When Jon Dalton was discovered by a “Survivor” casting agent at an L.A. gas station several years ago, the chance to win a million dollars wasn’t the prize he most desired.
Instead, he relished the chance to showcase “Jonny Fairplay,” an immoral jerk persona he developed during his time as a manager in professional wrestling.
“Fairplay” became a hated household name among reality TV audiences, mainly because he lied on air that his grandmother had just died to earn other competitors’ sympathies. Catcalling audiences at a reality TV awards show in October seemed to cheer when Danny Bonaduce dropped Dalton on his face onstage, breaking several teeth.
Dalton has sued Bonaduce for battery. But Dalton says, despite the sometimes painful side effects of celebrity, being roundly despised has helped him earn him a six-figure annual income.
Dalton said he regularly receives $2,000 to $15,000 to appear at nightclubs, conventions and on other TV shows, partly to satisfy curiosity about whether he’s really a jerk in person. It’s an income that affords him a three-bedroom house in his hometown of Danville, Va. and the ability to care for his wife and baby daughter.
“I feel personally that I raped reality television and I’m happy about that,” Dalton, 34, said in an interview by phone from Danville.
“The million dollars was never my primary goal,” Dalton said. “My goal was to create the character of ‘Jonny Fairplay’ and keep that character on television for as long as possible.”
Fame launch pads
Increasingly, reality TV shows are no longer just voyeuristic journeys into the failings of real people, but launching pads for fame-seekers looking to parlay publicity — good or bad — into a career.
At a recent open casting call in Costa Mesa, Calif., a shot at fame drove a throng of wannabes to brave the hot sun for the chance to audition for “Survivor,” season 18.
“I want to walk down the street or in the mall and have someone come after me and ask for my autograph,” said Shane Cardenes, a 37-year-old high school softball coach from Lake Elsinore, Calif. “I want the paparazzi to come after me.”
Several in the crowd rattled off the most famous reality participants to go on to become, well, real stars. Rob and Amber Mariano, who married after being on “Survivor: All-Stars” together, are probably the most well-known reality couple. Rob Mariano is to host a new reality show, “Tontine” this fall, while Amber has appeared in TV commercials and been on the cover of several magazines.
Elisabeth Hasselbeck, another oft-named breakout, turned a 2001 “Survivor” appearance into her co-hosting job on the daytime talk show “The View.”
An appearance on a reality TV show “has the ability to open several doors,” said Amber Horn, a 30-year-old Las Vegas bartender who stripped down to her underwear for a video testimonial at the casting call. “You’ve just got to be crazy enough to kick them open.”
Extending their 15 minutes
Prolonging the spotlight from a reality show appearance has become a full-time job for booking agent Marc Marcuse of Reel Management. He has represented nearly 300 former reality participants, booking them on other shows, at events and on red carpets.
“When somebody gets off of their show, they always want to capitalize on their fame while they can,” Marcuse said.
Regular Joes who get a taste of the fawning attention of camera crews usually don’t want to return to their boring former life, said “Survivor” casting director Lynne Spillman. They also get a taste of the money that pure fame can bring.
“More and more people are applying because they want to be on TV,” Spillman said.
It’s rare for participants not to try to extend their 15 minutes of fame, she said. “They see it as easy money.”
After just a few episodes of the first season of “The Apprentice,” participant Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth became a reviled figure. Her in-your-face confrontations included accusing another participant of racism for using the phrase “pot calling the kettle black.”
The nonstop catfights lifted the show’s ratings and lit up online message boards. Omarosa, who now goes by just her first name, quickly hired a publicist and agent to help her monetize her newfound infamy. She has since been on more than 100 TV episodes — more than many working actors — and she is a regular at celebrity functions around Hollywood.
“People love villains. I’m the naughty girl of reality TV,” she said. “They tune in to see me body slam my opponents just like any wrestler.”
Appropriately, she is writing a book called “The Bitch Switch,” which is coming out in October. Omarosa said she has shot two more guest appearances for reality shows that will air in the fall, and lectures 15-20 times a year for various groups for an average $10,000 per appearance.
Great for business
Others have treated the reality format as a dramatized infomercial for publicizing their business.
“Sunset Tan” on the E! network is a case in point. After just one season on air, the actual tanning salon, whose ditzy sales girls Holly and Molly get flirty with Hollywood actor clients, has sold more than 100 franchises nationwide at $40,000 a pop, said co-owner Devin Haman.
“It’s a multimillion-dollar commercial,” Haman said of the show. “It’s amazing to have that.”
The cameras have also done little to hurt the healthy baked goods business of Bethenny Frankel. She finished a close second to becoming a Martha Stewart employee on “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart.” But she has since had plenty of exposure for her own cooking business on “The Real Housewives of New York City,” despite being single.
Hits to her Web site have jumped 10 times since her first TV appearance. She’s also writing a book, “Naturally Thin” to come out next year. A tequila maker is in talks to turn her “Skinny Girl Margarita” recipe into an off-the-shelf drink, she said.
“I’m the real winner,” Frankel said of coming second in “Martha Stewart.” “I’m so glad I didn’t get that job.”