'Ready for Marriage' enters third season

JOHANNESBURG — A Zambian reality show is offering those who practice the world’s oldest profession a second chance by taking them off the streets — and perhaps putting one lucky winner into a wedding gown.

The third season of “Ready for Marriage” has taken its basic concept, testing brides-to-be to see if they are ready to manage a household in this male-dominated society, and added the unlikely twist.

The “Big Brother”-style show kicked off July 11 on Zambia’s Muvi TV and pan-Continent network Africa Unite TV.

While the premise may seem unusual, it offers a serious opportunity for women in Zambia who have been forced into prostitution — many of them single mothers whose boyfriends or husbands left them — and who face overwhelming social stigma.

More than 1,000 sex workers from across the southern African nation applied for the chance to be one of the show’s 18 women competing for the $9,000 grand prize. Exposure on TV may also help contestants find a husband, in which case the winner will get an all-expense-paid wedding.

Though “R4M,” as it’s known locally, comes with the promise of a big payout, producer and host Master Chimbala says the wedding isn’t guaranteed.

“We are not finding husbands for them,” he says. “We are helping ladies who have declared that they want to settle down to (lead) decent, respectable and responsible lives.”

The femme contestants are sequestered in a house in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital. They face a series of challenges as they attempt to prove they’re committed to turning their lives around and to persuade the TV audience to vote to keep them in the house.

The women are judged on how well they perform domestic chores and manage a household budget — something that would be expected of all Zambian woman, Chimbala says.

Everyone’s a winner in “R4M,” which is expected to run for 70 hourlong episodes, six nights a week.

Aside from the grand prize, there are consolation prizes of $1,000 to $1,400 for the other contestants plus HIV counseling and help to find jobs for the women after the series wraps.

In a country with no official way to measure TV ratings, Chimbala says viewers in the conservative African nation have given the “R4M” contestants their overwhelming support — measured via daily text messages from viewers, email correspondence and website hits.

“We were not exactly sure how people would respond,” says the producer. “People gave us more than we expected.”

Already, auds have shown they are coming to the series in a forgiving mood.

When a contestant was ousted for posing as a prostitute in the hopes of winning the cash prize, sympathetic viewers voted her back on to the show.

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