Reality TV Stars Who Died During Production

Reality TV is almost as old as television itself. The groundwork for the genre we know and love today was laid by Allen Funt in 1948 when he adapted his hit radio show Candid Microphone for the small screen. Candid Camera (which secretly filmed ordinary people being confronted with extraordinary situations) inspired numerous other reality-based shows in the years that followed, but the idea of investing our time in complete strangers didn't become a mainstream one until the mid-90s when MTV dropped The Real World.

The "reality" portrayed on The Real World was questionable at times, and, years later, cast members confirmed that certain parts of the show were set up by producers. Today, viewers pretty much accept that some behind-the-scenes manipulation goes on in the name of entertainment, but there's one harsh reality that no producer can fake.

Death can inject some genuine realness into the manufactured "real lives" of these TV stars and, sadly, it can also do wonders for ratings. Grab some tissues, because we're taking a walk down memory lane and remembering the reality TV stars who passed away while their shows were still in production.

Jenni Rivera (I Love Jenni)

Singer and reality TV star Jenni Rivera was one of the best-selling Mexican artists of all time. When she died at age 43, Rivera was the single most successful woman on the Billboard Latin charts and had just finalized a deal with ABC to star in her own sitcom, though sadly we never got to see it. On Dec. 9, 2012, Rivera and six others perished when the plane they were on plummeted 28,000 feet into a mountainous region of northern Mexico.

According to CNN, investigators questioned if the plane's pilot, who was 78 years old, should have been flying. 

Fans later got to see how the Rivera family coped with the tragic loss thanks to the docu-reality series I Love Jenni. The late star was in the middle of filming the third season of the show when her plane went down.

The circumstances of her death were shocking, but not quite as shocking as the family secrets that came out afterwards. Her ex-husband Jose Marin was sentenced to 30 years without parole for the repeated molestation of Rivera's sister, Rosie, and Rivera's daughter, Chiquis (via Billboard). Rivera had also suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a man during her life — the Latin songstress was raped just off a California highway soon after filming her first music video for the song "La Chacalosa." According to Deadline, a biopic based on Rivera's life has been in development since 2016.

Russell Armstrong (Real Housewives of Beverly Hills)

There have been a number of spousal deaths on the Real Housewives franchise over the years, but none have been as explosive as Russell Armstrong's. The husband of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Taylor Armstrong took his own life in a Mulholland Drive house he'd been sharing with a friend after his wife filed for divorce. According to coroner Kristy McCracken's report (obtained by E! News), Russell used an extension cord to hang himself in his bedroom. Speaking to Entertainment Tonight after her ex's death, Taylor revealed that she'd allegedly suffered abuse at his hands.

"He grabbed me by the neck and shoved me up against the wall, and he said, 'If you ever make my children a pizza without a vegetable again, I'll kill you,'" Taylor recalled of one instance.

"He would grab me by one side of the hair on my head, and bang the other side of my head against the car," she revealed. "He would say to me, 'I'm afraid I'm going to kill you one day.'"

Taylor's accusations took an even darker turn when she claimed that she was expecting the first time Armstrong hurt her. "I was pregnant with Kennedy and he grabbed me by the throat and held me against a wall," she said. "I saw his ability to go from zero to 60 that quickly." Taylor released her tell-all memoir just months after Russell's suicide, reportedly angering her castmates.

Shain Gandee (Buckwild)

Trashy reality shows have been MTV's forte for decades, and Buckwild (described as a cross between Honey Boo Boo and Jersey Shore by CNN) was a prime example of that. Running for a single season in 2013, Buckwild followed a group of young adults from West Virginia who did whatever the hell they wanted, which — more often than not — involved drinking copious amounts of alcohol and mudding, or driving one's vehicle around in mud. According to former Buckwild star Shain Gandee, it can be quite the romantic experience. It can also be a dangerous one.

Gandee was found dead in his vehicle in April 2013, after he went mudding on a remote road and got stuck. The 23-year-old's uncle and friend were also present. According to local law enforcement, all three died of carbon monoxide poisoning. MTV was halfway through producing a second season of Buckwild when Gandee passed away, which convinced execs to pull the plug. The show's producer J.P. Williams was absolutely furious with the decision.

"This is the network that has shows about teen pregnancy," Williams told The Hollywood Reporter. "They'll stick by a show that allows you to abandon a child, but a kid dies by accident doing what he does for a living [mudding], and they cancel the show? There's something that smells of s*** here on every level."  

Ryan Dunn (Jackass, Proving Ground)

Ryan Dunn was no stranger to danger having willingly put himself in harm's way for MTV's Jackass and its spinoffs over the years. Dunn and his Jackass co-star Bam Margera started out making skating videos spliced with stunts under the name Camp Kill Yourself. Unfortunately, Dunn's reckless ways eventually caught up to him. On June 20, 2011, Dunn's Porsche 911 came off a Pennsylvania road at 130 mph and crashed through "40 feet of trees before exploding into flames," the Daily Mail reported.

The car was so mangled that it was impossible to determine whether it was the collision or the subsequent fireball that ended the lives of Dunn and his passenger, Jackass assistant Zachary Hartwell. "The automobile actually came apart," Police Chief Michael Carroll told Radar Online. "It was unbelievable, and I've been on a lot of fatal accident scenes. This is by far the worst I've ever seen."

Speaking from the crash site, a tearful Bam Margera told local TV station WTXF that Dunn was "the happiest person ever" and had "so many things going for him" (via the Daily Mail). Dunn had just started filming a Mythbusters-style video game reality show called Proving Ground when he died.

Diem Brown (Battle of the Exes II)

When Diem Brown first appeared on MTV mashup Fresh Meat: Real World/Road Rules Challenge in 2006, she had just kicked cancer's ass. She took part in several seasons of The Challenge over the next decade, coming out the victor in a second battle with ovarian cancer during that time. There would be no third comeback, however, as the disease returned once more to claim her life. Brown was sidelined during an episode of Battle of the Exes II after she began experiencing excruciating abdominal pain, and she was later medically evacuated.

The 34-year-old's flight from Panama to a New York City hospital was featured on the show, and her final words for viewers were extremely difficult to watch. "I'm at a point in my life where I want to just live life," Brown said (via People), admitting that she wished she'd moved faster with her goals. "I want the white-picket-fence dream: I want to get married, I want to have kids."

Her prolonged troubles with ovarian cancer had forced her to have her ovaries removed, but Brown still intended to have a child via surrogacy one day. Sadly, that never happened. 

"I have been the girl that's terrified of commitment," she'd admitted on the show. "I'm realizing that, no matter how organized your ducks are, life can turn on two seconds. So, you can't keep on waiting. Because, if you keep on waiting, it's gone." She passed away in November 2014, just weeks before the show premiered.

Gerald Babin (Koh-Lanta)

Gerald Babin was a contestant on Koh-Lanta, the French version of Survivor. The 25-year-old collapsed on the first day of filming the 2013 season and was initially treated for dehydration, but, when his condition didn't improve, he was airlifted to hospital. Sadly, he would never make it — Babin went into cardiac arrest en route and died as a result. The autopsy report confirmed that he had an undiagnosed heart condition, but the Babin family still felt as though the show's production was in some way responsible.

French prosecutors looked into bringing criminal charges against Adventure Line Productions and host Denis Brogniart after whistleblowers told Closer magazine (via The Hollywood Reporter) that Babin's treatment was intentionally delayed so the filming schedule wouldn't be impacted. According to one insider, a helicopter evacuation was considered "too costly" an option and was authorized way too late. Brogniart denied that he or anyone at ALP was to blame, telling French radio that they had nothing to hide.

"It is the misfortune of a family and a young man who died from a heart condition," he said (via THR). "He could have died at home or in the weight room." Koh-Lanta's long serving on-set doctor Thierry Costa took his own life after the allegations broke, committing suicide in his hotel room. In his parting note, Costa insisted that he had treated Babin "as a patient, not as a contestant" and explained that he couldn't go on living because his name had been "sullied" in the media.

Mitchell Guist (Swamp People)

One of the many reality shows to document the daily lives of obscure regions in America, Swamp People follows, well, swamp people doing swamp things. Mitchell Guist was featured on the show up until his sudden death midway through season 3, which shook the Swamp People family to its core. "Right now, we're thinking about him almost every minute," executive producer Brian Catalina told CNN after he learned the news. "We've lost a really important part of our family and a treasured friend."

A man who hunts alligators is always going to be living on the edge, but Guist's death wasn't caused by a gator. The bearded Cajun was working on a new houseboat on the Intracoastal Waterway in Louisiana when he suddenly collapsed, according to local law enforcement.

"He fell backwards as if he'd had a heart attack, stroke or some sort of seizure," Sheriff Mike Waguespack said (via Los Angeles Times). Mitchell's brother and bestie Glenn (who appeared alongside him on Swamp People) vowed to complete the houseboat in his honor. "The two were inseparable," Catalina added. "These guys were born in the same house that they both still lived in, up until yesterday. They were two peas in a pod for sure. Neither had ever married. They were just as brothers as you could be."

Phil Harris (Deadliest Catch)

Man's man Phil Harris starred in one of the few reality shows to bear any semblance to reality, Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch. The chain-smoking fisherman was known to have ongoing health issues, and he suffered a devastating stroke while off-loading crab in Alaska during the show's sixth season. Engineer Steve Ward found the captain and part owner of the Cornelia Marie on the floor of his room, unable to move. His son Josh made the 911 call.

"The whole left side of his face was in paralysis, and that was hard," Josh told People. "He couldn't move his arms or anything, he was just paralyzed on the floor." Harris was put into a medically induced coma and underwent extensive surgery. He asked for his family and friends after he came around, and, for a few days, it looked as though he was going to be okay. But on Feb. 9, 2010, things went downhill fast.

"He said, 'Danny, I don't feel as good as I did yesterday,'" the late star's best friend Dan Mittman revealed. When doctors told Mittman to leave the room, he knew in his heart what was happening. Harris died later that day. "I think that miraculous recovery that happened so rapidly and blew the doctors' minds away was so that he could say the things that he had to say to the people he had to say them to," Mittman said.

Najai Turpin (The Contender)

On paper, The Contender was simply a televised boxing tournament, with a defeated fighter leaving the show each week. In reality, it was much more than that. Not only was there a cash prize of a million dollars at stake, there was also a personal aspect to the show, with cameras given access to the contestants' families and everyday lives. For Najai Turpin, the two were very much linked — he wanted to win that money to give his loved ones a better life.

According to host and executive producer Sylvester Stallone (via CBS News), Turpin was "a tough, punchy street kid from Philadelphia fighting for a better life for his family," but it was a fight he couldn't win. After being eliminated from the competition, the 23-year-old took his own life outside the Philly gym at which he trained. Sitting in a car next to his girlfriend, the troubled boxer shot himself in the head.

The rules of the show dictated that none of the contestants could fight until after it aired, and Turpin's former trainer Percy "Buster" Custus believes this may have been a factor in his suicide. "It wasn't about the money," he told the Philadelphia Daily News (via CBS News). "Fighters want to fight. He was frustrated, because he was, like, training for nothing." The show came to an end in 2009 after four seasons, but, in 2018, Deadline confirmed that premium cable network Epix was in the process of producing a comeback season.

Steve Irwin (Ocean's Deadliest)

Steve Irwin's childlike fascination with animals endeared him to millions. He was taught how to "second-guess" crocodiles by his dad, Australia Zoo founder Bob Irwin, and later put these skills to use on The Crocodile Hunter, the Animal Planet docu-series that made him famous. Irwin adopted the moniker Crocodile Hunter going forward, and many believed his unusually casual relationship with the dangerous reptiles would lead to the reality TV star's death. In the end, it was a far more placid creature that killed him.

In 2006, Irwin was out in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef filming a new show called Ocean's Deadliest when he noticed a huge stingray. Speaking to Australia's Channel Ten (via the Telegraph), cameraman Justin Lyons explained what happened next. "All of [a] sudden it propped on its front and started stabbing wildly, hundreds of strikes in a few seconds," he said. "It's a jagged barb and it went through his chest like a hot knife through butter."

Lyons discovered that Irwin had "a two-inch-wide injury over his heart" and rushed him back to the boat, but sadly the 44-year-old's injuries were just too severe for him to be saved. "I was saying to him things like 'Think of your kids Steve, hang on, hang on, hang on', and he calmly looked up at me and said 'I'm dying', and that was the last thing he said."

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Eric Hill (The Bachelorette)

Eric Hill was one of the contestants on "The Bachelorette," having filmed his part for the tenth season in March 2014. Hill made it to the fourth week before Andi Dorfman eliminated him. All of Hill's work on the series was filmed when he decided to spend his time before the premiere on what he called "The Global Odyssey," Hill's attempt to visit every country in the world in 1,200 days, which he documented on Instagram.

Hill was paragliding in Draper, Utah, when tragedy struck as his parachute partially collapsed, sending him into the hillside. According to reporting from CNN, Hill wasn't very high above the ground and was wearing a helmet, but he swung into the hillside at high velocity. Hill was taken to the hospital, where he died from his injuries on April 23, 2014. Hill's death came before the season premiered, but news of his involvement and accident spread quickly.

Because of this, "The Bachelorette" host Chris Harrison opened the series on May 19 by acknowledging Hill's passing. He said, in part, "At this time, we'd like to take a moment to honor one of these men — our friend, Eric Hill. Eric passed away shortly after concluding his filming of this show. In the coming weeks, you'll see Eric was a vibrant man. Every day he impressed us with his passion and courageous spirit. He will be greatly missed, and we dedicate this season to him" (via Time).

Billy Brown (Alaskan Bush People)

"Alaskan Bush People" documents the lives of the Brown family, with Billy Brown sitting as the clan's patriarch. The series follows Billy and his kin as they depict their lives living off the grid in Hoonah, Alaska, and Billy is featured throughout. The Brown family suffered a significant hit in August 2020 when a wildfire swept over their mountain, destroying their family home (via The Sun). The following year saw the Browns working to build a new home, and Billy was there, motivating his children to get it done.

On February 7, 2021, not long after the fire, Billy had a seizure and died — he was 68. While news of his death broke, and fans knew of his passing, Billy's time on the show wasn't finished until Halloween 2021. The October 31st episode offered a touching tribute to the fallen patriarch following numerous appearances throughout the season. The episode aired the 9-1-1 call a production team member made during Billy's seizure.

The episode continued with remembrances, showing how the Brown family handled Billy's passing and documenting their grief along the way. His son, Bear, told Entertainment Weekly, "I took it pretty hard. We all did, really, because Da's passing was pretty unexpected. Everyone I passed on the road or saw me in a store would give me condolences and say how sorry they were. That's one thing that I try to keep in mind, that the whole world—everyone who watched a show, anyway—loved and definitely misses Da."

Nick McGlashan (Deadliest Catch)

"Deadliest Catch" has seen its fair share of tragedies over the years with the loss of various cast members. Nick McGlashan was born to a family of fishermen, making him one in a long line of pros. McGlashan was a 7th generation fisherman, and he first appeared on "Deadliest Catch" in 2013, showing up in 78 episodes. McGlashan had been fishing since he was 13, and he was a fan favorite on the series, offering comedic quips and showing off his skills.

McGlashan had a history of alcohol and substance abuse, which impacted the show. He was suspended from part of the 13th season while he was in rehab. His usage was said to involve consuming two bottles of vodka, one gram of meth, and two grams of heroin in a single day. He worked to get sober, and he was helpful in getting other people close to him sober, but ultimately, he succumbed to his addictions.

On December 27, 2020, McGlashan was found dead in a Holiday Inn in Nashville, Tennessee. Initially, the cause of death wasn't known, but an autopsy report later clarified that he died of a drug overdose "after taking a toxic mix of methamphetamine, cocaine, and fentanyl" (per The U.S. Sun). McGlashan was 33 at the time of his death, leaving behind a daughter, Lennyn, and a son, Kane.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Ashley Minnie Ross (Little Women: Atlanta)

Ashley "Minnie" Ross was one of the main cast members of "Little Women: Atlanta," having appeared in the show's first six seasons. The former hairstylist-turned-reality TV star only appeared in five episodes of the sixth season due to an accident that took her life. On April 26, 2020, Minnie was involved in a head-on collision in Atlanta, Georgia, around 11:00 pm. She sustained severe injuries, including breaking both her legs and neck, and was taken to a hospital.

Minnie remained in the hospital for 24 hours before dying from her injuries. At the time of her death, it was reported that Minnie was the victim of a hit-and-run accident. This was mentioned in a statement from her management team on her Instagram. Ultimately, that turned out not to be the case, and a police investigation revealed Minnie was responsible for the accident that took her life. According to reporting from TMZ, Minnie lost control of her car, causing her to jerk the wheel hard to the right, taking her off-road for a brief time.

Minnie corrected this by jerking the wheel back to the left but crossed over into oncoming traffic in the opposite lane. No toxicology tests were made, so it's unknown if drugs or alcohol were involved in the accident. After her death, Minnie's cast members honored her in a tribute during the fifth episode of the sixth season of "Little Women: Atlanta."

Mahlon Reyes (Deadliest Catch)

Mahlon Reyes was a deckhand on the Seabrook and Cape fishing vessels, though he only appeared in 14 episodes of "Deadliest Catch." On the morning of July 25, 2020, Reyes had a heart attack, sending him to the hospital, where he never regained consciousness. His family held out hope through the weekend but made the difficult choice to remove him from life support, resulting in Reyes' death on July 27. At the time of death, it wasn't apparent what caused the heart attack, and his wife told TMZ he was in otherwise perfect health.

After his passing, fellow crabber Nick McGlashan posted on Twitter, "This place misses you. RIP Mahlon." Sadly, McGlashan's death would come several months later. Not long after McGlashan's death, USA Today revealed Reyes' cause of death to be acute cocaine intoxication. Reyes' death was ruled accidental, and in accordance with his wishes, Reyes' ashes were spread in two places: the Bering Sea and the Swan Range mountains of Montana.

"Deadliest Catch" didn't get its name just to be catchy: crab fishing is an incredibly dangerous industry to work in. Saltwire reported that it's the most dangerous profession, as fatality rates are much higher than in other sectors. On top of that, drugs and alcohol compound the dangers of the job, and deaths like Reyes and McGlashan are, sadly, not as uncommon as they should be.

Dr. Brandon Rogers (America's Got Talent)

"America's Got Talent" routinely shows people with amazing abilities from across the country. People come and try out in front of the judges (and the world), often demonstrating talents that truly set them apart, though the series doesn't air every contestant. One contestant whose audition was aired on "America's Got Talent" was Doctor Brandon Rogers, though his aired as a memorial. Rogers died on June 11, 2017, just one month before the NBC reality show aired his audition.

The following statement was issued before airing Rogers' performance: "On June 11th, one of our contestants, Brandon Rogers, tragically passed away in a car accident. At the request of his family, we would like to honor his memory by sharing his audition with you." Rogers' touching story about how he got into medicine and how music helped him cope with the job's difficulties is endearing, and he sang an outstanding rendition of Stevie Wonder's "Ribbon in the Sky."

According to TMZ, Rogers was riding in a car with his friend, who fell asleep at the wheel on June 10, 2017. Rogers was in the front passenger seat when the vehicle drifted onto the right shoulder, went off-road, and slammed into a tree. The driver and a friend in the backseat survived the crash, and the driver pulled the other two out of the vehicle. Rogers held on for a while but died the following day at the hospital.

Justin Tennison (Deadliest Catch)

Justin Tennison was a deckhand on the Time Bandit, one of the most popular fishing vessels on "Deadliest Catch." Tennison joined the crew in the seventh season and only remained for six episodes. Sadly, he's best remembered for his passing, as he was found dead on February 22, 2011, in his hotel room. ABC News reported that Tennison died from a stroke. TMZ reported that small quantities of drugs and alcohol were found in his room, leading many to suspect substance abuse as the cause of death.

This was later refuted following an autopsy. It was revealed that Tennison's death was the result of complications related to sleep apnea. Soon after Tennison's death, his fellow crewmates issued a statement reading, "It is with great sadness that the Time Bandit family announces the death of crew member Justin Tennison. Justin died peacefully in his sleep."

Captain Andy Hillstrand posted on his Facebook page, "Justin was tough as a bull and was an all-around good hand. The captains and crew appreciated his hard work and many contributions this past year. We will miss him terribly and wish his family all the best during this most difficult time." Tennison was 33 when he passed and is survived by two children, a son, and a daughter.

Richard The Old Man Harrison (Pawn Stars)

Fans of "Pawn Stars" first met Richard "The Old Man" Harrison when the series premiered. Harrison opened the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 1989 with his son, Rick, who turned them into reality TV stars. Harrison was an avid lover of cars and silver, and his somewhat tempestuous disposition made him an outstanding cast member. Granted, Harrison was more interested in getting a good deal than anything else, but he made for excellent television.

Throughout his time on "Pawn Stars," Harrison worked with customers, chastised his grandson and Chumlee, and spent much of his time sleeping in his chair. He was always quick to point out a bad deal someone made when he wasn't around, and in almost every case, Harrison was right on the money. He had an eye for finding great deals and knew when to walk away. People flocked to the store to meet him, and many more tuned in to watch him on the show.

Harrison died from Parkinson's disease on June 25, 2018, at the age of 77. His son, Rick, posted a tribute to his father on Instagram alongside a photo of him smiling in his Navy uniform: "Today I lost a friend, a father, a teacher, and so much more. The Old Man lost his long battle with Parkinson's this morning. Love you, Dad. See you on the other side. He was my hero, and I was fortunate to get a very cool 'Old Man' as my dad."

Jeff Hathaway, Larry O'Grady, Charles Glenn Jones, Raymond Vincler, Darrik Seibold, and Kai Hamik (Deadliest Catch)

"Deadliest Catch" has seen its fair share of tragedies, including losing a captain and several deckhands. While the show certainly lives up to its name, one tragedy stands as the worst of them all: the sinking of the F/V Destination. On February 11, 2017, the U.S. Coast Guard was dispatched to locate the F/V Destination and its crew of six. After an exhaustive search, the crew was declared "lost at sea" after finding only a tarp, some gear, debris, and a life ring with the vessel's name on it.

News quickly spread to the other captains in the area, including Sig Hansen, who received a call during the filming of an episode. That call was ultimately aired on "Deadliest Catch," and Hansen's grief is almost palpable as he wipes away tears and takes a time out from filming to have a moment to himself. Hansen told his crew what happened, and everyone reacted as you might expect — friends were lost, and there was nothing they could do.

The Coast Guard's final report called the sinking of the Destination a preventable accident. Heavier crab pots than normal exceeded the vessel's weight capabilities, and excessive ice accumulations resulted in the Destination capsizing (via National Fisherman). All hands were lost, including Captain Jeff Hathaway and his crew, Kai Hamik, Darrik Seibold, Larry O'Grady, Raymond Vincler, and Charles G. Jones.