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Harsh reality of TV dreams; Some people will do just about anything to be on the telly - even if it means being taken for a ride by a con man, says PAUL ENGLISH.

Byline: Paul English

THE newspaper advert seemed to be the answer to so many problems for twenty- somethings still trying to find a direction in life.

"Want to raise your profile?" it teased. "A new reality TV show seeks contestants! June 2- 3, pounds 100,000 if successful. If you're characterful, resourceful and energetic, then e- mail..."

It seemed like a fair bet to a handful of hopefuls, high on the dream that they could become the next overnight TV stars - walking off with a wad of cash and a slab of celebrity limelight.

They would be courted by the Press. They would be screamed at by teenagers. They would win advertising contracts and lucrative presenting jobs.

They would be young, rich, famous and successful. In fact, as it turned out, they would be none of these.

Thirty contestants were about to sacrifice their lives to unwittingly take part in a diabolical farce masterminded by a Walter Mitty- style chancer.

They spent hundreds of pounds equipping themselves for a year out which promised travel and adventure. They wound up with no job, no home and a shattered dream.

With his slickly tousled hair, sharp dress sense and can-do aura, leader Nik Russian appeared every inch the cocky TV producer he aspired to be.

In reality, Nik was a con-man, cheating his contestants out of something far more valuable than money - he stole and ruined their dreams.

There was no production company. There was no prize money. There was no agreement with a TV channel. No travel and no adventure. There was just someone leading others a merry dance.

Louise Myles, a South African living in London, found out about the new show when someone handed her a leaflet while she was walking through Camden Market in London.

"It looked like a lot of fun," says the 23-year-old. "I decided I was young and could afford to take a year out to do something like this. It seemed really exciting - and there was pounds 100,000 at the end of it if you were successful, so that was an added incentive."

After applying, Louise was invited to audition on a private island on the Thames, with Nik Russian and his team of cameramen and production people.

It all seemed slick and professional.

"One of the other girls had been to the Big Brother auditions and she said it was similar, so we had no reason to doubt any of it at that point," she says.

It wasn't until she received an e-mail from Nikita Russian Productions - Nik's phantom production company - that Louise knew she was in.

So she set about giving up her life as it was, beginning preparations for her new once- in-a-lifetime challenge.

"I gave up a really good job with the NHS in London, and I had been offered a management traineeship which I'd turned down because I thought I was taking a year out for this show, which promised travel and adventure.

"I had a beautiful flat in Islington, great flatmates and I gave all that up.

"I know some of the others had even arranged to rent their own homes out to take part in it. People just stopped their lives. I spent pounds 700 preparing."

When the group were instructed to meet on launch day in a courtyard in London, Louise began to worry.

"There was no central meeting point, and then Nik turned up looking a bit shabby. He had dirty jeans on, and didn't look as slick as he did at the audition," recalls Louise.

The penny finally dropped when the group were told of their challenge.

"Our task was to raise pounds 1million. Nik said they didn't tell us before launch day because it would have spoiled it," says Louise. "The idea was that the group which raised pounds 1million would win pounds 100,000 each.

"All the money we raised was to go into a bank account which Nik had access to. At that point I started thinking I'd made a huge mistake. There was no way we could raise pounds 1million because if I'd had the potential to do that I would have done it by myself. I wouldn't have needed those plonkers to help me.

"But I think the rest of the group were a bit slow to realise," she says. "One of them was even reading through a paper searching for a place to sleep for the night, which Nik then said was part of the challenge. It was really dodgy."

By the end of the first day, Louise demanded a head-to-head with Nik. He told her he was experiencing problems, and that one of the directors had pulled out.

He also claimed a supposed sponsorship arrangement with Stelios Haji Ioannou from EasyJet had fallen through at the last minute.

After it became obvious the whole project was a sham, Nik disappeared, and the group slowly realised they had been led up the garden path.

However, keen to ask Nik some questions, Louise and other angry "contestants" tracked him down.

Their quest to quiz the elusive shyster is recorded in special Channel 4 documentary The Great Reality TV Swindle.

Footage from the auditions - shot by amateur cameramen duped into taking part in the "show" for nothing - reveals how the contestants were hoodwinked.

Further investigation reveals Nik as a master of reinvention, having changed his name twice.

An old friend reveals how Keith Gillard - as Nik was previously known - has a string of similar failed ventures behind him.

Giving his name only as Mike, the friend originally agreed to help Nik out at the auditions, but he smelled a rat when a girl Nik had met an a university access course was trotted out as a "psychological assessor".

Mike explains: "I said to him: `You're pretending to be a TV producer.'

"He said: `I'm producing a show for TV, so I am a TV producer'. At that point I didn't know how manipulative he was.

"He had tried to set up businesses before, unsuccessfully, and the failure of that perhaps prompted him to think he was something that he's not. He did say at one point that he was 25 and not where he wanted to be in his life."

This tale of woe says something about our fascination with reality TV - and how the draw of being on telly can turn us into gullible fools.

"We live in an era where reality TV celebrates ordinariness," says Frances Dickenson of Christmas TV, the makers of this documentary.

Before turning their backs on their dreams, some of the contestants hung on and invited Nik to the house they were holed up in to explain himself.

Even then, he dodged questions, shirked responsibility and left a cryptic video diary message.

But unknown to Nik, reporters from a local TV news company were on their way to the house, after "contestants" tipped them off about the scam.

One contestant even contacted bona-fide documentary-makers Christmas TV in a bid to highlight the scam, and warn the nation against any repeat.

The Great Reality TV Scam includes startling footage revealing how the project crumbled. It was handed over by the trainee cameramen Nik had conned into thinking they could make a successful show.

His powers of persuasion were awesome, but he was preying on a vulnerable market, seduced by the hysteria surrounding shows like Survivor and Big Brother.

"Reality TV is incredibly boring," argues Frances. "As far as I'm concerned, Big Brother is like being trapped in a party I don't want to be at. I'm baffled as to why anyone would want to turn themselves inside out for the pleasure of people that they don't know."

And she reckons Nik shared much in common with fictional characters in far- fetched movie thrillers.

"He reminded me of the amoral young men that turn up in Hitchcock films," she says. "They're very intelligent, very arrogant and think that gives them the right to play with other people's lives.

"He wanted to be a face on TV, and the big man, the producer, and wanted the prestige and kudos that goes along with it.

"He even went as far as to delay the launch by a week, claiming it would clash with the Queen's Jubilee and that he wanted to wait for maximum Press exposure.

"But one of the contestants had a theory about the delay - they were paying double time at the book shop where Nik worked that week. It's incredible.

"He used his parents and friends as correspondence addresses for this so- called company. But he went into it in so much detail that anybody could have fallen for it.

"He built these people's expectations up so high, and sent them crashing. That's a huge emotional cost."

The remaining contestants celebrated when they appeared on local news. By their reasoning, they had made it on to TV. They felt they'd achieved their original ambition - minus the cash.

Frances reckons fans of reality TV should take this whole episode as something of a warning.

"I hope it shows those who may be interested in these programmes that they should be careful," she says.

Louise has rebuilt her life. She has a flat, a job and her dreams again. But she'll be staying away from reality TV.

"I really enjoy Big Brother," she says. "But I'd never consider auditioning for it now. I've had to reset my trust levels. I don't even explain what happened anymore, because people think I'm some sort of dumb blonde when I tell them about it."

The Great Reality TV Swindle, Tuesday Ch4, 10.35pm
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Nov 30, 2002
Words:1604
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