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A Black contestant will win 'Big Brother' for the first time because the show finally faced the 'monster that racism festered in,' a former contestant said

Connor Perrett   

A Black contestant will win 'Big Brother' for the first time because the show finally faced the 'monster that racism festered in,' a former contestant said
  • "Big Brother" premiered on CBS more than two decades ago in the summer of 2000.
  • In the past 22 seasons of the show, a Black contestant has never won the game.
  • But an all-Black alliance called "The Cookout" has dominated season 23, ensuring a win for a Black player.

It's been nearly a decade since Jodi Rollins set foot in the "Big Brother" house.

In July 2012, Rollins, then 42 years old, entered expecting a summer-long adventure full of twists during the 14th season of the show. Instead, Rollins was sent out the door hours after she first walked through it. It was the first time in the history of CBS' blockbuster summer show where a contestant was eliminated on the first episode.

Rollins, now 51 and a podcast host, was the only Black contestant (referred to as a houseguest on "Big Brother") out of 16 people cast to appear on "BB14." In a rare occurrence, Rollins was eliminated after her team placed last in the first competition.

Since then, she has become somewhat of an icon in the "Big Brother" fandom, with fans regularly prodding "Big Brother" producers to bring her back for a second chance. Rollins told Insider that despite her image and name being referenced on recent seasons of the show, she'd never been brought back.

Since Big Brother premiered on CBS in the summer of 2000, not a single Black contestant has won the game. Structural changes behind the show amid a cross-industry racial reckoning have enabled a group of Black contestants to claim the final 6 spots in the 21-year run of "Big Brother."

Nearly all of the winners of the show have been white.

In 2003, Jun Song, who was born in South Korea, made "Big Brother" history, becoming the first person of color (POC) to win the show in its fourth season.

Song, now 46, would remain the only non-white winner for another 15 seasons until Josh Martinez, who is Latinx and Cuban, won in season 19. Kaycee Clark, who is of Filipino descent, won the 20th season of the show, bringing the total number of POC winners to three out of 22.

But on Wednesday, a six-person alliance known as "The Cookout" is poised to make history. The all-Black group, comprised of Azah Awasum, a 30-year-old from Baltimore; Hannah Chaddha, a 21-year old from Chicago; Derek Frazier, a 29-year-old from Philiadelphia; Tiffany Mitchell, a 40-year-old from Detroit; Xavier Prather, a 27-year old from Milwaukee; and Kyland Young, a 29-year old from Venice Beach, formed the first week of the season.

"The Cookout" was created with the goal of making "Big Brother" history: ensuring a Black player won. This season of "Big Brother" also marks another first for the show: not a single white male made it to the jury of nine eliminated players who will decide the winner between the final two on finale night.

Over the course of the season, the alliance dominated the game, winning numerous competitions while going mostly undetected by their fellow houseguests. All six members of the alliance ended up in the final six, and three of its members - Zwasum, Frazier, and Prather - will make it to the finale that will air live Wednesday, where the first Black "Big Brother" winner will be crowned.

It's a big deal, Rollins said.

"Just from a game perspective, the fact that six people could say 'let's do something and stick together,' no matter what in that game is remarkable," she told Insider. "But then to know it was a cause that was larger than themselves, which is why I think it actually worked."

"Big Brother" has a history of racism allegations

Allegations of racism on the show reached a tipping point during the 15th season, which aired in 2013. Several white contestants were accused of using racist slurs and hurling racist comments toward its only female Black and Asian American houseguests, as The New York Times reported at the time.

The slurs weren't aired on television, though avid fans of the show caught them on the live feeds, which allow paying subscribers near 24/7 access into the house. Some of the remarks were eventually aired on the CBS broadcast show after fans pressured the network to address the comments, according to a report from The Hollywood Reporter.

When one houseguest who had been accused of racism was evicted, Chen Moonves confronted her about her remarks, saying she had been personally offended by them. Chen Moonves' husband, Leslie Moonves, the then-chairman and CEO of CBS, called the comments "absolutely appalling," the LA Times reported.

"What happened this season is unfortunate, but at its heart, this show is a daring social experiment," its longtime executive producer Allison Grodner said in 2013, defending the show. "It's real and raw, and it's not always pretty."

The show faced allegations of racism again in 2019 during its 21st season. As the Los Angeles Times reported, Kemi Fakunle, the only female Black houseguest that year, said at the time she believed she was targeted because of her race. In the same season, four of the five POC houseguests were eliminated in the first five weeks of the show, the LA Times reported.

"At times, the Houseguests say things that we do not condone," CBS said in a 2019 statement to People. "We share some of the viewers' concerns about inappropriate behavior and offensive comments, and producers have addressed specific incidents with the Houseguests involved. However, there is absolutely no truth that the casting of the show is racially motivated, that the Houseguests' behavior is predetermined or that the outcome is controlled in any way."

Last year, Da'Vonne Rogers, who is Black and has competed three times on the show, highlighted its lack of diversity in an on-air speech.

"Twenty-one seasons of winners and not one of those faces look like mine," Rogers said last year. "So, when I walked through those doors, I had that desire - had that determination to be the very first face to give hope to those behind me who have a desire to come in here and play this game. Because not seeing a face that looks like mine is very discouraging, it's hurtful, and it does make me feel like maybe it's impossible."

Directly following her remarks, Rogers' fellow houseguests evicted her from the all-star season by a 5-2 vote.

When Entertainment Weekly asked Chen Moonves about Rogers' speech and the show's diversity last year, she pointed toward its three POC winners as players who could "argue they are all minorities who were outnumbered but went on to win."

But Song, who also criticized the remarks at the time, told Insider her win doesn't excuse the lack of diversity on the show nor does it explain the lack of Black winners.

"I think it's completely missing the point," she said, adding that "to some extent, it's gaslighting.

"Just because we've had a few non-white winners and one openly gay winner does not mean that there is not systemic racism and bias built into the reality TV world, let alone into CBS, and bigger picture in the US. And so I think it's very ignorant and naive for her to be able to make those kinds of flippant remarks," said Song, who currently resides in Belgium.

Rollins said CBS over the years created a "monster that racism festered in."

"And when they were asked about it - called to the mat about it - they did nothing about it until finally 22 seasons later. And that's sad," she added.

CBS did not return Insider's request for comment.

After she was evicted from "BB14," Rollins said she often was asked if she believed her race played a role in her elimination.

"I was like, oh, no, no, no, no, because I didn't want to believe that," she told Insider. "But the thing about racism is it doesn't hold up a sign and say, 'I am racist.' Unless you're a klan member or a skinhead, racism is covert."

"Racism is in the dark corners of our minds. Sometimes we don't realize it sometimes it's just, we choose not to realize it. And sometimes we just don't care. And I think that's what happened with CBS collectively," she added.

This season of "Big Brother" began as the most racially diverse season ever

"I cannot speak for Black people," Song said. "I don't even pretend to know the struggles compared to mine as an Asian woman, but I do know that the casting process has been quite broken for a very long time. And so the fact that it's taken 23 seasons for us to see six people who share the same skin color in the house, I mean, that speaks volumes."

"This is about Black lives," she continued. "This is about Black Lives Matter. This is about the Black population. It's not about people of color. We can't, you know, try to soften it or whitewash it in that manner. This is really about Black people and solidarity."

Eight of the 16 houseguests who entered the "Big Brother" house when the season premiered in July identified as POC. The network pledged in November last year to feature at least 50% Black and Indigenous people of color on all seasons of its unscripted programs going forward, including "Big Brother" and "Survivor."

Both Rollins and Song said "The Cookout" was allowed to form and prosper because of the changes the network made ahead of the current "Big Brother" season.

"When you start from a place of honesty, that's where the changes can happen," Rollins said. "And so for CBS to finally - long overdue - make this decision, that enabled the six people to come in and do something special."

"It had to start with CBS actually trying to do better. And so I was glad that they finally did," she added.

Dr. Hunter Hargraves, an associate professor at California State University, Fullerton, who teaches contemporary American television studies, told Insider the changes on "Big Brother" this year that enabled "The Cookout" represented larger shifts in the reality TV landscape.

Other big-name reality shows, like ABC's "The Bachelor" franchise, have similarly undergone changes after longstanding criticism over how they portrayed race and handled accusations of racism.

These changes came after the nationwide racial justice protests last year sparked by the caught-on-video police killing of 46-year-old George Floyd in Minneapolis, Hargraves said.

"You're now starting to see some kind of like more 'woke' reality television. I'm thinking of the 'Queer Eye' reboot or something like 'RuPaul's Drag Race,'" he added.

On reality TV, topics like race are more easily dealt with on shows with more niche audiences - shows that air on cable networks like VH1 or Bravo, Hargraves said. But producers of more mainstream shows, like "Big Brother" and "The Bachelor" have had more difficulties.

"I definitely think there is trying to be this sort of like a balancing act that all programming, regardless of unscripted or scripted, has had to go through in the wake of last summer," he said. "How do networks diversify their programming options? How do they make what I assume is a sincere attempt to speak to the issues that cultural minorities face in a way that doesn't alienate the audience that you think is paying the bills?"

"The Cookout" has led to backlash from some of "Big Brother's" fans

"I have heard some call the formation of the Cookout a form of racism," Chen Moonves said in early September as she defended the all-Black alliance. "In my humble opinion, it is not."

Chen Moonves said it was "impressive" to see the six players make it so far with their loyalty intact despite being on a show known for participants' deception and backstabbing.

"They're like, well, what if six white people got together and kicked out all the Black people? How is that any different?" Rollins said about "Big Brother" fans who've called the alliance racist. "It's 100% different. First of all, that's essentially what's happened all of these years, right? The white people get together and they kick out the Black people."

"Second of all things are not created equal," she added. "Black people come from a history of oppression and being left out and seen as other."

Rollins, who said she viewed the alliance as "righting a wrong," noted there was no malice or hatred between houseguests this season. All members of "The Cookout" were closely aligned with other members of the game outside the all-Black alliance for much of the season, she added. Members of "The Cookout" were often emotional when eliminating their friends, she said.

Song said "The Cookout" hadn't formed as an anti-white alliance, but a pro-Black alliance.

"I think it speaks volumes of how we've been programmed as a society where if anything makes us feel uncomfortable or we don't like it, we lash out," Song said. "And I think people who are right now lashing out and calling 'The Cookout' a racist alliance are people who are super scared and very uncomfortable and cannot see the beauty of it all. I see beauty."


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