In a recent episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, star Kim Kardashian emerges with severe bruising around her eyes, as if she lost a battle in the boxing ring. Most Hollywood celebrities wouldn't go in public in such a state, much less cop to getting Botox, but Kim not only receives injections onscreen, she bares the galling results for all her fans.
Few know how to finesse fame better than Kim Kardashian. Like her old sidekick Paris Hilton, she's a well-bred daughter of the Hollywood Hills famous for, well, who knows really—but Kardashian is on track to be more than this decade's Hilton.
While Paris' notoriety centered on stupidity, which she flaunted with such aplomb it was hard to know whether it was a disguise or her actual disposition, Kardashian never appears undone, either physically or professionally. Her talent is maintaining a glamorous sheen while napping or eating a hamburger and her fame hinges on her ability to keep it all together. Of course, her business is a family business, with sisters Kourtney and Khloe as well as her mom, brother, stepfather (former Olympian Bruce Jenner) and stepsisters, all part of the picture—a tight-knit group with a unique shade of wholesomeness.
For that, she earned at least $6 million this year by our calculation—topping The Daily Beast's inaugural ranking of the top earners in the world of reality television. (For the full rankings, click here.) She has the lower-rent trappings of reality-star fame—quickie endorsement deals and party-hosting gigs and sponsored tweets, but her career also bears the hallmarks of established fame. She has licensed perfumes, appeared on the cover of November's W magazine, and has a stake in an online shoe venture she co-founded, ShoeDazzle. With her sisters, who are now stars in their own rights, she also has a share of licensed clothing line, K-Dash by Kardashian, and a chain of retail stores.
Endorsement deals and appearance gigs are the best (and fastest) ways to capitalize on the flash-in-the-pan fame inherent to reality television. The Jersey Shore's DJ Pauly D became the face of Baskin Robbins this spring, Playmate-turned-TV-mom Kendra Wilkinson endorses nutritional supplement Ab Cuts, and Paul D's buddy Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino touts everything from pre-workout supplements to vodka. Snooki, yet another Jersey Shore cast member, whose $750,000 in earnings this year failed to get her on our list, recently inked a deal with a Happy Feet slipper company partner on a line of nighttime footwear.
Gallery: The 10 Highest-Paid Reality TV Stars
• The Tabloids’ Domestic Violence WindfallFor retailers or manufacturers of licensed products, the concern with reality stars is whether the star will still be famous in a year—the average time it takes for products to land on store shelves. "A celebrity that has become famous because of their talents is in a better position to make demands because, in general, their fame is here to stay," says Michael Stone, president and CEO of the Beanstalk group, a licensing agency and consultancy. "A retailer may be more willing to take a chance on an [established] celebrity."
While earning millions, reality-TV stars are supplanting the role of movie stars in some ways. Celebrity weeklies once nursed weekly sale spikes that inevitably occurred when Angelina, Brad and brood appeared on the cover, or the ever-likable Jennifer Aniston. In the first half of the year, the top-selling single issue for Us Weekly featured Jake Pavelka from The Bachelor on the cover, according to data from the Audit Bureau of Circulation. In the same time period, mother-of-eight Kate Gosselin scored the second-highest single issue circulation for OK! Weekly, and the Duggars (parents featured on reality show 19 Kids and Counting) covered the highest single issue of People magazine.
The cultural timing is perfect. Celebrity magazines stripped the glamour from Hollywood celebrity as they cataloged stars taking trips to Starbucks and wrangling their toddlers on the playground, which humanized them to the average reader. "Just Like Us!" has become more than a weekly magazine feature; it's become a mentality. But whereas the stars of silver screen are reluctant to share their unfiltered personal lives, reality stars are eager to let photographers and camera crews track the minutiae of their lives. And for now, the audience is insatiable.
Many recognized celebrities have turned to reality television to reinvigorate their careers (Bret Michaels), extend their personal brands (Rachel Zoe) or just capitalize on their fame (Donald Trump). But The Daily Beast ranking was ruled by a defining principle: To merit inclusion, the star must derive his/her fame from reality television. And we defined that in the strictest sense: American Idol and other contestant shows weren't included. This list purely measures those who've cashed in on fame, versus talent. Furthermore, we only counted active reality-television stars: those with a show that aired or was in production in 2010. (Sorry, Paris.)
All of our estimates were calculated from dozens of discussions with industry professionals, agents, managers, and publicists, as well as published reports and public financial disclosures. All figures are for calendar year 2010 and designed to be conservative—in other words, some of these characters may have earned even a bit more. Nice work if you can get it.
Lauren Streib is a reporter for The Daily Beast. She was previously a reporter for Forbes.