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The Runner Up Takes It All
You've never even heard of the first place guy.

When the person who comes second or worse in a Reality Show gets more out of it than the winner, be it in post-show popularity, sales, endorsement cash, or simply not looking like as much as a jackass on national television.

For the talent-based shows, the reason can be described easily. When you win, you're hot, and the producers of the show want to capitalize on that. This leads to getting pushed too fast and too hard. With singers, for example, it might involve churning out a sub-par album to capitalize on their star power. Hype Backlash sets in, and people will tend to get a little sick of them. But for the contestants who finish lower in the ranks, they still have all the recognition—all of the same people watched the show, after all—but are allowed to relax, work at their own pace, and develop a high-quality body of work that people are more likely to enjoy. Also note that, almost by definition, many more people don't win than do (for every winner, there are multiple "runners-up" from the top Ten or Twelve contestants.) So even if any given winner is more likely to hit it big than any given runner-up, you still might see more runners-up who become stars than winners.

Compare Second Place Is for Winners, Award Snub.

Examples:

  • Gareth Gates from Pop Idol, at least to begin with. Not so much several years down the line when Will Young was still fairly successfully releasing material and Gareth was finishing fourth in Dancing On Ice.
  • Clay Aiken from American Idol. A lot of people actually forget that he was the runner-up.
    • Fantasia Barrino of Season Three hasn't done too terribly, as long as you don't compare her to Oscar-winning, Super-Bowl-anthem-singing Jennifer Hudson, who finished seventh.
    • Season Five champion Taylor Hicks has been outdone by two of his competitors: fourth-placer Chris Daughtry and sixth-placer Kellie Pickler. Even Katharine McPhee, who came second and whose musical career has yet to set the world alight, is better known than him.
      • Chris Daughtry might be the best example of this trope, as he currently sits behind winners Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood as the third-highest-selling Idol contestant. And again - fourth place, meaning that the collective American consciousness felt there were three better contestants than him.
    • Adam Lambert, who despite finishing second to Kris Allen, has made quite a career for himself.
    • David Cook and David Archuleta have had about equal success, but neither of them really became superstars.
    • Really the only actual winners who are still more popular than all others from their season are Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and Jordin Sparks.
    • At least initially (the rules may have changed), the Top Two Idol finalists were locked into an onerous contract with 19 Management which basically signed over their souls. While those who finished lower got a lot of the same buzz but were not so encumbered and were free to manage their careers properly.
      • ...And the rules have changed. After Jennifer Hudson's success, 19 Management has since changed the rules to have access to anyone in the top ten.
    • Casey James and Siobhan Magnus from Season 9 have both done far better than the winner of the season, or even the actual runner up. Casey James was immediately brought in to open for Sugarland and has achieved fairly good success in Country music, and Siobhan has started a band called Doubtful Guest, with the others members being former members of Everclear, Godsmack, Third Eye Blind, Fuel, and Candlebox.
  • Runners up in Australian Idol tend to go on to have a better career than the actual winner.
    • The initial success of Shannon Noll and Damien Leith compared to that of Guy Sebastian and Jessica Mauboy led to the belief that winning Australian Idol was always a less desirable outcome than being runner up. Sebastian was hard to market because of his overt Christianity, while songwriters found it hard to find a niche for Mauboy, who was a country singer in her early teens, but didn't want to take that up again. However, those two winners went on to outsell their runners up, Sebastian becoming the most successful ''Australian Idol singer" and break records that don't include the "Idol singer" qualification.
  • Colby Donaldson was the runner-up of Survivor: The Australian Outback came close. The winner won $1,000,000. Colby won $100,000 and two cars, but also went on to a modest acting career (including razor ads, which was sad because he was gorgeous with stubble.) He also was asked back for the All-Stars and Heroes vs Villains seasons and was a finalist for All-Stars' "favorite survivor" poll, which would have earned him a million.
    • As of Jun 2010, he is the host of Top Shot, a competitive reality show on the History channel that features marksmen and shooting challenges.
    • Elizabeth Filarski (now Hasselbeck) came in fourth place on Outback, and went on to become a successful television presenter. She left a 10-year gig as co-host of the popular women's talk show The View to join Fox News Channel.note 
    • Rupert Boneham of Survivor: Pearl Islands, who, though only placing 8th in that season, then 4th in All-Stars, won the Favorite Survivor poll and the prize of a million dollars... in other words, the only person to win a million without even placing in the top three!
      • Compare: The first winner of Survivor: Richard Hatch who failed to pay taxes on his winnings and ended up in big trouble. (According to The Other Wiki, he served a 51 month sentence, which prevented him from competing in Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains).
    • "Boston" Rob Mariano from Survivor: Marquesas came back for All-Stars, but didn't get the million dollars... he got the million-dollar winner, marrying Amber Brkich (in addition to his own second-place winnings). The two then took the opportunities their Super Couple status offered them, including two stints on The Amazing Race, and Rob would make more repeat appearances on Survivor, ultimately winning the Redemption Island season.
    • Quite a few people have a hard time remembering that Russell Hantz was the runner-up in Survivor: Samoa due to how astronomically well-known he is (not necessarily well-liked, but well-known). It doesn't help that he played the Heroes Vs Villains season while under the impression that he did win (as it was filmed before Samoa aired, and therefore before Samoa's live finale - he knew he made it to the finals, but it never occurred to him that he might have lost).
  • Jade Goody of the UK version of Big Brother. In fact she only came fourth!
    • On the 2006 Celebrity Big Brother it was widely predicted that winner Chantelle Houghton (who in fact wasn't a celebrity at all, but an average 20-something planted by the producers) would enjoy her five minutes of fame and then disappear, while runner-up Michael Barrymore's career would recover from several years of scandal. Ultimately it was inverted, as Houghton did fairly well for herself afterwards, whereas Barrymore's career promptly died again, apparently for good.
  • Liberty X were the runners up on Popstars and did much better than the actual winners - Hear'say.
    • Although Hear'say's Myleene Klass went on to have a better solo career than either.
  • America's Next Top Model: Some blogs sound surprised when they talk about past winners actually getting modelling work. Every contestant leaves the show with some extra experience of an industry they want to work in and a portfolio of pictures.
    • Elyse Sewell from Cycle 1, who has been very successful in Asia, is considered the most successful contestant to date, even though she came in 3rd.
    • That's mostly because the competition is heavily rigged. Tyra may decide from the beginning what kind of winner she wants and stage the competition accordingly. Picking mediocre photos on purpose, editing the film with a bias against certain contestants, eliminating girls who might pose a threat to the pre-selected winner, etc. It's pretty common knowledge that C10's Whitney won over far more modelesque Anya only because "It was about time they had a plus-sized girl win." In C12, Allison and Teyona were pretty toe to toe, but Teyona was picked to continue the pattern of a black winner every 3rd cycle.
      • There's also the fact that Tyra, despite her good intentions/narcissism, has a tendency to pick girls who will never get work in the real modeling world for one superficial reason or another. Too "old" for being over 22, too "fat" for being over 115 pounds, too "short" for being under 5'7, etc. It wouldn't be surprising at all if none of the girls from Cycle 13 (where the gimmick was that all of them were under 5'7" tall) got work after the show wrapped for the season. Because of this and the reason above, agencies are hesitant or outright refuse to hire past contestants. One fashion expert mentioned that agencies just don't like being told who the "next big thing" is. Those who do find work tend to change their names to avoid the stigma.
  • These days Search for a Star is only remembered because the runner-up was Wendy Padbury, who went on to play Zoë in Doctor Who.
  • Venezuelan TV fame-seeking reality Fama y Aplausos, provided us Hany Kauam and Mayré Martínez, two singers who were expelled before the finale. About two years later, and nearly at the same time, Kawam released a pop album who went Gold, and Mayré become one of the favorites contestants in Latin American Idol, causing several journalist to say "those judges from Fama y Aplausos must be kicking themselves now". Then Mayré went to prove this trope right by winning LAI, and having her career stalled since then.
  • Finnish Idols has this too. First year, runner up Antti Tuisku became the iconic Idols star, third season, though the winner got a decent amount of fame, the runner-up Anna Abreu is generally the bigger star. This is also predicted to happen with the 2008 season, with Pete Parkkonen who came in third.
  • Spain's Operación Triunfo, first edition. The winner was Rosa López, who went to Eurovision Song Contest and is still active in the industry. But runners ups Chenoa and David Bisbal are way more successful than her, and are the only ones known at the other side of the pond.
  • A similar situation happened in the first edition of its Mexican simile La Academia, where Yahir became the most successful singer despite ending up in fourth place.
  • Star Search has this reputation. The list of winners is no comparison to the list of those who DIDN'T end up winning at the end of the season: Aaliyah, Christina Aguilera, Drew Carey, Dave Chappelle, Destinys Child, Alanis Morissette, Kevin James, Dennis Miller, Rosie O' Donnell, LeAnn Rimes, Jessica Simpson, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and so on. This one, at least, is easy to understand. Star Search, for some completely inexplicable reason, uses a single elimination format, meaning that aside from skewed voting blocks and unpredictable judges, an unlucky seeding can knock out a strong contender early, especially comedians who tend to use their strongest material early on, leaving less for later rounds.
    • In one of his shows, Dave Chappelle talks on how it started his career, but each time he scored lower and lower until he eventually dropped out:
    "I got four stars on my first time out. Three and three quarter stars on my second time out. Three and a half stars my third time out. And I think that's when I got beaten. You know who beat me?"
    *beat*
    "Exactly!"
    • In a wonderful case of sweet revenge, Drew Carey ended up appearing on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" and in only his first appearance was awarded the rare honor of being invited to sit next to Johnny and have a chat with him. During an interview for a PBS special about Carson, Drew said THAT moment was the moment where he knew he'd made it.
  • WWE's Tough Enough reality show created a minor lower-midcard star for a couple of years in the form of Maven. Much more success was found by fourth season runner-up The Miz and third season co-winner John Morrison (a lone exception), who were later hired and ended up the top tag team in the company in early 2009.
    • Morrison did pretty well as a singles wrestler too, picking up various midcard titles including the (theoretically World Title-level) ECW strap, and groomed to be one of the top stars on WWE's Friday Night Smack Down.
    • More recently (2011), Miz has become the WWE Champion and has successfully defended the title at Wrestlemania, while Morrison's career subsequently stalled in lower midcard hell.
    • Chris Nowinski came in second against Maven in the first TE, but eventually earned a WWE contract of his own. While his wrestling career was cut short by a concussion, he drew on his experience to write Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis, and became a noted expert on the subject, continuing his fame and recognition long after Maven vanished from the public eye.
    • Other successful TE runners-up include TNA's Kenny King and Matt Morgan.
    • Almost one year after the latest revival, winner Andy Leavine was fired whereas the very first person elimination, Ariane "Melina vs. Alicia Fox" Andrew, is on televsion weekly as Cameron, back-up dancer for Brodus Clay.
  • WWE NXT either Double Subverts or plays this trope straight.
    • Season 1: Daniel Bryan became World Heavyweight Champion while Wade Barrett hasn't had anything as big as his initial world title chase during the Nexus angle. Even actual runner-up David Otunga is having some success as John Laurinaitis's attorney, while Skip Sheffield has become mega-face Ryback.
    • Season 2: Runner up Michael McGillicutty has become a Tag Team champion and is now repackaged as Curtis Axel, winning th Intercontinental Title, while winner Kaval was more-or-less jobbed out up until his (requested) release. Alex Riley was associated with The Miz until his clumsiness cost him two shots at John Cena's WWE Championship. After his Heel-Face Turn, he scored a victory over his former employer and had some success until an incident with Jack Swagger got him demoted into a jobber.
    • Season 3: Kaitlyn is an exception, having won the Divas Championship. However, 3rd-placer A.J. has been involved in many major storylines.
    • Season 4: Johnny Curtis hasn't even appeared until recently (nor did he get his guaranteed tag title shot due to R-Truth's Face-Heel Turn), while runner up Brodus Clay appeared on Smackdown as Alberto Del Rio's bodyguard, then disappeared from TV when Del Rio was drafted to Raw. After his debut was delayed week after week, he took a dramatic Heel-Face Turn as the Funkasaurus. Curtis has recently returned as Fandango, a ballroom dancer who became a sensation after a hyperactive post-WrestleMania crowd sang his theme song, leading to the short lived "Fandangoing" craze.
    • Season 5: While the contest was effectively abandoned, Titus O'Neil and Darren Young ended up getting promoted with Smack Down contracts, leaving Derrick Bateman as the lone rookie and technically, the unofficial winner. Fridge Brilliance also applies as the prize would have been for the winner to compete in Season 6, which looks to indeed be happening for Bateman.
  • Speaking of the Eurovision Song Contest, Gali Atari & Milk and Honey won in 1979, but outside of Israel, where Hallelujah's still really well-known, very few people know who they are. One of the losers, however? Dschinghis Khan. Enough said, really.
    • It's not the only example from the Song Contest - Mocedades' "Eres Tu" from 1973 and Cliff Richards' "Congratulations" from 1968 both finished second, yet became far more massive hits than the winners (although Congratulations would have won if Dictator Franco hadn't fixed the voting for Spain). Julio Iglesias was also a runner up who became more successful than the winner. Olivia Newton John would have been viewed the same way if ABBA was not the act that beat her.
      • "Volare" (as "Nel blu dipinto di blu") finished third in 1958; and in 1959 it won the Grammy for "Record of the Year".
      • "Eres Tu" was also one of those rare Eurovision singles that achieved success in the United States, spending many weeks on the Billboard Top 40 in 1971.
    • Dancing Lasha Tumbai, the runner up song in 2007, outsold the winner Molitva. By almost double. In the long-term, Serefovic was more successful, but Russia (3rd) had the most successful act from the 2007 contest.
      • In 2009, winner Alex Rybak was not as successful as the male singer of the Azerbaijani act (3rd), who has released a chart topping dance song with Sean Paul, or the Turkish singer (4th), who has judged X Factor and The Voice in both Turkey and her country of basis, Belgium. However, Rybak was still a success enough to make his own movie.
      • If the writer of 2011 winner Running Scared by Azerbaijani Ell and Nikki, Iain James, had not worked on Emeli Sande and Little Mix's biggest songs soon afterwards, Ell and Nikki would have been completely forgotten outside the Middle East- although this is partially because Azerbaijan was found trying to use bribery for votes the following two years.
      • In 2010, It could have been played too straight given Moldova, whose song placed 22nd, caused the Epic Sax Guy meme, However, the winner, Lena Meyer Landrut from Germany fared best in the long term.
      • As per 2013, it seems Italy, who placed 7th had the most successful act, although its entry Marco Mengoni DID win the Sanremo festival to represent Italy, and broke sales records there, and had won their version of X Factor in the past also. Mengoni won an MTV EMA at the end of 2013
    • Lena, however, is one of many aversions of the trope: Sandie Shaw, ABBA, Celine Dion- although it didn't come until she started singing in English, having been a purely francophone singer when winning- , Dana intnl, Ruslana, Helena Papariozou, LORDI, Dima Bilan and Loreen are other major aversions.
      • Papariozou and Bilan had failed to win the contest in the past, before eventually doing so on their return. Papariozou was 3rd place as part of the duo Antique in 2001, and Bilan was runner up to Lordi in 2006, before they eventually won, in 2005 and 2008 respectitively. Johnny Logan is the only winner- both as a singer and as a writer- who won again on returning, and Lena, the international (who also had a top 10 placing as a producer in 2008, before a disastrous campaign with a self-written song in 2011) and Charlotte Nilsson are recent cases of ex-winners who failed to make an impact on their return, although they are usually remembered for their win, and their failed returns are easily forgotten. No former winning singers had an entry in 2013, but Iain James (wrote the winner in 2011) and Thomas G:Son (wrote the winner in 2012) finished in mid table with their 2013 compositions for Belgium and Georgia respectitively.
      • Loreen failed to win Swedish Idol and Melodiefestivalen in the past, but her career did not truly take off until she won Eurovision with Euphoria, one of the most popular winners of all time.
      • It is a show with a very long history, which has became tougher in recent times, so there are many abiders to the trope and many aversions.
    • It can be applied at nationals level, too. In Estonia Winny Puhh (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winny_Puhh) partook In the 2013 Eesti Laul (Estonian nationals for the right to represent Estonia at Eurovison), but their spectacular performance placed third. The group, who took Lordi Up to Eleven gained over a million views in just a month. brigit Olgmeel (who ironically was an Estonian idol winner in the past), who earned the right to represent Estonia, did not even go close in that department. Her power ballad "Et Uus Saks Algusae" (lit: there could be a new path) scraped into the final, and placed 20th, between Bonnie Tyler and Cascada, both of whom were stuck at the wrong end of the table.
      • Agnes failed to win the 2009 Melodiefestivalen, the really high profile Swedish counterpart, with her tune Love Love Love, but her next song Release me was a major sucess worldwide, whereas Sweden's actual entry in the 2009 ESC fared poorly.
  • The most recent seasons of The Bachelor had an interesting take on this trope. Jason selected Melissa Rycroft as the winner over Molly Malaney in the Finale. But during the "after show", he dumped winner Melissa in favor of Molly. Melissa ended up on Dancing With the Stars, while Molly ended up with the "not as rich as he says he is, and willing to humiliate Melissa on national television, so how great can he be" Jason.
  • Saira Khan and especially Ruth Badger from the first two seasons of the British version of The Apprentice. The winners of the first two seasons, Tim Campbell and Michelle Dewberry are still doing pretty well for themselves, but the runners-up from those years are definitely higher-profile in the media.
    • Also James Max from the first season, who only made it as far as the interview week, but often pops up as a guest presenter on TV shows and has his own radio show with a pretty decent audience. For a while this also applied to Raef Bjayou from the fourth season, although he seems to have faded into obscurity more recently.
    • Another example from the fourth season; Ian Stringer bombed out in the third week, and Sir Alan Sugar branded him "an absolute waste of space" and the worst candidate from that year's bunch. These days however he's a fairly well known sports reporter, and enjoys a higher profile than the vast majority of that year's candidates.
  • However, the most prominent example for The Apprentice had to be the Martha Stewart version. The winner? Someone whose name has been mostly lost to history. The second-place finisher? Only a New York girl named Bethenny Frankel, who has since starred in multiple reality shows (including The Real Housewives), released a line of vodkas, and now has her own daytime talk show-if she continues this way, she could become a media mogul the caliber of Martha herself.
  • You may not remember that, thanks to Hype Backlash, Susan Boyle actually came second in Britain's Got Talent 2009, what with more than 10 million copies of her debut album sold worldwide. (The actual winners? Dance troupe Diversity.)
    • Diversity have done pretty well for themselves, though... it's just that dance troupes don't really release albums or anything.
  • Ninet Tayeb won the first season of Israel's equivalent of American Idol. Her most significant career move since then was her role as an Expy of herself in "Hashir Shelanu" ("Our Song"), a Soap Opera about music school. Two-odd seasons of this later she finally got to releasing an album, then went on tour to thundering, embarassed silence whenever she tried to have the audience join in the singing, for lack of familiarity with the words. Meanwhile the runner-up Shiri Maimon released an album that went gold, performed a ballad in the Eurovision Song Contest ranking fourth and won the MTV Europe Awards for Best Israeli Act.
  • In a way, Gwen from Total Drama Island (the runner up of the first season) because she is better liked by the fanbase.
    • The winner of Total Drama is decided by vote from the viewers, though, so the more popular one is generally the winner (which Owen was at the time, at least in Canada). In later seasons, Gwen has turned out to be much more liked than Owen, though.
  • Heather Morris was eliminated just before the top 20 of So You Think You Can Dance. She went on to dance for Beyoncé Knowles in the Single Ladies tour and currently plays the role of the famously brainless Brittany in Glee.
    • Likewise with Amber Riley. She was rejected on American Idol (in fact, she didn't even get to appear on TV) and now she has probably gotten more fame and exposure than some Idol winners thanks to her role of Mercedes.
  • In 1997 Japanese music producer Tsunku ran a competition to find a new rock vocalist; the winner was Heike Michiyo. He later decided to create an all-girl group made up of the five runners-up and challenged them to sell 50,000 copies of their first single with only five promotional events. They did in four, and Morning Musume went on to be incredibly successful.
    • A cross-group case: in 2011, Sakura Oda auditioned for a spot in S/mileage's 2nd generation, but lost. She was, however, added to Hello! Project Eggs (a trainee group) — and the next year, she ended up being the sole winner of Morning Musume's 11th gen audition.
  • Project Runway has had its fair share of runner-ups both breaking into the industry and generally being more well-known than the winners; the only winner, out of its eight-plus seasons, that has actually come through is Season 4's Christian Siriano (ironically, he's the youngest winner in the show's history). The most well-known players are probably Season 1's Austin Scarlett (fourth place) and Season 2's Santino Rice (third place); both had their own reality show airing on Lifetime and in Santino's case is now well known as a recurring judge on Ru Pauls Drag Race.
    • Let's not forget Chris March from Season 4, who lost his spot in the final three to Rami Kashou. Since then he's dressed Meryl Streep for the Academy Awards and Golden Globes, and has his own reality show.
  • Shear Genius, Season 1: Tabatha Coffey was eliminated mid-late in the show; she now has her own reality show and owns a very high-end salon.
  • The X Factor has played this trope straight. The runners up from the first series, the vocal group G4, were ultimately more successful than winner Steve Brookstein, whose coronation single was his only hit ever, although this was more to do with diusputes with the label, who he has been INCREDIBLY critical of since. In the 2009 series, runner up Olly Murs seems to have become more successful than winner Joe McElderry (whose singing career looked to have been kind of a non-starter after very publicly losing the Christmas number one single spot to Rage Against the Machine - he released a cover of a Norweigan song that disappointed and his follow up singles went nowhere, meaning he had to rebound on popstar to operastar.), as have memorable and visually distinctive duo Jedward, who appear to be getting into children's TV presenting and advertising and have twice carried the Irish baton at Eurovision successfully enoguh.
    • The X Factor is actually interesting because the trope is only really played straight when the winner is a solo male. The two Under-25 females and one Girl Group who have won thus far (Leona Lewis, Alexandra Burke and Little Mix) have enjoyed very successful careers so far, with each of their post-show debut singles (at least) reaching #1 on the UK Singles Chart.
    • The two overs to have won, Steve Brookstein and Samantha Bailey, did not have a lead single, but their albums got no 1.
      • While Leona Lewis was the only contestant from her series to have any success, the act that finished behind Alexandra Burke, JLS, may be more successful than her, in the UK at least, although both acts ended up falling downhill after 5 years, with JLS Jumping the Shark with their 4th album Evolution and spitting after it failed, with their farewell single failing to make the top 10, whilst Alexandra's second album also failed to do so, and she was dropped. The three acts that finished behind Little Mix have also had top 10 success in the UK. However, out of the top 4 that series, Amelia's popularity in Eastern Europe is the only semblance of overseas success from someone other than Little Mix (who broke a US chart record for a top 5 placing album there, after being featured on Glee). Amelia (3rd) and Misha B (4th), however, are taking ages to release an album, and their 3rd singles fared badly in the UK. Marcus Collins, the runner up, released a questionable cover 2 months after the XF final, meaning his career was but done before another act from the series thought about a single.
      • Alexandra and Jade Thirlwall from Little Mix failed to make the live shows after succeeding their auditions, both 3 years before their respective wins. Alexandra lost the Judges' Houses in 2005, whilst Jade was ejected from bootcamp in 2008. In 2011, the Bowties Are Cool Geordie was initially rejected in Bootcamp, than put into a group named Orion, they were rejected, but she was then put into a new group called Rythmix- LM's then-appellation.
    • Shayne Ward has been the only male X Factor winner to more or less avert this trope so far, going on to enjoy a moderately successful career as a singer and musical theatre performer. The runner-up from that year, Andy Abraham also did quite well initially, but his career imploded spectacularly following his disastrous performance as the UK's Eurovision Song Contest contender in 2008.
      • James Arthur seems to have averted the trope for now with a 2nd place song and album, and a tour of Europe. However, his war with Matt Cardle puts James in a very volatile situation, and has turned him into someone many love to hate, even given for his good music. It reached tipping point when James was in a rap battle with the rapper Micky Worthless, and both used put downs viewed as homophobic. When James got criticised for it by a gay contestant from his series of the X Factor (Lucy Spraggan), he responded to her in an offensive manner, and a fan demanded a refund of his no. 2 album on iTunes, and a petition was set up trying to boycott a performance he did on his return to the XF. This detracted from the success enjoyed by his winners single across Europe, and the good chart positions of his album. His runner up Jahmene Douglas had his album of covers reach number 1, but none of the covers have charted well.
    • Leon Jackson was also the most successful contestant from his season, but his career quickly faded.
    • Like a lot of other singing shows, the prize (a record deal with Simon Cowell's label) for coming first is more or less worthless, because almost everyone who gets into the finals will inevitably get the same deal if they get enough hype during the show, but without the massive pressure and expectations associated with coming first.
      • If anything, they stand a better chance. The actual contract you get when you win X Factor is somewhat notorious, so runners up actually have a shot at getting a better deal than the winner.
    • Series 7 provides what is probably the most egregious example of this trope. The first act to have an original hit single was neither winner Matt Cardle nor runner-up Rebecca Ferguson; it was fourth-placer Cher Lloyd with the number 1 "Swagger Jagger." She would also find success stateside with the catchy "Want U Back" a year later. Ferguson would manage to have modest success of her own, while Cardle faded into obscurity. Then there were that group who finished in third place...what were they called again? Oh, yeah, One Direction.
    • Actually, every winner has charted in the top 5 with their debut album, with only Leon not in the top 3, but only 4 contestants (Shane, Leona, Joe, Little Mix) had their second albums also in the top 5 out of the first 8 winners, and even then, Joe was dropped by Syco by this time and had to rebound on Popstar to operastar..
    • On the American version, 3rd placer Chris Rene has to this point had those most success, due to his uber-catchy single "Young Homie." The second series saw the 3rd and 4th place girl group and boyband, Fifth Harmony and Emblem3 respectively, being more successful than winner Tate Stevens, but, whilst they are popular on social networks, they have struggled commercially in the US and are nowhere near as successful as their UK counterparts.
  • You may have seen Dave Holmes as the co-host of the FX Network's "DVD on TV". He was also the runner-up in MTV's first "Wanna Be a VJ?" competition. The actual winner, Jesse Camp, pretty much disappeared shortly after his 15 minutes in the spotlight.
    • Holmes was offered a job as an interviewer after the competition. He worked there for four years, while Camp has a show only for one contractually-obligated year. This is another one that was pretty obvious. Jesse was the more interesting character, which made him the type of person you want to vote for in a contest like that, but also made him look erratic and out of control as a VJ. Dave, on the other hand, while looking more boring next to the very unique Jesse, also came across as more dependable and reliable around the big-name talent MTV was pulling in at the time.
  • Seemingly a reoccurring pattern among Vh1's "Celebreality" dating shows as New York, runner up of Flavor of Love, would get her own dating show, where the runners up, "Real" and "Chance" would later get their own as well.
  • The gay-themed episodes of the MTV dating show Next reveal the problem with applying the standard reality/dating show formula to gays. At least once, the chosen contestant decided he'd rather date one of the other (losing) contestants instead of the designated bachelor. Ouch.
    • In a way it happens to straight girls as well; a few times they bond with each other and decide the guy isn't worth it
  • On the Irish Popstars, Nadine Coyle made it to the final but was disqualified for lying about her age. However, while the winners of that competition, "Six" had one dubious hit, Nadine went on to win another version of the program, Popstars: The Rivals, and garner more success as a member of Girls Aloud.
  • Averted for the most part by The Ultimate Fighter. Former TUF winners Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans, and Matt Serra have all gone on to become UFC champions, while other winners like Diego Sanchez, Michael Bisping, and Nate Diaz have become legitimate contenders, at some point, in their weight classes. Not to say that non-winners haven't done well, considering the success that guys like Josh Koscheck and Kenny Florian have had. It's not that surprising given the show's format, where the contestants directly compete against each other, so it's all the more likely the stronger, more talented fighter would end up winning.
  • America's Got Talent incidents:
    • While Jackie Evancho came second on, she is the one performing with the big singers and orchestras, and she is the one with bestselling albums, while the first-place contestant is not remembered. It became cemented a year later when Michael Grimm, the guy who beat Jackie, performed in the results show of the Top 10 episode while Jackie performed in the finale special. It also may have been planned: AGT producers may have been leery of having an 8-year-old girl headlining a show in Las Vegas.
    • This pretty much happened to all the winners except for Terry Fator, who has his own Vegas show. Acts like Nuttin' But Stringz, Recylced Percussion, and Fighting Gravity have done better than the winners of their seasons.
    • The judges on this same season told Lindsey Stirling she'd never sell as a "Hip Hop Violinist", that she needed a band to work with, and that she just wasn't good enough to fly through the air playing the violin. She's now gone on two tours and has surpassed Lindsey Lohan in Youtube search popularity, she does not work with a band in most of her music videos, and in her "Mission Impossible" collaboration, she imitated the "Mission: Impossible" Cable Drop whilst playing.
  • Rachel Tucker finished fourth on the Andrew Lloyd Webber talent search show 'I'd Do Anything', however unlike the winner who has virtually disappeared, Rachel went from strength to strength playing Meat in We Will Rock You, and played Elphaba in the West End production of Wicked for over two years. She ended her run as the West End's longest-running Elphaba and a fan favorite.
    • Samantha Barks finished third. She went on to play Eponine at the Queen's Theatre, sing the role at the 25th Anniversary Concert at the O2, and played the same in the 2012 film version. Not too shabby.
  • This trope is older than Reality TV. In 1986, Halle Berry was Miss Ohio in the Miss USA pageant, but came in second place for the main title. Obviously, she has since gone on to become an Oscar-winning actress.
  • On a similar note, the winner of the inaugural Elite Model Management Look of the Year contest in 1983 was a 15-year-old called Lisa Hollenbeck. Among the losers that year were Cindy Crawford and Stephanie Seymour, who've probably gotten over their disappointment by now.
  • CMT's Can You Duet (a two-season show that formed new musical duos) zig-zagged this trope:
    • Season 1 winners Caitlin & Will broke up after only one single, while third-placers Joey + Rory have released several albums and have a massive fanbase despite being a No Hit Wonder. (This may be due in part to Rory Lee Feek's prolificacy as a songwriter.)
    • Season 2 winners Steel Magnolia had a Top 5 hit with "Keep On Lovin' You" and a semi-successful debut album, but they broke up in 2012. Fifth-place O'Shea already had a following and some awards in their native Australia. The Stellas went on to have a few hits in Canada, and their daughters Lennon and Maisy were featured in the show Nashville.
  • Nashville Star (2003-08) zig-zagged this trope, with some seasons producing famous people only among the runners-up, and some seasons producing nobody of note at all, winning or losing:
    • Season 1 winner Buddy Jewell had two big hits, but quickly hit a Sophomore Slump from which he never recovered. Miranda Lambert had an extremely slow start, with no major hits off either of her first two albums between 2005-08, but finally had her Breakthrough Hit in 2009 with "White Liar" and has since become one of the most popular female acts in Nashville in The New Tens.
    • Season 2 was a wash stateside: winner Brad Cotter had no success with his debut album, and runner-up George Canyon went nowhere in the US but remains fairly popular in his native Canada.
    • Season 3: Also a wash, as winner Erika Jo's album went nowhere, and runner-up Jason Meadows only got a small of airplay from his independent album.
    • Season 4: Also looked to be a wash at first, as winner Chris Young's debut album was a flop, but his next three albums accounted for a combined seven Top 10 country hits, five of which were #1.
    • Season 5: Perhaps the biggest example yet, as winner Angela Hacker never released anything other than an album of demos that she cut while she was still on the show. She's such a nobody that she doesn't even have a Wikipedia article. Meanwhile, fifth-placer Whitney Duncan managed to get a full album out (although she had an Early-Bird Cameo on a Kenny Rogers song back in 2004), and seventh-placer Kacey Musgraves had a massively successful debut album in 2013.
    • Season 6: Also a wash. Winner Melissa Lawson only put out one single that never made it to an album; fourth-placer Coffey Anderson did a few independent Christian albums; and seventh-placer Justin Gaston switched to acting.
  • For a while, Canadian Idol Season 5 winner Brian Melo had the best career of the singers that season, if only because his winner's single hit #11 on the Canadian Hot 100. A few of the winners such as Ryan Malcolm and Kalan Porter had number one hits on the old Canadian charts, but that chart used the outdated method of counting only single sales (for example, Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" remake stayed in the top 20 for over three years!). Four years later, third-placer and then two-hit wonder Carly Rae Jepsen releases the single "Call Me Maybe," which not only became the show's first top 10 hit, but also reached number-one. But that was only just the beginning. Shortly after the song reached the top, Justin Bieber tweeted that he was a fan of the song and made a video of it with his friends. With million of people hearing about Carly for the first time ever, her song proceeded to top over ten other national charts including the Hot 100 in the United States, and become a full-fledged meme, especially after a Barack Obama-inspired parody was released. Jepsen remains the only Canadian Idol contestant to be famous outside of Canada.
    • Three years earlier, Jacob Hoggard places third behind Kalan Porter and Theresa Sokyrka. Jacob's band, Hedley, has since gone on to chart more singles and albums than any other acts associated with Canadian Idol. (In Canada, that is. As mentioned above, most non-Canadians have only heard of Jepsen.) They even cracked the US Modern Rock charts once.
    • According to That Other Wiki, both Melo and runner-up Jaydee Bixby have sold more albums tham Jepsen, but it is a totally different story for singles success.
  • None of the male winners of Golf Channel's The Big Break have made it to the PGA Tour since their appearance, but quite a few lower finishers have. The first was Tommy Gainey, eliminated fifth in Big Break IV. Several older contestants had already played on the PGA Tour before Big Break; Jeff Mitchell (from BBVI) is currently the only Big Break player to win a PGA Tour event...The 1980 Phoenix Open. (He was also a co-leader after the 1st round of The Masters that year.)
  • Several singers were rejected by American Idol such as Colbie Caillat, Lady Antebellum singer Hilary Scott, and R and B singer Bobby Valentino.
  • Chris Mann is The Voice's biggest success story. He finished 4th but still released a Christmas EP and a full album before any of his season's other finalists and both charted on iTunes and on Billboard.
    • Arguably this was also the case with season 1's Dia Frampton and Vicci Martinez. Like Javier Colon (that season's winner) they were signed to Universal Republic, but Javier's album flopped and he eventually left the label while theirs did well enough for them to stay with the label.
  • The UK series played the trope disastrously straight in its first season. Leanne Mitchell's 'winners' song didn't make the top 40, and her album, released a year later with almost no promotion, failed to even make the top 100. Runners up Bo Bruce and Tyler James never made it onto the wider stage, but at least their albums didnt fare this badly.
    • The second series both averted and played straight the trope. Mentor Will.I.am put everything on his protégée Leah Mcfall winning, but it was instead won by Andrea Begley. Begley was the first UK voice alum whose album charted in the top 10, but Mcfall has been better known, and Will has kept faith in her.
  • Star Search had one in 1985 Jr. Female Vocalist runner-up Tiffany Renee, who dropped the "Renee" and became the first SS alum to land a #1 hit. Meanwhile, the girl who defeated her, Melissa Moultrie, had an appearance on the '80s version of The Twilight Zone...and that's pretty much it.
  • On Last Comic Standing, the only winner to have a relatively successful career after the show was Josh Blue. Runners up Doug Benson, Ralphie May, Rich Vos, Kathleen Madigan and Gabriel Iglesias are far more popular than the winners of their respective series (May and Vos were 2 and 3 behind season 1 winner Dat Phan. Madigan came in fifth in Season 2, where John Heffron won. Benson was already a relatively well known comic when he came in sixth in Season 5 to Jon Reep. Iglesias was also already well known when he competed in Season 4, where he was disqualified for using a cell phone to contact his family).
    • Kathleen Madigan was also an established comedian, having appeared in nationally televised stand-up programs since at least the early 1990s.
  • On RuPaul's Drag Race, simply appearing on the show is enough to grant superstar status in the gay club circuit, since almost every queen gains a following during the course of the season, in addition to whatever fanbase they had prior to entering, and all former contestants go on the Drag Race tour. Actually winning the season is a formality more than anything.
  • A notable example on the Billboard 200. In September 2012, Matchbox Twenty finally scored their first #1 album with North. Debuting one rung below it was Imagine Dragons' Night Visions. What happen next? North goes on to become the second lowest-selling #1 album of 2012. Night Visions on the other hand, would become one of the best selling albums of 2013, and one of a very small number of albums to sell 1 million copies in the past year. Additionally, North's debut week was the only one in its lifetime in which it sold more copies a week than Night Visions.
  • Big Brother Canada season 1 ended with Jillian winning and Gary Levi placing second. Gary has since gone on to be a huge social media personality, a spokesperson for being yourself across Canada, and co-hosts the second season after-show with Peter Brown (sixth place). Jillian, meanwhile, is rarely heard of and often thought of as the woman who stole Gary's first place prize.

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