Illinois State University’s College of Fine Arts has helped produce some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, from Sean Hayes to Craig Robinson to Jane Lynch.
But Redbirds have been sneaky successful in the unscripted entertainment business too. From America’s Got Talent to Shark Tank to Survivor, Illinois State alumni and students have appeared on some of the most popular reality shows on television. Below is a look at some of our favorite Reality TV Redbirds.
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Kasey Gandham ’13 and Mike Shannon ’12, Shark Tank
Gandham and Shannon, along with another student, laid the groundwork for their digital textbook startup, Packback Books, while they were still attending Illinois State. They’ve been working to grow their business ever since, and those efforts paid off big time in early 2014 when they appeared on the ABC entrepreneurship competition Shark Tank. They even walked away with a new investor—Mark Cuban.
Christian Stoinev ’13, America’s Got Talent
Stoinev was a world-class acrobat when he arrived at Illinois State, and he only got better as he became a leader of Gamma Phi Circus. In 2014, Stoinev took his hand-balancing act on national TV, where he and his dog, Scooby, advanced all the way to the Top 12 finalist round on NBC’s America’s Got Talent. Stoinev even made time in his busy schedule for a ride in the 2014 Homecoming parade.
Chris Aguayo, West Coast Customs
Aguayo, an Illinois State student, spent his first Veterans Day since leaving the Army as a mini-celebrity, after being featured on a reality TV show in November 2013. Aguayo was featured on Fox Sports’ West Coast Customs, which chronicles a well-known California-based car customization company, as well as a related web video series called The Road Home. Aguayo was recognized for his work helping fellow veterans and active-duty service members through Task Force Legion, a special military-focused paintball team he launched.
Tasha Fox ’99, Survivor
Fox (above right) appeared on the long-running CBS reality show during the spring 2014 season. Survivor: Cagayan used a “Brawn vs. Brains vs. Beauty” split for its 18 castaways, and Fox was one of the “brains.” Fox, a former cheerleader, is a College of Business graduate and CPA who works at Edward Jones in St. Louis. Fox is not the first Redbird to appear on Survivor. Jason Siska ’08 was on the show’s sixth season in 2008 while he was still a student, according to Illinois State magazine archives.
Ryan Hutmacher ’01, The Chew
Hutmacher was the winner of ABC’s The Chew Search for the Weight Watchers Chef in early 2014. The winner of the cooking competition was set to receive $75,000 and a consulting deal with Weight Watchers. When he’s not busy as a TV chef, the Illinois State public relations grad is running his own company, Centered Chef, a culinary studio in Chicago focused on integrating clean eating experiences into social and educational platforms, such as cooking classes and corporate team-building sessions.
Jason Hitch ’01, 90 Day Fiance
Hitch will appear this fall on the second season of TLC’s reality TV show about international dating and matrimony. The Illinois State alum, who now lives in Florida, appears on the show with his Brazilian fiance, Cassia. 90 Day Fiance kicked off its 10-episode second season on October 19.
Michelle Williams, Fix My Choir
Former Redbird and Grammy-Award winning recording artist Williams (from Destiny’s Child fame) will star in Oxygen’s Fix My Choir, premiering November 5. Each week, Williams and her partner will “surprise a community, school, or gospel choir and help them find perfect harmony both within their music—and their members.”
Tom Nelson, Hard Knocks
The former Redbird football star got a lot of screen time on the 2009 season of HBO’s Hard Knocks, when Nelson was playing with the Cincinnati Bengals. Hard Knocks chronicles the behind-the-scenes lives of NFL players and coaches during training camp and the preseason. Nelson played two seasons with the Bengals, later signing with the Eagles, Bears, and Panthers. He’s currently a free agent.
Michael Stagliano ’06, The Bachelorette
The English major appeared on the fifth season of ABC’s dating show. As one of the five finalists, he met the family of bachelorette Jillian Harris before being eliminated. The avid writer published a collection of children’s stories, and he was working as a break dance instructor when his Bachelorette season aired.
Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.