the lounge room and then two-by-two we went into the diary room. The first couple went in and came out and they were carrying a plastic robot baby and it was sort of making crying noises and stuff.
“I just … the blood drained from my face. And I said, ‘You’ve done this deliberately and I want to leave the house.’ And they said, ‘You can’t leave. You have to stay and you have to tell your story.’
“That’s how they manipulated me, by asking me to look after a plastic baby in circumstances where I’d lost my own baby 18 months before.”
Gladman broke down in the house and refused to take part in the challenge which was described by the media at the time as “a new low for Big Brother”.
Gladman’s mother, Anne Gladman, slammed the show’s producers in the press and described the stunt as “sadistic”.
Even Big Brother’s executive producer at the time, Kris Noble, admitted it was a mistake.
“Knowing the way it affected her now, we should never have done it,” Noble told The Daily Telegraph after the incident.
“No one wants to see someone in that situation. But we had talked to her about the baby and she said she was completely over it.
“But in hindsight we should have been a bit more sensitive. It was hard seeing her react like that because you grow attached to everyone and don’t want to see any of them hurting.”
BIG BROTHER UK
Racism incident that caused international outrage
In 2007, returning contestant Jade Goody, along with Jo O’Meara and Danielle Lloyd, became embroiled in an incident that prompted a response from both the UK and Indian governments and led to Celebrity Big Brother being cancelled the following year.
They were accused of racism against their Bollywood actress co-star Shilpa Shetty after Goody was heard calling the star ‘Shilpa Poppadom’, while Lloyd told her to ‘go home’.
Goody’s mother Jackiey Budden, who entered the house with her daughter, constantly called Shetty “the Indian,” and once asked: “Do you live in a house or a shack?”
Britain’s Office of Communications received more than 44,500 complaints and eventually ruled Channel 4 had breached rules.
Goody redeemed herself in the eyes of the public before she died of cervical cancer in 2009.
BIG BROTHER INDIA
Jade Goody’s cancer diagnosis filmed
While it never actually aired on India’s version of Big Brother, called “India’s Big Boss”, fans of late British reality TV star Jade Goody were left sickened when they learned she was filmed receiving the devastating news she had cancer.
A documentary called Jade: The Reality Star Who Changed Britain aired on Channel 4 in the UK and screened footage of Goody being given the cancer diagnosis on India’s Bigg Boss in 2008. It never aired on TV at the time it was filmed.
“I had no idea that that conversation was being filmed … it was not right,” Goody said at the time.
She had been on the show for little more than a day when she was given the heartbreaking news about her health by a doctor.
In scenes aired in the documentary, the mum-of-two was seen wiping tears from her eyes after being given the brutal diagnosis on camera.
Subtitles show her being told: “Jade, you’re going to be OK.”
Listening down the line from the UK via a mobile phone, she was heard replying: “Someone’s not lying to me or playing a joke?”
Goody emerged from the “confession room” shell-shocked and was comforted by her waiting housemates.
It was left to one of the men to break the news to the others that Goody had been diagnosed with cervical cancer.
The former dental nurse immediately quit the show and returned home to the UK.
BIG BROTHER US
Horrific rape joke
In 2017, US Big Brother contestant Jason Dent caused cries from the public for the show to be cancelled after he made a disturbing rape joke during the a 24-hour live stream.
Dent and his fellow contestant Alex Ow laughed as Dent joked he was going to rape contestant Kevin Schlehuber’s wife and force Schlehuber’s kids to watch.
Schlehuber’s wife, Deborah, later told TMZ that the comments were “the worst thing” she’d ever heard.
Meanwhile, Dent’s family issued an apology on Twitter saying the joke ‘was taken slightly out of context’.
BIG BROTHER SPAIN
Alleged sexual assault footage aired in diary room
In 2019, distressing footage emerged of a Big Brother Spain contestant being confronted by producers with a video of herself allegedly being sexually assaulted by another housemate.
According to The Independent, Carlota Prado first learned of her own alleged sexual assault when she was forced to watch it in the diary room.
Prado had passed out after drinking and was completely unaware of what had happened until she watched footage of the incident several hours later.
In leaked footage, a tearful Ms Prado can be seen clasping her hands to her mouth and shaking her head as she watches the video alone.
This particular clip has never been aired but was leaked to the Spanish press, The Independent reported.
“Please, Super, stop now please,” she is seen pleading with “The Voice”, known as “The Super” in the Spanish version of the reality TV show.
Prado is visibly distressed as she paces back and forth across the room, begging for the door to be opened.
She was apparently told to wait.
Endemol Shine Group, the company that created the Big Brother format, later admitted that it was a mistake to tell Ms Prado “in the diary room environment”.