By Lanford Beard
June 04, 2012 at 04:43 PM EDT

Bethenny Frankel wrapped her seventh season on reality TV last Monday and is currently preparing to take her claim to the talk-show circuit next Monday. Bethenny is just the latest venture in a mushrooming empire that includes liquor, fashion, and nutrition lines, as well as best-selling fiction and nonfiction books. How did Frankel leverage her exposure on reality — a format that is generally considered flash-in-the-pan and credibility-sinking — to earn hundreds of millions of dollars? Could she have done it on her own? EW reached out to business and marketing experts, as well as reality TV vets, to discover what it is that has taken Frankel from practically penniless to the Skinnygirl.

Like Lauren Conrad and the Kardashians before her, Frankel is a small-screen celebrity proving that there’s no business like reality show business. But her skyrocketing success is an impressive case study. After the 2011 sale of Skinnygirl brand to Beam Global for a reported $100 million, Frankel earned a spot in the glitterati’s financial stratosphere, alongside celebrities that would be considered more traditionally legitimate (ex. Zooey Deschanel, Kate Moss, Reese Witherspoon).

“These days, exposure on a reality show is absolutely invaluable,” says Jo Piazza, the author of Celebrity Inc. “It’s a fact that building the brand is 100 percent due to being on that reality program.” Piazza will get no argument from Robert Familetti, who serves as a director at Davie Brown Entertainment, an independent agency that calibrates celebrity status in order to evaluate stars’ value for brands including Pepsi, Unilever, and Mars. “It’s common sense that, if … they have a TV show that promotes their brand, that drives people to their website or their product, that increases sales,” he says.

Piazza also cites the (less lucrative) brands of Jersey Shore stars Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, Jenni “J-Woww” Farley, and Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino. Their trail, and indeed the trail for Frankel and Conrad, was blazed by the Kardashians. Though Kim was independently famous — or infamous — prior to Keeping Up With the Kardashians, it’s her siblings (and momager Kris Jenner) who have benefited the most from the show. Younger sister Khloe is perhaps the most similar case. Though she came from an already wealthy family, she had little to no notoriety before Keeping Up, and has since emerged as the show’s voice of reason. She’s been so successful that she’s landed two spin-offs and local radio shows in the towns where she shot the spin-offs. (That’s in addition to the shared profits from Keeping Up itself and the Kardashian family’s various other ventures.)

Unlike a Kardashian, however, the extra push that Frankel has going for her is her Everywoman persona. “The thing that really builds a celebrity brand is a mixture of aspiration and accessibility,” says Piazza. “Female reality stars, particularly the Bethenny Frankels and Lauren Conrads, are in the sweet spot of those two things.” Continues Piazza, “They are an exact example of ‘Celebrities, they’re just like us!’ People believe that Bethenny and Lauren are just like them, which is why the brand can grow so much. People will buy whatever these people peddle.”

This mix of aspiration and access is something Big Brother winner Mike “Boogie” Malin and his on-screen ally Dr. Will Kirby have used to sustain their own businesses for more than a decade. Malin’s Dolce Group, which includes L.A.’s Geisha House and New York’s Angels and Kings, immediately noticed a bump in business after first appearing on the show. “When I came off Big Brother 2 in 2001, CBS was broadcasting from my bar every Thursday, and people were coming in,” says Malin. “I had one shirt I wore all the time on the show, and I was selling them. I was very new to business, so when you’re selling $120 shirts that you wore on the show, that’s a direct impact. I probably wouldn’t have had those people writing to me from, say, Canada to order one of those shirts when they’ve never even been to the bar.”

NEXT: If you shill it, they will come

Attention from viewers was just the tip of the iceberg. Malin gained entrance into the NBA Entertainment League thanks to Big Brother. There he met future investors Ashton Kutcher, Danny Masterson, and Jamie Kennedy. It follows a theory from Robert van Krieken, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at Australia’s University of Sydney. Says van Krieken, “The economic network surrounding celebrities is extensive, restricted only by the imagination of the celebrity.” And as Malin freely admits, “Will and I both came on reality TV to do much, much more” than simply become famous.

The same business-driven approach was critical for Frankel, who said in a 2011 profile for The Hollywood Reporter, “I went on [The Real Housewives of New York] single-handedly and exclusively for business.” Like Malin and Kirby, who went on to become the founder and medical director of DrTattoff.com, what separated Frankel and Conrad from the pack was their business acumen. “They were smart enough to see that had to be their main focus,” says Piazza, “whereas the other stars of the Housewives and The Hills spent more time going to parties and doing appearances and making sure they were photographed because they wanted to be a celebrity first and a businessperson second.”

There’s also a certain amount of autonomy that gave Frankel and Conrad an extra boost. Compared to a blockbuster show like American Idol, which pulls near 20 million viewers on a low night, alums of a show like Housewives or Hills, which average numbers in the low millions, seem doomed to fail. Wouldn’t Idol vets’ millions of supporters propel them to superstardom? Not so. In fact, Idols generally underperform (with notable exceptions like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and recently Adam Lambert). Explains Dr. Markus Wohlfeil, a marketing lecturer at England’s University of East Anglia, “Only very few reality TV ‘stars’ are really able to turn their brand into a big business by themselves. The reason is that, from the day of casting, their media persona is usually the intellectual property of the reality TV show’s production company and managed by them.”

Whereas Frankel and Conrad seem to be driving their own brands, other reality TV contestants tend to be at the mercy of Svengali-like impresarios and a coterie of managers and publicists who act “like puppeteers,” says Wohlfeil. To be sure, Frankel’s success has only moved the candid reality TV industry further in that direction. Her THR profile noted that networks “have even begun including clauses in new talent contracts that would award the network a stake in any business venture created as a result of a talent’s time on the show.”

NEXT: You like them, you really like them

Of course it doesn’t hurt that Frankel and Conrad have positioned themselves as America’s BFFs. “Likability does a lot to increase your brand power,” notes Piazza. This tack is precisely the one Frankel is espousing in her latest venture. She recently told Ellen DeGeneres, an executive producer on Bethenny, that the show will “be about what I talk to my girlfriends about while we’re having cocktails.” It expands the audience’s sense that they “know” Frankel, and “Those who do know her trust her and consider her a trendsetter — someone of influence,” says Familetti.

Still, even Malin and Kirby managed to thrive despite their villainous TV personae. They credit much of their success to a dogged work ethic. “It’s not that reality TV made us successful,” says Kirby. “It’s that we were going to be successful regardless. You’re an entrepreneur first, and the reality TV augments that.” Malin agrees, “Six years ago, I won $500,000 on a Tuesday night [on Big Brother All-Stars]. Thursday, I was plunging toilets at my restaurant. We were quick to take advantage of what we got but also quick to go back to what it is we do best — what’s real and what’s going to be around for the rest of our lives, not just a fleeting moment that can be taken away from you. Then what are you left with?”

These days, what Frankel and Conrad are left with is millions of dollars (each have published multiple New York Times best sellers, and Conrad has two websites and a pair of fashion lines that have made upwards of $100 million) and the fact that attention begets more attention. “It is not so much that celebrities are well-known [simply] because of their well-knownness, it is that being well-known tends to generate more well-knownness,” asserts van Krieken, who views celebrity in economic terms. “Attention-capital tends constantly to earn interest, because we generally pay attention to whatever is engaged other people’s attention.”

“I’d be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t acknowledge that television [helps],” says Kirby. “I will be the first to acknowledge that I don’t think my business would be as relevant and as successful as it is today if I hadn’t had a background in reality TV.” Both Kirby and Malin still regularly appear on talk shows including The Talk, and Kirby has even appeared on The Real Housewives of Orange County. But, says Malin, “When Will and I go on TV programs, we don’t go on there to remind ourselves how cool we were that we got to be on TV for five seconds. We go there to promote our businesses, and we will never stop doing that.”

And that’s where Frankel finds herself. Only, with Bethenny nearing its debut, she isn’t just appearing on the talk show. She’s hosting it.

Read more:

Bethenny Frankel talks new novel ‘Skinnydipping’

Lauren Conrad talks ‘The Fame Game’

Dr. Will Kirby Q&A: 9021-Oh, Snap!

Mike “Boogie” Malin Q&A: He Said, She Sad

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