Not so long ago, reality TV was the last place any self-respecting celebrity would wish to end up.
“Hollywood Squares” was another term for Hollywood Hell. “Celebrity Boxing” — remember that little delight from 2002? — was a garbage collection point for tabloid cast-offs: Paula Jones, Joey Buttafuoco, Tonya Harding and the hapless Darva Conger, the former California nurse best known for thinking, wrongly, that she wanted to marry a multi-millionaire on live TV.
Now, though, the famous — and almost-famous — are lining round the block to get on the most popular shows, like “Dancing With the Stars” or “Celebrity Apprentice,” sniffing out any opportunity to put themselves on the map or — in the case of fading mid-career entertainers — sell themselves in a different guise to a whole new generation of fans.
There seems to be no limit to the possibilities. Legendary funkmaster George Clinton angling for … a Nashville recording session on “Gone Country.” Apple Computers co-founder Steve Wozniak on “Dancing With the Stars.” (Yes, it’s as bad as you’d think.) Andy Dick letting his addictions hang out and regularly breaking into tears on “Sober House” – along with the likes of Rodney King, and even an “American Idol” reject from last season. Joan Rivers shaking it up in the boardroom with Donald Trump.
One thing’s for sure: It isn’t for the money.
Every reality show is different. A celebrity with a show built around his or her life is likely to get producer credit and maybe something on the back end. Participants on an existing show generally get a flat fee without residuals.
In a show with a knock-out element like "Dancing With the Stars," the fee usually goes up the longer the participant survives. Someone who makes it to the finals on "DWTS" is looking at a fee in the $250,000-$300,000 range. Naturally, the fee is far lower, for example, on the VH-1, Bravo and E! shows than on prime-time network.
And compare that to nonreality TV. Stars on a multi-character scripted drama can make upwards of $50,000 an episode – sometimes way upward.
“Between scripted shows and reality shows,” said a leading TV agent, “in the success scenario there’s just no comparison — and that’s the way it should be. On scripted shows, they have to have talent.”
The real money, though, often lies in what comes after. "It’s all about the endorsements and other appearances. There’s a lot of heat coming off that show," one TV agent said.
Lauren Conrad has gone from nobody to television mega-celebrity by committing her young adult life to video on the MTV series “Laguna Beach” and its follow-up “The Hills.” No longer simply an aspiring fashion designer, she has launched her own clothing line on the back of her cable network visibility.
Her fellow cast members Heidi Montag, Audrina Patridge and Whitney Port have similarly diversified into music, film acting, fashion design, earning themselves millions of dollars in the process.
Jerry Springer used “Dancing With the Stars” to help him escape the pigeonhole of his notorious daytime circus and turned it into a hosting slot on “America’s Got Talent.” It also put him in a position to be fielding, for the first time in his career, movie offers. (See accompanying Q&A with the “DWTS” talent hunter.) Joey Fatone used the show as a springboard to become the host of “The Singing Bee.”
And the list goes on: “DWTS’” Julianne Hough got a boost to her fledgling country music career; Mario Lopez was tabbed to host “Extra.”
The thing that has changed from the “Battle of the Network Stars” days is, in a word, volume. “There’s more of it out there,” said one television agent who has set up reality shows for his clients. “With more out there come more opportunities for people who wouldn’t otherwise have had an in on television. Now they are given their shot, their 15 minutes. And some people are parlaying those 15 minutes into 30 minutes or hours or full careers.”
Though, for some, like Gary Busey, the options for reinvention seem limited to a stint on “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew” — a hit show that is unlikely to do very much for its participants other than reinforce stereotypical views.
The television agent said he will spend several hours in development meetings trying to identify career goals and branding options for his clients before coming up with a reality show pitch. His greatest successes have come when he has been able to resuscitate a career — he did not want to name names, but he has done so several times by now.
“Some shows have been proven to be safe and have developed reputations as career rejuvenators,” a television insider said. “’Dancing With the Stars’ is a show people can do. ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ is safe to do. Of course, it’s up to you to conduct yourself in a way consistent with your celebrity brand."
Indeed, there’s no question a cleverly crafted reality show stint can do wonders — especially if the celeb is willing to open up the idiosyncracies of his or her personal or professional lives to public scrutiny.
“At a time when the business is contracting and opportunities for a lot of celebrities are disappearing,” the insider said, “there is greater pressure to take advantage of those kinds of shows.”