I am at the big age where I remember when reality shows, as we know and love them, first gained popularity. My earliest memories include MTV’s “Real World” and “Road Rules” and the spin-offs that came from them.
The content was nothing like what we see today.
The cinematography was low-budget at best. The participants’ wardrobes were every day – and usually from their closets. And, the storylines weren’t always exciting. But they were real, and many included characteristics audiences could identify with.
Besides storylines, the uniqueness and appeal of reality shows came from cast members. This is true whether we are speaking about a group of strangers selected to live in a house or chefs looking to be celebrity stars.
Because no matter what show was on, we rooted for everybody Black. We still do today. As different shows premiere, we become glued to the television, looking to see ourselves reflected on screen and cheer on those who do.
Black women are reality TV’s secret sauce.
A rise in Black representation in casts and storylines led to the growth and popularity of reality TV. In 2021, The Washington Post said, “Reality TV would never have become the billion-dollar industry it is today without Black women.”
Put another way, we are the secret sauce.
Across genres, show types, and networks, Black women top lists of the most iconic stars. Nearly all of the world’s most influential shows have a Black woman as one of its biggest names- and this is not by accident.
Our tag lines and outfits turn into fuel for fan quotes and memes. Our storylines drive both revenue and social media discourse. And our imagery, original content, and photos go viral within seconds.
While exposing community, society, and, at times, themselves, Black women have come to define (and redefine) reality TV. Black women are undoubtedly some of our most fashionable, culture-creating, and “love to hate” TV icons.
2024 Gallery: Reality Show Icons
As someone who witnessed reality TV from its infancy to now, I remain in awe of the transformation. Whether reality TV is your guilty pleasure or not, the power of these shows cannot be denied. If you can make it on reality TV, you can truly make it anywhere.
HB has compiled a list of reality TV icons we love. From top models to executive producers to tag-line trendsetters, these Black women started “unscripted” but now write the stories of their own lives.
Scroll to see who made the cut.
1. Tami RomanSource:Getty
Tami Roman is the OG of reality TV. Before we had housewives, basketball wives, next top models, and vocal stars, we had Tami. She appeared on the second season of “Real World: Los Angeles” in 1993 and made headlines for wiring her mouth shut to lose weight. Tami was a struggling model at the time. Fast forward to now, she appeared on “Basketball Wives” after marriage to basketball player Kenny Anderson, started several businesses, guest appeared on shows, slayed swanky red carpets and events, and is the newest star of “Caught in the Act: Unfaithful.” Tami turned a role in an upcoming genre into a life-long career of culture-creating impact. She is truly an icon.
2. Tiffany “New York” PollardSource:Getty
Tiffany “New York” Pollard came on the scene in 2006 as a participant on VH1’s “Flavor of Love.” Miss New York turned that show into four spin-offs, such as “I Love New York” and “Brunch with Tiffany.” She has also appeared as an audience favorite in several other reality TV competition shows. Leveraging her looks, popularity, and sharp tongue, New York is truly iconic.
3. Joseline HernandezSource:Getty
“Love and Hip-Hop: Atlanta” lit up when Joseline Hernandez joined the cast as the girlfriend to Stevie J. Determined to love her man and make it in the entertainment business, the Puerto Rican Princess’ story was raw. So was her tongue. Joseline turned her appearance on the show into a spin-off series, “Stevie J and Joseline Go Hollywood,” and then her own shows, “Joseline’s Cabaret: Miami” and “Joseline’s Cabaret: Atlanta.” Committed to music, she dropped “Live Your Best Life (Do It Like It’s Your BDay)” that plays on repeat in our heads.
4. Omarosa ManigaultSource:Getty
We are never sure if Omarosa Manigault is a realist, an opportunist, or a misunderstood. Since she started on “The Apprentice,” she had the “love to hate” personality down pat, and we’ve had our looks in a constant side-eye to this day. But love her or hate her, she has played an influential role in reality show culture and American society.
5. Phaedra ParksSource:Getty
Phaedra Parks is one of the first stars to have full-time roles in two reality show series from the same city. A star of both “Real Housewives of Atlanta” and now “Married to Medicine,” Phaedra knows how to keep fans talking, interested, and invested in her story. Audiences first met Phaedra as a lawyer and mortician who was then married to Apollo. She is now a wellness center owner and businesswoman who has transcended shows, cultures, and industries. We are here for it.
6. Eva MarcilleSource:Getty
“America’s Next Top Model” brought a lot of influential yet nontraditional models to the forefront. From Tocarra to Winnie Harlow, Tyra Banks’ show revolutionized the model industry and who was/is in it. Eva Marcille sticks out as an icon because of her actions after the show. Eva leveraged her winning season to go into both modeling and acting. She starred in Tyler Perry’s “House of Payne” and on the CBS’ “The Young and the Restless.” In 2018, Eva joined the “Real Housewives of Atlanta” cast.
7. Kandi BurrussSource:Getty
Xscape member Kandi Burruss re-branded herself on the “Real Housewives of Atlanta.” Though she was known for hit songs and performances, the show introduced the singer to a different audience and allowed her to tap into her entrepreneurial and creative sides. From the viral clip of Kandi saying “The lies! The lies!” to her infamous side-eye, she always has people laughing. Kandi is credited as the longest-serving cast member of RHOA and has appeared in spin-offs such as “The Kandi Factory,” “Kandi’s Ski Trip,” and “Kandi & The Gang.”
8. NeNe LeakesSource:for HelloBeautiful
The Queen of ‘Telling It Like It Is’ and ‘Aging Backward,’ NeNe Leakes put “Real Housewives of Atlanta” – and the entire franchise – on the map. She’s never backed down from a debate, nor minced her words. Her authentic voice, stand-out style, and at times, raw vulnerability is what makes her the reality show icon she is today.
9. Shaunie HendersonSource:Getty
Shaunie Henderson’s iconic status comes from the sports and love show “Basketball Wives.” In addition to starring in the original seasons, after her marriage to NBA star Shaquille O’Neal, Shaunie is an executive producer and is credited for creating the show. Shaunie took control of her narrative to help women tell their stories and experiences. Talk about iconic!
10. Cardi BSource:Getty
Before she slayed at international fashion weeks, dropped hit songs, and collected Hermes like candy, Cardi B got her start on “Love & Hip Hop: New York.” Her bluntness, sharp tongue, and frank humor won fans. Cardi also leveraged social while on the show with personal videos, first-hand accounts, and pictures to make her the icon we know today.
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