The world is firmly divided when the term ‘reality star’ is considered.
Take someone such as Joey Essex, one of the seemingly endless line of ‘stars’ in the TOWIE line-up. For every viewer who sees him as a loveable if simple rogue who has somehow muddled his way into our homes, there’s another person who regards him as an absolute numbskull who should be banished from our lives forever, or alternatively someone far smarter than his on-screen persona suggests who has cynically peddled an image for financial gain.
The term reality star is a mixed bag of admiration and contempt, and even a definition of the term is up for debate. Some have clawed their way into stardom through talent (Susan Boyle, Paul Potts), others appear to have found the magic elixir that allows them to convince people to vote for them more for their personality than any genuine talent.
For better or worse, the UK public is renowned for taking certain celebrities to their hearts. We love a rags to riches tale of an ‘Ordinary Joe’ being plucked from relative obscurity and catapulted to stardom.
The cult of the celebrity is nothing new, and many of us want to follow in the footsteps of reality stars by hitting the jackpot and experiencing our own overnight success story. It’s the reason hundreds of thousands of us audition for shows like the X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, and it’s why so many of us are pulled in by the likes of Mecca Bingo, who offer the possibility of fortunes at a cost of just a few pounds up front.
In making a list of the top earners, we should ask if there is a cut-off point in terms of time. For example, would the average fan consider Joe Pasquale, Lenny Henry or Jim Davidson reality TV stars? Almost certainly not, but the trio are among many who made their names in programs such as Opportunity Knocks – the 20th century version of Britain’s Got Talent. At a push we could even include Donald Trump, Alan Sugar and Ozzy Osbourne as reality stars, and if so they would stroll into the upper echelons of this list. But since their wealth was already in place before the cameras ever started we’ll take reality TV star to mean someone whose career has grown after an appearance, not before.
The term itself is a misnomer, as many of them are a) not stars and b) representations of a lifestyle that is anything but reality. Does anyone seriously consider the life of Kim Kardashian to be realistic? Whatever, the generously-derriered (insert job title here) has amassed a fortune of nearly £40m through her various business interests and media work, and is regarded as the richest reality TV star in a recent list compiled by the Sun on Sunday.
Next up in the rich list is Paris Hilton, who, similarly to Mr Trump, got hold of her money (or her family’s money) in hospitality before the cameras ever gazed upon her petite form. Known for carrying dogs the size of hamsters in her handbag and a love of all things cute, Hilton is worth approximately £35m in her own right, before we delve into the family coffers.
The third name on the list is perhaps the most heart-warming, but is he a reality TV star? Levi Roots was a breath of fresh Caribbean air when he strolled into the Dragons’ Den in 2007 touting his Reggae Reggae Sauce. Since then, his career has blossomed from a tasty little idea into a £30m empire. Some would argue that a 15 minute TV appearance eight years ago, with no hint of a dreadful follow-up stint in Big Brother or X-Factor, does not constitute a reality TV star. Not everything is rosy in the Roots regime according to the Daily Mail, but his bank manager is probably not that bothered.
The remainder of the top 10 list is built of names such as Boyle, Cheryl Fernandez-Versini, One Direction and Leona Lewis. Gareth Gates is still estimated to be worth £6.7m, while hairdresser Shaun Pulfrey’s idea for the Tangle Teezer hair implement was rejected by the entrepreneurs of Dragon’s Den but makes the list at 21 – he told the Guardian that refusing to give up was the key to his success.
But there may be some names missing from across the Atlantic. For example, did you know that NeNe Leakes is apparently paid $1m per season for her appearances in Real Housewives of Atlanta, and that Teresa Giudice makes $650,000 for the New Jersey equivalent? They’re just two of many ‘stars’ who have seemingly fluked their way into a program but pushed their cause to the max, forcing the notoriously fickle world of US TV producing to keep them on.
Another is Terry Fator, who might at least raise eyebrows if he walked down the average British high street with his puppet ‘co-stars’, unlike Leakes and Giudice. Fator’s is another story of rags to incredible riches. In May 2007, the Dallas native performed his ventriloquism show in front of one boy at a country fair. In August that year, he’d won America’s Got Talent. Fast forward seven years, throw in a $100m contract to perform in Las Vegas, a model girlfriend and a spot as the second highest earning comedian in the world and it’s been some journey, as told by Celebrity Net Worth.
We mentioned Trump, Sugar and others whose fame was already established before reality TV burst onto our screens in a big way in the early noughties. But there is one man who was barely known before the start of the 21st century, yet his profile has exploded in the intervening years without ever so much as singing a note.
Simon Cowell is the undisputed king of reality TV. Pop Idol, X Factor, American Idol and Britain’s Got Talent have overshadowed other lamentable efforts, such as Red or Black. And there are plenty of other shows with his influence, such as Food Glorious Food and the recent Bradley Walsh vehicle Keep It In The Family. He’s even got links to the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Worth at least $650m, Cowell is a mainstay of all sides of the reality TV package of creator, consumer and celebrity.
The nature of reality TV is such that some of these names will be gone in a decade. Many will have gone in five years, or even 12 months. Maybe a star from China or India will top the rankings.
By then, TV reality as we know it will have significantly shifted, perhaps online. But you can bet that some people will know how to play the system – and others will be confined to the dustbin of viewing history.