How Much Money Can You Make As a Reality Star?

Their reality is so much richer than ours.

By Brenden Gallagher

The dark days of the height of reality TV are behind us. Networks that once altered their entire mission in hopes of cashing in on reality gold have pivoted once again, chasing the next great premium TV drama. To endure as a reality star today, you have to get creative. Sure, there will be flash-in-the-pan reality moments as long as cameras are being pointed at train wrecks, but in 2015, most reality show household names got their through painstaking business acumen and a multi-pronged media attack.

In 2015, reality stars understand that their work is part of a larger brand. In a perfect world, your salary for appearing on a show should just be one component of your revenue stream. Two reality empires on the opposite sides of culture, the Robertsons of Duck Dynasty and the Kardashians of Keeping Up with the Kardashians et al. have shown that the best business model for reality success is diversifying your portfolio with additional books, appearances, dolls, and whatever else your platform can get you.

To see how much money you can make as a reality star, we look at some of the reality stars who have leveraged their television fame into business empires and swimming pools filled with cash.

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NeNe Leakes

While many emerging celebrities come to reality to build their existing brand in the world of film, music, modeling, or cooking, sometimes reality stars become celebrities simply by being reality stars. After emerging as the star on The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Leakes made $1.5 million per season of work before leaving the show. In addition to her appearances on Real Housewives, she has also lined her pockets with guest stints on Celebrity Apprentice and Glee. Though Leakes hasn’t been able to cross over to other platforms like the highest earners in the reality game, that Housewives cash has been treating her just fine.

Adam Levine

Of course, if you’re already famous, it isn’t too difficult to make money in reality television. Pharell, Christina Aguilera, Blake Shelton, and many others have cashed in by appearing as celebrity judges on reality shows, but Levine is the current king, now that J.Lo has left reality behind for the time being. Estimates put his The Voice judging income at between $10 and $12 million a year. Before Maroon 5, before his many endorsements and appearances, Levine already knows he is going to bank millions just for evaluating talent, sometimes with his back to the performer. Not a terrible life at all. If you consider his other interests, Levine is estimated to be pulling in $35 million a year.

Tyra Banks

Banks’ unparalleled career as a supermodel and host makes her uniquely qualified to front a show like America’s Next Top Model. Apparently, she is well aware of her value. Tyra has negotiated her seasonal salary up to $18 million for her work on Top Model, where she serves as host and executive producer. Banks’ production company, Bankable Productions, has produced Top Model and The Tyra Banks Show among other projects. If the rumored resurrection of her talk show comes to fruition, she’ll have even more cash flow in 2015.

Ryan Seacrest

Even before the rise of modern reality television, hosting could be a very lucrative gig. Like Dick Clark and Casey Kasem before him, Ryan Seacrest has learned that being a master of ceremonies can be a good thing for your bank account. As host of American Idol, Ryan Seacrest has worked his way up to a $15 million yearly salary. Though the final episodes of Idol are fast approaching, Seacrest’s other ventures, including his incredibly popular radio show, will buoy his annual revenues, which were estimated at $60 million in 2014.

Gordon Ramsay

Ramsay has found a way to diversify within the medium of TV itself. To date, he has launched sixteen television shows, including Hell’s Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares, and MasterChef Junior. For Hell’s Kitchen alone, the celebrity chef earns over $200,000 an episode. Ramsey has amassed quite a fortune outside of the television world as well. He currently owns more than 30 restaurants across the world. Forbes lists his 2014 income at $60 million, and he is on pace for an equally impressive 2015. Among his future ambitions, Ramsay hopes to launch a scripted show following the lives of celebrity chefs.

Donald Trump

The Donald has been in the news for other reasons lately, but Trump is a great example of how simply having money can be enough to help you make that reality cheddar. The Apprentice franchise is essentially a program about how rich Trump is, and the Donald has made himself even richer through the course of his hosting duties with the franchise. Trump claims to have made over $200 million over the course of the franchise’s history. These numbers are likely inaccurate, as his financial disclosures doubled Forbes’ estimate of his net worth. Regardless of the level of Trump’s exaggeration, Trump has certainly made millions and raised his public profile with his work on The Apprentice. Though it might be a condemnation of democracy to admit it, Trump also likely helped his presidential bid by beaming himself into America’s living rooms for over a decade.

Judith Sheindlin

You know her as Judge Judy, and most people don’t realize just how much money she has made as the premiere name in court TV. While many reality TV big wigs make their money by diversifying their pursuits beyond television, Judy simply made herself irreplaceable. There have been many pretenders to Judy’s throne, but none of them can fill her sizable robes. Judge Judy makes $45 million a year, despite working only 52 days because no one controls a courtroom like Judy.

Willie Robertson

The Robertson Family, in a way, is an alternate universe version of the Kardashian clan. While the Kardashians appeal to liberal leaning suburban and urban women, the Robertsons market to rural men. The audience for Jeff Foxworthy, right-wing talk radio, and NASCAR are the same people that fill their homes with Duck Dynasty swag. If you walked into a rural Wal-Mart around Christmas 2013, you could count 100 different Duck Dynasty items being sold.

Kim Kardashian

As Forbes put it, “Kim Kardashian has monetized fame better than any other.” Kim clocked in at No. 33 in the Forbes Celebrity 100, after earning herself a $52.5 million payday on the year. Of course, only a small percentage of her income is derived from reality TV appearances (though she still makes a reported $40,000 an episode). Over half of her income is derived from her iPhone and tablet game Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. In addition to her app game, Kim has a foot in the book industry (with her book of selfies, Selfish), social media (making an estimated $10,000 per tweet), a line of beauty products, and swimwear among other ventures. Kardashian understands that fame in the Internet age is about brand management. Every aspect of her life is meticulously curated for profit. She reportedly pays someone to retouch her selfies. Every media appearance is designed for maximum effect. Who could forget her Paper magazine cover? Though you may find her carefully orchestrated antics annoying, it is this attention to shock-and-awe detail that has allowed Kim and her family to rake in the cash.

Simon Cowell

Though we know Simon Cowell as the harshest judge ever to pick apart a musical competition, his money has actually come largely thanks to his producing acumen. Cowell owns a piece of the Idol, X-Factor, and Got Talent franchises, which he and his partners have packaged for sale around the world. These brands have been an unbelievable cash cow for Cowell, who has amassed a fortune of over $500 million. Just because he already has more money than some nations doesn’t mean that Cowell shows signs of slowing down. These days his most profitable venture is a little band called One Direction, which he put together after their members were eliminated from The X Factor.