Tim Gunn describes himself as a “pauper educator” before the Emmy-nominated “Project Runway” turned him into an internationally known celebrity.

“The whole thing is so surreal. It happened six months after I turned 50 and suddenly, I’m standing on the threshold of a whole new life,” Gunn says. “There’s not a single day I don’t pinch myself and say, Tim Gunn, you are the luckiest guy in the world.”

For bad or good, reality television has turned many a previous unknown to a famous figure. For people like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, family money provides a cushion against the risks of entrepreneurial ambition. But for many others — like “Top Chef’s” Michael Voltaggio, “The Real Housewives of New York City’s” Bethenny Frankel and “Survivor’s” Elisabeth Hasselbeck — hard work, talent and innovation have helped turn their reality TV experience into careers beyond the thrust of reality competition.

For “The Bachelor’s” Melissa Rycroft, her first foray into reality led to one of the most embarrassing moments of her life.

Rycroft got the proposal from designated “Bachelor” Jason Mesnick in the show’s 2009 season finale, only to be dumped for the first runner-up in the reunion show that followed.

Suddenly, Rycroft went from hopeful bride to jilted lover. Instead of retreating from the spotlight, she took that exposure and parlayed it into a successful career as a TV host, correspondent and author.

In addition, Rycroft has just been named to participate in the all-star edition of the Emmy-nominated “Dancing With the Stars.” She’s now happily married, starring with her husband on the CMT reality series “Melissa & Tye,” and recently published a book, “My Reality.”

“Tye and I play the ‘what-if’ game all the time,” Rycroft says. “Reality TV has 100% changed my life. ‘The Bachelor’ was a stepping-stone to ‘Dancing With the Stars’ and a career where I was able to do everything in life I wanted. But I don’t think anything these days is handed to anyone.”

She worked hard to see opportunity after her public humiliation, and made the difficult decision to step back on the hot plate as a “DWTS” replacement just one week later. That decision led to a variety of TV hosting gigs and work as a “Good Morning America” contributor.

“You can decide if you are going to take that opportunity and run with it or just walk away,” Rycroft says. “I chose to use it.”

Few folks have catapulted so completely from obscurity to ubiquity as the “Mythbusters” Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage. Their images are used on everything from science kits to bobble head dolls. They have been featured voices on “The Simpsons” and appeared in cameos on “CSI.” And they have been parodied everywhere, including being, in Savage’s words, “the repeated joke on ’30 Rock.’ ”

“It wasn’t like ‘Jersey Shore,’ where we became overnight sensations,” says Savage. “But we slowly became part of the cultural lexicon.”

Hyneman is doing projects for the military and medical fields based on what he’s learned doing the show. But the ultimate benefit, say the two, isn’t the career opportunities — which have been substantial — but the fact that they’ve been able to inspire students to go into math and science.

“I’ll take the benefit of bringing more interest in science in exchange for the freedom to hide in my machine shop all day,” Hyneman says.

For his part, Gunn was the chair of fashion design for Parsons The New School for Design when the “Project Runway” producers tapped him just to get the designers talking in the workroom. In the first season, he didn’t even think he would appear on camera.

For the initial few years, according to Gunn, he didn’t get paid to appear on the show because he just folded it into his Parsons duties. But he did start streaming into the public consciousness. His phrase “Make it work” quickly found its way into the pop culture vocabulary.

“For 29 years I was living paycheck to paycheck,” Gunn recalls. “When I started appearing on ‘Project Runway,’ I wasn’t going to ask and they weren’t about to offer money. Then I got an agent.”

In 2007, he joined Liz Claiborne as its chief creative officer. He’s appeared in movies “The Smurfs,” and “Sex and the City,” played himself on series from “Ugly Betty” to “How I Met Your Mother,” designed a Barbie line that just hit the shelves, and penned his fourth book, “Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible” on history fashion, being published in September.

” ‘Runway’ made them interested in publishing a fashion history book,” Gunn says of “Project Runway” opening doors. “And ‘Runway’ led me to leave education and go into the real world of fashion and re-calibrated my own thinking about fashion.”

Road to the Emmys 2012: Reality, Nonfiction & Competition Nominees
Boy and girls in the brand
And the nominees are:
Reality Program | Competition Program | Reality Host | Nonfiction Program | Nonfiction Series