When they leave the house today, the cast of Italy’s version of the reality TV franchise Big Brother will return to a world starkly different from the one they left behind 13 weeks ago.
Quarantined in the famous “casa” and gamely giving their best—which often means the worst of themselves—the competitors of the current season have continued with the competition 24/7, recorded by a crew wearing face masks and gloves. The rest of the productions at Rome’s storied studio Cinecittà have gone dark.
The end of this season of Grande Fratello VIP, as the show is known here, comes three weeks sooner than originally planned, due to the Covid-19 pandemic that has left more than 15,000 dead in Italy as of late Tuesday, April 7. Ironically enough, once released into the real world, the houseguests will have to deal with even stricter limitations to their freedom.
They will see themselves reflected in some weird mirror. Without ever auditioning, Italians have found themselves living in a Big Brother world for a month. There are no prizes, except survival. After a month of increasingly strict lockdown, however, we are beginning to tire. And unlike on the TV analog, Italians have no idea when the season will end. At first we were told April 3, then April 13. Few of us believe the lockdown won’t be extended again.
The cast of Grande Fratello VIP at least have some idea what to expect when they rejoin society today. In the second week of March, the producers of the show informed them of the emergence of the pandemic and its toll in Italy and allowed them unprecedented contact with their families. That too made for dramatic television.
The sight of empty streets and closed restaurants is bound to be a shock, but perhaps they will have an advantage over the rest of us, having grown used to social isolation while locked in the Big Brother house for three months. Maybe they will immediately find work as coaches, teaching others how to live in quarantine.
Italy is about a week to 10 days further along in this disaster than most of the United States. It’s fair to say we are still not used to it. Yes, we’re managing to do some of the old basics via Zoom or Skype —workouts, yoga, therapy sessions—but other things can only be done in person. First of all: hairdressing. It’s starting to show.
Last week in Rome, the president of the Italian republic, Sergio Mattarella, appeared in what was supposed to be a reassuring message to the nation. The president usually addresses the nation only on New Year’s Eve or on very special occasions, so everyone was very anxious ahead of the March 27 video, shot at the Palazzo del Quirinale, the seat of the presidency set atop the highest hill in Rome.
Seated in his office in front of the Italian and European flags, Mattarella delivered a few reassuring words on the pandemic and then suddenly stopped when someone off-camera informed the president that his hair had a tuft. “Eh, Giovanni,” Mattarella said patting his head and giving a little smile, “I can’t go to the barber either.” (Giovanni, it turned out, is the president’s communications chief, Giovanni Grasso. The hashtag #ehGiovanni went viral.)
Barber shops, of course, are considered nonessential businesses and have been forced to close, and we are all struggling with hair, which, like grass in the piazzas, is growing unimpeded, returning to a state of nature.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has hair issues too. Recently he began holding virtual press conferences, attracting sizable TV audiences. Reporters ask questions via Skype. The spectacle is strange in itself. But what was even more strange in the latest press conference was Conte’s hair: The color had started fading to gray, especially at the temples. “Nobody knows when there will be growth again,” a friend texted me on Whatsapp. “But regrowth is definitely here.”