The Founding Mothers Of Reality TV

Kim Kardashian balancing a champagne flute on her ass, Tyra Banks screaming that she was rooting for Tiffany Richardson (we were all rooting for you!!), and New York spitting on a fellow contestant are but a few of the moments that have defined reality TV. Women are the backbone of television and have done the work, put in the hours, quiffed their hair, slurped their Bacardi Cokes, and screamed until their voices were hoarse. 

We can’t unpack the state of reality TV today without acknowledging its revolutionary beginnings. Would Vanderpump Rules exist without the groundbreaking antics of Jersey Shore? Who would the Kardashians be without the tireless work of the original Momager? 

In this chapter of our Reality TV Textbook, let us take a moment to honor the Founding Mothers of Reality TV, the women who walked ahead of us in stiletto heels — falling occasionally — and who, through their audacity, epic one-liners, and batshit crazy confessionals, revolutionized reality television into the captivating, almost inexplicable cultural phenomenon it is today. May they forever slay in our memories. 

(FYI, they’re not dead yet.)

Jessica Simpson


Before the world went gaga for Kourtney Kardashian and Scott Disick (RIP), Ariana Madix and Tom Sandoval (RIP), and Heidi and Spencer Pratt (STILL TOGETHER!), another iconic duo was the blueprint for influencer couples. 

Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica followed Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey, the guy with the sun tattoo from 98 Degrees, after their wedded bliss. One of the most notable moments from the series happened mere minutes into the pilot, when Jessica didn’t understand if canned tuna was chicken or fish. She later became an ambassador for the brand Chicken of the Sea, purveyor of canned tuna. Back then, celebs weren’t promoting Gucci bags or laxative teas; they were endorsing cans of tuna. And so, her influence began.

Other notable moments include Jessica spending too much on lingerie, Jessica spending too much on sheets, and Jessica spending too much on Nick’s 30th birthday gift. One can never forget (no matter how hard we try) when she emerged from a cake in a corset and lingerie to sing a Marilyn Monroe-esque “Happy Birthday” to him, in front of his parents and all of his friends. She was even a reader girlie before the rest of us, telling Nick she was scared of whales “because they swallowed Jonah!”

Despite the title, this was really just a show about Jessica. We all laughed at her ditzy blonde antics, while secretly knowing we did the same things. She hates filling up on gas, because, like us, she always feels like everyone is staring and thinking she’s doing it wrong. She thinks about Home Depot while her husband is trying to initiate sexy time. And the only sport she plays is shopping — steps are steps to my Apple Watch!

Their marriage (unsurprisingly) ended, and Nick has since tried to recreate this reality TV spark with his new wife, Vanessa Lachey — the two serve as hosts for multiple truly unhinged, upsettingly bingeable reality dating shows — but it doesn’t hit the same, no matter how much they try to convince you otherwise on every episode of Love Is Blind.

Tiffany Pollard


“Good morning! Good morning! Not you, you can choke.”

Tiffany Pollard was the original HBIC of reality TV. She is also known as the “Meme Queen,” so even if you’ve never seen an episode of Flavor of Love, you’ve definitely sent gifs of her face at least once in your group chat. She remains one of the most notable, yet divisive, reality TV figures to ever grace our screens. 

She made her debut on the VH1 reality show Flavor of Love, in which 20 female contestants competed to win Flavor Flav’s heart. Tiffany was featured in two seasons, but unfortunately did not win; in fact, none of the contestants did, as the rapper announced he was going back to the mother of his seventh child instead. Still, she was in the running long enough for Flavor Flav to christen her with a new name — “New York” (look, it’s better than “Thing 2” or “Deelishis”) — and to deliver the iconic, scathing line, “Beyoncé? Beyoncé?? Beyoncé??? Bitch, you look like Luther Vandross!!!” to a contestant who compared herself to Queen Bey.

Tiffany’s impact after her two seasons (and two dozen brawls) was so strong, she ended up with her own spinoff show, I Love New York. Now, it was her turn to name and shame her own set of hopeful bachelors, and we ended up with “T-Bone,” “T-Money,” “12 Pack,” and “Whiteboy.” Let me tell you, we were not rooting for “Whiteboy.”

Since then, she’s been the subject of countless shows, such as New York Goes to Work, on which she cosplayed as us normies with regular jobs like a doggie daycare attendant, a fast food drive-through worker, and an exterminator. Real ones will remember what’s arguably the most notable moment of this show: Tiffany’s stint as a sewer worker, when she took one look at the gaping manhole and said, “You want me to climb in that dirty slimy asshole of the Earth?” Shakespeare could never.

Tiffany’s legacy went global when she crossed the pond to compete in season 17 of Celebrity Big Brother, tearing everyone to shreds in the process and gaslighting the contestants into thinking David Gest was dead. (He died later that year, so you have to wonder if she knew something we didn’t… )

Lest she ever fade from public memory, she made yet another reality TV appearance in 2023, this time as the baddest bitch of them all on House of Villains, and the internet collectively lost interest after she was sent home early in the season. Fortunately for us all, it seems this founding mama ain’t going anywhere.

Perhaps the most lasting legacy of Tiffany will be how she taught us that a high heel can make a great weapon, like when she yanked hers off to throw down on “Pumkin” for spitting on her. She was not only the original HBIC, but she became the definitive barometer by which all future HBICs would be measured.

Kristin Cavallari


Too often, when we speak about Laguna Beach and The Hills, we focus on Lauren Conrad. Like, sure, she was great and all, but Kristin Cavallari! She can be entirely summarized by her iconic quote, “I say what’s on my mind. I go after what I want,” and boy, did she.

Kristin was cast at the young age of 17 for Laguna Beach, existing on the show in part as a rival for LC, who was trying to steal her man. That could’ve been her entire storyline, especially when she and Stephen Colletti broke up. But girlie is a prime example of how, with determination, an unforgettable personality, and just the right amount of spice, a side character can assume the spotlight. She eventually assumed the role of the villain, the sass queen, the oracle of (stinging) truth. 

“I have no sympathy for you because you let it happen to yourself,” she ruthlessly said to her own then-best friend Jessica Smith. “Don’t try to call me!” she yelled at trashpile Stephen, who dared to chase her around a Cabo bar and call her a slut. Ultimately, she was made for the camera, to the extent that she was the only one who could realistically fill Lauren’s Jimmy Choos and take over as narrator for The Hills. Her two seasons were short but glorious, and started with her arriving at Heidi and Spencer’s wedding in a jumpsuit the same electric blue as Lauren’s dress. Who wore it best? Well, Lauren’s face said it all. Oh, and let’s never forget that she turned down Brody Jenner to go to Paris and focus on herself. Overshadowing the focus of a show and ultimately growing into the most beloved character of them all? A girlboss moment indeed.

NeNe Leakes


There is no list of founding mothers of reality TV without at least one Real Housewife, and it’s tough competition for that coveted spot: Kyle Richards? Bethenny Frankel? Lisa Rinna?

Nope, NeNe Leakes is the leading lady of the Housewives, boasting some of the most iconic Bravo soundbites. 

NeNe rose to fame on The Real Housewives of Atlanta, where viewers watched her transform from a classic housewife into a successful actress, fashion designer, and businesswoman. But it was her unapologetic ferocity that really won over viewers’ hearts… and low-key terrified them to the core. NeNe was in her Reputation era while the rest of us were still out here making friendship bracelets.

When former bestie Shereé Whitfield claimed NeNe was jealous of the dream house she was building, NeNe stoically responded, “Jealous of what, sticks?” When she visited Kenya Moore in her hotel room, she called it “the ghetto,” and was especially horrified by the white refrigerator. And while these and other retorts might seem a bit callous (pls don’t come after us, NeNe), she worked by a moral code. This was most evident when she called out her longtime nemesis Kim Zolciak-Biermann for having an affair with a married man: “Close your legs to married men, trashbox!” Was she wrong? Was she wrong though?!

The new age of reality TV has long spotlighted extravagant wealth and unattainable lifestyles and, in doing so, blurred the lines of what’s “acceptable” behavior for this new era of the rich and famous. But even if the comments were scathing, stars like NeNe made the case that ethics have a place in this wild saloon.



Let’s give the “fucking princess of fucking Poughkeepsie” the respect she deserves, okay? There is arguably one person we remember most fondly from Jersey Shore, and it’s definitely not Ronnie. A self-proclaimed “Guidette,” Founding Mother Snooki was the beating heart of the show. She was a tiny woman with an unbelievably loud voice — though, to be fair, her iconic pouf added a good half a foot to her height. 

Most of her antics on the show involved a truly impressive (and almost scary) amount of alcohol and an intrinsic need to protect her friends, and even casual fans will remember Snooki moments big and small. There’s the time she peed in the pool that The Situation proposed to his now-wife Lauren in. There’s the debacle in season 4 when she crashed into a cop car and drunkenly toppled into a bush. Her cheerleading days came in handy when she backflipped and did the splits in the crew’s crusty favorite bar, Karma. “I’m not trashy, unless I drink too much,” she famously declared. Us too, girlie.

When Snooki shocked the world with her first pregnancy announcement, though, many wondered if this was the end of the OG party girl’s career as we all knew it. She was known for getting wasted, peeing in public places, and getting punched in the face by a drunk guy in a bar — not exactly the typical milestones you accomplish with a newborn. But Snooki proved to everyone that she’s just as much fun with a baby on her hip. She even laid the groundwork for her successful businesswoman era, releasing a line of strollers, clothing, school supplies, oh, and a whopping three novels (literally, don’t even ask).

Snooki is a shining example of the longevity and evolution that’s possible for even the biggest party girls. No one should ever doubt that she is a “fucking good person!”

Paris Hilton


One of the biggest crimes of our generation is that we only just started appreciating the certified banger that is “Stars Are Blind.” 

Bona fide reality TV legend Paris Hilton was sliving well before she even coined the term. She and bestie Nicole Richie famously starred in their own show, The Simple Life, where the two lived with working-class families and tried their hands at various blue-collar jobs. Can we recognize now the offensive, classist undertones running rampant here? Absolutely. But back then, it felt impossible to rip our eyes away from seeing them whip out their bedazzled flip phones and totter over dirt in 6-inch heels.

Many wrote Paris off as another famous dumb blonde, but you could also argue she was just ahead of her time. Walmart should be a place that sells wall stuff, bacon can be cooked on an iron, and mopping on a Segway could save time if you don’t break your ass when you fall, as she did. She gave us invaluable self-esteem insights that Brené Brown could never, like “never pass a mirror without looking in it” and “always walk around like you have on an invisible tiara.”

Fortunately, the party didn’t end when our fave girlies got into a feud to end all feuds and the show halted. Rather, Paris started a new, impossibly addicting show: My New BFF. We’d seen people competing to be models, lovers, and bakers; now, they’d fight to become Paris’ new ride or die. They had to party for the longest, swear they’d die for her, get makeovers, learn to pose for paparazzi, and so many more true tests of character.

The Simple Life showed us women could work together rather than against each other (at least for a while). You could see it as mocking an honest day’s work, or as proving how difficult these seemingly basic tasks actually are. It prepared us for adult life more than anything else did, and taught us to always respond to work inquiries with, “Thanks, bitch, have a great day.”

Kris Jenner


Despite there being several university courses and counting available on Taylor Swift and her cultural influence, at the time of this writing, the likes of Harvard or Stanford have yet to roll out a course dedicated to Kris Jenner. And really, how can anyone truly call themselves a business major if they haven’t spent hours studying the True American Businesswoman?

Kristen Mary Jenner is best known as the matriarch to the Kardashian-Jenner clan — consisting of Kim, Kourtney, Khloé, Kendall, and Kylie (and Rob, but we don’t talk about him) — combining “momager” and “master manipulator” to craft one of the most influential dynasties reality TV has ever seen. No, really. She took a gaggle of somewhat attractive daughters and turned them into an unshakable, income-generating consortium of beauty, fashion, and wellness empires. She took a page from Queen Victoria’s book, pairing her countless offspring with influential modern royalty and learning from the Queen’s mistakes with prenups and divorces, to ensure they never stop being relevant or rich.

Did she leak the sex tape that propelled the family to fame, as so many have speculated over the years? We might never know, unless Julian Assange turns his attention to this vital issue. Regardless, it was her flawless PR spin for this unthinkable event that solidified her spot in the reality hall of fame. 

This is even more apparent when you consider the fact that Keeping Up With the Kardashians had tons of potential to flop. Think about it: Why would we care about a bunch of whiny rich people? Because no one can look away from a trainwreck. Through Kris’ tireless work turning a trainwreck into an addictive, IRL soap opera, we were gifted endless meme-able moments, like Kim losing her diamond earring in the ocean, Kendall chaotically cutting a cucumber, and Kylie declaring 2016 was the year of realizing stuff. (Spoiler: Of course it was.)

But let’s not overlook Kris’ own star power, separate from that of her daughters. She is the Momager to end all Momagers, most noticeably rooting for Kim at her Playboy photo shoot the way no other mother could (“You’re doing amazing, sweetie!”) and never forgetting to give her girls a necessary dose of reality (“Would you stop taking pictures of yourself? Your sister’s going to jail.”). 

All in all, we have Kris to thank for the Godfather-level loyalty and family respect she’s brought to the world of reality TV, always reminding us of the golden rule: “Never go against the family.” Even if you got married in Italy first.

Fleurine Tideman
Fleurine Tideman
Fleurine Tideman, a European-based copywriter. She’s interesting (cause she’s from Europe), speaks multiple languages (again, she's from Europe), and is mentally unhinged (despite socialized healthcare). You can find her European musings on Twitter @ByFleurine and her blog, Symptoms of Living, both of which are written to the sounds of unhinged Taylor Swift playlists.