‘Born This Way’ holds people with Down syndrome to the same standards as other reality stars

To read on NPR website:

A Cast With Down Syndrome Brings Fresh Reality To Reality TV

Neda Ulaby     July 22, 2016

Born This Way


Born This Way is produced by Jonathan Murray, the co-creator of MTV’s Real World. Above, cast members Cristina Sanz (left), Rachel Osterbach, Steven Clark and Sean McElwee (top).
Adam Taylor/A&E

Born This Way is a reality show — not too different from The Real World, the groundbreaking show that helped define the genre and aired for more than 30 seasons on MTV. Both feature a cast of diverse young adults navigating the world around them. Both came from reality TV pioneer Jonathan Murray (who co-created The Real World with Mary-Ellis Bunim). The big difference: All the stars of Born This Way have Down syndrome.

« It was challenging to cast this show, » Murray told me recently from Bunim/Murray Productions in Van Nuys, Calif., as he readied for the launch of the second season on July 26. « Sometimes our cast members — it takes them a little struggle to get their thoughts out. »

Murray had no personal connection to the Down syndrome community when he first came up with the concept of the show. He says he’s always been committed to bringing underrepresented communities to the screen, stretching back to when The Real World featured a gay, HIV-positive character in the 1990s.

« I always felt that we grew up in our own little segmented worlds, » he said, adding that television provides a chance to break down those walls.

That said, reality TV relies on conventions, and Born This Way follows plenty of them. The cast includes a musician, a party girl, a self-styled player and a drama queen. Rachel Osterbach is the 33-year-old sweetheart. She wears her red hair in a 1960s-style flip and was recruited for Born This Way at a drama class for people with Down syndrome.

« I actually cried from happiness, » she said about being cast, « because I always wanted to be on TV. Because I wanted to be like the regular people on TV. »

The A&E docu-series Born This Way was recently nominated for three Emmys. Sean McElwee (left) Megan Bomgaars, Rachel Osterbach and John Tucker star in the second season which premieres July 26.

The A&E docu-series Born This Way was recently nominated for three Emmys. Sean McElwee (left) Megan Bomgaars, Rachel Osterbach and John Tucker star in the second season which premieres July 26. Adan Taylor/A&E

Osterbachs’ parents, Laurie and Gary, said they never really believed their family would end up onscreen. The family lives in Orange County, Calif. When they got picked, they were concerned, because Bunim/Murray Productions also makes Keeping Up With the Kardashians.

« We knew they were experienced, » Gary Osterbach said wryly. « But when you’re experienced in shows like the Kardashians — that doesn’t necessarily make you feel like your daughter is going to come off great. »

But Rachel Osterbach does come off great. So does the rest of the cast. Born This Way has been an unexpected hit for A&E. Over its first season, the show enjoyed more than an 80 percent rise in viewership. Other reality stars could learn much from this cast about handling conflict.

There’s lots of hugging and forgiving. And when alcohol appears, it’s not hurled during catfights. It’s sipped responsibly during family dinners or among parents discussing how to handle their adult childrens’ transition to independent living. (Cast members during the first season were ages 22 to 32.)

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