In June, Keeping Up With the Kardashians aired a two-part finale where Khloé Kardashian discovered that her boyfriend Tristan Thompson had cheated on her with her younger sister Kylie Jenner’s best friend Jordyn Woods. The scandal should’ve been one of the series’ most shocking twists to date—if it wasn’t for the fact that TMZ broke the news five months earlier and essentially spoiled the storyline for fans.
Reality TV has been around since the ‘50s, but it wasn’t until the late ‘90s, after the success of shows like Big Brother and Survivor, that the genre became the phenomenon we know now. And while American Idol alums like Kelly Clarkson and Clay Aiken were associated with the instant fame that reality TV provides, it wasn’t until the late 2000s, when Us Weekly put Jon and Kate Gosselin on eight back-to-back covers, that reality TV stars became the tabloid sensations we recognize today.
“Thanks to cable television, reality TV and the internet, the whole power structure of celebrity has shifted,” former Us Weekly editor-in-chief Janice Min, who is credited for popularizing reality TV stars in celebrity media, told The Los Angeles Times in 2009. “It’s not just that Kim Kardashian is a celebrity and nobody knows why. It’s her sister, her mother. Young women in particular have forged a connection with the stars of reality TV that they don’t have with Gwyneth Paltrow.”
It’s easy to assume why so many readers care about reality TV stars. The stars share so much of their lives on camera. We already know their deepest and darkest secrets by the end of the season, so, like any good TV show, we’re eager to find out what happens next—which is where sites like TMZ, People and Us Weekly come in. In between seasons, outlets like these often fill in the gaps for fans: Did the couple who was fighting all season get divorced? Did the reality TV star who was desperate to find love get engaged? Did someone get arrested?
The fan fervor also doesn’t end when a series is canceled or a reality TV star leaves their show. As seen by the recent divorce of Real Housewives of Orange County alum Meghan King Edmonds (who left the franchise as a series regular in 2017), reality TV stars’ storylines live on in the tabloids long after the end of their time in front of the camera. Nowadays, Bachelor Nation members, Bravolebrities and other reality TV stars receive as much coverage as their A-list counterparts. But what happens to reality TV shows when their stars become too big? Is there any way to prevent spoilers or are their lives fair game like any other celebrity?
Khloé’s scandal with Tristan and Jordyn is far from the first KUWTK storyline to leak before it aired. In season 14 of KUWTK, Khloé revealed her biggest personal news to date: that she was pregnant with her first child with Tristan. TMZ reported the news five months before the episode made it to TV. In October 2016, Kim Kardashian was robbed at gunpoint of $10 million of jewelry in Paris. By the time the episode aired five months later, the story had become old news. KUWTK isn’t the only reality show to be spoiled by the tabloids. In December 2017, news broke that Real Housewife of New York City LuAnn de Lesseps was arrested for disorderly intoxication, resisting arrest and battery of an officer. The aftermath of the arrest didn’t air on RHONY until five months later. Season 6 of The Real Housewives of New Jersey saw Housewife Teresa Giudice and her husband, Joe, plead guilty to charges of fraud. It would have made for reality TV gold. The only issue was that the couple’s legal troubles had been reported on for months before they were shown on TV.
Still, the growing celebrity of reality TV stars could be a positive for the shows they’re on. In recent years, producers have used the tabloids to their advantage to drum up drama that may not have existed on their shows if news about their cast members hadn’t leaked. A recent example is season 9 of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, which revolved around a witch hunt as to which Housewife leaked a story to the tabloid Radar Online about an abandoned dog. The fourth wall was also broken on season 4 of The Real Housewives of Potomac, which was centered on the drama of a cameraman accusing a Housewife’s husband of sexual assault. The season started with a flash-forward of the Housewives finding out about the news on their phones.
Reality TV is different now, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth watching. The tabloids can’t report it all. Though viewers knew that Tristan cheated on Khloé with Jordyn, it wasn’t until season 16 of KUWTK aired that they found out Khloé’s exact reaction to the scandal and how it affected Kylie’s relationship with her best friend. That said, the age of true reality TV plot twists seems to be over.
Though we don’t know how storylines will play out exactly, it’s impossible to avoid major plot points. (In the reality TV world, a Housewife’s divorce is the equivalent of a character’s death on Game of Thrones.) Reality TV stars have evolved beyond the Z-list and into their own lane of celebrity. While there have been dips in ratings, it’s undeniable that the Kardashians and the Housewives are more famous than ever. It’s cool we’re not keeping up with them on TV anymore–because we’re keeping up with them elsewhere.