With drama this gripping the cast may seem like paid actors — but they usually aren't paid at all.

By Kathleen Walsh
Updated Mar 10, 2020 @ 7:30 pm
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As Peter's truly baffling season of The Bachelor finally reaches its agonized conclusion, andLove Is Blind stars have started spilling the tea on what really happened leading up to the altar, you might wonder what these people are really getting out of their experiences if not love. Perhaps a spot on Bachelor in Paradise or the prayer of an influencer gig. The answer, in most cases, is not much.

Reality stars are not considered employees of either the shows on which they appear nor the production companies in charge of filming. Some stars, like those on Bravo, are considered independent contractors and receive a stipend, the amount of which depends on their popularity. Others, including bachelorettes and other competition-style cast members, receive no compensation at all.

Many Bachelor contestants quit their jobs and spend sometimes thousands of dollars to appear on the show, which, in case you're not a fan, does require that they show up, respond to producer direction, and create entertainment for which a network earns money. And that sure sounds like they work for the show, right? Not according to their contracts.

Contestants auditioning for The Bachelor must first sign a contract agreeing to the show's "eligibility" requirements, which explicitly state they will not "become an employee or an independent contractor of the Producer and/or Companies and will not make any claims against Producer and/or Companies, including, without limitation, claims for compensation, derived from any allegation of status as an employee." Contestants must agree to appearing as "participants" in a contest, not "performers," which would be a class of employee that deserves, well, some rights and protections in the eyes of the law.

Put plainly, this means the show can use them to make money, but they don't make money from the show (at least not directly).

Attorney Kalpana Kotagal, who co-authored the inclusion rider Frances McDormand mentioned in her 2018 Oscars speech, says that Bachelor contracts are probably so one-sided because such agreements have been in place for many shows, for a long time, making them harder to challenge on a case-by-case basis.

"Over time, if a contractual provision is put in place distinguishing a 'participant' from a 'performer,' for example, and that distinction is not challenged in court, or is held up in court, it becomes the norm on which other contracts are based," she says. Meaning the line between reality star and artist has been growing in strength since reality TV began in the ‘90s, even as the performances of carefully crafted public personas (see: Johnny Bananas, NeNe Leakes) has become essential to the success of the genre.

There is no SAG-AFTRA-like union for reality stars in part because when reality TV was first beginning, the idea of a reality "star" didn't exist and networks were in the position to draft contracts however they liked. Now, reality TV occupies its own weird, lawless corner of the entertainment industry where anyone without the resources of a Real Housewife is legally allowed to be screwed.

"I think at the beginning, from a capitalist standpoint, [this] probably happened because these shows had no budgets. They weren't expected to make money," says Heather Maclean, a reality-TV veteran who's been involved since this genre was in its infancy. Casting regular people — not actors — wasn't just the appeal of reality TV, it was key to the productions' bottom lines. "It was some guys with a video camera and they couldn't afford to do union [casting]. But now their networks are making millions if not billions off of the actual representation of real humans."

According to The Wrap, the shows with highest ratings for broadcast networks in 2018-2019 include The Masked Singer which tied for number one with This Is Us, as well as The Bachelor, Big Brother, and America's Got Talent. TLC's 90 Day Fiancé is the network's highest rated show, and includes several spin-offs. These ratings determine the price of ad sales for a network and thus, to a large extent, its profit. Considering reality TV costs considerably less money to produce than a slick primetime drama or sitcom, it stands to reason these programs are networks' biggest cash cows.

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Heather Maclean began appearing on reality shows in the very beginning, including a cheesy FOX dating show, Studs (which aired from 1991 to 1993) and the unaired pilot episode of Road Rules in '93. She also made it to the final four on Richard Branson's Rebel Billionaire, billed as a cross between The Apprentice and The Amazing Race. The financial gain she got in exchange? On Rebel Billionaire, she says, it was pennies. "We got a weekly stipend from the production company. It was like 150 bucks." Food and lodging she says were usually covered by production, but contestants had to pay for additional small expenses, like admission to tourist spots filmed for the show.

That was all in a day's work for someone who was merely a "participant." Now, many reality stars are treated as independent contractors, but Kotagal says even that designation is suspect, at least in California. The Supreme Court's 2018 Dynamex ruling, taking aim at the gig economy, redefines "independent contractor" and "employee." According to the new bill, called AB5, a worker must meet three conditions in order to be classified as an independent contractor: Businesses must prove that the worker (a) is free from the company's control, (b) is doing work that isn't central to the company's business, and (c) has an independent business in that industry. Without meeting all three criteria, the worker is to be considered an employee.

So let's apply that to Bachelor contestants. "Presumably they have to show up to work at a particular time, they have to come to a particular place. They're not sort of making it up on their own, somebody is telling them where they need to be when," Kotagal notes, indicating the stars are under producer control in at least some capacity, failing the first prong of this test. And as reality stars are central to a show's existence, this structure pretty clearly fails the second point as well.

This reclassification could expand important protections for contracted stars who, while certainly better off than others, are still navigating an almost totally unregulated industry. Bravo stars are not permitted to discuss the specifics of their contracts, but widely circulated rumors indicate that Real Housewives and Vanderpump Rules stars earn as much as $500,000 per season, in accordance with their own popularity as well as the show's.

But because of the individuals' high profiles, their contracts are almost certainly more favorable than those signed by unknown participants in other shows, especially the shows that have been around for the longest times, like Bachelor or Survivor, whose contracts (like the eligibility contract noted above) specify contestants are only "participants" and are not artists or performers of any kind and have no employee or contractor relationship to the show.

Other wildly popular shows with unpaid contestants include Married at First Sight on Lifetime and Netflix's latest bombshell Love Is Blind, both of which argue participants agree to the show out of a real desire to "find love," which is to say — not fame or money.

Bachelor veteran Ashley Spivey says when she left the show she had maybe 15 dollars in her bank account. She'd had to quit her job for filming, and afterward had trouble finding another position when she disclosed she'd been a Bachelor contestant. "Coming off the show after not being able to have a job really hurt my bank account," she says. "And I feel like the show really does profit off of you so I don't understand why [contestants are] not paid.

It is theoretically possible to make money from the show, even after many contestants spend as much as $8,000 to participate on things like beauty treatments and gowns, according to Business Insider. That contestants today use The Bachelor to launch careers as social media influencers is more or less tacitly acknowledged by all, even though it contradicts the show's central conceit — that everyone is there for the right reasons.

In a Vox podcast, Reset, Arielle Duhaime-Ross and Not Here to Make Friends podcast host Emma Gray note the interconnected financial ecosystem social media creates between stars and the show. Contestants can use the show to launch their own personal brands, while interactions between Bachelor alumni on social media can provide useful storylines — like when Blake Horstmann reportedly hooked up with multiple fellow Bachelor stars at Stagecoach, all of whom later appeared together on Bachelor in Paradise.

But even if a star can translate their time on the show into an influencer career, their success can largely rely on how they are portrayed onscreen. Spivey says one of the scariest parts of the contract she signed was the provision that the show could edit you or manipulate your personality however they like. "I think that I thought I had a pretty good handle on it," she says, until she was actually there and producers began feeding her lines — which she said was usually when a contestant was tired or at a loss for words. "You think maybe they've said it a better way, and then you say it and you're like, wait that's not actually what I meant."

If a contestant's edit is compelling enough, they could land a spot on Bachelor in Paradise, increasing their public profile and potential to capitalize on the exposure. Not surprisingly, the reality stars with the most influence and power command more favorable contracts, while those at the margins; the unknowns — including non-citizens and children — are most likely to get a bad deal.

Maclean ghostwrote books for Real Housewives of New Jersey star Teresa Giudice, as well as many of Giudice's blog posts while the show was airing, and notes that Giudice's four daughters were often featured and directed on the show, but without the protections child actors get on set. "My feeling was they really relied on the kids for storyline, and for acting, and the kids got zero compensation," she says. Laws governing working conditions for child actors vary state-by-state, but most include provisions on how many hours a child can be on set and how many hours they can work. Coogan Law, required in New York, California, Louisiana, and New Mexico, stipulates that a child's earnings belong to the child alone. In states where child actor protection laws are particularly light, the SAG-AFTRA union acts as a watchdog. Alas, they're not watching out for the kids of reality stars.

The stars of 90 Day Fiancé are equally vulnerable to this power imbalance.

Radar Online and other gossip sites, as well as a couple who appeared on the show in a "friend" capacity, have reported that while the U.S. citizens receive a small stipend, around $1,500 per episode, their non-citizen counterparts do not, because the 90 day visa does not give applicants enough time to obtain a work visa. Representatives from TLC declined to comment on contracts, and production company Sharp Entertainment has not responded to requests for comment.

Without access to the actual contracts these findings cannot be independently verified, but they are supported by the uniquely vulnerable position of stars fearing deportation, as well as their public efforts to raise funds online. Stars turn to Instagram, Cameo, or GoFundMe for support while the network profits from their personal stories.

Unfortunately, employment law hasn't caught up to all the ways people "work" these days, though there have been some inroads with regards to other kinds of employment. Unpaid interns, for example, must now pass a "primary beneficiary" test, according to the Department of Labor. The seven-part test is used to determine whether the intern is receiving the most benefit from the position in terms of academic training, or whether the company is using the unpaid intern in place of an entry-level employee and profiting from free labor.

There is no equivalent test when it comes to reality stars, though it may be worth asking who is benefiting the most from these shows — the unpaid or underpaid participant, or the network.

"If you are a reality star, do you really have the resources to challenge what is in the terms of your contract even if it is potentially illegal and is certainly unfair?" Kotagal asks. "Sometimes, and this happens all the time, sometimes the more powerful party in the bargaining relationship gets away with it." And the participants? In most cases they barely escape with their hearts.