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Reality TV Fame Used to Guarantee a Career as an Instagram Influencer. That’s a Thing of the Past

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When Charity Lawson, a therapist from Georgia and a contestant who placed fourth on the latest season of The Bachelor with Zach Shallcross, was announced as the next Bachelorette on March 14, she had around 20,000 Instagram followers. Since the announcement, Lawson’s follower count has grown to over 70,000. Shallcross has just 120,000 followers. Those figures are the lowest for any lead on the popular ABC shows since the boom of Instagram, according to Bachelor Data, a page that tracks the data of various facets of the show–from contestants’ time on screen to Instagram follower count.

The height of the show’s Instagram capabilities can be seen in 2019 when Bachelor Colton Underwood’s final four contestants all surpassed 500,000 Instagram followers before the show ended. “Back then they would get followers just for simply existing on the cast without having to create good content,” Lawson says. Since 2020 at the start of the pandemic, Bachelor Data has seen a consistent decline in contestant’s follower count. And yet, “Bachelor contestants are still going on to the show with the mindset of ‘I’m just going to post pretty pictures on Instagram and I’m going to try to make a living off of it,’” says Suzana Somers, who launched the Bachelor Data Instagram page.

But increasingly, the reality TV-to-social-influencer pipeline has dried up. While the majority of contestants on reality TV dating shows like The Bachelor don’t come out meeting their forever love, they previously knew that if they resonated with viewers at home, they would be all but guaranteed hundreds of thousands, or millions of Instagram followers—and a lucrative career as an influencer. “Everyone knows that being cast on a reality show and being on TV is a jumping point. If you’re smart about it you can potentially capitalize off of that platform,” internet personality Tiffany Ferg said on her popular web series: Internet Analysis.

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That was perhaps especially true for “Bachelor Nation” alumni. Season 14 Bachelorette contestant Jason Tartick quit his corporate banking job after building a large following on Instagram, leading him to make over $1 million in gross revenue in one year from social media influencing. He shared that fact on his Trading Secrets podcast, which features Bachelor contestants candidly sharing their content creation earnings. Fellow contestant-turned influencer Tyler Cameron revealed on Tartick’s podcast that when he first left the show he only had $200 in his account, but that soon after he made $250,000 for two Instagram posts due to his large following. Former Bachelorette Kaitlyn Bristowe has launched a line of wine that is now available at Target; JoJo Fletcher has hosted television shows on top television networks; Hannah Brown reportedly took home six-figures for her win on Dancing With The Stars.

Lori Krebs, founder of LoriK PR talent management agency, manages Tartick, alongside 50 other reality-TV turned influencers. When looking for someone to sign, Krebs says she seeks clients with “a mass appeal to viewers of the audience” and that “have a passion of creating a brand for themselves.” At least some of that “mass appeal” is judged by Instagram follower count. “If they end up having a million followers or 500,000 followers that obviously does help with mass appeal. It shows a lot of people are engaging.”

Why are follower count numbers low?

Ratings for the show have been going down, but Somers assures that follower count is “declining at a faster rate than the ratings are declining.” She believes the decline may be coming from audiences taking more control over the power of their follow. “I think people have a greater sense of ownership on who they want to follow and whether or not they give that person a platform,” she says.

There’s also some backlash over the opinion that too many contestants were joining reality TV shows only to get followers, says Somers. Perhaps the biggest example of that came from season 7 of Bachelor In Paradise, when couple Brendan Morais and Piper James broke the fourth wall and discussed what their Instagram following would look like after the show. As a result of that conversation and his involvement in a controversial love-triangle with another contestant, Morais lost nearly 90,000 Instagram followers in the days that followed. Somer’s Bachelor Data profile had the biggest growth date since launching her page, gaining 14,000 viewers in one day as audiences were tracking the data around Morais and James’ situation, she says. Brands also weren’t too keen to work with the pair due to the drama.

Oversaturation and the overwhelming amount of television being produced is certainly not helping the situation. Another competitor to The Bachelor franchise is Netflix’s Love Is Blind and Too Hot To Handle, whose first seasons have seen contestants garner millions of followers. But the more shows, seasons and spin offs there are, the more reality TV contestants have to compete with one another for relevancy. According to Somers’ data, Love Is Blind contestants are seeing a decline every season in Instagram followers as well.

There’s already some evidence that fewer opportunities for social media stardom are leading some would-be reality TV contestants to say “no thanks.” Low follower counts for contestants on saucy British reality show Love Island, have reportedly led to a drop in applications for the show. Part of the reason the show’s follower counts dropped is a new production decision to not allow any contestants to have active Instagram accounts during their time on the show. The decision was in large part to help contestants and their families with online hate. “I actually know one friend that got scouted, but she doesn’t want to do it if [the social media ban] is going to continue,” Zara Lackenby-Brown, a contestant in the show’s latest season, told BBC.

What does this mean for future contestants?

Somers senses that the decline in numbers means the reality TV influencer bubble may burst, which can impact casting, as it potentially has with shows like Love Island.

Krebs says The Bachelor, in particular, is still a reliable path for post-reality TV stardom online, but only for the select few that now manage to come out of the experience with a sizable following. She admits hasn’t watched the last seasons of the show, nor has she signed anyone new from the past season, but says, “They’re the OG of dating reality television.”

And despite the decline in Instagram followers for some stars—at least one other member of Bachelor Nation was able to get an influencing job. Somers went from being a fan of the show to becoming a full time data content creator. She serves as a reminder that this change signals that internet stardom no longer lies within the doors of getting casted on a show like The Bachelor. Even the average viewer can grow online. “Becoming an influencer is more accessible than it has ever been,” she says. “You don’t need to go on a reality TV show to grow a following anymore. Anyone can grow a platform these days.”

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Write to Mariah Espada at mariah.espada@time.com