Plenty of celebs have started their careers in interesting ways. From waiting tables to soap operas, there is no “one way” to achieve fame and fortune. It can be incredibly humbling (and inspiring!) to find out an actor started out exactly where you are now. And it can be a bit confusing when you realize some stars got their big break on reality TV.
When you think of reality TV you definitely don’t think of prestige acting. Most of the clowns on reality TV shows are looking for 15 minutes of fame and don’t have very much to offer. But once in a while, someone ends up on a guilty pleasure TV show and transcends the stigma to be something more. It’s rare. Like, super-duper rare. But it happens! Here are some of the most shocking celebs that got their start on reality TV!
Jacinda Barrett, The Real World
This actress is just starting to see her star rise with roles on shows like Netflix’s Bloodline but once upon a time she stopped being nice and started being real. As a participant in the fourth season of The Real World: London the Australian actress was exposed to American audiences. From there she worked on movies such as Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and New York, I Love You and has had many guest-starring TV roles — i.e. Bull and Suits — as she worked her way up in Hollywood. Her hard work paid off and now she’s one of the leads in Netflix’s buzzed-about Bloodline (tragically recently canceled). All because she decided to shack up with some strangers in London on a reality TV show!
Jon Hamm, The Big Date
Before he was Don Draper, Hamm was just a sorta-dopey guy looking for love on a now long-defunct dating show. On his quest for an acting career, he made a pit-stop on reality TV as a potential suitor for the woman of the episode. It’s kind of impossible to imagine Jon Hamm not being able to get a date, but he wasn’t even chosen by the woman during the episode he appeared on! He probably didn’t get much of a career jump from his appearance, but it was the first glimpse of that handsome face on TV, so it still counts.
Julianne Hough, Dancing With the Stars
Hough is known for her incredible dancing, but since her time on the reality TV dancing show, she’s shown she has a knack for other things as well. While many of her contemporaries never really transcended the Dancing with the Stars fame, Hough was able to turn her reality stardom into a music and film career. She’s appeared in the film Safe Haven and led the Footloose remake. She’s also sung, danced, and acted LIVE on television in Fox’s Grease: Live production. The girl has some serious skills way beyond just dancing with some stars.
Analeigh Tipton, America’s Next Top Model
Let’s be honest here: no one who has ever been on America’s Next Top Model has actually become America’s next top model. They usually get a CoverGirl campaign and a few months of free press, and that’s about it. Tipton was able to break out of that cycle, though, and build a solid acting career. She appeared in Crazy, Stupid, Love with Ryan Gosling and even headlined her own show for a bit. Her next project is The Long Home, a film directed by and starring James Franco. Modeling may not have worked out for her, but we’re pretty sure she isn’t missing it now.
Nicole Scherzinger, Pop Stars
Scherzinger started her career as part of a reality TV-manufactured pop group on the show Popstars. The show auditioned girls until they chose the members of the band Eden’s Crush and then documented them coming together and making music. As a precursor for American Idol, the show was actually quite influential. And while Eden’s Crush didn’t really work out, the exposure was influential for Scherzinger’s career.
As she stepped away from the band and tried to get signed as a solo artist, she found herself falling into another band: The Pussycat Dolls. The rest is pop history. Scherzinger led the band in vocals and songwriting until ultimately leaving to pursue solo endeavors. She’s even branched out from music in recent years, most notably as the voice of Sina in the hit film Moana.
Britney Spears, Star Search
The All New Mickey Mouse Club is responsible for, like, a third of the most successful celebs ever but what you might not know is that Brit was on another reality show the year before she appeared on The Mouse. Britney was a young girl in Lousiana when her mother decided to audition her for the singing competition show that aired its first episode 19 years before American Idol. Aaliyah and The Backstreet Boys also appeared on the show before fame. While Britney has definitely become more known as a pop star singer, who could possibly forget her iconic acting role in Crossroads?! Exactly.
Janel Parrish, Star Search
Speaking of Star Search, Britney Spears is far from the first big celeb to appear on this reality show before achieving fame. Way back in 2003, this Pretty Little Liars star appeared on the show as a Female Vocalist. But besides the hit Freeform show, Janel has also appeared in the Bratz movie, Celeste and Jesse Forever, Heroes, and The O.C.. She’s also set to appear in the upcoming PLL spin-off, The Perfectionists. We can’t wait to see what Janel does next!
Aaron Paul, The Price is Right
Yeah bitch, Aaron Paul started out on reality TV! Sure his career definitely didn’t skyrocket from his foray into daytime game shows, but it was his first television appearance. Unfortunately, he bid a little too high on a car and lost it all. Fortunately fame and fortune were just around the corner for him in the form of the TV show Breaking Bad and now he stars on Hulu’s The Path. Next time you’re watching The Price is Right, remember one of those contestants could be the next big star.
David Giuntoli, Road Rules
This Grimm star once was just a MTV reality star on the now-canceled Road Rules. He even competed in a Real World/Road Rules challenge. His foray into reality TV ignited the acting bug in him and he moved to California to pursue it further. After some bit parts on shows like Veronica Mars and Cold Case, he was in consideration to play Superman, but lost out to Henry Cavill. He then landed his big break in the supernatural series Grimm in which he played the lead.
NeNe Leakes, The Real Housewives of Atlanta
Not only did Leakes start on reality TV, but she’s also still on it! On top of her Real Housewives gig, NeNe has been branching out everywhere. It’s kind of easy to forget she’s a Bravo-celebrity. She’s done time on game shows, her own sitcom — The New Normal — and even on Broadway in Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. She continues to expand her empire and branch out from the Housewives franchise, but let’s be honest — the show would be nothing without her.
Kesha, The Simple Life
Once upon a time Kesha was “Praying” to Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton to get her mom Pebe a date. She appeared in one episode of the glorious The Simple Life as basically a simpleton that the two celebs decided to hang out with and help. After filming, Kesha got a gig singing back-up for Hilton and it helped to launch her own solo career. While Kesha’s definitely more of a hitmaker than an actress, she’s recently started to foray into the film industry with small roles in Jem and the Holograms (2015) and A Ghost Story (2017).
Jamie Chung, The Real World
Nowadays people try to get on The Real World to achieve some kind of fame. They rarely succeed, but they could take a tip or two from Chung. As definitely the most successful alumni of the reality TV show, she’s appeared in numerous TV shows and movies since her time in a house with seven strangers. She’s been in some huge things like Big Hero 6, Once Upon a Time, and most recently The Gifted. But through all these accomplishments, let’s not forget that she won a Real World/Road Rules challenge back in the day, and there are few things cooler than that.
Jennifer Hudson, American Idol
Hudson post-American Idol life has been a huge success. The boost from the show paved the way her to star in the film Dreamgirls, for which she won an Academy Award. Yeah, in her film debut she won an Oscar. That’s pretty dang impressive. Since then she’s released three albums, been in countless films, and is now a coach on The Voice, proving she didn’t forget about her reality TV roots.
Mike Mizanin, The Real World
Mike Mizanin has definitely had the most interesting career post-reality TV. He forayed his 15 minutes of fame into a wrestling career as “Mike the Miz.” He even has an action figure for his character! He’s also a playable character in many of the WWE video games and that’s just awesome. Many don’t even realize that he got his roots on an MTV reality show since he’s achieved such distinctive fame apart from that. The Miz is still on the wrestling scene and often appears in WWE-produced films like Christmas Bounty (co-starring Francia Raisa) and recent installments The Marine film series.
Laverne Cox, I Want to Work for Diddy
Before she was doing everyone’s hair at Litchfield Correctional, Cox was just trying to be Diddy’s assistant. Her time on the show led to VH1 approaching the transgender actress about show ideas. She created the show TRANSform Me for the channel, allowing her to spread awareness and compassion for the transgender community. This all led to her breakout role as Sophia on Orange is the New Black, a transgender woman in prison. She’s gained praise and awards nominations for her performance and has brought awareness to trans rights every step of the way.
Justin Timberlake, Star Search
Yet another star-seeker-turned-Mousekateer who made it big. His time on Star Search made for some great throwback images (I mean, the outfit) but his time on The Mickey Mouse Club was even more significant for many reasons. For one, he met Britney Spears and could, therefore, wear all denim with her years later (never forget). And he also met J.C. Chasez who would become one of his *NSYNC bandmates. His ascent into pop superstardom was upwards from there. He’s also proven throughout the years how great he is at basically everything else. He’s a great actor and freakin’ hilarious as proven by his Saturday Night Live hosting stints. It’s all still only going up for Timberlake!
Lucy Hale, American Juniors
At the height of American Idol‘s reign on reality TV, Fox thought it would be a good idea to greenlight a spin-off. American Juniors was the same basic formula — it was even hosted by Ryan Seacrest (!) — but with younger performers. Back before she was an actress, Hale was an aspiring pre-teen singer who made it into the top five on the show. Although the top five performers on the show started a group, poor sales and reception led to their disbanding. Then Hale got into the acting game and became one of our favorite Pretty Little Liars. It wasn’t until 2014, about eleven years after her time on the reality TV show, that she would finally release her debut album, Road Between. While her reality TV days were focused on singing, we’re definitely glad she caught the acting bug, too.
Emma Stone, In Search of the Partridge Family
Yup, Emma Stone was a product of reality TV. Her first TV gig was on a show looking for a “new” Partridge family, and she ended up winning! Unfortunately, the resulting pilot for the new show was never sold and it kind of just fizzled away. After a few TV gigs, she finally got her big break as Jules in Superbad a.k.a. when we all instantly fell in love with her. She’s now one of the highest paid actresses in the entire world and the proud owner of an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, and literally countless nominations. From humble beginnings came one of the biggest stars on the entire planet.