By Stacy Jenel Smith
A few years ago, rumors of the passing of one-hit-wonder recording artist Vanilla Ice launched a wave of reader inquiries as to when and how he had died.
You just can't ask for a worse sign of the status of your professional life than fans thinking you're six feet under.
In fact, the derision and failure suffered by the artist born Robert Van Winkle was so traumatic for him, in 1990 he quit the business altogether for a few years in the early '90s and became a motocross racer under his real name. An attempted comeback in 1994 proved disastrous and triggered not one, but two suicide attempts.
Fast forward a decade, and Vanilla Ice is in the spotlight again - thanks to reality TV. As one of the stars of the second season of VH1's "The Surreal Life," he regained public interest and landed a role in the big screen "The Helix...Loaded," a parody of "The Matrix." He performed on NBC's "Hit Me Baby One More Time," and had a VH1 special called "Remaking Vanilla Ice" which centered on the making of his "Platinum Underground" album of last year. It also led to more reality TV work - in Britain's "The Farm."
In terms of being extreme and bizarre, Van Winkle's story is not all that unusual among "celebrity" reality contestants. In this world unto itself, careers are not just revived, they're exhumed.
In 1990, after a string of hit films that included "Stand by Me," "The Lost Boys" and "License to Kill," Corey Feldman was addicted to heroin and cocaine, was $150,000 in debt and faced the possibility of serious prison time for drug possession. Fast-forward to 2002, and Feldman was one of the main stars on the first season of "The Surreal Life" - the premiere reality show for has-beens -- where he married his wife, Susie. His latest offering is the direct-to-DVD "Puppetmaster Vs. Satanic Toys."
Daniel Baldwin's career had lost its luster before he appeared on "Celebrity Fit Club." He brought a special dimension to that show, disappearing for the final episode, then re-emerging to announce that he'd been on narcotics through the last few installments he'd done and was now in rehab.
The appearance of former "Diff'rent Strokes" child actor Todd Bridges on "Skating With Celebrities" might just be the most egregious example yet. You may recall that it took no less than the late super lawyer Johnnie Cochran to successfully defend Bridges, winning an acquittal for him in 1989 on charges of attempted murder, attempted involuntary manslaughter, and assault with a deadly weapon in a crack house -- despite four eyewitness accusations.
More recently, Bridges was arrested after allegedly ramming an associate's car with his own after an argument.
The performer's upbeat biography of today, placed on a number of influential websites with seeming care, proclaims his clean and sober status and his faith. Nevertheless, you've got to wonder how those eyewitnesses feel when they see him wobbling around on ice dressed in a sequined jumpsuit.
The personalities on celeb reality shows must be, as one critic coldly but accurately put it, hard up enough to be willing to risk serious bodily injury, but well-known enough for it to be interesting to us.
For the most part, of course, these personalities' histories are, thankfully, far less dire than Bridges'.
Do reality shows truly revive flagging careers? Do they send D-listers back to the A-list?
Depends upon which personality you're talking about. "American Idol" gave Paula Abdul a ticket back to the top, for example.
Fresh from his "The Bachelor" exposure, Charlie O'Connell went on to a role in a movie that didn't star brother Jerry for a change.
Other stars' appearances on reality shows have led to...more reality shows. Still a series staple on "Full House" reruns, Dave Coulier went from a turn on "Surreal Life" to "Skating With the Stars." (But hey, we all know he's a hockey player so it's different, right?)
Public Enemy MC Flavor Flav's "Surreal Life" stint precipitated his "Flavor of Love" show - in addition to winning him and fellow reality personality Brigitte Neilsen attention as one of the Star tabloid's tackiest couples of last year.
Former "Brady Bunch" middle son Christopher Knight went on "The Surreal Life" and won not only the heart of a fair maid - "America's Next Top Model's" Adrienne Curry - but the documentary show "My Fair Brady," which followed their growing romance and ultimately Knight's marriage proposal to the 23-year-old beauty.
But Emmanuel Lewis? Mindy Cohn? Since their "Surreal Life" forays, they haven't exactly catapulted back to show biz success. Losing fat in front of the American public on "Celebrity Fit Club" doesn't seem to have reignited the careers of former sitcom stars Jeff Conaway ("Taxi") and Tempestt Bledsoe ("The Cosby Show").
But does it matter? In the end, a fat pay check just might be enough.
Perhaps Erik Estrada summed it up best when he talked about being lured into reality TV to appear on MTV's "That '70s House" show. It might be cheesy, sure, but it's cheese the one-time "CHiPs" star can take to the bank: "People call me, pitch a price, we talk, they pitch another price...At 65 I can break a pension."