Designer Jennifer Diederich traveled from Florence, Italy, and stood on a Manhattan street corner for hours on a chilly Monday morning, all for the sake of her fledgling clothing line, Suite.
"I view this as an investment in my company," said the 27-year-old, who was auditioning for the reality show Project Runway, for the third time. "I fly here just to do the interview."
Though the chances of making it on the show are slim, to Diederich the rewards are worth it-a Fashion Week show, exposure for her line, and the potential to attract investors. "There could be a lot in the way of money out there."
Diederich is among the next wave of reality-show wannabes. They are not seeking 15 minutes of fame but looking to build existing businesses. Shows built around a profession like Bravo's Project Runway, Top Chef, and Top Design are all attracting high-caliber contestants. The shows are still cast to include newcomers, but people with impressive r�sum�s outweigh the newbies at auditions. Also waiting at New York's open call this week were Horace Carter, a designer who has had an urban fashion line for 15 years; Namibia Viera, a 26-year-old who operates her own shoe company in San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Janice Pitt, from Bel Air, Maryland, who has 20 years' experience as a custom designer and image consultant.
"People haven't given these shows credit from the business perspective," says Marc Beckman, owner of Designers Management Agency, a talent agency that specializes in the fashion industry, helping designers brand and license their collections. "An appearance is worth millions to an emerging business."
One designer trying out for the show boiled it down. "I think to make it through three shows, to show the world what I'm capable of in three of my most fabulous looks, will expand my current fan base and will be the break I need to grow my business," said Deron Shields, owner of Vammocho, a Baltimore-based women's evening-wear collection.
Indeed, simply being on the show for a chunk of the season provides a substantial boost for a young business.
Rami Kashou, who made it to the final three in Project Runway's fourth season, had established a reputation prior to his appearance. He'd shown for several seasons at Fashion Week in Los Angeles and through a Gen Art showcase for young talent, at New York's Fashion Week at the tents in Bryant Park. He was selling his collection at a number of boutiques internationally, and his gowns were regularly worn by celebrities like Jessica Alba and Lindsay Lohan on the red carpet.
"My motive was to brand my vision as a designer and to use the media to reach out to viewers who may have not heard about my line," Kashou said. "Of the millions of viewers watching the show, there had to be a handful who could take my business in the direction I want to go, moving it to the next level."
Since the show ended in February, Kashou has heard from both retailers wanting to carry his collection and potential investors. "I want to be partnered with the one that is perfect for me, so I'm being pretty selective," said Kashou, who also has a collection debuting on the HSN home shopping network on May 15.
"I truly believe this was a great business move. This business is about networking, and this was a great door that opened up to connect me to people in New York and Los Angeles," he said.
It isn't just the professional-based reality shows that are being used as business launching pads. Bethenny Frankel, a contestant on The Apprentice: Martha Stewart auditioned for The Real Housewives of New York City, though she's neither married nor is she a housewife.
"I did the show to be a commercial for everything that I'm doing," Frankel said. "I have my own company [Bethenny Bakes], I'm the spokesperson for Pepperidge Farm Baked Naturals, and I'm an expert for Health magazine. I'm a natural-foods chef, and I want to make health accessible to all."
Chosen to be the single-girl foil to her housewife co-stars, her contract with Bravo, which produces the show, is more like a prenuptial agreement. "Because I had a brand going into this, everything I'm doing and everything that I do is still mine," she explained. Her co-stars are required to turn over to producers a percentage of what they earn as a result of being on The Real Housewives and have limitations on what television appearances they can make.
"There's no medium like television," argued Frankel, whose friends and family didn't initially understand why she wanted to live with cameras tailing her. "People who watch the show google me. They go to my website and look up recipes from the show."
"I'm writing a book, and next season is all about me producing my book," she said. "The show will be a commercial for my book. It's a dream for me."Visit Portfolio.com for the latest business news and opinion, executive profiles and careers. Portfolio.com© 2007 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved.