Heidi Mae Dishes On Her Time On Wife Swap, The Aftereffects, And How She Encourages Others To Speak Up - Exclusive Interview

Heidi Mae had no idea that her account of her time on "Wife Swap" would go viral when she posted a TikTok video about her experiences. But that's exactly what happened, and so far, more than 1.5 million people have watched her recount what allegedly happened behind the scenes of the reality show. 

"My family was on 'Wife Swap,' and it was the worst experience of our lives," Mae started her TikTok by saying. "It was really bad. They had us sign an NDA to be on the show. It's been almost 10 years now. So I decided, f*** it." Mae has since shared multiple videos detailing what went on when the cameras were off, and needless to say, she's captured the world's attention with her honesty.

Nicki Swift sat down with Heidi Mae to talk about what it was really like appearing on "Wife Swap" Season 6 with her family, what the aftereffects of starring on reality TV were like, and why she decided to finally speak out about her time on the popular series.

It was time for Heidi Mae to speak up

Why did you decide it was time to speak out about "Wife Swap"?

So the biggest thing was, I've been in therapy for four years. For a variety of things, but for the first time, I brought up "Wife Swap" to my therapist, because I'd finally gotten to a place where I could talk about it with her. And her response to what I told her about the psych-eval being used and her response was, "That's completely unethical, totally wrong. And that psychologist should not be allowed to practice."

And for the first time I felt validated. In realizing, "Oh, it wasn't just me. It was really wrong." And one of the things that I've been working on through therapy is taking control of my story and speaking up for myself. Because, being raised conservative, not as conservative as the show was, but made it seem, I was told that, "Oh, turn the other cheek." Society is very much like, "Women shouldn't speak up, sit down, shut up, nobody cares."

And so when I was talking to my therapist about it, I realized it was wrong. It's something that still impacts me to this day, 10 years later. And I still have the effects of what happened to me on the show that follow me around psychologically. And I was like, "You know what? I'm not going to protect their reputation. I'm not going to stay silent anymore." Because, certainly me and my family were not the only people that this happened to. And staying silent just enables that sort of stuff to continue.

Heidi Mae's family has gotten closer after therapy

I'm so sorry that happened. That must have been really hard to work through.

Yeah, it was. And, one of the really f***ed up things about the show is that they took things that were more like mental illness, untreated illness in my family. They portrayed my father as very distant, and they portrayed it as a character flaw. But actually my dad was undiagnosed with PTSD from Vietnam.

And so they portrayed it as him not wanting to spend time with us, and it being a personality flaw and a character flaw instead of it being, "Oh, this is PTSD, he can't have the noise around him because it triggers him." But because they portrayed it as a personality flaw, it drove my father further from getting treatment.

And further away from getting diagnosed. Because they were saying, "You're a bad father because of this." And with mental illness, you feel like you're weaker because you have mental illness. And so it's one of the few diseases that makes you not want to get help. And there's the stigma surrounding it already of, "Oh, well you should be able to handle it. Why can't you? Just stop worrying, be happy."

And so the show took that, and used it further so ... it drove him further from getting treatment. My whole family, we had so many effects from being on the show. The show offered us therapy, but by that time we were like, "Yeah. Because we trust you guys." So we turned it down, we're like, "No f***ing way." And yeah, it was just horrible. The producers knew what I had told [the therapist], and then used that to, "Oh, we can break her on camera."

How is your family now?

So my family now is really good. There's two older siblings that weren't traveling with us at the time, so they just weren't included in the show. But me, my sister Miranda, my brother Gabe, and my mom and my dad are all very, very close. Also, all of us are in therapy, which was hugely instrumental in helping us get close.

My parents went from being conservative to being accepting and open-minded. And so my parents ... Clearly I am no longer conservative, and my parents are very accepting. They're very open-minded. I came out to my family as bisexual last year, which was another thing that came out in therapy. And they were just super supportive and loving. And yeah, it was amazing.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

An experience with DC Comics opened Heidi Mae's eyes

So looking back, are you surprised by your experience on the show? Or do you feel like that's the norm for reality TV and that's what happens to everyone?

So, for a long time I thought it was the norm, and that it was all just really messed up. And then I actually had an experience where I won a contest with DC Comics to go to the San Diego Comic-Con seven years ago, something like that. And they're like, "Hey, we're filming a mini documentary about the trip." I'm like, "Okay, that's fine." And so they're doing one of the final interviews for this mini documentary. And I was holding back tears because it was very emotional. And so the lady who was with the camera, she comes up to me and she's like, "Hey, I noticed that you're holding back tears, and this is a really emotional moment for you. And I feel like it would be more impactful to the audience if you did let those tears out, are you comfortable with that?" And I was like, "Oh yes."

And it wasn't until later that I realized the difference in those two things. Where DC Comics had asked for my consent for something and said, "This is what we would like, are you comfortable with this?" And if not, they weren't going to push me for it. And that was so different from the "Wife Swap" experience, where none of it was consent, all of it was manipulated. And so ... I would say it's probably split 50/50 in my mind, where some of them are that way and then some of them are not.

Heidi Mae isn't in a rush to return to reality TV

Would you consider doing reality TV again? 

If I ever even entertained it, which I'm not at this point, it would be reviewing the contracts with a microscope. Not listening ... The show said so many things to me and my family before we signed the contracts. And none of it was applicable once the camera started rolling, it was only what was in the print. And I remember when my dad was looking through the contracts, he was like, "Hey, it says here that you guys can cut and splice audio to make us say whatever you want?" And the producer and director were like, "Oh no, no, no. That's just, we just have to put that in there. We would never do that to you guys."

And so my parents were like, "Oh, okay." Being trusting. Yeah no, that's exactly what they did. And so, I actually had a singing show reach out to me once, three years ago. "Hey we'd love for you to be on the show." And I was like, "Okay, what's your angle? Because I have been on reality TV before, what is it that you're angling for?" And then they left me on read. And I was like, "Okay yeah, good call."

Wife Swap was like Game of Thrones for Heidi Mae

You don't want to be in a situation where you don't know how they're going to portray you, what they're going to splice together.

Yeah. And I think too, because I think about it sometimes. And if "Wife Swap" had just said, "This is what we're hoping for. Can you do this?" It would've been completely different than what they did, which was to psychologically manipulate us into that situation, so we didn't know what was happening. It was very much, for me, because I figured it out real fast. I was like, "Uh oh." I've seen this show before, because they'd be like, "Oh, you guys should kick her out of your homes to stand up for your morals." And I'm like, "No, I've seen this show before."

And so it was very "Game of Thrones" for me, so I would stay up every night trying to figure out what angle they were pushing for. And then because they had all the profiles for all the adults on the show, which was my parents and me and my one brother, they knew how to get us. And so they had the producer and director play good cop bad cop. And so my dad could pick up on the bad cop, but he fell for the good cop.

So then, he would start to do what they wanted. And I'm like, "Oh my God, no. It's not, he's not. He doesn't care about you." And so I would be laying awake, so stressed out trying to figure out how to get my family out of the situation. Because, since in the contracts it says they can sue you for a million dollars if you stopped filming, and then they held it over our head the entire show. So we could not leave. We wanted to quit, and we couldn't. Because they're like, "Well, you signed this thing. So we'll sue you." So we couldn't leave.

And so I was just trying to figure out how to counter it, and just get through the filming process. And it was a nightmare, and I was so stressed out that I stopped eating, because I could not eat. Because I was just constantly in fight or flight, constantly. And, their solution was just to get me my favorite foods and not, "Oh, something is going on with her, she is not okay, this is having a toll on her." No, they just would get me my favorite foods and be like, "Eat it."

Heidi Mae is hoping for change

What do you hope will change now that your TikTok video is out there and being watched by a lot of people?

The reason that I made that video was to put it out there and to say what had happened to me. And the reason that I did that is because telling our stories and finding similarities connects us. And it also, a) connects us, and b) if enough people realize and disagree with how that is run, it could change. But nothing is going to change if everybody stays quiet, and everybody is just too afraid of what they might do to speak out about what happened. And the show was the beginning of the end for my family's business. It all fell apart because they told us that, "Oh, your family's so special. You're so great. You have such a wonderful story to share with the world." Then made fun of us, mocked us, humiliated us. And the psychological effect that had was devastating.

And so what that show did wasn't limited to when they were filming. The aftereffects of that are still felt. I still, to this day, when someone tells me that they like me or care about me, my mind goes, "What's their angle? What are they trying to get out of me?" Because I, having been stuck in that situation for 10 days with no escape, I still, I so badly never want to feel that again that I instantly [think], "What's your angle? Do you actually mean that though?" Because of that experience. And the same thing with my parents. Where, for my mom, they liked to make her cry on the show and then made fun of her for it. And so to my mom, she felt like who she was, was a joke. And that doesn't go away, that doesn't just, "Oh no, we're fine. Show's done airing, it's over." Those aftereffects are still here.

So hopefully moving forward, shows will take that into account and not put people in those situations.

Yeah. I would've preferred it to have been scripted and they say, "Are you comfortable with this?" And then say no, and never be on the show, than to be lied to and then trapped in a situation like that. And, I hope that reality shows realize that you don't have to get your contestants into fight-or-flight to have a good show. "The Great British Baking Show" is the only reality show I love because it is so wholesome and genuine. And, it doesn't have to be a constant fight or screaming match. You don't have to make fun of somebody for it to be entertaining.

Going viral was unexpected

Your TikTok video went viral, and has been watched by over 1.5 million people to date. What's it been like going viral? And have you had positive responses?

It was overwhelming. But in the best, the best way. Because when the show first came out, I tried telling people what it was like, and back then nobody wanted to hear it. They wanted to believe that everything they saw on the show was real.

And so they would be like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. Okay." And so, all of that pain that I experienced was dismissed back then. And so it was just something I carried with me. And, I didn't use my last name on social media, and a big part of that was because I wanted to distance myself from that. I didn't want people knowing that I was that girl on the show, and because I felt so humiliated and ashamed of the way that they portrayed me and my family.

And so when I shared the story and it went viral, I was very shocked because I did not expect it. And then reading the positive responses, and the people saying, "Thank you for sharing your story. That was wrong." It felt very, almost healing. Because it was something that I have always, since it filmed in 2009 and it aired in 2010. Since then, it has just been this shameful thing that happened to me that I couldn't talk about, and I couldn't share. And sharing it and hearing people say, "Oh my God, I'm so sorry. That never should have happened." It just felt so good, and yeah, healing is the best way that I can put it.

What were some of the strangest questions you got asked?

Oh, okay. This one is my personal favorite is, "Were you the mom on the show?" "No." That was a weird one. I did have some people, just a couple of them, be like ... It wasn't so much a question, it was just like, "Nobody cares about you. Shut up." And I was like, "Okay, well I'm not going to sit down and shut up anymore. But, okay." So I think the mom on the show was one, and questions along that line. A lot of people asked, it's not a strange question, but most people just ask what episode it was. I think that's pretty much it. It's pretty much the same questions they ask. Like, "Are you close to the other family?" Which no, but it's just because it was a really horrible experience. And it's hard to stay in touch with someone that just reminds you of everything that you guys endured. So yeah. I think just the weirdest one was, "Were you the mom?" ... They didn't connect the dots there.

Heidi Mae is a huge fan of social media

You've got a beautiful social media presence. Do you have any plans for next year? And is there anything in particular you're hoping to achieve?

So I've loved social media since Myspace. And I was bullied back then when I had one, because it was before influencing was a thing. So everyone was just like, "Oh, she's vain." And so I've loved social media since then. And I love making content that makes people smile, and then using my platform to also inform people about mental illness. Because I have PTSD, anxiety, panic disorder, and depression. And there's still a lot of stigma surrounding treatment for those things.

And so I talk about it a lot to normalize that there's no specific way someone has to look to be suffering from mental illness. And then whenever people say ignorant things, when they say something that they may not realize is actually very harmful to someone suffering from mental illness, I will blur their name and face, and then I tell my followers, "Do not try to find or harass this person. That is not what this is about." But I take that comment, and then I just counter it with, "Okay, so this comment. If you said this is someone who is suffering, this is why it's harmful to them. And this is what you should say instead."

And so I've always, since I was really little, I have always taken the s***ty things that happened to me and used that pain as a motivation to help someone else never go through it. Always. And so for me, it's because I don't think things happen for a reason, I think s*** just happens. But if I use that, and if I talk about it and it helps someone else avoid it, or helps someone else not suffer so much, it gives a purpose to that pain.

And so that is what I am very, very much about. Is just letting people know that they're not alone. Letting people know that reality TV can be absolute s***, and beyond that too. When people were commenting about the Wife Swap and saying, "Oh, you don't have trauma from the show." And so I use that as a talking point, trauma subjective, there's no right or wrong way, you can't gate keep trauma. And that applies to people who maybe were never on a reality show.

But I had a girl DM me and say that she was bullied her whole life. And when she tried to tell her guidance counselor, they dismissed her. And I felt terrible for them to be told, "That's not trauma." And so she read my response and she thanked me for it, for talking about trauma and it being subjective. And the actual information about it. And so that is just the two things that I do with my social media. Is fashion, I like very, very cute things. And then also mental illness. Then just educating, and bringing awareness, and normalizing that you're not weaker or less than if you have mental illness. It does not, It's not against you. It doesn't make you less of a person.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

She hopes to reach anyone that's struggling

I love that you're using your platform for that. And that's such a sad story, that a younger girl would be told that.

Yeah. Yeah. And when I came out, and I was as very raised conservative, so it's all like, "Suppress it." And so I didn't realize that I was bi until three years ago. And I was like, "Oh s***. No, I'm not straight." And so then I talked about it. I came out on my social media and I talked about it, and I had people DMing me and thanking me for having the courage to come out, and it gave them hope. And it actually, two people came out to their families because of it. And I felt like it's one of those things where it's very emotional for me. But being an influencer for me is not about me, it's about contributing to the lives of the people that follow me. And so I share all the ugly parts of my story so that they can feel connected, and they can read that and maybe learn something that helps them personally.

And that's always been my focus and my goal. That, and once I had enough followers to be considered an influencer, then I wanted to take my mom traveling. And so I actually got to take her to the red carpet premier of "The Suicide Squad" this summer. And she got to be in my plus one, she's so cute. She's like, "Oh my God." Because my mom and I are super close, we talk every day.

My plans moving forward are once COVID is, I don't know, less of a thing if that's even possible, which it might not be. I want to go to Japan for the cherry blossom seasons, I want to take my mom to Okinawa. I want to take my mom to Greece and go traveling with her. And just fashion, one of my dreams is to attend runway shows. Because I've wanted to be a model since I was 12, but I'm very short. So it just wasn't an option. And plus my family started their show because neither of my parents had college degrees. And then they had six kids, so that put them in a very unique situation for supporting the family.

And so my dad did events and then the industry changed. And so he wasn't going to be able to support us. And so my parents posed the question, "This is the situation we're in," to their six kids. "Do you guys want to be in the show to help support the family?" And so my two older sisters said no. But me and my younger three siblings, we said yes. And so I was in that from 12 to 25. And so that took out any modeling for me, because it was more important to me to support my family than to chase my dream. And that's where social media happened. And so for me, I see that as a roundabout way of that dream that I had when I was 10. Of being, I'm kind of sort of a model. Sometimes-ish.

Heidi Mae has some influencer dreams

Your Instagram following is growing quickly. Is being an influencer becoming a career for you?

So I've wanted to, since it came out like, "Oh, you could do influencing full time." That's all I wanted to do. And so that's what I work toward constantly. So currently, I work five days a week at my job. And then I work the weekends for my social media. So I'm working seven days a week, but I genuinely love it. And so for me, I'm just like, "Well?" I don't, I feel tired at the end of the day, but I'm working toward that dream of maybe one day I can be an influencer full time, and then I can take my mom on these trips. And I can take her to the places that she always wanted to go but she couldn't because they had to raise six kids without college degrees.

Obviously fashion is a big part of your Instagram and your social media. Do you have any style icons or favorite brands?

So I don't have any style icons, but I definitely have some favorite brands. I am currently obsessed with PONY STONE, which is a brand from Thailand. Their stuff is so unique, and their designs are just completely different than the stuff in the U.S. I love No Dress. I just found them two weeks ago, obsessed. Mukzin, Selkie, New Rock. Oh, Heaven by Marc Jacobs is one that I love their designs, because they're just so different. I'm trying to think of all the packages that just arrived. I'm also obsessed with Naked Wolfe shoes, because not only are they gorgeous, they're also relatively comfortable. So I can wear them for eight hours.

And what color hair are you going to do next?

So, I'm either going to stay with pink, or white, or purple, one of those. I've done blue, which then turned green and it was not a great look. And there's still some of it that's that way. But my mom also has pink hair, so her and I match right now. And it's really cute. Because she likes when we have matching outfits and hair.

Heidi Mae hopes to empower others

Is there anything else you want our readers to know?

I guess just what I said earlier. Which is that. What I hope your readers take away from this is that a) don't ever let anybody take control of your story, don't let them be the narrator for it. And don't be afraid to speak up about the things that you've endured because you're afraid of what might happen. Or because in the past people told you nobody cared.

And it's never too late to speak up, and there's no threshold for pain or trauma. And it's also, I've been in therapy for four years, and two years ago was the first time that I felt happy. And it's been therapy and the right medication. And I enjoy living. And so I just, I let my followers know, and I'd love for your readers to know if they're struggling with mental health, or if they've gone through trauma or painful experiences. It does get better, and there is help out there. And there's nothing wrong with them, and they're not weaker or less than anyone else to have survived something painful.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.