Most reality TV is scripted within an inch of its life. So, it’s perhaps not too surprising that several of its stars have attempted to use their experience of dramatic meltdowns, showmances and catfights to forge a career in Hollywood. Of course, most struggle to land parts more substantial than Store Clerk #1 or Club Girl #4. However, there are a handful who do manage to prove to a wider audience that their talents match their appetite for fame.
There are also just as many talent show finalists who have achieved far greater success in the acting world than in the field they initially competed in. But although you’re already likely to know about the small screen backgrounds of Jennifer Hudson, Julianne Hough, Katherine McPhee and ahem, Paris Hilton, many stars’ first tastes of fame may have flown under your radar. From dashing mad men to pretty little liars, here’s a look at 15 of them.
15 Emma Stone
Cameron Crowe, Woody Allen, Alejandro G. Inarritu. These are just some of the esteemed directors that Emma Stone has worked with since transitioning from charming rom-com sidekick to Oscar-nominated leading lady. But before she stole the show from underneath her more illustrious co-stars with her big-screen debut in the raunchy Superbad, Stone attempted to seek fame and fortune in a more wholesome setting.
Yes, In Search of the Partridge Family, a VH1 talent show designed to find the cast for a revival of the squeaky-clean sing-along '70s sitcom, first gave Stone a chance to showcase her considerable talents in 2004. Thanks to gutsy performance of Meredith Brooks’ "Bitch" and Pat Benatar’s "We Belong," Stone was cast as Laurie, the teenage pin-up portrayed by Susan Dey in the original. Sadly, resulting show The New Partridge Family failed to make it past the pilot stage, but for Stone, this setback ultimately did her a favor.
14 Jon Hamm
It seems difficult to believe that a gentleman as debonair as Jon Hamm would have ever needed help in the romance department. And yet, a decade before becoming the thinking woman’s heartthrob as Mad Men’s Don Draper, the actor made a rather cringeworthy appearance on forgotten USA Network show The Big Date.
Then aged 25, a floppy-haired Hamm not only had to suffer the embarrassment of appearing on a cheap dating show, he also had to suffer the embarrassment of losing on it. Yes, no doubt that contestant Mary has been left kicking herself after rejecting Hamm on the 1996 episode. Although considering his creepy idea of the perfect date ("start off with some fabulous food, a little fabulous conversation, and then a fabulous foot massage for an evening of total fabulosity."), you perhaps can understand why she decided to opt for one of the two competing bleached blondes instead.
13 David Giuntoli
Considering how many aspiring actors filled the casts of The Real World and its sister show Road Rules, it’s surprising that only a few were ever heard from again. David Giuntoli, who appeared in the latter’s 12th season, South Pacific, in 2003, and the hybrid show The Challenge a year later, is one of the lucky ones who managed to extend their fifteen minutes of fame to at least fifteen years.
Indeed, following one-off appearances on The Ghost Whisperer, Veronica Mars and Grey’s Anatomy, Giuntoli made his breakthrough when he was cast in the leading role of Detective Nick Burkhardt in the supernatural police procedural Grimm. Giuntoli has also been making waves on the big screen, appearing in arthouse drama Caroline and Jackie, Michael Bay’s war biopic 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, and co-writing, producing and starring in Buddymoon, an indie comedy about a jilted groom who embarks on his honeymoon with his best man instead.
12 Jamie Chung
Hot on the heels of Giuntoli, Jamie Chung appeared on The Real World, specifically its 13th season, San Diego, in 2004 and The Challenge a year later where she was described as someone who “tells it like it is.” She too also guested on Grey’s Anatomy and Veronica Mars, before ending up in a fantastical world as Mulan in Once Upon a Time. There have also been recurring roles on Days of Our Lives, Believer, Resident Advisors and Gotham, and a leading part in miniseries Samurai Girl. But it’s on the big screen where Chung’s acting career has truly flourished.
Indeed, Chung has earned critical acclaim for her powerful performance as the titular character in human trafficking drama Eden, voiced GoGo Tomago in box-office smash Big Hero, and landed major roles in action flicks like Sucker Punch, Dragonball Evolution and The Man with the Iron Fists. She’s also starred alongside her actor husband Bryan Greenberg in indie dramas A Year and Change and It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, as well as the comedy A Flock of Dudes. She will next be seen in the star-studded comedy, Office Christmas Party.
11 Jacinda Barrett
Completing the trifecta of Hollywood’s The Real World graduates is Jacinda Barrett. The Australian-American found fame when the reality show was in its infancy, appearing on the 1995 fourth series based in London. The former model irritated most of her cast mates with her generally inconsiderate behavior and fondness for pranking. But that didn’t stop from her becoming the show’s runaway star, going on to appear in box-office hits such as Ladder 49, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and Poseidon.
Just like Chang, Barrett has also appeared on screen with her real-life husband, Gabriel Macht, in the crime drama Middle Men and in several episodes of his long-running USA Network hit, Suits. She’s also enjoyed recurring roles on the likes of Bull, Zoe, Duncan, Jack and Jane, D.C., Citizen Baines, Zero Hour and The Following, and can currently be seen playing Kyle Chandler’s wife, Diana Rayburn, on the prestige Netflix drama, Bloodline.
10 Lucy Hale
In the wake of American Idol’s astonishing success, producers launched an American Juniors spin-off to find the nation’s answer to the UK’s S Club Juniors. Failing to capitalize on their momentum, the group ended up releasing their debut album when everyone had lost interest over a year later, and it subsequently sank without trace. However, one of its members, Lucy Hale, would soon bounce back to become one of America's most popular young TV actresses.
Guest roles on Drake and Josh, The O.C. and How I Met Your Mother were followed by regular gigs on Bionic Woman and Privileged, leading roles in A Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song and Dude, and most famously, a seven-season stint as Aria Montgomery on the ABC Family murder mystery, Pretty Little Liars. Hale has also put the disappointment of her early musical career behind her by scoring a US Top 20 album with 2014’s Nashville-themed Road Between, as well as a US Hot 100 single in the shape of “You Sound Good To Me.”
9 Josh Henderson
Like Hale, Josh Henderson found out the hard way that success on a talent show doesn’t necessarily guarantee success out in the real world. The Texan heartthrob was also selected as one fifth of a manufactured group on The WB’s American Idol precursor Popstars in 2001. But as with American Juniors, interest in boy/girl outfit Scene 23 fizzled out virtually as soon as the final episode’s credits rolled, and Henderson was forced to look elsewhere in his quest for fame and fortune.
He did so by appearing in two of the same network’s sitcom, namely Maybe It’s Me and Do Over. Recurring gigs in One on One, Over There and Desperate Housewives followed, as did small parts in the rom-com The Girl Next Door, family favorite Yours, Mine and Ours, and the dance flick Step Up, and more notable roles in straight-to-DVD horrors Fingerprints and April Fool’s Day. Henderson recently appeared alongside Jean-Claude Van Damme in Swelter and played John Ross Ewing III in the semi-successful (but now cancelled) revival of the prime-time soap, Dallas.
8 Laverne Cox
“Working for Diddy would open up the entire world for me.” That was the rather bold claim made by Laverne Cox while appearing as a contestant on VH1 show I Want to Work For Diddy. In the end, Cox was eliminated in the sixth episode of the 2008 first season. But soon after, she was approached by the network to front teh makeover series TRANSform Me, making her the first ever African-American trans woman to star in and produce her very own show.
Cox has since become almost as famous as the hip-hop mogul she once desperately wanted to work for, largely thanks to her role in the Netflix hit series, Orange is the New Black. The actress has played Sophia Burset, a trans woman sent to Litchfield Penitentiary for credit fraud, for four seasons of the Netflix show, as well as landing major roles in The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do It Again and the forthcoming CBS drama, Doubt. Cox has also become one of the most vocal advocates for the trans community on the planet, and in 2014, she won an Emmy Award for her documentary on the subject, Laverne Presents: The T Word.
7 Heather Morris
Heather Morris’ transition from talent show contestant to fully-fledged actress is all the more impressive for the fact that she never even made it to the finals of her respective series, So You Think You Can Dance. The California-born star was left out of the second season’s Top 20, but soon showed the judges what they were missing out on when she landed a gig performing as a backing dancer for none other than Beyonce.
Her career took an unexpected turn in 2009 when she was cast as Brittany S. Pierce, the sweet-natured airhead on the all-singing, all-dancing phenomenon known as Glee. Morris appeared in 92 episodes of the show, and also showcased her acting talents in the likes of Spring Breakers, Ice Age: Continental Drift and Fired Up. She will next be seen alongside David Cross, Melanie Lynskey and Michael Ian Black in the musical comedy Folk Hero and Funny Guy.
6 Dean Geyer
Morris wasn’t the only Glee star who first tasted fame on a talent show. South African-born Dean Geyer, who played Rachel’s love interest Brody Weston on the Fox show, first came to attention in the 2006 season of Australian Idol, where he finished third behind fellow singer-turned-actor Jessica Mauboy and Damian Leith. A Top 10 album in Australia, Rush, followed, but Geyer soon turned his back on music to pursue a career in acting.
After playing Ty Harper in 244 episodes of the down under soap opera institution, Neighbours, Geyer moved to America, where he landed roles in Never Back Down 2: The Beatdown, Terra Nova and, of course, Glee. He’s most recently been seen in Amazon's dramedy Casual, and will soon guest on Jennifer Lopez’s cop show, Shades of Blue. He also returned to his adopted homeland in 2016 for a surprisingly brief spell on the jungle reality show, I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here.
5 Matt Lanter
So, it turns out that the execrable Friedberg/Seltzer parody movies Disaster Movie and Vampires Suck weren’t the most embarrassing entries on Matt Lanter’s filmography after all. Indeed, several years before working with two of the laziest directors in the game, the heartthrob first came to attention as a contestant on the now-forgotten Bravo reality show, Manhunt: The Search for America’s Most Gorgeous Male Model.
Lanter may have only finished in eighth place, but a year later he returned to the screen in the teen drama Point Pleasant, and he’s never looked back since. There have been recurring roles in 90210, Star Crossed and The Astronaut Wives Club, a long-running voiceover gig on Star Wars: The Clone Wars and supporting parts in slightly more respectable movies such as Sorority Row and The Roommate. He’s currently starring as widowed US Army Delta Force operative Wyatt Logan in NBC’s ‘much better than you would expect’ sci-fi, Timeless.
4 Analeigh Tipton
The aforementioned series Manhunt was devised as Bravo’s answer to America’s Next Top Model, a show which has also produced its fair share of future Hollywood talent since first hitting our screens in 2003. Analeigh Tipton, who finished third in the 2008 Cycle 11 season behind Samantha Potter and McKey Sullivan, has since gone on to prove she can do more than walk in a straight line by appearing in a number of hit films.
First, she joined a fellow former reality star, Emma Stone, as the Steve Carell-adoring babysitter in the well-received rom-com, Crazy Stupid Love. The Green Hornet, Warm Bodies, Lucy and Mississippi Grind are just some of the high-profile movies that she’s graced her elegant presence with in the last few years. And there have also been guest spots on The Big Bang Theory and Limitless, a recurring role on Hung, and a short-lived leading lady gig in ABC's romantic comedy, Manhattan Love Story.
3 Yaya DaCosta
As it turns out, Lipton was actually following in the footsteps of another America’s Next Top Model graduate. New Yorker Yaya DaCosta placed second behind Eva Pigford in the 2004 Cycle 3 season of the long-running reality show. But after a spell in TV commercials, she switched her focus to acting in 2005, with a guest spot on rapper Eve’s eponymous sitcom.
Since then, DaCosta has appeared on the big screen in the likes of Take the Lead, The Messenger, The Kids Are All Right, Tron: Legacy, In Time, The Butler and The Nice Guys, portrayed the late Whitney Houston in a Lifetime biopic, and appeared in music videos for artists such as Jay Z, Chingy and Raphael Saadiq. She’s also enjoyed recurring roles as Cassandra Foster in All My Children, Nico Slater in Ugly Betty, and April Sexton in two parts of Dick Wolf’s never-ending TV universe, Chicago Fire and Chicago Med.
Usher has been a mainstay of the Billboard charts ever since he reached number one as a fresh-faced teen back in 1997 with "You Make Me Wanna…" His film career has never quite reached the same lofty heights. But unlike many of his fellow moonlighting R&B stars, he’s never really embarrassed himself on the big screen either, with teen favorites The Faculty and She’s All That and recent sports biopic Made of Stone all proving he’s more than just a soulful voice with a six-pack.
In fact, the film world was also instrumental in his early career. His first official recording was made specifically for the soundtrack to the 1993 urban drama Poetic Justice. And he was spotted by L.A. Reid on Star Search – the same talent show which also introduced fellow musicians-turned-actors Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Aaliyah and Beyonce to the world – in 1994 performing "End of the Road," Boyz II Men’s contribution to the Boomerang soundtrack.
1 Kristen Wiig
A bit of an anomaly this one, as Kristen Wiig made her TV debut pretending to be a reality star rather than actually being one. Yes, the comedienne first showcased her talents playing Quack Marriage Counselor Patricia ‘Dr. Pat’ Lane on the first season of The Joe Schmo Show, an elaborate TV hoax in which an unwitting pizza delivery man was made to believe he was appearing in a genuine reality show. Instead, every person he came into contact with, including Wiig, was a stooge.
Wiig was made to suffer for her art on the show when after a sumo wrestling contest with the poor unsuspecting Matt Kennedy Gould, she was taken to the hospital with a head injury. Wiig returned to filming the next day, and just two years later she had become a cast member on Saturday Night Live, which launched her career into the comedic stratosphere. She’s since added to her list of spoofs by appearing in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, MacGruber, The Spoils of Babylon, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp and A Deadly Adoption, in addition to headlining blockbuster comedies like Bridesmaids and Ghostbusters.
What other well-known actors would fans be surprised to find out have a past in the high art of reality television? How many times have you already rewatched the clip of Jon Hamm bombing on a dating show? Let us know in the comments.