There are some hoaxes which go down in history: pranks so audacious that they defy belief. Just think about the story of the Berners Street hoax, where the 19th century prankster and civil servant Theodore Hook managed to convince hundreds of people to converge upon the address of a complete stranger for no reason. Or take the case of famous fraudster Victor Lustig, whose scams included an all-but-useless “money printing machine”, as well his “sale” of the Eiffel Tower to a credulous dupe. Yet all these stories pale by comparison to the Great Reality TV Swindle, where an ordinary man with no special talents and too much time on his hands managed fake a reality television series.
Nik Russian was the perpetrator of one of the strangest hoaxes in history, a then young man who appeared to be at a complete loose end in life, marooned in the wilderness of his mid-twenties with no sense of direction. Born Keith Anthony Gillard in 1977, he had three times changed his name (from Gillard to Russian, Russian to Jack Lister, and then from Lister back to Russian again). He was a dropout whose career was flagging: he’d previously established small businesses which had failed and written a few unpublished novels, but had been forced to get a job working at a Waterstones bookshop to supplement his income.
It was hardly surprising that the British seemed uninterested in Russian’s literary efforts. This was 2002, when the third series of Big Brother had managed to boast solid ratings (audience figures of approximately 5.8 million on average) and the series was at the height of its popularity. The whole country seemed to be totally captivated by the idea of watching ordinary people be catapulted into celebrities on television. Russian had noticed this trend and wanted to exploit it for his own ends. He harboured a secret ambition to become a reality TV producer. But there were a number of pitfalls: namely the fact that he had no experience, no money, had never produced a television show before and knew no one in the industry. But what he did have on his side was good looks, charm, tenacity, imagination, and a stunning capacity for talking complete bullsh*t. If he couldn’t produce a legit reality TV series, he could do the next best thing: fake one.
Russian was aided by two other things: his knowledge of the reality TV format, and a group of bored friends who were in on the joke. He knew that most reality series were games of team participation between strangers, broken up by weekly elimination. For instance, the 2000 series Jailbreak challenged a group of strangers to escape from a fake prison together. There was usually a cash prize offered as an incentive for the winner, but the lure of celebrity and exposure was enough to get people to take part anyway. Former Big Brother winners, Craig Phillips and Brian Dowling, had both gone on to profit from their Big Brother appearances, and thus Russian hoped that the promise of fame would be enough to make his “contestants” more credulous.
Russian placed advertisements in a number of magazines and newspapers: “Want to raise your profile?” it asked, “A new reality TV show seeks contestants! If you’re characterful, resourceful and energetic, then e-mail.” He also threw the promise of a non-existent £100,000 into the bargain. He didn’t expect many replies, but the lie was so convincing that his inbox was soon inundated with more than a thousand applications from hopeful strangers. Some people wanted the prize money; others coveted the exposure. Most people would have admitted that the whole thing was a con by this point, but not Nik. He wanted to raise the stakes and organised fake auditions for his fictitious show at Raven’s Ait catering facility in Kingston, London.
Russian fabricated his own production company Nikita Russian Productions (NRP) and enlisted the help of his friends who pretended to be staff, including “psychoanalysts” and “runners”. His girlfriend pretended to be a psychological assessor, and his friend Mike a cameraman. The people auditioning were given a number of pointless tasks to complete, such as baking a cake in under an hour without ingredients. Nik randomly selected 30 people to star in what he called: “Project MS-2”. These candidates were given mock contracts to sign, which informed them that the project was scheduled to last for a year and that their food, accommodation and leisure money would be provided. The chosen few were supposed to meet in London on 10 June for filming.
The contestants were divided into three teams and the groups met in separate London locations, filmed by an unpaid trainee cameramen Russian had hired on the fly. Once the teams were assembled, Russian provided his ridiculous challenge: they had one year to make one million pounds. It was only then that the contestants realised that they would be making their own prize money. Some contestants met with Russian, who eventually revealed – once he’d been backed into a corner – that no television channel had commissioned the show and that Nikita Russian Productions didn’t really exist.
As a result of this revelation, two of the erstwhile teams disbanded, while the last group decided to film their own reality TV programme about themselves, documenting their experiences. They even set up a “diary room” to discuss their thoughts about Russian and his fictitious show. Most of the contestants had inadvertently ruined their own lives by falling for the con, giving up their homes, jobs and partners. Some needed to find new occupations and others were forced to move in with parents. Nik himself had given up his job to pull off the con, and was forced to sleep on cameraman Tim Eagle’s floor as a result.
On 12 June, the group locked Russian in the Dalston flat, and forced him to admit that the whole thing had been made up. Russian later went into hiding to avoid his furious victims. Many attempted to prosecute him in court, but because Russian hadn’t actually taken money, or profited at all from his victims, no crime had been committed.