Being cast on a reality television show offers participants a chance at fame and fortune
Keith Colburn makes his living as a crab fisherman, spending weeks, sometimes months, at a time battling the elements on a quest for the catch that will financially make or break his next 12 months.
“What we do is one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet,” says the 53-year-old captain of The Wizard and one of the stars of “Deadliest Catch,” which is in its 13th season on Discovery Channel.
The television show portrays the real-life events aboard fishing vessels in the Bering Sea.
“We’re all about trying to catch crabs, not be TV stars, but now I can’t go anywhere without being recognized,” he says.
Since Keith has been featured multiple seasons, his moment in the spotlight is longer than most. Competitors on shows such as “Survivor” and “The Voice” usually have one shot at notoreity.
Whether a contestant wins big money or becomes a household name, merely being cast on a reality show is life-changing—and the format is incredibly popular with those in the TV business.
“I think reality programming’s growth is partly related to the increase in entertainment channels and platforms,” says “Big Brother” Executive Producer Allison Grodner. “There is a growing demand for new content, and unscripted is generally faster and cheaper to produce than scripted.”
Challenging Times in Front of the Camera
Being part of a television show is challenging, and that is magnified when space is tight and at a premium. Keith and the other captains have work to do, and everyone on the crew has assignments.
“Add a producer and a camera person, and the crew has to learn to adjust to more bodies on the boat who are trying to capture the best shots while they’re trying to do their jobs,” Keith says. “It can be tough.”
He says the biggest surprise for him has been how much people respond to the show.
“What I do, how scary it is, it’s what really happens out there,” says Keith. “It’s our lives. I think people are intrigued by the danger.”
When not working, he retreats to his 36-foot Sea Ray cabin cruiser.
“It’s a nice diversion,” Keith says. “I named it ‘Esperance,’ which means ‘hope.’ I just like to disappear on it.”
Surviving Trials and Tribulations
Kail Harbick had no place to hide as a contestant on CBS’s “Big Brother” Season 8.
She says she had a target on her back from the minute she set foot in the house.
“When I overheard a couple of the guys say, ‘Let’s get the old lady out,’ I knew—once I figured out that I was the second-oldest at 37—my days were limited,” she says. “They wanted it to be a real party house, and they were certain I wouldn’t fit in. My original strategy was simply to not rock the boat, but after hearing that I went on the offensive.”
Contestants are monitored with microphones and cameras 24 hours a day. Each week, a head of household nominates fellow houseguests for eviction until only one remains and wins $500,000.
Kail won the head of household contest the first episode, but it was downhill from there.
“Later, someone told me that being head of household is the kiss of death,” says the former real estate agent and the fifth houseguest voted out. “I never recovered.”
Kail had dreamed for years about being chosen for “Big Brother,” applying three times.
“I was so excited, but I didn’t really know what to expect, even after watching the show for so many seasons,” she says.
Before entering the Big Brother house, Kail and 13 strangers each had to spend a week alone isolated in a hotel room with no phone or television.
“I was homesick from the beginning,” she says. “It was so tough. All I could think about was my husband and my children back home. The isolation was terrible. It was such an emotional roller coaster.”
Today, 10 years later, Kail is pursuing another dream: earning her ministry leadership degree at New Hope Christian College in Eugene, Oregon.
“I’m giving motivational biblical speeches,” she says. “I’m completely content about where I am now.”
Second Time is a Charm
With two chances at big money on CBS’s “The Amazing Race,” Eric Sanchez of South Florida knows what it is like to finish second and win it all.
On Season 9, Eric and race partner Jeremy Ryan were runners-up in the around-the-world trek, dividing $25,000. Two years later, Eric partnered with another Season 9 competitor for Season 11 All-Stars—his then-girlfriend Danielle Turner—to take home and share the $1 million top prize.
Eric bought a nice house and a new car, and gave some of the money to his family.
“I moved to California for a year, just because I always wanted to live there, and the rest I used for adventures and good times, including some travel,” says the now 38-year-old who works in general aviation sales. “But looking back on it, I wouldn’t be doing anything differently today if I hadn’t won the money. I did get to see the world and make good friends, so I guess in some ways it changed the course of my life. For me, the biggest takeaway was realizing that the world is not that big a place and there’s really lots to see and do.”
Idaho’s Jon Peter Lewis, who now lives in Los Angeles, landed spots on “American Idol” in 2004 as a solo performer and on “The Voice” as half of the duo “Midas Whale” with friend Ryan Hayes in 2014.
His finish in the top 10 of “American Idol” led to a spot in the 50-city American Idols Live tour.
Jon Peter met Ryan in 2010 and the two of them launched “Deep Love: A Ghostly Folk Opera” in Idaho. The show was part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2015.
“With these competitions, you really need to have some music ready within a couple of weeks of being on the shows,” Jon Peter says. “That’s about the best way that you can convert that national exposure into something consumable.
“Right now I’m very happy, and music is taking me where it wants to take me. I’m grateful for having been on these shows. It was well worth it for me.”
Few reality TV participants achieve international fame and long-term recognition.
“People on reality shows bask in their 15 minutes, but it takes someone with branding and marketing savvy to prolong their fame into long-lasting success,” says psychologist Michael Gene Ondrusek, who was a consultant to the producers of CBS’s “Survivor” during the program’s early seasons. “You’ve got a short time to build your brand and get traction.”
Such is often the case with talent competitions. Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson and Jordin Sparks have had commercial success after winning “American Idol.” Others who appeared on the show but did not win—including Chris Daughtry and Jennifer Hudson—also made a name for themselves.
But they are the exception, not the rule.
Sam Woolf, who grew up in Bradenton, Florida, is working to establish himself after competing on “American Idol” in 2014, finishing fifth. He said he wanted to be a performer from a young age, and his time on the show helped solidify his dream.
“‘Idol’ was a turning point for me,” says the now-20-year-old, who lives in Boston. “I realized that I’d have to work very hard, and that’s what I’m willing to do as I’m focusing on my songwriting and guitar playing. I’m doing what I want to do for my career. ‘Idol’ helped me grow as an artist and as a person.”
A Life-Changing Opportunity
Fame can be fleeting, but it does offer a platform.
“I was bullied as a kid,” says 29-year-old Nick Hanson of Unalakleet, Alaska, who has competed on “American Ninja Warrior” the past two seasons. “That’s where my competitive spirit comes from, so I work with kids to help them be strong. It was hard for me because when I came here, I didn’t look like a native. I took up sports to try and fit in.”
The show allows him to share his message.
“The momentum from ‘American Ninja Warrior’ has helped me dive even deeper into who I am,” Nick says. “I love my culture and where I came from. It has opened doors for me to tell my story.”
Lindsey Richter Voreis of Portland, Oregon, who was on “Survivor: Africa” in 2001, says what producers don’t tell you is, “When you’re done, you’re done.”
“But it doesn’t have to be that way,” Lindsey says. “For me, it was a real wake-up call, a life-changer. It was the best and worst experience of my life.”
Lindsey admits her self-esteem took a big hit.
“For one thing, I was pretty naïve and clueless back then,” says the longtime athlete who began mountain biking in the mid-1990s. “A lot of my drama was based on my fears and insecurities.”
Lindsey says the broadcasts were not accurate as far as what went on during the tapings.
“I was made out to be the villain,” she says, noting producers definitely encouraged bad behavior. “It was very malicious and manipulative. In a way, it’s kind of sad that with all the hard things happening in the world that we participated in this trivial human experiment.”
Lindsey says her time on “Survivor” opened her eyes and started her journey toward being a positive influence on people’s lives. Several years ago, she launched LIV Ladies AllRide mountain bike camps for women, using her lessons learned for good.
“I had the gift of seeing behaviors that weren’t serving me well, and took the opportunity to change them,” Lindsey says. “The show did a number on me, but, yes, I’d do it again, even knowing what I know now.”