Nine Contestants: MTV ‘Rigged’ Our Show and Covered Up Racism (2023)

Moments before 22 young singles, who had spent the past few weeks filming MTV’s Are You the One?, would find out if they’d be leaving the Dominican Republic with fistfuls of cash, there was an awkward silence—not out of sickening nerves or giddy anticipation, but because the contestants already suspected they had lost. In fact, they thought the game had been rigged.

Season 5 of the hit reality-TV competition is the only season where contestants failed to return to the U.S. with the prize pot of $1 million in the show’s eight-season history.

The Daily Beast spoke with nine contestants from the season, which filmed during the fall of 2016, who firmly believe production company Lighthearted Entertainment meddled to ensure they wouldn’t win in hopes of making the season more dramatic, and to get MTV to sign on for another season.

What’s more, the contestants allege Lighthearted Entertainment threatened to withhold their small stipend if they didn’t go along with producers’ whims. They also claim producers swept under the rug a heated racist incident where a white female contestant repeatedly said the N-word in the face of one of her Black castmates, despite cast members' pleas for her to stop, and was later recast in an MTV spin-off show.

Lighthearted Entertainment is already facing an investigation from MTV, with the network pausing casting/production of the upcoming season of Are You the One? after former contestant Gianna Hammer claimed to The Daily Beast that she was “drugged” by producers, who gave her an extra dose of her anti-anxiety medication when she was already very intoxicated.

She then alleged that they failed to intervene when she was sexually assaulted by a fellow cast member, even though a cameraman was allegedly filming the whole thing. And instead of booting the assailant off the show, producers allegedly persuaded Hammer to let him stay, as well as made her sign paperwork stipulating that she couldn’t talk about the assault while filming.

    In a statement, Lighthearted Entertainment denied Hammer’s allegations.

    AYTO? is arguably Lighthearted Entertainment’s most successful show, compared to its other programs Dating Naked, Moment of Truth, and 72 Hours. However, cast members who spoke to The Daily Beast said that they felt the company was on its last legs and was looking for a way to keep the show interesting.

    Up until this point, winners from the four other seasons of the show had walked away with some amount of the $1 million prize money. Each season, producers dreamed up new ways of trying to make the game harder. For example, in the second season they had 10 men and 11 women, making two women race to figure out who their joint perfect match was. The first woman to successfully match up with him would get to remain in the house, the other faced being sent home.

    By the fifth season, production introduced two new elements. If contestants “blacked out” during the matchup ceremony, meaning there were no matches, the prize money would drop by $500,000 rather than the previous $250,000. But in a chance to make back some of the cash, they could forgo learning the results of the truth booth—where contestants can find out if they are a perfect match—and instead pocket $150,000. Plus, an additional couple was added this season, bringing the total to 11 couples in the house.


    Every cast member The Daily Beast spoke with said they believed producers had no intention of letting them win that season, speculating that they wanted to keep the show exciting.

    Upon their arrival in the Dominican Republic, Hannah Fugazzi said she felt something was off, primarily because she got the sense that production was on a tight budget. “They knew that we were losing from the start,” she said.

    “They wanted our season to lose,” added Michael Halpern. “I don’t know if it was their plan from the beginning or because if it had become an old song and dance, [they thought], ‘We got to fucking have a losing season to create interest in the show again.’”

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    Tyler O’Brien also said he believed the show was rigged. “We were pulled onto the show under the notion that we were in contention for an extreme amount of money,” he said. “The show was completely and totally fixed. They turned around and they made us lose.”

    “We started getting the feeling going into it, at least I did, that they’re really trying to make this harder, they’re trying to make it more difficult to win,” Jaylan Adlam maintained. “I just didn’t know the extent that they would.”


    Although AYTO? is a game show with love as the focal point, it’s fundamentally a mathematical equation. With a set number of 11 perfect matches between 22 people, winning becomes a process of elimination through matchup ceremonies, with perfect matches confirmed in the truth booth, and via blackouts.

    “Truthfully, you can just mathematically figure it out at the end,” Jaylan explained. “Some producers told us, because they were frustrated with us trying to do the math too early, ‘We need more of a show, some real stuff, conversation. Wait until week seven and eight, that’s when you want to start trying to do math.’”

    Additionally, AYTO? is a reality show, so naturally there are producers interfering to create storylines and ramp up the drama.

    However, the nine cast members claimed it went further than that, pointing to one pivotal moment when a producer allegedly pressured a contestant to change her mind about who she would choose in the matchup ceremony, which is said to have caused the entire house to lose the game.

    It was after the eighth matchup ceremony that contestants claimed they had a breakthrough. They’d spent hours strategizing and deducing based on previous matchup ceremonies, and had everyone’s matches figured out except for the final three couples. From there, they devised a strategy that would give them a 50/50 chance of winning in the ninth week—one week early. If they weren’t correct, they would know who to swap around, guaranteeing them a win in the final week.

    However, cast members claimed it went further than that, pointing to one pivotal moment when a producer allegedly pressured a contestant to change her mind about who she would choose in the matchup ceremony, which is said to have caused the entire house to lose the game.


    It happened to be the girls’ week to choose who they would match up with, so Cassandra Martinez needed to pick either Tyler or Derrick Henry; Hannah needed to pick Tyler or Joey Amoia; and Shannon Duffy needed to choose between Joey and Derrick.

    In their eyes, the plan was foolproof. “Everybody’s celebrating and screaming, like we did it,” Michael recalled.

    They all agreed to stick with the strategy and headed off to bed for the night. But the next morning, executive producer Scott Jeffress allegedly swooped in on Shannon, keeping her in a room to talk through her decision for the matchup ceremony for nearly two hours, cast members claimed. Jeffress did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.

    Prior to every matchup ceremony, contestants explained how they were briefly taken aside by producers and made to fill out a piece of paper with their first three choices of who they would choose that night. Once they fill out the paper, they can’t deviate from their choices, the cast claimed. For example, if Shannon put Joey as her first option, she couldn’t choose Derrick to match up with unless she had put him as her second choice, and another girl had already matched up with Joey.

    But Shannon disappearing for hours was extremely suspicious to her castmates. “Usually these conversations are very short,” Jaylan said, noting Shannon was gone for longer than normal. “They were trying to get the gist of why we were picking [that person], making sure we understood that we couldn’t deviate from that list.”

    It also was fishy because Shannon was known in the house as being a pushover. “Bless her heart,” Tyranny Todd said, laughing. “She was ditzy back then. She was very easily manipulated.”


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    Tyler said he was in the room with Shannon right before he was kicked out by Jeffress. The two had been having a fling all season, but in recent weeks Tyler and the rest of the house had come to the decision that they were not a match because the numbers never added up.

    I start freaking out because I know something’s going on. I’m downstairs pacing back and forth. The whole cast comes with me and we’re standing at the bottom of the stairs.

    Tyler explained that Jeffress had come into their room and sent him downstairs so he could be alone with Shannon. “I start freaking out because I know something’s going on,” Tyler said. “I’m downstairs pacing back and forth. The whole cast comes with me and we’re standing at the bottom of the stairs.” About two hours later, Tyler said Jeffress finally came downstairs.

    “He looks me straight in the eyes and he said, ‘I was just doing my job,’ and he walked out,” he claimed.

    When Shannon finally rejoined the rest of the house downstairs, she couldn’t look anyone in the eye, Tyranny said. The cast was finally able to force it out of her that she didn’t put Joey or Derrick as her top choice, which she had agreed upon. Instead, she put Tyler.

    “I went off,” Tyranny said. “I literally went off on her. Everybody was pissed at Shannon. We were all annoyed because it takes hours to go down to the ceremony, which we have to wait for. So, we’re in the living room, everybody’s waiting and annoyed because we know that we’re about to fucking lose.”


    That night at the matchup ceremony, they only got nine perfect matches. Shannon’s choice of Tyler had completely thrown off their strategy and they didn’t know who the remaining two couples were. They tried to scramble and salvage the original plan for the final matchup ceremony, but when the spotlights failed to shine for the final three matches, the game was over. They had lost and were quickly ushered out of the house, empty-handed.

    It was later confirmed, the contestant’s strategy would have worked. Shannon’s perfect match was Joey; Hannah’s match was Tyler; and Casandra’s match was Derrick.

    “We could have won, we had everything to win, it was just the fact that they didn’t let us win,” Ozzy Morales said. “So, it sucks.”

    Nine Contestants: MTV ‘Rigged’ Our Show and Covered Up Racism (1)


    All fingers were soon quickly pointed at Shannon because she went against her word and chose Tyler, despite the numbers not making sense. At the time, some even speculated that she was paid off by Lighthearted Entertainment to throw the game.

    “They literally cheated us out of that money,” Michael said. “We figured it out, it was 100 percent. They grabbed this girl and manipulated her and told her a million times ‘Do not pick the right person.’”


    But Shannon insists she was never paid off, telling The Daily Beast that she also believes that she was intentionally targeted by producers to lose the game. “They really got me,” she said. “They really influenced me on having me pick Tyler as my first choice.”

    Shannon explained that she was in a somewhat vulnerable state when Jeffress sequestered her alone for up to two hours because she had just spent the night with Tyler, whom she had feelings for. She claimed that although she agreed to pick Derrick or Joey for that night’s matchup, she was under intense pressure from Jeffress to change her mind and choose Tyler, leading her to make that turnabout decision.

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    “[He] got me at the wrong moment,” she said. “If he respected my decision of picking Derrick, he would have left the room within 10 minutes. I wasn’t even going to put Tyler on my list.”

    When they failed to win that night, Shannon said she still held out hope that Tyler could be her perfect match, thinking it was the other two couples that needed to be switched around.

    But it was only when she was approached by Jeffress right after the failed matchup ceremony that Shannon said she realized she’d been duped.

    “I actually have never really told anyone,” Shannon said. “The shittest thing about it all, is after it was all said and done, I got approached by [Jeffress]. He hugged me and he says, ‘I’m so sorry, you did good.’ That really broke me.”


    “In that moment, even when the beams went up, I still thought Tyler could still be my beam,” she added. “As soon as he did that, I realized I fucked up.”

    I literally got nothing. I got attacked by America, I got attacked by my castmates, and for what?

    Shannon acknowledged that some of her cast members thought she was paid off, but she denied she was. “It was shitty that people thought I was compensated for it because I still wish to this day that I get a $30,000 check,” she said. “I literally got nothing. I got attacked by America, I got attacked by my castmates, and for what?”

    “It was 100 percent unfair,” she added. “Every one of us needed that money for certain aspects, some people needed to pay for school, some people didn’t have a roof over [their heads]. It wasn’t just me that I was fucking with, I fucked with 21 other people’s money. That was shitty, I fell into a depression. I was fucked up. The blame really ended up being on me.” (In a written statement, Lighthearted Entertainment “vehemently denies any allegations of ‘rigging’” and “at no time was any cast member forced to make a matchup decision against their will,” adding, “Prior to the Week 9 voting ceremony, Scott Jeffress interviewed Shannon Duffy regarding her anticipated match selections for a total of 16 minutes. Ms. Duffy volunteered to Mr. Jeffress that she wanted to vote ‘with her heart’ for Tyler O’Brien, but that her castmates wanted her to vote differently. Mr. Jeffress told Ms. Duffy more than once that it was her decision to make.”)

    Tensions eventually blew over and five years on, Shannon is on good terms with most of her former castmates. “Some people realized at the end of it all… a lot of people reached out to me and said, ‘You know what, it really wasn’t your fault. It was production. We’re so sorry that you even got manipulated like that,’” Shannon said. “So, it was nice to finally have that acknowledgement, it really wasn’t my fault.”

    While Shannon—who shares a daughter with her partner Anthony Martin, who starred on the following season of AYTO?—said she wishes she could go back and do everything over again, she also wants to look at the bright side of what came from the show.


    “I am very appreciative of the opportunities I’ve received,” she said. “So, I’m not going to bash the producers on the show. I’m not going to bash MTV, they helped me. I have a family, that’s how I met my partner. That’s why I have a beautiful 6-month-old, that’s how I make money. So, I feel like I’ve just forgotten most of it. Did I feel like we were cheated? Yes.”

      While losing the game was a major point of contention, years later many other aspects of that season still don’t sit right with some of the contestants.

      One included an incident in which Carolina Duarte, who is white, was overheard using the N-word. When people told her to stop, she allegedly repeated the slur in the face of her Black castmate Derrick Henry several times in an act of defiance.

      “She's like, ‘Well, we say all the time where I'm from, it's nothing,’” Tyranny claimed. Then she allegedly proceeded to repeat the word again. “She literally was like ‘N-word, N-word, N-word’ in his face,” Tyranny continued. “I’m Black and I take that very offensively. We were livid that we were so disrespected like that. They did nothing, they just made us be quiet, not talk about it. They were like, ‘Oh she didn’t mean it.”

      Michael also recalled the incident, saying he overheard a drunken Carolina saying the slur multiple times to Derrick. “I was like, ‘I think that’s the most fucked-up shit I’ve ever heard,’” he said.


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      Jaylan, who is Black, said he walked into the aftermath of the blowup, with Carolina coming over to him to gain sympathy. “She’s like, ‘No, it’s not like that, you know I’m not racist, I’m cool with you.’ I’m like, ‘Get that shit away from me. No, I will not be your get-out-of-jail-free Black person.’”

      But despite multiple people in the house being upset by Carolina’s remarks, cast members said that nothing was done. “Nobody ever really mentioned that again,” Jaylan said. “That situation I was not very happy with.” (Lighthearted Entertainment touted the show’s “diversity” in a statement to The Daily Beast, adding that it “aggressively fosters a culture of respect and sensitivity towards race and sexual orientation, both in front of the camera and behind it. During Season 5, any incidents involving cast members falling short of this standard were dealt with and resolved by the Co-Executive Producer on set, an African-American woman.”)

      Carolina admitted to The Daily Beast that she did use the slur, but claimed she only said it once “around Derrick not multiple people.” She cites being very intoxicated when she tried to climb up the bunk bed to do pull-ups when Derrick tried to help her get up, touching her behind.

      “I said ‘Get off me n***a,’ I don’t know why I said it like that but where I grew up at that time we would call our friends our n***as and I’m guessing that’s why I said it,” she wrote in an email. “It was stupid and I was obviously very intoxicated so didn’t [I] think it through.”

      Carolina said she apologized to Derrick after the incident, as well as last year. “He knows where I stand and knows I apologized,” she added. Derrick did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

      Carolina also claimed producers did intervene and made her sleep in a separate bedroom because she was “also getting violent ‘cause I was very intoxicated.”


      Nine Contestants: MTV ‘Rigged’ Our Show and Covered Up Racism (2)


      “I do regret saying it, obviously. Derrick was a good friend of mine in the house and I didn’t mean it in a derogatory way,” she added. “My great grandmother is actually half-Black and comes from a history in slavery so the last thing I would want is to come off racist, as I am not at all.”

      Another sticking point was the contestants’ stipends. Apart from the prize money, they were set to receive around $2,400 for their time filming the show. But producers would deduct money as a form of punishment.

      “They held that money over our head at all times,” Jaylan said. “That was really kind of like, ‘You essentially better listen to us or else we’ll take your money,’ which [happened to] a lot of people.” He said he was threatened with a fine when he strategically spat out food during a “gross food” eating competition.

      Hannah agreed that the stipend was lorded over them “all the time.” “We got money off for little things,” she said. “Some people left with almost nothing.”

      Tyler said he was fined heavily for trying to strategize, once having his stipend docked for using objects to figure out the perfect matches. He also claimed he was threatened with a $500 fine for explicitly telling his castmates that he felt producers were trying to make them lose.


      For Jaylan, he found it ironic that producers fined contestants over minor infractions, yet when confronted with a sexual-assault accusation and a racist incident, there was no fine for the alleged perpetrators.

      “Those were bad things under their watch,” he said. “There should have been some kind of punishment for that. Why is a sexual-assault accusation and racial accusation not a bigger deal? That doesn’t really add up, like, ‘We’ll excuse racism and sexual assault, however you go in that ‘Boom Boom Room’ and not hook up, we’ll take money away.’”

      For Tyranny, it’s no longer about the money but holding Lighthearted Entertainment accountable for how it handled their season. “What they have done to everybody is really, really traumatizing,” she said. “It might be a job for them, but that was our life. I want them to understand that they can’t do shit to people and manipulate them and corner them. They care about themselves more than the actual people that’s working for them, and that’s not how it’s supposed to be.”

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