A social conscience is not the first feature that would come to mind if you had to describe the qualities of your average reality show on commercial television. We never think they might have a positive role in encouraging Australians to be more generous, flexible and humane. But by sheer coincidence last week, four central figures in reality series about to start on TV were moved to explain how their shows reflected the evolution of Australian attitudes.
Kelly Osbourne, one of the new judges on Australia's Got Talent, told me that of the 58 versions of the Got Talent franchise now showing around the world, Australia's was the most admirable.
"What I love about this show and what I f---ing love about Australia, I've seen this show in so many different countries and this is the first time I've ever seen them bring on talent that could bring about positive social change," Osbourne says.
"We had this beautiful, beautiful man who came to Australia as a refugee and he had me and Sophie [Monk] in tears with his spoken words. It's kind of like beatnik poetry. He came on his own, he had no family with him. His words were so beautiful, about being grateful to Australia for giving him a life that he couldn't even dream of.
"We had a girl who is Sikh and she did this incredible spoken-word piece about what it's like to be Sikh in Australia, and the struggles she faces every day when people accuse her of being a terrorist.
"I never realised how much talent Australia has that is just missed. That's why I'm so excited to be a part of a show like this in Australia, because you're giving people a platform that they couldn't have otherwise."
Martino and Luciano, two contestants on My Kitchen Rules, were delighted with how the show allowed them to satirise stereotypes. I had asked Martino, who was born in Siena, if he felt any pressure from the producers to overdramatise what he was doing (a criticism often levelled at reality shows). He replies: "What more do you want: we're Italian, we're gay and we're cooks. The drama is already there.
"Through us, we gave voice to people aged 50, gay, Italian. That's never been shown in this kind of television show, as far as I know. We don't have to think of Australians as ignorant people. That's why I like this country, because I feel at home."
I asked Luciano, who was born in the NSW town of Griffith to parents from the Abruzzo region, whether any of the other contestants had a problem with gay people. "I've been open all my life, everyone knows who I am," he says. "It's not an issue for me and I think the same for Martino. I was just hoping that they weren't going to focus too much on the gay theme, more on us as cooks and Italians. I didn't want them to overdo it.
"There were a couple of people there, because of where they live, they've never had much to do with gay people, and they came up to us afterwards and said: 'You've opened up our eyes and you've shown us that you boys are just like normal people.' I said: 'Well thank you, we are.'
"Being Italian, we like to greet people with a kiss on the cheek. There were these two straight miners from up in Queensland who've never been kissed on the cheek before by a male. They were open to it. They didn't feel threatened at all.
"They'd joke about 'The Italians are here, that's the way you do it overseas, even straight gentlemen'. The Australian culture is not familiar with that, affection between two males. I think we opened up some of their eyes; they're cool."
And Jedd, an oyster farmer who will appear in The Farmer Wants a Wife, was impressed with how the show addressed the loneliness that can be suffered by people who live outside the city. His oyster leases are at Coffin Bay and Streaky Bay, 650 kilometres from Adelaide.
"I really enjoy my life," he tells me. "Being out on the water is really good for my soul. I feel very privileged living on the Eyre Peninsula – it's a magic environment, but very isolated. The people you meet are other oyster farmers on their boats. There are a few female oyster farmers, but mostly in husband-and-wife teams."
Jedd's mother entered his name for the show, and he was surprised when he was asked to audition. Was he happy with the results of the show? "Happy is an interesting word," he says. "It was an amazing experience, with some ups and downs. Having gone through it, I feel richer."
He's not allowed to say if he found a partner among the eight women he spent time with, but he did make a lot of mates. "I still stay in contact with the other farmers and we'll stay very good friends as a result of the bonding experience we've been through."
Australia's Got Talent starts on Monday, February 1, at 7.30pm on Channel Nine. My Kitchen Rules starts February 1 at 7.30pm on Seven. The Farmer Wants A Wife starts on February 1 at 8.45pm on Nine.
An Osbourne grows up
Long before the Kardashians, there was The Osbournes, but anyone who watched the pioneering reality show in the early noughties would have worried about how Kelly Osbourne was going to turn out. The bratty teenage daughter of a brain-damaged father and a ferocious mother determined to become famous in her own right seemed doomed to a future as a B-list Paris Hilton.
Indeed, in the 14 years since the first season of The Osbournes, there have been a couple of stints in rehab and a couple of public meltdowns, and yes, there's still a swearword in every second sentence. But at the age of 31, Kelly Osbourne comes across as kind, smart, charming, witty, hard-working and self-effacing.
She actually earns her living: she has her own fashion label, she writes books and advice columns, she guest stars in TV dramas (playing a cyber terrorist in a forthcoming episode of CSI: Cyber), she does charity work and, for the next few weeks, she'll be a judge in Channel Nine's revival of Australia's Got Talent. Although she has judged in fashion shows in the US, she's never done this kind of critical analysis before. Based on what she saw while recording the AGT auditions last year, she's nervous about her capacity to be tough but fair on everybody.
"It's really incredible to see the passion that people have for what they think is a talent," she tells me. "I can't get past their love of what they do. I know what it's like to go on a stage and think you're amazing when actually you're really shit. That takes a lot of confidence, and I have to give brownie points there, but I have to treat everyone fairly. The only people I do not judge fairly are kids, because I was a kid on stage and I know what that feels like, to have someone tell you 'no'. I just can't say no to kids."
She's getting a lot of help from the more experienced judges around her, and she's fallen in love with all of them, even the notoriously acerbic Ian Dickson.
"Dicko is my uncle," she says. "He gives us pep talks. We share a lunch room and when he thought I wasn't eating enough protein, he would make me eat the rest of my chicken or fish and vegetables before I could leave the table. I think you're going to see a softer side of Dicko in this show. He cries in one episode; we all do. He's a wind-up merchant. He loves to go for it, and he knows that I will fight back if he says something I don't agree with.
"Eddie's last name is Perfect for a reason – his wife is perfect, his children are gorgeous, he's so smart, he knows about music, he's got the best sense of humour. We'd get the giggles about something and we'd have to stop for 10 minutes while we cried laughing."
But her favourite fellow judge is Sophie Monk, who has brought out Osbourne's maternal instincts: "You know when you start a new job in this industry, and it's two girls, they love to pit them off against each other. I've watched that with my mum, with so many of my friends, but to be with a girl who doesn't want to be the prettiest or the funniest of the smartest, and is a bit naff, is so nice. I love Sophie's one-liners. She literally makes me wee myself.
"A lot of people came on stage and were making jokes about Sophie being a dumb blonde, and I was like 'Oy, you do not come up here and start insulting the judges before you've even shown us what you're going to be doing'."
Osbourne was surprised that some of the contestants seemed to have a sense of entitlement, and did not respect the judges' decisions. "We had this one group and they went f---ing insane because they didn't get through. It was portrayed to us as being the most dangerous death-defying pyro act the world has ever seen but they were just holding big f---ing fireworks that they were letting go. One of the girls was set on fire and I couldn't help but get the giggles because it was just really awkward. When they didn't get through they went nuts. It was terrifying."
That was when Osbourne discovered the serious side of Dave Hughes, who will host this season of Australia's Got Talent: "Dave Hughes, I f---ing love him. Even his smile makes me laugh. Whenever there was somebody who didn't react well, we would go outside and Hughesy would come out and say, 'Just stay where you are. I'm having security deal with it'."
For more, go to The Tribal Mind.