How do you turn a reality TV appearance into a career? Contestants, judges and agents weigh in

They all had quite a fair bit to say...
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Rob Mills was singing with a covers band in Melbourne when a friend told him about a brand-new TV show called Australian Idol. He turned up for the auditions after a night when he’d done two gruelling pub gigs.

“I didn’t sleep – I went straight to McDonald’s, then straight there and stood in line for about six or seven hours,” he recalls.

It was worth it. Rob, now 36, came fifth in the mega-hit first season of Australian Idol in 2003 and scored a record deal with BMG.

“I spent the next 12 months putting together an album, writing with some incredible writers,” he says.

“Stephen Tate from Network Ten offered me the job of hosting Video Hits. I turned it down. I didn’t want to be the guy who says, ‘Coming up next, my new single.’ I said, ‘You know who’s good? Axle Whitehead.'”

Axle finished in the top 20 of Idol’s debut season and got the Video Hits gig.

Sure enough, the following year, “Ms Vanity”, the first single from Rob’s album Up All Night, achieved gold status.

Rob Mills on Australian Idol in 2003.

A little more than a decade later, Lauren Finelli, 34, was at her home in Adelaide with her husband Carmine. She really hated her job and was looking for a new one.

“I was actually on [job website] Seek and then I thought, ‘F**k it – I might look for casting calls,'” she reveals.

“When My Kitchen Rules came up, I thought, ‘Yeah, might give this a crack.’ I conned Carmine into it: ‘This will change our lives if we get through.'”

Lauren and Carmine did get through. The couple were “honest” with their opinions of other teams’ food, which Lauren insists was “not very good”. With her sights set on a media career, or at least a product line, Lauren felt being truthful was the way to go.

“I wanted airtime,” she makes clear, “and I was going to get it.”

Carmine and Lauren on My Kitchen Rules.

After finishing the 2016 season as runners-up and undisputed villains, the couple were approached by talent agents. Although Lauren says she paid a lot to one agent who did her branding (“which is a load of crap”), no media opportunities came her way. She then struggled to find any work in admin.

“I wouldn’t even get to the interview stage,” she says. “You know what it’s like. Go to Google, ‘Let’s suss her out. Oh, sh*t – that’s who it is.'”

These two stories read like the post-reality TV dream and the post-reality TV nightmare. Rob had job opportunities thrust at him, while Lauren had work snatched away from her. Yet Australians enthusiastically answer casting calls for more than 20 reality shows each year.

Looking at the contenders from that first season of Australian Idol, it’s hard not to be impressed. Guy Sebastian, Shannon Noll and Paulini Curuenavuli became household names, and Rob is considered one of Australia’s leading musical theatre stars. But there was also Axle, who’s gone from Video Hits to US series Shameless and Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D, and Courtney Act, who has her own TV program in the UK.

Compare that with the Nine Network’s The Voice Australia. The show, which kicked off in 2012, has had massive ratings, but they haven’t generally translated into huge album sales for the winners.

Aussie music legend Mark Holden was one of the Idol judges who recognised the talents of Guy and the others. So why does he think those early seasons launched so many lasting careers?

Idol had the advantage of being first and tapping into a huge pool of talent the major labels hadn’t expressed any interest in,” Mark, 64, says.

“The gatekeepers of the record industry signed white males and some white women.”

Mark Holden believes Idol’s success was down to being one of the first shows of its kind in Australia.

Still, that doesn’t quite explain The Voice “curse”.

TV WEEK Close Up contacted several previous winners for this story, but none were willing to talk. One said she wanted to “look forward, not back”.

Rob thinks it could be a matter of timing, but it could also be a matter of format.

The Voice is an entertainment program,” he says. “From what I’ve witnessed, it’s equally to do with the judges they’ve brought in from around the world as with the people actually singing.”

He’s quick to point out the performers who have done well, including season two’s Harrison Craig and Luke Kennedy. Mark also mentions Vera Blue, previously known as Celia Pavey.

The Voice judges Joe Jonas, Delta Goodrem, Kelly Rowland and Boy George.

The truth is that even back in the Idol era, it took a lot of commitment to sustain a career in music following a reality show. Rob’s dream run didn’t last long. After releasing a second single from his debut album, the record company dropped him.

“I was a little disillusioned,” he says.

“I was looking forward to someone really taking care of everything for me. That’s not how the world works. I went back to labouring and did the occasional pub gig. Nightclub appearances had dried up. There was a new series of Idol out. It was pretty sad.”

Then came a role in Grease – The Arena Spectacular alongside Natalie Bassingthwaighte and Magda Szubanski. It was a turning point for Rob, who says, “That was a real moment for me to go, ‘I need to work harder, and I need to be better.'”

Three years later, when the musical Wicked opened in 2008, he was ready.

“I’d been working with an acting coach and a singing coach and taking dance lessons,” he says. “After four auditions, I got the role. It was the best day of my life.”

Rob Mills’ career has gone from strength to strength.

If Lauren had her time on reality TV again, she’d do things very differently. For starters, she’d probably apply for a different show.

“Who from MKR has done anything?” she asks.

“If I wanted to be a fame whore, I would have gone on The Bachelor. If I wanted to do something like have my own cooking show, I would have gone on MasterChef.”

Network Ten’s MasterChef Australia has been the gold standard for producing TV mainstays, including season one’s Julie Goodwin, Poh Ling Yeow and Justine Schofield, season two’s Adam Liaw, and season three’s Hayden Quinn.

More recent contestants have been less likely to score their own star vehicles. But plenty of them have still forged new careers in the food industry.

Sydney teacher Elena Duggan won MasterChef Australia in 2016. She had applied for the show following the death of a student and a school fire, looking for something that would “bring me joy”.

Elena is now working with Kitchen Challenge, a food-based program that pairs CEOs with vulnerable people, such as refugees. She’s also working with school students with behavioural problems, training them as baristas.

Reality TV fame has helped, in some ways.

“I find that a lot of people want to work with me,” she says. “It’s great to have kids wanting to come along.”

2016 Masterchef Australia Winner Elena Duggan.

As for having her own show, Elena certainly wouldn’t knock back an offer. But she can see there’s a “greater pool” of people to choose from now. She has some advice for anyone going on MasterChef Australia with that goal.

“I think if it’s all self-indulgent, it may not work for you,” she says. “I would encourage you to have bigger-picture thinking.”

Ben Grand is a talent agent with Stage Addiction. Among his clients are former stars of Married At First Sight and The Bachelor Australia. He hears exactly the same thing from so many people coming out of reality shows.

“A lot of them have very warped ideas of what’s possible,” he concedes.

“Some of them will come to me and say, ‘Oh, I’d really love to be the next Grant Denyer,’ or, ‘I’d love to host Sunrise.’ Anyone who’s in the industry knows that taking on such a massive role immediately after being on a reality show isn’t realistic.”

Sam Frost, who went from The Bachelor/Bachelorette Australia to Sydney radio to Home And Away, is the rare exception rather than the rule.

Australia’s first Bachelorette Sam Frost.

As Lauren discovered, people who get lots of airtime on reality shows are likely to be approached by talent agents who make big promises. But there are pitfalls.

“They might be signed to somebody who gets them a deal, but might rip them off,” Ben says.

“Or they sell out and partner on a bunch of social media posts and then lose their credibility.”

Reality stars don’t need to come across as squeaky clean on TV to get offered work afterwards. In fact, Ben says plenty of people are keen to work with the “bad guys”.

“If they were the cheater, they can get opportunities around ‘doesn’t play by the rules’ sort of stuff,” he explains.

“We’ve had clients who have been portrayed as the ‘slutty’ ones and have had a huge amount of offers to do stuff. Nightclubs are going to love that, or online poker or adult brands.”

But anyone who wants long-term success after reality TV has to get a lot of things right. Ben says they need to communicate with fans on social media and produce good content. They need some other way to stay in the spotlight, such as another TV show. They also need to know what they’re working towards and put in time and effort.

“There are clients who have made millions,” he says.

“But for every one of those, there are hundreds of people who’ve really struggled.”

Ben says he thinks Australians “punish” people who become famous through reality shows.

“We love to build up new stars,” he says, “and then we love to tear them down in the magazines and say, ‘Where are they now?’ The number of clients I’ve had call me and be really upset because they’ve seen an article saying they’ve been spotted working at a call centre. What are they meant to do?”

Australian Idol star Ricki Lee has turned her reality TV experience in to an enviable music career.

Sam Wood had to be pushed into applying for The Bachelor Australia. He was at the gym he owned in Melbourne when one of the women who trained there decided he’d be perfect for the show.

“She literally came around behind reception, grabbed the computer and said, ‘Come on, let’s look up applications,'” Sam, 38, remembers.

When he was chosen as the Bachelor, Sam considered it a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity that he couldn’t turn down.

“I also thought it would be great publicity for my kids’ fitness company and my gym,” he says matter-of-factly.

“But never in my wildest dreams did I think it would give me the opportunity to create the career I have.”

By the time The Bachelor finale aired in 2015, Sam had a new partner, Snezana Markoski, and 150,000 followers on Instagram.

“I started getting all these emails and social media messages,” he says.

“Most of the questions were, ‘Sam, can you help me with a program for adults?’ So I put my 17 years of personal-training experience together in a program. Two-and-a-half years later, we’ve had 130,000 people go through the program, we have 20 full-time staff and this is what I do now. It’s absolutely blown me away.”

The Bachelor’s Sam Wood and Snezana Markoski.

So what’s the secret to career success after a reality show?

Sam says it’s about people being “authentic” and keeping ambitions in line with who they are and what they do.

“I think some people go on a reality TV show because they’re lost from a career perspective,” he says.

“They’re hoping that that’s going to be the answer. And it can often dissipate as quickly as it got some traction.”

But even if you make a few regrettable decisions along the way, being a contestant on a reality show can pay off in the end.

Lauren is now working for a food distributor, a job she says she got because she was on Channel Seven’s MKR. And her new employer is helping her launch her own product line.

“We’ve released one product and we’ve got more to come,” she says. “We’re manufacturing single-serve and family packs of lasagne.”

As for the media career, she remains hopeful that it could still happen.

“Who knows?” she asks. “Who knows what’s in store for Lauren?”

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