CareerBuilder Menu Search Search

Do You Want to be a Professional Reality-TV Star?

Rachel Zupek, CareerBuilder.com writer

  • Email

In today's reality-television saturated market, there is a show for just about anything.

You can find true love, lose hundreds of pounds, swap wives, dance your heart out, hone your career skills, exploit your children, nurse your competitive side and if so inclined, go to rehab.

With so many shows, stars, spin-offs and repeat offenders, you'd think there is something in it for the people who participate. But, aside from a little money, a lot of drama and a potential 15 minutes of fame, the benefits one reaps from starring on reality TV can be few compared to the repercussions you inherit.

Stephanie Wilhite, a contestant on the 10th season of "The Bachelor: Officer and a Gentleman" with Andy Baldwin, says true reality stars come "a dime a dozen."

"In most cases, reality stars have a very exciting, yet short-lived 'celebrity period.' During and after shows air, you will always have a lot of buzz and gossip all over the media primarily focused on the 'winner' of a show, or other controversial character," Wilhite says. "Like most things, it eventually dies down and the next batch of reality contestants come through and attention is again diverted to them."

And when the buzz dies down -- which it will -- many people don't think about what comes next. What happened to the job you left behind? Has your reputation been tarnished along the way? Was the experience, money or prize worth it?

I spoke with three reality-TV professionals -- Wilhite; Heather Ronkoske, a production coordinator for Bunim Murray Productions, which produces such shows as "The Real World," and "Project Runway;" and "Big Brother" season eight winner, Dick "Evel Dick" Donato -- to get the scoop on the pros and cons of reality television* and the effect it can have on your real career.

1. There are lots of perks and you don't have to pay for anything ...
Wilhite says that although the contestants on "The Bachelor" aren't compensated, they get their fair share of perks.

The top 15 women to receive roses on "The Bachelor" got a monogrammed suitcase with goodies like designer sunglasses, makeup products and "Bachelorette" embroidered robes. In addition, they got to keep things from dates they went on.

"Every date, there was a 'date box,' delivered to the house, which was themed and contained little random gifts related to the theme for the girl or girls going on that date," Wilhite explained. From these date boxes, Wilhite came home with a mini hand-held digital recorder, jeans, designer gowns and dresses, and complete Under Armour ski wear.

Goody bags are just the beginning. The girls also don't pay for anything during their stay and they can have any kind of food or alcohol they want, whenever they want.

"We gave them a very extensive grocery list to stock up our incredible kitchen with everything our hearts desired. If we wanted In-N-Out Burger for dinner, they sent someone out," she says. "I would literally be sitting on the patio, tilt my head down towards the microphone on my dress and say, 'Hello, is there any way I could have another Red Bull and vodka please?' and voila! A waiter would bring me a drink."

... But you don't get paid much -- or at all
Not every show has the same lavish perks, but then again, other shows also pay out. How much someone earns, however, depends on the person and the show.

"On a show like 'The Real World' or 'Charm School,' it is about the experience, not the money," Ronkoske says. Newcomer reality stars get a small stipend, maybe $100 per day, she says. If you're a celebrity, however, it's a different story. The general industry range for top reality stars is around $10,000 to $25,000 per episode and hosts can make $30,000 to $300,000 per month.

Competition shows are a different story. For winning "Big Brother 8," Donato won $500,000. His daughter placed second and won $50,000. Plus, there is a $750 per week stipend for those who don't place in the "cash zone," he says. And everyone except the first five kicked out of the house get paid out for a full season.

Wilhite adds that although there were a lot of perks, girls are responsible for all of their own clothes on the show and she was required to bring at least nine formal dresses. She spent thousands of dollars on the wardrobe she brought with her.

Career implication: Unless you're getting paid, your paycheck will look pretty dismal those few weeks you are on a show. Plus, will the experience weigh out the personal expenses from the show?

2. You can promote yourself and your talents ...
Contrary to popular belief, the motivation behind wanting to be on reality TV usually isn't money -- it's fame.

Talent-based shows like "American Idol," "Project Runway" or "Top Chef" are clear opportunities for contestants to showcase their abilities and, hopefully, start a career. But even entertainment-based shows like "The Bachelor" or "Big Brother," can be used as a free marketing vehicle.

If anyone is following this season of "The Bachelorette," for example, Wes, a contestant and an aspiring singer, is often seen singing love songs on his guitar. Other contestants question his motives for being on the show.

Ronkoske adds that you can create a personal brand by developing a following or a personality while on a show. Lauren Conrad, for example, went from causing drama on "Laguna Beach" and "The Hills," to creating a fashion line and authoring a book.

... But you can become "unmarketable"
Although a reality show can be beneficial in promoting your skills, there is a small caveat to exposing yourself on TV: Many people forget that they are at the mercy of producers, who can edit your actions to create any type of person they want.

"Based on your on-camera and off-camera behavior, both edited and unedited, you have the potential to make yourself, your product and business skills unmarketable and get stuck with some nasty stereotypes and stigmas following a show," Wilhite says.

Career implication: Depending on how you are portrayed, you can either achieve your dreams or crash and burn. Not to mention, if you are inappropriate on a show and your boss is watching, you can bet that your job won't be waiting when you get home.

3. You'll get some time off work for the experience of a lifetime ...
When people sign up for a reality show, they don't think about the fact that they will have to take an undetermined amount of time off work or worse yet, quit their job.

Ronkoske says that most reality-TV contestants only shoot for a few weeks, so they typically take a sabbatical or leave of absence. Wilhite, who worked as a project coordinator for a marketing firm, did just that.

With only one week's notice that she would be on the show, "The Bachelor" producers directed contestants to not reveal why they needed to take off "a week to potentially six weeks" from work.

"I initially tried that approach, but it was ridiculous to think any boss would be OK with such little information and no set date on my return," Wilhite says. "My boss just looked at me and jokingly said, 'Why on earth do you need that amount of time? What are you doing? Going on 'Survivor' or something?' When I told her it was a reality show, she made sure it wasn't anything inappropriate and said that she couldn't tell me no because it was such a unique opportunity.'"

Wilhite was granted a "leave of absence" from work, with the understanding that if she was truly gone for six weeks, there as a possibility that her job was not 100 percent guaranteed.

... But your job might be gone when you get home
Wilhite says most of the girls handled their jobs in the same way she did, but not everyone was as lucky.

"Unfortunately there were a couple of girls who ended up having to quit their jobs and a handful that were actually fired when they returned home," she says. "I feel that is a risk you have to be willing to take if you just up and leave work in such short notice for an underdetermined of time."

Donato quit his job as a concert promoter, despite the fact that he worked for a good friend who respected his situation. He added that many people from his season quit their jobs, too.

"Not many companies will let you have three months off without notice and [let] you still have a job to come back to," Donato says.
Career implication: Few bosses will let you take an irresolute amount of time off work on short notice and let you keep you your job. If you're lucky enough to have a boss who will, more power to you. For others, think about if 15 minutes of fame are worth losing your job and steady paycheck. We strongly suggest having a Plan B in case your dream of becoming a reality star doesn't work out.

*Please note, the information in this article is only relevant to the shows mentioned and is not the standard for every program.

Rachel Zupek is a writer and blogger for CareerBuilder.com and its job blog, The Work Buzz. She researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues. Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/CBwriterRZ.



Last Updated: 09/06/2009 - 3:26 PM


Article Reprints
Permission must be obtained from CareerBuilder.com to reprint any of its articles. Please send a request to reprints@careerbuilder.com.