The knives are out for MKR winners
Imagine you're Alex Clark and Emily O'Kane, a couple of four years and as of a mere moment ago, the winners of My Kitchen Rules 2018.
You're in the thick of the happiest, most victorious, triumphant moment of your life.
Emotions are running high, you're so jubilant you feel your heart could burst out of your chest and your brain, unsure of how to process what's occurring, gets tears to your eyes and butterflies to your stomach.
You're not sure what to feel or think, but knowing how hard you've worked, there's one distinct feeling: pride.
You feel it, you want to share it, so you jump online - only to see a shocking number of people aren't happy for you or proud of you ... they're attacking you.
"The narcissistic behaviour displayed by Emily is sickening and shouldn't be celebrated.”
"Emily just kept crying and blaming things on Alex.”
"Alex stop hugging her, just put your woman in her place!”
"If he wants to open a restaurant with that woman, he deserves everything he gets.”
"If they win, he should get rid of her and use the show as evidence that not only is she abusive, but she contributes absolutely nothing.”
The comments, scrutiny and abuse go on and on from strangers with nothing but an internet connection and something nasty to say. The only way to survive is to block it out and focus on what's important.
"We're a team,” Alex says. "She's my other half, my best friend, my lover. I would do anything for her. We go through it together. She's definitely not alone. We were a team through the whole thing and that meant before, during and after. The good and the bad.”
Emily says, "I've learned not to go to public MKR pages any more, I don't read any of it. It's not something I want in my life. I don't think it's something that anyone needs to hear and I don't think the people writing it realise that we are all human beings.
"It's definitely upsetting though and it got to the point where I was like 'Once there's one or two people attacking you, what's another couple of thousand on top of that'?”
Leaning on each other, the two are stronger than ever. The scenes they were faced with were nothing new - they were intensified and magnified by high stakes and big cameras, sure - but that high pressure setting is actually how the two met.
"Alex and I met in Sydney and we were running a bar together,” Emily recalls. "I was managing the floor, Alex was managing the bar.
"We'd never crossed paths before in our hospitality lives, which is quite crazy because when you work in hospitality, everyone knows everyone.
"I remember the first night he came into work, he had this white shirt on and leather suspenders and I remember when I saw him all suited up I thought 'Who is this person? I need to get to know him.' He wasn't wearing the hat - but he was on our first date.
"I love the hat. I think I've been his No.1 hat supporter since we've been together.”
And, as is totally, almost comically indicative of the pair, Alex remembers it slightly differently.
"Ah Emily, she was a little miss bossy boots - still is,” he says with a chuckle. "But she's much nicer than when we first met.
"We had a little bit of a clash when we first met because I was the bar manager and she was the floor manager, so I was in charge of her and she didn't like it one bit.
"I had joined the team late and she was in the original team so I came in a month into it. She'd already spent a bit of time with the rest of the team - she just got territorial.
"It was all tongue in cheek, but we spent lots of time together and got really close.”
It was over a classic cocktail in a dimly lit rum bar after hours that the spark was ignited. From there, it felt natural for the two.
"We never used to finish early, we'd always be the ones closing,” Emily says.
"But one night it was quiet and we finished early, which never happened, so Alex asks 'Do you want to have a Manhattan with me?' which was our favourite cocktail. It's a classic.
"We had never really sat down with each other on a social level and I think we found we both really liked it.
"Then we went on a proper date at this beautiful restaurant in Sydney called Yellow, I still remember it so clearly, and we had the most phenomenal time.
"We did not stop talking; we talked about our lives and our past and from there we were inseparable.
"Everything we've done has always been together.”
For a regular couple that might mean doing groceries on Sunday morning or going for a run of an evening, but for this couple it meant moving to the Gold Coast and applying for a reality cooking show.
It wasn't for fame or status, it was for the opportunity to win $250,000 that would pave the way to their ultimate dream of owning their own venue. Not buying into an existing venue or taking one over, creating a space that was inherently them.
With that goal in mind, they developed tunnel vision.
Winning a reality television competition might seem like a shortcut or taking the "easy” way out, but this couple worked, fought, cried and bled for it.
"The idea was to win, 100 per cent. Absolutely,” Alex says. "If we were going to do it we were going to give it our all.
"We weren't just doing it to get on TV, we actually didn't think about that part at all, we were so focused on the competition part of it.
"Once we were accepted we thought 'How hard can we push it?'
"Throughout it all we felt that we definitely weren't the strongest cooks, so to get to the top spot we had to work hard and that's what we did the whole six months.”
As Alex mentions, in a sense they became so focused on the competition aspect, they almost forgot about the entire nation watching as they competed.
Which also might explain why the backlash has hit so hard.
"I didn't really have an understanding of the whole public perception side of things to be honest - I mean I understand it now,” Alex says with a slight chuckle. It's one of those chuckles that's a mixture of disbelief and hindsight. A "what was I thinking” chuckle, like looking back on a disastrous clothing choice or an ex-partner, when all you can do is laugh.
"We weren't holding back for anything. We thought we've got the opportunity, let's do it. We weren't thinking of how we were perceived or what personas we were going to have.
"It's interesting to see it now but we just weren't aware of it, which was a bit naive.”
After the show concluded, Alex and Emily didn't know whether they'd won.
MKR, like many pre-recorded competition-based reality shows, shoots two endings so contestants can't leak the results.
Imagine the hit to the grand final ratings if the public weren't held in suspense?
So, they play out both scenarios, cheering, confetti, the whole nine yards, to ensure that grand final gets record ratings.
And it's not the only way they can manipulate a situation to get eyes on screens and reactions from the public.
In this case, it was focusing on Emily's high-stress moments that saw her snap - and only those moments.
But what producers and show-runners might not anticipate or understand is the adverse affect that can have on their contestants, during and after the show.
"It's no secret that Emily has anxiety, the competition was so tough and there's people out there who would never understand how difficult it really is,” Alex says.
"They see 45 minutes on a TV screen and think 'I could do that' but it is bloody hard.
"And for someone who does get anxiety, it affects her.
"She was portrayed in a certain way, and Channel 7 can show whatever they want to show of her, but then on the other hand everything you saw was real. Real pressure, real stress, so you have to roll with that.”
As you read in the above examples, it was Emily copping the brunt of the abuse from keyboard warriors.
While she admits that yes, those things did happen, it's not necessarily who she is.
Regardless of that, it's taught her a lesson and made her stronger.
"What was shown on the show and what was used of me, running around like a crazy person, the way I spoke, it's definitely not the way I am as a person,” she says.
"I might have moments of that but the show really made it seem like that is me 100 per cent of the time.
"Yes I'm very hyperactive, I'm very passionate, a bit of a lunatic sometimes - I'm the first to admit that - but everyone who knows me and respects me would never say the things people have said about me.
"It bothered me at first, when thousands of people are commenting and they think they know you and your relationship and they're happy to give their opinion - I don't really listen to it. No one writing that stuff is in my life.”
One could assume that it's slightly easier to brush off those attacks when you're sitting on a quarter of a million dollars.
A giant stack of cash Alex and Emily can use to do whatever they want. Alex could buy a new hat every day for the rest of his life. He might, but their primary objective is what they set out to do, what they've gone through hell and back for: open their own venue.
And the irony of it all is that it's not for them, it's not to make money - they've already done that - it's to create experiences for other people.
All they want to do is get to know people, share their passion and continue the wild obsession with food and drink that brought them together in the first place.
"We want to look all up and down the Gold Coast, even looking to northern NSW,” Emily says, the excitement in her voice clear.
"We've just got to find the right location first, and then we want to create a cocktail bar that matches cocktails with food.
"We want it tropical. We want wallpaper with palm trees and pineapples everywhere.
"Most of all, we just want it to be a small venue where people can come, sit at the bar, talk to the bartender, talk to us.
"We want to chat about what they're eating and drinking, we want to get to know them. We just want to give people an experience that maybe they wouldn't necessarily get when they go to a regular bar.
"We want it to feel like we're welcoming you into our home.”
So, even after experiencing personal inhumanity, all these customer service professionals want to do is make other people happy.