Ingelmunster, Belgium — Despite its flop last summer on U.S. television, "Big Brother" continues to hold Europeans captive those in the house and viewers who watch them.
Belgians are producing one of the most popular, and outrageous, versions of the "Big Brother" reality soap, with the antics of a butcher's wife and suspicions that marijuana was smoked on-camera attracting record ratings.
Moreover, during the first week, the "Big Brother" Web site crashed because of excessive interest.
In large part, thank Betty. Almost overnight, Betty Van Insberghe, a 24-year-old blond mother of one, became familiar to millions for offering a daily dose of prime-time voyeuristic delight as she undresses, showers and ducks under the blankets with company.
The edition from Belgium's Dutch-speaking Flanders is the latest in a global line of 12 "Big Brother" shows that include Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, besides the CBS series in the United States that concluded in September.
"There is a large difference between our show and other versions. ... We have ideal inhabitants," said Kristine Van Houte from Kanaal 2 television, which produces the show in Belgium. "It's not just Betty that's responsible for the high ratings, it's all of them, really."
Everyone, from government ministers to jealous housewives, have tuned in to the goings-on in the "Big Brother" house, located in Vilvoorde on the outskirts of Brussels, where 27 cameras, some even in the toilet and shower, capture every detail of life.
One recent Sunday, almost one-third of all televisions in northern Flanders tuned in to the show for Kanaal 2's highest rating ever. The Web site attracts some 2 million hits a day in a region of 5.8 million people.
Viewers can see Steven and Jeroen vying for the affections of Nathalie, while Bart the policeman plays naughty under the covers with Katryn.
Betty's hometown of 10,000 has mixed feelings ever since she ran bare-breasted and giggling through the house a display that goes well beyond the usual fare in an 8:30 p.m. time slot.
For many, she is an embarrassment. For others, she is a source of hometown pride.
"When she comes back she will get a shock, she will be scared by the reaction," said Gerda De Smet-Van Damme, who runs a restaurant.
Barman Martin Vervaeke of Betty's favorite karaoke bar agreed. "In the beginning it was very bad, very negative around here. You see, Betty is a free spirit."
Putting on a disc of Betty singing, he proclaimed, "She is our very own Madonna of Ingelmunster."
The mayor has gone on national television claiming not a single resident is the slightest bit interested in the show and not at all intrigued by Betty.
"That is impossible," Vervaeke argued. "Everyone here is watching behind their drawn curtains."
Betty's husband, Marc, is obliged to watch. His Finesse Butcher Shop behind the church has become the town's meeting place on matters regarding "Big Brother."
"It's a bit sensational, really. ... Out of control," he admitted while working behind the counter, where strands of sausages are hung.
But being paraded in front of cameras and writing a daily newspaper column has made Marc almost as famous as his wife.
"She just wanted to do something else," he sighed. He will have to do without his wife behind the counter for perhaps another six weeks. Participants are eliminated every other week.
If Betty stays until the last one, she'll walk away with $104,000 to supplement her sudden stardom.
But she isn't the only one who has admirers. When her housemate Steven ran out of hair gel, his fans sent a fresh supply into the "Big Brother" compound by parachute from an air glider.