Reality Show Losers Who Are Really Winners

They might not have won the big show, but that didn’t stop these entertainers from achieving major success.

Jennifer Hudson poses with her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

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People enter reality competition shows for a variety of reasons. Some want to find an audience for their talent. Some want to find true love. And some want money, fame, power, and the ability absolutely one-up everyone at class reunions. But for every person who “wins” a competition show, there are dozens who didn’t get that final honor at the end of the season. Plenty return to anonymity. But in the case of a select few, not winning may have been the best thing that never happened to them. Here are “reality show losers” who won in reality.

1. Jennifer Hudson

Jennifer Hudson Wins an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (Uploaded to YouTube by Oscars)

Hudson came to public attention in the 2004 season of American Idol. At one point, when viewer voting placed her, eventual winner Fantasia Barrino, and LaToya London in the lower half of finalists, Elton John himself blew his stack. Though Hudson finished seventh, it looks like Sir Elton was right. Using the show as a launch pad, Hudson went on to huge success on stage, screen, and record. Her first two solo albums went gold, and she took home both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her debut film role as Effie White in Dreamgirls. Hudson continues to record, appear occasionally as a judge on The Voice, and act; she plays Aretha Franklin in the forthcoming biopic, Respect, which is already generating awards talk.

2. Chris Daughtry

“It’s Not Over” by Daughtry (Uploaded to YouTube by Daughtry)

Another early exiter from American Idol, Chris Daughtry placed fourth in the fifth season. Daughtry stood out from his fellow contestants by sticking with his distinctly rock persona in a crowded pop field. After the show, he formed a band named Daughtry, and group’s self-titled debut raced to #1 on the album chart, partially on the strength of the single “It’s Not Over.” A Grammy nominee and occasional actor, Daughtry trails only Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood in terms of Idol alums with the most album sales. In addition to music, Daughtry is a talented visual artist and comics fan; he drew a variant cover for Batman #50 in 2016.

3. Britney Spears

“…Baby One More Time” by Britney Spears (Uploaded to YouTube by Britney Spears)

It’s fairly common knowledge that Britney Spears was part of a Mickey Mouse Club cast that was overflowing with future stars, including Keri Russell, Ryan Gosling, Christina Aguilera, and future NSYNC bandmates Justin Timberlake and JC Chasez. But before she joined the cast in 1992, she took a swing at Star Search. The original 1983 to 1995 run of the series was the launch pad for a wide array of stars, giving the first national TV exposure to LeAnn Rimes and Broadway star Sutton Foster, among others. Although a 10-year-old Spears won her initial week, she was knocked off the show a week later. After the Club, Spears signed with Jive Records and went on to become the best-selling teen artist of all time. With six #1 albums, Spears has sold over 100 million albums worldwide. This year, Rolling Stone listed “…Baby One More Time” as #1 on their list of Greatest Debut Singles of All Time. Though she’s gotten press in recent years for her turbulent personal life, Spears maintained a successful and lucrative Vegas residency for several years, only halting it when her father had health problems. She also has a billion dollar perfume brand.

4. Justin Timberlake

“Can’t Stop the Feeling!” by Justin Timberlake (Uploaded to YouTube by Justin Timberlake)

Like Spears, Timberlake did his time for the Mouse. He also took the stage on Star Search, but leaning into a country persona when he did; sporting a cowboy hat and going by Justin Randall (his middle name), the guy we’d all call JT didn’t pull out the victory. However, he did go on to megastardom with NSYNC, as a solo artist, and an actor. NSYNC remains one of the best-selling groups ever, and Timberlake’s solo career kicked off with two Grammys for his 10-million-selling Justified. Timberlake has become the best-selling male solo artist in the history of the Billboard Mainstream Top 40. Not bad for the kid in the hat.

5. Christina Aguilera

“Ain’t No Other Man” by Christina Aguilera (Uploaded to YouTube by Christina Aguilera)

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: a youngster goes on Star Search, but gets eliminated, yet bounces back with a run on the Mickey Mouse Club. Aguilera’s trajectory echoed that of her castmates, and she made her solo debut as part of the same teen pop boom that Spears and NSYNC rode. Her self-titled debut, which featured “Genie in a Bottle,” was a smash and netted her the Best New Artist Grammy. Aguilera has sold over 75 million records and is routinely counted on lists of greatest vocalists. She has balanced her ongoing recording career with acting roles and coaching for six seasons on The Voice. As a teen, Aguilera recorded the song “Reflection” for the original Disney animated film Mulan, and she returned this year to record a new version for the new live-action film.

6. Beyoncé and Kelly

“Lose My Breath” by Destiny’s Child (Uploaded to YouTube by Destiny’s Child)

Here are two Star Search contestants who didn’t go on to the Mickey Mouse Club, but you can agree that it didn’t slow them down. Beyoncé Knowles and Kelly Rowland were members of the group Girl’s Tyme, which appeared on Star Search in 1993. After Beyoncé’s father, Matthew, took over management of the group, they went through several name and line-up changes before Beyoncé, Kelly, LeToya Luckett, and LaTavia Roberson signed to Columbia in 1996 as Destiny’s Child. The group went through more changes before settling on the classic line-up up of Beyoncé, Kelly, and Michelle Williams; they remain one of the most successful trios and “girl groups” ever, earning 14 Grammy nominations and selling over 60 million records. As a solo artist, Kelly Rowland has sold over 40 million records, whereas Beyoncé has become a legit phenomenon as one of the biggest artists in the world, selling in excess of 100 million records.

7. Rupert Boneham

Rupert’s Story (Uploaded to YouTube by Once Upon An Island)

How is it possible to lose Survivor not once, but FOUR times, and yet still be beloved enough to have the audience just vote to GIVE you a million dollars? You’d have to ask Rupert Boneham. Boneham had worked with troubled kids in Indiana prior to his first tenure on the show, during the Pearl Islands season. Boneham’s enormous strength, pirate mentality, and general sense of humor made him an immediate fan-favorite. He made such an impression during the first season that he was quickly added to the All-Stars season that followed, making him the only player at the time to play in back-to-back seasons. After the season, producers held a special vote based on four fan-favorites who didn’t win, and 85 percent of voters gave the million dollar prize to Boneham. Since his first appearance, Boneham has become a popular guest on talk and reality shows; he and his wife competed on The Amazing Race in 2019. He started the mentorship program Rupert’s Kids, and even ran for governor in Indiana as a Libertarian in 2012, losing to eventual governor (and current vice president) Mike Pence.

8. One Direction

An overview of One Direction’s X-Factor journey (Uploaded to YouTube by X Factor Global)

Like a teen-pop Voltron, five individual contestants on the 2010 edition of the U.K.’s The X-Factor joined into a brand-new record-moving creation. Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne, Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, and Harry Styles hit dead ends in the solo “Boys” portion of the competition, but were invited to form a group to continue on in the competition. Dubbed “One Direction” by Styles, the group became immediately popular on social media and made it to third place in the overall competition. 1D, as they’re commonly called, became the first group to have their first four albums debut at #1 on the U.S. albums chart. Although Malik left in 2015 and the band went on “indefinite hiatus” in 2016 as the various members pursued (mostly successful) solo projects, the group has sold more than 70 million records around the world.

9. Fifth Harmony

“Worth It” by Fifth Harmony, featuring Kid Ink (Uploaded to YouTube by Fifth Harmony)

Fifth Harmony has a very similar origin story to One Direction. Five contestants on the 2012 U.S. season of The X Factor were again united in a single group, and again finished third. The five members were Ally Brooke, Normani, Dinah Jane, Lauren Jauregui, and Camila Cabello. Though not as successful in the traditional album format, the group was a smash on digital (selling 7 million songs) and streaming (over 1.6 billion on-demand streams of their music). Cabello departed for a very successful solo career in December of 2016. By 2018, the group announced their own indefinite hiatus, with each former member working on solo music.

10. Amy Schumer

Amy Schumer talks about using celebrity status to harass other stars (Uploaded to YouTube by The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon)

There’s no doubt that Amy Schumer was on her way before her 2007 stint on Last Comic Standing. She had already been doing stand-up in the clubs for three years and had recorded an episode of Live at Gotham for Comedy Central. But LCS put her in front of millions of new potential fans. She advanced to the finals and finished fourth, but the show and her years of groundwork gave her the momentum to break to the next level. For the next few years, Schumer worked furiously, putting in appearances in Celebrity Roast episodes and popping up in a variety of projects. Her real ascension began in 2012, when she appeared in three films and put out her extremely popular and critically acclaimed comedy special, Mostly Sex Stuff. The next year, she launched her much-loved sketch series Inside Amy Schumer. Her expansive body of work has seen her nominated for Golden Globes, Grammys, and Tonys, and her 2016 memoir, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, was a bestseller.

Featured image: Featureflash Photo Agency / Shutterstock

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