News Flash: Bravo's Reality Contestants Aren't Guaranteed Success

News Flash: Bravo's Reality Contestants Aren't Guaranteed Success

Got 15 minutes? Then grab a cup of coffee and curl up with this interesting New York Magazine cover story about the plight of contestants from "Project Runway," "Top Chef," and Bravo's other competition reality shows.

Here's the gist: Appearing on one of these shows — and even winning — is far from a ticket to fame and fortune. First "Project Runway" winner Jay McCarroll is still couch-surfing in New York; fan favorite Andrae Gonzalo from season two has been capitalizing more on his fame as a reality star than on his skill as a designer. Prize money sometimes comes with strings attached, as it did for McCarroll in season one; even when it doesn't, Bravo still retains a lot of control over contestants' public exposure and career opportunities. An excerpt:

For the contestants, the implicit promise of these shows is that they’re time machines, compressing the brutal urban mechanics of getting ahead—the political maneuvering, the grinding incremental labor—from a matter of years to months. The problem is that reality-show success is no substitute for real-world experience. "There is something a little bit cruel about all the attention," says Ted Allen, the dignified cooking guru of Bravo’s "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and a recurring judge on "Top Chef." "Because during the season you’re in one of the shows, you are famous for a while, and you get to enjoy all the fun of that. But you’re not someone who has any sort of expertise that’s going to keep you on television. There’s no certain road map for translating that kind of ephemeral success into a life of yachts and bling."

Few things in this story really shock me, but it is interesting to consider what (if anything) reality contestants are owed, so read more

Reality TV doesn't change the fact that succeeding in a skill-driven field still depends mostly on, you know, skill; fame tends to come later. Unsurprisingly, the Bravo alums who have done the best so far already had a business before the show: Jeffrey Sebelia, who won the most recent season of "Project Runway," had a boutique established, while Tabatha from "Shear Genius" used the exposure from the show to take in more customers at her existing salon.

Writer Jennifer Senior makes the point that Bravo owes much of its recent success to these shows and their telegenic and talented stars. And it looks like Bravo is starting to recognize that it's a two-way street: Contestants on the shows (except "Project Runway," which Bravo doesn't own) now will be offered a chance to sign with a management company that will help the insta-celebs navigate the wild waters of post-show life.

But what does Bravo — or any network that helps regular people rise to fame — actually owe its contestants once the show is done? Should the network be required to give those stars more assistance? Or should chefs, designers and stylists who appear on reality shows be savvy enough to know what to do when the show's over, even without the network's help? I lean toward the latter; I think anyone who goes on reality TV these days has to know that it doesn't guarantee success. But I suppose I can also understand why ex-contestants feel ignored while the network profits off their work. What's your take?

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