Reality's Lucky Losers

Sometimes, it’s good to be No. 2.

A number of losing contestants on reality shows like “Survivor,” “The Bachelor,” “The Bachelorette,” “Average Joe” and “American Idol” (search) have become bigger stars than the winners.

Think of Elisabeth Hasselbeck, who was booted off the island in “Survivor 2” but is now a co-host on “The View.” Or “Bachelor” runner-up Trista Rehn (search), who went on to star in the first “Bachelorette” and her subsequent wedding special. There's also “Bachelorette” reject Bob Guiney, who later became “The Bachelor”; “Average Joe” No. 2 Adam Mesh, who is now the main squeeze in “Average Joe: Adam Returns” and “American Idol” losers Clay Aiken and the delightfully bad William Hung (search), who have both catapulted to cult status and landed lucrative record deals.

Sounds like Tom Petty really got it right when he sang that "even the losers get lucky sometimes."

“The losers are so much more interesting than the winners are,” said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television. “You don’t have to win to become the star of a hit television show.”

And when audiences respond to reality show characters who aren’t the last ones standing, TV producers pounce.

“Every now and then, some contestant will strike such a chord with the viewing public, producers will say, ‘We’ve got something here. Let’s build something around him or her,’” said Ed Robertson, pop culture critic and TV columnist for Media Life Magazine.

That might turn out to be the case with the fired "Apprentice" contestant everybody loved to hate, Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth — if her recent claims of an offer to host her own talk show are true.

Part of the reason for the phenomenon, Thompson said, is because what it takes to win a reality show isn’t always the stuff of stardom.

“Often those criteria are at odds with each other,” he said. “Some savvy contestants know the best strategy may not be to win but to create a character so compelling that people are going to want to see them later.”

The exception is “American Idol,” where winning and becoming a star usually require the same skills.

“That’s a pretty straight talent show,” Thompson said. “The success in creating a music star and winning the program are the same set of criteria.”

Unless you're talking about Hung, whose achingly off-key rendition of Ricky Martin's "She Bangs" and clueless-yet-endearing persona instantly made him famous, garnered him a huge following and landed him a record deal.

In fact, on many of these shows, making viewers remember you isn’t always going to help you walk away with the prize.

“The winners are often not the most memorable people,” said Josh Wolk, a staff writer at Entertainment Weekly who has covered the reality genre. “People you can’t take your eyes off get kicked off the island for that very reason. Charisma means you might annoy some people, which means you won’t do well on a reality show.”

That’s especially true on programs looking for serious, hard-working candidates like “The Apprentice” or those requiring underhanded scheming like “Survivor.”

“The criteria for the winner (on ‘The Apprentice’) is to be the best at managing the troops, delegating authority and getting the job done,” Thompson said. “Those kinds of skills can win you the game, but that’s not the stuff of entertainment. That’s the stuff of work.”

Sometimes, the runners-up aren’t only more captivating and amusing to watch, but more down-to-earth and likeable too.

“The losers are more true to life,” said reality TV buff Heidi Schettler, 31, of Winston-Salem, N.C. “They seem more like real people.”

And it’s also common to sympathize and identify with the one who is trailing behind.

“I’m always an underdog rooter,” Schettler said.

But even though their 15 minutes might stretch a little longer than that of the winners, the No. 2s, 3s and 4s aren’t necessarily going to carve out a lasting niche in Hollywood.

“Just because you seize the moment, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be around for a lot more moments,” Wolk said. “It doesn’t make it easier to become a serious actor. This will leap you into the public eye, but you’re no closer to being Julia Roberts. It’s really hard to be famous.”

And most reality show contestants ultimately disappear from view entirely anyway, whether they win or lose.

“By and large they get thrown away like yesterday’s newspaper,” Robertson said.