Reality television is a blanket term for unscripted television, and the format is taking over the entertainment industry. Year after year more reality shows pop up and top the TV charts. The genre may have started with Cops, in 1988, or with the 1991 Dutch series Nummer 28, but it has since become the king of ratings with successful series such as Survivor, Big Brother, and Idols.
Large numbers of contestants, stars, and hosts on reality programs shot into the global spotlight because of their shows’ popularity, and have gone on to experience huge success in other markets. The appeal of reality television is an enigma to some, but for many it’s a medium which uniquely allows viewers to personally identify with on-screen participants. Whether viewers are living vicariously through the glamorous lives of The Hills cast, or experiencing satisfying schadenfreude while watching wannabe singers embarrass themselves on the X-Factor, reality television puts the viewer right at the heart of the action.
There are various subgenres of reality television, including paranormal shows like Ghost Hunters, hidden camera programs like Punk’d, social experiments such as Wife Swap, renovation programs like Restaurant Makeover, dating-based competitions such as The Bachelor, and competitions like Celebrity Apprentice. The fact remains that the stars of these shows are making huge salaries, and the 15 stars on this list made the biggest salaries of all in 2014.
15. Willie Robertson – $1 million salary + Bonuses
Willie Robertson is the brains behind the operation of Duck Commander, and the star of A&E’s hugely popular show Duck Dynasty. His father, Phil Robertson, started the duck-call business many years ago, but Willie took the company to new heights, creating a multi-million dollar empire. Although the show has declined in viewership over the last couple of seasons (due to controversial off-screen comments by patriarch Phil Robertson), it still remains one of the most popular reality TV shows.
In 2013, Duck Dynasty broke the record for viewers in a nonfiction (reality) TV show, garnering 11.8 million viewers in its season four premier. That year, Willie Robertson had jumped from a $50,000 seasonal salary to a $200,000 salary, and as of the latest season, he now gets a whopping $1 million per season, plus a $100,000 bonus per episode that reaches over 5 million viewers.
14. NeNe Leakes – $1.5 million salary
The Real Housewives franchise is Bravo’s most popular show (and about the only thing they air anymore). The first version of the show – The Real Housewives of Orange County – aired in 2006, and has spawned spin-offs every year since. Now, there are Real Housewives shows in Atlanta, New York City, Washington DC, Beverly Hills, Miami, Athens, Israel, Vancouver, France, and Melbourne, with a new spin-off slated to appear this year.
The Real Housewives franchise has spawned many stars, but none perhaps as successful as NeNe Leakes, who is the most popular star on the Real Housewives of Atlanta. In 2014, Leakes became the highest paid reality star on Bravo – a network known for its reality stars – after negotiating a cool $1.5 million salary per season of the show.
13. Kim Kardashian – $1.6 million salary
The undisputed queen of reality television is undoubtedly Kim Kardashian, and you might have expected her to be higher on this list. She would be, too, if all of her other money-making endeavors were added to her total revenue. Between June 2013 and June 2014, she raked in an estimated $28 million through her various endeavors, with her TV show being one of the smaller earners.
Kim gets $80,000 per episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians (a total of $1.6 million), while the bulk of her fortune comes from public appearances and her family’s clothing line. The family’s fashion empire brought in upwards of $600 million in retail in 2013, and in 2014, Kardashian may have made around $85 million herself from her video game, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, which brought in $190 million in revenue, 45% of which directly went to Kim.
So, while the earnings from her show might have only made her #13 on this list of most successful reality stars, her overall profits would definitely put her near the top richest stars overall in 2015.
12. Nicole “Snooki” LaValle – $2.275 million salary
Nicole LaValle rose to fame on Jersey Shore, one of the most obnoxious and popular reality shows of the past decade, and despite Snooki’s outlandish behavior and utter debauchery on the program, she has actually been very smart with her money, and has become the most successful member of the Shore’s cast.
LaValle netted $150,000 per episode while on the show, and then got a raise to $175,000 per episode (times 13 episodes) on her spin-off show Snooki & Jwoww, which totals around a $2.275 million salary. LaValle (born Nicole Polizzi) recently married Jionni LaValle, whom she has two children with. She also has three books that bring in money and she makes five figures per public appearance or speech.
11. Gordon Ramsay – $3.6 million salary
British chef and TV personality Gordon Ramsay is one of the most popular chefs in the world, largely due to his restaurants (for which he’s been awarded a total of 15 Michelin stars), and thanks to his 16 TV programs. Ramsay became famous for being the tough, loud-mouthed and brash presenter of various competitive cooking shows, namely Hell’s Kitchen, Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, MasterChef, and Hotel Hell.
Ramsay’s ferocious temper has contributed to his media success in the UK and US, but has also led to multiple lawsuits and legal proceedings.
Ramsay owns 13 restaurants in the UK, 10 in North America, four in other parts of Europe, and six in other international locations. He is worth about $120 million, and he earns $225,000 per episode of Hell’s Kitchen, which, when multiplied by the usual-16 episode season, gives him an annual salary of $3.6 million.
10. Keith Urban – $5 million salary
Keith Urban, the most famous New Zealand-born Australian country singer in the world, is worth around $75 million. He’s been big since the ’90s, but his stint on American Idol for the last three seasons – seasons 12 through 14 – has helped boost his public image and media attention even more.
Urban was first on the Australian version of The Voice in 2012, but did not return for season two. He then became a judge on American Idol, which is well-known for gifting its judges huge salaries, and Urban’s paycheck was no different. His $5 million salary might not be the highest of all the judges, but it is definitely higher than most people involved in reality TV.
American Idol can afford to throw so much money at its judges thanks to massively high ratings, having produced numerous stars and award winning artists through its 14 seasons.
9. Blake Shelton – $6 million salary
Blake Shelton is another one of those anomalies who would be way higher on this list if we were including ALL of his yearly endeavors, and not just his reality TV salary. Forbes reported that Shelton was the third highest-earning country star of 2014 (behind Toby Keith and Rascal Flatts), earning $23 million through his record sales, tours, endorsements, and salary from being a coach on The Voice.
Thanks to his increased public profile and image, Shelton is one of the most well-known country artists in the world. He is country music’s only representative on The Voice, and he is one of only two coaches who has appeared in all of the show’s seven seasons (eighth season starts on February 23, 2015). Also, Shelton’s teams are the most successful: his teams have been the winner of four of The Voice’s seven seasons (seasons 2, 3, 4, and 7).
8. Pharrell Williams – $8 million salary
Pharrell Williams has a net worth of almost $100 million, and he is undoubtedly one of the most successful musicians of the last five years. In 2014, he won four Grammys out of eight nominations, including Producer of the Year, Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best Group Performance. Most of this came on the heels of his wildly successful album G I R L, and the song “Happy” from the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack, and from his textile company and entertainment company.
In 2014, Williams replaced original coach Cee Lo Green on the seventh season of The Voice. He was reportedly paid a salary of $8 million to come on as a coach, due to his highly visible public profile and positive image. He is signed on to return in season 8 of the show.
7. Adam Levine – $10 – $12 million salary
Adam Levine is best-known as being the frontman for Maroon 5, but he’s also the oldest tenured coach on The Voice, taking part in every season. Only fellow rival-coach Blake Shelton has more wins than Levine on the show.
Levine has huge staying power because of his popularity on The Voice (which garners him $10 to $12 million per year), and also because of his endorsements (such as ProActiv). But he wouldn’t have any of it if he wasn’t already a very successful musician.
Maroon 5 and Levine have found great success with their numerous chart-toppers, such as “Harder to Breathe,” “Moves Like Jagger,” and “One More Night.”
6. Ryan Seacrest – $15 million salary
Ryan Seacrest is considered by many as one of the busiest people in showbiz. He’s been the host of American Idol since its start in 2002, and has also hosted tons of other TV shows (such as Ultimate Revenge) and radio shows (such as On Air With Ryan Seacrest).
In 2012, he inked a two-year, $30 million deal to stay on as host of American Idol, and he signed a one-year deal in 2014, with the option of staying on another year.
Seacrest has been the host of various programs for E!, and his production company, Ryan Seacrest Productions, produces hit reality shows like Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, and Married to Jonas. All-in-all, Seacrest made around $61 million in 2014, making him one of the most successful earners in Hollywood for the year, and $15 million of that came from his salary on American Idol.
5. Howard Stern – $15 million salary
Howard Stern is the most popular radio host in history. He is worth over half a billion dollars, and makes over $90 million a year for his channels on SiriusXM, in which he is best known for his outspoken and uncensored views. His team first earned $218 million in 2006 after signing with Sirius, and then $82.9 million in 2007. He also has two books, one of which was made into a hugely successful movie (Private Parts), and both of which debuted at number one on the New York Times Bestsellers list.
In 2011, Stern replaced Piers Morgan as a judge on America’s Got Talent, and he’s held the position since. The role saw him reappear on Forbes’ Celebrity 100 list that year, and he is paid a $15 million salary for the opinions and judgments that he imparts on the show.
4. Jennifer Lopez – $17.5 million salary
In 1998, Jennifer Lopez became the first Latina actress to earn over $1 million for a role, playing in the film Out of Sight. She hasn’t slowed down since, and as of 2014 has an estimated net worth of $400 million. She is the highest paid Hispanic entertainer in the US, with record sales of over 60 million and a cumulative film gross of over $2 billion. She also has a fragrance and clothing line, and is the face and ambassador of L’Oreal Paris.
Lopez joined American Idol as a judge in 2011. In 2012, her second year as a judge, she ranked number one on Forbes’ Celebrity 100 list, and left the show in 2013. She had a comeback year as a recording artist in 2013, founded mobile phone retail brand Viva Movil, and became chief creative officer of nuvoTV. During that time, American Idol’s views dipped, and they asked her to return for the thirteenth season to boost ratings.
She joined for a $17.5 million salary, and although the move didn’t help ratings as much as FOX would have liked, it was a great platform for Lopez to launch her newest album, A.K.A.
3. Tyra Banks – $18 million salary
Tyra Banks first became famous as a model on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, and was one of the world’s top-earning models in the early 2000s. Subsequently, she moved into film and TV, starring in a few box office hits.
In 2003 she created and became the host of the UPN/The CW hit reality show America’s Next Top Model. She co-created the program True Beauty, and hosted her own talk show, The Tyra Banks Show, which ran for five seasons and won two Daytime Emmy awards.
While America’s Next Top Model hasn’t given its winners the success of shows like American Idol, it has made Banks a force to be reckoned with in the reality TV circuit. It was the highest-rated show on The CW from 2007 to 2010, and Banks commands an $18 million salary per season of the show.
2. Judith Sheindlin – $45 million salary
Although many people might not realize it, the arbitration-based reality court show Judge Judy has been around since 1996, revitalized the court show genre, and has been the highest-rated daytime program since 2011. It was nominated for 15 consecutive years for Daytime Emmy Awards (finally winning in 2013), and has aired over 4,500 episodes as of December 2014. It is one of the longest-running reality programs of all time, and it has made retired judge Judith Sheindlin a fortune of $200 million.
Since CBS can’t really replace the namesake of the show and still hope to keep its ratings, Sheindlin commands a massive annual salary of $45 million. In 2011 and 2013, Judge Judy was the highest-rated program in all of syndication, which led to Sheindlin’s contract being extended through 2016-2017.
1. Simon Cowell – $95 million salary
Simon Cowell, the nasty, no-nonsense judge on the original American Idol, is worth around $550 million. He earned most of that as a producer of the Idol franchise (which has since adapted to over 46 regions in the world), the X Factor franchise, the Got Talent franchise, and The You Generation franchise. He is the king of reality competition programs, and therefore the king of reality television. He is responsible for bringing One Direction together, and has managed a string of high-profile TV and music brands with his joint-venture entertainment company, SYCOtv.
In 2004, Cowell launched The X Factor while still serving as a judge on American Idol. The show became one of the most popular TV shows in the UK, and is now produced in 41 countries worldwide. Cowell is by far the most highly-paid judge in reality television, earning a $95 million annual salary for each season that he appears on The X Factor.