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

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