Ryan Knight, an MTV reality star who had a role on Real World New Orleans in 2010, was found dead on Thanksgiving morning after a night of partying. His body was discovered at a friend’s home, allegedly covered in vomit, and Knight’s friends told TMZ the actor had taken “some pills” the night before. The long list of unexpected fatalities to strike unscripted programming (and that term is being employed loosely) is the dark side of reality TV, a genre better known for its frivolity and vacuous plotlines. Over the years there have been numerous reality TV stars who have unexpectedly died from drug overdoses, suicide, or accidents.
12 Eric Hill: The Bachelorette
Eric Hill was a competitor on the 10th season of The Bachelorette. In April 2014, Hill suffered critical injuries while paragliding in Utah after his parachute collapsed. He went into a coma and died three days later. Hill was only 31. Eric Hill was an adventurer and extreme sports enthusiast. Since 2013, he'd been on a trek called “The Global Odyssey,” in which he was trying to travel to every country in the world in fewer than 1,200 days.
11 Russell Armstrong: Real Housewives of Beverly Hills
In 2011, Russell Armstrong, the ex-husband of Bravo’s Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Taylor Armstrong, was found hanging from an extension cord tied to a wooden beam in his Mulholland Drive home. According to the Daily Mail, Russell Armstrong found the pressure of fame to be overwhelming and had piled up $1.5 million in debts. In an interview, Taylor Armstrong said, “I don’t know if you ever move on from suicide. It’s something that I’ll always have questions about, but for my daughter’s sake, I can’t dwell on the past.”
10 Phil Harris and Justin Tennison: The Deadliest Catch
Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch, a reality series that follows the dangerous exploits of crab fishermen aboard vessels in the Bering Sea during the Alaskan king crab season, currently airs in over 200 countries. In 2010, 53-year old sea captain Phil Harris suffered a massive stroke aboard his boat, the Cornelia Marie. In 2011, the show suffered a second loss when dockhand Justin Tennison, age 34, was found unresponsive on a bed in an Alaskan hotel room. Drugs and alcohol were found in the room, but an autopsy proved Tennison’s death was due to complications from sleep apnea.
9 Shain Gandee: Buckwild
Buckwild debuted on MTV in 2013. The reality show followed the lives of nine adults in Charleston, West Virginia, who engaged in Jackass-like activities including mud racing, squirrel hunting, and rope swinging. The show was quickly dubbed "The Redneck Jersey Shore." Buckwild was in production on its second season when Shain Gandee, the 21-year old star, was found dead along with his uncle, David Gandee, and a friend, in a Ford Bronco in a remote area of West Virginia. The men had gone off-roading. When the truck was finally discovered, it was submerged in deep mud and the exhaust pipe was completely covered. Autopsy results confirmed the three men died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
8 Paula Goodspeed: American Idol
Paula Goodspeed performed during American Idol’s Texas auditions in 2005, and she made it to the third round before being eliminated. In an interview with Ryan Seacrest, she said, “I really like Paula Abdul a lot. She’s very cool. I’m a really big fan. I make life-size drawings of Paula.” The “life-sized drawings” comment was a red flag, and it was soon discovered that Goodspeed was such a "big" fan of the singer and American Idol judge that she had changed her first name to Paula when she was 16 and began modeling her career and wardrobe after her. In 2008, Goodspeed committed suicide in her car outside of Paula Abdul’s home. The press dubbed her a celebrity stalker. Her family claimed she suffered from depression and an eating disorder.
7 Matt Hughes: Storm Chasers
Matt Hughes, a 30-year old meteorologist and extreme weather expert who was a regular on Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers, died in the hospital after trying to hang himself. On May 26, 2010, Valley Center Police responded to a suicide call from Hughes’ home and found the reality star still breathing. After 13 days in intensive care, serious complications arose and Hughes passed away. According to friends and colleagues, his suicide was the result of depression.
6 Julien Hug: The Bachelorette
Julien Hug briefly appeared in season five of The Bachelorette, which aired in 2009. He competed for the affection of Julian Harris, but was the second bachelor eliminated. In 2010, Julien Hug was found dead in his car from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a remote section of the San Bernardino National Forest in California. “In his letter to us he stated that he was suffering from acute depression and he felt it was his only way out,” said his parents in a statement. Several suicide notes were found in Hug’s car, including one to his live-in girlfriend, Jennifer Bell. According to Bell, “People wanted him to be this Bachelorette star, and that TV show was not even 1% of who he was.”
5 Joseph Cerniglia: Kitchen Nightmares
In 2010, 39-year old chef and restaurant owner, Joseph Cerniglia, was found floating in the Hudson River after jumping to his death from the George Washington Bridge in New York City. Cerniglia’s restaurant, Campagnia, was featured on the 2007 season of Gordon Ramsay’s reality series, Kitchen Nightmares. Joseph Cerniglia was in serious debt from the restaurant, but colleagues said things had turned around since Campagnia received an overhaul on Ramsay’s TV show. In a 2007 episode of Kitchen Nightmares, in what is a sad and ironic twist of fate, Gordon Ramsay said to Cerniglia, “Your business is about to fuc*ing swim down the Hudson.”
4 Pedro Zamora: The Real World: San Francisco
Pedro Zamora brought international attention to HIV/AIDS and LGBT issues when he appeared on MTV’s popular reality series, The Real World: San Francisco. Zamora’s relationship with Sean Sasser was documented on the show, and the broadcast of their commitment ceremony, in which they exchanged vows, was the first same-sex ceremony in the history of television. In 1994, Pedro Zamora passed away due to complications from HIV. President Bill Clinton credited Zamora for his activism and for humanizing those living with HIV.
3 Mindy McCready: Celebrity Rehab
Troubled country music star Mindy McCready, whose struggles with addiction and mental illness were documented on Dr. Drew Pinksy’s VH1 series Celebrity Rehab, committed suicide in 2013. She was found dead on the front porch of her Arkansas home of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Mindy McCready was the fifth cast member to die after participating in Dr. Drew’s Celebrity Rehab. McCreedy’s 1996 album, “Ten Thousand Angels,” sold more than 2 million copies, but her public struggles with addiction overshadowed her talent. In 2004, the country singer was placed on three years probation for fraudulently obtaining OxyContin.
2 Steve Irwin: Crocodile Hunter
In 2006, Australian wildlife expert Steve Irwin was killed by a stingray in the Great Barrier Reef as he was filming a documentary called Ocean’s Deadliest. It is believed to be the only fatality by a stingray ever captured on film, the 8 ft. creature pierced the 44-year old adventurer in the chest with its barbed spine while they were swimming in shallow water. Witnesses say Irwin swam up to the ray from behind in order to film it swimming away and that the creature probably believed he was a shark.
1 Anna Nicole Smith: The Anna Nicole Smith Show
Model, actress, and 1993 Playboy Playmate of the Year, Anna Nicole Smith was successful long before tabloids and gossip columnists made her a household name. In 2002, the buxom blonde with a penchant for octogenarian billionaires was given her own reality show on the E! Network. After initially receiving the highest rating ever issued to a reality TV show, The Anna Nicole Show was cancelled after just two seasons. In February 2007, just two years after her son, Daniel Smith, died of an overdose of methadone, Zoloft, and Lexapro, the former Playboy playmate died of a prescription drug overdose. She was 39.