Former Big Brother ​UK contestants Aisleyne Horgan-Wallace, Craig Phillips and  Imogen Thomas
Former Big Brother UK contestants Aisleyne Horgan-Wallace, Craig Phillips and  Imogen Thomas.

Photo: Getty Images


How Much Money ‘Big Brother’ Contestants Made Back in the Day

As the reality TV show returns to ITV, we check in with former stars about the fortunes – or not – they raked in.

Craig Phillips was up on the roof of someone’s house doing work on the chimney when he got a phone call that would change his life. It was a TV producer calling him to talk about a TV show called Big Brother. “I said: ‘Sorry, can you say that again?’,” Phillips says now.

The call came as a shock, but it wasn’t completely out of the blue. Six months before, Phillips had seen a documentary about a Dutch show called Big Brother. At the time, he was trying to raise money for his friend Joanne Harris, who had Down's Syndrome, to get a life-saving surgery that would cost £250,000. He was looking for “dramatic” ways to raise funds, so he wrote a letter to the production company asking them to bear him in mind if they ever made the show in the UK. He never expected it to come to anything – and by the time they called him, he’d forgotten about it. 


The audition process took six months. Then Phillips got another call to say that he was going to be one of the Big Brother housemates. “I've got hairs standing up on the back of my neck thinking about that moment,” he says. Back then, he had no idea how much the show would blow up.

The first series of Big Brother aired on Channel Four in 2000 from July to September. Billed as a “social experiment”, the premise was this: Stick a load of strangers in a house, film them 24/7 and see what happens. The housemates also had to vote on who would be put up for eviction from the house each week, which would then go to a public vote. This was before X Factor, I’m A Celebrity… or Love Island. At the time, it felt fresh and exciting. The show was broadcast for just over 10 years on Channel 4, before moving to Channel 5 in 2011. The last series of Big Brother aired in 2018 – and it’s finally set to return in October on ITV.

Big Brother is often thought of as the first proper British reality TV show. Over the years, it became a reality TV juggernaut, which thrust normal people into the spotlight and propelled them to stardom, making some of them very wealthy in the process. But when Phillips went on, his only goal was getting the £70,000 prize fund for his friend’s surgery. “That was my only intention. I didn't go on to make any money or to work in TV. I wasn't looking for an alternative life.”


But, after 64 days in the house, Phillips emerged as the winner – and his life as a builder in Shropshire was turned upside down. The night he got out, he was bundled into a car and taken to a hotel room. There, the show’s psychiatrist tried to explain the magnitude of what was happening. “One thing he said haunts me. He said: ‘This weekend, you will be on the front page of every national and regional newspaper, and every radio bulletin will be talking about you. You'll be the most talked about person in Britain.’ I was speechless,” says Phillips.

He didn’t go home for the next 97 days, bouncing between hotel rooms as he got to grips with his newfound fame. “I was doing media work, award ceremonies and charity work morning, noon and night. It was frantic,” he says.

Before Big Brother, he had been running a successful building company, but the show completely changed his financial situation. “In the first year, I probably earned in excess of a quarter of a million pounds. It was a hell of a lot of money,” Phillips says. Part of that income came from things like newspaper and magazine stories, some of which could pay up to £100,000 to £150,000 for an interview. Then there were the personal appearances: “We could do one, two or even three personal appearances in one day. They could range from £5,000 up to £10,000 or £15,000 pounds,” he says. One of his best-paying jobs was his Christmas single, “At This Time of Year”, which he recorded in a day and got paid around £45,000 for.


Keen to carve out a niche around his skills as a builder, Phillips started to focus on DIY TV shows and signed an exclusive contract with the BBC. “I probably did 500 or 600 makeover shows for the BBC in the space of about four years. I was on about £1,000 a day doing the makeover show. And they’d give me a minimum of 150 episodes per year.”

After that first series, Big Brother kept getting renewed and the show got more elaborate, with the producers adding twists like dividing the housemates into “rich” and “poor”, and doing a housemate swap with Big Brother South Africa. By the time it was in its seventh series in 2006, it was a well-oiled machine.

Still, it wasn’t a given that appearing on Big Brother would guarantee you fame and fortune. That might be why Aisleyne Horgan-Wallace was reluctant to go on it. Her friend had dragged her to the audition and she’d got towards the end of the process but didn’t make the final cut. She wasn’t that fussed, as she’d been offered a well-paid modelling job. 

“I'd got a job for five grand and for me back then, that was life-changing money,” she tells VICE. “It was to be the legs on a Pretty Polly box. So my legs would have been quite famous, but it was more about the money for me.” Then the Big Brother producers called her and said they wanted her to come into the house a week later. “I was debating it for three days. I had no clue how my life would change from going in there. I nearly turned it down for this five-grand job,” she says. “If it was now, maybe the younger me would have been jumping at it, because we can see the turnaround of what happens with reality shows. But I was dubious.”


Once Horgan-Wallace got out of the house, that £5,000 job she turned down started to pale into insignificance. She came third on the show and the day after she came out, she had meetings with 17 agents who all wanted to represent her. “I was like a rabbit in headlights. I didn't even know what an agent was,” she says. Suddenly everyone wanted a piece of her. “It was like I was Madonna, I couldn't go anywhere – I was that famous. I was getting paid to go to the clubs I used to go to before. It was crazy,” she says.

Aisleyne Horgan-Wallace and host Davina McCall during Big Brother 7 finale at Elstree Studios

Aisleyne Horgan-Wallace and host Davina McCall during Big Brother 7 finale at Elstree Studios. Photo: Simon James/WireImage

Horgan-Wallace remembers the moment she got a call about her first big job. She was standing in her one-bedroom flat, which had a living room she’d turned into a bedroom to sublet for extra cash. “The first job I had, they rang me up and told me how much I was getting. I felt like I'd won the lottery. I remember jumping on this bed in this little living room and screaming and then opening the window and going: ‘I'm getting out of here! I'm leaving!’ It was unreal.”

The job was doing a cover shoot for Nuts magazine, and Horgan-Wallace says the fee was six figures: “And it wasn't even topless – I didn't even have to show my nips!” This was the mid-2000s, and the rise of Big Brother pumping out reality TV stars conveniently collided with the lads’ mags heyday. “I was on the front cover of Nuts, Zoo and FHM for years until they went bust – probably because they gave me all their money. The lads’ mags were my biggest earner.”


Fellow Big Brother 7 contestant Imogen Thomas was also able to cash in on the lads’ mag boom. Before the show, Thomas had been working as a hostess at a five-star hotel in London. She told her employer that she’d love to come back to her old job after the show. But there was no need. “[Lads’ mags] were huge back then. I did covers for Maxim and FHM – they would pay fortunes. I had long-running contracts for about 10 years until they shut down,” she says. For one of her first big jobs, the fee was £75,000. “I couldn't believe it. I was like: ‘Are you serious? Do you mean £7,500?’,” she says. “We thought the winner would get a couple of mag deals. We didn’t know if we would get work. But my life changed completely as soon as I came out of that door – for the better.”

For contestants like Phillips, Horgan-Wallace and Thomas, Big Brother changed their lives in a positive way. But it wasn’t like that for everyone: Deana Uppal was a contestant in 2012 on the 13th series and she thought the show could only mean good things. “I thought my life could only get better, it couldn't get worse,” she says. As soon as she entered the house, she was tasked with nominating three people for eviction. “I don't know if that's what triggered it but from there, everyone hated me,” she explains. Uppal says she was bullied by some of the other contestants – and there was an incident where contestant Conor McIntyre was shown verbally abusing her, which prompted 1,108 complaints to Ofcom. While her housemates constantly put her up for eviction, the public kept saving her, so she ended up placing third. 


Uppal’s experience on the show affected her long after she left the house. “They give you a train ticket home and that's it. You're left to deal with everything by yourself,” she says. At first, she tried to make the most of her profile by doing public appearances, but she was struggling with her mental health. “I gave up. I went into a bad depression. I didn't leave my house for about eight months. Everyone feels like they know you and you have a lot of vultures around you that think that you made money.” 

Uppal was approached by some lawyers who suggested she could make a case for defamation against the production company, and ended up signing some papers and taking the case to court, where she lost. “I was so young and my head was everywhere, I didn't read [the paperwork] properly,” she says. “I had to pay my side's legal fees and their side’s legal fees. I had an £80,000 bill at 23 years old,” she says. For the next five years, she had to pay back £2,000 a month. At this point, Uppal had moved to India, so her cost of living was cheaper than in the UK, but it still put a huge strain on her finances.

Dexter Koh being interviewed ahead of entering the Big Brother house

Dexter Koh being interviewed ahead of entering the Big Brother house. Photo: Matt Grayson/PA Images via Getty Images

Uppal isn’t the only contestant who felt they came out of the show worse than they did entering it. Dexter Koh, who appeared on series 14 and worked in PR before he went on the show, says that in some ways it was actually harder to earn a living afterwards. “I was earning more money before I went in. If anything, it kind of degraded any opportunities that you had doing ‘normal things’ and you were playing catch up with anything to do with the entertainment industry.” 


Like many other contestants, he did lots of public appearances at clubs. He says the minimum fee was around £1,000 and the maximum was about £2,500 to £3,000, and estimates that he made “in the region of between £16,000 and £20,000” for public appearances in total. “It was good to have a bit of cash, but you feel a bit like a prostitute,” he says. “You go to a club, get a load of people taking your picture and you wake up with loads of money on your dresser afterwards. It felt a little dirty.”

Koh believes that when Big Brother moved from Channel 4 to Channel 5, it lost some of its spark. “Channel 5 ruined the format and in doing so, it ruined anyone’s chances of getting any further work from it. Long gone were the days of Alison Hammond and Josie Gibson and Jade Goody. I think everyone thought it was still like that who went in and then found out that it wasn’t.”

He says that in his year, some people went on for the experience, but the others “got a shock at the end when they realised there wasn’t that big golden pot at the end of the rainbow”. Koh doesn’t put the blame solely on Channel 5, though. “Other reality shows were popping up like TOWIE and Made in Chelsea – the market was saturated so people weren’t that interested,” he explains.


After Big Brother first aired, reality TV continued to grow in popularity, eventually leading to dating shows like Love Island, which launched in 2015. Former Love Island contestants have spoken out before about the money they spent in order to go on the show, which can be in the thousands. But how does Big Brother, the original reality show, compare? In the early days, it was all pretty low-key. Phillips said he was so busy finishing building jobs before entering the house that he didn’t even have time to get a haircut. 

Similarly, Horgan-Wallace’s only concern was getting her roots done, but she wasn’t allowed to because she had to go into hiding before going into the house. “I'd already done my tits and my teeth because they were wonky and weird–shaped – both of them – but that was to progress my career in what I was doing already, it was nothing to do with Big Brother,” she says. 

Thomas says the money she spent on preparing was pretty modest, too – and mostly involved a quick shopping spree in classic noughties’ shop Morgan. “I remember running down Oxford Street and going into Morgan and picking my ‘going in’ and ‘coming out’ outfit,” she says. She spent about £140 on each outfit. 

Uppal also went on a shopping spree before the show, spending about £900 in Primark, as she got a new dress for every day that she might be on the show. Koh says that when he went on Big Brother, they were given a “self-care” budget to spend on things like fake tan and getting a haircut while they were in hiding. He estimates that it was around £250 to £500, and says it also covered food. “But as far as preparing is concerned, it's more a mental preparation rather than running around making yourself look beautiful,” he says.

For the contestants VICE spoke to, the financial burden of going on Big Brother wasn’t as costly as it has been for people on shows like Love Island. But as Uppal and Koh’s experiences demonstrate, going on the show turned out to be detrimental to some contestants’ finances. Despite this, both of them say they wouldn’t change the fact that they went on it, because it gave them life experience. Horgan-Wallace and Thomas both say that going on the show changed their lives for the better and allowed them to invest their money in property. Phillips now owns around 20 properties and runs his own company, Mr & Mrs DIY, with his wife. 

While he’s obviously benefitted from the show, he’s wary about the direction reality TV has gone in. He says he’s glad that he was on reality TV when it was “tame” and “wasn't as manufactured and as manipulated”. People sometimes stop him in the street and ask for advice for applying for Big Brother. Often, he tells them not to do it. 

“It was a different world when I did it. But I say to them, if it is your dream and you want to be on reality TV or forge a career in media, [do it]. But if you haven't got a backup plan and you're easily upset if you're dropped or you're edited in a particular way to make you look stupid, I say don't do it – stay away.”

Koh agrees it’s good to be cautious, but he’s slightly more optimistic: “If you want some fun, go in there. It's not [necessarily] a meal ticket, but you might get lucky with ITV...”