It's taken the TV world by storm, catapulting its cast from obscurity to Bafta-winning fame.
But the success of The Only Way Is Essex could now be in jeopardy after producers launched a controversial bid to ‘claw back’ some of the cash being made by its stars.
The move – dubbed a fame tax – has sparked a revolt, with many of the cast of the ITV reality series refusing to sign up to the deal.
The action by production company Lime Pictures comes in the wake of the success of two cast members, nightclub promoter Mark Wright and beautician Amy Childs.
Both have left the show - which follows the lives of 16 glamorous twentysomethings from the Essex suburbs of Brentwood and Chigwell - and are on course to become millionaires less than two years after using the show to launch showbusiness careers.
Now Lime Pictures has put measures in place to take a share of future earnings from anyone else who leaves and tries to build a career from the show’s success.
The revolt began last month when the next generation looking to emulate the success of Wright and Miss Childs - many of whom have put their own careers on hold to appear in the programme - received their contracts for the new series.
The documents stated they must hand over 15 per cent from any deals such as magazine interviews, promotional work or endorsements secured because of their link to The Only Way Is Essex, referred to by its acronym TOWIE by fans.
In addition, Liverpool-based Lime Pictures has inserted a clause for 2012 that says cast members who quit must continue to hand over 15 per cent from any deals struck for up to a year after they leave.
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The ‘fame tax’ comes on top of complaints about Lime Pictures’ refusal to pay cast members more than £50 a day to cover expenses despite them being expected to work for up to 13 hours during filming. For a 13-hour day, that equates to £3.84 an hour - the national minimum wage for over-21s is £6.08 an hour.
When the series began in 2010, the cast - including events organiser Lauren Goodger and boutique owner Sam Fairs, who are still on the show - were not paid.
But the £50 fee for all cast members, who also include ex-glamour model turned DJ Lauren Pope and model Chloe Sims, was introduced after it became a success with a peak of 1.5 million viewers last year.
A source on E4’s rival show Made In Chelsea, about a group of socialites living around the exclusive Kings Road in West London, said main cast members were paid £200 a day.
Lauren Goodger and Chloe Sims: Stars were not paid during the show's first year
An Only Way Is Essex source said: ‘A lot of the cast have jobs outside TOWIE. But if you are working for 13 hours a day that doesn’t leave time to hold down a second job, so they are dependent on £50 and anything else they can make from deals. It seems unfair that on top of agents’ fees and tax, they also have to give 15 per cent back to the show.’
As a result of the dispute, The Mail on Sunday has been told, only a handful of the cast have signed deals for the new series, which is filmed a week ahead of transmission and returned to television last Sunday.
It is not clear which cast members are involved in the dispute because they have agreed to be filmed without contracts in place.
'Reem': Joey Essex may be less than impressed with the latest news
A show source said: ‘We are in discussions with their agents to tell us what their concerns are so we can continue negotiations.’
Lime Pictures revealed post-tax profits of £7.6 million and a turnover of £39.1 million for 2009-10, the year The Only Way Is Essex launched.
A year later the show, described as ‘constructed reality television’ – a cross between a soap and a fly-on-the-wall documentary – beat more established series including Downton Abbey and the BBC’s Sherlock to win the Bafta Audience Award.
Indeed the show has become so popular it has spawned its own catchphrases, including ‘Well Jel’, meaning very jealous; ‘Shuttup!’, a reaction to a shocking revelation; and ‘Reem’, derived from the word ‘Supreme’ by cast member Joey Essex and used to describe anything good or well liked.
Wright and Miss Childs were lured away by lucrative financial offers from rival programmes in 2011. Wright, 25, left in October to accept a £150,000 deal to appear on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity . . . Get Me Out Of Here! and has since become a fitness expert on ITV’s breakfast show Daybreak and co-presenter of ITV2’s Take Me Out: The Gossip, a spin-off of the ITV dating series Take Me Out.
Miss Childs left in August to appear on Celebrity Big Brother and went on to front her own ITV2 series, It’s All About Amy.
In an interview in November, the 21-year-old, who left school with one GCSE and now has her own beauty salon, fashion collection and fake tan range, said: ‘Oh my God, it’s true, I am not far off becoming a millionaire. I hate talking about money . . . but I am doing well.’
A spokesman for Lime Pictures said: ‘We would never discuss artists’ contracts. They are private.’
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