The Best Reality Shows for Launching a Career, in 4 Charts

Photo: Vulture Illustration and Photos by FOX, Bravo and Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

All week long, Vulture explores what happens to reality TV contestants after the show ends — and the future of the genre itself.

Reality television may be synonymous with fame-chasers, but it’s also a field crowded with amateurs and semi-professionals trying to rise to the top in their industries. Are Top Chef, American Idol, and the legions of also-rans really the launching pads to professional success they make themselves out to be, though? We made it our mission to find out.

The ground rules: We started with shows that aim to launch careers, and then discarded those that cast already-established professionals (The Next Iron Chef) or focus on behind-the-scenes roles where stardom is rare (Top Design, Shear Genius). Then we looked at the winners and runners-up of the shows that made the cut, and decided if each person achieved professional success after their appearance. We focused on the top two finishers because those were the contestants emerging from the show with the most juice. If someone who finished outside of the top two went on to great professional success (sixth-place Nashville Star contestant Miranda Lambert, for example), they deserve more credit for it than the show does. In the end, we emerged with a picture of just how good reality TV is at turning nobodies into somebodies. The answer: Not very good at all.


Considerations: Restaurants owned, cookbooks written, subsequent TV shows appeared on, and online following.

Biggest: Carla Hall. The two-time Top Chef contestant never won Bravo’s cooking competition, but she did coin a catchphrase. “Hootie hoo,” indeed. Along with two cookbooks, a cookie company, and a gig on ABC’s daytime cooking show The Chew, Hall’s got a 110-seat restaurant inside D.C.’s Reagan National Airport and, opening this fall, a soul-food joint on the Brooklyn waterfront.

Top Chef

Launched the careers of:

  • Harold Dieterle
  • Tiffani Faison
  • Ilan Hall
  • Marcel Vigneron
  • Hung Huynh
  • Stephanie Izard
  • Richard Blais
  • Stefan Richter
  • Carla Hall
  • Michael Voltaggio
  • Bryan Voltaggio
  • Kevin Gillespie
  • Kevin Sbraga
  • Angelo Sosa
  • Paul Qui
  • Kristen Kish
  • Brooke Williamson
  • Nicholas Elmi

Master Chef

Launched the career of:

  • Christine Ha

Hell's Kitchen

Launched the careers of:

  • Jay Santos
  • Christina Wilson
  • Virginia Dalbeck
  • Ralph Pagano

The Taste

This show did not launch any careers.

Careers launched Not launched


Considerations: Albums released and albums sold, general relevance, fan base, social media following, staying power.

Biggest: Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. It’s a tie between the two American Idol winners, with Underwood just barely out-charting and outselling Clarkson, who, unlike Underwood, starred in From Justin to Kelly.

American Idol

Launched the careers of:

  • Kelly Clarkson
  • Clay Aiken
  • Carrie Underwood
  • Katharine McPhee
  • Jordin Sparks
  • Adam Lambert
  • Scotty McCreery

The Voice

This show did not launch any careers.

The X Factor

This show did not launch any careers.

Nashville Star

Launched the career of:

  • Chris Young

Making the Band

This show did not launch any careers.

Careers launched Not launched


Considerations: Design/modeling gigs after the show, subsequent reality and acting appearances, name recognition, continued success in their field.

Biggest: Project Runway’s Christian Siriano. One of the few reality-TV stars to get parodied on SNL, Siriano has carved out his career in the fashion world with a handful of mass-market designs, including a line of sponges and clothes for Home Shopping Network, and regular Fashion Week shows to prove he can still get fancy.

America’s Next Top Model

Launched the careers of:

  • Adrianne Curry
  • Yoanna House
  • Eva Pigford
  • Dani Evans
  • CariDee English
  • Whitney Thompson
  • Allison Harvard
  • Lisa D'Amato

Project Runway

Launched the careers of:

  • Christian Siriano
  • Daniel Vosovic
  • Leanne Marshall

Top Design

This show did not launch any careers.

Make Me a Supermodel

This show did not launch any careers.

Careers launched Not launched


Considerations: Fights fought and fights won, championships fought for and championships won.

Biggest: Rashad Evans. The winner of The Ultimate Fighter’s second season has gone on to become one of the most consistent fighters in the history of the UFC. And the former light heavyweight champion is still going, ten years after winning TUF. He’ll fight Ryan Bader, a TUF winner himself, at next month’s UFC 192.

The Ultimate Fighter

Launched the careers of:

  • Forrest Griffin
  • Diego Sanchez
  • Kenny Florian
  • Rashad Evans
  • Joe Stevenson
  • Michael Bisping
  • Matt Serra
  • Nate Diaz
  • John Dodson

The Contender

Launched the careers of:

  • Sergio Mora
  • Peter Manfredo Jr.

Tough Enough

Launched the careers of:

  • Mike Mizanin
  • Johnny Nitro
Careers launched Not launched


A contestant doesn’t have to finish in the top two places to go on to future success, but it sure helps. Here are the rare few who finished lower but emerged into stardom anyway.

  • American Idol
  • Chris Daughtry
  • Kellie Pickler
  • Jennifer Hudson
  • Nashville Star
  • Miranda Lambert
  • ANTM
  • Analeigh Tipton
  • Fatima Siad
  • Toccara Jones
  • Kim Stolz
  • Bre Scullark
  • The Ultimate Fighter
  • Gray Maynard
  • Josh Koscheck
  • Roy Nelson
  • Diego Sanchez
  • Top Chef
  • Fabio Viviani
  • Dale Talde
  • Spike Mendelsohn
  • Tiffany Derry
  • Ariane Duarte
  • Brian Malarkey