Broadly speaking, there are now two types of reality TV star gracing screens. There are those who exist only within the confines of the genre, suspended in a Groundhog Day cycle as they jump from show to show until they land on their own spin-off. And there are those who see reality TV as a stepping stone to something bigger.
Increasingly, contestants are defecting to the second category. Take the breakout star of Love Island season 5, Maura Higgins, who recently left her management in order to pursue modelling and distance herself from the programme that made her famous in the first place. “She’s desperate to move away from reality TV,” an insider said.
Molly-Mae Hague, a contestant from the same season and arguably the most successful Love Islander of all time, did the same. Starting out as many alumni do – as an ambassador for fast fashion brand PrettyLittleThing – she this year secured a seven-figure deal with the brand as its creative director. Her ascent corresponds with the decline in how often she mentions the show publicly. Hague explained that distancing herself from it was something she had done “from the start”, since she had “never wanted to be known as a Love Islander” in case it shut her out of other opportunities.
Higgins and Hague may be on to something. It’s not necessarily easy for reality stars to escape their “lowbrow” pasts, but if they manage it, it’s lucrative, as various one-time Love Island stars have shown. Kem Cetinay and Chris Hughes became TV presenters on their departure from the show. Wes Nelson and Jack Fowler have pivoted to music. Dr Alex George is now the youth mental health ambassador at the department for education and a bestselling author. And not one of them mentions the show in their social media bio. Granted, they all left the series some time ago, but even cast members from this year’s season have already removed references from their profiles. For a period, “reality TV star” became a career in and of itself – nowadays, it is no more than a launchpad for other endeavours.
It’s something we are seeing more and more; when Geordie Shore celebrated its 10-year anniversary with a reunion show, former star Vicky Pattison was nowhere to be seen. She famously distanced herself from the show, and her friends on it, to reinvent herself as a TV presenter, with her own programme Judge Geordie and a role as a Loose Women panelist. Similarly, former The Only Way Is Essex staple turned TV presenter Mark Wright and fitness entrepreneur Lucy Mecklenburgh were lambasted by fellow castmate Georgia Kousoulou for seeming to “forget where they came from” when they skipped the show’s 10-year reunion special earlier this year.
It might seem harsh, brushing off the hand that fed you, but who can blame them? Regardless of how many hope to reinvent themselves, viewers have long memories. Strictly Come Dancing’s blanket ban on reality stars taking part was upheld yet again this year, a stance that appears even more harsh considering that they have relaxed their stringent rules to allow online personalities and influencers to be a part of the show. Wright took part before the ban was implemented in 2018 and Made in Chelsea’s Jaime Laing did in 2020, but only because he had already begun to make a name for himself beyond the show.
Others have been equally successful. Megan McKenna (Towie, Ex on the Beach) is in the midst of rebranding herself as a country singer, at one point topping the UK iTunes chart. And most people don’t remember that Alison Hammond got her start on Big Brother.
But not every reputation is as easy to shake. Joey Essex is supremely famous, but will always be so for being Joey Essex from The Only Way Is Essex. His castmate Jess Wright tried her hand at music while on the show but was never taken seriously. This was also the case for another Towie alum, Jasmin Walia, who repeatedly tried to kickstart a serious music career to no avail. In order to have a chance at a new career, total renunciation of your TV roots is required.
The transition appears to be an easier one to make in the US. The American version of Strictly, Dancing With the Stars, lets in reality-show performers, too. Perhaps in the UK we are less willing to permit these pivots due to snobbery. As with class, our entertainment hierarchy is slightly more entrenched, with less potential to “transcend” one’s roots. In the US, even the elitist world of fashion welcomes former reality stars; Project Runway winner Christian Siriano has dressed Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michelle Obama and Gigi Hadid, to name a few. He was inducted as a member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, yet his acclaim didn’t stop him from returning to the show as a mentor in season 17. Supermodel Winnie Harlow was scouted on America’s Next Top Model, and the Hadid sisters made their TV debut on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
It’s a crying shame that the UK’s attitude to reality stars has barred us from seeing Gemma Collins take on Strictly (Craig Revel Horwood was quoted as saying he didn’t believe she was “high calibre” enough to take part in the show.) Who knows what powerhouse we could be sidelining from the world of reality TV due to our preconceptions, potentially stifling the efforts of the next Cardi B – Grammy award winner, chart-topper and, once upon a time, proud cast member of Love and Hip Hop: New York.