Six years after “Project Runway” and “Blow Out” made their debuts, the fashion and beauty reality television show gravy train is gaining speed and loading on more passengers.
Television programmers’ appetites for relatively inexpensive, advertiser-friendly reality show fodder centered on fashion, beauty and lifestyle themes are unceasingly voracious. Around 20 new fashion- and beauty-related reality shows are hitting the air this summer and fall, using a very narrow definition of fashion and beauty. That’s a sizable chunk of the record 100-plus new reality shows slated for TV.
This story first appeared in the July 25, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Reality show prospects are lining up to follow the paths blazed by BravoTV’s mini moguls Bethenny Frankel and Rachel Zoe. Frankel, the decidedly nonhousewife who went from sharing the reality spotlight in Bravo’s ensemble show “The Real Housewives of New York City” to the lead role in “Bethenny Ever After,” sold Skinnygirl Margarita to Fortune Brands Inc. for an estimated $100 million in March. Zoe toiled in the red-carpet trenches long before Heidi Klum was a household name, but it took “The Rachel Zoe Project” to lay the groundwork for a budding fashion empire stretching from Neiman Marcus to QVC.
Frankel and Zoe have given telegenic entrepreneurs the world over a template for success: overshare and catchphrase your way to millions. Although she won’t go as far as taking a pregnancy test on television like Frankel did, “The way she went through it validated the thing I’m doing,” said Corri McFadden, who aims to build a national customer base for her Chicago luxury designer consignment service eDrop-off with a reality show made by 44 Blue Productions. “She had a harder path to come out the way she did [via the ‘The Real Housewives of New York City’], but it can definitely be done and that is what she showed me,” McFadden said.
Katie Cazorla, owner of The Painted Nail salon in Sherman Oaks, Calif., whose reality show “Nail Files” premiered June 21 on the TV Guide Network, has the Frankel formula down. In the opening scene of the show, she’s in her bathroom frantically performing some sort of denim calisthenics to get her jeans to fit — and the oversharing commences. “Oh my God, I got to step on the scale,” Cazorla gasps. Next, she talks directly to television viewers, confessional style: “In L.A., it’s all about image, and I have to keep up with the Joneses.” And back to the bathroom: “It’s like a sausage in here. I gained .7 ounces. I’m fat.” Later come the catchphrases. Cazorla replaces the “t”s in certain curse words to exclaim, “Shiz!” and “Shizballs!”
These less-than-polished, reveal-all reality show moments might have once scared companies from doing business with boldly public reality stars, but that’s no longer the case. Zoe, Frankel and their consumer-approved reality show brethren can be thanked for the shift. “The success of some of these people has really paved the way for the next generation of people coming up,” said Brian Dow, a partner at APA Talent & Literary Agency, where he heads the branded lifestyle division and represents the likes of Bethenny Frankel and the Kardashians. “A lot of people were very gun shy about working with my clients in the beginning, thinking they weren’t businesspeople, [but] a lot of these people are businesspeople and that’s what led them to reality television as a marketing vehicle for their brand, and they are very interested in brand building.”
Fortunately for brand builders across the fashion and beauty landscape, unlikely subjects are getting their 15 minutes of fame — or more, they hope — with reality television maturing and producers forced to peel back the layers of the consumer sector in the search for audience-snagging gold. The cameras are zooming in on nail salons, vintage and consignment stores (“Fashion Hunters,” about Second Time Around, will premiere this fall on Bravo, and an untitled Decades project is being considered by the channel, as well), jewelers (Bravo is developing “Jason of Beverly Hills”), wholesale apparel showrooms (production company Authentic Entertainment is working on a show about The King Collective) and Web sensations (production company Kinetic Content has signed on YouTube personalities and sisters Elle and Blair Fowler).
Lauren Lexton, co-founder and executive producer at Authentic Entertainment, producer of WE tv’s “Amsale Girls” and the Sundance Channel’s “All On the Line” with Elle’s creative director Joe Zee, said, “Everybody is looking for personality-driven shows, whereas a couple of years ago you could probably sell a concept and say, ‘Hey, we could get somebody in this world to host it and lead us through it.’ Everything has to have someone authentic to lead you into that world. Joe Zee is a perfect example.”
Rob Sharenow, executive vice president of programming at Lifetime, which is working on a show tentatively titled “24-Hour Catwalk” hosted by Alexa Chung that pits designers against each other in runway challenges, said, “The thing that is happening now in fashion culture is that every character and subset of skill is being explored, and there is going to be great shows coming out of that.”
Is it all too much? Cable channels want to retain audiences for ongoing fashion reality programming — “The Rachel Zoe Project,” for instance, will be back Sept. 6 for its fourth season with “a bang and a baby,” quipped Shari Levine, Bravo’s senior vice president of production — while simultaneously crowding the airwaves with a slew of spin-offs. Among them are Bravo’s “Mad Fashion,” starring “Project Runway” alum Chris March, and “It’s a Brad, Brad World,” with Zoe protégé Brad Goreski, and Lifetime’s “Project Accessory” and “Project Runway All Stars.”
Despite the mounting competition for fashion television viewers’ time, Levine doesn’t think the fashion reality programming saturation point has been reached. “It keeps going,” she said. “We are in a celebrity-focused society at this moment in time. We have been for a while, and there certainly doesn’t seem to be any abatement of that. The interest in fashion goes hand-in-hand with that.”
Levine’s theory will get a crucial test on a major network with “Fashion Star.” Scheduled for the first half of next year on NBC, “Fashion Star” is a reality competition intended to showcase designers making clothes for the masses. The judges are buyers from Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s and H&M whose support for around 14 contestants will be exhibited by orders for their clothes. Elle Macpherson has signed on to host and executive produce, and Jessica Simpson, Nicole Richie and John Varvatos will be mentors.
Viewers will be able to purchase the contestants’ designs after episodes air. The merchandise is expected to span fashion categories, including lingerie, bathing suits, denim and accessories. Rick Ringbakk, a reality show producer from 5×5 Media who is producing “Fashion Star” along with Electus’ Ben Silverman and Magical Elves’ Jane Lipsitz and Dan Cutforth, is adamant the show will differentiate itself from the fashion pack, notably “Project Runway,” by dealing with what average people wear, not $10,000 evening dresses. The winning contestant will receive a multimillion-dollar contract to put collections in the three retailers involved in the judging.
“Fashion has had a huge foothold in the cable space for many years and has proven itself to be successful in the cable space, but has not really been brought to network television in a way that has really worked. We felt that the time was right to bring fashion to a larger audience,” said Ringbakk. “This is a big, glossy studio-based show that is going to do for fashion what ‘Dancing with the Stars’ did for ballroom dancing.”
Levine of NBC-owned Bravo believes “Fashion Star” can work. “There is an enormous thirst out there because everybody styles themselves,” she said of fashion programming. Sharenow of Lifetime, however, isn’t convinced. “The ‘Project Runway’ audience is broadening. Imitators play a dangerous game because once you have a very strong franchise in an arena, it is hard to replicate and grow off that success,” he said.
For designers grabbing at the reality show brass ring, the chance to gain network exposure is unparalleled. Thousands of people responded to the casting call for “Fashion Star” to nab one of the about 14 contestant spots. Ringbakk painted a picture of a possible contestant: “A mom that maybe has two kids and has been sewing in her basement for the last 20 years. Now, suddenly there is an order that could change her life. Everyone likes to watch that.”
Even for established fashion industry players hesitant to go on reality TV when it was in its infancy, the promise of publicity has been too good to pass up. When casting Second Time Around in “Fashion Hunters,” Brent Montgomery owner of Leftfield Pictures, which produced “Fashion Hunters” and the History Channel’s “Pawn Stars,” put the owners of the consignment shop on the phone with Gold & Silver Pawnshop in Las Vegas, which is featured on “Pawn Stars.” The pawnshop “went from 70 people a day to close to 3,000 people a day coming through,” he said. “As soon as they heard that, they were probably sold.” Montgomery added, “If you are selling fashion, and you have an opportunity as a small business to put it on Bravo, I told them it is like winning the lottery.…What producers do with these small business is make a local brand a national brand and, in some cases, an international brand.”
Like winning the lottery, the odds of getting a reality show are very low — and getting lower as the field of wannabes swells. Rachel Brill, vice president of development at Zoo Productions, producer of WE tv’s “Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” said, “I like to say it is like living in L.A. and trying to become a professional A-list movie actress. It is very hard. It is like a one-in-a-million chance.” Lexton of Authentic Entertainment estimated one out of every five shows for which she shoots a sizzle reel, a short video encapsulating a probable reality show for pitching purposes, is sold to a network — and that’s a high batting average. “If somebody out there is just shopping a sizzle reel with their friends from college, their chances are more like one in a 1,000,” she said.
Amsale Design Group waited for five years until “Amsale Girls,” the show revolving around its Madison Avenue bridal flagship that premiered June 12, was green-lit by WE tv. The long wait put Amsale in a bind to make sure its show was distinct from the wedding-oriented programs that proliferated as it was on the reality sidelines. It opted to concentrate on the flagship’s staff in a show that Lexton described as “Sex and the City” meets “Say Yes to the Dress.” “It gives a window into how they look to fulfill that wish of having the perfect wedding dress,” said Neil Brown, chairman and co-founder of Amsale and husband of its namesake designer, Amsale Aberra.
Amsale got a taste of the effect of reality shows on business before “Amsale Girls.” Frankel wed Jason Hoppy in an Amsale gown, and traffic on Amsale’s Web site doubled the week the episode of “Bethenny Getting Married?” featuring the dress aired last July. “That had a tremendous impact,” said Brown, who is more circumspect about the possible impact on sales of “Amsale Girls.” “We think it will create broader awareness of exactly what we stand for and we think that, leaving aside whether it will have revenue impact, that would be terrific,” he said. Amsale has been working to build a lifestyle brand with a global reach and named a new chief executive officer, Denise Seegal, formerly a consultant for investment firm Financo, earlier this year.
For reality stars without established apparel brands before the reality spotlight, co-branded licensing opportunities can be a springboard to further apparel ventures. The Kardashians inked a deal with Bebe before branching out to Sears, with the Kardashain Kollection launching in August, for example.
Royalties going to reality stars on co-branded clothing deals typically run 5 percent or so of sales.
With the upside of reality programs potentially huge for the stars, networks have gotten smarter about securing a larger piece of the pie for themselves. They are frequently paying less for companies to be involved. Bravo pays as much as $50,000 an episode for its reality stars, but $2,000 to $5,000 per episode is regularly the compensation for businesses on shows. These days, the pay can go as low as $1,500 per episode, and the filming that goes into each episode is extensive. It’s up to 12 hours a day for two weeks for a single episode. The total costs of a reality show episode run anywhere from $100,000 to $600,000, compared with a million and above for scripted programming.
“If you are doing it for a fee, don’t do it,” said SallyAnn Salsano, founder and president of 495 Productions, the production company responsible for “Jersey Shore” and “Nail Files.” “The kids from ‘Jersey Shore’ got paid not one dollar for season one. Do you think they wasted their time? No.”
As the net for potential reality stars widens, it’s becoming more helpful for subjects to hire agents and brand managers to articulate salary demands, carve out naming rights and arrange deals with sponsors or other partners — all of whom charge fees or take commissions, usually 5 to 10 percent on contracts.
“If you are looking to get into reality TV and you have a special skill set, it cannot hurt to have an agent,” said Montgomery. “Agents are filters. As producers, we always think that if an agent represents them, they at least got through one filter.”
Although she’s forgoing an agent for now, Cazorla has hired a brand manager to watch for imitators of her Los Angeles area salon, The Painted Nail, and nail polish line of the same name looking to benefit from “Nail Files” publicity. Business success, not reality fame, is her goal — and she’d rather others not spoil it. “I do want to open more of The Painted Nail. I do think it should be in other cities, and I do think Sephora or Ulta could use an eco-friendly, glammed-up brand,” she said. Salsano is confident Cazorla has the chops to make it big from reality tv, à la Frankel. “You don’t invent a brand to have a reality show. You either have a brand or are some schmo and are just yourselves, and America loves you, then that might work out to be a brand,” she said. “Katie loves manicures and pedicures. She went and opened a salon, regardless of the show.”