Merlin opens up about his protest, Gretel Killeen and what he’s doing now

ON SUNDAY, June 13 in 2004, Merlin Luck made Australia’s jaw drop.

The Big Brother contestant had just been evicted after 43 days in the house and as he walked onto the eviction stage, he threw the show’s producers a curveball they never saw coming.

Merlin put a strip of black tape over his mouth and held up a sign that said ‘Free the refugees’.

He sat silently on the couch holding his sign up for the cameras as host Gretel Killeen attempted to establish if he was going to participate in the interview at all.

But when it became clear that Merlin was not going to talk, he was whisked off the stage and Gretel crossed to the house to interview the remaining Big Brother contestants instead.

It’s arguably the most famous moment in the history of Big Brother Australia and now, more than 10 years later, we thought we’d track down Merlin to find out what life’s been like since:

Q: Did you apply for Big Brother purely to make the statement you did?

A: Absolutely. It was during the rise of reality television as a genre, so it was really about making a statement that putting 14 people in a mansion and plying them with alcohol isn’t reality. It was about disrupting that mainstream media phenomenon to deliver a message — and to make people question the whole concept of reality TV — and question what’s really important.

Q: Did you actually enjoy your time in the house or was it a bad experience?

A: A seven week holiday, how bad can it be? It was good fun, but the pace is much slower than people realise. If they have a 30-minute episode each day, then 10 minutes of that is advertising and the host talking. That leaves about 20 minutes of footage, so there’s maybe two to five minutes that each person is on-air from a 24-hour period. The vast majority of that 24 hours is spent lazing around. If anything it got quite boring. It also reinforces the power that the editors have in defining your story arc and your character — by controlling which two to five minutes of your day they show and in what context.

Q: How did you smuggle the tape and sign in?

A: It was sewn into the shirt that I wore when we entered the house. I remember security patting me down — and my heart pounding as I thought I’d be found out. Then I wore that same shirt on eviction night and ripped out the sign and the tape as I walked toward the stage. I’ve been skydiving three times, but the adrenaline rush of that moment is unlike anything I’ll ever experience again in my life.

Q: How did Gretel Killeen react off camera on the night of the eviction?

A: She was trying to convince me to speak and to discuss the issue on-air. To me the impact of the moment came from it being a silent protest. She’s on the public record on several occasions since, declaring her personal support for the stance that I took — and saying she regrets not being more overtly supportive at the time. It was a difficult situation that I put her in but I respect and am grateful for her for taking that position in the media in the years since the protest.

Q: How did the Big Brother producers respond?

A: It was an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand they got the best ratings of the season and weeks of PR. On the other had they lost control, which is any producer’s worst nightmare. I remember the executive producer being exasperated in the green-room afterwards. He was almost yelling that “you should have told us ... we could have worked with you on this ... we would have supported you”. To me that just reinforced how farcical this idea of reality television is. The whole point was to hijack the show and deliver a message — not to orchestrate a fake protest in cahoots with the producers. They still put me on every talk show in the country though, so clearly they wanted in.

Q: What was the overriding sentiment from the public in the days following?

A: I remember as I got dragged off the stage by two security guards, one of them saying “What you just did is incredible. It’s going to mean a lot to many people. I’m so proud of you” and then the other security guard told him to “shut-up mate”. To me that encapsulates the broader response that I knew was coming. I didn’t do this to be popular — I knew the issue was polarising. I did it because I believed in questioning our vapid preoccupation with reality TV — and wanted to disrupt that with a message on an issue I believe is important. At the time there were over 1000 asylum seeker children being held by Australia in detention centres — many of them for years at a time.

Following the protest I spent 12 months campaigning on the issue full time — speaking at protests and schools and universities. Doing media interviews and meeting with politicians. I visited several detention centres and met many of the families being held in detention — or recently released. When you meet a kid like four-year-old Reza who’d spent three years of his life in detention and you speak to his mum, that’s heartbreaking. When the United Nations declares that as a nation you’re in breach of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 1951 Refugee Convention, there’s just no excuse. Even now there’s still around 50 children being held in detention which is unacceptable.

Q: What are you up to now?

A: I have a beautiful wife and we have a four-year-old son and two-year-old daughter together. I work for the largest enterprise cloud technology company in the world, leading a team of specialist account execs. It’s an inspiring company in terms of our technology and innovation, our corporate culture and our focus on philanthropy. Fair to say I’m well on the way to being a middle-aged corporate dad — in the best possible way. Very grateful for the life I have.

Q: Do you still speak to any of your Big Brother housemates?

A: We kept loosely in touch for a few years and I caught up for the odd beer with some or exchanged text messages. I bumped into Fitzy at a bar recently which was fun. Great to see his success in the years since. It was nice to reflect on what was an exciting moment in our lives — but more importantly how far we’d both come with our families and our careers.

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