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The Real Deal: Life After Winning a Reality Show
Do you actually live the American dream after you win "best-in-reality-show"?

By Ben Silverman
Special to MSN Entertainment

As the contestants on the fifth season of Bravo's smash hit "Project Runway" furiously stitch their way to the July 16 premiere, millions of addicted viewers -- including us -- are already wondering about the winner. One of this season's designers will have the opportunity to make a dream come true, the recipient of a one-way ticket to the fabulous, lavish life of high fashion couture paid in full.

But is life after winning a skill-based reality show all it's cracked up to be? Some winners enjoy continued success once their 15 minutes tick away, but others find themselves facing a much different kind of reality than the one promoted by the show's sly producers and eager hosts. The kind of reality that looks an awful lot like ours, just with longer Wikipedia entries.

So before another "Runway" hopeful is given the keys to a New and Exciting Life, let's check in on the careers of 10 past reality show winners to see if they're still living the fantasy or slumming it with the rest of us.

Jay McCarrol
Show: "Project Runway," Season 1
Grand Prize: $100,000; mentorship at Banana Republic; a spot at 2005 New York Fashion Week event
Reality Bites: The flamboyant belle of the inaugural "Runway" ball, McCarrol showed some serious moxie by turning down his cash winnings due to a dubious contractual clause that would have given the show's production company a portion of his future earnings (it's since been removed from "Runway" contracts). He also bailed on Banana Republic, leaving the ex-baton twirler with little to show for his "Runway" triumph.

But rather than bite the hand that, well, tried to feed him, McCarrol agreed to film the Bravo one-hour documentary "Project Jay," chronicling his post-show move to Manhattan. Eventually he would get back to design and is currently spearheading the comeback attempt of iconic '80s brand Camp Beverly Hills. McCarrol also earned praise for a spring 2007 collection, and announced a film project detailing his attempts to sell the line.

Chloe Dao
Show: "Project Runway," Season 2
Grand Prize: $100,000; a 2007 Saturn Sky roadster; one-year contract with Designers Management Agency; a spread in ELLE magazine; mentorship at Banana Republic
Reality Bites: In sheer bling value, Chloe's second season win dwarfed Jay McCarrol's -- and unlike the first season's peeved prima donna, she took the cash, car, contract, spread and mentorship without putting up a fuss.

The embarrassment of riches didn't spoil the bubbly designer, as she went right back to operating Lot 8, the women's clothing boutique she owns in Houston. She wouldn't stay undercover for long, soon finding her way back to the tube by parlaying her management contract into a deal with television shopping channel QVC. That proved to be a success -- her 13-piece "Simply Chloe Dao" collection sold out during the May 2007 broadcast. Most recently, Dao dropped the needle and picked up an iPod, teaming with Pacific Design to launch a line of stylish mobile electronics accessories for retail chain Circuit City.

D at Phan's development deal with NBC has yet to produce any fruit, and his Comedy Central special came and went without registering more than a few muted guffaws.
Jeffrey Sebelia
Show: "Project Runway," Season 3
Grand Prize: $100,000; a 2007 Saturn Sky roadster, one-year contract with Designers Management Agency; a spread in ELLE magazine; mentorship at Macy's
Reality Bites: Season 3's tattooed-bad-boy-turned-lovable-underdog came into the show already established as a cutting-edge rock 'n' roll designer, having shaped leather for the likes of Dave Navarro and Gwen Stefani well before his first "Project Runway" audition. But while his fiercely independent vision took him to the top of Olympus Fashion Week, the twisting ride back down the mountain has been anything but smooth.

The cash mostly went to paying off business loans, his relationship with longtime girlfriend Melanie ended, and his Macy's mentorship stalled out while he tried to get his small label, Cosa Nostra, back on track. The phone didn't quite ring off the hook; larger retailers balked when faced with his collection's low-rent punk styles and contrasting high-fashion price tags.

But like the "Runway" roller coaster he rode to the finish, things were bound to turn up. Taste-making New York boutique Kirna Zabête has been buying his pieces, and in a show of good sportsmanship, Sebelia recently handled costume duties for the live-action version of "Bratz."

Harold Dieterle
Show: "Top Chef," Season 1
Grand Prize: $100,000; state-of-the-art Kenmore kitchen; profile in Food & Wine magazine; appearance at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colo.
Reality Bites: The master of the snapper was one of the more gentlemanly characters on "Top Chef," keeping the drama to a low simmer while studiously serving the competition. That might not make for great television, but Dieterle's focus on flavor scored him a big first season win that included seed money with which to start up his own restaurant.

Which is exactly what he did. Given, $100,000 barely covers the napkin expenses for a trendy restaurant in New York's West Village, but with a little help from some investors, Perilla was born in May 2007. In spite of (or perhaps because of) its famous head chef, it's received largely positive reviews, including a reasonably favorable critique by the very particular New York Times. It remains to be seen whether Perilla will survive Manhattan's harsh culinary landscape, but, even if it's just another flash in the pan, Dieterle has proven to be a more than capable cook.

Kendra Todd
Show: "The Apprentice," Season 3
Grand Prize: One-year, $250,000 contract to run one of Donald Trump's businesses
Reality Bites: Like most contestants strong-willed enough to be berated by The Donald week after week, Kendra Todd was quite successful prior to winning the third season of "The Apprentice." By the time she appeared on the show, the 26-year-old linguistics major had already founded both a profitable lifestyle magazine and her own real estate company.

Her "Apprentice" victory has thus far only helped Kendra's career. After overseeing the renovation of Trump's Palm Beach, Fla., mansion, she moved past the board room and into the publishing and broadcast fields. She managed to secure publishing for her investment advice book "Risk & Grow Rich" in April 2006, then came back to television when she was tapped to host "My House Is Worth What?"on HGTV. She also contributes real estate advice to FOX's "Cavuto on Business," keeping her career as solid as her performance on "The Apprentice." 

Yoanna House
Show: "America's Next Top Model," Season 2
Grand Prize: Contract with IMG Models; spread in Jane magazine; cosmetics campaign with Sephora
Reality Bites: Technically speaking, none of Tyra the Tyrant's winners has lived up to the show's title and broken through to supermodel status. But all of them have found work, including second season VIP Yoanna House.

While ex-"Top Model" winner Adrianne Curry found love through reality show overexposure, House opted for a much tamer career in cable television. After winning "Top Model," the gorgeous Floridian did a few commercials and spreads until replacing fellow reality star Elisabeth Hasselbeck as host of the Style Network show "The Look for Less." Shortly thereafter, House signed a deal to become the official face of The CW -- the very network that carries "Top Model."

Unfortunately, things haven't panned out for the ex-babysitter -- "The Look for Less" was eventually dropped and House has since fallen off the radar. We wouldn't be surprised if this beguiling beauty followed in Curry's footsteps with a career-saving run on VH1.

Jordin Sparks
Show: "American Idol," Season 6
Grand Prize: Recording contract worth up to $1 million
Reality Bites: When your rise to "Idol" greatness is usurped by a questionably talented vocalist better known for his impressive hair than his average pipes, you know you're in trouble. But getting over the inexplicable fame of Sanjaya was just one of the obstacles standing between Jordin Sparks and superstardom. They can't all be Kelly Clarkson, you know.

Groomed for success with appearances on "America's Most Talented Kids" and "Idol" forebear "Star Search," Sparks was the youngest contestant to win FOX's hit-making machine, nabbing top honors at the ripe age of 17. She joined fellow winners Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Taylor Hicks as the only contestants to never grace the bottom two or three, paving the way for what everyone expected would be another monster-selling "Idol" debut record.

Then someone edited the script. Her eponymous November 2007 debut received decent reviews but relatively poor sales, entering the Billboard 200 at No. 10 in its first week, the lowest of any "Idol" winner. Eventually sales would pick up, but compared with other "Idol" alumni has been considered something of a bust. Sparks further came under fire when she was accused of lip synching the national anthem at Super Bowl XLII. It seems only time -- and another record -- will tell if this idol is truly worth worshipping.

Dat Phan
Show: "Last Comic Standing," Season 1
Grand Prize: Development deal with NBC; half-hour special on Comedy Central
Reality Bites: NBC's comedy contest seemed like a no-brainer. Countless sitcom funnymen got their start in stand-up, and none of them got their mugs splashed across your screen every week in a nationally televised showcase. How could this not produce the next Seinfeld? Or even Kevin James, for that matter?

Ask Dat Phan. The Vietnamese-American jokester shocked audiences by snagging the show's top prize -- mostly by repackaging Asian stereotypes -- and while a few small cameo roles followed, he's hardly become a household name. The development deal with NBC has yet to produce any fruit, and his Comedy Central special came and went without registering more than a few muted guffaws. Phan is honing his craft on the stand-up circuit and lending his talents to upcoming films like "Spring Break '83" and "Yellow Fever." And no, we're not joking.

Matt Serra
Show: "The Ultimate Fighter," Season 4
Grand Prize: $100,000; $100,000 sponsorship with Xyience; guaranteed title shot
Reality Bites: Talk about a tough show -- Spike's house of pain makes "Hell's Kitchen" look like a pleasant champagne brunch. But it turns out all that blood, sweat and tears pay off, because unlike many reality shows, "The Ultimate Fighter" has a knack for turning its winners into big-time UFC stars.

Take, for instance, the case of Matt "The Terror" Serra. The Long Island grappler followed up his fourth season win by defeating heavily favored welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre in the most stunning upset in the sport's history. He was soon signed on as a coach for the series' sixth season, quickly becoming one of the rising sport's most recognizable personalities. An untimely injury would force Serra to relinquish his belt, though he'll soon have a chance to win it back in an upcoming title fight against -- you guessed it -- St. Pierre.

Grady Brewer
Show: "The Contender," Season 2
Grand Prize: $500,000; Toyota Tundra
Reality Bites: Ditched by NBC after just one season, "The Contender" got a second chance when ESPN picked up the rights to the ailing Sugar Ray Leonard/Sylvester Stallone vehicle. It turned out to be a great move -- the second season finale was the highest-rated boxing program on the sports network in nine years. You'd think that would have made champion Grady Brewer into some kind of superstar.

You'd be wrong. While "Bad Boy" Brewer put on an impressive display of hand speed and technique en route to a $500,000 payday, he was 35 at the time and apparently not looking to take on any more comers. Rather, the ring king from Lawton, Okla., hasn't fought since and is back supporting his family by working at the local Goodyear plant. Beats punching raw meat, though.

Who's your favorite reality TV show winner? Write us at heymsn@microsoft.com and tell us.

In addition to his contributions to MSN TV, Ben Silverman writes about film, music and video games for a variety of questionable Web sites.