tv party

The Life Cycle of a Reality TV Star

From ‘Love Island’ to ‘Celebs Go Dating’, reality TV stars must navigate a complicated ecosystem of programmes to maintain their fame.

by Lauren O'Neill
10 July 2019, 11:58am

As Love Island and TOWIE beat on in their fake-tanned endlessness, the number of British reality TV stars has only grown. Out of a combination of lack of creativity and public demand, the UK entertainment industry has spawned more and more reality TV shows (often copycats of the OGs, like Ex on the Beach and Made in Chelsea), resulting in a surplus of former contestants. The lucky ones get to do “entertainment reporting” segments on Good Morning Britain. For the others, it's PAs at nightclubs in Walsall.

Each reality TV star has a different career trajectory. While very few hit the heights of Geordie Shore’s Vicky Pattison and her I’m a Celebrity win, a whole section of television (defined loosely as the sort of thing that plays on a smooth loop on ITVBe – dating shows, Ibiza Weekender, US imports like Real Housewives – and MTV’s whole roster) is dedicated to keeping this new coterie of celebrities on TV.

Some celebrity shows are more coveted than others (there may be a Strictly curse, however there’s also the Strictly hundreds of thousands of pounds), but they’re all a part of the same structure. The best way to think of it is as a reality TV ecosystem, completely self-sustaining, as it pulls celebrities from the shows that are basically factories for famous people, and keeps them on screens as they peddle their new, ethically dubious range of gym wear on Instagram.

Celebs have different degrees of success within this ecosystem – not everyone can win Strictly – but in general, it seems to keep a lot of people afloat. Let's take a look at how it works:

BIRTH: BIG BROTHER, GEORDIE SHORE, LOVE ISLAND, TOWIE, MADE IN CHELSEA, THE X FACTOR

You are but a bright-eyed influencer-slash-DJ-slash-spin-instructor just trying to make your way in life. You are gym-fit and you like a bit of banter and the world is at your feet. Also, you would like to be very, very wealthy. So you apply for Love Island, or maybe you hang around Sugar Hut or Tup Tup Palace or the King’s Road with a load of highlighter on, until you’re cast in TOWIE or Geordie Shore or Made In Chelsea. On these shows, you learn skills such as explaining your romantic situation or current friendship fallout in unrealistic detail, and knowing instinctively when to move conversations along so they’re an easy length for editing, which will be invaluable throughout your career.

NEXT STEPS: CELEBS GO DATING, CELEBABILITY, HEY TRACEY, &C.

When you finish your stint on the show that made you famous – the one that netted you the coveted 1M Insta followers and a reputation for being a motormouth with a heart of gold – you’re going to need to keep your career going. There’s only so long you can lie on an outdoor bed on a TV set in Mallorca, after all. Luckily, a whole network of television programmes exists entirely for this purpose.

ITV2’s Celebability and Hey Tracey (both of which terrify me because they are Too Loud and Too Bright, and seem to basically involve doing humiliating tasks of some kind) air tactically after Love Island and star a revolving cast of former Islanders, people from TOWIE, and Mark Francis. Then there is Ex on the Beach, which is a favourite of ex-Geordie Shore and Love Island stars (Max Morely and Josh Ritchie of Love Island season two, and Geordie Shore's Marnie Simpson have all appeared). This is mainly because a) it’s more of the same and b) why not milk TV executives for as many free holidays as you can, while also building a fanbase, even if you do have to endure that lad called “Rob” that you went out with for literally one month rising out of the sea like a shit tsunami from Dundee, because none of your better exes would do it?

And then there’s the big one: E4’s Celebs Go Dating, which, crucially, exposes the newbie reality star to a slightly more mainstream audience. It’s a good get for early-evicted Islanders because it airs in September or October, which means much more screen time (see Eyal Booker’s appearance in 2018).

For a while, the budding reality celeb tends to razz around this little circuit like those lads who speed down the narrow roads of west London in Ferraris, supplementing TV appearances using Instagram – a bit of Miss Pap spon con here, lending your name to a line of meal replacement shakes there. Eventually, their career will go one of two ways:

GOD TIER (BASICALLY I'M A CELEBRITY AND STRICTLY)

You wouldn’t think spending three weeks in Australia pissing in a hole and bunking up with cockroaches on one side and the guy who plays Max Branning on the other would be a particular privilege, but in the wider context of British reality TV, I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! is the motherlode. If you get the call up, all that stands between you and real, proper household name-hood is Ant and Dec serving you a tasty kangaroo bollock (ideally, your face while eating it becomes a reaction meme), and an elderly legacy contestant whose casual racism is viewed as simply ‘eccentric.’

There is a reason why expensive shows like I’m a Celebrity and Strictly (and by extension, Celebrity MasterChef and The Great Celebrity Bake Off) are so important to the careers of reality stars. They can take you from being someone who is familiar to MTV viewers – best known for a viral meltdown where you screamed the word “cunt” at a previously undiscovered decibel level on Ex on the Beach, say – to being bonafide, properly famous. These programmes are broadcast at prime time, family viewing slots, and they’ll get you in front of 16 million eyes per episode. They carry with them the promise of high street clothing endorsements, fitness DVDs, Special K adverts, spots on Loose Women with a view to becoming a regular contributor. Shows like I’m a Celebrity and Strictly have the ability to elevate you to national treasure status. They are the golden egg.

SHIT TIER (CELEBRITY DINNER DATE, DANCING ON ICE, THAT DIVING ONE)

There is genuinely nothing that makes me feel as desperate to leave my body as this thing that always happens on Celebrity Dinner Date.

The Celebrity, who is usually someone familiar to reality viewers but not to the general public, asks the person who they’re on the date with what they do for a living. They reply saying something normal. Recruitment, construction, hairdressing. They pause from cutting their chicken-wrapped-in-ham. “And what about you, what do you do?” The Celebrity feigns embarrassment, as if they haven’t been waiting for this the entire time, as if this moment isn’t the entire reason they have come on the show. “Oh, me? I just do a bit of telly.” Coy smile. Apologetic, fast talking from the other person. “Oh, I’m really sorry, I didn’t recognise you!” “I don’t tend to watch much TV!” Those old chestnuts.

The Celebrity then goes on to say how refreshing it is that they are on the date with someone who hasn’t heard of them, how much they crave normality, how tough it is to be recognised all the time. Ultimately, when the time comes to choose the contestant they want a second date with, they always pick the one who knew who they were.

That sort of low-level abjection basically summarises the Shit Tier of British celebrity reality shows. They generally involve doing something unglamorous (that one where they shadow police officers??), embarrassing (the now sadly defunct Splash!) or both (Dancing on Ice), but if you want to stay famous enough, you’ll do them, and often your gameliness will be rewarded by a growing fandom amongst the public. A good example of this is Megan McKenna, who’s done everything from Celebs on the Farm to releasing her own (actually good) country songs and doing an ITVBe special about trying to ‘crack’ Nashville, and now has 2.3 Instagram followers to show for it.

FINAL BOSS: YOUR OWN PROGRAMME

Very few people are so good at reality TV that they are deemed worthy of having their own show. Even those that are sometimes fuck it badly when they get one. A good case in point is Chris and Olivia: Crackin’ On:

Chris and Olivia: Crackin’ On (2018): A short-lived ITVBe programme that followed the relationship of Love Island season three’s Chris Hughes and Olivia Attwood. During their time on in Mallorca, Hughes and Attwood were two of the most consistently funny and watchable Islanders (“Sit back down.” “I’m sat.”), but Crackin’ On never took off, mainly because outside the frothy, controlled confines of villa life, their arguments were so vicious that they surpassed entertainment and entered existential torment, which reality TV should only do sparingly. (For what it’s worth, I maintain that, on her own, Olivia Jade Attwood is one of the most underrated reality TV stars in the entire country and demand she does I’m a Celebrity instead of Dani Dyer’s inevitable turn this year).

But in terms of people who’ve actually made their own show a success, only a few really stand out. There’s ex-Geordie Shore star Charlotte Crosby, whose The Charlotte Show has quickly become one of MTV’s flagship programmes, and there is – of course, of course – Gemma Collins, a woman so synonymous with reality TV that she is the subject of more memes (memays) than anyone except, like, Mariah Carey. Collins, surprisingly, has only ever had one special (ITV2’s Diva España which saw her travel to where? Marbs, babes) but her first full blown series Diva Forever will air this year, cementing her status as one of the most successful reality stars in the country.

Cracking your own show is a pretty straight route to reality TV omnipresence on your own terms, but it is, of course, not the only way. We live in a world where Instagram dominance is almost as important as TV exposure, and it’s made huge stars out of Dani Dyer, Holly Hagan, Megan Barton-Hanson and loads of others. Elsewhere, reality TV personalities have gone on to become bonafide presenters – think X Factor’s Rylan, now a Radio 2 DJ, or Scarlett Moffat, formerly of Gogglebox and an I’m a Celebrity winner, who now also appears on Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, and fronts the I’m a Celebrity companion show.

There are lots of ways, therefore, to remain in the public consciousness as a reality star. But just as sure as the tide comes in and out and the sun rises and falls, that reality TV ecosystem, with its crude panel shows, cringe dating formats, and embarrassing dance competitions, will keep on turning round and round – and we’ll never be able to get enough of it.

@hiyalauren