Reality Stars Build on Unscripted Success

Smallscreen exposure leads to career longevity

Bethany Frankel Reality Star

Be honest. Who remembers that long before becoming co-host of “The View,” Elisabeth Hasselbeck (nee Filarski) was a contestant on “Survivor: The Australian Outback?” That was more than a decade ago, but the attention she drew eventually led to her success on morning TV.

Of course, there are unscripted shows that are built to launch careers (“American Idol,” “The Voice”), but there are many cast members on other reality series — from “Face Off” to “The Apprentice” to “Flipping Out” to “The Real Housewives of New York City” — that have put their screen time to use either building or launching careers with real longevity.

There is precedent. Lauren Conrad of “Laguna Beach” and “The Hills” is now a fashion entrepreneur with a successful line at Kohl’s, while Food Network star Rachael Ray parlayed her culinary skills into a magazine, merchandise and a daytime talkshow, to name two unscripted series stars that have built brands beyond their shows.

Bethenny Frankel is arguably the most successful cast member from any of Bravo’s “Real Housewives” franchises. She sold her Skinnygirl brand, but remains busy with cookbooks, products and a fitness DVD. But she hasn’t abandoned the smallscreen. Two spinoffs later — “Bethenny Getting Married” and “Bethenny Ever After” — and her new syndicated talkshow, “Bethenny” debuts this fall.

Win or lose, make-up artists competing in “Face Off” get to show viewers and industry insiders their skills.

“My work has gained exposure that would have taken years to a lifetime to gain,” says “Face Off” season four winner Anthony Kosar, a freelance artist fielding job offers for film projects and commercials, even commercial illustration and sculpting.

“Without ‘Face Off’ I would still be the young artist trying to prove that age and experience mean nothing compared to professionalism and talent, while hoping and working endlessly to someday gain success by doing what I love,” Kosar says.

It might not be as straightforward, but people in non-competition unscripted shows have also been able to capitalize on their popularity.

“Look at the Kardashians, and Jessica Simpson. There are tons of examples,” says former agent and CEO of Kinetic Content Chris Coelen. “The medium has been, for those who choose to use it, generally very beneficial.”

As Simpson’s one-time manager, Coelen can attest to the power of reality TV. “Jessica had an album and was signed to Sony, but didn’t really take off until she did ‘Newlyweds,’ ” he says, referring to the MTV series in which she starred with then-husband Nick Lachey. Today Simpson’s empire includes lines of clothing, shoes, accessories and fragrances, and she returned to TV last year as a judge on NBC’s “Fashion Star.”

“She’s done an incredible job branding herself,” Coelen says, noting Simpson has weathered many ups and downs over the years but her brand has stayed strong with the public.

For Bill Rancic, winning the first season of NBC’s “The Apprentice” has led to bigger things but branding is not something that was on the top of his agenda going into the show.

“I didn’t have ulterior motives. I did the show because I wanted the challenge. I’m a competitor. I love sports. I’m an entrepreneur. My goal was to test my skills as an entrepreneur because I thought it was an intriguing concept,” Rancic says. “I didn’t do it to try to build a brand or anything like that — I wish I’d been smarter and thought of building a brand like others have.”

Even without the forethought, today Rancic is a real estate developer, partner in RPM Italian restaurants, co-host of “America Now” and co-star and co-exec producer of Style Network’s “Giuliana and Bill.” He’s also an author and motivational speaker.

When Bravo’s Andy Cohen approached designer Jeff Lewis to pitch a reality show about flipping luxury homes, the business was doing well but Lewis decided extra exposure couldn’t hurt. “I thought maybe my homes would sell a little quicker because of the notoriety from the show,” he says.

When the housing market crashed in 2008 Lewis needed the extra revenue “Flipping Out” provided to help stay afloat while reworking his business plan.

“I needed to start working for other people. That’s when the design business was formed. I was able to use the show as a platform to market my business. No one was hiring designers in 2008 or 2009. The show gave me an edge and I was able to solicit design business when no one else was working,” he says.

Today Lewis’ design business is thriving. He’s just launched a paint line and plans to expand to linens, he does private design consultations, speaking engagements and has two more Bravo shows, “Interior Therapy With Jeff Lewis” and the upcoming “Property Envy,” debuting in July.

Reality show personalities are often flooded with big money offers and endorsement deals. Lewis says the successful ones exercise caution. He declined a tempting opportunity back when he needed the money. “If I’d taken that $30 grand or $50 grand I would have cost myself hundreds of thousands of dollars down the line because people would have doubted me.”
Coelen says the formula for success is fairly simple.

“Ultimately, it’s being smart about it, having a game plan, but also staying true to understanding who you are and not trying to do something that’s false,” he says. “The public will pick up on that.”