Last spring, Bruno Ielo spent 56 days in an 18,000 square-foot house filled with gear-covered walls and a giant vault. Every second of Ielo’s time in the house was recorded by 85 cameras and 60 microphones. Ielo sometimes faced showering and eating restrictions as he lived there. He had no contact with the world outside of the house. He didn’t even get to see his wife or his two sons.
It sounds tough, but Ielo says living in the house was an “incredible” experience.
That’s because it was the Big Brother house. Ielo was a participant on the third season of Big Brother Canada, a reality TV competition that airs every spring.
It was a dream come true for Ielo, who had the opportunity to appear on one of his favourite TV shows. Being on Big Brother Canada was a rare experience for Ielo, who calls himself a “regular Ottawa guy.” Ielo is still just as “regular”, but many aspects of his life have changed since being on TV.
Take his occupation, for example. Ielo has worked in construction since he was 15 years old. Since appearing on Big Brother Canada, the construction sites he works at have become livelier.
“People will pull over if they drive by me and come talk to me,” he said. “I love talking to people.”
Big Brother premiered in the United States in 2000 as social experiment. The show’s premise was similar to MTV’s The Real World, which premiered in 1992. Ten strangers entered a secluded house, and for 10 weeks, viewers would observe them. Viewers would vote to evict one houseguest each week, and the last person standing would win $500,000.
Ielo was introduced to the show by his brother. He was a teenager at the time, and initially, he was not impressed.
“I sat down for five minutes and thought, ‘I can’t watch this’. I actually didn’t like it,” he said.
Big Brother achieved moderate success in its first summer, but it was not a cultural phenomenon like Survivor, which debuted on the same network that summer.
Big Brother returned the following summer, and its rules were changed. The audience would no longer vote to evict contestants. Instead, contestants would vote to evict each other. The new format was more popular, and Big Brother transformed from a simple social experiment into a complicated game of strategy, physical competition, and manipulation. Ielo calls it “human chess” and says that the amended format hooked him.
“I actually started watching it hard-core in season two,” Ielo said. “I haven’t missed an episode or season since. I’m a huge fan of the show.”
Ielo was fascinated by the way some contestants played. He envisioned himself being on the show someday. “I’m built for this. I’ve felt this for years and years,” he said.
Ielo is the only Big Brother Canada contestant from Ottawa. Representing an entire city didn’t intimidate Ielo. In fact, Ielo used to dream of being the first Canadian to appear on the American version of the show.
Big Brother Canada was announced in 2012, and premiered the following year. The winner would receive $100,000 and a gift certificate from The Brick worth $25,000.
As soon as he found out that Big Brother would come to Canada, Ielo began working on an audition tape. Ielo eventually chose not to apply to the show’s first two seasons, since he wanted to stay home for the birth of his two sons. As soon as casting began for the third season, Ielo prepared. “I said, ‘This is it, I’m trying out. They can’t say no to me. I’m not gonna give them a reason to say no.’”
Ielo was eager to audition. He was the ninth person in line at the Toronto casting call, where thousands tried out for a spot on the show. The odds of being selected were low—out of the thousands of applicants, only 16 would enter the house—but Ielo felt confident.
“When I got back, I said, ‘There’s no way they’re gonna say no to me. I have what it takes.’”
Ielo’s confidence came in part from his supportive wife, Emily. “She’s the only one that actually knew about the whole process,” he said, “and she supported me the whole way.”
The support payed off. Ielo was picked as one of the 16 contestants to appear on the show.
“Bruno was a slam dunk,” said Arisa Cox, the host of Big Brother Canada. In 2001, Cox appeared on a reality show called U8TV: The Lofters as a contestant. Like Ielo, Cox was a fan of Big Brother before she became the host of the Canadian version.
Cox pegged Ielo as an “early pick to win,” and called him “a people person who also happened to be extremely analytical, highly intelligent, and thoughtful.” Cox anticipated how one of Ielo’s hobbies would affect his gameplay.
“His gaming experience provided some insight into how he viewed personal interactions in a game like Big Brother,” she said.
Ielo holds achievements as a video game player—a “world-class gamer”, as Ielo calls it. Ielo used to play an online game called Dark Age of Camelot, and became the best player in the world on two different servers.
“To do it alone on one is ridiculous, but to do it on two different servers is a big feat,” he said. It may be a surprise to some that a construction worker could accomplish so much with a keyboard and a joystick, but Ielo’s gaming success proves that he has the versatility that a complicated game like Big Brother would require.
Ielo entered the Big Brother house with a simple strategy in mind. He would stay with a group for the first half of the game, and make moves as an individual player for the second half. For the most part, Ielo’s strategy payed off. Ielo was a member of the six-person alliance known as the Chop Shop, which held power for the first few weeks of the game. As the Chop Shop began to lose power, Ielo took charge, winning an important competition in the game’s fourth week.
Ielo won many physical competitions in the house, which propelled him further in the game. Ielo had exercised to prepare for Big Brother, but he had always been somewhat of an athlete.
“I got my black belt when I was about 13 years old,” he explained. “It took it very seriously.”
Ielo made one of the game’s biggest strategic moves on the 49th day. Three contestants would be eliminated that night, instead of the usual one. Ielo won the power to save a contestant from elimination, and chose to save Zach Oleynik, a 22-year old football player who was seen by many as a threat to win the whole game. By saving Oleynik, Ielo would be able to strengthen their bond, and avoid becoming the next big target. The move was controversial—it led to an argument between Ielo and 27-year old Sarah Hanlon, who eventually won the game. Ielo says contestants who have won in the past complimented him on the move after the season had ended.
Despite his strategic success, Ielo struggled with the game’s emotional aspects. Big Brother contestants cannot contact their family and friends while in the house. In Ielo’s case, he was separated from his wife and two sons.
“It’s so much harder than you can imagine,” Ielo explained. “I was always that guy on the couch, saying, ‘That guy’s away from his family for a couple weeks? Suck it up! Why are you crying?’ But it’s not that easy.”
Ielo’s wife, Emily, was ultimately proud of him.
“How he played the game with respect for myself and our kids showed how much love he has for us,” she said. “I think Bruno being on Big Brother definitely made us stronger as a couple.”
Ielo’s dream of winning the $100,000 grand prize was crushed on the 56th day of the game. He was voted out of the house 14 days before the season’s finale. Ielo’s eviction was the result of a twist in the game that Ielo could have barely avoided.
Voting Ielo out of the house wasn’t an option until another contestant used an object of power she had secretly won to remove herself from danger. A few minutes later, Ielo was voted out.. He was shocked and disappointed.
“I think he played an incredible game,” his brother Thomas argued. “If it had not been for that twist, I strongly believe he would have won.”
Ielo felt the same way as his brother.
“All I had to do was survive one more week,” he said. “I could have won.”
Ielo had trouble readjusting to his normal life after the season ended. “It definitely takes a few months,” he said.
Ielo remained humble, even after having his face on Canadian televisions for eight weeks.
“Trust me, two kids will keep you grounded,” he said. “They don’t care that I was on Big Brother. They remind you, you’ve got dirty diapers to change.”
Ielo has had many opportunities since the show ended. For example, he will participate in an annual charity event called the Reality Rally in April. Many Big Brother contestants attend the Reality Rally every year.
Ielo didn’t win $100,000, but his dream of being a Big Brother contestant came true. He may be the same “regular Ottawa guy” that he was before, but thanks to being on Big Brother Canada, Ielo’s life has recently been far from regular.