ABC's 'Secret Millionaire': Why it sends the wrong message

secret-millionaireImage Credit: ABCOn Sunday ABC premiered its new philanthropic reality series Secret Millionaire. A conceptual cousin to Undercover Boss, each episode features a member of the super-rich going undercover to scout out charities for possible televised donations. Needless to say, I have mixed feelings about the show, which formerly aired on Fox in 2008. While it’s admirable that ABC is giving deserving non-profit organizations much-needed publicity that they wouldn’t receive otherwise, the narrative impulse of the series—based largely around rich folks encountering the less fortunate—reveals much about how lacking our national dialogue on poverty remains.

We all know that television specializes in presenting images of prosperity. It’s been speculated that the abundance of series featuring characters who are lawyers, doctors, and other comfortably-settled professionals is almost a form of subtle brainwashing, on behalf of the advertisers of those shows, to inspire young viewers to achieve financial success…and become better consumers. Secret Millionaire, for all its good intentions, plays into the same game. The premiere last night focused on Dani Johnson, a former welfare recipient who started her own business at age 21 out of the trunk of her car and became a millionaire within two years. “I boot-strapped it, baby!” she gloats early in the episode.

The message is clear: through hard work and determination, you can accomplish anything, regardless of your educational opportunities or social circumstances. In fact, there’s really no excuse for you not to become a millionaire, as long as you’re willing to “boot-strap it” (baby). Far from being a safety net for those struggling to get on their feet, welfare is portrayed as a shameful hell that should be rejected. Rather, the kindness of strangers is more important than any government assistance, and the trickle-down effect of wealthy folks giving back is more than enough to deal with America’s ongoing (and criminally under-addressed) poverty issues.

The emotionless, disembodied narrator (who I could swear also narrated the Monica Lewinsky-hosted Mr. Personality) makes it clear that in visiting the underprivileged Knoxville, TN, neighborhood of Western Heights and living for six days as if she were on food stamps, Dani “will leave her identity behind.” Because, of course, one’s identity is inextricably linked to one’s bank statement. When she volunteers with several different charities she justifies the presence of the camera crew by saying she’s making a documentary on volunteering. In reality, she’s assessing how much she might want to donate to each organization. Or as the narrator might frame it: “In the end, she will gift community heroes with a share of her fortune, after revealing herself as…the Secret Millionaire.”

Why is trickery necessary? It implies that the charities in question might not be as honest with Dani—or even as trustworthy—if they were to know the truth about her. That said, some of the situations Dani finds herself in seem so contrived that it’s hard to imagine people didn’t realize what was going on, like when she learns about a music school that works with impoverished kids by just “accidentally” running into a volunteer who’s walking down the street carrying a djembe.

During her time in Western Heights, she goes on to volunteer in a soup kitchen, deliver food to the elderly, clean musical instruments, and redecorate the bedrooms of kids with special needs. All of this is great. But I wish the show could be structured to emphasize this, to highlight the great value of volunteering, rather than building to a windfall-climax in which the millionaire rewards each of the charities with a donation. It sends the message that cutting a check is more valuable than donating of your time. That financial transactions are more important than the creation of human connections. Western Heights will still be mired in poverty when Dani returns to her life of privilege (with a substantial tax write-off), but kudos to those who stay behind to make people’s lives better when the cameras stop rolling. And by letting the millionaire decide exactly how much each charity deserves, it also turns philanthropy into a tacky game show, in which you’re left scratching your head about why one organization merited $40,000 and another only $20,000.

To be fair, Dani Johnson herself seems to have the right perspective on all this when she says, “We idolize celebrities, we idolize professional athletes, we idolize millionaires, we idolize all the wrong people. The people who have started these organizations…they are the model Americans.” Hear, hear! If only ABC took the same view, rather than shamelessly promoting a fantasy about the redemptive power of wealth.

Comments (210 total) Add your comment
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  • Eld

    Dani said on a talk show that the love kitchen had just received a huge grant and was set for years, and that’s why she didn’t give them as much money as the other charities. I do agree that the meetings were contrived, but I still enjoyed the show. There are a lot worse on TV when it comes to glorifying wealth and selfish consumerism.

    • Samantha

      This article is awful. What a pathetic spin to put on the show.

      • epc

        I agree with Samantha – the writer of this article is totally off base!

      • patrick gerard

        Agreed. Some people will criticize anything, if it gets read.

      • Leah

        Exactly! Someone does something positive…so let’s bash it. Come on! Really? Why are the amounts given even in question? She explained her decisions regarding the amounts in the show by saying that some of the non-profits had a greater need and some had a great impact. The people that received those checks were thrilled to death just to receive that kind of money and I bet they wouldn’t bash her about giving someone else $10,000 or $20,000 more. And a special thanks goes out to ABC for putting something on TV actually worth watching.

      • Frankie

        I agree with you! It makes me wonder if this person is talking about another show. People should not worry about how much is given and the giver should not have to explain. It is a blessing to be able to give. Look at all the other millionaires and billionaires who don’t even think to be selfless. So, please just stop.

    • Wickeddoll

      I’d rather see something like this, than that vapid Paris Hilton whining about her #3,200 birthday cake. As for welfare, it’s *supposed* to be what the commentator describes, but for too many, it’s a career. Why even try to work, if you don’t have to, is their motto.

      • Wickeddoll

        EEP that was supposed to be $, not a #, obviously…

      • sammy

        unfortunately, it wasn’t that obvious…

      • ?

        It was obvious to me and even if it wasn’t, why is it unfortunate?

      • Lee

        Are you on welfare? Do you know a significant amount of people on welfare to make this claim? Or are you just relying on popular misconception?

      • Jessica

        Anyone who has been a recipent of goverment assistance can attest to the fact that it is no cake walk. You barely scrape by. And I do mean barely. If you are on TANIF you recieve 250 a month for a family of two. Add 210 in food stamps. Let’s say you qualify for Section 8, which you could be wait listed on for a year, and you get rent assistance. Let’s say you also get daycare assistance which pretty much covers the “Platinum” benefit package that anyone might be eligible for. You are left with 250 a month for transportation, all utilities, recreation (which means renting a movie from redbox once a week) and all the other miscelleanous expenses that we incur on a daily basis. The second you find a job paying, let’s say, 10 an hour you will lose half of all of your support and be ineligible for TANIF. So the idea that people are living it up in the welfare lane is a total farce.

    • Strepsi

      Wow, a recap in EW’s Popwatch that is actually a sociological critique — well done, Christian Blauvelt.

      As to the commentators saying that your attitude its what’s wrong, I disagree. You certainly commend thw show and the philanthropist, but question the portrayal of poverty. Fair game. (And you mentioned the write-off, which is neat — many people do not realize that corporations and the wealthy are rewarded themselves for spending….)

      • Sunny

        Who’s more ridiculous, you or Blahblahblahvelt? People who don’t realize there are tax write-offs for those of us who actually earn a living are the ones with their grubby hands out taking all the tax money, while they sit on their big, fat a$$es popping out the next generation of takers/losers. Get jobs and pay YOUR fair share, so the rest of us don’t have to.

    • Sunny

      Written by someone who probably has a big zero in charitable donations on their tax return. While ‘donating’ your time is important, let me know when people can eat time. Liberal whiner.

    • HATEthisARTICLE

      This article is nothing but leftist welfare state rubbish. It does not belong on an entertainment website.

      For the record welfare IS shameful and mooching off of the productive citizens is immoral.

      Private charity should be the ONLY option. Government needs to stop this tax and spend redistribution rubbish.

      I hate this article. I hate the leftist clown who wrote it.

    • Angel

      So we finely have a show where the rich is giving to the poor and the focus is not solely on the gesture and great example if giving, but also showing viewers that one person can make an impact, either financially or volunteering. Finely, the other huge benefit of the show is to bring to people’s attention charities and organizations and show how they operate in real life while unaware they would be receiving such donation or exposure… So… When we finely have a TV show that can bring all that to viewers attention, many of the viewers who don’t take time of their year to research organizations to help but still wish to help… SOME EDITOR HAS THE COURAGE TO APPROVE TO RUN THIS ARTICLE ?!?! Shame on all of you. Yes, freedom of speech should exist, but if anyone who had such cruel or negative thoughts posted in such popular site, then it would certainly not be called entertainment weekly…

  • Justin K

    blah… i don’t like it.

  • Eld

    p.s. The narrator bugged me as well. What an odd choice to have such a dispassionate, flat voiceover.

  • David

    Your commentary assumes that viewers will have missed the need for volunteerism in America. Wrong assumption. I watched the episode and was moved by those volunteers who gave so much of themselves in service to others- they were the heroes. And while your perception was that Dani served so she could “scope out” the projects to which she would donate her money- I also saw how she was moved by the experience. So if she started out from a position of skepticism, she was transformed through her experience with those real heroes represented in the show. Perhaps our elected representatives should spend some time in side-by-side assessment of where they are spending our tax dollars? Maybe then we would have more success with our social programs and solve more of the problems of our free society.

    • Stephanie

      “Perhaps our elected representatives should spend some time in side-by-side assessment of where they are spending our tax dollars?”

      Agreed. I have been saying for years that our elected officials have gotten a tad too spoiled and out of touch. I would gladly allow any of them insight into my daily grind.

      • Strepsi

        You need to see the new Canadian twist on this new Undercover genre of Reality TV, called “MAKE THE POLITICIAN WORK”. Seriously, that’s what it’s called.

      • Laurie

        Thank you Strepsi. We are moving to Newfoundland and I am putting this on our viewing schedule.

    • Pete

      This show is just PR for corporate America. Who cares that the top 10% earn more than the bottom 80%. Look how nice the rich are when we turn a television crew on them.

      • Rock Golf

        Let’s be a little more specific. The top 400 earners in the US make more than the bottom half of the population. That’s right. Over 150 million.
        Y’know, if those 400 paid the same tax rates as they would have under Reagan, maybe we would need secret millionaires. In fact, it could significantly pay for healthcare for the entire country.

      • Sunny

        Stop whining about successful people, get off this chat board, and make your own money, you lazy, slacking whiners.

  • Iamna Fitspatrick

    Wow, your opinion is what is wrong with society these days. Let’s not find value in the fact that these millionaires are giving their money to deserving people and organizations, but instead let’s scrutinize how they meet them, how they go about determining how much to give, how they go about giving, etc. While the premise is a millionaire giving money, the show did a good job of showcasing voluteering and the value and importance of it by speaking to volunteers. A gift is a gift. Find value in that. There is enough negativity in the news, how about finding the good in stories and shows like these and report on that.

    • healy

      Seriously…you don’t have to be wealthy to give..this article was clearly written by someone that doesnt have any sense of compassion or desire to help others…

      • matt

        That’s what you got out of this article? Man you’re close-minded.

    • nick plant

      What about Frank Lucas and Bumpy Johnson? they bought turkeys for everybody durin thanksgiving they helped there community out and there still considered new yorks worst. so it really dosent matter where the money comes from? dont be a hypocrite now u said wut u said cant change it. would u praise drug dealers givin back to communities where they actually live and struggle everyday. i dont think so, so dont say it dont matter where the money comes.

  • Bob Button

    Wow, what a negative article on what was an inspiring woman and TV show. You miss the whole point of the show in your gun-slinger approach of shooting down a TV show in order to make a name for yourself as the devil’s advocate. One wonders why you don’t change your first name to something more appropriate. The key for me in watching the show was knowing that the small donations that started these charitable organizations were having an impact long before ABC showed up. With a little extra help these particular charities can continue doing good. I would rather give to the do-gooders who volunteer their time to love others than the do-badders who work for on-line blogs and magazines. Excellent job ABC and God Bless Dani and her family for taking the time to help show the world that there are good people on the streets of society making a difference. B.B.

  • Trixie

    The myth of meritocracy is everywhere, and I’m not surprised that it’s being promoted in a forum like this.

  • JC

    The review is so long winded I could only read a portion of it. Dani Johnson and the Love Kitchen were on Oprah a few weeks ago and the Love Kitchen received a years supply of groceries.

    • knoxvillian

      I didn’t watch the show, but saw on the news that the Love Kitchen was featured. Helen and Ellen are great, but both were in the hospital for several days after their visit to Chicago for Opera. They had the flu and just got out in the past week or so. They are a Knoxville treasure, and it is nice they are getting national attention.

      • knoxvillian

        *Oprah* gotta love word check:)

  • snowey

    great sociological perspective on a mainstream media source!

  • Rachel Donner

    I thought the show was heartfelt…parts of it made me tear up. I wasn’t clear exactly what Dani does for a living…I saw a woman who looks just like her on matchlust.com, so i’m not too clear on how she became a millionaire. But good for her! It was basically a watch-again show for me.

  • supermom

    I agree with Bob, I just watched the show and though it was great. It’s not like anyone else was helping these people out with their very altruistic organizations. All we see are disgustingly wealthy celebrities endorsing HUGE charity organizations, why not try something smaller scale that would actually help people in their own country who seriously need the help, especially in the past few years. I think the show is great and Dani was genuinely interested and helpful to those organizations…and for whoever wrote that article, you’re missing the point, these millionaires aren’t shamelessly promoting the power of wealth, they are sharing their wealth with worthy people. Shame on you for putting them down.

    • Lola

      This response could really go under any of these critiques, but I’ll just post it here. I think you are the one who is “missing the point” of the article. The article in no way criticises the show for donating to small organizations or becoming interested in volunteering; rather, I think the commentary was focused on the perceived superiority of the Secret Millionaire. Also, wouldn’t the donation be a bit more genuine if it was made without all the cameras and press? Though, I suppose any attention given to these organizations would be a good thing…

  • Lisa

    I liked the show. It’s too easy to criticise everything these days. GEEZ, they brought volunteerism to the forefront and reminded us of how important it is to our communities. Get a life.

  • justin

    This reviewer is so full of crap! I thoroughly enjoyed this show when it was on Fox, and this episode is exactly why. Dani seemed genuine in her emotions for those charities, especially when the fact that her 18-year-old lived through some kind of double heart attack. Her breakdown was very moving to me, and to see her give back to people that were going through the same hardships she had been through was great. This is one of two reality shows(Beauty and the Geek; I know, I know! I liked it!) that I’ve ever watched. Good job, ABC!

    • Chad Fallon

      I have been to Dani’s Weekend Seminars and she equips people with skills to succeed. As with any skill it takes time, hardwork, and yes money to build your skill set. I remember when her daughter Erica came to the event two years ago in a wheel chair because of the double aneurysm she had in her brain. She has since fully recovered. Dani doesn’t talk
      BS. She convicts you to make the changes necessary for you to succeed in whatever you do. She gives you skills to get rid of debt. To improve your marriage and to groom your children success. Dani and her Husband Hans are inspiring!

  • MW

    You have read WAY too much into this,sir. I watched the same show you did and I saw none of those things. Maybe you need to examine your own heart and figure out why Dani’s actions bothered you so much.

  • Mark Fishman

    What bothered me the most about Dani Johnson was the ambiguity as to how she actually made her millions. She calls herself a “business woman”, but never once explained what that business was. She was on Welfare at 21, started a “business” out of the trunk of her car and became a millionaire at 23? Really? Selling what? Crack? Her website also won’t elude to how she made herself a success but has no quams about soliciting for her seminars/books and advice on success. Didn’t care for her at all.

    • izel

      this show was not about dani. it in nobody’s business how she made her millions and it is her choice if she does want to share it with the public. the main object of the show is to showcase how people have hearts to show mercy to other people. and that is what i saw in dani, not at her life story.

      • supermom

        exactly ize.
        just be happy someone like her will part with some of her earnings, not many would.

      • Me

        Thank you!

    • Former MLMer

      The reason Dani is illusive about how she made her money is because most people have a poor opinion of the business she was in and don’t think it’s legitimate. Dani was able to become a millionaire in two years through multi-level marketing(mlm). Mlm is akin to a pyramid scheme, but it’s technically legal, because an actual product or service is being sold, but it has basically the same structure. So for example, Dani would go out and try to sign people up to either buy the product or service that she’s marketing or join the business and become a representative. So if she got someone to buy the product or service she gets a certain percentage of that, but the real money is made by bringing someone else into the business, because then she earns money for signing up the new rep (’cause it cost money to join), she earns residuals every month for that rep she signed up (’cause reps have to pay a monthly fee to remain in the business), and she earns a percentage off of whatever business the new rep does.

      After she made her millions in MLM, she started holding seminars and selling cds promising to teaching other MLMers how to “duplicate” her success. I put duplicate in quotes, because although that’s what she promises, I don’t think that’s what she delivers. After spending two hundred dollars on one of her cd sets, all I got was the same regurgitated fluff that is all over the web and her welfare to millionaire story about how she wanted a better life sooo bad that she worked out of the trunk of her car and called her leads from a pay phone, which is very inspiring, but it isn’t worth two hundred dollars.

      Sorry for the long post, but MLMers and people associated with that business really erk me, because while some make a lot of money working mlm most don’t, and I feel like people waste a lot of time and money chasing that dream trying to obtain those promised millions, when they would be better served by just getting an education and getting a real job, because I know I was.

      • sassyfras

        *elusive *irk

      • Mr. Marmalade

        So she worked for Mary Kay?

      • Dana

        i have a friend who is so caught up in all things Dani Johnson right now. I had never heard of her but now it’s like I can’t get away from her! it’s actually ruining my friendship…

      • Mike Hensen

        I, like many millions of other viewers, had never heard of Dani. But, now because of the show, I am all to aware of who SHE is. Not a bad bit of publicity for her and her books and seminars. For the $100,000 she donated, she will get back millions out of it. I’m not saying the show is a bad thing, I just wish they wouldn’t advertise her books on the show. And they did exactly that! Sure beats buying an infomercial. A few crocodile tears on prime-time, and she will be much richer in the days to follow. What a great way to advertise. I know I’ll be scolded for this, but I know how the P.R. game is played.

    • mimi

      So you would prefer that the show become a plug for her business? Then the reviewer would have even more amunition to take a shot at someone trying to do some good things with private donations. Rather than folks relying on the “government” for thier needs. Here’s a hint: the government gets their funds from taxpayers. That type of thinking is what is killing this socieity. Not people trying to do good where they see fit.

    • SAM

      It doesn’t matter how she made her money. Just that she was willing to share with the less fortunate. I am from Knoxville Tennesee and the most heart breaking thing about going to visit Knoxville is seeing the poverty and the drug infested streets. Maybe Dani’s experience will show put Knoxville in the light so that someone will be willing to find out why this is such a city that is full of poverty and destruction. There are a lot of mental health issues that are not dealt with professionally and a lot of this poverty is due to lack of care.

      • krystal

        i agree i live in nashville tn and poverty and mental disease fill every street corner and alley its so sad to come to a stoplight anytime day or night and anywhere,cuz you will see people out selling newspapers ,not all of them can help the state they are in .

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