During the actors strike, facing a bleak landscape of scripted television, many viewers turned to reality TV — but we at Variety are already devoted fans of the unscripted arts, and have been forever. We watch it all, peering into every corner of the reality multiverse.
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We watch new romances begin on the shows of Bachelor Nation, and long-term relationships deteriorate on “Vanderpump Rules.” We’ve seen women thriving as competitive beasts on “The Challenge,” and discovering their previously unknown strength on “Special Forces.” We’ve watched “Real Housewives” flourish, buy and cry, as contestants on “Love Is Blind” find relationships in the pods (some of them even last).
It wasn’t easy, but, for the first time, we’ve gathered a list of the most powerful women on reality TV over the last year. These women have not only helped make unscripted television entertaining, but have also found a way to reach audiences in a fresh way — some of them even answered our nosy questions below.
Mel B is best known as Scary Spice thanks to her decades performing with the Spice Girls. But she’s also been on unscripted television for more than 15 years, appearing as a judge on “America’s Got Talent,” “The X Factor” in the U.K. and “The Masked Singer Australia.” This year, she competed on Fox’s “Special Forces: World’s Toughest Test,” and judged Paramount+’s “Queen of the Universe.” And while she’s not on dating shows, she likes to watch them. “I can’t get enough of ‘Married at First Sight,’” says Mel B. “I’ve watched every version there is. I find it totally fascinating!”
For the last 13 years, Brown has starred on TLC’s smash hit “Sister Wives.” Despite being one of four wives of Kody Brown, she was able to break out and create a new life for herself — so much so that she’s stayed close with the other members of the family after choosing to split from Kody. This year, she even married someone new. She also seemingly gave the other wives the strength to know that they, too, could leave the polygamous family — which both Janelle Brown and Meri Brown did. Now, Christine focuses on watching more relaxing shows with her new husband, David, telling Variety, “The reality show I can’t get enough of is ‘Dancing With the Stars.’ I just started watching it with David, and it’s amazing.”
Burruss may have joined “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” in its second season, but she still rules the roost. Burruss’ talent as a songwriter, performer and entrepreneur thrust her into the top tier of “Housewives” who’ve best used the Bravo platform to build their brand and launch businesses. She’s also managed (mostly) to stay out of the show’s drama in recent seasons, even when her own mother is trash-talking her husband. If she had to cross over to another reality show, it would be “Love It or List It” on HGTV: “I love seeing the potential for homeowners to see the value in a home that they felt like was no longer suitable for them, and what would be their alternative options for a new life and their dream home.”
Last year, Byer became the first Black woman ever to be nominated in the category of host for a reality or competition program at the Emmys. As the host of Netflix’s “Nailed It!” and “The Big Nailed It Baking Challenge,” the comedian doesn’t stop at baked goods. She’s also been co-hosting “Wipeout” alongside John Cena since 2021, where she’s able to use her very strong comedy chops. She can’t get enough of E!’s “House of Villains” — “I love badly behaved people,” she says — and Netflix’s hit “Love Is Blind.”
Chanel West Coast
After 30 seasons, West Coast left MTV’s “Ridiculousness” this year, signing an overall deal with Paramount Media Networks, where she is developing scripted and unscripted projects, including her own reality show. She says that while people see her “constantly laughing,” they assume she’s had it easy, which isn’t the truth. “They don’t know about all the hard work and struggles behind the glitz and glam.”
Julie Chen Moonves
One of the longest-running hosts on reality TV, Chen Moonves has been at the forefront of CBS’ “Big Brother” for 23 years and 25 seasons. Not only does she watch hours and hours of houseguests on live feeds, she’s also able to laugh at any criticism that comes her way. This year, she even released a memoir, “But First, God,” leaning into the catchphrase she’d repeatedly say on the series. “I actually love to laugh, especially at myself,” she says. “I love a good ribbing about my outfit, the bob wig I once wore or my Chenbot-like delivery.” What is she watching when she’s not hosting the show, which airs three times a week? “I still keep up with the Kardashians — Khloé is my favorite.”
The oldest daughter of Todd and Julie Chrisley, Savannah starred on USA’s “Chrisley Knows Best” for all 10 seasons and led her own spinoff, “Growing Up Chrisley” until 2022. This year, she competed in Fox’s “Special Forces: World’s Toughest Test.” For Chrisley, the show became an outlet in a difficult time, as her parents are serving time in prison for tax evasion and fraud.
As a drag performer, actress and trans advocate, she was crowned the Season 15 winner of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” and was the first native Hawaiian trans person to win the show. Plus, she became the second consecutive transgender person to win a “Drag Race” U.S. season. Always eager to do more for the LGBTQIA+ community, she was invited to speak at the White House during Vice President Kamala Harris’ annual Pride Month celebration. With so much travel in the past year, Colby would like to keep seeing the world and compete on “The Amazing Race,” telling Variety, “I’m well-prepared for it!”
Barbara Corcoran and Lori Greiner
As an author, motivational speaker and investor, Corcoran has been on ABC’s “Shark Tank” since its debut in 2009. Three years later, Greiner, an inventor and entrepreneur, joined the sharks — and the pair have been unstoppable ever since. With impeccable negotiating skills and kindness, Greiner and Corcoran have paved the way for women in business. “The biggest misconception about me is that I’m the serious investor I play on ‘Shark Tank,’” Corcoran tells Variety. “Truth be told, I don’t have a serious bone in my body.”
If Greiner could be on another unscripted show, it’d be “America’s Got Talent.”
The D’Amelio Family
Charli, Dixie and Heidi D’Amelio gained recognition during the pandemic, when their dancing videos went viral on TikTok. In fact, Charli became the most-followed creator in 2020, and was flung into the limelight. From there, their fame took off; first, the family landed their own reality series, “The D’Amelio Show,” on Hulu — which just completed its third season. Plus, both Heidi and daughter Charli competed on Season 31 of “Dancing With the Stars” — with Charli taking home the mirrorball trophy. The family matriarch notes that, even with the reality show, audiences have misconceptions about her: “Unlike my life now — revolving around social media and my phone — I grew up in Louisiana, and as a child we lived so far in the country we didn’t have phone lines going to our house.”
Ever since joining the reality TV world on 2016’s “Are You the One?,” Deal has become a staple on MTV, competing in 11 (!) seasons of “The Challenge.” During Season 38, she finally took home the $500,000 prize and first-place title. Plus, she’s written a children’s book and a volume of poetry. The biggest misconception about her is a personal one. “Yes, I’ve been in a lot of showmances, but in my real life, dating is pretty dry. It’s really hard to find someone authentic to connect with,” she says, noting she hates the apps, and is now just focusing on her businesses and creativity. “Dear soulmate, if you’re reading this, I’m waiting for you!”
Since she joined the cast of “Summer House” in its third season, DeSorbo has built the brand Giggly Squad (it’s also a popular podcast) with her former co-star Hannah Berner. Having met “Southern Charm” star Craig Conover on “Winter House,” DeSorbo is now part of a super-couple that strolled through BravoCon in early November like they were the king and queen of the prom. It’s important for DeSorbo to know that while she spends a lot of time in bed, she’s not lacking ambition: “Every venture I pursue is intentionally and meticulously planned and executed — often from my bed.”
After Netflix’s “Too Hot to Handle” premiered in 2020, Farago became a breakout star, thanks to her unfiltered remarks and confidence. Plus, she wasn’t afraid to be sex positive. That attitude continued when she went on “Perfect Match” in 2023 — this time, bringing sexual inclusivity to television as an openly queer woman. She didn’t find lasting love on TV, but found it afterward, getting engaged to Jesse Sullivan, a trans TikTok star who has let the world in on his transition. The pair keep their nearly 7 million combined followers in the loop as they go through the IVF process. When she’s not taking over on social media, she binge-watches “Survivor,” “The Ultimatum: Queer Love” or a true crime documentary.
Fields is the only “Survivor” competitor who has appeared on four seasons of the reality competition series, and is referred to as the best player to never win. But she was victorious in the new competition game “The Traitors” on Peacock, and made it to the final five on “Big Brother.” The latter also paired her up with her son, Jared, inside the “Big Brother” house, lying to everyone about the fact that they are related. Fields says she’s a “true reality TV junkie” and barely watches any scripted TV shows. From “The Amazing Race” and “Below Deck” to “Love Is Blind,” she loves it all.
On “The Real Housewives” franchise, being both the show’s pot-stirrer and the reasonable one who’s the stand-in for what the audience is thinking is a fine line to straddle — but “Salt Lake City” star Gay has managed it, becoming an audience favorite. Gay, once a devout Mormon, has also spoken out against the church, while her memoir “Bad Mormon” was a bestseller. If she could join another reality show, it’d be Bravo’s “Below Deck. “I fell in love with the yachting life,” says Gay. “I love being part of a team and I’m not afraid of hard work or close quarters.”
A human meme, Giudice has stolen the show — the show being “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” — since it premiered on Bravo in 2009. Even going to prison for nearly a year in 2015 couldn’t stop Giudice, whose comeback was one for the ages (though the Zen attitude she tried to adopt post-prison certainly didn’t last). Her fans, who call themselves “Tre huggers,” love her for complicated family relations and her undeniable charisma. “The biggest misconception about me is that people see me on television reacting passionately while defending my family and those that I am loyal to and think that is how I am all the time,” she says. “On the contrary, I am a fun, bubbly, caring and light-hearted woman that has persevered through so much.”
For those who have watched Glaser as a stand-up comic for years, it’s no secret that she’s funny, yet insightful and smart. That’s exactly what she brings as a host on the CW’s “FBOY Island.” Plus, she loves a dating show, which makes this the perfect fit. Glaser, like many, is hooked on “The Golden Bachelor” — and wants to be on it when she’s older. “It’s the one reality dating show where I actually believe these two people might be together forever, since forever is at most another decade and a half,” she says. “I know that sounds mean, but it’s just true!”
Ever since “Selling the OC” debuted on Netflix, Hall has been a key member of the real estate brokerage team at the Oppenheim Group. Known for her charm and wit, she’s also hard working and one of the top producing agents in the luxury space. If Hall weren’t on the “Selling Sunset” spinoff, she’d want to be a co-host on “Queer Eye” on Netflix: “I love the energy they all bring and it’s just such a positive, heartwarming show. Along with laughs and lightheartedness, it’s also making such a difference in people’s lives.”
For most of Hilton’s life, she was viewed as a silly socialite who’d been introduced on Fox’s “The Simple Life.” But that’s not the case — not even close. In 2020, she produced and starred in a documentary about her life, “This Is Paris,” revealing her true self, including her real voice, for the first time, and detailing the trauma she experienced as a young person. The honesty made her even more likable and relatable, as she landed a cooking show on Netflix the following year and her own Peacock reality show, “Paris in Love,” in 2021. She’s not just giving audiences a peak behind the curtain, but completely tearing it down and welcoming the cameras.
Carrie Ann Inaba
The choreographer and dancer may be best known for her spot at the judging table on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” a spot she’s held since its debut in 2005. Known for her cheery delivery of bold and honest critiques — yes, she holds the unofficial title of Lift Police — she’s a staple on the competition show. “The biggest misconception about me is that what I do is easy. I don’t know that many people in this business who have kept a job for 32 seasons,” she tells Variety. “What I do is complex, and it takes courage. I show up and speak my truth in front of millions of people, and then I am accountable for it.”
Judge joined “The Real Housewives of Orange County” in its third season, and shined brightly there for years (that’s our opinion!!!!!!). But after viewers soured on her, she was then put on “pause” — Bravo’s terminology for not renewing a cast member’s contract, a state that is sometimes permanent — in 2020. But this year, she returned for Season 17 of the flagship series that started it all, and looky looky: It was the best “OC” season in many years. “I love all the housewife shows. ‘The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City’ is at the top of my list right now,” she says. “Outside of Bravo, I can’t get enough of ‘House of Villains’ on E!.”
It’s impossible to have a women of reality TV list without honoring the Kardashian/Jenner family. The crew, led by momager Kris Jenner, made a major change when “The Kardashians” launched on Hulu last year, after E!’s “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” ended in 2021. Still, people haven’t stopped keeping up; just as we watched Kim, Khloé and Kourtney work at DASH back in the day, we now tune in as Kylie continues to build her beauty empire and Kendall becomes a supermodel. Oh, and they also still invite the cameras in on their sometimes very messy A-list romances. But whether we’ll see Kourtney pull out her own baby this time around is still to be determined.
Speaking of supermodels, Klum has also made a splash in the unscripted television world. Although she hosted and judged Bravo’s “Project Runway” for 16 seasons and Prime Video’s “Making the Cut” for three, she also stepped away from the fashion world — and out of her comfort zone — to judge NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.” She’s been a judge for 10 seasons, always bringing her kindness and honesty to the contestants hoping to break through. Although a supermodel who’s been in the business for years, she finds a way to relate to audiences. “I feel that I am an open book just like reality television,” she says. “What you see is what you get!”
From Miss Teen USA and “TRL” correspondent to actor and unscripted host, Lachey has been on TV for years. Currently on “NCIS: Hawai’i,” she’s also the co-host of two of the most-watched unscripted shows on TV: Netflix’s “Love Is Blind” and “The Ultimatum.” Alongside her husband, Nick, Lachey co-hosted Netflix’s first-ever live reunion (and then second-ever live program), and while it was a bit rocky, technically speaking, she did what she could to salvage it once the cameras finally started rolling.
This year, the food expert and bestselling author said goodbye to Bravo’s “Top Chef” after hosting and executive producing for 19 seasons, and earning five Emmy nominations. In 2020, she created Hulu’s “Taste the Nation,” inviting audiences on a journey across the United States to try different cuisines; the series earned its own Emmy nod this year. Lakshmi doesn’t watch much unscripted TV, but says a favorite is “Forensic Files.”
After appearing on “The Bachelor,” Lawson became the Season 20 “Bachelorette,” showing her emotional intelligence at every turn. Instead of engaging in the usual cattiness of Bachelor Nation, Lawson took a different approach to her search for love on ABC. After accepting a proposal in the end, she jumped right into her next project — competing on “Dancing With the Stars.” When it comes to other unscripted shows, she’s a big fan of “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” which she grew up watching with her family. “The love I have for a reality TV legend like NeNe Leakes is unmatched,” she says. “During the prime of this show, it gives Southern charm but entertaining TV — no one is coming close!”
When Lyons, the famous former creative director of J. Crew, was announced as part of the rebooted cast of “The Real Housewives of New York City,” people were mystified over why Lyons would want to participate in a series that can be like a combat sport. In her first season, she largely managed to stay above the fray, charming the audience with her quirkiness and openness. Those fans would very much like for her to return for another go-around on “RHONY.” She would like to remind viewers of one thing: “Being a ‘powerhouse’ and being vulnerable can exist at the same time. My job title is not my personality.”
What’s left to say about the “Vanderpump Rules” star? Having been cheated on by her longtime partner Tom Sandoval with her friend Rachel Leviss, Madix emerged from the #Scandoval a hero, and has managed to turn the unwanted exposure into incalculable brand deals, an appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner and a turn on “Dancing With the Stars.” She’s also proven that with a cheeky sense of humor, she can win anyone over. When asked what other reality show she’d like to sign up for, Madix quips, “I would be a permanent judge on ‘Top Chef.’ I love to eat and that seems like a great job.”
Jenny McCarthy Wahlberg
In the ’90s, McCarthy Wahlberg went from Playboy model to TV host on MTV’s “Singled Out” and has been part of the unscripted television world. Since its 2019 debut, she’s been a judge on Fox’s “The Masked Singer,” one of the most popular competition shows on broadcast television. When it comes to what she’s watching, she can’t get enough of “90 Day Fiancé,” telling Variety, “The intricate psychology driving the characters’ choices and actions never ceases to captivate me.”
With more than 100 billion streams, Perry is one of the biggest-selling female artists in Capitol Records history. So it’s no surprise that she lends her expertise to the “American Idol” judges’ table, a spot she’s held since the show moved to ABC in 2018. Of course, her focus is on her artistry, but unscripted isn’t fully out of the realm of possibility. “If I were to do something else in reality TV, it would be my own show of my creation, whether that’s a talk show or a music-based variety show,” she says.
Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph
Together, Poehler and Rudolph landed an Emmy nomination for host for a reality or competition program for Peacock’s “Baking It,” which they also executive produce. Both acclaimed actors and comedians, they’ve added reality TV hosts to their résumés with the feel-good series. Still, if Poehler had to be on another unscripted show, she’d pick History Channel’s “Alone.”
Nicole Polizzi and Jenni Farley
Whether you love or hate “Jersey Shore,” it made quite an impact on reality TV when it first aired from 2009 to 2012. Original cast members Polizzi and Farley were the breakout stars — first as the best friends and the lives of the party (Polizzi’s actual tagline was “The party’s here!”), and down the line as businesswomen, entrepreneurs and mothers. The show became a hit once again when it returned to MTV with “Family Vacation” in 2018. As for what unscripted series they’re watching, Polizzi is “obsessed with ‘Love Is Blind,’” and Farley would love to be a judge on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
It’s hard to think of reality TV without thinking of “New York.” That’s the nickname rapper Flavor Flav gave Pollard during “Flavor of Love” in 2006 — and one that’s stuck with her ever since. She had her own spinoff, competed on “Celebrity Big Brother” and appeared on “College Hill: Celebrity Edition,” among other reality shows. But this year, she became a main cast member on E!’s “House of Villains,” once again bringing her unfiltered personality to the forefront. However, she’s not “overly confident or aggressive,” as it sometimes looks, Pollard says. “In most cases, I’m super quiet in a room full of people until someone strikes up a conversation with me first, and half the time, I have zero clue as to what I’m going to say or do when I’m competing or being featured in a reality TV project. My life has been built on beautiful mistakes of accidental success, so I’m not as calculated as some may think.”
Few “Real Housewives” have been through as much on camera as Richards. She’s had devastating fights with both of her sisters, and on the latest season of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” the audience will see her marriage to Mauricio Umansky start falling apart. Richards has kept her head held high, and has become a household name, after having been a child actor. She’s even resumed acting, having returned to the “Halloween” films she was featured in as a kid. “Acting is my first love, so working on something like ‘The Morning Show’ would be a dream come true,” she says. “If I had to pick an unscripted show to be on outside of ‘RHOBH,’ it would probably be ‘Buying Beverly Hills’ so I could work with my girls!”
As the chief stew on “Below Deck Down Under,” Scott is a model of efficiency and cheer when she’s working with the yacht’s guests. But in an unprecedented situation on the series’ most recent season, Scott was firm and resolute as she intervened (along with the show’s production team) on a near-sexual assault of one of her inebriated staff members, which was perpetrated by Luke Jones, another of the boat’s crew members. Jones was fired immediately.
At only 20 years old, Siwa has more than a decade of reality TV experience, first appearing on Lifetime’s “Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition,” a spinoff of “Dance Moms.” She’s also appeared on “Dancing With the Stars,” where Siwa, who came out as pansexual in 2021, became one-half of the first-ever same-sex couple in the show’s history. This year, she served as a guest judge on “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” and competed on Fox’s “Special Forces: World’s Toughest Test.” While she’d like to be on “Survivor,” she also loves to watch the seasons of “Dance Moms” she wasn’t a part of.
Chrishell Stause and Mary Bonnet
Of the many real estate agents on Netflix’s “Selling Sunset,” Stause and Bonnet (formerly known as Fitzgerald) became the breakout stars from the moment the show debuted. Audiences have watched the successful agents of the Oppenheim Group both grow personally and professionally — and thrive in both areas. “The show portrays us all as ‘glitz and glam’ but when the cameras are off, I’m still just Mary from Indiana,” says Bonnet. “I will never forget where I came from, working three jobs to provide for my son. I will never be above eating ramen out of a bag!” Stause has also used her platform to become a strong ally for the LGBTQ+ community, and one thing is clear: She loves love. “I currently can’t get enough of ‘The Golden Bachelor,’” she says of her guilty pleasure show. “I want them all to find love!”
The idea of Stefani having just one job is B-A-N-A-N-A-S. The singer has been a coach on NBC’s “The Voice” for seven seasons, sitting alongside some of the biggest and best artists in the business, including her husband, Blake Shelton, who exited the show in the spring after 23 seasons. While on the panel, she’s continuously put out new music and even landed her own Las Vegas residency. This year, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. When it comes to reality TV that she watches, Stefani plugs USA’s “Barmageddon,” which Shelton created. “Witnessing Blake create and produce his game show is inspiring,” she says.
The queen bee and executive producer of “Vanderpump Rules” saw the veteran show that bears her name become a pop culture sensation in its 10th season, due to the #Scandoval — it’s even garnered two Emmy nominations as a result. Vanderpump presided over it all, with her signature dry (yet naughty) wit, giving comfort to the broken-hearted when needed, and calling for the humane treatment of everyone involved, even those who’d done wrong. If she had to be on one unscripted show other than her own, Vanderpump chooses “Top Chef,” which adds up: “I’m a restauranteur, and I love food!”
Visage has been a judge on the series since Season 3. Plus, she’s secured judge spots on “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars,” “RuPaul’s Drag Race UK” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under.” A three-time Emmy winner — she’s also a producer on the series — Visage is part of the powerful “Drag Race” run, as the series saw its highest-rated premiere in six years when it debuted in January. Visage loves “Dancing With the Stars” — she says she “begs to compete every year” — and loves all the singing competition series. “Being a kid who had dreams of being a pop star and a Broadway star, these shows would’ve been a no-brainer for me,” she says. “I would’ve auditioned for every single one of them!”
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