Making Yourself Known with Reality TV

What we've learned from the little people who've parlayed their simple skills into superstardom.

Jason Zabel

Who doesn’t want to be famous? It seems as though our collective consciousness has been stamped with a callow ideology: There are celebs, and then there’s everybody else. But for a few Nothin’ Nobodies, the last few years have spawned a number of reality contest shows based on the little people – those nonentities who have spent nary an hour in the limelight – until now.

How do you know if you’re ready to become a reality TV star?

You cut hair? That’s great! There’s a show for you!
You make trout flambe’? Hurray! You have a chance.
You have a penchant for punching relative strangers, and You’re a proud alcoholic? Fantastic! You’re going to make something of yourself!
You have a zany mohawk? Oh, it’s just a faux-hawk? That still works.
People have always told you that you’re pretty but you’ve never believed them? That’s great. Audiences love to see contestants overcome self-confidence issues.

The Bravo network has triggered many of these shows, or at least replayed them thousands of times. Whatever the skill, from cooking to designing, to cutting hair or selling houses to just being nice to look at, Bravo has created a reality show contest that fits the bill. And with some cult success: How many times has the average 21-year-old foodie sat down to watch a half-hour program, but instead found himself eight hours later, comatose and drooling, nearing the end of a “Top Chef” marathon (even though he’s watched the entire series at least three times)? Probably too many.

What have we learned from these reality contest shows? If anything, they can serve as case studies about how to make it big. So how can you move from a real-life zero to a reality-show hero? To help us out, let’s take a look at a few past reality show stars and see how they’ve bobbled, or, for the lucky ones, departed from Nobodyville.

Rule Number One: Inflate your personality without becoming someone else.

Katherine Gerdes, a Minneapolis fashion designer formerly with Target, is a little-known name despite her stint on Project Runway’s third season. Why such little fame? For one thing, she was gone by episode three . And to make matters worse, she was barely a presence on the show. Compare her with the likes of other season three big names – Laura, known for her shiny red hair and sleek city-wear; Kayne, memorable because of his flamboyance and unapologetic affinity for sequins – and this shy Midwesterner was, well, forgettable. Her mistake was letting the experience get to her. Instead of creating a persona for the camera, she blended in with the mannequins. The design she went home for was not the ugliest in the bunch, though it wasn’t particularly pretty (keep in mind that part of the week’s challenge was to design an outfit for a dog). Today, though, Gerdes is capably riding the “Project Runway” gravy train (as she should), and has become something of a local name in the design world. She sells her clothes at Design Collective in Minneapolis, as well as on her website.

Rule Number Two: Be weird, yet likeable.

Like Bravo, the Food Network has its own reality cooking show. But unlike Bravo’s contest, “The Next Food Network Star” feels shoddily put together, an austere and sometimes boring remix of Bravo’s nonstop drama-escalation parade. Maybe Food Network takes the reality bit too seriously. But the show’s flawed design has not stopped Guy Fieri, the second-season winner, from becoming a household name, or at least a recognizable face. He’s the guy with bleached blonde hair, baggy surfer shorts and a tan a farmer would be proud of. He also wears sweatbands for some reason. How then has this big weirdo become a Food Network darling? That’s easy – he’s really, really nice. Plus he could talk the ears off an elephant. His personality is charming and genuine, never forced (ahem, Giada Di Laurentiis), and in the television world, that makes him someone special.

Rule Number Three: If all else fails, do something crazy.

Despite numerous modeling jobs and a multimillion dollar check for posing for “Playboy,” Adrienne Curry, the volatile cycle one winner of “America’s Next Top Model,” has not become a supermodel. But she did get hitched to a Brady. After her time on “Top Model” Curry moved on to VH1’s D-list jamboree called the “Surreal Life” where she met Peter Brady (Christopher Knight). After coupling, the strange pair was given a reality show that highlighted their quirky liaison. This was just the trick Curry needed to get noticed. After “My Fair Brady” premiered, Curry became an idol to many male worshippers, and certainly more famous than she ever became from taking pictures on “Top Model.”