New Delhi: Even before she decided to find a groom for herself on network television, Rakhi Sawant had become a familiar figure across 80 million Indian households that have access to satellite TV. She had established herself as the queen of controversy-ridden reality shows such as Bigg Boss 1, Nach Baliye 3 and Yeh Hai Jalwa. Rakhi Ka Swayamvar merely reinforced and strengthened this position. The lady and her beau are now busy being parents on another reality show called Pati, Patni aur Woh.

The Bollywood fringe-dweller’s decision to participate in close to 10 reality shows in less than two years is understandable. The performances have allowed her to cast off the “item girl" tag, besides offering a steadier income.

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A senior executive from a leading general entertainment channel (GEC), who has worked with Sawant on one such reality show, says she earns Rs60-80 lakh for a big-budget Rakhi Ka Swayamvar kind of show that lasts 10-13 weeks. In contrast, she stands to earn around Rs20 lakh for an item number—a cameo in a song aimed to increase a movie’s chance of success—that could take four-five days to shoot.

“It’s not easy to get more than two item numbers in a year," says Manoj Prabhakar, Sawant’s manager.

Sawant is not alone in having made a career out of reality TV. With instant fame and money guaranteed, lesser celebrities have latched on to reality TV as a career option.

“We’re talking about serial reality show participants here, or those who were once big as soap stars, but need to keep their currency alive," says Siddhartha Basu, chairman and managing director of Synergy Adlabs Media Ltd, a television production firm.

Serial participant: Rakhi Sawant (right) in ’Pati, Patni aur Woh,’ a reality show on NDTV Imagine. She has done around 10 such shows.

B-listers and models, including Kashmira Shah, Mona Singh and Aditi Govitrikar, have also been on multiple reality shows. An executive at a major production company says networks pay such actors approximately Rs10-12 lakh as a one-time signing bonus for reality shows, an additional Rs2-3 lakh per week for the duration of the show. These actors are also paid for the time they spend rehearsing. Depending on the time such participants last on a show, they end up earning anywhere between Rs15 lakh and Rs30 lakh in less than three months.

Sawant shrugs off the suggestion that she is on reality TV for the money. “I’m not chasing reality shows. Viewers want to see me and producers want me on their shows."

Prabhakar, Sawant’s manager, says that her TV rate has risen threefold since her first successful tryst with reality TV on Bigg Boss in 2006.

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Model and actor Nauheed Cyrusi, who participated in Khatron Ke Khiladi 2 on Colors, says reality shows pay better than films. Other than making a brief appearance in films such as Main aurr Mrs Khanna, she has acted in Lakeer, Anwar and Life Mein Kabhie Kabhiee. “There is more money in television, especially reality shows, no two ways about it. To make money in films, you ought to be a big Bollywood star," she says.

“If I want more money, I’d do reality shows," says the 27-year-old Cyrusi.

TV popularity has adventitious benefits as well. For a music video or a live performance, a participant gets a one-time fee that takes into account two-three days of rehearsals, says Akhilesh Bahuguna, founder of Allspheres Entertainment Pvt. Ltd, an event management company. A TV actor gets paid about Rs5 lakh for a music video or live performance, “but a celebrity who is popular among viewers with fewer reality shows behind him or her can demand much more".

Even Bollywood A-listers are drawn to reality TV, thanks to the fees and the ability to reach out to people. Television is paying actors such as Amitabh Bachchan on Bigg Boss and Akshay Kumar on Khatron Ke Khiladi vast sums of money, says film producer Manmohan Shetty.

“The big stars take on reality shows to earn a quick buck and gain tremendous visibility in the process," he says.

This combination of money and profile has also worked to turn some unknowns into stars. Ashutosh Kaushik, owner of a roadside eatery in small-town Saharanpur, won the Rs5 lakh MTV Roadies 5 title in 2007 and then the Rs1 crore prize in Bigg Boss 2, which ended last November on Colors.

Although he has gone back to run his dhaba, Kaushik’s tryst with fame hasn’t ended.

“I have already got five offers from big networks to take part in their reality shows, but after Roadies and Bigg Boss, I can’t take just anything that comes my way because I’m a known face now and I have made a name for myself with certain standards attached," says Kaushik. “I am waiting for the right reality show to come along. Meanwhile, I have invested my money in the production of a Bollywood film."

Similarly, Rahul Mahajan, son of the late Bharatiya Janata Party politician Pramod Mahajan, who participated in Bigg Boss 2 last year, has already judged two stand-up comedy shows, Chhote Miyan and Chhote Miyan Bade Miyan on Colors. Now, he has been chosen as the star of NDTV Imagine’s Swayamwar 2 in which Mahajan will be following close on Sawant’s heels as he chooses a bride from among 16 contestants.

“Just like the West, India’s reality TV genre is getting an independent identity from other content on TV and even Bollywood and so are the stars participating on such shows," says Deepak Dhar, managing director of Endemol India Pvt. Ltd, the TV production company behind reality shows such as Bigg Boss and Fear Factor India.

There were as many as 53 non-fiction shows on air in the Hindi GEC space in the first half of 2009 against 31 in the corresponding period in 2007, according to TAM Media Research Pvt. Ltd, a TV audience measurement agency. The contribution of reality shows to total programming hours on such channels has grown from 6% in 2007 to 11% as of September.

Former item girl Sawant isn’t complaining about the surge. “I have got lots of offers from networks for more reality shows," she says. “I have to see which ones I want to take part in."

Vijaya Rathore contributed to this story.