Teen Says Disney Ruined Her on 'Reality' Show
MANHATTAN (CN) - An honor student claims that Disney and ABC ruined her life and exposed her to public ridicule and death threats by featuring her on an episode of "Wife Swap," a supposedly "unscripted," "reality" TV show. The girl, who was 15 at the time, says Disney fed her lines to make her seem "bratty" and "spoiled," and now she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks, depression and suicidal thoughts.
Alicia Guastafarro, who was 15 when she appeared on the show in 2008, seeks $100 million in damages in New York County Court. She claims the defendants acted "with actual malice towards [her], with the intent of embarrassing and emotionally harming plaintiff as a mode of entertainment, to their own profit."
Guastafarro, now 18, claims "Wife Swap" did not compensate her or obtain her consent to appear on the show, which ABC-Disney bought from Wales-based co-defendant RDF Media.
She says "Wife Swap" paid her mother $20,000, but "did not pay plaintiff anything, or provide any consideration whatsoever, for plaintiff's appearance".
The Guastafarro episode was broadcast on Jan. 2, 2008, to 8.5 million initial overnight viewers and now is in international syndication, according to the complaint.
"Defendant's inaccurate and exaggerated portrayal of the innocent plaintiff caused her to be subject to such pervasive and incessant verbal and physical assaults from her peers that she - formerly an honor student who was actively engaged in extra-curricular activities - has been forced to finish her last two years of high school in a specially supervised program," according to the complaint.
Guastafarro claims that Disney, ABC and RDF Media worked to "maximize plaintiff's public embarrassment" by providing scripted lines, direction and costumes, though the show is supposed to be unscripted reality TV.
In one scene, Guastafarro opens a gift that the show's producers bought and wrapped, while claiming that she gets a Christmas present every morning from her parents, according to the complaint.
She claims the defendants directed her to become angry and refuse to eat the cereal her mother prepared for breakfast, to claim that her family does her homework, to repeat several embarrassing lines, and claim that her family spends $100,000 a year on beauty pageants.
"During the filming of the aforementioned television program, defendants would yell 'cut,' and instruct plaintiff to repeat what she had done but, among other things, 'act a little more spoiled' or 'act a little more bratty,'" according to the complaint.
Guastafarro says that over several "takes," the show filmed her saying things such as, "I am the most popular girl in school" and, "I feel sorry for people who aren't as gorgeous as me."
She claims "Wife Swap" had her pose for the camera, use spray tans and wear a pageant gown even though she was not competing in a beauty pageant at the time and had not competed in one for several years.
Some of these fictitious scenes were filmed while she did not have parental supervision, according to the complaint.
"Defendants willfully ignored the legal procedures that are in place to safeguard the well-being of minors, including failing to secure permits and judicial approval where children are to perform in a television broadcast as required under the New York Arts and Cultural Affairs Law," according to the complaint.
To be considered for the show, a family must have at least one child, according to the complaint.
Guastafarro says she was required to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, but the show used the exam to plot out the episode rather than protect her.
When Guastafarro went on "The Tyra Banks Show" to promote "Wife Swap," she says the defendants ordered her not to dispute any of the fictitious details from the episode.
She claims that there are posts on online message boards for "Wife Swap" where people purporting to have appeared on previous episodes of the show claim that they would be sued for $5 million if they speak out against the show.
Since appearing on the program, Guastafarro says she has been "subject to public ridicule and scorn, irreparable damage to her reputation, death threats, harassment, physical assaults at school, and severe emotional distress."
Guastafarro claims that the United Kingdom's Children's Secretary Ed Balls has cited "Wife Swap" as a show that exploits children by placing them in "contrived situations."
Former participants on "Wife Swap" include the Heene family, which staged the infamous "balloon boy hoax" in 2009. The Heenes pleaded guilty to felony charges after they reported their 6-year-old son had floated away in a homemade balloon, while they actually ordered the child to hide in the attic.
"Wife Swap has a history of being associated with child exploitation," according to the complaint. "One of its first episodes featured a woman named Lizzy Beardsley, who was subsequently convicted of child cruelty based on conduct overlapping the period where she appeared on the show."
Guastafarro seeks $100 million in damages and an order to rescind any purported contract, alleging negligence, civil rights violations and defamation. She is represented by David Ratner with Morelli Ratner.