Reality star villains are a necessary ingredient for the typical reality show format. You need someone who can create conflict, carry the drama and take on the title of “bad guy” for franchises like The Real Housewives or Vanderpump Rules to function. Otherwise, you’d just have a bunch of rich people sitting around not throwing cocktails at each other.
But when it comes to documentary-style reality shows like Hoarders, My 600-Lb. Life or My Strange Addiction, there isn’t usually a place for any sort of evil. Sure, there might be the rare family member who gets angry about the process, but most of the time, everyone is there to help. When 90 Day Fiancé premiered in 2014, it presented itself as this type of show. It was an honest look at couples who fell in love across borders and were now navigating the complicated K1 visa problems and culture clashes that come with leaving your family and country behind. Almost 10 years later, however, the show found a way to create some of the biggest villains on reality TV and in the actual real world.
When you watch a show like The Kardashians, it’s easy to remember a lot of it is produced and, frankly, not reflective of how any of the people depicted truly live their lives. They are showing us what they want us to see. If someone plays the bad guy, it’s because it does something for the story or image they want to create. When it comes to documentary-style unscripted shows, it can’t be denied that there’s a real impact on the lives of those presented. When they come to clear someone’s hoard, that person will have to live with it long after the cameras leave.
90 Day Fiancé villains fall into this category and that’s why they feel as though they’re cut from a different cloth. The franchise’s villains aren’t just bad for entertainment, their abuse and toxicity is directed towards their real-life partners. What makes a 90 Day villain? Big Ed and Colt Johnson are the show’s worst examples of what can happen when the glitz of the reality bad guy meets real-world consequences.
Along with Angela, Big Ed is one of 90 Day's most meme-able villains. While Angela is loud and certainly always ready to fight or argue, most of her anger is aimed at other American castmates rather than her partner Michael (who lives in Nigeria and hasn’t been able to come to America). This makes Angela a bit more harmless than Big Ed. You’ve probably seen videos or gifs of Big Ed doing pretty much anything, but he sparked his most viral reaction when he met his first fiancé Rose Vega.
After traveling to the Philippines to meet her, Big Ed doesn’t hide the fact that he’s disgusted by Rose’s living conditions. At the hotel he booked, he decides to present her with a gift: a bottle of mouthwash. He tells the woman he proposed to that her breath is awful. Rose explains that she has a health condition that causes ulcers and bad breath. Is Big Ed understanding or empathetic? Absolutely not. It was the moment that turned him into The Villain for most people watching the show. People begged the series not to bring him back, but he became so popular that he was instead spun off onto The Single Life. This is where Ed’s true colors came out, but more importantly, it’s the moment that establishes villains as something the 90 Day franchise is happy to indulge in.
90 Day Fiancé is a show about people who date outside of the country. There’s no reason to have recurring participants if they’re not in this type of relationship. Ed and Rose don’t stay together and his next relationship is with an American, so why bring him to The Single Life? Well, because producers realized he’s a ratings hit.
Pretty quickly, he falls for a woman named Liz who is 25 years younger than him. Liz deals with insecurities and financial issues, and Big Ed uses this to his advantage in order to manipulate her. Nearly every episode with the couple features them arguing, fighting, breaking up and getting back together, only to fight again. Viewers are sick of them and even created a petition to get Big Ed off the show, but that hasn’t stopped the show from bringing them to their newest spin-off: 90 Day: The Last Resort. The premise is that these couples are at their breaking point and a trip to a resort in Florida with some couples therapists can save them. Only two episodes have aired, but already Ed has established himself as the biggest villain as he insults other couples, Liz, and the entire process.
Big Ed and Liz may still fall under the category of “acceptable couples drama” for a reality show. He’s mean and emotionally abusive, but this is a dynamic presented in reality shows like Married at First Sight, Love Is Blind, and The Ultimatum all the time. If Big Ed and Liz broke up, both of them could walk away mostly unscathed. This isn’t the case for other villains in the franchise, however. The usual dynamic of a 90 Day Fiancé couple sees a young woman from Asia, South America, or Europe coming to America to be with a man who has promised to support them financially. With the K1 visa, applicants aren’t allowed to work until they get their green card, which means they’re completely dependent on these men. When these women come to America and realize the man of their dreams has lied about everything, they have little support.
Colt Johnson and Larissa Lima are a prime example of how these men leverage their power over their partners to get them into legal trouble and even deported. When Colt and Larissa were introduced, they both seemed equally evil. Colt, who still lived with his mom, lied to her about everything and seemed to treat her like a sex doll. Larissa seemed interested in Colt’s money, plastic surgery, and being on TV, bellowing one of the show’s best franchises “Whoever goes against the queen will die!” in one particularly big fight the couple had. They eventually broke up, but the series kept them both involved in the franchise with their new partners.
That is, until Colt decided to put Larissa’s K1 visa into contention since they were now separated. Larissa was arrested by ICE and almost deported until Colt decided to “forgive” her and drop the issue. This deportation could’ve been detrimental to Larissa’s future ability to get a job or travel and, certainly, Colt was aware of these consequences. Larissa ended up getting her green card, but it was a scary reminder of how much power the American partner typically has in this dynamic. The incident was so damning, it led to the first real backlash to the show with a Zora piece stating, 90 Day Fiancé Is Everyone’s Guilty Pleasure. But Is It Exploiting Immigrants? Cole didn’t learn his lesson and the show continued to follow him as he picked up another foreign fiancé named Jess whom he also lied to and betrayed. Luckily, she got away before marrying him or relying on his support for a visa. Eventually, like Big Ed, Colt would also marry an American, but maintain his place in the franchise anyway.
90 Day Fiancé villains don’t get to throw their cocktails or push people in pools and return to their non-televised lives. What we see on the show has real, personal, and legal ramifications for those involved when things go wrong. There might be some initial levity when it comes to people like Big Ed and Angela, but what happens when this turns into someone threatening another person’s livelihood and safety? When producers believe the villain is a necessary part of the formula, what does it mean for those who aren’t presenting a persona? Perhaps further viewer backlash will help the show realize it’s at its best when real relationships and romance are at the core. In the meantime, there’s Big Ed, tearing down everything and everyone around him.
Ashley Ray is a comedian and pop culture expert. You can follow her at @theashleyray.