Just like the shows themselves, the authenticity of the people that fill out the "casts" of reality TV series can sometimes be difficult to parse out. We accept that they are seeing slightly exaggerated versions of people, probably taking some little quirk of theirs and blowing it up to cartoonish proportions. That being said, like with the genre itself, the realness of reality TV stars can vary wildly. From people who are made to look just a little more larger-than-life than they probably are in their off-camera lives, to people who are just outright playing a persona on the screen that bares little to no resemblance to the real person.
One type of reality TV star that people tend to fall in love with are the so-called "tough guys." It's a term that can mean a variety of things, from the gruff-talking tattooed biker dude to the guy whose career involves him literally risking his life. It sometimes applies to villain-types, but it doesn't have to. Even if someone is as nice as nice can be, if he served in the military, wrestles alligators, and/or does potentially life-threatening stunts, it's more than fair to qualify him as a tough guy. In contrast, someone who has reality TV gained fame by portraying a "hard" vibe, but can't actually back it up certainly doesn't deserve the tough guy label.
Here are 8 Reality Stars Who Are Legitimately Tough Guys (And 7 Who Are Only Tough On Screen).
15 Legitimately Tough: Phil Harris (Deadliest Catch)
While we need to use the past tense "was" when describing Phil Harris since he passed away in 2010, that doesn't mean he doesn't still deserve to be recognize for being a genuine tough guy while he was still alive. In fact, he continued to prove just how tough he was right up to the end of his life.
The title Deadliest Catch isn't just meant to be viewer bait. The profession of Alaskan king crab fishing is indeed a dangerous job, that can very easily claim the lives of even the most skilled fishermen and women. This is a big part of what has made the show one of the longest-running reality series on TV with 14 seasons and counting. The other part is people, like Phil, who make the show so compelling to watch, as we get to witness first-hand what kind of people would choose a career where each day could literally be their last.
In January of 2010, Phil collapsed in his quarters after having complained of being exhausted and in pain. Naturally, the production crew wanted to stop filming as paramedics were called, but Phil insisted the cameras keep rolling, through his airlifting to the hospital and ensuing surgery as it was revealed his brain was swelling due to a stroke. If that isn't the sign of a tough guy, we don't know what is. He ultimately succumbed to complications from the stroke nearly two weeks later.
14 Only Tough On Screen: Simon Cowell (America's Got Talent)
Every reality show needs a villain. For much of American Idol's original run, that villain role was played by music producer Simon Cowell. Cowell seemed all too happy to be the one to personally tell hundreds of teenage and young adult music hopefuls that not only would they never be famous, but they should probably even quit singing in the shower. America could never fully decide if they hated or loved him for it and that's why his shtick worked so well.
Whenever we see someone like that on TV, we can't help but to wonder if they are like that in real life or if it's all just an act. Cowell does indeed believe that people shouldn't be lied to about their likelihood of becoming famous, that isn't in dispute. But, Cowell also believes that it's more cruel to string people along and give them false hope, rather than just saving them from spending years wasting their time on a career that is never going to pan out for them. Which is hard to find fault with.
Sometimes you need to be brutally honest.
Furthermore, it would seem that becoming a dad has softened Cowell even further. Many people noticed that his edge had dulled considerably when he joined the judging panel of America's Got Talent, something which many likened to his having become a father. When asked about that, Cowell joked that he is now as nice as a "regular mean person" since joining the dad ranks.
13 Legitimately Tough: Paul Teutul, Sr (American Chopper)
Few types of people are as quickly stereotyped as tough guys than bikers-- especially tattooed bikers. While many bikers are also perfectly nice people in addition to their rugged, intimidating exteriors-- as evidenced by things like the annual Toys for Tots motorcycle drive-- that doesn't mean that it isn't a subculture full of out-and-out tough guys. This is a fact that is hammered home by one of reality TV's most famous bikers checking the necessary boxes to be easily considered as such.
Paul Teutul Sr. was part of the father-son team that ran the New York-based custom bike shop called Orange County Choppers, featured on the series American Chopper. It probably takes a certain gruffness to run a motorcycle-based business and deal with its typical clientele, and Paul definitely has that in spades. Even pushing 70, Paul isn't the type of guy that many people would feel comfortable messing with, between his steely stare and massive arms. It's definitely not all just for the cameras, either, as the entirely self-made Paul also spent his formative years serving in the Merchant Marines where he says he had to do a grueling six months of boot camp.
If you'd like to question the tough guy credentials of a Marine biker with muscles bigger than some people's torsos, go right ahead-- but don't expect us to back you up.
12 Only Tough On Screen: Anthony Bourdain (No Reservations)
There isn't one definitive "bad boy of the culinary world," as a number of celebrity chefs can be easily be described as such. But, one of the longest-running famous foodie tough guys is easily Anthony Bourdain. He first broke through to the mainstream via his explosive 2000 book, Kitchen Confidential.
During his two-decade tenure as one of TV's most famous faces( or chef), Bourdain has cultivated a certain on-air persona. Earning notoriety not just for his culinary expertise, but also his propensity for cursing, smoking, drinking, and wearing leather jackets. In fact, No Reservations is one of the only foodie shows to have a content disclaimer at the beginning, due in large part to Bourdain's potty mouth and love of innuendo. Bourdain also doesn't mind taking on his fellow celebrity chefs, having called out such heavyweights such as Rachel Ray, Guy Fieri, Bobby Flay, and Paula Deen (even before the racism controversy) at one time or another.
But in a 2017 interview, Bourdain confessed that he isn't comfortable with his macho persona, considering it a "personal failing." He also admitted that he "happily went along with" the persona that people sort of invented for him just because of how he dressed and talked, though he contends that his bad boy public image is largely perception rather than reality. He has been distancing himself from that image even more in light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the troubling accusations that actress Asia Argento, Bourdain's current girlfriend, made towards Weinstein.
11 Legitimately Tough: Johnny Knoxville (Jackass)
Say what you will about Jackass, but one thing is tough to argue. Those guys weren't faking it. Sure, they were surrounded by professionals and were insured by MTV, but they were still actually doing all of those dangerous, sometimes potentially life-threatening stunts just for the amusement of their frat boy demographic.
We can debate all day over which member of the Jackass troupe has the most dangerous stunts under his belt, but as Johnny Knoxville is the de facto leader of the group, he has probably done the highest total number of stupid things on camera. Lest you still question Knoxville's toughness or the validity of the things he and the rest of the crew did, he has a whole list of injuries that prove that he wasn't faking it. From broken bones to multiple concussions to the tearing of his...well, let's just say it's something that no man would ever want to have to have surgery on.
In addition to his don't-give-a-flip attitude about abusing his own body for Jackass, Knoxville hasn't given up his lust for danger even as he closes in on his 50th birthday.
While filming the movie Action Point (which is technically a fiction-based film and not a real-life stunt fest), Knoxville, who of course did all of his own stunts because why wouldn't he, says he was injured more than during any Jackass movie. One of those injuries includes a popped-out eyeball, hopefully you aren't eating lunch right now!
10 Only Tough On Screen: Adam Lind (Teen Mom 2)
Part of why 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom are so fascinating to watch is that they are full of frustrating, polarizing people that we love to hate and can't turn away from. Of course, the biggest "star" of that whole franchise is definitely original cast member Farrah Abraham. Farrah's popularity is more about her being a train wreck that is impossible to stop watching as it is that she is charming or interesting in a positive way. She is one of the only reality stars who ever voluntarily made her own "tape"-- if you catch our drift-- specifically to be marketed and sold for her own profit.
While 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom seemed to imply an increased focus on the mothers and their children, all of their baby daddies continued to get plenty of focus, for better or worse. In the case of Teen Mom 2's Adam Lind, ex-boyfriend of Chelsea DeBoer and father to Aubree, things definitely fall pretty squarely onto the "worse" side.
While Adam loves to portray himself as a tough guy and seemingly has the arrest record to prove it, he actually has much more bark than bite.Those arrests are nothing to do any bad boy boasting over, as they include charges of domestic violence, stalking, and being $16,000 behind in child support payments. Not exactly the kind of rap sheet that earns you tough guy points. In fact, quite the opposite.
9 Legitimately Tough: Phil Robertson (Duck Dynasty)
While most of the Robertson boys, the stars of reality series Duck Dynasty, seem to be of the teddy bear-style of bearded, camo-wearing hunters, family patriarch Phil Robertson definitely comes off as being a bit more rough-around-the-edges. His unfortunate comments about same-sex marriage and relationships not withstanding, most accounts of Phil definitely seem to confirm his tough guy status.
In case you need proof, a good example of Phil's toughness comes via the way he grew up. As he describes in his autobiography Happy, Happy, Happy: My Life and Legacy as the Duck Commander, Phil's childhood was one "lived like it was the 1850s." He grew up without electricity or running water, living almost entirely off the land and rarely going into town for groceries or the like. In the winter, when their makeshift pipes that ran from the outside well to their sink would freeze, Phil and his siblings would have to use hot coals to thaw them.
The fact that Phil was able to take such humble beginnings and still grow up to build a multi-million dollar duck call company from scratch is much harder than anything most of us have ever been able to pull off, and most certainly makes him a tough guy.
8 Only Tough On Screen: Gordon Ramsay (Hell's Kitchen)
Though the title of the cooking-based reality competition Hell's Kitchen is a reference to an area of New York City with that nickname, it also plays off of the fiery temper of its host, five-star British chef Gordon Ramsay. Much of that show's dynamic is built around the competitors trying desperately to appease Ramsay, who seems almost impossible to impress and is ready to fly off the handle and hurl a plate of food across the room with very little provocation.
Most of Ramsay's shows make it clear by their titles what audiences are getting with the hot-headed chef, with names like The F Word, Kitchen Nightmares, and Hotel Hell.
Could Ramsay possible be that angry and violently-tempered in real life? Besides seeming plenty affable in his many talk show appearances, there was an article written by a former production assistant on Kitchen Nightmares that seems to confirm that the Ramsay we see in his shows is largely an act. The PA claims that, despite his very low standing on that show's staff and how it isn't necessarily an indictment on a star to overlook PAs. Ramsay never turned his nose up at him and went from immediately greeting him with smiles to actually learning and remember his name after just a few days on set. Doesn't exactly sound like a guy who is sent into a rage over undercooked steak, does it?
7 Legitimately Tough: T.I. (T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle)
The line between "traditional celebrity" and "reality TV celebrity" has gotten so blurry that it's almost nonexistent anymore. Reality TV stars eventually become famous outside of their shows and existing celebrities cross over and do reality shows. One such example of the latter is rapper T.I., who starred in the Vh1 reality series T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle with his wife, singer Tameka "Tiny" Cottle. Seeing as how that show lasted for six seasons and is what many people primarily know him from, we feel pretty safe in adding "reality TV star" to T.I.'s various titles.
That said, he is still primarily a rapper and it's not exactly an inaccurate stereotype to say that many rappers have checkered pasts-- and sometimes presents. T.I. has been a professional rapper since his 2001. His debut album, I'm Serious, marked the beginning of a career rapping about having to be tough in order to survive a world that doesn't make things easy for young black men.
Of course, a lot of rappers are also full of it, either exaggerating the toughness of their upbringing or trying to pretend to still be in "the life" as they rap from their home studio inside their multi-million-dollar mansions in Beverly Hills. But T.I. doesn't seem to be a faker, as he had already racked up multiple arrests for dealing illegal substances as a teenager and has never been one to shy away from an altercation, either on record or in person.
6 Only Tough On Screen: Rick Harrison (Pawn Stars)
There is a certain "vibe" that surrounds pawn shops. They are often in questionable neighborhoods, shady characters frequently seem to hang around outside of them, and it's tough to know for sure whether or not the inventory contains items that weren't originally acquired by legal means. With all of that in mind, it stands to reason that it would take a person of a certain toughness to be able to run and work in a pawn shop, and for viewers of Pawn Stars, Rick Harrison seems up for the task in that respect. Buff, bald, and with little tolerance for nonsense, Rick seems like the kind of guy you would think twice about trying to pass off a phony item to.
It's certainly possible that he is actually like that in his line of work even when the cameras aren't rolling, out of necessity. But that still doesn't mean he is cold and hard 24 hours a day. It would seem like that is very far from being the case with Rick. People from his hometown recall a kind, sweet boy who was really into books and science, for instance. He has also done a lot of charity work with the Epilepsy Foundation (he battled epilepsy as a child) and has been known to personally answer correspondence from his young fans. A pawn shop owner with a heart of gold...who knew?
5 Legitimately Tough: Steve Irwin (The Crocodile Hunter)
Few people who have walked this planet have been as passionate about animals, or as passionate about life in general, as the late Steve Irwin. In addition to being one of the most infectious television personalities of all time, Irwin did a lot for environmentalism and animal conservation in his relatively short life. He even discovered a new species of turtle that he was given the opportunity to name. He went with Irwin's turtle, of course.
Steve Irwin is kind of guy that only a person with nothing but ice in their heart could possibly find a reason to dislike
So how could this lovable goofball who was a renowned zookeeper, conservationist, and television personality be classified as a legitimate tough guy? Well, his marquee show was titled The Crocodile Hunter for a reason, Irwin would capture crocodiles up and down the coast of Australia. But it was probably a misnomer to call him a crocodile "hunter," as he was trapping them and gathering them up as a means of managing the croc population but was relocating them to other places. Crocodile trapper would've probably been more apt, although that is decidedly less catchy. Oh, and did we mention he trapped these giant, dangerous reptiles with his bare hands? If you think all these heavily-armed crocodile hunters on shows like Swamp People are tough guys, well they've got nothing on Steve Irwin. All he needed was his hands, a net, and a whole lot of nerve.
4 Only Tough On Screen: Pauly D (Jersey Shore)
One of the most divisive shows in MTV's history is most definitely Jersey Shore, a series about a group of men and women living together in a house in Seaside Heights, New Jersey who proudly embraced the term/lifestyle "Guido/Guidette," despite those terms typically being used in a derogatory fashion. The label, especially the male version (Guido) is generally used to describe someone of Italian descent who has a macho, tough-talking personality. No one on the show seemed to encapsulate that label more than Paul "Pauly D" DelVechhio, essentially the show's primary male lead.
It's kind of hard to take much of anything you see on an MTV reality show seriously. Not only are the people and situations (no pun intended) often way too outlandish to possibly be real, but after supposed reality show Laguna Beach was revealed in its last episode to have been almost completely staged. MTV doesn't really have much credibility in the reality TV arena. So it should come as no surprise that the cast of Jersey Shore were basically just playing their expected roles, Pauly D in particular.
For proof, one need look no further than Pauly's self-titled spin-off show The Pauly D Project, which frequently showed the DJ's softer-- and presumably more accurate-- side. Among the sweet moments that Pauly shared on that show were visiting a teenage fan who suffered from leukemia, doing PSAs, and offering his DJ services to people free of charge.
3 Legitimately Tough: Ami James (Miami Ink)
In the world of assumptions and stereotypes, the only people generally considered to be bigger tough guys than people with tattoos are people who give tattoos. It certainly doesn't hurt that perception that tattoo artists are sometimes some of the most inked-up people around.
Needless to say, not everyone with a tattoo is necessarily a tough guy (that Ninja Turtle on your ankle isn't intimidating anyone). Basically, being inked and being tough having a connection is purely coincidentally is what we're getting at. But, that doesn't mean that the connection is never there. Case in point, Miami Ink/NY Ink star and real-life tattoo superstar Ami James.
Beyond just looking tough on TV while giving other people tough-looking tattoos, James has a past that would've made him tough even if he never put a drop of ink into his body. Before living in the United States, James, who was born in Egypt, had spent part of his childhood in Israel. He decided to return there as a teenager in order to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces as a sniper, an organization that has as the first point of its main doctrine that it can't afford to lose a single war. They don't mess around, and either does James.
2 Only Tough On Screen: Bear Grylls (Man vs. Wild)
The implied premise of Man vs. Wild was that star Bear Grylls is out surviving in the wilderness completely on his own, with the obvious exception of whomever was his cameraman. Needless to say, it made for some pretty compelling television and an equally compelling story when elements of the show were called into question.
Not long after the show's 2006 debut, a crew member claimed that Grylls wasn't as much of a one-man show as he was made out to be. It was alleged that Grylls got a lot more help from the show's crew than was insinuated, was never in any real danger, and, perhaps most damning, was resting comfortably in motels at night rather than out in the wild. The accusations were taken so seriously that Discovery Channel briefly put the show on hiatus to investigate the claims and possibly retool the show.
Can we blame Bear Grylls for staying in a motel? It's a scary world out there.
Eventually, it was announced that the show would start being more honest about the help that Grylls was getting, and said in a statement that the the show "explicitly does not claim that...Bear Grylls' experience is one of unaided solo survival." After that, Grylls role on the show began to be called that of a "presenter" of the survival experience, added various disclaimers, and altered narration to reflect that. None of this necessarily means that Grylls isn't tough, but the fact that he was complicit in misleading viewers about what was being portrayed definitely doesn't paint him in the best light.
1 Legitimately Tough: Mike Rowe (Dirty Jobs)
If you've watched any reality television in the past twenty years or so, you're no doubt familiar with Mike Rowe. He provided the narration for nine different shows and hosted 13 more between 2000 and today. So why does everyone seem to want Mike Rowe to be the voice and/or face of their series? Well, beyond just being really good at it, he also makes for the perfect host/narrator because he is legit.
Mike Rowe's best-known show is most likely Dirty Jobs, which aired on Discovery Channel from 2003 to 2012. The series saw Rowe take on a variety of unusual careers, all with some element that would make them unappealing to the average person. This frequently meant jobs that were extremely dangerous, with Rowe taking on jobs that required him to work at dizzying heights, inside claustrophobic areas, and working with dangerous equipment that could end your life, if you let your guard down for even a second. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone out there legitimately claiming that Rowe faked any of that footage or didn't dive into each and every job portrayed on the show 100%. Rowe out in 20+ hour days when it was required and sometimes coming back for several days to make sure all the necessary footage was captured.
The only people who can claim to be tougher than Mike Rowe are the people who actually do the jobs he subbed in on during his Dirty Jobs tenure as their day-to-day careers.'
Which of these reality stars would you not want to mess with? Let us know in the comments!