Reality Show Celebrities Who Died Before 35

Reality TV purports and promises to depict true events, as they happen, to regular people — meaning they aren't like sitcoms or dramas, with actors working from a fine-tuned script. But reality shows can of course be massaged, manufactured, and carefully edited in pursuit of the most captivating content, which isn't exactly an unflinching depiction of the trials and tribulations of real life.

As a result, and for all intents and purposes, reality show stars and reality competition series contestants are television characters, small-screen personalities that don't seem 100% true to life. But beneath the veneer of expert television production, they are actual people with portions of their lives captured by cameras and shared with the world, and it's downright sad and quite startling when reality takes the biggest bite it can: in the form of unexpected, untimely, and otherwise tragic death. And as reality show contestants tend to be on the younger side anyway, it's particularly shocking when these TV stars, still in the prime of their lives, die before their time. Here are some reality TV participants who all died no later than their 35th year.

Anna 'Chickadee' Cardwell of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo

After emerging as the breakout stars of TLC's child beauty pageant chronicle "Toddlers and Tiaras," "Mama" June Shannon and her young daughter, Alana Thompson, a.k.a. Honey Boo Boo, got their own situational reality series. "Here Comes Honey Boo" aired for four seasons across two calendar years on TLC and introduced viewers to Shannon's extended family, including her older daughter, Anna Cardwell, usually referred to by the affectionate nickname "Chickadee." TLC canceled "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" in 2014, following allegations that Shannon had entered into a romance with a man convicted of aggravated child molestation. It was later revealed that Cardwell was his victim.

In March 2023, Cardwell revealed that she'd received a diagnosis of adrenal carcinoma, a type of cancer that attacks the kidney-adjacent adrenal glands that control hormone regulation, per the Mayo Clinic. By the time doctors discovered the cancer, it had already spread into Cardwell's kidney, liver, and lung. Less than eight months later, on December 9, 2023, Cardwell died. "She passed away in my home last night peacefully," Shannon wrote on Instagram. Cardwell was 29.

Frankie Abernathy of The Real World

Frankie Abernathy was selected by MTV to be one of the seven 20-somethings thrust together under one roof for the 2004, San Diego-set season of its long-running reality franchise, "The Real World." The punk-rock-loving, substantially pierced and tattooed Abernathy coped with a lot of serious issues during her time on "The Real World." A significant portion of Abernathy's screen time focused on her day-to-day life with cystic fibrosis. Characterized by breathing trouble, diminished immunity, and the production and buildup of mucus in the lungs, according to WebMD, cystic fibrosis usually manifests in childhood and results in a shortened lifespan. Doctors diagnosed Abernathy with cystic fibrosis when she was three years old. Abernathy also struggled with mental health issues, engaging in episodes of cutting and self-harm. She'd wind up departing "The Real World" before its conclusion to return home to Kansas City, where she was living at the time, unable to bear being apart from her boyfriend.

In June 2007, Abernathy died at her mother's home in Shorewood, Wisconsin, at the age of 25. A cause of death wasn't initially reported, but complications of cystic fibrosis likely played a role. "It was very sudden," her mother, Abbie Hunter, told MTV News. "She was doing fine, and we really don't know very much yet. It still was kind of a shock, and it just wasn't how we figured things would go. It seems like her little body just gave out."

Joey Kovar of The Real World

One of the hallmarks of MTV's "The Real World" was showing off its cast of strangers drinking a lot and doing it often. That was a prevailing atmosphere of "The Real World: Hollywood," the 2008 season of the series which starred Chicagoland native and actor Joey Kovar. He believed his brash attitude and openness about using drugs got him cast on "The Real World." "What you see is what you get. People want edgy. People want attitude. People want in-your-face, and that's what Chicagoans bring," he told the Chicago Tribune. "The attitude we have is what's going to draw the ratings."

After arriving in the hard-partying environment of "The Real World," Kovar opted to leave the show so as to check himself into a substance abuse rehabilitation facility. A year after his ill-fated stint on "The Real World," Kovar joined the cast of another reality series, "Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew" to further his recovery from dependencies on cocaine, ecstasy, steroids, and methamphetamine. On August 17, 2012, friend Stacey Achterhof discovered Kovar unresponsive at their home in Chicago, with blood emerging from his ears and nose. Declared dead at the scene by emergency medical personnel, Kovar was 29. An autopsy would indicate that he died of an overdose of opiates.

Ryan Knight of The Real World

A former hockey player named Ryan Knight graced MTV's "The Real World" in its 2010 season. Living with other selected young people in a well-appointed home in New Orleans, Knight's tumultuous romantic relationship with housemate and co-star Jemmye Carroll was well documented for the cameras. After his time on "The Real World" ended, Knight appeared in Seasons 23, 24, and 26 of the sports-competition-oriented spinoff "The Challenge," vying for prize money in the "Battle of Seasons," "Rivals II," and "Battle of the Exes II" productions.

On Thanksgiving Day 2014, authorities in Kenosha, Wisconsin, responded to a call at a home regarding an individual unresponsive and not breathing. That was Knight, who days before had noted serious abdominal pain. Revival attempts failed, and Knight was declared dead at the age of 28. A medical examiner later determined that Knight died of an accidental acute intoxication, with multiple substances present in his body at the time of his death, including methadone, the anti-anxiety medication Xanax, the painkiller tramadol, and alcohol.

Diem Brown of The Challenge

Over many one-off appearances on reality shows, as well as full-season, cast-level roles in competition series, Diem Brown was steadfastly honest and open about her cancer diagnosis and treatments, both with co-stars and viewers. In 2006, Brown made her MTV reality debut on the "Fresh Meat" season of the franchise that would soon be renamed "The Challenge." Brown revealed among the physical challenges and extreme stunts that she was in treatment for ovarian cancer. After chemotherapy and surgical procedures to remove lymph nodes and sections of her reproductive system, Brown competed on "The Duel" edition of "The Challenge," and then six more seasons of the taxing televised contest.

The cancer returned, and after successful treatments in 2012, Brown learned in August 2014 that the disease had once more begun to attack her body, present in the ovaries, colon, stomach, and stomach lining. After enduring two tumor removal surgeries and multiple rounds of chemotherapy, Brown died in November 2014 at the age of 32.

Valerie Fairman of 16 and Pregnant

Each episode of MTV's unflinching documentary anthology series "16 and Pregnant" followed a different teenage girl through the late stages of pregnancy and into the early months of young motherhood, and the difficulties they faced throughout. A Season 2 installment of "16 and Pregnant" that aired in March 2010 told the story of Valerie Fairman, 15 years old while waiting to deliver her baby and going through a breakup with her boyfriend and the father of the child.

After "16 and Pregnant," Fairman was arrested on multiple occasions, for resisting arrest and solicitation. Due to Fairman's legal and personal issues, her adoptive parents took over raising the reality star's daughter. On December 22, 2016, the office of the Chester County Coroner in Pennsylvania told E! News that Fairman had been found dead. The reality TV personality was discovered unresponsive in the bathroom of a friend's home. An autopsy later determined that an overdose of multiple drugs combined killed Fairman. She was 23.

Aaron Grissom of Top Chef

While also acting as executive chef at Los Angeles restaurant Bow & Truss and working as a personal chef for pop star Billie Eilish, Washington state-based Aaron Grissom appeared on multiple high-profile food television shows. In 2013, he presented his Tacoma, Washington, restaurant Dirty Oscar's Annex on an episode of Guy Fieri's "Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives," and in the following year, competed on the Boston-set season of Bravo's "Top Chef." He'd be eliminated from that show early in its run, and Grissom would finish in eleventh place.

On September 8, 2020, Grissom was involved in a traffic accident in Pierce County, Washington. While operating a motorcycle, he struck a curb and crashed. In a statement to USA Today, the local medical examiner's office reported that Grissom received "multiple blunt force injuries" from which he could not recover. The chef and TV personality died at the age of 34.

Fatima Ali of Top Chef

Fatima Ali emigrated from Pakistan to the U.S. at age 18 to attend the Culinary Institute of America, setting herself up for a career as a high-level chef. After building a resume in New York restaurants, Ali enrolled in television cooking competitions. In 2012, she won her episode of the Food Network's "Chopped" and in 2017, landed a spot on Bravo's Denver-based season of "Top Chef." Ali finished in just seventh place on the esteemed cooking series, but she struck such a chord with viewers that she won the "Fan Favorite" award and with it, a $10,000 bonus prize.

While her "Top Chef" season was still airing in 2017, Ali announced that she'd been diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a type of cancer that attacks cartilage and bone soft tissue, according to WebMD. In January 2019, Ali's friend, chef Bruce Kalman, announced on Instagram that the food celebrity had died. Ali was 29.

Shain Gandee of Buckwild

"Buckwild" lived up to its name. Depicting the lives of hard-partying young adults in rural West Virginia, "Buckwild" showcased activities like parties in the woods, a party in a dump truck, and squirrel hunting. Much of "Buckwild" led to West Virginia's U.S. Senator Joe Manchin publicly decrying the show for trading in "ugly, inaccurate stereotypes about the people of West Virginia," via WPTV. Even after losing a huge tax credit it had secured for filming the series in West Virginia, MTV produced "Buckwild" anyway and aired it in early 2013.

On April 2, 2013, "Buckwild" cast member Shain Gandee and two others were found dead inside the "Buckwild" star's Ford Bronco, which had become trapped in a mud pit in Kanawha County, West Virginia. The vehicle's tailpipe became stuck beneath the mud, which led to carbon monoxide-based exhaust building up in the interior of the car, killing everyone inside. Gandee was 21.

Ryan Dunn of Jackass

As a member of the CKY skateboarding and stunt-video-making crew that led to the creation of MTV's "Jackass," Ryan Dunn was part of the original cast of the 2000 to 2002 MTV reality-comedy series. He also prominently appeared in the first three "Jackass" spinoff movies as well as the reality shows "Homewrecker" and "Proving Ground."

After spending the evening of June 19, 2011, at a bar in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Dunn drove himself and "Jackass Number Two" production assistant Zac Hartwell in his sports car. About a mile down the road, Dunn, who according to a toxicology report had a blood alcohol level more than twice the Pennsylvania legal limit, drove in excess of 132 miles per hour and struck a guardrail. Dunn lost control, and the vehicle came to a halt in a forested area, and then it caught on fire. Both Hartwell, 30, and Dunn, 34, died of blunt trauma suffered in the accident.

Gia Allemand of The Bachelor

Gia Allemand lasted eight episodes on Season 14 of "The Bachelor" in 2010. She nearly won that iteration of the romance competition show, finishing in third place as titular bachelor Jake Pavelka chose two other finalists instead. As ABC expanded its reality franchise, the memorable contestant, a model and part-time actor, was persuaded to appear along with other former "Bachelor" and "Bachelorette" stars in two seasons of the situational living competition series "Bachelor Pad," which aired in 2010 and 2011.

Despondent after a relationship-ending fight with her partner in 2013, professional basketball player Ryan Anderson, Allemand attempted suicide at her home in New Orleans. Discovered by Anderson and rushed to University Hospital nearby, Allemand was removed from life support systems a few days later, when doctors surmised that she wouldn't be able to recover from organ and brain damage. Allemand died on August 14, 2013, at the age of 29.

Mirjana Puhar of America's Next Top Model

Born in Serbia, Mirjana Puhar moved to the United States and pursued a modeling career. One career peak: She was selected to compete on the 21st cycle of "America's Next Top Model." Airing in late 2014, Puhar advanced deep into the contest, eliminated in the 10th episode of the season and finishing in eighth place overall.

After her "America's Next Top Model" season aired, Puhar returned home to Charlotte, where in February 2015, she was one of three victims of a triple homicide. Charlotte police say that Puhar opened the door of her boyfriend's apartment and was shot dead by two intruders who then killed Puhar's boyfriend, Jonathan Alvarado, and his roommate, Jusmar Gonzaga-Garcia. Authorities believe that Alvarado was targeted, and Puhar and Gonzaga-Garcia were in the wrong place at the wrong time, because Alvarado sold heroin. The "America's Next Top Model" star was 19 years old.

Duffy Fudge of Wicked Tuna

Nicholas Fudge, more commonly known by the nickname Duffy, was a fisherman by trade, and his dangerous, adventurous job was captured by the National Geographic Channel's cameras. Serving under Captain Tyler McLaughlin, Duffy was the first mate of the Pinwheel, a fishing boat that trolled the waters off Massachusetts in search of Atlantic Bluefin Tuna on 15 installments of the reality series "Wicked Tuna." A staunch environmentalist as well as a fisherman, Fudge co-starred on the spinoff "Wicked Tuna: North vs. South" nearly concurrently with "Wicked Tuna" from 2017 to 2018.

Fudge died on July 19, 2018. The reality television personality was 28 years old, and he died in New Hampshire from suffering a work-related ailment that afflicts ship crew members. His family didn't publicly divulge the cause of death, but a local police officer posited to the New Hampshire Union Leader (via Distractify) that Duffy likely succumbed to decompression sickness, commonly referred to as "the bends," according to WebMD.

Cheryl Kosewicz of Pirate Master

In 2007, CBS aired the first and what would be the only season of "Pirate Master." The reality competition series from executive producer Mark Burnett, also responsible for unscripted franchises like "Survivor," "The Apprentice," and "Shark Tank," pitted regular folks against each other as they embarked on pirate-style adventures in search of treasure hidden around a Caribbean island. "Pirate Master" bombed in the ratings, and CBS canceled it after broadcasting eight of its 14 produced episodes. During one of the installments that did air, Nevada Deputy District Attorney Cheryl Kosewicz was eliminated. She would blame her participation in the series for creating turmoil in her relationship with her partner, Ryan O'Neil, as well as a downturn in her mental health.

"Truthfully, I've lost the strong Cheryl and I'm just floating around lost," Kosewicz wrote on her MySpace page (via The Daily Telegraph) in June 2007. "And this frik'n show doesn't help because it was such a contention between Ryan and I and plus its not getting good reviews." O'Neal died by suicide at the age of 26. Weeks later, on July 27, 2007, Kosewicz was discovered deceased at her home in Reno, Nevada. Authorities believe that Kosewicz also died by suicide. She was 35.

Ryan Jenkins of Megan Wants a Millionaire

VH1 aired a string of related romance-based reality TV competition shows in the 2000s. After appearing on "Rock of Love," "I Love Money," and "Rock of Love: Charm School," model Megan Hauserman starred in a 2009 riff on "The Bachelor" called "Megan Wants a Millionaire." Among the purportedly wealthy suitors vying to win Hauserman's heart was a man named Ryan Jenkins. He didn't emerge victorious from that show, but came back to appear on VH1's 2009 reality competition series "I Love Money 3."

In between filming of those shows, Jenkins married model Jasmine Fiore. VH1 would air three episodes of "Megan Wants a Millionaire" and scrap "I Love Money 3" entirely after the discarded and brutalized remains of Fiore were discovered in Buena Park, Florida, on August 15, 2009. Police identified Fiore by a serial number on a breast implant, and deemed her husband the prime suspect. Jenkins went on the lam, absconding into his native Canada, where his body was found on August 23 in a motel room in Hope, British Columbia. Jenkins committed suicide, and he left a note confessing to Fiore's murder. He was 32.

Joshua Marks of MasterChef

On the usually heated and intense cooking competition series "MasterChef," Joshua Marks stood out for a few reasons. Standing at more than 7 feet, Marks was one of the tallest chefs ever on the Gordon Ramsay series. He was also amiable and laid-back, and all of the other chefs seemed to like him. In the end, the Chicago-raised Marks finished in second place in the "MasterChef" season taped in mid-2012, bested only by Christina Ha.

According to a statement released to CNN, Marks became tragically mired in "the battle of his life fighting mental illness." In July 2013, Marks was arrested on a charge of aggravated battery when he fought with police officers following a suicide attempt. In October 2013, Marks again tried to take his own life and this time completed suicide. His body was found by his mother in a Chicago alley. Marks was 26 years old.

Eric Hill of The Bachelorette

In a season of "The Bachelorette" that aired on ABC in the summer of 2014, star Andi Dorfman picked a self-styled adventurer named Eric Hill for her first one-on-one date. She was charmed by his introductory gift of two handmade dolls made by a child in South America. Their date involved making sandcastles on a beach and snowboarding on a mountain. After a couple of televised arguments, in which Dorfman and Hill accused each other of not being emotionally available, Hill was eliminated from the competition.

Only then did "The Bachelorette" acknowledge what happened after Hill departed the series but before it began airing. In 2014, Hill set out to make "The Global Odyssey," a documentary in which he'd visit every nation on Earth in under 1,200 days, thus setting a new world record. While paragliding in Draper, Utah, in April 2014, Hill mismanaged a slope and his parachute fell apart, causing him to strike the side of a hill at tremendous force and then fall to the ground. He died at the University of Utah Medical Center; Hill was 31.

Jessica Vogel of Hell's Kitchen

After training at the Johnson & Wales culinary school in Denver, chef Jessica Vogel went back home to New Jersey and worked in restaurants there and in California until her 2014 appearance on "Hell's Kitchen," finishing in 12th place out of 20 competitors. She also competed in an episode of Food Network's cooking contest show "Cutthroat Kitchen." In October 2017, Vogel revealed that she'd been diagnosed with an alcohol-related health issue on her Medium blog. "I'm weeks away from 34 years old and got told I drink too much and have cirrhosis," she wrote (via NorthJersey) of the medical condition in which scar tissue replaces living tissue in the liver due to excessive consumption of alcohol, according to WebMD.

At the same time that she was diagnosed with cirrhosis, Vogel learned she had colitis, an inflammatory disease that affects the colon. While under treatment at a southern New Jersey hospital for colitis, Vogel suffered an incidence of heart failure. She was unable to be revived, and the chef died at the age of 34.

Caleb Bankston of Survivor

In the 2013 iteration of CBS's long-running wildness competition series "Survivor," "Survivor: Blood vs. Water," Caleb Bankston fought to win a big cash prize alongside and against his fiancé, Colton Cumbie. Bankston quickly positioned himself as a villain and an intense game player who engendered strong feelings in fans and show personnel. "One thing I have to give Colton is — he's compelling," "Survivor" host Jeff Probst told Entertainment Weekly. "He is polarizing and at times infuriating for people." Bankston and his tactics lasted a while in the grueling series, competing for just under a month before being eventually eliminated and finishing in ninth place overall.

After "Survivor," Bankston returned to Alabama, and he took a position as a train engineer and conductor for the Alabama Warrior Railway. Just seven months later, he died on the job. While working on a train on June 24, 2014, the vehicle derailed at a Birmingham coal processing facility, and under the weight and impact of the train, Bankston was immediately killed. He was 27 years old.

Najai Turpin of The Contender

In the reality TV boom of the 2000s, when networks filled their schedules with "American Idol"-style competition programs where rising stars in a certain field vied to be a champion by outlasting their co-stars, NBC aired the boxing contest "The Contender." Created by Mark Burnett of "Survivor" and hosted by boxer Sugar Ray Leonard and "Rocky" star Sylvester Stallone, young boxers competed tournament-style to declare a winner. In Najai "Nitro" Turpin appeared in Season One of "The Contender," and in his first fight, he lost to Sergio "The Latin Snake" Mora, who'd go on to win the show.

A star on the Philadelphia circuit with a 13-1 record and the holder of a city-wide title, Turpin completed his involvement in "The Contender" before the series began airing in March 2005. After he was eliminated from the series, and contractually barred from fighting until his fate on the show was publicly revealed following the airing of the season finale in late May 2005, Turpin grew depressed, his trainer, Percy Custus, told CBS News. In February 2005, Turpin died by suicide outside of his boxing gym. The boxer and reality TV competitor was 23 years old.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, or is struggling or in crisis, contact the relevant resources below:

  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

  • Call or text 988 or chat