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This week, we answer two of your questions, including one that comes up time and time again: Just how can those reality contestants put their jobs (and bills!) on hold for weeks and even months?
Q:How can reality contestants afford to take off work for weeks, or months at a time? Are they well-paid for their participation, do they generally take a leave of absence, or what? —Mary, Yonkers, NY
Andy says: Most series do require contestants to be gone for a significant period of time. To keep the results of the series secret, even the first person voted off will stay away for the length of the series (they usually are sent to a resort or on a vacation, as we discussed before). Whether or not the contestant takes a leave of absence from their job, disappears for a long vacation, or quits altogether varies widely.
Some shows, particularly those without game elements, offer stipends to compensate their cast members. "Real World" roommates are paid small stipends for their "story rights"; the exact total isn't disclosed, but executive producer Jonathan Murray told USA TODAY, "I used to say it was enough to buy a used car. Now it's probably not quite as big a used car."
One thing's clear, though: You should want to be on a reality series for the experience, because participation in a series definitely does not come with a guarantee of fame and fortune.
Even if a show pays out a big prize (a lot of which will be eaten by taxes) and pays out smaller cash prizes to the losers, it's doubtful you'll become rich. And after you embarrass yourself on national TV, you very well may lose your job, too.
Gael says: There are as many answers to this as there are contestants.
Some do it by being their own bosses to begin with. Original "Survivor" winner Richard Hatch had his own corporate-training company even before he went to do the show, and when you're the boss, no one can tell you you can't take a break from working. (Hatch's break obviously paid off big-time.) First "Apprentice" winner Bill Rancic also ran his own business, an online cigar company.
Some have jobs that are flexible. Jenna Morasca was a college student and sometime swimsuit model when she joined "Survivor Amazon." Both of those are occupations that can be stepped away from and returned to as needed. Tom Westman, who won "Survivor Palau," was obviously given some kind of leave from his job as a Brooklyn firefighter — and he returned to the job after winning the million-dollar prize.
Some, to be frank, are already wealthy. When Kendra Todd won "The Apprentice" this year, the Palm Beach Post reported that her new $250,000 salary working for Donald Trump would mean she was taking a pay cut from her own real-estate job. Kwame Jackson, who came in second to Rancic on the first "Apprentice," was working at Goldman Sachs. The Wall Street Journal reported that Jackson made $125,000 a year there but that some traders at the firm made up to $10 million a year, implying that Jackson was working his way up to that kind of dough too.
Many reality-show contestants, especially those on "The Real World" and "America's Next Top Model," are students or new graduates who haven't yet established themselves in their fields. They, too, find it easy to pick up and leave. In the early days of "The Real World," MTV allowed contestants to get jobs to support themselves while they were on the show. (Who can forget Cory from the San Francisco cast applying for a department-store job, or Sharon in London klutzing her way through a busy brunch in her new waitress role?) Now the cast is assigned a group job (do not get me started on how much I hate that), and if they can manage to show up on time (unlikely), they may even get paid a bonus.
As to how the contestants pay their rent or mortgage while they're gone, some shows are condensed into two months or less. We assume folks dig into savings or plan ahead to ensure bills are paid before leaving for a show. —G.F.C.
Q: I have always enjoyed watching the show “Eco-Challenge” — what happened to it? Is it cancelled or on hiatus? Will it ever come back? —Kate, Edmonton, Alberta
A: “Eco-Challenge” was über-reality producer Mark Burnett’s first series. A sort of “Survivor” meets “The Amazing Race,” it featured teams of four trekking for hundreds of miles across extremely rugged terrain. This wasn’t for wannabe actors: it was a seriously grueling trek, and injuries were common.
After the Fiji race, which featured, among others, Hayden “Darth Vader” Christensen, Ethan “Survivor Africa” Zohn, and Tim “Road Rules” Beggy, this adventure-race series came to an end. Nine seasons aired; repeats aired on Outdoor Life Network.
Many hope Mark Burnett will bring it back, and last year, he suggested it would return in 2005. But there’s no word of a return yet, and right now, Burnett has plenty of other projects to focus on: “Survivor,” “The Apprentice” (both the Donald Trump and the new Martha Stewart versions), “The Contender” (which he’s shopping to new networks), and this summer’s “Rock Star: INXS.” —A.D.