Celebrities: Working with reality TV's sudden celebrities

Publicists are enjoying plenty of business from reality TV stars. Keith O'Brien reports on how to work with the rejected, voted off, and maybe even the triumphant.

Publicists are enjoying plenty of business from reality TV stars. Keith O'Brien reports on how to work with the rejected, voted off, and maybe even the triumphant.

Due to the glut of reality television shows, there is a veritable army of contestants that get disgorged back into a new world of possibilities to capitalize on that instant fame. It was the allure of celebrity, in most cases, that led them to sing, vie for a man or woman or a Trump, or survive on an island in the first place.

"In these times, there's no connection between fame and achievement," says Michael Levine of entertainment PR firm Levine Communications.

However, these sudden celebrities are arriving in such great numbers that entertainment publicists can find a wealth of opportunities therein. As Levine says, "You must fish where the fish are."

And they are finding ample opportunities to stretch their 15 minutes to the last second. Evan Marriott, the star of the first season of Fox's Joe Millionaire, has pitched for KFC and Ragu. Spike TV's Joe Schmo contestant Matt Kennedy Gould is now hosting other Spike TV shows. CBS Survivor Jerri Manthey posed for Playboy; NBC Apprentice castoffs Katrina Campins, Kristi Frank, Amy Henry, and Ereka Vetrini posed for FHM.

Levine says he has received numerous calls from shows and celebrities, and is now offering counsel to one of the women from The Apprentice, a show he praised for teaching fundamental business principles. He thinks that the woman he is counseling "has something - whatever that is - to transcend the medium."

The sudden spotlight offers reality-show contestants the opportunity to capitalize on their fame, but for most, the spotlight will be switched off after a very short while. To maximize the impact, says 5W PR associate VP Katy Saeger, you have to make an impression, and then you have to back it up.

As with any potential clients, publicists and event planners sometimes need to trust their gut judgment. Rita Tateel, president of The Celebrity Source, thinks that Rupert Boneham, who recently won a $1 million viewers' prize in CBS' Survivor All-Stars competition, will exceed his 15 minutes because of his credibility and honesty. Tateel has worked on media events for reality-show contestants from Survivor competitions and The Bachelor's Andrew Firestone.

Once a show ends, the contestants might find themselves bombarded with requests and decisions. Reality-show contestants, in some instances, are beholden to a system that mirrors old Hollywood studio contracts, so you must be prepared for the potential of butting heads with the network or producers that helped the individual ascend to the spotlight. In other situations, you might catch an unlucky break.

Tateel began work on a satellite media tour with broadcast PR company J-NEX Media that would position an Apprentice finalist (but not the winner) to talk about what skills were needed to land a job. They decided they wanted to work with Bill Rancic before he won, and a general agreement was reached. When Rancic won, however, J-NEX's and NBC's combined plans for him were simply too taxing, said J-NEX president David Nemer. Despite the difficulties, Nemer said his experience with the network was terrific. The firm is now doing the event with Henry, the top-placed female finalist.

Nemer's advice for representing someone from a reality show is to strike while the iron is hot. If everything gets filtered through agents and accountants, he says, the timing will be too late, and the media will have moved on to the next thing. But, unlike lifelong aspiring singers and musicians, reality-show contestants haven't spent much time planning for the "sudden spotlight." You must make them decide which path they wish to pursue.

"When publicizing a person, much like an organization, it is important to have their personal objectives in mind," says Saeger, whose clients include the Reality Cares Foundation.

If they want to act, they had better be in a class. If you think their goals are unrealistic, she says, guide them in another direction or suggest another person to handle representation.

Media training is pivotal, and, Tateel admits, it might need to be more extensive than with other celebrities because of their inexperience. Spike TV gave media training to Joe Schmo actors and contestants, says Debra Fazio, communications director for the channel. She calls the Survivor model very effective.

"People are voted off [from Survivor] and are out there doing publicity the next day, so they've obviously been given training," she says.

Another important treatment is that you need to develop a strong relationship with your client and make him or her feel secure, Fazio says.

"Matt knows that I won't steer him wrong," she says, referring to the Joe Schmo contestant.

There has to be a right match, motivation on behalf of the celebrity, and credibility for the project, regardless of the training.

Tateel is doing a case study where an at-home exercise program was looking for a spokesperson, and she hooked the company up with a heavy-set contestant from Average Joe who mentioned on air that he wanted to lose weight.

"He's just a genuine, nice guy, and they loved everything he was about," she said. "He's been on their fitness program for a couple of months now."

Fazio said that Gould's developmental deal was not guaranteed or done to placate him. "It was very organic. It was not like we were picking him because we want to see what we could do for him. He connects very well with our audiences for us," she says.

The opportunities for reality stars continue. On May 20th, the Reality Cares Foundation and The Giving Back Fund held a charity event to honor reality-show maven Mark Burnett as its "philanthropist of the year." The event, with tickets running from $75 to $150, was planned to be attended by Apprentice stars Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, Vetrini, Heidi Bressler, and Sam Solovey, along with contestants from Who Wants to Marry My Dad? and several seasons of The Real World.

Whether these names will be recognized in a year's time remains to be seen. But, in any case, there will always be a fresh crop of instant stars ready to enjoy their 15 minutes.

Technique tips

Do get reality stars to elucidate their goals

Do have the star undergo extensive media training

Do form a strong personal bond with the star

Don't try to capitalize on the highly controversial characters; it won't pay off

Don't rep people with stars in their eyes who won't do the necessary work

Don't be surprised if a network requires a lot from a contestant after the show ends

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