You love watching contestants make complete fools of themselves on television. But, if you’re anything like me, there’s always one question that plagues you: What the heck do these people do about their jobs?
After all, how can they afford to take this much time off of work? Isn’t their employer embarrassed by their involvement in this sort of public debauchery?
Wait, do these people even have jobs?
Okay, maybe there’s more than one question that crops up. But, that’s only natural when all you have to go off of is that little blurb that displays those vague and oftentimes ridiculous job titles like “former pro quarterback” or—even worse—“socialite.”
So, what’s the deal with these people and their day jobs? Does accepting a rose mean also accepting a major career setback? Does getting voted off the island mean you were already voted out by your employer?
I knew I had to get to the bottom of what these reality TV contestants do about, well, real life.
Not Your Average Vacation Policy: Taking Time Off
Here’s what the experts told me: How contestants choose to handle the time away from their jobs varies based on the person, the show’s contract, and the shooting schedule.
“Often, a shooting schedule is much more condensed than it appears on TV, so reality show contestants are able to take leave from their jobs to appear on a show,” explains Dave DiVerniero, who has worked on international versions of network shows like Hell’s Kitchen and NYMD and is now executive producer at Black Chip Collective.
And, contrary to my guess, most companies don’t mind if their employees take some time off to be famous.
“My impression is that, for the most part, their employers are excited for them.”
Expect a lot of time away from the world
“On our show, we did have an attorney contestant, and he took a long, unpaid leave of absence,” shares New York Times bestselling author, Heather Maclean, who appeared on MTV’s Road Rules in college and more recently on The Rebel Billionaire with Richard Branson.
Unfortunately, that contestant was eliminated first, but, because he wasn’t allowed to spoil the show’s outcome, he was unable to actually return home. Instead, he lived in a hotel on St. Thomas for the entire four-month duration of shooting.
“He took a huge gamble to leave his lucrative job for an adventure around the world, and it didn’t work out for him,” Maclean adds.
DiVerniero adds that, while it’s not exactly common, it’s also not tremendously unusual for contestants to quit their jobs to join a show, particularly if they have seasonal or temporary positions, or if they believe the show could support a career path they desire more—like Hell’s Kitchen or American Idol, for example.
What kind of money is in reality TV, anyway?
This usually inspires another question: Are reality TV contestants paid? Well, that also depends.
“You will usually be paid a stipend to take part, but the amount really depends upon the show,” shares Jacqui Moore, Founder of Brits in the Box and a TV production executive who has worked on many internationally recognized reality programs, “at a minimum, the stipend would cover expenses and the equivalent of the minimum wage in the relevant state.”
“The loss of wages is why you’ll see the contestant pool for shows like Survivor constantly filled with students, part-time workers like baristas, retirees, or actors. You’ll also get a lot of self-employed people, like real estate agents,” says Maclean.
What happens when contestants return to reality?
Participation in reality TV can have a big impact on fame and reputation—particularly for contestants who are involved in the bigger shows that are highly followed. But, despite that, many contestants return to their previous positions once shooting wraps.
Tanner Tolbert, a potential suitor on The Bachelorette, returned to his role at a car dealership. Denise Martin, a contestant on Survivor: China, returned to her position as a school custodian—not without a little bit of drama, though.
So, people do, in fact, resume life as usual.
“I would say 98% of people go back to their normal jobs,” Maclean says, “Maybe not right away. Everyone flirts with the press attention afterwards, but it’s fleeting. And, the marketplace is saturated now with people who’ve been on reality TV.”
Reality TV as a way to launch a career
However, plenty of contestants aren’t content to head back to the same-old, same-old. Instead, they leverage their short-lived television appearances to launch entirely new careers.
Ali Fedotowsky may have quit her job at Facebook to star as The Bachelorette, but, she eventually moved to broadcast journalism—even enjoying a stint as an E! News correspondent. Believe it or not, Jamie Chung, who’s now a successful actress, was on the 14th season of MTV’s The Real World. Same for Jacinda Barrett, who has been in The Human Stain and Netflix’s popular Bloodline, and got her start on The Real World: London.
Maclean shares that many contestants hope to make up for their lost income with new sales and notoriety that comes after being on TV.
“There’s a billboard near my house with one of The Bachelor contestants—from who even knows what season—holding a rose in front of her realty logo,” she says, “In cases like that, where the name recognition helps sales, she’s probably profited more from being on the show than she lost.”
The Downsides: Everything’s Not Coming Up Roses
Does that mean participating in reality TV is a surefire way to skyrocket your career? Definitely not. That fifteen minutes of fame can be a blessing for some, but a curse for others.
“It can be a great opportunity for those who want exposure, but the problem is that you will be signing a contract that does not give you any control over the way that you are portrayed or edited, and this could actually be harmful to your career,” says Moore.
“If you end up on a reality TV show, you will inevitably be playing a part,” she says. “Are you the hero or are you the villain, or anything in between? You will not have any control over this, so think carefully before signing up.”
Jon Gosselin, formerly of the TLC show Jon and Kate Plus 8, has struggled to find work for years—not necessarily because of the show, but the way he behaved when in the public eye. Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino of Jersey Shore fame is now facing jail time for tax evasion. Olivia Caridi, the villain of her season on The Bachelor, blogged openly about the challenges she faced in finding a new job.
What reality TV contestants need to consider
For some, reality TV ends up being the starting point of an even bigger and better career—making the time off of work more than worth it. But, for others? That tempting siren song ends up luring them into unsafe waters.
If you’re thinking of having a fling with reality TV yourself, experts warn that there’s one thing you absolutely can’t neglect to do: Read your contract carefully.
With press days and interviews, participation in the program can end up taking much longer than you originally anticipated—meaning you might run the risk of using all of your leave days. Even worse, your contract might restrict you from doing other things—including earning a paycheck—during the period between filming and airing.
You also want to pay close attention to the fine print. “The early Shark Tank contestants gave away a 5% stake in their business or 2% lifetime royalty, whether they got investment from the sharks or not,” explains Moore. “Don’t let the excitement of 15 minutes of fame get in the way of having your contract checked by an attorney. You could end up signing away a huge part of your earnings and a huge part of your time.”