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By now you’ve seen, or at least heard about, Max‘s controversial reality sensation Naked Attraction. You likely have some questions (and, boy, so did we). Below, the show’s executive producer Darrell Olsen has answers — from what it’s like to audition as a contestant on the show, to what goes down behind the scenes, to how his team is reacting to the show’s U.S. invasion uproar (and whether there could be an American version in the format’s future).
For the uninitiated, Naked Attraction is a British dating show where a “picker” selects between six fully nude contestants who are gradually revealed from the feet up, and then they embark on a (clothed) date. While Naked Attraction first premiered in the U.K. back in 2016, the show made its U.S. debut on Sept. 20 when six seasons were added to Max. Last week, the title topped Max’s top 10 shows list and blew up in the media, with pundits and viewers showering the program with praise (for its attempts at showcasing diverse body positivity and sex education) or scorn (for, well, more obvious reasons).
On Friday, Olsen took to Zoom from the U.K. to answer our burning questions.
Did you ever think Naked Attraction would air in the U.S.?
We thought it probably wouldn’t due to the general restrictions in the States and the public feeling about nudity on TV. There have been talks about it and [the reaction has] always been, “We’re not sure U.S. audiences are ready to see this.” That’s been the sticking point. This time, Max said, “We’re a cutting-edge streamer, we’re just going to go with it.” A lot of people in the U.S. were already big fans, including celebrities like Chrissy Teigen and RuPaul. That it’s already a hit on Max has taken us by surprise.
What’s it been like for you and your team seeing the response? Are Americans more or less prudish than you expected?
What’s happening in the States right now is [like how the U.K. reacted] seven or so years ago. You have, “I can’t believe this is onscreen” — shock and outrage — mixed with, “This is quite amazing.” The show isn’t for everyone, but everyone is interested in it. I think what will happen with you guys is, hopefully, what happened over here, where the “Oh my God, I can’t believe this is on TV” turns into, “It’s a pretty good show.” Also, the stories get better and we push more boundaries [in the latter seasons].
Has there been any interest in a U.S.-produced version in the wake of this?
We tried to push an original U.S. series in the past. Now, who knows, on the back of this [success], it might happen. From my personal point of view, we’d be very excited by that prospect.
What do you suspect you’d do differently for a U.S. version? CBS imported Love Island but made it into a tamer version, even though it’s on streaming.
What’s happened in other countries is the format has very much remained the same. We wouldn’t want to do a watered-down version. So if [a streamer or network] said, “Let’s have everyone wearing underwear but they’re topless” or whatever, that isn’t honoring what this show is about. But we’d like to have a show with U.S. [contestants] who have so much energy and new stories to tell.
Is doing a celebrity version of this show — or at least an episode — your producer’s dream?
We’d love to do a celebrity version. If you can round up enough celebrities, that would be a great way to launch a U.S. season, wouldn’t it?
Regarding the criticism of the show, let me ask this: Can a show where people are judging and dismissing others based on the most superficial of things like their genitals … can that show truly be a body-positive and empowering series like the production clearly strives to be? Doesn’t the most sensational aspect of the format undermine the rest of it?
I disagree. What it proves is that every person is different, and not just facially. We’ve all got different genitals. We’ve all got different big toes. It’s amazing. So there’s no reason to feel bad about yourself, and it’s empowering to see we’re all different. But also, we don’t play into the stereotypes. You might have a male with rather large genitalia and the Picker might say, “I don’t really like that, it’s not my thing.” Or someone might say, “I like smaller boobs.” The irony of the show is, by having a load of people naked, it makes you feel better about yourself. Love Island is a fantastic show, but the cast looks amazing and then viewers feel a little bit bad about the way they look. We’re the complete opposite.
Speaking of casting, I have several questions about what it’s like to cast the show, and be on the show. How tough is it to find contestants?
Casting is a tough job; [Naked Attraction is] considered a hard casting job in the U.K. But we have a brilliant team, and they always managed to find great people. Everyone thinks everyone coming on is a naturist or massive extrovert who just runs around naked. Some of the people are quite shy. It’s just about finding people who have enough body confidence to come on the show.
I’ve read that contestants have to get naked during their audition, which makes sense. But as you’re not just trying to cast attractive people, what is it you’re looking for when they take off their clothes?
Being naked on national TV is a huge deal for people. The point of getting naked during the audition is if you can’t do it in front of a couple production people, you’re going to have a really hard time on the actual show. Also, part of it is for people to be able to describe their own bodies and what they like and dislike about themselves. Also, for us to get a sense of their energy and if they can make jokes. So if they’re too reticent, they’re not right.
How long do contestants have to stand naked in the pods onstage during filming?
We try and move relatively quickly. They’re certainly not in those pods for hours on end.
I’ve read it’s pretty cold on the stage. What’s the temperature and why is it kept that way?
Any TV studio is generally air-conditioned. If all [the contestants] said the studio is freezing, we will probably make it a bit warmer. There’s this urban myth that the men don’t want it too cold because they don’t want their genitals to appear small. We don’t crank up the heat when there’s six naked guys or anything.
Speaking of, do guys ever try anything to make themselves appear, you know, bigger?
When the screens are down before we start, it’s hard to know what they’re doing. A few of them pull in their stomach.
Is there a specific worry that’s common to female contestants?
No. We try to create a party atmosphere [backstage]. We put on some music. The Picker hasn’t seen them, obviously, but the others have bonded a bit and they’ll make comments [to each other] like, “Wow yours are huge compared to mine,” or whatever.
How often do contestants back out at the last minute?
There’s a certain amount of people who drop out. The number is probably a bit higher than other dating shows. We do take seriously the care and the welfare and background checks of our contestants. And they have to tell their place of work. By the time they actually get to the studio, the dropout rate is minimal. It’s not like, “Oh, we’re starting in 10 minutes and six bodies just ran out of the studio in dressing gowns.”
Have you had any Americans on the show, and how have they been compared to U.K. contestants?
We haven’t had a lot of Americans. We’ve definitely had a few. There was one guy who was a Picker in a later season who was very beefy and all-American. He used to be in the armed forces and works on a farm. But he liked to be pegged.
Has anybody actually ended up married from being paired together on the show?
We have a couple who are living together and have kids. A lot of them stay together for like six months or a year or two years, but end up breaking up. But we’ve got a smattering of couples who are still together. What I want is a Naked Attraction wedding where everybody is naked.
Do you ever get profoundly and utterly exhausted of nudity?
I wouldn’t say exhausted. I don’t want to say it becomes normalized, either. Every show has lots of different format points and beats to it, and in Naked Attraction the nudity is one of the beats of the show. You’ll want to find someone who’s romantic or wants to have children, but also want someone who’s really hairy or not hairy at all. We get new editors and for the first few hours, they’re all, “I can’t believe what I’m having to edit.” Half a day later [they’re fine]. To have longevity, you have to make the show about people’s stories. So the reason this has kept going is because we do push the envelope with different kinds of people. We might be like, “Why can’t we have the first trans person on a dating show? Why can’t we have a guy with HIV who’s very open about his HIV?” We want to keep it fresh and slightly groundbreaking, but also positive and inclusive.
What’s the most surprised you have ever been in this job?
We had one Picker who brought in her dog to help her pick one of her dates, because she thinks the dog can sniff out a good date for her. There was a poly couple in one of the shows who were choosing someone to join to become a throuple. We had a couple who were in a pod together. Humans are weird and wonderful creatures, you know? It’s like, nothing shocks anymore.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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