When we think about Reality TV, we tend to think about outrageous premises, jaw-dropping moments and memorable contestants. But it's time we took a step back to also appreciate the steady presences on these shows who guide the contestants, help ease frayed nerves, and often help produce the very shows they're starring on. We're talking about the hosts!
We wanted to rank the 20 best hosts of the reality TV era (that is, from Survivor's premiere in 2000 on forward), but first we need to set some parameters. We're not the Primetime Emmys here. Our definition of "host" is a bit more stringent. Here are a few categories of reality show personal who we're excluding from "host" designation:
Judges: not a host! If your job on the reality show is to evaluate the talent rather than emcee the production, you are a judge. Sorry, Simon Cowell. In certain cases, that line gets blurred and executive decisions had to be made. Padma Lakshmi: more host than judge. Tom Colicchio: more judge than host.
Protagonists: not a host! Sometimes the Emmys will nominate people who work with a rotating cast but who are still the main focus of the show itself. Queer Eye's Fab Five (both iterations) fall into this bucket, as does Marie Kondo.
Game Show Hosts: not reality show hosts! The job of a game show host may be similar to that of a reality show host, but if we open the door to game shows, the whole endeavor becomes irrevocably changed, and a list of Reality Show Hosts topped by Alex Trebek wouldn't feel right. So all due apologies to Nicole Byer, but that slope gets way too slippery.
With that in mind, here's our ranking of the 20 best reality show hosts of the reality TV era, chosen for their ability to be charming/charismatic, to be empathetic and/or strict (as warranted) with the contestants, and for how much of a pop cultural icon they've become via their position as host.
Noel had some big shoes to fill when he first took over hosting duties on The Great British Bake-Off in 2017 after Mel and Sue parted ways with the show. And while we may not exactly prefer the Noel years (read on…), we have to give him credit for carving out his own unique space within the Bake-Off universe. Things are definitely schtick-ier now, but in his partnerships with first Sandi Toksvig and now Matt Lucas, Noel has had some great moments of rapport and comedic asides with the contestants, establishing himself as a safe port when the raging waters of Paul Hollywood's ego threaten to overwhelm the bakers.
Ah, the Chenbot. Julie's been on quite the rollercoaster ride over the years when it comes to her place in our esteem. In the early days, she was frequently slammed for her wooden delivery and inability to handle transitions or the vagaries of live television with grace. She earned the "Chenbot" nickname because she often seemed to be on autopilot as she ran through the show's progressions, switching gears every time with an identical "but first…" transition. But as time went on, the Chenbot thing became endearing, and as Julie loosened up and started mixing it up with the contestants more, she got to be pretty fun. Then she responded to the axing of her husband, CBS chairman Les Moonves, who left the network under a cloud of sexual harassment allegations by adding her married name to her professional moniker, making sure to pointedly use it in each episode send-off, a move of questionable taste that sent her plummeting down our rankings.
Chris Moore probably comes the closest of anyone on this list to not being a proper host, considering how much of a participant he is in both of the behind-the-scenes moviemaking series he's been a part of. But we want to give Moore credit for how much heavy lifting he did on both Project Greenlight and The Chair to shepherd the shows along and to guide the contestants through the paces of competition. Sure, he was often just as much of an obstacle as he was a guide, and sure sometimes his peevish reactions to whatever dumb production decision was being made was kind of the reason to watch the show, but every list of this kind deserves its one principled exception, and this one's ours.
For years at the Emmys, Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum shared the Outstanding Reality Show Host nomination for Project Runway, even though Gunn was more of a mentor than a host on that show, guiding the contestants through their challenges. He's more of a proper host on Making the Cut, which allows us to rank him here, a star among stars in the reality genre.
The newest entry on this list is also the one with the least screen time in any given season. For the bulk of The Circle, comedian and actress Michelle Buteau is but a voice, narrating the action (or, more often, the inaction), making snarky (but sweet!) digs at the contestants, and moving the action along. She is both the all-seeing eye of the game as well as the disembodied voice on the couch next to us, commenting on the show as it happens. And then, in the finale, Buteau finally gets to meet these oddballs in person, and the result is weirdly cathartic, showing her to be the absolutely perfect middle ground between sarcastic and sincere for this show.
Ryan Seacrest deserves immense credit for emceeing two live TV shows a week for the bulk of any given American Idol season. That is not easy, and Seacrest rolled through weeks and weeks of it, with the brightest spotlight on TV trained on him for years, with the ease and efficiency of a particularly driven, frosted-tipped Ken doll. He's only down so far on this list because the flip side of being a Ken doll is that you never quite seem like a real person. Seacrest's interactions with contestants often feel surface-y, and his banter with the judges can seem forced. But for longevity and hustle alone, Seacrest deserves his spot on this list.
It wasn't just that Heidi Klum's unshakeable German accent made every Project Runway catch phrase from "In fashion, one day you're in and the next day, you're out" to the Bluefly.com accessory wall. It wasn't just that her otherworldly beauty routinely turned the designers into goo when she would first strut out to meet them. It wasn't even how she commanded the gaggle of judges in each episode, including such strong personalities as Nina Garcia and Michael Kors. It was how she managed to evaluate each and every garment that stomped down that runway against the rubric of whether or not she would wear it. That is powerful.
As a TV personality, Tyra Banks has always been a lot to take, with a dramatic flair that always seems just a touch (or a tooch?) off. But Tyra's ridiculousness always made her the perfect fit for a competition to discover the next great supermodel, a genre that had already pretty much become extinct by the time Tyra and her 8x10 glossies stepped to center stage. Tyra worked hard, don't forget. She showed up every week to teach the models everything from acting to schmoozing, she devised lunatic makeovers that elicited TV-friendly meltdowns, and she adopted a hushed tone of deep authority and care as she helmed her judging panel. In truth, we've all been rooting for Tyra all this time.
It's going to be hard not to turn this entry into one long, sobbing plea to Mel and Sue to return to GBBO and once again grace us with their dry wit, arched eyebrows, and utterly shameless puns. As much as any other element on The Great British Bake-Off, it was Mel and Sue's inviting, breezy hosting that helped us latch onto the show's good vibes and establish it as a safe haven for comfort TV. Things really haven't been the same since they left, and no other host(s) in the reality game have been able to replicate what they did.
It often seems like Gordon Ramsay was forged in a kiln to be cooking TV's answer to Simon Cowell, the mean old Brit who's not about to parse words or withhold judgment. As a reality TV entity, Gordon Ramsay delivers pretty much everything: he's a show's subject, its mentor, its judge, and its host. It's no wonder that Ramsey pretty much immediately became one of the genre's most recognizable stars. His list of memorable insults is endless, but he's also got the gravitas to back it up, and when they put him in the kitchen with junior chefs, he's borderline delightful.
RuPaul has managed to build a small empire and an entire subgenre of drag TV unto itself, starting with RuPaul's Drag Race. Armed with an entire warehouse full of wigs, gowns, and catchphrases, Ru has presided over the realm of televised drag for over a decade with an authority and an eye for talent that keeps the Drag Race empire must-watch TV season after season.
It took a lot of charm to turn ballroom dancing with C-list celebrities into a TV show that, for a time, topped the viewership charts in America. Formerly the host of The Hollywood Squares, Bergeron struck the perfect balance between light comedy and sincere investment in the dancing competition. He held down the center of a show that could have very easily spun off into three-ring-circus territory, and he did so with great humor and likeability.
Being host of The Amazing Race may seem like an easy gig comprised of standing at a finish line, cocking en eyebrow, and successfully counting how many teams have finished a given leg of the race. But that would severely undersell the charisma that Keoghan brings to the table, taking in bedraggled, exhausted, often squabbling teams and — often through sheer force of gravitas — getting them to take a moment, reflect on what they've just accomplished, show respect for the land they're in, and, occasionally, send them right on racing again.
For a reality competition host, the ideal state of being combines unflappable efficiency, a sparkling personality, and a genuine empathy for the contestants who are putting themselves on the line on national television. This is especially important when the contestants are young people. Which is why Cat Deeley's presence on So You Think You Can Dance was so welcome. Deeley — who began hosting SYTYCD in its second season — excelled at the above three elements, but particularly the third, as her genuine concern and adoration for the dancers was impossible to ignore, fostering an environment of enthusiasm and emotion that carried the show for years.
The legend, the genre-shaper, the executive producer. There is no doubt that Jeff Probst will go down in history as one of the defining figures of the reality TV genre, building Survivor into one of the pillars of network TV. For all of the legitimate criticisms of Probst as a host — his historical tendency to bro down with the alpha males and his poor handling of the Season 39 sexual harassment scandal are why he's #5 and not #1 — it's hard to deny the historical impact Probst has made on television. It's also nearly impossible to imagine Survivor without him, warts and all, as his love and enthusiasm for the game and all its quirks have seeped into the foundation of the show.
If there were an award for Most Improved Reality Host, Padma Lakshmi would surely have won it. Since first debuting as host on the second season of Top Chef, Lakshmi has gone from beginner level to icon status, now confidently standing side-by-side with Tom Colicchio as one of the twin pillars of the series. Padma's ever more confident palate and expertise is what makes her a great judge, but her deep investment in the chefs and their stories as they make their way through the competition is what makes her a great host. The myriad ways she's found to pack empathy, regret, and heartbreak into the words "pack your knives and go" has only enhanced the Top Chef experience over the years.
It's hard to remember that there were so many seasons of The Real World/Road Challenge that weren't hosted by TJ Lavin. For a while, it seemed like MTV thought they could put any extreme sports athlete on a plane to Cabo San Lucas and let them wrangle two dozen inebriated idiots through a series of physical competitions. And then they landed on Lavin, a professional BMX biker with a supremely chill affect who regarded the Real World and Road Rules alums with an air of bemused appreciation (and occasional condescension). As The Challenge found its own identity, it did so in TJ's image, including his hatred of quitters and his childlike glee at the competitions that expose the contestants' stupidity.
Before she was an Academy Award-winning actress, Mo'Nique took a break from her comedy career to host a spinoff of VH1's improbably successful Flavor of Love, a dating competition for the honor of Flava Flav's romantic attentions. After two seasons, the most ill-behaved of the bachelorettes were gathered for a spin-off "charm school" competition where they'd be put through their paces to be more ladylike. The whole thing was a masterpiece of tongue-in-cheek mess and deliberate camp, especially as it was presided over by Mo'Nique, doing her best to suppress her bawdy self in the role of a proper headmistress. The moments when the real Mo'Nique emerged were plentiful and welcome, giving the entire season the air of a tour de force. Her genuine care for the contestants was matched only by the moments where she reminded everyone that she was not to be trifled with. Alas, this was a one-season wonder for Mo'Nique, but what a season it was.
We got two seasons of hosting out of a pre-CNN Anderson Cooper, and it helped to make The Mole reign as one of the great underappreciated reality shows of all time. At that point, Cooper was doing some reporting and off-peak-hours hosting for ABC News, but he was mostly unknown in the mainstream (unless you were really well-versed in Vanderbilt family lineage). Still, it didn't take viewers long to pick up on Cooper's brainy, stoic, prematurely gray vibe as being the perfect fit for this most atypical reality show. The Mole really was a show for the self-styled brainiacs among us, who appreciated the multi-level strategies of sabotage and detection all while getting to play along with the contestants, since nobody knew the identity of the Mole until the final episode. Cooper could not have been more ideal, with his wry wit meeting the audience on their (our) level.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.
TOPICS: Reality TV, The Amazing Race, American Idol, America's Next Top Model, Big Brother, The Circle, Dancing with the Stars, The Great British Bake Off, MasterChef, The Mole, Padma Lakshmi, Project Runway, RuPaul’s Drag Race, So You Think You Can Dance, Survivor, Top Chef, Anderson Cooper, Cat Deeley, Chris Moore, Gordon Ramsay, Heidi Klum, Jeff Probst, Julie Chen, Mel Giedroyc, Michelle Buteau, Mo'Nique, Noel Fielding, Phil Keoghan, Ryan Seacrest, Sue Perkins, Tim Gunn, Tom Bergeron, Tyra Banks