Reality TV used to be a spotlight where contestants might earn their coveted ‘5 minutes of fame,’ but today, thanks to Sheila Conlin and The Conlin Company, reality TV is no longer a flash in the pan. Instead, it has become an institution and platform for creating and expanding careers, businesses, and global successes in meaningful ways! Whether you were born with a deep-seated desire to appear on a reality show, or understand the sheer significance that this unique platform holds in this day and age, you might be wondering where it came from. Below you will discover who is behind it all, how you can get in on the star-studded action and more with industry tips from the woman who created some of the best-loved shows on TV to date!
Sheila Conlin, CEO of The Conlin Company, shares with Male Standard her captivating story of rags to riches – how as a single mother on the verge of despair became one of the most valuable assets in America to date – it’s truly inspiring. Listing off her celebrity connections, dozens of prime time TV accolades, and personal accomplishments and struggles, we found Sheila to be incredibly down to earth considering the new heights to which she has propelled herself and reality TV. Discover trade secrets that can help your own transformative journey, and why you might be on the brink of the next big thing without even realizing it. We know you’ll takeaway some real nuggets from this one!
Introducing Sheila Conlin of the Conlin Company
How did reality TV come about?
It started with variety shows. When variety was big, it morphed into clip shows, like TV’s Greatest Christmas Moments, and my big claim to fame, When Animals Attack. All of a sudden, real people started emerging on TV, not just as game show contestants. The very first show that came out was Survivor, which was based on Eco-Challenge that Mark Burnett had produced. Fox had The Bachelorettes in Alaska, ABC had The Bachelor, and CBS had Survivor.
How would you say reality has morphed from clips into competitions?
In the beginning, there was always a prize at the end, either money or love. Then it became help, self-help, help with the family, help with this, help with that. Then competition became involved again, and now it’s actually about people. I used to call it, “Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.” Now it’s about people who are experts or being successful in something, following them in their business and their lives.
How has reality TV changed since then?
In its early stages, reality TV was a chance for someone to better themselves, from, “Do I have the courage to go try out for that” to, “Do you think I can win?” It was five minutes of fame, then back to your real life, and that was great. Now it’s more about the 15 minutes of fame. It’s about, “How can reality TV genuinely benefit my business and me?” So really, I say it started with variety, and then clip shows, and the progenitor to reality was The Real World, which propelled what we see today.
What does the casting process look like?
We always set up for a big marketing and advertising push, but I still truly believe in the grassroots element, which is picking up the phone and asking, “Who do you know, who’s this, who’s that?” Of course, by now, my database is huge and I can reach out to many people, but we still pick up the phone, call someone in Des Moines, Iowa, and ask, “Who’s the prettiest girl in your town that’s single?” Then we usually meet the narrowed down bunch, and then narrow that group down, before we show the network. At that point, we’re all kind of in it together to pick the final cast. With Hell’s Kitchen, for example, by the time we start casting to the time you make it on the show, it’s about 16-20 weeks, sometimes a little bit longer.
What advice do you have for someone that wants to be cast in reality TV?
First, make sure you’re trying out for the right type of show for you. It’s got to be authentic; you have to have the passion for it. If you’re not into cooking and you’ve never worked on the line in a restaurant, don’t try out for Hell’s Kitchen, because you’re not going to make it. Know what the show is about for you, and then my best advice is, “Be yourself.” You can’t be inhibited by anything. We can see through acting, fakeness, and any phoniness.
What is it about them, about that fire that makes them succeed?
When somebody has that natural talent, we believe in that. When it’s there, nothing will stop them until they get it and that’s when you know it’s real. Even if they have ups and downs and don’t make it right away, they don’t give up; it’s their passion. When you meet a true musician, a true singer, a true comedian they could be good at some other things, but that is all they want to do and they live and breathe it. That’s it.
Do you feel successful people obsess over success?
Even in my business, I have to keep reinventing to stay on top, stay on top of the trends, keep current. I’m always asking myself, what’s the next thing? How do I keep it going? If you’re a performer or an athlete, it’s you. That’s all you have. It’s your body. It’s your dance moves, your singing voice, your look, your stamina, your speed, and you’ve got to prove it 24/7. That dedication is constant work. My friend, musician Kenny Olson, plays his guitar day in and day out, as if it’s a piece of his body. When you can’t live without it, that obsession drives success.
As somebody who casts people for reality shows, how important is grooming to coming out on TV?
I think it’s extremely important. First impressions are still everything. If you can’t afford the most expensive clothes, just make sure your clothes are clean, and there aren’t any stains on them. Be clean, present proper hygiene, and be you.
Can a man ever be too groomed?
If you’re a man that loves to have his eyebrows waxed and hair slicked back, and you have manicures/pedicures, and you know you always wear a suit, then by all means, that’s how you should come to the audition. You can’t be something you’re not. What I like to celebrate is uniqueness. I might notice his eyebrows or the way he wears a suit. Those are great identifiers for me that tell me a lot about a person.
You’ve had a series of hit shows under your belt — Hell’s Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares, The Swan, and Nanny 911 — would you say that there’s a common factor in all of these shows that have made them successful?
The show has to have a good foundation, a good base to begin with; the cast makes it. It has to touch something in the audience, in the viewer, that they can relate to – whether it’s pure enjoyment, or they’re rooting for people – it’s the subject matter that they’re interested in. Nanny 911 was a great example for that. Any young parent could tune in and laugh at the expense of others going through the same trials and tribulations of not knowing how to handle their toddlers.
What inspired you to start The Conlin Company?
It came out of necessity. I was a single mom; my son’s father was not readily available. I was working every day, driving from the West Side all the way to the Valley. In production, sometimes you’re working 16 hours a day. I would literally be in tears driving home at night. I love to work, but when I’m working for somebody else, that’s all I can do, I have to answer to them all day long. I thought, if I have all of this knowledge and I’m creating it and inventing how to make this work, then I need to do it in my own space so that I can be closer to my son.
Now that you look back, now that you have this successful company, did you have any entrepreneurial tendencies when you were younger?
When I was 16, I started an exercise class called Get Physical with a girlfriend; we had space in a karate studio, and taught women how to stretch and move around. I also organized the Winter Carnival in St. Paul. I suppose I had entrepreneurial stuff going on already, but didn’t think of it as that at the time.
What is your Female Standard?
Integrity! That one word really sums up how I’ve gotten through since I was a teenager to where I am now.
I know you have a ton of projects, but what are some things that you’re working on now and some things we can expect from you in the future?
I have a show that hopefully you’ll be seeing soon on the Style Network. We are waiting for that to get the final green light. It’s very dynamic and adorable. Hell’s Kitchen season 13 and 14 coming out. We’re getting ready to start filming season 13. Season 6 of Kitchen Nightmares should be airing soon on Fox. I have another show that we’re filming right now. That’s secret! I can’t really say too much about that one yet. We’ve got some great things in development, and you know – I think that’s about it, really!
Sounds like a lot to us! Thank you so much for taking the time, Sheila!
About Sheila Conlin
Sheila Conlin, the “IT” person for reality television casting, is a pioneer in the genre and driving force in its eventual dominance in network and cable programming. As the owner and president of The Conlin Company, a full-service casting, management, and production office headquartered in Los Angeles, Conlin has made people her business. Reality TV emerged 20 years ago; throughout its evolution, she has continued to reinvent her approach to the genre, cater to its needs, and remain a relevant and powerful voice in the industry. Conlin played a vital role in establishing the criteria and protocol for bringing everyday people to the television screen. In unscripted television, the cast defines the program. Conlin has mastered the art of casting and has consistently found the perfect contestants and participants for hit shows that include Hell’s Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares, Hotel Hell, The Moment of Truth, True Beauty, The Swan, and Nanny 911. As an industry expert, Conlin has participated in numerous speaking engagements that inspire industry professionals and aspiring reality TV stars. She can assist those interested in reality television by coaching them about the casting process and promoting personal success through networking.
You can learn more about me at www.theconlincompany.com.