13 Ways Reality TV Contestants Really Make Their Money

By July 27, 2018Business
"The Bachelor" stars and engaged couple Arie Luyendyk, Jr. and Lauren Burnham in New York City in 2018.
“The Bachelor” stars and engaged couple Arie Luyendyk, Jr. and Lauren Burnham in New York City in 2018.MediaPunch/AP Images

Hosts, judges and personalities vital to popular reality shows can earn big bucks. The contestants themselves? They typically don’t make a ton of cash per episode – if anything at all.

Reality contestants and cast members generally earn a small amount for their time and energy, somewhere between a couple hundred and a couple thousand dollars per episode. Some shows offer signing bonuses to participants to offset the costs of putting real life on hold , but offers are somewhat rare.

Paychecks can grow the longer contestants stay on the show or in the competition. And if they win the show it can be lucrative.

The financial opportunities of a reality TV show experience as a contestant, though, go well beyond a cash stipend or major prize. Many contestants take advantage of their fifteen minutes of fame and are able to turn their reality show gig into something bigger and more lucrative.

Here’s a look at 13 ways many successful reality show contestants really make their money.

1) Become a Talk Show Host or TV Personality

Elisabeth Hasselbeck of "Survivor" appears during her debut as the new co-host of "Fox & Friends" in 2013.
Elisabeth Hasselbeck of “Survivor” appears during her debut as the new co-host of “Fox & Friends” in 2013.Richard Drew / AP Photo

Personalities like Elisabeth Hasselbeck (“Survivor”) or Nene Leakes (“The Real Housewives of Atlanta”) can use their no-filter approach to their advantage.

Whether reality show contestants land a regular gig on a daytime talk show or simply make a cameo appearance in a movie, if they were able to build a fanbase from their reality show appearance, plenty of media outlets will happily pay them to join their shows in a temporary or ongoing basis.

2) Write a Book

Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi of "Jersey Shore" attends a signing for her book "A Shore Thing" in 2011.
Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi of “Jersey Shore” attends a signing for her book “A Shore Thing” in 2011.Charles Sykes / AP Photo

One of the most popular ways to capitalize on a big, new fanbase is to write a book.

A benefit of breaking into the public eye on reality TV is that, at least to most of the world until that point, their story is relatively unknown. Viewers are smart enough, too, to understand that what they see onscreen is only really a portion of the “real” person, and will often be hungry to learn more.

Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi of “Jersey Shore” dropped her first book, which people went crazy for, at the height of her popularity in 2011. She’s since written a total of five books, including recent ones featuring a total makeover and transformation, which her die-hard fans continue to support.

3) Make In-Person Appearances

The cast of “Jersey Shore” reportedly got paid up to $25,000 for in-person appearances.
The cast of “Jersey Shore” reportedly got paid up to $25,000 for in-person appearances.MTV/IMDB

If a reality show personality and/or their fellow cast members have enough popularity, night clubs may pay them just to show up. Same with people throwing special events.

The cast of “Jersey Shore” found themselves getting paid pretty handsomely — up to $25,000 for an appearance, according to the Daily Beast — by all sorts of clubs after they became famous for loving to party (at least on the show).

4) Create More Content

Justin Timberlake, who got his start on "Star Search," hosts the ESPY Awards in 2008. Timberlake exemplifies a former reality star who just keeps on creating.
Justin Timberlake, who got his start on “Star Search,” hosts the ESPY Awards in 2008. Timberlake exemplifies a former reality star who just keeps on creating.Kevork Djansezian / AP Photo

Those that appear on a reality TV show competition involving some sort of talent – say a comedy routine or singing ability – can use their newfound popularity to create more content.

Suddenly, millions of people know who they are. Even if they don’t win, the fact that they’re now known in the world for being a person who creates something that other people may want to watch, catch or follow makes them immediately viable to create more of that stuff.

Then they can sell it.

5) Go on Tour

Chris Daughtry of the band Daughtry performs on the "Today" show in New York in 2009. Daughtry got his first break on "American Idol."
Chris Daughtry of the band Daughtry performs on the “Today” show in New York in 2009. Daughtry got his first break on “American Idol.”Richard Drew / AP Photo

Similar to continuing to create content to feed their newly hungry fanbase, they can also go on tour. Or continue to go on tour for as long as people keep buying tickets.

Chris Daughtry, who placed fourth in the fifth season of “American Idol” is a great example of someone who didn’t win but made the most of his experience as a contestant and the popularity he gained on the show.

He continues to have a thriving career on the road long after his time on the show ended.

6) Sell Merchandise

Bethenny Frankel of "The Real Housewives of New York City" introduces her Skinnygirl Cocktails’ offerings to her fans in New York.
Bethenny Frankel of “The Real Housewives of New York City” introduces her Skinnygirl Cocktails’ offerings to her fans in New York.Diane Bondareff / AP Photo/Invision for Skinnygirl Cocktails

Beyond general content creation, reality TV contestants can develop all sorts of merchandise that they may bring with them on tour or simply sell on their website.

If there’s something they were known for or a look they made iconic, they can slap it on all sorts of products.

7) Try Another Skill or Business

Julianne Hough arrives at the Emmy Awards in Los Angeles in 2017. The "Dancing with the Stars" star has pursued an acting career.
Julianne Hough arrives at the Emmy Awards in Los Angeles in 2017. The “Dancing with the Stars” star has pursued an acting career.Richard Shotwell / AP Photo/Invision

Many people who first make their appearance in one style of reality TV show have unrelated skills they can tap into.

Take Julianne Hough. She was a well-loved dancer on “Dancing with the Stars.” She’s now trying her hand at acting.

Lisa Vanderpump of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” is a restaurateur whose popularity undoubtedly helps Pump, her latest restaurant. Plus, she helps produce another reality show involving people who work at her restaurant, “Vanderpump Rules.”

8) Create Clothing Lines, Product Collections or Lifestyle Brands

Carrie Underwood, whose career launched on "American Idol," attends the fashion show for her CALIA fitness and lifestyle line in New York in 2015.
Carrie Underwood, whose career launched on “American Idol,” attends the fashion show for her CALIA fitness and lifestyle line in New York in 2015.Charles Sykes / AP Photo/Invision

This is one of the major ways celebrities are currently creating new income streams.

From Carrie Underwood’s activewear clothing line to Jennifer Hudson’s QVC collection, there’s much money to be had helping customers find new ways of dressing and accessorizing.

The most potentially lucrative opportunity: creating a community and brand, like “The Real Housewives of New York City” star Bethenny Frankel did with her popular lifestyle brand, Skinnygirl.

9) Take Speaking Engagements

Carrie Ann Inaba of "Dancing With the Stars" speaks at the Humane Society of the United States' To the Rescue! Los Angeles gala in 2018.
Carrie Ann Inaba of “Dancing With the Stars” speaks at the Humane Society of the United States’ To the Rescue! Los Angeles gala in 2018.John Salangsang / AP Photo/Invision for The Humane Society of the United States

Great professional and motivational speakers are always in demand. And people who have the notoriety that can come from a reality TV show experience often find themselves in the lucky position where people will pay to hear their perspective on the experience.

Or, maybe they just created enough of an onscreen personality that people want to hear more about their story in a live and engaging way.

Plenty of specialty agencies hire former and current reality TV show contestants to come speak. Sometimes they volunteer their time. When they get paid, their speaking fees are often pretty good, from the low five figures to the low six figures, according to All American Speakers.

10) Become a Reality Show Judge (or Just Make a Cameo)

Nicole Scherzinger, a judge on "The X Factor," poses at screening event for the television series in 2011. Scherzinger's breakthrough came on "Popstars."
Nicole Scherzinger, a judge on “The X Factor,” poses at screening event for the television series in 2011. Scherzinger’s breakthrough came on “Popstars.”Chris Pizzello / AP Photo

Who better to judge or weigh in on how current reality TV contestants are doing than former ones?

Nicole Scherzinger first appeared on a singing competition called “Popstars,” which in many ways helped launch her career. And, outside of singing, she participated on “The X Factor” UK as a judge who got to decide the fate of young new singers.

Kelly Clarkson, who won the first season of “American Idol,” has been a coach on another singing competition show, “The Voice.”

11) Leverage Related Partnerships

Kacy Catanzaro, then of "American Ninja Warrior," celebrates completing the parkour course at Comic-Con in San Diego in 2014. Catanzaro has since joined the WWE.
Kacy Catanzaro, then of “American Ninja Warrior,” celebrates completing the parkour course at Comic-Con in San Diego in 2014. Catanzaro has since joined the WWE.Casey Rodgers / AP Photo/Invision for Ubisoft

Like creating collections or clothing partnerships, sometimes a reality TV contestant can find another outlet or a brand partner that they link up with to create a new career with, as was the case with the “American Ninja Warrior” contestant Kacy Catanzaro. She moved to the WWE.

“Warrior” woman Jessie Graff created a partnership and collection with Under Armor,which is completely in line with working out and spectacular athletic success, the very things that made her famous.

12) Leverage Unrelated Partnerships

Jennifer Hudson (top center) poses with B'more Fit members at a Baltimore Weight Watchers Event in 2014. Hudson launched her career on “American Idol.”
Jennifer Hudson (top center) poses with B’more Fit members at a Baltimore Weight Watchers Event in 2014. Hudson launched her career on “American Idol.”Nick Wass / AP Photo/Weight Watchers

Sometimes, partnerships may not make as much sense on the surface but can still pay dividends.

Jennifer Hudson (“American Idol”) became famous for her incredible singing voice and acting skills. But one of her major partners shortly thereafter was Weight Watchers, who she became a spokesperson for over many years after losing a lot of weight on the program.

13) Pitch on Social Media

Anyone who’s been paying attention to social media opportunities over the past decade knows there’s serious money in the market.

Assuming a contestant can harness reality TV fame into an active and interested social following, companies will pay big bucks to have pictures with their brands featured on their Instagram page or elsewhere.

Companies love reality TV contestants and participants because they’re seen as usually more “real” or “relatable” than their other entertainment counterparts, so their product placement is even more believable (even though they do need to denotewhen something is an #ad).