Ron Ben-Israel
“Sweet Genius” (Food)
On the surface, “Sweet Genius” is just another food competition show, albeit with sweets rather than savory concoctions. But any comparisons end there, because of the genius of “Sweet Genius” host Ben-Israel.
Part Willy Wonka, part baking zealot, part joyful exponent of all desserts, doused with a healthy ego borne of talent, the master baker’s personality adds up to a whole lot of watchable quirkiness. (In real life, the Israel-born former dancer runs a Gotham bakery that turns out drop-dead gorgeous cakes.)
The show unfolds on a set that would make Tim Burton proud and pits four dessert chefs against one another in three challenges; at the end of each challenge, a chef is eliminated. Each round is tied to a specific dessert, like cake, and each round comes with a mandatory ingredient that appears from a tunnel via conveyor belt (say, Gummy Bears), an inspiration for the confection (usually quirky, like roller skates or a beach ball) and a surprise ingredient (grape leaves, anyone?). Highlight of the season had Ben-Israel proclaiming “Me! I am the inspiration!” triumphantly as he rode the conveyor belt, urging the contestants to new heights of cake-making skill.
— Carole Horst

Jesse Campbell
“The Voice” (NBC)
A single dad who was once homeless, Campbell quickly captivated viewers of “The Voice” with his spectacularly smooth vocals. His talent made his early elimination by his coach Christina Aguilera a shock. Though the audience reinstatement petition for him failed, it’s no doubt an indication that we’ll see him again.
— Karen Idelson

Ian Cromer
“Face Off” (Syfy)
Cromer made the final three of “Face Off,” thanks to his upbeat attitude and ability to find creative solutions to perplexing problems.
In one challenge, contestants created characters based on sketches by one of the show’s judges. The prosthetics for Ian’s bat-like creature were damaged, but he turned the flaws into battle scars, adding to the character’s backstory while impressing judges, competitors and viewers alike.
— Paula Hendrickson

Melissa Gilbert
“Dancing With the Stars” (ABC)
Once an adorable child actress on “Little House on the Prairie,” Gilbert endured a head injury, miserable scores and scalding judges’ critiques on “Dancing With the Stars.” However, “Half Pint” showed us what a gritty competitor she was by outlasting more promising contestants until her elimination in week eight.
— Karen Idelson

Mondo Guerra
“Project Runway All-Stars” (Lifetime)
Runner-up in season eight, Guerra returned with a vengeance for the “Runway” all-star incarnation and quickly won over the new set of judges, led by Isaac Mizrahi, with an amazing ability to combine prints that you wouldn’t think go together into a fashion statement. In episode 10, Guerra impressed guest judge Nanette Lepore with his dress that took color-blocking to a new level. Fans had the bonus of adding it to their closets, with proceeds going to charity.
— Denise Smaldino

Allison Harvard
“America’s Next Top Model” (CW)
Originally appearing in cycle 12 of “America’s Next Top Model,” oddball Harvard stood out from the size-0 crowd with her kewpie doll eyes, white blonde hair and hematomania. The combo of her unearthly look and her ability to stay modest in a modeling competition made her a favorite of judges, photographers and fans. Harvard’s spotlight moment during the recent “America’s Next Top Model: All Stars” season arrived with the musicvideo challenge, in which her haunting song about her late father stood out among the dime-a-dozen pop songs offered by the other contestants. Even the Game, who directed the hypnotic vid, fell victim to her “strangely beautiful” ways. Alas, Harvard came in second — again — in the All-Star season, following the curious elimination of Angelea Preston and the unexpected win of former wild child Lisa D’Amato.
— Erin Maxwell

Sharon Needles
“RuPaul’s Drag Race” (Logo)
“When in doubt, freak them out!” The mantra of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” darkhorse winner is more than a catchphrase — it’s a lifestyle choice. With her ghoulish eyes and talent to make gore look fierce, Needles resembled a “Village of the Damned” denizen after a romp through Rick Baker’s make-up shop. Needles (aka Aaron Coady) won over fans with a sharp sense of humor that shined through her “Hellraiser” couture. In the end, the Miss Supermodel of the World beat out the classic drag style of Chad Michaels and the ruthless antics of Phi Phi O’Hara for the tiara, all while bringing home an anti-bullying message and paving the way for a new genre of goth drag.
— Erin Maxwell

Paul Qui
“Top Chef” (Bravo)
The season nine winner first showed his moxie during episode four, when Qui chose the hottest pepper (the ghost pepper) in his coconut soup — earning him his first Quickfire win of the season and $20,000 of his $185,000 cumulative cash total. The hometown Texas favorite quietly tallied eight elimination wins and only risked being on the chopping block once the whole season.
— Denise Smaldino

Courtney Robertson
“The Bachelor” (ABC)
Much to the dismay of many female viewers, Robertson (aka the Wicked Witch of “The Bachelor”) won Ben Flajnik’s heart. Or maybe his libido. Either way, Robertson’s defeat made her perhaps the most controversial winner in the series’ history. But if it weren’t for that meanie model and her arrogant, manipulative, viper-like ways, no one would have cared about what’s-his-name. Oh yeah — Flajnik.
— Addie Morfoot

Road to the Emmys 2012: Reality Competition
Sugar spices skeins | Runners-up run up to series stardom | Music not the food of Emmy love | Race to mimic success of ‘Amazing’ never ends | A contending blend | Why we watch