The 10 most memorable reality TV stars from North Carolina

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These 10 North Carolinians snatched up their 15 minutes of fame on reality TV, and some have taken it to greater heights.

When the sixth season of “Love Is Blind” premiered in February, the Queen City found itself in the spotlight. The show was filmed in Charlotte and featured an all-Charlotte cast, with folks from the area tuning in every week to see if they recognized the venues where the show’s participants visited — or lied about visiting. 

“I was in the alley behind Lost & Found” became a famous excuse that outed Jeramey as a potential cheater (yes, Lost & Found does have a parking lot, albeit a small one, despite what many on social media have claimed).

Only Johnny and Amy made it out of that show as husband and wife — rumors abound regarding which contestants were even single to start with when they signed on — and that got us thinking: Who are the other reality TV stars that snagged their 15 minutes of fame during any given show’s run, and which ones have turned that 15 minutes into something bigger? 

When you think of the biggest reality TV stars to come out of NC, it’s hard not to recognize that “American Idol” has been the biggest cultivator of talent in the Tar Heel State. In our list of North Carolina’s biggest, we’ve included five “American Idol” contestants, plus five more who made waves during their respective appearances on other shows.   

American Idol

Fantasia Barrino

It’s safe to say that there is no bigger star on this list than Fantasia Barrino, known to most simply as Fantasia. Born and raised in High Point, Fantasia won the third season of “American Idol.” Her tearful performance of Abbie Mitchell’s “Summertime” was named one of AOL’s greatest television moments of 2004. 

Since “American Idol,” Fantasia has gone on to a full career in music, television, film and even Broadway. She has won two Billboard Music Awards and a Grammy Award while garnering nominations for a Golden Globe Award and a BAFTA Award. In 2023, she starred as Celie in the Oscar-nominated remake of “The Color Purple,” and earlier this year, Time named her one of the 100 most influential people.  

Photo courtesy of Jyle Dupuis, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Clay Aiken

Finishing as runner-up to Ruben Studdard in the second season of “American Idol,” Raleigh native Clay Aiken did follow up on his television success with a strong musical career, releasing five albums between 2003 and 2012 and selling more than five million albums in total. 

Soon thereafter, he dedicated his life to politics, running for the US House of Representatives in North Carolina’s 2nd congressional district in 2014. Though he won the Democratic primary that year, he eventually lost in the general election to Republican Renee Ellmers. He ran again for the Democratic nomination in North Carolina’s 4th congressional district but lost in the primary. He remains active in the state’s Democratic party and as an LGBTQIA+ advocate. 

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Kellie Pickler

Hailing from Albemarle, Kellie Pickler was immediately identifiable as a North Carolinian by her accent as soon as she stepped on the audition stage for the fifth season of “American Idol.”

Though she only finished in sixth place, she had unmistakable star power. Her 2006 debut album, “Small Town Girl,” went gold. She returned to the reality TV stage in 2013, claiming the title for that year’s season of “Dancing with the Stars” along with partner Derek Hough. She was inducted into the NC Music Hall of Fame in 2016, and co-hosted the nationally syndicated daytime TV talk show Pickler & Ben with comedian Ben Aaron from 2017-’19. 

Pickler’s life took a tragic turn last year when her longtime husband, songwriter and record producer Kyle Jacobs, died by suicide. Today, she hosts a daily radio show on SiriusXM’s country radio station, The Highway, from noon-4 p.m. on weekdays. 

Photo courtesy of Kellie Pickler via Facebook.

Scotty McCreery

Scott McCreery, known better as his performing name, Scotty McCreery, could be considered the most successful North Carolina musician to capitalize on the launchpad that is “American Idol.” Since winning season 10 of the show in 2011, he has gone on to sell 4 million albums. 

On April 20, McCreery received one of country music’s crowning achievements, becoming a member of the Grand Ole Opry, inducted by childhood hero and South Carolina native Justin Turner. For our money, McCreery reached the pinnacle of stardom in 2012 when he became the spokesperson for Charlotte-based chicken joint Bojangles. Here’s to hoping he got a lifetime supply of Cajun filet biscuits. 

Photo courtesy of Walmart, CC BY 2.0.

Bucky Covington

William Joel “Bucky” Covington III, born in Rockingham, was the least successful “American Idol” contestant included on this list, finishing eighth in 2006’s season five, though he did capitalize on the attention to sign a recording contract with Lyric Street Records, releasing his self-titled debut album in 2007, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard Country charts. 

He released a follow-up album, “Good Guys,” in 2012, but it didn’t see much success. He has since settled down with his wife and child in northern Tennessee, where he and his twin brother co-own two collision centers. 

Photo courtesy of Jyle Dupuis, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Other Shows

Kenzie Petty

When the show premiered in February of this year, Kenzie Petty could finally tell her friends that she wasn’t actually at a yoga retreat last summer like she told them, she was filming “Survivor 46.”

When she’s not competing for $1 million on a “deserted” island, Petty owns xPlicit Salon in Charlotte’s sprawling Camp North End development. You can follow her on Instagram, where she posts about her experience on the show. At the time of this writing, Petty was still surviving. Charlotteans gather to root her on during weekly watch parties at Free Range Brewing in Charlotte’s Villa Heights neighborhood.  

Photo courtesy of Kenzie Petty via Instagram.

Sandra Diaz-Twine

Born in Connecticut but now a resident of North Carolina, Sandra Diaz-Twine is a “Survivor” legend — the first contestant to ever win two seasons: “Survivor: Pearl Islands” and “Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains” (she was placed on the Villains side, which she detested)

Today, Diaz-Twine lives in Fayetteville with her husband, a career soldier, and two children. She works as a secretary for a law firm, where many people undoubtedly interact with her without knowing they are dealing with the self-proclaimed “Queen of Survivor.” 

Photo courtesy of BorderlineRebel, CC0 1.0.

Matt James

Raleigh native Matt James was originally cast as a contestant for Season 16 of “The Bachelorette,” but after filming was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he was instead selected to be “the Bachelor” in season 25 of “The Bachelor,” which premiered in January 2021, making history as the first African American lead in “The Bachelor” history. He also competed on Season 30 of “Dancing with the Stars,” coming in 12th place. 

As of February, he was still in a relationship with Rachael Kirkconnell, whom he selected during his season of “The Bachelor,” though the pair do not live in NC. His mom, Patty James of Durham, got her chance to compete in “The Golden Bachelor” in 2023, though she was eliminated on the first night

Photo courtesy of Erik Drost via CC BY 2.0.

Whitney Way Thore

Originally from Greensboro, Whitney Way Thore became a reality TV star in 2015 upon the premiere of “My Big Fat Fabulous Life,” a TLC show that chronicled her life as a person weighing 380 pounds, much of that weight having been gained due to polycystic ovarian syndrome. While the show originally set out to document her mission to lose weight, it evolved into a story about her search for love. 

In February of this year, Thore addressed her recent weight loss, as she was down 100 pounds, confirming that she did not rely on medical intervention in an Instagram post that read, “This is the second time in my life I’ve lost 100 pounds,” she shared with her followers. “I’m still very fat. Thank you for the compliments, but I really don’t like obsessing over my body and I don’t like it when others do it either.” 

Photo courtesy of Whitney Way Thore via Facebook.

Dutchess Lattimore

Born in Lincolnton, Crystana Lavielle Lattimore came to be widely known by her nickname, Dutchess, after starring in VH1’s “Black Ink Crew,” which premiered in January 2013. The show went nine seasons, but left in season to open her own tattoo parlor, Pretty N Ink, in Charlotte. Pretty N Ink is still a thriving tattoo shop in the NC Music Factory near Uptown Charlotte. Follow them on Instagram

Photo courtesy of Dutchess Lattimore via Facebook.

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  • Ryan Pitkin

    Ryan Pitkin is a writer and editor based in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he runs an alternative weekly newspaper called Queen City Nerve. He is also editor of NoDa News, a community newsletter in the neighborhood where he has lived for 15 years.

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