Real World Alum Sues MTV

By Maria Cheung

Reviewed by Jennifer Williams              

Tonya Cooley, who viewers first met on “The Real World: Chicago”, is suing MTV and production company Bunim-Murray for alleged sexual harassment, discrimination, wrongful termination and sexual assault, among other claims. In a complaint filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on October 27, Cooley claims that in 2009 when she was shooting “The Real World/Road Rules Challenge: The Ruins,” in Phuket, Thailand, her fellow cast members Kenneth Santucci and Evan Starkman forcibly removed female cast members’ bathing suits, inappropriately touched female cast members without their consent and called the female cast members derogatory names, among other allegations. Cooley is also suing Santucci and Starkman.

Cooley alleges that she informed MTV and Bunim-Murray of this issue, but the companies told her to “just deal with it” as it was part of the challenge. The complaint states that eight days into filming “The Ruins” on a non-competition day, the cast members were given large amounts of alcohol before noon but limited amounts of food, and Cooley claims that she became “very intoxicated.” It then goes on to state that a male cast member “forcibly removed” Cooley’s bikini top while the cast was hanging around the pool and then that she tried to go to bed but was stopped by Santucci and Starkman. Afterwards, she claims that Santucci continually squirted lotion on her head, while another male squeezed baby powder in her face and that Starkman would not let go of her. Soon after this struggle, Cooley says she passed out on the floor and Starkman and Santucci used another male cast member’s toothbrush to rape her. According to Cooley, other cast members and the camera crews witnessed the alleged assault. Cooley believes MTV and Bunim-Murray were aware that the alleged event happened since the show’s tapes are always monitored, but did not notify her or take action against the two male cast members. Cooley was unaware of the assault at the time it occurred but noticed lacerations and rash-like abrasions on her labia the next morning. The suit does not explain how Cooley learned about the alleged assault, or whether she pressed criminal charges.

MTV and Bunim-Murray eventually terminated Cooley from the show after she slapped another female cast member in a fight. Cooley claims the companies “further mistreated” her by “subjecting her to strict disciplinary rules while the male cast members were never reprimanded for their actions. Cooley is seeking monetary damages of an unspecified amount. According to Entertainment Weekly, a spokesperson for Bunim-Murray Productions stated, “[a]fter a thorough investigation, we have found Tonya Cooley’s claims to be completely baseless.”

This is a sad story, especially for a viewer of these shows. When I was younger, I watched a few of these shows and remember these cast members. I do wonder how Cooley learned of the alleged event and if she saw the video tapes documenting the event. I would think the first exhibit to be viewed in discovery should be the tapes, for they will hopefully show an unbiased account of the night Cooley claims she was assaulted. I would also like to know the proof Cooley has of this event since her own memory of that night seems unreliable. Did she think to go see a doctor after finding the strange marks on her body? Did she photograph the marks to show to a court? Even if she was in Thailand, she should have probably demanded to see a doctor, even if she had to fly back home. Does she have any other cast members to support her and confirm her accounts of that night?

I also think it is strange that Cooley is blaming MTV and Bunim-Murray for providing the cast with copious amounts of alcohol and little food. I find it hard to believe two established companies would do such a thing since that is simply a lawsuit waiting to happen. Also, these cast members are adults and although they are in foreign countries, they have money to order food or go out and buy food. She could have chosen to simply not consume the alcohol. At her age, it is time to accept some responsibility for her own actions. I sincerely hope if these events did occur, that Cooley does get some justice. No one should be treated or assaulted like the way she claims she was in her complaint, but I would like to see more evidence in this case

Cooley’s lawsuit does portray a bigger problem that the genre of reality shows foster in general: how much are the shows and networks responsible for their cast members’ decisions and lives? The cast members on these shows sometimes are not the most mentally or emotionally stable individuals but that is why we love to watch them. The reality shows then bring the cast members fame and fortune. As a result, problems are bound to occur. Other reality shows have also been blamed for ruining cast members lives such as Russell Armstrong’s suicide on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and Teresa Guidice and her husband’s legal and family problems on The Real Housewives of New Jersey.

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