Donald Trump Is Hardly the First: Why the Leap From Reality TV to Politics Has Never Been Less of a Stretch

Real World star turned veteran Congressman Sean Duffy has proven that you can make it in Washington

By Judy Kurtz Apr 12, 2016 10:30 AMTags
Clay Aiken, Donald Trump, Sean DuffyGetty Images

Pop & Politics contributor Judy Kurtz is the "In the Know" columnist for The Hill

The 2016 race for the White House has been compared to a reality show — a rollercoaster ride packed with ups and downs, unexpected twists and maybe even a few screams—but could reality television actually be the new gateway to Washington?

From Real World: Boston alum Sean Duffy, who's currently serving his third term as a Republican congressman from Wisconsin, to American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken's failed House bid, reality stars have a long history of making the leap from TV to politics. And Donald Trump's meteoric rise from Celebrity Apprentice host to GOP presidential front-runner could inspire a whole new crop of personalities to take the plunge.

Ted Johnson, who hosts PopPolitics on SiriusXM's POTUS Politics channel and covers that scene for Variety, says there's a good reason that reality show veterans might be naturals when it comes to stump speeches and shaking hands on the campaign trail.

Reality television can be a pretty nasty business," says Johnson. "Even something like American Idol, you're subjected to all of the opinions on social media. And so I think you probably are more likely to come into politics with a thicker skin."

Coincidentally, President Barack Obama used last week's American Idol finale to both congratulate the show on its long run and remind viewers just how important it is to vote—for their leaders and their favorite singers.

A reminder to leave no constituent unturned!

Meanwhile, there are other incentives to running for office following a reality TV career.

"An absolute pro is that you come in with the name recognition at the beginning of a campaign that is really important in fundraising," Johnson says. "You probably are a little more attuned to the tougher side of politics than someone else might be."

"They do have a fan base," adds Patricia Phalen, assistant director of George Washington University's School of Media & Public Affairs. "So they have some of that support there already."

Phalen surmises that many small-screen regulars are drawn to politics because they're yearning for something more than TV notoriety. "When you're a reality star, you're a 'reality star.' And that's sort of the label that you get.

"And you want to use that celebrity for something good. You want to be more than that. You want to be someone that people take very seriously, and that's, I think, why some of them get into it."

But having a leg up in the recognition department hasn't always translated into votes for some of reality TV's most recognizable faces.

Robert Ascroft/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Thomas Ravenel, star of Bravo's Southern Charm, attempted to turn his television success into a victory at the ballot box. In 2014, the former South Carolina state treasurer ran as an independent against longtime Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. Though he polled in double digits early on, he ultimately lost to the incumbent with less than 4 percent of the vote.

Ravenel blamed everything from his late start to "personal problems" to Andy Cohen for his defeat.

He called his hasty campaign "ridiculous," telling People, "I was going to make an announcement that my child was being born, and at the last second Andy Cohen said, 'Announce that you're running for the U.S. Senate,' so I made a nationwide promise that I was going to run."


Cohen later said on Ask Andy that he had "no idea" why Ravenel was blaming him. "By the way, he could've said 'I'm running for office' on Watch What Happens Live and then not ran for office. This isn't Meet the Press."

But isn't the network infighting just so Washington…

Moreover, for anyone running, Johnson says, "at a certain stage in our campaign you're going to have to prove you have a serious grasp of the issues [so] that voters can be comfortable with you."

That can make for a pretty uphill climb, depending on the series you've starred on.

"Especially if the show has some ridiculous situations," he said, "the kind of curve for people to accept you as serious is going to be a little higher. Maybe not so much so for American Idol or even The Real World; but if you had one of the contestants from Big Brother, you have a whole record of you maybe in compromising situations or ridiculous situations that your opponents could probably use to run against you."

Getty Images

Aiken, who lost to Ruben Studdard on the second season of American Idol and to Arsenio Hall on the fifth season of Celebrity Apprentice, was dubbed "a runner-up once more" in 2014 after finishing in second place in his North Carolina congressional race against Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers. "About 11 years ago, after American Idol, we came up short in another vote," Aiken said at the time.

But his political ambitions scored him more TV time when last year the Esquire Network ran the four-episode docu-series, The Runner-Up, about the singer's campaign.

"There will always be a group of people that won't take you seriously," notes Phalen, who teaches a seminar on the intersection between Hollywood and politics, speaking generally of TV personalities turned aspiring politicians. "They'll always sort of put that 'reality star' label on you— and not in a good way. The term 'reality star' is a little bit downgrading."

She adds, "The implication is they have no business running for office."

And then there are politicians such as Sarah Palin who've run toward the cameras, in the former governor's case as a Fox News Channel pundit and the star of TLC's Sarah Palin's Alaska. The former Republican vice presidential candidate is next poised to wield the gavel in a pilot for a Judge Judy-esque reality courtroom show.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

"There's such a blend now between politics and entertainment, and now politics and reality television, I don't think it's as jarring anymore," says Johnson. "It's not so much outside the realm of possibility."

And though Donald Trump—who hails from both the business and reality-TV worlds—has been a type of candidate unto himself, Johnson tells E! News that his surprisingly successful presidential campaign could spur a number of copycats.

"I would not be surprised if other people from reality TV think about [entering the political arena]," says Johnson. "Anytime there's a success among some kind of performer, you're going to have others probably getting the same idea."

But having a reality show on the resume obviously doesn't mean that a person shouldn't be taken seriously, either.

"You never know who's going to make a great leader," adds Phalen, "and it may be that some of these people who've won these reality contests or whatever would make great leaders.

"Being a reality star doesn't mean you can't be a good politician."

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