Here’s What It’s Like To Be On Reality TV For 10 Straight Years
“I will smash his head and eat it,” CT Tamburello said in the iconic first episode of MTV’s “The Duel II,” after punching nemesis competitor Adam King in the face during a costume party.
This was my first introduction to “The Challenge.” My cousins said the clip of CT’s animalistic instincts making a grown man trudge along with a poker card-patterned onesie at his ankles was a necessary primer to understand the show’s essence.
In the gamified version of “Real World,” contestants play mental and physical challenges?—?think drinking innards smoothies, running up a mountain and then solving a puzzle?—?for cash prizes. The cast lives together in an isolated house, which gives way to a messy mix of strategy and drama from botched alliances, alcohol-fueled rampages and hookups. It was perfect.
How does reality TV become your job?
“The Challenge” premiered in 1998, a few years after sister shows “Real World” and “Road Rules” hit screens. Now in its 30th season, it boasts a longevity that’s rare in reality TV. The show relies on a core recurring cast sourced from “Real World” spinoffs and “Are You The One?” Inviting cast members back to compete is a concept pioneered by the show. Viewers can easily connect to cast members (I’m a total Wes girl) and follow plot lines season to season.
“I saw ‘The Real World’ as a stepping stone to try to get on ‘The Challenge,’” seven-time champion (or villainous bully, depending who you ask) Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio told Dose. A “Real World: Key West” alum, he’s participated in 15 consecutive seasons of “The Challenge” since his first in 2006.
While not as popular in the mainstream as its strategic competition counterparts “Survivor” or “Big Brother,” it’s created an influential legacy of its own. For some, it’s more than a one-off vacation?—?it’s a profession, a way to quench a thirst for competition when neighborhood softball leagues just aren’t enough.
The experience is addicting. It has to be, to dedicate upwards of a decade of your life to it and justify dangerous, gross stunts. The combination of competition, adrenaline-inducing experiences in exotic places and a chance at major bucks has many saying that despite the chaos, they’ll compete as long as producers invite them back.
“It’s not everyday you find an opportunity where someone is paying you to jump off cliffs, cross buildings hundreds of feet up in the sky or climb a volcano in Iceland,” said Camila Nakagawa, who has been in 10 Challenges since 2010.
Most cast members didn’t think one season would spark a career on reality TV.
“As the last kid picked in kickball and with no one to sit with at the high school lunch table, I never expected to be cast for one show, let alone 11,” Cara Maria Sorbello told Dose. She originally applied as a joke, but instead got years of crazy games and a tumultuous relationship with cast member Abram Boise. Like any life experience, the show fosters growth and self-discovery in cast members. The only difference?—?it’s broadcasted to millions of viewers.
Longtime dominating force Derrick Kosinski started the competitions at 19 years old. He hadn’t thought about seasons after “Road Rules” either, but ended up in seven consecutive challenges.
“At the time, that had never been done before,” he said via email. “Reality TV was just really starting to expand.”
After his ninth Challenge, he took seven years off to focus on his family and job at home. Now at 33, he’s making what Bananas would call his “triumphant return” to “The Challenge XXX: Dirty Thirty.” Recently divorced and raising an 8-year-old son, this season comes at a different time in his life.
“I’ll be fighting for the opportunity to start my life over and keep it moving in the right direction for me and my son,” Kosinski said.
The evolution of the game
“If you watch ‘The Challenges’ back in the day, they used to be a party. You’d go and it’d be lawless,” Bananas said. “Now it’s like getting locked up and going away to prison, to be honest.”
As drinking rules tightened up, the game itself transformed since the first “Road Rules” challenges. It’s not all serious business, though. If the night is right, you can bet someone will throw a chair or hurl savage insults from across the pool.
Producers introduced eliminations in 2002’s “Battle of the Seasons,” and by the tenth season the competitions became more athletic, the environment more secluded. Format, voting and rules were set in stone in early seasons, but now it’s ever changing.
“It’s like a cat and mouse game with the cast and production,” Bananas said. Production secrets are closely guarded, players don’t know what the show’s format will be until filming begins and there are twists on the daily.
Competitions have transformed from silly carnival games to extreme, military-like challenges to death-defying stunts. But for the veteran competitors, it’s just another walk in the park.
“I really do lose sight of how insane the stuff is that we put ourselves through on a regular basis,” Bananas said.
But the mental side of the game has developed, too. The competition is a real-life game of chess dependent on cutthroat strategy. The moment Bananas took the first place prize of $275,000 instead of splitting it with his partner lives on in “Challenge” lore, but grimy moves are unavoidable.
“The physical component is maybe 10% of the show. The other 90% is a mental game. It’s strategizing, manipulating and keeping your wits and surviving mentally,” Bananas said. “They make a game that’s impossible to play clean. I’m just glad that finally, after 30 seasons, they’ve embraced it for what it is. And that’s a dirty game.”
With weeks of mental gymnastics, heavy drinking and brute games, returning to the normalcy of home life can feel like a weird period of recovery. At the time we talked, Bananas was nestled in Tahoe, recouping in nature, training and gearing up mentally for next season.
“Usually I’d come back from a Challenge and be like, ‘OK, I just want to lay around and not do anything, draw the blinds and pee in a mason jar for the next two months,’” Bananas said. But now, the competitions film up to four times a year, so the game cycle is even more grueling.
It’s not evident yet how partaking in a game that depends on questionable values like distrust and selfishness year after year will affect veteran competitors mentally. “The Challenge” is an unrealistic world, and living inside a game for a large portion of your life is bound to fuck you up a little bit.
When Bananas retires, he says he’ll have a lot of cleaning up to do.
“I’m sure there’ll be a therapist out there who’s going to have a lot of money coming his way from me,” Bananas said.
“The Challenge XXX: Dirty Thirty” premiered July 18 on MTV.