Riches to rags: Reality TV stars who lost it all
In May, the TLC network suspended its hit reality series about the Duggar family, “19 Kids and Counting,” following allegations that the eldest of the 19 kids, Josh Duggar, had molested five girls, including his own sisters. In July, the network finally put the show out of its misery and cancelled it.
According to People magazine, who cited unnamed sources, the Duggars were being paid between $25,000 and $45,000 per episode in their pre-scandal days. If this is correct, then at a minimum, the family earned $5.7 million from the 227 episodes that aired. It was also good for $25 million in advertising revenue, according to The New York Times.
The financial status of the Duggar family is not known (and the TLC also announced it’s producing a “commercial-free” documentary about the family), but their status as major, multi-million dollar revenue fountains has almost certainly suffered mortal damage. If that’s the case, they join the ranks of the many reality show stars who amassed great fortunes, only to see them (and their brands) disappear. Here are some notable cases.
Janice Dickinson gained fame in the 1970’s as the self-described “world’s first supermodel.” However, she has spent more years in the reality show game than she ever spent on the catwalk, thanks to appearances on such shows as “America’s Next Top Model,” “The Surreal Life” and “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew.”
In 2013, The Los Angeles Times reported that she had filed for bankruptcy. Court documents showed that she owed the state of New York, California and the Internal Revenue Service more than $500,000 in unpaid taxes, as well as several thousand dollars to Beverly Hills dermatologist Arnold Klein and Dr. Uzzi Reiss of the Beverly Hills Anti-Aging Center. More recently, she made headlines in 2014 when she came forward to accuse comedian Bill Cosby of drugging and raping her in a 1982 incident.
Before the Duggar family wowed us all with the sheer volume of human beings they could produce, there was “Jon & Kate Plus 8,” a show about a Pennsylvania couple with one pair of twins and one set of sextuplets. The constantly arguing Jon and Kate Gosselin and their eight children attracted huge audiences, drawing 9.6 million viewers at its May 2009 peak.
The couple split up in 2009, but the show went on, and it was renamed “Kate Plus 8.” But while Kate is currently receiving a reported salary of $40,000 per episode, Jon withdrew from the spotlight and at one point took food service jobs to make ends meet. In 2014, he told the entertainment news show “Extra” that his rumored financial woes were real, but he wasn’t sleeping in a refrigerator box just yet.
“The truth is I made some poor financial decisions, but I am living in a home,” he said.
While the reality show format dates back several decades to such programs as “Candid Camera,” it didn’t become an across-the-board phenomenon until “Survivor” came along. Richard Hatch won the $1 million grand prize at the end of the show’s first season, but his Machiavellian maneuvering also won him a slot on TV Guide’s 2013 list of “The 60 Nastiest Villains of All Time.”
Hatch was found guilty of two counts of tax evasion and sentenced to three years in prison in 2006. This was followed in 2009 by three years of supervised release, during which time he was supposed to re-file the 2000 and 2001 taxes that were at issue, and then cough up what he owed. According to The New York Daily News, the re-filling never happened, so it was back to the pokey for Mr. Hatch for nine more months in 2011.
Hatch made headlines again in 2013 when it was revealed that he had supplemented his income during his college years by donating sperm to a Virginia clinic. "I did it for two years, about two or three times a week," he said. He estimated that he might have fathered as many as 200 children this way, at $30 a pop.
Heidi Montag was the breakout star of the MTV reality show “The Hills,” and her romantic relationship with cast member Spencer Pratt turned the two of them into the media sensation known as “Speidi.” They became known for their on-set tantrums and childish behavior, which inspired NBC executive vice president of alternative programming, Paul Telegdy, to describe them as “everything that’s wrong with America.”
In 2011, the ride was over and the money had been squandered. Montag had undergone costly plastic surgeries and a failed effort to become a recording artist had cost $2 million. In a Daily Beast article published that year, the noticeably chastened Montag reflected on how growing up poor had contributed to what had gone wrong.
“I should have known growing up and not having any money ever that I should have kept every dollar that I had,” she said. “I thought I was investing in myself and my brand. Like Kim [Kardashian]… When she buys these clothes, she’s investing in herself. Because she is a big brand and is likeable. I thought I had that potential. My ego got too big.”
Danielle Staub was a cast member on The Real Housewives of New Jersey. She left the show after two seasons, but despite attempts to keep her career going by appearing in such other reality shows as “Famous Food,” stardom eluded her, and in 2012 she filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection. However, she is hardly an anomaly among her “Real Housewives” brethren.
Sonja Morgan of “The Real Housewives of New York City” also declared bankruptcy, emerging from that status in June, and Staub’s “Real Housewives of New Jersey” castmate Teresa Giudice was sentenced to 15 months in prison for mortgage and bankruptcy fraud.
More recently, Kim Richards of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” was arrested on Sunday for allegedly shoplifting. According to reports, she allegedly tried to leave with a shopping cart full of about $1,000 worth of toys from Target. Whether this means another Real Housewife is taking a trip to the poor house remains to be seen.
Daniel Bukszpan is a New York-based freelance writer.