America loves Rupert Boneham. They love him so much they gave him $1 million.
Before Jersey Shore, before The Bachelor, before the Kardashians, Boneham was one of the first people who made his living from reality TV.
Boneham was a reality star before the term even existed. He’s appeared on “Survivor” four times, the first to compete in back-to-back seasons and the second to compete in four seasons. The public voted him as a fan favorite. And he’s returned to TV once again, this time for “The Amazing Race,” which premiered April 17.
“I’ve been given the world,” he said. “All from TV. It was made for me.”
Reality TV as a career
Reality TV has completely saturated the world of entertainment, but during Boneham’s time on “Survivor,” there were only a handful of other reality shows out there. Now, there are hundreds, likely due to the massive success of “Survivor.”
Becoming a reality TV star might seem like a plum role, but while becoming rich and famous for having a film crew follow you around sounds enticing, it doesn’t always work out that way.
“Coming into the reality space thinking you’re going to make money doing it is a delusion,” said Johnnie Raines, a talent agent in Los Angeles.
Reality shows today typically pay only a small amount, if anything at all, for the first season of a show. If the first season is successful, you may be able to negotiate your pay. It’s unlikely you can make a living doing reality TV alone, in the beginning.
“You need another job. That’s the bottom line,” Raines said.
While some competitive reality shows may pay for your travel and housing, you have to pay for everything else while losing your income and benefits while you’re filming.
“For a show like ‘Survivor,’ you’re going away for several weeks.” Raines said. “Casting agents are looking for people who can afford to take the time off work. If they win, it’s just a bonus.”
The man America gave $1 million dollars
Boneham has never won “Survivor.” The closest he’s gotten is fourth place. But he still won the $1 million prize. The eighth season of the show had a special episode in which the public was able to vote to award a $1 million to one contestant. They chose Boneham.
“Being able to put $1 million in the bank is a wonderful thing,” he said. “But they don’t talk about the income tax. It’s considered given income — even though I told the IRS I earned that $1 million with my blood, sweat and tears.”
A little less than half of the money went to federal and state taxes. Boneham put $100,000 into his nonprofit, a vocational center for young adults called Rupert’s Kids. He paid off some debts and bought a house. He recalls walking into a furniture store and, in a couple hours, buying enough to furnish an entire home, without looking at a single price tag.
The $1 million was gone in a month. He went right back to work.
A star is born
Before “Survivor,” Boneham held down a series of odd jobs, including club bouncer and grave digger. He traveled with college football teams and drove their sideline vehicle. But his true passion was helping kids. He purchased a home in Indianapolis in 1991 and converted it into a vocational center for young adults, as part of his nonprofit called “Rupert’s Kids.”
Boneham talks with a booming, jovial voice, and is rarely seen without his signature tie-dye T-shirt, unkempt beard and wide-eyed grin. “Survivor” was made for him.
Boneham saw the first season and was transfixed. He applied to be on show two years later, in 2003, and within weeks was packing up to participate on the show’s seventh season, “Survivor: Pearl Island.”
He placed eighth. He returned to Indianapolis, displeased. He told his family he would never leave home again. Four days later, show executives called him and asked him if he wanted to come back for another season. It was a no-brainer.
“Oh my gosh, of course I wanted to play the game again,” he said. “There were so many coulda, shoulda, wouldas.”
Out in the wild
Though the competition lasts 39 days, filming for “Survivor” can take up to two months. Boneham shifted his duties at the nonprofit to cover him while he was gone. He saved money by working as a day laborer to cover the time he would be away filming.
When Boneham returned from his second stint with “Survivor,” his first season on the show had just aired. His fame took off.
He began to receive requests for speaking engagements, signings, interviews. Most of them paid well. Some of them offered to pay what he would make in six months.
Even today, more than 15 years after his first season on the show, Boneham still makes appearances. He said he sometimes gets paid $500 for a 20-minute talk. All the money goes to Rupert’s Kids.
“Money is not the end, money is not the solution to everything,” he said. “That’s why it was so easy to me to give it all away to something that matters.”
Budgeting for a chance at $1 million
Sometimes Boneham makes $1,400 a year from Rupert’s Kids. Sometimes he makes nothing. He lives off savings from earlier investments. He didn’t have health insurance for a long time.
“You just live as cheaply as possible and as healthy as possible,” he said.
This year he’s going without a salary to fund the creation of a 16-bed re-entry facility for at-risk teens, as part of Rupert’s Kids. But he now has health insurance through his wife’s job.
Laura Boneham works as a nurse in the oncology ward at St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis. She, too, had her chance at fame. She appeared with him on “Survivor: Blood vs. Water,” Boneham’s fourth time on the show.
Life after “Survivor”
In 2012, Boneham ran as the Libertarian nominee for governor of Indiana, and lost to Republican nominee and now Vice President Mike Pence.
He said ran because of social injustice happening across the state.
“When you see something not right, you try to solve that problem in a politically correct way,” he said.
He financed most of the campaign himself. Six months of campaigning nearly bankrupted him and hurt donations for Rupert’s Kids. He said he went into credit card debt and sold his decades-old coin collection. Still, he said he has no regrets about running.
After the campaign, Boneham made himself busy. He worked on establishing the reentry center for Rupert’s Kids, which will open in May. He worked on securing donations for the nonprofit.
And then he got a call. Reality TV was calling him back. But this time, it was a different game. It was “The Amazing Race,” and they wanted to know if Boneham and his wife wanted to play.
It was another no-brainer.
“I’ve never seen it as a source of income. It’s not about the money.” he said. “I go because I want to win.”
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Image: Rupert Boneham