Mike Rowe is one of those reality stars who connects with viewers and advertisers. (Blaine Fisher / Discovery…)
If you're part of a reality TV show and might be famous for 15 minutes, tops, it's probably best to cash in while you can.
But what if you're not a breakout star on the Kim Kardashian level?
No worries. Blue-chip national advertisers, nightclub promoters and book publishers still want you. And they're willing to fork over real money — sometimes six figures and up — for your recognizable face.
While the Kardashian klan is pulling down a reported $65 million annually and "Jersey Shore's" Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino banked as much as $5 million last year alone, lesser players in the reality show game are riding their relative popularity to notable financial gain.
The list of second-, third- and fourth-tier reality show participants signing lucrative endorsements keeps growing, say Hollywood talent agents and other executives who barter the deals. And the trend is likely to continue.
"Every brand is dabbling in this area, and some want to glom onto any celebrity no matter how fleeting or newly minted," said David Reeder, vice president at GreenLight, a consultancy that marries brands with famous faces. "There's an insatiable appetite out there for new stars. That might even extend to the third banana on a truTV show, who all of a sudden has a big talent agency repping him."
As telegenic as they are outrageous, Sorrentino and Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi were the first "Jersey Shore" housemates to hook up with advertisers. (Among their stable: Wonderful Pistachios, Virgin Mobile, Reebok and Flow Formal tuxedos.) Then Paul "Pauly D" DelVecchio appeared in a Kraft Miracle Whip commercial, and Vinny Guadagnino used his signature "fresh to death" grooming habits to hawk Philips Norelco hair trimmers in a recent back-to-campus campaign. Sorrentino reportedly saw a six-figure payday from the tuxedo maker, as did DelVecchio from the Kraft ad. (Reps for the men declined to confirm specifics.)
Not to be entirely outdone, Sammi "Sweetheart" Giancola, Deena Cortese and Ronnie Ortiz-Magro are shilling energy shots and diet supplements.
Trista Sutter, the original "Bachelorette" in 2003, recently linked with General Mills' Betty Crocker to promote TV-themed recipes, "Dancing With the Stars" professional dancer Cheryl Burke is now touting Dole salads after hoofing it with Hoover upright vacuums, and "The Hills" alum Lauren Conrad is a spokesmodel for Avon and touts her own Kohl's clothing line.
Reality stars can earn anywhere from a few thousand dollars for mentioning a product on Twitter or online promotion to tens of thousands for personal appearances and media interviews on a brand's behalf. A minor star from a hit on the E! network could pull in as much as $30,000 for working the room at a Las Vegas club opening, provided there were promotional tweets beforehand and photos during the event. A lesser-known "Real Housewives" cast member could match that amount for selling exclusive photos to a supermarket tabloid.
This doesn't come close to the mid-six-figures and above that the crème of the reality crop can pull down. But there aren't many personalities at that level, where "Dirty Jobs'" Mike Rowe (Ford trucks, Lee jeans, Kimberly-Clark's Viva), "What Not to Wear's" Stacy London (Procter & Gamble's Pantene, Target, Woolite) and "DWTS'" Brooke Burke (Skechers, Unilever's Suave and Oral B) breathe rarefied brand air.
Bethenny Frankel, who has said publicly that she participated in "Real Housewives of New York" strictly to hype her businesses, is in that group, too, with ties to Pampers and Hanes. She created her own brand, Skinnygirl cocktails, and sold it to Beam Global earlier this year; estimates of the deal price have varied wildly — from $8 million to $120 million — but Frankel will not disclose its value.
Reality personalities have become go-to brand ambassadors for several reasons, the primary one being that they work cheap compared with established stars.
"It's found money to them," said an agent at a major talent agency who didn't want to speak on the record because he represents reality stars. "They might not be able to retire on it, but they can cobble enough together to make a good living. And compared to what they had before, which was nothing, it's all cake."
It's also a good deal for marketers.
"If I pay a reality star 1/50 of what I'd pay Johnny Depp, my return is going to come back much quicker," said Mark Young, a professor at USC's Marshall School of Business.
Reality show stars also seem more authentic and less precious to the buying public, industry execs said. After all, some of them are famous only for their inability to self-censor. It doesn't matter that some of the stars have no discernible skills other than shameless self-promotion.