Written by Candace Jackson, Wall Stree Jounal
Propelled by reality-TV shows, some brokers are becoming celebrities in their own right. They say it's good business; critics say this brand of realty is a far cry from reality.
Ryan Serhant, a New York-based real-estate broker who stars on Bravo's "Million Dollar Listing New York," says he has had to hire a full-time driver to take him to and from showings, partly because he gets stopped by fans on the subway and street. He has hired a publicist, a manager and was recently signed by talent agency IMG.
"It's crazy," says Mr. Serhant, 29, who has appeared on the show since 2012. It increased its ratings 14% over last season and now averages 1.24 million viewers per episode.
Some of the biggest reality-TV stars are real-estate agents. Shows like "Million Dollar Listing" and "Selling New York" that were created to give average Americans a glimpse of luxurious homes have transformed a handful of agents into bona fide celebrities. And while most of these agents say the publicity is good for business, some say the exposure isn't always flattering, and can deter potential clients looking for privacy. Critics say the shows present a skewed version of reality that isn't good for the industry overall.
Jeana Keough, an original cast member on Bravo's "The Real Housewives of Orange County," works as a real estate agent with Weichert Realtors Gold Coast. Her career ups and downs during the real estate market's boom- and bust-periods were frequent plot-points on the program—as were conflicts with her children and fellow housewives. In one scene, a castmate threw a glass of red wine on Ms. Keough at a party. Though Ms. Keough says the publicity from the show did bring in referrals, she decided to leave the show, partly because of concerns that its direction in later seasons could harm her professionally in the long run. (She still occasionally appears as a guest.) "Some of it was so embarrassing," she says.
Several of the bigger real-estate agencies—including Corcoran, Brown Harris Stevens and New York's Town Residential—bar or discourage their brokers from appearing on many reality programs and other TV shows. Pamela Liebman, the CEO of Corcoran, says such shows, like the ones on Bravo that focus heavily on agents' personalities, are bad for the industry overall, giving a false impression of how real estate transactions work, with negotiations often taking place in attractive or unusual locations. ("Million Dollar Listing" recently featured an $8 million condo sale negotiated backstage at a fashion show.)
"My brokers are appalled by what happens on these shows," she says. "It's way exaggerated." Ms. Liebman adds that agents who go on such shows also risk overshadowing a company's brand.
Mary Rutherfurd, a broker with Brown Harris Stevens who handled the high-profile Manhattan listings of the reclusive late heiress Huguette Clark, over $50 million in total, says she would never appear on such a show, as it might harm her reputation for discretion. "I have bent over backward to make sure whatever publicity I have gotten has not been for the sellers, but for the properties," she says.
A spokeswoman for Bravo says the brokers who have appeared on its real estate shows have all seen an increase in business. Networks and show producers also note they receive an overwhelming number of inquiries from agents who want to be on TV.
Michele Kleier, a broker in New York who has co-starred on HGTV's "Selling New York" with her daughters, Sabrina Kleier-Morgenstern and Samantha Kleier-Forbes since 2010, say they were initially "horrified" when approached to appear on a reality show, fearing they'd lose clients and embarrass themselves on TV. "We have children in private schools. We have clients concerned about privacy," says Ms. Kleier-Morgenstern.
Eventually, though, the trio decided it might be fun and good for business, and they trusted the producers. Seven seasons later, they say they've gotten used to getting recognized around town and answering fan mail. "We have a big tween audience," says Ms. Kleier-Forbes. One downside: The show's shooting schedule often doesn't allow time for a high-end listing to sell before an episode goes into editing, so audiences don't always see them making the sale. Still, the Kleiers say the exposure has increased the number of inquiries from potential buyers moving to the city. Ms. Kleier says their biggest deal last year was representing a buyer on a Manhattan home that sold for just under $25 million.
As with most programs of this kind, the reality presented on these real-estate shows has often undergone some tweaking. Scenes on some shows may be reshot if they aren't captured on camera the first time around. Deals and negotiations that drag on for weeks, and mostly take place via email and phone, are often left out. "As you can imagine, most of it happens via email, which is not good TV content," says Kathleen Finch, senior vice president and general manager for HGTV. Occasionally, particularly camera-shy sellers have a representative handle their part of negotiation on camera. Some New York City co-op boards won't allow film crews to shoot there, omitting a big part of the Manhattan real estate market from certain shows.
Celebrity agents and network executives point out that the shows strive to show real deals and listings, which is why shooting often spans longer than the typical two-to-three month reality show schedule. Producers on "Million Dollar Listing," which has a nine-month shooting schedule, vet all deals portrayed on the show through public records. Bravo says producers shoot as many parts of a real estate transaction as possible, regardless of entertainment value, and that all deals presented on the show are real.
The public's appetite for reality real estate doesn't appear to be slackening. Bravo now has five real-estate-themed shows, up from three in 2011. "There's a voyeuristic aspect to it," says Shari Levine, Bravo Media's senior vice president of current programming and production. "Real estate is big money, it's exciting, dramatic and it's highly relatable." "Million Dollar Listing LA" averaged 1.28 million viewers per episode in its fifth season, up 10% from the previous season. Ms. Levine says production managers look for successful agents who are "big, bold, unapologetic," and willing to open up their personal lives to viewers.
Producers at HGTV, a network dedicated to home design and real-estate shows like the recent hit "Power Broker," regularly post ads for open casting calls in cities around the country to find telegenic agents. "They have to have what I like to call the 'surf factor,' " says Ms. Finch. "If you're sitting on your couch channel surfing, does this person make you stop?" The network tends to prefer agents who haven't had past acting or on-camera experience, but are self-assured and speak authoritatively about real estate and home design. "We can teach them how to be on camera," she says. "We can't teach them how to be real."
After seven interviews and screen tests, Josh Altman, a 34-year-old Beverly Hills-based broker, was offered a part on "Million Dollar Listing LA." Much of last season's drama centered on Mr. Altman dating the assistant of his co-star, a Malibu-based broker he spars with frequently with on the show. "Nobody wants to see the guy who just sells houses every week," says Mr. Altman. "They want to see that drama between the Realtors." Last year, he represented the buyer of a $20.1 million Los Angeles estate of Hollywood producer.
Mr. Serhant admits that his TV persona, often depicted through his on-camera dates, has some downsides, including awkward conversations with his parents. A recent episode featured him taking off his shirt and jumping into an indoor pool at a competing agent's open house. In another, "I was buck-naked in the shower," says the former soap-opera actor and hand model. "It took my dad a week to get over it."
Another challenge for brokers: dealing with newfound fame while making themselves, their listings and their contact information highly visible to potential clients. Mr. Altman, who lists his cellphone number on his website, says he has fielded about 10 prank calls a day, including callers who pretend to be potential clients and "people who just want to hang out with me and look at mansions." Madison Hildebrand, who has starred in "Million Dollar Listing LA" for six seasons, says a receptionist now answers all his calls.
Some calls pay off. Todd Kenig, the former CEO of Ricky's, a chain of beauty and costume stores, had his home on the market for nearly six months. A fan of "Million Dollar Listing," he decided to hire Mr. Serhant, whom he had seen on the show, to take over the sale of his Gothic revival style home, on the market for $3.9 million. The home is currently in contract to sell for close to its asking price. "On TV he can be a little obnoxious," says Mr. Kenig. "But [in person] he's very pleasant and very easygoing."
When Kyle Richards, an actress and an aunt of Paris Hilton, was cast on "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills," her husband, luxury broker Mauricio Umansky, who also makes appearances on the show, became a reality star by association. Paparazzi often take his picture as he sits down to business meals with potential buyers and sellers. Some clients, he says, are surprised he actually works as a real-estate broker and isn't just playing one on the show, which averages 2.84 million viewers per episode. "A lot of times people are shocked that I'm actually the one who comes out and does the showings," he says. "But this is how I pay for my kids' universities, not from 'The Housewives.' "
Mr. Umansky says his greater visibility helped him launch his own firm, the Agency, which currently has 75 agents and offices in Beverly Hills, Marina del Rey and Las Vegas. Mr. Altman says about 20% of his business today is a result of the show; so far this year he's sold $142 million in real estate. Last fall, the Kleiers renamed their firm, previously called Gumley Haft Kleier, as Kleier Residential, to capitalize on their increased visibility.
Mr. Hildebrand says his receptionist keeps signed headshots of him at the front desk for fans who stop by, and he's recently launched a line of scented candles, sold in a few high-end L.A. boutiques and on his website. "It's another branding and marketing tool," he says. He currently has about $100 million worth of listings, and last year handled the sale of Tori Spelling's Malibu home. "For me, these two careers go hand in hand."
Mr. Serhant says the show has helped propel him from an agent selling midrange condominiums when he started in the business five years ago to selling over $200 million in real estate so far this year. "All exposure is good exposure, I think."