At Studio 8 on the Gold Coast, Julie was nervously about to meet the other contestants. Million Dollar Deadly featured eight community activists gunning for a major prize of a one-million-dollar contribution to their community as well as three runner-up prizes of $75,000. All contestants had signed up for the show to give visibility to the issues that settler– Australia had been apathetic towards.
She opened the studio door and they were all there starting with Tom, 24, from Perth, whose firm handshake caught her off guard. Mandy, 40, from Northern NSW. Derrick, 45, from Mallee. Vanessa, 29, from Alice Springs. Shelle, 36, from Adelaide. Uncle Bob, 71, from Borroloola. She wrote her tagline as Julie ‘Don’t Call Me Aunty’ Betts, 55, Boigu Island. The last contestant was Karlie, 23, known by her handle Emufeathergirl, from Blacktown.
Everyone warmed to Shelle straight away, who said, “Just do it for your Mama,” squeezing Vanessa’s hand who was welling up with nerves. Uncle Bob was another beautiful gentle presence. English was, as he said, his 15th language. He was there to tell the world about the threats of fracking to Country.
Derrick, who had also been a contestant on Million Dollar Island (placing third), was expecting to have to eat faeces and crawl through mud. The others had no experience with reality television.
Karlie, however, was a TikTok star with 400,000 followers. People on the outside were calling her a clear frontrunner.
The announcer’s voice was the sort of officious, indignant white voice that you might hear at Centrelink. Julie immediately felt a pit form in her stomach when they described a weekly challenge, followed by an elimination. They were also told that they were being watched all the time, with cameras glued to their every move.
Some of the contestants were getting a bit freaked out. Mandy took a different approach. “Outside everyone is a camera,” Mandy said. “We’re always being watched. Especially where I’m from.”
They were all taken off to another room to get makeovers; a wardrobe and hair and make-up team saying their job was to make sure they were seen in the best ‘light’. Each contestant had a mood board and key colours. Derrick threatened to quit if they cut his hair, but they said that his ruggedness gave him a certain appeal and fit him in a $1000 pair of cowboy boots.
After completing their first challenge — which was to showcase a unique talent from their home — they were asked to film their confessionals separately.
The producer said, “Australia wants to know why they should care about Indigenous people. Tell them.”
Julie looked in the camera. A tear glistened in her eye. The producer nodded eagerly though her crying was from tiredness. She could see her image cross-streamed with images of the island, her home, under threat from the sea, and that the money could help safeguard for the future. But her island was just one of many places in peril. Someone was going home today.
Tom was (rightfully) complaining about the food, cold burritos the producer’s assistant had ordered from a place nearby.
It was announced that Uncle Bob was the first contestant eliminated, and no-one got to say goodbye. A screen appeared showing the coastline where Uncle Bob was from with big red letters CANCELLED splashed across it.
The other contestants were horrified at how Uncle Bob was treated. Out of all of them, he had come the furthest distance. Derrick was especially furious, saying that he witnessed production cut Uncle Bob off from speaking multiple times and he hadn’t received the respect he deserved as a revered Elder.
Mandy said that had also happened to her.
A producer was mumbling under her breath, “What happened to the media training I ordered? That was a waste of money.”
The producer took her aside. “Stop making things so black and white, Mandy.”
“You’re all white! And we’re all black! It’s literally black and white! There’s no blackfellas working in this joint!”
Mandy took her rant one step further, by suggesting Karlie, after winning the first challenge, was getting greenlit straight to the top. “Who are you?” Mandy said. “Would you even be here if you weren’t pretty?”
Julie stepped in, saying that this is exactly the sort of in-fighting they didn’t want to show Australia. But, despite her best efforts, the producers were determined to keep the cameras rolling.
Julie got into bed after the first day feeling exhausted. She could still feel the presence of the eye watching her.
She rolled onto her side and stared out a sliver of window at the moon and the lone tree outside.
Shelle was next to leave the show during an emotional elimination where everyone cried. Again, the screen flashed CANCELLED, suggesting Shelle’s dream of helping vulnerable members of the LGBTQIASB community back home was not supported.
Shelle had been the unofficial matriarch of the group, and now that she was gone, further cracks were appearing. Derrick and Mandy seemed to have created an alliance and were picking on Karlie.
Production were trying to push a love story between Tom and Karlie, despite both being in monogamous relationships on the outside.
“I’m scared to even sit next to her,” Tom confided. “They are always trying to bring us close together and I’m afraid of what it’s going to look like for my girlfriend.”
“They can’t show something that’s not there,” Julie reassured, though she remembered Karlie whispering into Tom’s ear in the kitchen, and wondered if they too had formed an alliance.
“We shouldn’t be fighting each other!” she wanted to yell. “Our lives are not a game.” But she knew she’d just look wild on camera.
They had to try and find a way to talk without being heard. Production wouldn’t let them talk when being transported between locations and they weren’t allowed internet or contact with the outside world.
“Who would have thought that a show with an all-Indigenous cast would be the top-rating show in Australia?” the producers cheerily said.
But what do we lose, Julie wondered, when we pit issues against one another like some type of sport?
“Just be yourself,” the producers would say, in an upbeat voice. But under their breath, they mocked the contestants.
The general environment – overcaffeinated, underfed, interrogated and exhausted – led to even the best of the contestants feeling irate and suspicious.
They were blasted awake at dawn the next day by the announcer telling them to go to the living room. Vanessa was missing. Instead, a hologram of her floated, and she explained tearily she had made the decision to quit the competition. Vanessa was a kind spirit who did not want to participate in the games. Again, CANCELLED came up on the screen, plastered over Vanessa’s dream.
Derrick was eliminated next. He came across as ‘too ungrateful’ to the audience during the campaign speech challenge. CANCELLED.
It meant there were only four contestants left. Mandy, whose mob had lost their homes in the floods and desperately needed stable accommodation, Tom, who wanted kids out of adult jails, Karlie, who was advocating for health services in her community and Julie, who knew that one million dollars wouldn’t solve everything for her mob but it would be a start.
Who would win? Would it be the person with the most tears, the most trauma, or who seemed the most ‘authentic’? The longer they spent on set, the more they felt like they were losing touch with reality.
Just before ‘home week’ – where cameras would follow the contestants around their communities before the final result – came a twist: “Rules are revoked,” the announcer said. “There will be no runner-up prizes. Instead, the winner will now receive two million dollars!”
Some eyes lit up yet Julie felt defeated. This is a young person’s game, she thought. Julie remembered the tree. She met Karlie in the garden.
“I figured out there’s no cameras here.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Pretend you’re picking lemons.”
“Let’s make a pact. Whoever wins, split the prize four-ways.”
“Mandy and Tom will never agree.”
“I’ll convince Mandy and you’ll be able to convince Tom. Nobody wins this game unless we all win. Don’t let anybody else know.”
The negotiations took place discreetly under the watchful eye. Julie got silent confirmation that all had agreed though it had to be seen to be believed.
The four of them went home. In her community, Karlie turned the lens onto her cousins, so the footage showed a myriad image of blackfellas surviving and thriving the best they knew how. Tom took cameras inside Casuarina prison, where his little brother read a poem. Mandy went back home, where she was living with two other young families in a shed. Julie went back to the warm tide.
A week passed and the votes were tallied. And the winner is… Karlie! A commotion of press and flashing lights. A silver dress. A promise of a turning point in the nation. Some interviews trailed off and then the last camera crew left Boigu, Wardell, Casuarina and Blacktown.
Julie sat in the dark drinking tea. Her phone pinged. Emufeathergirl had made a transfer into her account. A deep soothing breath. They had survived the blackfella battle royale. The real games were about to start.
Ellen van Neerven is a writer of Mununjali and Dutch heritage. Ellen’s books include Heat and Light, Comfort Food, Throat and the forthcoming Personal Score.