Pia Zadora was a child actress on Broadway and in the weirdest movie of all time Santa Claus Conquers the Martians in 1964. Her career stalled until she met a shady businessman three times her age named Meshulam Riklis and married him in 1972. He financed the 1982 film Butterfly, which, apropos of nothing, is a romantic movie about daddy-daughter incest. Riklis may or may not have paid off the ever-sketchy Golden Globes voters who named Zadora Best New Star for Butterfly, which was both box office and critical poison. Riklis definitely funded a quest to make Zadora famous, lining L.A. with Zadora billboards in the run up to the film’s release. For Butterfly, Zadora also won the Razzie for Worst New Star, a unique double-award distinction.
When you’re a boorish redneck who is so boorish that your wife cuts off your penis and throws it in a field, you are definitely going to become a tabloid fixture. And because your penis was successfully reattached, the only real way to capitalize on your fame is with porn.
Cannonball Run II (1984)
You know Charles Nelson Reilly as the cartoonishly-voiced panelist with the huge glasses and penchant for cravats on the ’70s version of Match Game. But what was it he actually did to get famous? He was a Broadway workhorse and variety show regular, two legitimate ways to get nationally famous in the mid-20th century. He had an occasional film role and did a lot of voice work, but he’s at his most Charles Nelson Reilliest in Cannonball Run II.
We’re Not Married! (1952)
A Hungarian beauty queen, Zsa Zsa Gabor came to the U.S. in the ’30s, then married Conrad Hilton, then George Sanders, and transferred that fame into a slight film career. She’s ultimately famous for being related to Eva Gabor, being a rich lady cliche decked out in furs and diamonds, and for slapping a cop. She appeared in the 1952 movie We’re Not Married, ironic as Gabor has been married nine times.
Tonya Harding was legitimately famous…once. She won the national figure skating championship in 1991, finished fourth in the 1992 Olympics, and was a contender for the 1994 games. Of course, it’s her journey to those Olympics—in which she participated in a conspiracy to whack rival Nancy Kerrigan in the kneecaps—that led to her seedy downfall. In addition to the usual sex tapes and embarrassing reality TV specials, Harding co-starred in this 1996 crime drama about a drug mule in which she goes all Gillooly on some guy.
House of Wax (2005)
After becoming a fixture on the New York party scene, and the sex tape and right before she released the kind of okay “Stars are Blind,” America’s favorite dead-eyed debutante, Paris Hilton, co-starred in a remake of the 1953 horror classic House of Wax. You know all horror movies have a blond girl that gets murdered? Well, uh, spoiler alert.
Kids in America (2005)
Hilton’s best friend, both offscreen and on (their reality show The Simple Life), Nicole Richie, tried to make a go at Hollywood too, guest-starring in forgettable mid-2000s shows such as Eve, Rock Me Baby, and American Dreams. Then she got a lead role in Kids in America, an ‘80s teen movie that technically came out in 2005.
Just Go With It (2011)
People with no discernible talent have greatly benefited from the reality show boom, perhaps none more than Heidi Montag, a co-star on MTV’s “docu-soaps” Laguna Beach and The Hills. After making the requisite Celebrity Big Brother appearance, poorly-received dance pop album, and Jocelyn Wildenstein levels of plastic surgery, Montag turned to acting with a cameo in Adam Sandler’s Just Go With It, a film that also stars a swimsuit model (Brooklyn Decker) and Dave Matthews (Dave Matthews).
The Animal (2001)
After Survivor premiered in 2000 and became an immediate cultural phenomenon, many cast members of the first season benefitted from the goodwill and got showbiz jobs, as reality TV was new, and Americans had not yet learned to simultaneously love and loathe reality show participants. Ex-Navy SEAL Rudy Boesch hosted a show called Combat Missions on USA, and Colleen Haskell made a single big-screen appearance in The Animal, as the love interest for Rob Schneider, who plays a wild animal or something.
Dorm Daze 2 (2006)
To be fair, Brian “Kato” Kaelin was already starring in cheesy comedies and low-rent erotic thrillers before he was crashing at O.J. Simpson’s house the night O.J. Simpson legally didn’t murder people. After he became a national punchline, Kaelin got right back in the game. Here he is in National Lampoon’s Dorm Daze 2.