What You Didn't Know About Wife Swap

The original "Wife Swap" debuted in Britain in January 2003. The show was a reality TV trainwrecktastic must-watch from the get-go, so it's no surprise it was replicated around pretty much the entire world. "Wife Swap" made its way across the pond to the USA in 2004. It initially aired on ABC before landing on the Paramount Network for its revival (per TheWrap).

According to Paramount, the show "[takes] on hot-button issues like politics, class, race, and gender" as it "finds out what happens when two very different families trade spouses for two weeks." Initially, the show performed well. There were the inevitable spin-offs, including the infamous "Celebrity Wife Swap" — Melissa Rivers and Bristol Palin, anybody? However, according to The Hollywood Reporter, Paramount decided to rebrand itself as a movie-centric network in 2020. So, they pulled the plug on their reality TV roster, and "Wife Swap" was one of the casualties. Although it's gone, it certainly isn't forgotten. 

Perhaps you've wondered every now and then if maybe the matrimonial grass actually is greener on the other side. Perhaps you've even considered following in the show's footsteps (in which case, PLEASE seek professional help — STAT). If that is the case, though, you should check out what you didn't know about "Wife Swap" before taking action.

House manuals and rules weren't written by wives

"How real is reality TV" is a question that's been asked since the genre started. The answer depends on the show, ranging from "not at all" to "really real." The latter's an exception, though, because everyday life is pretty dull in actual reality. Even the most intriguing reality subjects need guidance, editing, and/or scripted help to make for compelling or bearable viewing. "Wife Swap" was a prime example.

There was undoubtedly more than a degree of authenticity when it came to the beliefs and lifestyles of swapped partners. But that wasn't enough on its own; it needed some production fairy dust. For instance, there's the often outrageous and, well, kind of unbelievable house manuals and rules supposedly written by "Wife Swap" participants. It turns out there's a reason why they seemed too incredible. They weren't actually real; they were scripted.

Sean Lowe learned that lesson the hard way when he suffered severe "fan backlash" after his stint on "Celebrity Wife Swap." According to People, Lowe's spouse, Catherine, was switched with fellow "The Bachelor" star Jason Mesnick's wife. After "Molly woke up to the to-do list Sean left for her, which included ironing his socks and wiping down the kitchen," Lowe's social media was flooded with negativity. The reality veteran took it in stride, though, pointing out that hey, it's just television, folks! "[Catherine] would scratch my eyes out if I ever gave her a to-do list," Lowe assured the hordes of haters.

Homes were staged to fit family portrayals

Who doesn't love a good poke around somebody's house to see how other people live? "Wife Swap" provided the perfect opportunity to do that, but unfortunately, (SPOILER ALERT!) often, what you saw simply wasn't real. The producers formed strong ideas about how they wanted to portray the featured families, and there wasn't much of a gray area. Creating their vision involved reorganizing participants' houses, and moving around furniture and belongings in homes — even adding props sometimes to fit their chosen narrative.

"The quote 'Believe nothing you read, and only half of what you see' should be the motto for reality television," former participant Kate Martinez wrote on her The Truth About Wife Swap blog. She explained, "They rearrange your house to make your family come across a certain way." Martinez also shared that she immediately became "nervous" about having agreed to appear on camera after the production crew turned up with a load of phony "props" to sprinkle around.

And, the phony didn't stop there. It's wasn't always just the interiors that were faked. According to one poster on a Reddit reality show thread, producers fudged the actual location of their home, too. "I was on Wife Swap when I was 10 years old," Reddit user sup3rrn0va stated. "My family had to switch with a farming family, and we were supposed to be the 'city family' even though we lived in the suburbs."

Participants were allocated scripted roles to play

Sure, there are plenty of controlling and overbearing moms out there, and yep, there are more than enough men who still firmly believe a woman's place is barefoot and pregnant behind the kitchen sink. But neither necessarily makes for compelling viewing — unless they're amped-up to the max, vocal AF, and act out as much as humanly possible. That's why reality shows employ writers, dontcha know?

Several "Wife Swap" participants were allegedly allocated scripted roles — leaving zero room for nuance or context to slip in and spoil the fun. Then, writers purportedly beefed up their already sometimes-extreme personalities and lifestyles to ensure maximum cringe ability. "By nature, the show's structure dictates that the participants be presented as caricatures," The New York Times notes. Christy Oeth claims she was unfairly portrayed after being cast as a high-flying career woman. In the episode intro, Oeth and her hubby were accused of placing "success before family life." Ouch!

"There is a very big element of unreality to the way they pigeonholed me," the mom-of-six told The New York Times. Stephen Fowler suffered an even worse fate after being portrayed as "the worst husband in the world," per The Noe Valley Voice. Following his 2009 appearance, Fowler was deluged with hate mail, received death threats, and became the subject of a Facebook haters page and the website "StephenFowlerSucks.com" (per Today). "I do regret going on the show," Fowler told The Noe Valley Voice. "I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy."

Table meetings were edited for maximum drama

At the end of each "Wife Swap," the spouses meet around a table to talk about the experience. It's a chance for reflection, self-improvement, and introspection, and it customarily results in a calm and respectful discussion. As if! Mainly it's all tantrums, aggressive interruptions, screaming, angry confrontations, tears, and deep denial. Oh, and a whole load of accusations flying around like vultures circling a decomposing corpse. Well, it is "Wife Swap" after all, not the "Dr. Drew" show.

"You have a problem too, buddy. Well, own up to it, buddy. Shut up! Shut up!" Marian (Ro) Drago screamed at her husband during one particularly heated table meeting. "I'm done. I'm through with this crap," she concluded, storming out of the room. Talk about deranged dramarama. But how much of it was real? Probably not a lot, according to one past participant. "The absolute worst thing about the show is the cut and paste with the conversations. This was most evident during the entire shot of the 'table meeting,'" Kate Martinez claimed on her blog. "What they want people to hear and see is all for the sake of good TV and ratings; there is no allegiance to actual 'reality' as we know it," she further alleged.

Still, Drago has no misgivings when it comes to her enraged exit. "I didn't think I was that bad..." she told the Daily News (in an archived edition). "It was definitely a life experience I'll always treasure."

Kids were encouraged to misbehave to create friction

W.C. Fields once advised, "never work with children or animals" (via The Sydney Morning Herald). But that's easier said than done when it comes to "Wife Swap."

The show portrayed the kids as unbelievably well-behaved or out-of-control hooligans wreaking havoc — depending on the chosen narrative. But, children fall within a behavioral spectrum in real life, making for pretty boring TV. So, the "Wife Swap" kids were allegedly treated to some reality razzle-dazzle. One Reddit user, who appeared on the show when they were 10, claims they were actively encouraged to create friction. "They also incited plenty of drama. I was framed as addicted to video games so they took my Xbox and Gameboy Color for the week," @sup3rrn0va writes. "A few days in one of the crew members came in with my Gameboy and said 'look, I found this' and handed it to me. It shouldn't be surprising that they sent the woman staying in our house into my room to 'catch me in the act.'"

However, it wasn't unusual for "Wife Swap" moms and their new charges to form a genuine bond. That was the case with Doreen Flummerfelt and LaShelle Bray. Both moms fell hard for their "adoptive children" (The spouses? Not so much). Flummerfelt would send gifts to Bray's kids every Christmas, and LaShelle spoke "every few weeks" with Flummerfelt's children. "Both the boys are wonderful," Bray told The Baltimore Sun. "I just love her kids."

Two participants sued for 'emotional damage'

Throughout its tenure, "Wife Swap" was the subject of two lawsuits from past participants. That's an impressively low litigious number when compared to other reality shows (for example, the scandals of "Pawn Stars").

According to the Muskogee Daily Phoenix (via Campaign), Jeffrey Bedford sued the "Wife Swap" production company, RDF, and ABC's parent network, Walt Disney, for $10 million in 2005, citing "emotional damages." Bedford's wife was switched with a gay man, and the "devout Christian" wasn't at all happy about his new marital match. In his lawsuit, Bedford alleged "filming of the show caused physical and mental illness and hospitalization." Bedford claimed that "Wife Swap" producers said his wife would be leaving him and that they refused to let him know where she was unless he continued filming.

Per Radar, Alicia Guastaferro sued for $100 million in 2010, claiming ABC and Disney "purposefully, intentionally and knowingly caused severe emotional and psychological harm to a fragile 15-year-old." As TMZ put it, the ex-pageant queen was "portrayed as a spoiled, narcissistic, terror child." She alleged that she was assigned a scripted role.

Guastaferro said she came across so badly in the show that she had to enter a special high school program after it aired — as her former classmates subjected her to intense "ridicule, mockery and derision" (via Radar). Things allegedly became so overwhelming that according to the AP (via Syracuse.com), the teen had to enter "psychiatric care for post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, an eating disorder and panic attacks."

Families were shown fake 'final versions' of episodes

All media genres, from documentaries to newspapers, "edit raw materials" and "are accused of cherry-picking facts and quotes." It's just the way it is, and all you can hope is that they're ethical. However, when it comes to reality, ethics often fall by the wayside. "The problem is that makers of reality TV have the power to imply or outright fabricate things about real people who have to carry their fake reputations into their real lives," Time magazine wrote (per an archived edition).

On "Wife Swap," real people often weren't able to prepare themselves for any possible backlash — as producers allegedly showed them fake "final versions" of their episode before it hit the screens. On an "Ask Me Anything" Reddit thread, Original Poster @mrsashking claims, "My family was on Wife Swap in 2006, I was 13. My mom (professional organizer) swapped places with a pirate."

When asked if she remembered classmates' reactions to the show, @mrsashking claimed the episode that aired was not the same as the one producers had shown the family. "I was so excited and told everyone about it. We had a big viewing party," she writes. "The thing that bothered me was that they showed up [sic] the 'final version' before it aired. But it was completely different from the actual episode. We were totally confident with having a viewing party for the episode we saw, but the final cut that we all watched live was less favorable. That bugged me."

They played fast and loose with the editing

Following the adage "never let the truth get in the way of a good story," a lot of "Wife Swap" was, seemingly, far from real. According to past participants, producers played fast and loose with the truth during post-production editing.

Dee Jackson appeared on the first episode of British "Wife Swap." She's white and vehemently against "mixed marriages." So, of course, producers matched her with Lance, a Black man with a white spouse. The result was as awful as you'd expect. Jackson came across as a bigoted racist. However, she insists that's not the whole story. "Lance was one of those who think that women should stay at home and not move for three weeks," Jackson told The Guardian. "I'm sorry, we're in the 2000s; we're not in cave life. And he called me fat and slobby and no use to man or beast. He called me a white cow one day. But they only showed you half of what was going on."

Wendy Roth was a co-executive producer on the U.S. "Wife Swap." She's admitted that what's finally shown on TV isn't an actual depiction of real-life events. "A documentary is a news show," Roth told the The New York Times. "We come out of the entertainment division. There is a certain amount of poetic license." Roth mentioned editing up to 100 hours of filmed footage down to 43 minutes — so it's inevitable that a lot will not make the final cut.

A spouse's work life wasn't always as it appeared

Each episode of "Wife Swap" took viewers on a deep dive into the everyday lives of two families. The spouses' jobs or decisions to be stay-at-home parents featured heavily in the narrative. Such talk would often motivate producers' swapping choices — switching a working mom with a spouse who believed in "traditional family values." Christy Oeth was portrayed as being the former. 

The episode pitch reads, "Will Mrs. Oeth get in touch with her natural maternal instincts?" (via the The New York Times). Oeth valued her career above her kids — producers led you to believe. However, in reality, Oeth "had stayed home for five years to raise her four children." It was only after her husband quit his "high-pressure job in Manhattan" that she resumed working. 

Kate Martinez was also unhappy with how "Wife Swap" represented her and her husband's work — portraying them as being "OBSESSED with the martial arts and while yes, we love training, we are nowhere nearly as consumed with it as they made us look," Martinez claimed on her blog. "The truth is it is our BUSINESS, and our livelihood. It is our sole source of income, how we make a living, the reason we have a roof over our head and bread on the table." She emphatically wrote, "To imply that we care more about our jobs than our family was by far the single most insulting implication of this stupid show."

There was some serious timeline faking and manipulation

Each episode of "Wife Swap" was supposed to document the lives of participating families over two weeks. But hey, why bother keeping it real when it comes to reality TV? According to show participants, producers engaged in some serious timeline faking and manipulation.

On an "Ask Me Anything" sub-Reddit, a former "Wife Swap" family member shared her experience of the crew's timekeeping and shooting schedule. She actively questioned the 14-day timespan the show purportedly covered. "It was 6 days, and the camera crew was there from like, 7am to 2am every day," @mrsashking alleged. "They claim it's two weeks, but it isn't. They get away with it by saying it's 3 days of moms' rules and 3 days of new moms' rules, which is like 2 weeks?" However, what they lacked in filming length, they more than made up for with vigor. "It was an intense 6 days," the OP admitted.

Kate Martinez alleges she had a very similar experience. "[Wife Swap] claims to be shot over two weeks when in reality it is shot over one," she wrote on her blog. Martinez appeared on season 4 as "an amateur kickboxing mother from Colorado." The crew would reportedly fake what time of the day (or night) it was: "They 'black out' windows to 'shoot a night scene' or bring huge lights outside if it's night and they need to shoot a 'day scene,'" Martinez claimed.

One participant was fired after his episode aired

The reality of appearing on "Wife Swap" definitely became very real for one participant. Stephen Fowler found himself unemployed — and very nearly divorced — following his portrayal as a verbally abusive husband from hell during Season 5. According to SFGATE, after the controversial episode aired, Fowler "was forced to resign from the boards of two nonprofits." He was also fired as CFO of a solar energy company, per The Noe Valley Voice

Fowler came across as unbelievably arrogant — berating his replacement "wife" for not being bright or thin enough for his liking. The British-born San Francisco transplant branded Gayla Long a redneck and didn't respect her. It wasn't just Fowler's career that was harmed, though. Appearing on "Wife Swap" also hurt his marriage of 25 years, The Noe Valley Voice reported. The couple ended up selling their home and moving to a new neighborhood. Fowler's spouse, Renee, publicly apologized for her husband's behavior and said that she'd "asked Stephen to get professional help."

Fowler admitted to The Noe Valley Voice that his chances of being employed again in the environmental industry were "unequivocally damaged." However, despite being persona non grata on the business side, Fowler retained an academic presence, continuing "to teach a course on sustainable living at the University of San Francisco." As for appearing on reality TV again in the future? That'll be a definite no. "I wouldn't recommend it to anyone," Fowler said.

Participants were paid $20k

At least there was one plus side to putting yourself out there for the world to potentially judge and ridicule. It seems that sometimes reality TV really does pay, as participants on the U.S. "Wife Swap" franchise made pretty serious bank. According to cast members, they were given $20,000 in return for appearing on the show. That's definitely not to be sniffed at — especially when you compare it to the measly £2,000 (approximately $2,700) that participants in the British version of "Wife Swap" were paid (per The Evening Standard).

"Update for anyone who was curious about how much money the show gave us. The initial amount was $20k, but after taxes, it came to around $15k like others had expected," @mrsashking wrote on an "Ask Me Anything" sub-Reddit. "My mom was part of a national group or professional organizer, and they were approached by ABC. The group then nominated my mom, and when we heard you get $20,000, we agreed to do it :) I was super excited to be on TV, I was 13. But I was glad when it was over, haha."

The "Colorado kickboxing" mother, Kate Martinez, confirmed the appearance fee amount in her blog post. "In December of 2006, my family was asked to participate in an episode of 'Wife Swap.' We thought it would be the chance of a lifetime to get 20K and get to experience 'living in somebody elses [sic] shoes,'" she wrote.

They would 'Frankenbite' fake conversations

Another reality TV tactic that "Wife Swap" has been accused of is "Frankenbiting." It involves editing parts of different conversations together, out of context, to create a new narrative. According to Time, "Quotes are manufactured, crushes and feuds constructed out of whole cloth, episodes planned in multiact 'storyboards' before taping, scenes stitched together out of footage shot days apart."

Dawne Smith claims she was a "Wife Swap" Frankenbiting victim. In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Smith alleged "participants were coached and goaded into fighting, and it's more of an acting gig than reality." The mom-of-two was "friendly and supportive" toward her new "family" when she first arrived, the outlet reported. But that wasn't what producers wanted. Smith shared that provocation was employed among the cast, with the film crew spouting out lines including, "Are you going to take that?" or "Why is he picking on you?"

Kate Martinez also alludes to Frankenbiting on the show. "They ask people to answer only certain questions — and they are instructed to answer them a very particular way," she writes on her blog. "What they don't get in one fluid sentence they will work out pieces in other conversations and then cut and paste words together. There were several instances during filming that both Adam and I 'got into it' with the film crew for the ways that they were harassing us — and words from those instances were inserted into other 'conversations' on the show."

Some of the couples weren't even really couples

Some people will do just about anything for their 15 minutes of fame — even if they're already famous. Such was the case with the mid-'90s rapper Coolio. Perhaps in a bid to refire his flagging career, the musician appeared on "Celebrity Wife Swap" in 2013. Coolio's girlfriend, Mimi, switched places with actor-singer Mark McGrath's wife, Carin.

The episode was suitably trainwreck TV-worthy, with Coolio really bringing his D-bag game. He was so convincing as a horrendous "husband" that it left viewers wondering why anybody in their right mind would ever consider dating him. So, was Mimi insane? Nope. Instead, it turns out she was never actually his girlfriend. The couple hadn't ever been romantically involved, and it was all just faked for the cameras.

Coolio came clean about the dating deception in an interview with the Daily Record. The emcee-turned-actor and producer insisted that he wasn't the culprit in the couples con, blaming the show's producers instead. "Listen. It was all set up," Coolio vowed. "I am nothing like that. I'm not even with Mimi. I never was. She's a friend of mine. They tried to make me look bad. I don't want to do that stuff again. I'm going to concentrate on my music and food shows from now on and also a film about my darker days." (Top marks for slipping in a nice slice of self-promotion, Coolio.)