Rarely does a celebrity begin making award-winning material right out of the gate. More often than not, they have to pay their dues, whether that involves appearing in unpopular TV shows, hamming it up in cheesy commercials or touring talent show circuits in the hopes of catching the eye of an executive who might be able to make something happen for them. Occasionally, they have the benefit of knowing an industry insider or having an all-important connection to someone who can get them a good gig, but it’s not a guarantee. And, thanks to the rise in popularity of reality TV, that has become an avenue to stardom for more celebs than you might expect!
From famous reality behemoths like Idol and Survivor to little (or never-seen) shows like The Big Date and Boiling Points, major celebrities have gotten their foot in the door by appearing on reality TV. Some found fame shortly afterwards while others still had to grind it out for years until they caught their big break. From singing to dancing to modeling to just showing up in front of a camera, these 22 stars have shaken off the dust of their reality TV roots and triumphed in a major way.
22 Heather Morris: So You Think You Can Dance
In a strange case of things coming full circle, before Heather Morris shook what her mama gave her in choreographed dances for the hit TV show Glee, she auditioned for Season Two of So You Think You Can Dance. Unfortunately for the aspiring dancer, she didn’t make the top 20, but it turned out okay for her since she had enough skills to find herself on Beyoncé’s tour and appear on Saturday Night Live!
Morris decided to expand her range of talents and began taking acting lessons. Her previous work with Beyoncé led to a spot teaching choreography on Glee, where she was cast as Brittany. In 2017, the actress appeared on Dancing With the Stars!
21 Matt Lanter: Manhunt
While most of his photos from his previous life as a reality TV star contestant on Manhunt: The Search for America’s Most Gorgeous Male Model are a little NSFW, they did get Matt Lanter’s foot in the door.
Lanter only ended up being the seventh runner-up in the TV competition back in 2004, but it gave him enough confidence in front of the camera to make it into a few major shows in one-episode spots before getting a leading role on 90210, where, perhaps unsurprisingly, he was required to doff his shirt quite a lot. Since 90210 ended in 2013, Lanter has had roles on the show Timeless and plenty of voice acting gigs to keep him busy.
20 Gigi & Bella Hadid: The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills
Once upon a time, Gigi and Bella Hadid weren’t the internationally recognised gorgeous supermodels they are now, strutting their stuff down the catwalk and collaborating with major names like Ralph Lauren and Victoria’s Secret. Back in 2013, both sisters were simply the daughters of Yolanda Hadid, one of the Housewives in Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
Shortly after making their first appearances, both Gigi and Bella were signed to IMG Models in 2013 and 2014 respectively, and, thanks to lucrative endorsements, high-profile relationships, red carpet appearances and major star power, they have since overshadowed their mom on the fame front.
19 Britney Spears: Star Search
We all know that Britney Spears was getting more of a taste for fame thanks to The Mickey Mouse Club, alongside fellow pop stars Justin Timberlake, JC Chasez, Christina Aguilera and actor Ryan Gosling.
Before she was a Mouseketeer, though, Britney appeared on Star Search, a show that ran from 1983 to 1995 that saw many major celebs attempt to find fame. 10-year-old Spears sang “Love Can Build A Bridge” by The Judds and, while she didn’t win, later that year she was finally cast on The Mickey Mouse Club. She'd attempted back in 1990 but was rejected for being too young.
18 Justin Timberlake: Star Search
Like his famous ex, Justin Timberlake (who also appeared with Britney on The Mickey Mouse Club) decided to try his luck on Star Search, looking quite a lot like the Walmart Yodeling Kid Mason Ramsey!
When he was only 11 years old, Timberlake went by the name “Justin Randall” and donned a cowboy hat to sing “Love’s Got a Hold on You” by Alan Jackson. Like Spears, Timberlake didn’t win, and, also like Spears, it was just a short time later that he was cast for the 1993-1994 season of The Mickey Mouse Club. (For the record, it seems like Star Search didn’t know magic when they had it in front of them!)
17 Jennifer Hudson: Idol
It might be a more recent memory, but it’s still surprising to think that Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson not only competed on Idol back in 2004, but was actually eliminated from the competition, coming in seventh! (The winner that year was Fantasia Barrino, in case you forgot.)
While Hudson didn’t get that win to her name, it did launch her career because in 2006 – a mere two years after she appeared on the show – she landed the lead role in Dreamgirls, which nabbed her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Things have come full circle for Hudson, as she's become a coach on The Voice.
16 Katharine McPhee: Idol
Another contestant on Idol who has risen from the ashes of their time on the show to become more famous for it, we have Katharine McPhee. Back in 2006 on the fifth season of the televised singing competition, McPhee did better than Hudson, and ended up placing second (she lost to Taylor Hicks). Since then, she’s managed to release a whopping five albums, but it’s her acting credits that have become more numerous.
One of her earliest roles was in the movie The House Bunny, but since then she’s had starring roles in TV shows like Smash and Scorpion.
15 Christian Siriano: Project Runway
Christian Siriano has become a household name among the fashion-obsessed, and counts major A-listers like Victoria Beckham, Lady Gaga, Sarah Jessica Parker, Rihanna and Taylor Swift among his celebrity clientele, so it’s easy to forget that the designer got his start in reality TV.
Siriano appeared on – and won – the fourth season of Project Runway, becoming the youngest contestant on the series to win! He’s launched his own label (which celebrated its 10th anniversary last year), been inducted into the Council of Fashion Designers of America and collaborated with Starbucks. He’s since been brought on as a judge for season 17 of Project Runway.
14 Miranda Lambert: Nashville Star
Miranda Lambert has such a down-home appeal that it probably comes as a surprise to many that the singer actually began on reality TV, like so many “manufactured” pop stars. All the way back in 2003, a 19-year-old pre-Blake Shelton Lambert appeared on USA Network’s Nashville Star. Like so many others on this list, Lambert didn’t win, and placed third in the competition.
It wasn’t a total loss, of course, as she caught the eye (and ear) of the show’s judge and Sony music executive Tracy Gershon, who convinced the label to sign her. Since then, the country star has released six studio albums and won countless awards for her work.
13 Elisabeth Hasselbeck: Survivor: Australia
Way back when, Survivor was novelty, at the very beginning of the reality TV boom of the early 2000s, when it was still rare to watch the daily sufferings of regular people who were stranded on an island and criticized one another for a larger serving of rice.
Elisabeth Hasselbeck was described as a “footwear designer” on the second season of the hit show back in 2001, and was actually quite good at the game, winning multiple challenges and making it all the way to day 39 of the 42-day game. Since then Hasselbeck has become a conservative TV personality, appearing on The View from 2003 to 2013 and Fox and Friends from 2013 to 2015.
12 Analeigh Tipton: America’s Next Top Model
Modeling is a tough gig to make it in, and incredibly competitive. While Analeigh Tipton didn’t win the 11th cycle of America’s Next Top Model, she did place third back in 2008. She ended up signing with Ford Models and walked some runways, but it became clear that acting was her true calling.
Entering into Hollywood via a small part in the panned film The Green Hornet, it was her role as Jessica in 2011’s Crazy, Stupid Love that got her more recognition. Since then, she’s popped up in movies like Warm Bodies and Lucy and can next be seen in The Long Home with James Franco.
11 Nicole Scherzinger: Popstars
Back before she was a Pussycat Doll, Nicole Scherzinger was just trying to find fame as a singer, via the reality TV competition Popstars in 2001. (There were lots of singing reality shows in the early aughts.)
Scherzinger actually did make it into the band, which was called Eden’s Crush and it lasted a year before breaking up. She decided to pursue a solo career before becoming the lead singer for The Pussycat Dolls, another all-girl group that split for good in 2009. It wasn’t a wash for Scherzinger, though, who has gone on to release two solo albums. She's also voice-acted in Moana and Ralph Breaks the Internet, and been a judge on The X Factor and The Masked Singer.
10 Jamie Chung: The Real World: San Diego
Thanks to roles in TV shows like Once Upon A Time and bit parts in major movies like The Hangover series, Jamie Chung has become a familiar face. That wasn’t always the case, though. Back in 2004, Chung appeared on The Real World and, later, The Real World: Road Rules Challenge.
Although she was just a sophomore in college when she first came into the reality TV fold, Chung has stated that she doesn’t regret her decision to televise her life, although she wouldn’t do it again. Insider reports her saying, “It’s a great experience I wouldn’t change for the world. But you’re giving up a lot of your privacy.”
9 Taryn Manning: Popstars
Another unexpected celeb who began on the reality TV show Popstars, we have Taryn Manning, who you probably recognize from her role as Pennsatucky on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black.
Manning was actually on the same season of Popstars as Nicole Scherzinger, but obviously she didn’t luck out the way the singer did. However, it wasn’t all bad for the actress. Shortly after her appearance on the show, she nabbed roles in movie hits like Crossroads (with fellow list-maker Britney Spears), White Oleander and 8 Mile – all released in the same year! We’d say it worked out pretty well for Manning that she didn’t become a member of the defunct Eden’s Crush!
8 Lady Gaga: Boiling Points
Lady Gaga is an EGOT winner, which is pretty major when you consider that one of her first TV appearances was as an unwitting target on the MTV reality TV prank show Boiling Points.
All the way back in 2005, Gaga was 19 years old and still Stefani Germanotta, and she played an unwitting diner customer who is served a salad covered in garbage. Hidden cameras caught Gaga’s look of surprise and she refused to eat the food she had ordered, causing her to miss out on the $100 she would have won had she not lost her temper.
7 Kristen Wiig: The Joe Schmo Show
Kristen Wiig has made a career out of being a funny lady, so it’s not a big stretch to learn that the comedian got her start on another reality TV prank show, The Joe Schmo Show, all the way back in 2003, two years before her debut on Saturday Night Live.
Wiig played “Dr. Pat,” a marriage counsellor on a reality show that spoofed dating shows which were popular at the time, creating an elaborate prank for the unsuspecting “Joe Schmo.” In addition to SNL, which made her famous, Wiig has since appeared in numerous films like Bridesmaids, The Martian and Ghostbusters.
6 Laverne Cox: I Want To Work For Diddy
Another star from Orange is the New Black who got their start on reality TV, Laverne Cox wasn’t too far from co-star Taryn Manning’s wheelhouse when she appeared on I Want To Work For Diddy, whose premise is exactly what the title suggests.
In 2008, Cox competed on Season One of the two-season show, which saw her try to win a coveted spot as Diddy’s assistant, because the 2000s were a weird time, and anything to get a foot in the door, right? She was eliminated in episode six, but it turns out she didn’t need him anyway, as Cox found fame for her work in Hollywood as an actress, trans advocate and overall icon!
5 Lucy Hale: Juniors
Before she was a Pretty Little Liar, Lucy Hale was a Junior! The actress was just 13 years old when she competed on the short-lived American Idol spin-off that ushered in a crop of even younger talent. Thanks to some strong vocals, Hale made it all the way into the top five, and became part of the Juniors group, which released one album of the same name.
Just a couple of years later, Hale turned to acting, and by 2010, she scored the lead role of Aria Montgomery on PLL! Guess her mom was right when she said during the Juniors auditions, “Ten years from now, I think everyone will know Lucy’s name.”
4 Beyoncé: Star Search
Along with Britney and Justin, another mega-star sought fame on the reality TV stage of Star Search: Beyoncé. Way before her solo career and even before Destiny’s Child, Queen Bey was part of another girl group who competed for fame, the unfortunately named Girl’s Tyme, along with later Destiny’s Child member Kelly Rowland.
Unsurprisingly, Girl’s Tyme failed to win, and Beyoncé later attributed this to poor song choice since the group ended up rapping rather than singing. Despite the loss on TV, Girl’s Tyme was the precursor to Destiny’s Child, with the management help of Beyoncé’s father, Mathew Knowles. Since then, of course, Bey's become one of the most recognisable names and faces in the entire world.
3 Jon Hamm: The Big Date
Looking at that unfortunately floppy hair, it might be hard to remember that Jon Hamm is actually a huge stud in Hollywood now, thanks to the macho man character of Don Draper he played on the hit AMC show Mad Men. But, way back in 1996 when Hamm was only 25, he tried his luck at finding love on TV with the reality show The Big Date.
Partly in thanks to his overuse of the word “fabulous,” as Cafe Mom reports, and the general cheese factor of the whole thing, Hamm didn’t win the date with the eligible bachelorette, but he did end up scoring big thanks to Mad Men which saw him win two Golden Globes and build an entire career!
2 Kesha: The Simple Life
While other celebs on this list tried to find fame thanks to some sort of competition that would reveal their talents, or at least get their foot in the Hollywood door, Kesha was really just there for the sideshow that was Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie on The Simple Life.
Back in 2005, the heiresses paid a visit to Kesha’s home in Nashville and attempted to set her mom up on a date. Weird, but true! It wasn’t until 2010 that Kesha released her first album, which saw monster hits like “Tik Tok” and “Blah Blah Blah” propel her to stardom.
1 Emma Stone: In Search of The Partridge Family
Before her Oscar-winning role in the film La La Land, you might not have known that Emma Stone could sing, unless you dug really deep into her history. While most people were introduced to the actress thanks to the success of the movie Superbad, Stone actually began on reality TV, in the never-aired show In Search of The Partridge Family.
It was 2004 and Stone was 16 and going by the name “Emily Stone.” She did actually manage to win the spot of Laurie Partridge! While it might be a wince-worthy memory to some, Stone was happy with her decision, telling Newsweek, “I did it and I ended up winning. I don’t regret it for a minute.”