Some stars build their own virtual reality to get a second life

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It wasn't so long ago that actors and singers who were a bit past their career prime had little choice but to turn to infomercials or low-budget cable movies if they wanted steady showbiz work. Who could forget Cher's pre-comeback gig as hair-care product pitchwoman or Dionne Warwick's days shilling the Psychic Friends Network?

But these days, there's another option that is proving to be a smart career move for many: playing one's self in reality TV — over and over again.

A slew of actors and singers have figured out that their willingness to repeatedly subject themselves to potentially uncomfortable situations — including searching for a soul mate, learning to ride a bull or facing Donald Trump in a boardroom — is a good way to gain new fans and make a nice living. Wilson Phillips singer Carnie Wilson, for example, has jumped from VH1's "Celebrity Fit Club" to CMT's "Gone Country" to VH1's "Celebracadabra," while Brigitte Nielsen has hopped from VH1's "The Surreal Life" to the "Strange Love" spinoff to the network's "Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew."

But is it really worth the possibility of injury or exposing the most private areas of one's life to a viewing audience?

The answer, for some stars, is yes, Rebel Entertainment Partners president Richard Lawrence says. His clients include Danny Bonaduce, who gave viewers an up-close-and-personal look at his efforts to get sober and his troubled home life in VH1's "Breaking Bonaduce" and recently hosted that network's "I Know My Kid's a Star."

"For Danny, it's been quite lucrative," Lawrence says. " 'Breaking Bonaduce' showed him turning over a new leaf, gave him exposure and brought in a new audience for those who weren't around for 'Partridge Family.' "

Many of these shows are connecting with viewers in a big way. VH1 has built a large chunk of its schedule around the successful "celebreality" concept, and CMT recently scored its best ratings ever with "Gone Country." In the broadcast arena, NBC's "Apprentice" franchise was given new life this year with an all-celebrity edition — its most addictive season yet. (Some haven't been quite as successful, though: CBS' recent entry "Secret Talents of the Stars" was yanked after one episode.)

CMT head of development Bob Kusbit has a theory as to why viewers like seeing celebrities unscripted.

"These are iconic names that viewers grew up watching in films or on TV or buying their albums or CDs or 8-tracks," Kusbit says. "Viewers want to see what they are really like when the scripts are thrown away and the hair and makeup and wardrobe people are gone."

That's part of Maureen McCormick's motivation for going on such series as "Celebrity Fit Club" and "Gone Country." The former star of "The Brady Bunch" had resisted reality TV — turning down offers to appear in shows like "The Surreal Life" — before her daughter talked her into doing "Fit Club."

"It was really cathartic for me," she says. "I had never until that point totally been myself in interviews or shows. The world had always known me as Marcia Brady, and these shows let the world see me as Maureen and who I am today. I was free to be myself."

Moreover, it's allowing some to pursue a new career: McCormick hinted that a "well-known country artist" is looking to record the song she wrote for "Gone Country." And Bonaduce's "TV career certainly has blossomed in the last two years," Lawrence says. "He now has the ability to say no to certain projects."

The good news for fans? These shows don't exhibit any sign of going away anytime soon, as long as there are willing celebrities who have something to offer and the storytelling is good.

"These shows are a bit of a spectacle, which gets viewers through the door," Kusbit says. "They come to the party because they recognize the names, but they won't stay unless we're putting on a great party week after week."

Kimberly Nordyke can be reached at kimberly.nordyke@THR.com.
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