The Kardashians, Real Housewives, Teen Moms, Honey Boo Boo and More: How Much Do Reality TV Stars Earn? (ANALYSIS)
Andy Warhol may have predicted that everyone would become famous for 15 minutes, but he never guaranteed that everyone would earn the same paycheck for their moment in the spotlight.
Among the stars minted by reality TV, how much you earn -- like so much else in America -- depends largely on where you started out. Those who are already rich or somewhat famous have an advantage over the previously anonymous, and people from pricier zip codes tend to outearn those from the sticks.
The class divide among reality stars reared its head in recent days with the claim by The Hollywood Reporter that the Thompson clan, the self-styled rednecks from McIntyre, Ga. who star in TLC's new smash Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, earn as little as $2,000 to $4,000 per episode, or no more than $40,000 for the ten-episode season for the entire family. Family matriarch June Shannon has said the figure is a lot higher than that, but even so, it would have to be much, much higher to match the fees earned by, say, the Kardashian family, the various Real Housewives, or even the souvenir T-shirt sales crew on Jersey Shore.
Read on for a breakdown of who earns what in reality TV.
Honey Boo Boo viewers love to be appalled by Shannon and partner Mike "Sugar Bear" Thompson -- either they're bad parents who ply their kids with energy drinks and overstuff them with food while raising them in an atmosphere of privation and backwardness, or they're bad parents who are exploiting their kids by pushing them in front of a camera even while taking a shamefully low fee for a show that has to be earning TLC millions in ad dollars.
Shannon disputes the $4,000-per-episode figure, telling the Reporter that they're earning enough from the show to start trust funds for the four kids; in fact, they're saving all the show money and continuing to live off Thompson's wages from the local chalk mine.
One guide to how much the Thompsons may earn comes from TLC's other series built around unorthodox families. At the height of their fame (and before the parental split), the Gosselins of Jon & Kate + 8 were earning $22,500 per episode. (So said Jon Gosselin in a 2009 interview.)
The Duggar family, of 19 Kids and Counting, earn between $25,000 and $40,000 per episode. (Note that the Gosselin family was half as big and lived in suburban Pennsylvania, while the ever-expanding Duggar brood lives in rural Arkansas.)
Over on MTV, the stars of Teen Mom have been doing their part to perpetuate back-country stereotypes (or, if you prefer serve as cautionary tales), but for at least $60,000 per season. But that fee grew as the show aged. Last year, in court documents, Amber Portwood divulged that she was earning $140,000 per season, or $280,000 per year.
Meanwhile, in the higher property tax environs of New Jersey, the stars of Jersey Shore have been earning at least $30,000 per episode each. That adds up to $390,000 per season, or $780,000 per year, for each of the eight roommates. Ever wonder why none of them is motivated to put in a full day's work at their landlord's boardwalk T-shirt shop? That's why.
The reality stars who live largest, the various women of Bravo's Real Housewives franchise, also earn some of the highest salaries in reality TV. Those who've been on the longest have earned bigger salary bumps. For example, according to Radar, among the Real Housewives of Orange County, veteran Vicki Gunvalson earns $450,000 per season, compared to just $30,000 for newbie Heather Dubrow. In the middle are Alexis Bellino ($2000,000), Gretchen Rossi ($300,000) and Tamra Barney ($350,0000).
For Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, the spread is narrower, with Lisa Vanderpump leading the pack with $250,000 per season and Kim Richards and Yolanda Hadid bringing up the rear at $100,000 each. But the franchise's queen bee is, not surprisingly, the woman who leads the cast of the highest rated show. That would Be Nene Leakes of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, who commands $750,000 per season.
The highest paid performers in reality TV are, of course, the Kardashians. This summer, the family signed a deal for $30 million to star in three more seasons of E!'s Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Of course, there are a lot of Kardashians and Jenners who get to split that $10 million per season; presumably, Kris Jenner and eldest daughters Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney get the lion's share.
In fact, Kim Kardashian is, according to Forbes, not only the highest-paid woman in reality TV, but also the second highest-earning woman in primetime, period. She earns $18 million a year; only Sofia Vergara of scripted show Modern Family earns more. But much of Kim's money comes from endorsement deals; same with Vergara, who also gets money from commercials and movie appearances. For both women, only a small fraction of their wealth comes from their TV salaries; the rest is from ancillaries.
And that's where the real money is in reality TV, not in the per-episode paycheck. The Kardashians rule here, too, with their multiple endorsements, fashion lines, appearance fees, and more. Not to mention spinoff series. It's no surprise that Khloe, who has pursued those opportunities especially avidly, isn't far behind Kim on Forbes' top-earning women on TV list, with an annual gross of $11 million.
The Jersey Shore stars may play gorilla juiceheads on TV, but off-camera, they've been awfully clever about finding ways to milk their fame. Take Snooki, who's parlayed her fame into a series of best-selling books, products sold on home shopping channels, speaking fees of $30,000 a pop, a spinoff series with pal J-Woww, and and a fee reported at $250,000 to license first exclusive photo rights to People magazine for pictures of her newborn baby, Lorenzo. The Situation has landed endorsement deals and frequent stints on other reality shows to earn himself at least 45 million a year. But Jersey Shore's top earner may actually be Pauly D, whose spinoff series, endorsements, and high-profile DJ gigs have earned him $11 million a year.
That ancillary money can continue long after the reality gig that spawned it is over. Just ask some of the Real Housewives of New York alumnae. Jill Zarin claimed she earned $1 million in sales from her shapewear line after she left the show. And Bethenny Frankel famously sold her Skinnygirl cocktail business for $120 million. Not bad for a woman who claimed that, before Real Housewives, she couldn't even pay her rent
Whether the Thompsons of Honey Boo Boo will be able to drum up similar opportunities for themselves is far from certain. Seven-year-old Alana Thompson, Honey Boo Boo herself, may have the cuteness and ebullience to be a commercial spokesperson, at least until she hits puberty in a few years. And given the popularity of Paula Deen, there must be enough fans of calorie-counting-be-damned Southern cuisine to make a Thompson family cookbook a bestseller. At any rate, two things are certain. First, they shouldn't count on the largesse of TLC. And second, they'd better strike while the iron is hot. Those 15 minutes go by awfully fast.