Reality television has given us many things: Epic alliances, sex-tape superstars, and some of the most memorable LGBT people in pop culture.
Say what you will of the genre, reality TV has contributed significantly to America’s evolution on gay issues—whether it was Pedro Zamora’s struggle with AIDS on The Real World, or Chaz Bono cutting a rug on Dancing with the Stars.
Seeing queer people being their authentic selves has inspired many to live their truth. It’s also opened the doors to diversity in the entertainment industry and the minds of viewers at home.
To honor the impact reality TV has had on our culture, we’re sharing our list of 50 of the most memorable LGBT reality stars.
Pedro Zamora, “The Real World”
During The Real World’s golden era, Pedro Zamora used the platform to educate us all on what it was like to live with HIV in the 90s, love someone of the same sex fearlessly, and confront ignorance with compassion and honesty. His legacy lives on to this day.
RuPaul, “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” “Good Work”
America got its first taste of Ru on VH1’s The RuPaul Show, back in the mid-1990s. Since then, the Supermodel of the World has dominated the scene with Drag Race, and extended the RuPaul brand out of drag on E!’s Good Work, as well as The Face, Life with La Toya, Skin Wars and Project Runway.
Adam Lambert, “American Idol”
After appearing on Season 8 of American Idol, Lambert released two top selling albums. He also toured the world with Queen, had a story arc on Glee, and freaked out the Parents Television Council by kissing a man onstage—and grabbing another guy’s crotch—at the 2009 American Music Awards.
Calpernia Addams, “TransAmerican Love Story”
When artist/actress/activist Calpernia Addams went looking for love on national television she made both headlines and history as the first ever out trans woman to helm a reality dating show.
Carson Kressley, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” “RuPaul’s Drag Race”
The breakout star of the metrosexual craze, Carson Kressley came to fame coaching straight men on dressing more like gay men to get the girl and the life of their dreams. His sparkling personality and flare for fashion helped Carson create a lasting career in the entertainment industry, as witnessed by his recent turn as a judge on Drag Race.
Tabatha Coffey, “Tabatha’s Salon Take Over”
The toughest, most talented Aussie in the hair game, Tabatha Coffey has taught us all a thing or two about taking charge and taking over. Don’t try it with her, she’s got a tongue as sharp as her sheers.
Miss J Alexander, “America’s Next Top Model”
An internationally renowned runway coach who has appeared on nearly every cycle of the hit reality series, Miss J not only shows Tyra’s model hopefuls how to sashay, but he keeps it brutally (but lovingly) 100 with them as well.
Jillian Michaels, “The Biggest Loser”
Tough as nails trainer, Jillian Michaels’ no nonsense attitude and toned physique has inspired countless body transformations, and no doubt the same number of female admires as part of NBC’s weight loss juggernaut. She yells a lot, but we’re kinda into it.
Todd Herzog, “Survivor”
The second gay man to win Survivor faced the downside of fame and wealth as he’s fought against severe alcoholism. After appearing on Dr. Phil to discuss his substance abuse problem, Herzog received words of encouragement from Survivor contestants like Courtney Yates and Sandra Diaz-Twine, and thousands of supportive letters and emails.
Laverne Cox, “I Want to Work for Diddy”
We know her as an Emmy nominated actress and activist, but back in 2008 the Orange is the New Black star signed up for a chance to work for Sean Combs, enduring a grueling competition and looking good doing it.
Representing for trans women everywhere, Laverne opened eyes and changed minds just by being herself.
Brad Goreski, “The Rachel Zoe Project,” “It’s a Brad Brad World”
Bow-tied and bespectacled Brad Goreski’s cuteness (have you SEEN his shirtless Instagram pics?) made us all bananas when he took a job as stylist Rachel Zoe’s assistant. Hunky and talented, he even got a spinoff, proving It’s a Brad Brad World.
Whitney Mixter, “The Real L Word”
Girls, girls, girls! What would The Real L-Word have been without Whitney Mixter and her total chill factor? No lie, this New Yorker out-shined the L.A. ladies on their own Cali turf.
Bruno Tonioli, “Dancing with the Stars”
They say Italians do it better, and when it comes to judging a celebrity ballroom dancing competition, Tonioli is simply the best.
Jackie Warner, “Work Out”
For three seasons viewers followed the career, romance, and abs of Sky Fit Sport and Spa owner, Jackie Warner. Her string of troubled relationships, conflicts with trainers, and questionable workplace decorum made for good TV, but eventually lead to Work Out being cancelled.
Tim Gunn, “Project Runway,” “Under the Gunn,” “Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style”
Famous for his concerned expressions, catchphrases (“Make it work!”) and proper attire, this Parsons prof helped make Runway a ratings hit, and has penned numerous style guides and a 2011 memoir, Shaken, Not Stirred.
The former Parsons prof is open about being celibate, and rejects the idea we need a romantic partner to be happy. “Do I feel like less of a person for [being single]?,” he once said. “No, I’m a perfectly happy and fulfilled individual.”
Isis King, “America’s Next Top Model”
The first trans woman to compete on Top Model, Isis King is a bit of a Cinderella story—transforming from a homeless youth to a contestant on ANTM Cycle and the show’s All-Stars season.
Jeff Lewis, “Flipping Out”
The mad genius of L.A. real estate, Lewis is known for his talents in home design and renovation—and for his comically outlandish personality. A perfectionist with OCD and no filter, the man was born to be followed by a camera crew.
The Queens of “RuPaul’s Drag Race”
C’mon, like we could single just one out? That’s like naming your favorite child or Spice Girl.
Each one of these drag divas gave us life in their unique way, whether they snatched the crown or were sent packing the first week. #BringBackPorkchopFrankie Grande, “Big Brother 16” YouTuber and Broadway star Frankie J. Grande, stole the show when he appeared on Big Brother 16, giving us the show’s first bromance showmance. Ariana Grande’s pink haired sibling played the game well, generating headlines and ratings as he went. [/item]
Shambo Waters, “Survivor”
A Marine Corps vet with a spectacular mullet, Shambo Waters may not have won Survivor, but she won our hearts. We salute you Shambo, not only for your statement hair, but for your resourcefulness and self-sufficiency in the face of adversity, as well.
Brad Krefman, “American High”
Filmed in Chicago during the 1999-2000 school year, Fox’s American High featured openly gay senior Brad Krefman. Brad’s story wasn’t one of hardship or turmoil, though—at the dawn of the millennium, he was a sign of the change to come.
Andy Herren, “Big Brother”
In a season filled with homophobic and racist rants from various house guests, this Illinois ginger played the game masterfully—juggling two alliances and sabotaging both.
Despite being deemed a “rat” by his fellow contestants, Andy won the 15th season of Big Brother by a vote of 7 to 2.
Rodiney Santiago, “The A-List: New York”
Rodiney Santiago found fame as the subtitled hottie the other A-List-ers loved to hate. Since the show ended, the Brazilian beauty has launched a successful modeling career—including a very popular calendar.
Cat Cora, “Iron Chef America”
Cat Cora is a world renowned chef, restauranteur, humanitarian and culinary educator; though she’s probably best known for her role as the first woman ever to compete on Iron Chef America.
Lance Loud, “An American Family”
As a part of the groundbreaking 1973 series, An American Family, Lance Loud was the first gay man in reality television. His sexuality was revealed to audiences during the course of the show, becoming headline fodder and earning him appearances on the talk show circuit. His unapologetic honesty, good looks and flamboyant personality cemented Loud’s status as our first LGBT reality icon.
Loud passed away in 2001 from liver failure as a result of hepatitis C and HIV. He was 50.
Clay Aiken, “American Idol,” “Celebrity Apprentice”
Aiken might have lost the second season of American Idol to Ruben Studdard, but he went on to release five albums, star on Broadway in Monty Python’s Spamalot, appear on Celebrity Apprentice and run for Congress in North Carolina. (His failed campaign inspired the Esquire TV reality show The Runner Up.)
Gay reality stars are common now, but how many can say they came out on the cover of People magazine?
Sue Perkins, “Great British Bakeoff”Jeff Spicer via Getty Images
One of the British baking competition’s beloved TV hosts, Sue recently opened up to the press about her sexuality, telling BBC News that she wishes LGBT celebs could feel more comfortable about talking about sexuality beyond the gay versus straight binary.
Will Wikle, “Big Brother”
At one point a registered nurse, Will parlayed his appearance on Big Brother Season Five into a hosting gig on Logo’s Round Trip Ticket, a role in Another Gay Sequel, and appearances on reality shows like Real Gays, Battle of the Network Reality Stars and Threesome.
He also appeared in a nude photo shoot with porn actor Colby Keller, which probably made up for not winning BB’s $500,000 jackpot.
Christian Siriano, “Project Runway”
Since winning Project Runway Season Four when he was just 21, Siriano launched a namesake label and dressed everyone from Nicki Minaj and Sarah Jessica Parker to Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga.
Plus, how many straight suburbanites were saying “fierce” and “hot mess” before 2007? We’ll let you connect the dots.
Chris March, “Project Runway,” “Mad Fashion”
March didn’t win Project Runway Season Four, but he’s ended up dressing Beyonce, Madonna, Lady Gaga and Meryl Streep. (He designed Meryl’s uncharacteristically glam Oscar dress in 2010.)
The madcap designer also produced a line of campy Halloween wigs for Target, appeared on The Real Housewives of New York City as a friend of Sonja Morgan, and snagged his own Bravo series, Mad Fashion.
Reichen Lehmkuhl, “The Amazing Race,” “The A-List New York”
Love him, hate him or wanna bed him, there’s no denying this former Air Force pilot is a reality superstar: Not only did he and then-partner Chip Ardt win The Amazing Race, he appeared on two seasons of Logo’s The A-List New York.
Lehmkul’s romantic life also made tabloids—After splitting from Arndt, he dated A-List co-star Rodiney Santiago and former boy-bander Lance Bass.
Alex Newell, “The Glee Project”
After a breakthrough stint on Oxygen’s woefully underrated The Glee Project, Newell got cast in Glee as trans student Unique Adams.
This 23-year-old singer/actor’s got a bright future ahead of him, if his featured vocals on Blonde’s “All Cried Out” is any indication.
MK Nobilette, “American Idol”
There’s been quite a few gays on American Idol, but this San Francisco singer from Season 13 was the first to be out going into the top contestants round—and was also Idol’s first out lesbian contestant.
Since the show, Nobilette’s reportedly signed a record deal and is working on a debut single.
Steven Daigle, “Big Brother”
Following in the footsteps of BB 9, openly bisexual “Crazy” James Zinkland popped up in gay porn clips for Dirty Boy Video.
The Big Brother 10 housemate-turned-porn actor was apparently a championship bull rider on the gay rodeo circuit before getting cast on the CBS show. Everyone else go home: Steven Daigle just wins.
Jim Morrison, “The Mole”
After coming in second on the premiere season of ABC’s The Mole, Morrison ran for state senate in New Jersey and landed a gig hosting here! TV’s news-commentary show For & Against.
As far as we know, he hasn’t sworn vengeance on Mole Kathryn.
Chaz Bono, “Dancing with the Stars”
Chaz Bono competed on the 13th season of DWTS, marking a huge leap in trans visibility in mainstream America.
Chaz is also Cher’s son, and if you didn’t already know that then we honestly don’t even know what you’re doing here.
Zeke Smith, “Survivor”Survivor | CBS
The Survivor: Game Changers contestant was outed by one of his fellow contestants as transgender, sending Smith whirling—and mobilizing fans and castmates alike to rally in support of him.
Katelynn Cusanelli, “The Real World”
Cusanelli was the first openly trans castmate in Real World history—and began filming her season just three weeks after undergoing gender confirmation surgery. Since then, she’s gone on to work with a variety of LGBT and HIV advocacy groups, and continues to be, in her words, “an esteemed geek.”
Mike Manning, “The Real World”
While on The Real World: D.C, Mike struggled to reconcile his conservative, religious upbringing and his new identity as an out bisexual. He’s since begun working as an actor, appearing in the Disney Channel original movie, Cloud 9, among other projects.
Ronnie Kroell, “Make Me a Supermodel”
Was anyone else obsessed with Ronnie’s attached-at-the-hip bond with straight roommate Ben when the two appeared on Bravo’s model competition series? #Bronnie4ever.
JP Calderon, “Survivor,” “The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency”
The Survivor: Cook Islands contestant got his reality TV second wind in the second season of Oxygen’s Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency. With the support of The World’s First Supermodel (trademark pending), Calderon came out publicly as gay, and his modeling career only took off from there.
Norman Korpi, “The Real World”
Korpi wasn’t just the first openly gay housemate on The Real World, he was one of the first out LGBT people on television, period. Back in reality TV’s Stone Age, a.k.a. 1992, he presented millions of gays and lesbians with a view of an openly gay man who was happy, well-adjusted and popular.
Fredrik Eklund, “Million Dollar Listing New York”
Plenty of people have made the lead from reality to porn, but Fredrik Eklund went the other way around—jumping from adult movies to Bravo’s addictive real estate series.
Ted Allen, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” “Chopped”
Allen broke into the mainstream thanks to Queer Eye, but he’s better known today as the host of Food Network’s Chopped, and the author of a whole bunch of cookbooks.
Basically, he’s the guy your mom wished you’d bring home.
E.J. Johnson, “Rich Kids of Beverly Hills”
With a wardrobe that rivals Kimye’s and a larger than life personality, Magic Johnson’s out-and-proud offspring did the impossible: he made a reality show about rich kids being rich watchable. (Okay, Dorothy and Morgan are great, too.)
Lawrence Washington, “Real Housewives of Atlanta”
Miss Lawrence was giving the Real Housewives of Atlanta a necessary dose of Gone with the Wind fabulous long before Kenya Moore waltzed through the door. You can also catch him on Bravo’s Fashion Queens, alongside Bevy Smith and Derek J.
Reza Farahan, “Shahs of Sunset”
Tehran-born Reza has been everybody’s mustachioed L.A. daddy since Shahs of Sunset premiered in 2012. He has yet to invite us to share in his wealthy lifestyle, but it’s cool. We’re fine.
Austin Scarlett, “Project Runway,” “On the Road with Austin and Santino”
Remember the dress he designed inspired by the Chrysler Building? Iconic. While le petit prince de Project Runway Season One might have lost the crown to fellow gay Jay McCarroll, his career as a designer hasn’t suffered for it.
Jazz Jennings, “Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen”Michael Stewart via Getty Images
An actress and trans advocate wise beyond her years, 16-year-old Jazz made a name for herself with her reality show documenting her life as a young trans woman in America.
Ryan Buell, “Paranormal State”
You know you’ve made it as a reality star when you’ve got a “demon stalker.” That’s but one of the paranormal misadventures that befell the bisexual host of A&E’s show about ghost enthusiasts.
Caitlyn Jenner, “I Am Cait,” “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”
We said most memorable, not most universally adored. And there’s no denying Jenner made her mark during two seasons of her E! reality series.
While ratings quickly sank, many Americans got to meet trans people for the very first time—not just Jenner, but Jennifer Finney Boylan, Candis Cayne, Chandi Moore, Zackary Drucker, Jen Richards and Kate Bornstein.Dan Avery, Evan Ross Katz, James Pombo and John Walker contributed to this piece.