How Being a Reality Show Contestant Really Works

Sister Cristina, a Roman Catholic nun, sings a duet with Kylie Minogue on the Italian version of 'The Voice.' Sister Cristina won the singing contest in 2014 but did not quit her day job.
Stefania D'Alessandro/WireImage/Getty Images

"If I ever pass you along in life again, and you were laying there, dying of thirst, I would not give you a drink of water. I would let the vultures take you and do whatever they want with ya with no ill regrets," "Survivor: Borneo" contestant Susan Hawk spat out to fellow contestant Kelly Wiglesworth in the famous "rat and snake" speech; Hawk felt Wiglewsworth betrayed her during the game. Hawk's passionate diatribe cemented "Survivor" as the hit of the 2000-2001 television viewing season — 125 million people watched at least part of the finale — and ushered reality shows into the 21st century [source: Rawden].

Today, reality shows are all the rage. The popular television genre includes shows based on game play ("The Amazing Race"), talent ("American Idol," "America's Next Top Model"), relationships ("The Bachelor"), and celebrities ("Dancing With the Stars," "Keeping Up With The Kardashians"), to name but a few.


Although many believe reality shows began in America with the first "Survivor," their roots actually stretch back to 1948. That year, Allen Funt unveiled the TV series "Candid Camera,"which secretly filmed ordinary people's reactions when they stumbled into awkward or funny situations. The show was a quick hit [source: Slocum]. The 1970s featured game shows like "The Dating Game" and "The Newlywed Game." Then, in 1992, MTV debuted "The Real World," which threw together seven young adults in an urban home to see how they'd react. This reality genre pioneer paved the way for the debut of contestant-reality shows like "Survivor" and "Big Brother" in 2000 [source: Slocum].

That year, reality programming broke into Nielsen's top 10 prime-time broadcast TV shows for the first time and began a decade-long love affair with the genre — reality shows captured 56 percent of the audience watching top 10 shows in 2010-11 [source: Nielsen]. (In 2014, however, scripted shows are retaking the top 10, though some reality shows are still featured.)

With so many reality show fans, it's not surprising that thousands upon thousands of viewers are clamoring to get on a show. Some shows are inherently prohibitive, though. If you're not a celebrity, you can't get on "Dancing With the Stars;" if you're not obese, you won't be selected for "The Biggest Loser." Other shows employ casting agents to directly recruit at least some of their contestants — especially if they're looking for a particular character type — which lessens the chances for the average person to be selected. Still, plenty of regular people do get on.

Before you dash off to complete an application, though, read our tips for improving the odds of being selected.


How Do I Get on A Reality Show?

It's really difficult to land a spot on a reality show. But even though your chances aren't that great, they're probably better than winning the lottery. So give it a shot. You've got two main options: Sending in an application and video or attending a live audition, aka an open casting call.

The application/video process is the most common way people nab spots on a reality show. Here's how to make a favorable impression:


  • Pay attention to the video itself: Make sure you have proper lighting — no bright lights, windows or anything causing shadows. Nix any background noises and make sure the camera is held steady (by another person or a tripod). Film horizontally; that's how producers will be viewing your video.
  • Plan what you'll say: No, you don't want to be reading a script. But you don't want a lot of "ums" and "ers" in there, either.
  • Be yourself +: You'll appear the most natural being yourself. Yet reality shows are all about personalities. So find a part of your personality you can play up. Are you a nerdy student? Sexy librarian? Annoying know-it-all? Pick one, then stick with it the entire video.
  • Start your video strong and memorable: Directors need to be hooked immediately or they'll stop watching. But don't be silly or weird. Also, no costumes or props. Casting folks want to see you.
  • Stick to the time limit: Then, follow the submission directions. Many potential contestants blow their chances because they don't follow requirements.

If your targeted show holds live auditions, they'll likely be held in a handful of larger cities over a period of weeks or months. Open casting calls typically attract a lot of people, so if you go, be prepared to wait a long time. Here's how to make the most of your audition:

  • Dress in something memorable: But not nutty. Make sure it fits the personality you want to display. Don't wear all black, all white, apparel with logos or too much bling; none of those come across well on-camera.
  • Don't hide any nervousness: If you've got the jitters, admit it. You'll come off better.
  • Don't hide perceived flaws: Did time in jail? Have a slight limp? Hate spiders? Such "flaws" might be appealing to casting folks, who are always looking for the unique.
  • Don't lie: If you do, and the producers find out, you'll be axed. P.S. Background checks are done on most, if not all, reality show contestants.
  • Beware the waiting room: Some shows surreptitiously watch people in the waiting rooms to see if other personalities emerge. So keep your personality going strong in there.

Congrats! You've been selected to be on a reality show. Now, what?


What Will It Be Like Once I Get On?

Chef Gordon Ramsay tells off a contestant on 'Hell's Kitchen' but she's not taking it. Long hours of shooting and short hours of sleep contribute to the drama of reality TV shows.
FOX via Getty Images)

Each reality show is unique, but all will do one thing: Require you to sign a lengthy contract. Reality show contracts typically include language saying you can't sue; that it's not the production company's fault if you get injured (physically or mentally); that you may be subject to an invasion of privacy and that the show may portray you in any manner desired. Especially beware the latter; your slightly flirty nature may turn into a depiction of you as a raging nymphomaniac.

Contestants can expect many sleepless nights. Elsie Ramos, a past participant on "Hell's Kitchen," told The New York Times she logged no more than five hours of sleep per night during the show's month-long shooting. On "The Bachelor," lots of liquor is provided to amp the drama. "If you combine no sleep with alcohol and no food, emotions are going to run high and people are going to be acting crazy," added Erica Rose, a "Bachelor" contestant, to the "Times." Other shows may have you participate in challenges that can be physically or mentally grueling, or just plain gross. (Think of the bug-eating challenges in shows like "Survivor" and "Fear Factor").


Reality shows often require you to be incommunicado with family and friends, to up the stress level. Perhaps more dispiriting, if you're in an elimination-type show and get the boot, you typically can't go home. If you did, people would know you didn't win. So you're often sent to a vacation spot to wait out the show's conclusion [sources: Cooper and Dehnart, Wyatt].

Be prepared to discover some manipulation once on the show as well. Episodes are often creatively edited to tell the story the producers want to tell. One past contestant on "The Voice" wrote on Reddit that her auditions, recording sessions and interviews were all recorded well before the show, which then made it look like they were recorded the same day. (One trick: She had to keep wearing the same clothes.) So, the "blind audition" wasn't all that blind.

While all of this information may seem like one big reason to forget the thought of being a contestant, plenty of past participants say they'd happily sign on again, despite everything. Whether the show furthered their career, enabled them to explore more of the world, led them to their soulmate or was just plain fun, the sometimes-challenging conditions were worth it [source: Wyatt].


The Aftermath: What Happens When The Show's Over?

Kelly Clarkson sings just after winning the first 'American Idol' competition. Clarkson has gone on to a platinum-selling career, but not every winner has been so lucky.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

You won your reality show! You're now $1 million (or $500,000 or $250,000) richer! Maybe you've also lost 50 percent of your body weight, snagged a Marie-Claire fashion spread or will be running one of Donald Trump's companies. In some cases, you're even on your way to becoming a superstar a la Kelly Clarkson from "American Idol." If so, fantastic! But most contestants aren't so lucky and should be prepared for some of these after effects.

One is that you'll be recognized. Some former contestants enjoy having strangers stare at them or ask for autographs or photos; others don't. Especially if you were portrayed as a villain on the show. Generally, the recognition and notoriety only last until the show's next season starts and the next crop of contestants' stars rise. But this roller coaster of "not famous-famous-not famous" can be problematic for some contestants, especially younger people, who may struggle with anxiety and depression as they ponder what's next in their lives. Many contestants quit their jobs to appear on the show, or take a hiatus from college, leaving them with a blank canvas come finale time.


However, others find they can parlay their 15 minutes of fame into something more – becoming a motivational speaker; opening a restaurant; furthering their singing or fashion careers on a modest level or at least appearing on other reality shows for cash.

Ideally, your time spent filming a reality show will be an entertaining pause in your life. Something that brought you fun and levity, maybe some new friends and definitely great memories for years to come. Just weigh all the pros and cons before you sign up.


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Author's Note: How Being A Reality Show Contestant Really Works

I'm a fan of several reality shows. Despite some of the negative aspects about being on one, it just might be time to actually sit down and apply for one. My first choice: "The Amazing Race." Two teams from my home of Madison, Wis., have won the $1 million prize. Surely there can be a third ...!

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  • ABC Reality TV. "Reality TV Casting Calls." (Jan. 7, 2015)
  • Auditions Free. "Reality TV Audition Video Tips." (Jan. 7, 2015)
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