Lived Through This

What Starring on 7 Seasons of MTV’s ‘The Challenge’ Taught Me About Losing Control

How to maintain strength, stamina, and a sense of humor in lockdown

Photos courtesy of the author

In the days since we started sheltering at home, you have likely experienced moments of boredom. Maybe you reached the end of the internet, watched everything on Netflix, or had your third dinner. You’re cooped inside at the mercy of an invisible villain. Quarantine can be unpleasant, frustrating, and frightening, resulting in feelings of listlessness and ennui. While most people struggle with the adjustment to contained living, participating in seven seasons of reality TV helped prepare me for it.

Many competition-style reality shows like The Challenge, Big Brother, and Survivor are predicated on participants being extracted from their usual living environment and placed on a set among the other cast members, usually to compete for money. The locations seem idyllic, the accommodations extravagant, and the players entertaining, but what may be less obvious to the viewer is that the sets are essentially very opulent prisons.

Reality TV viewers have grown accustomed to a certain style of storytelling, which often includes fights, hookups, betrayals, and bullying — the sort of things that make people refer to the genre as their “guilty pleasure.” But to ensure the delivery of these narratives, the cast must be relegated to a relatively small living space with restricted access to the things that normally contribute to a full life.

On reality TV sets, your leisure is limited. Phones, books, TVs, music, games, clocks, and internet use are prohibited. We might “start getting real,” but we also start getting really bored.

So now you’re in quarantine, and you, a normal human being, are likely feeling stir-crazy, bored, and anxious. You’re probably getting testy with your loved ones, feeling irritable and fussy, and becoming a less-than-best version of yourself. Maybe you’re self-medicating with alcohol, food, or other substances as you fantasize about the places you’ll go when you’re free.

Well, I’ve been there, and I have some wisdom to impart upon you from my years on reality TV.

Stuff doesn’t matter, people do

You’ve probably seen the hot tubs, infinity pools, and swanky decor featured on most reality sets. What you might not have noticed are the biohazards, broken glass, and bathroom mishaps that arise after about 48 hours. (I dread to think how many infections have resulted from the Real World hot tubs over the years.) None of the amenities matter in the end. One’s enjoyment filming a reality show or in quarantine is almost entirely determined by the quality of the company. If you find yourself lucky enough to be in quarantine with someone you genuinely like, respect, and trust, you are fortunate. Be glad.

Cara Zavaleta and the author on the set of “Challenge: Inferno 3.” Notice the set isn’t exactly glamourous.

Distance yourself from the villain

Reality TV wouldn’t be reality TV without a villain. Nobody wants to watch a bunch of people living in perfect harmony. We want low-hanging fruit, and we won’t rest until we get it. The shows are cast and produced to generate dialogue and tension, so villains are an important plot device. And if you’ve ever been around a toxic personality, you know they tend to enjoy being agents of mayhem. So if you’re living with your enemy (on TV or not!), it’s best not to provoke. Keep your distance. Wash your hands of them! And if you’ve watched even a moment of news since this all began, you know this is the best defense against our invisible enemy, the coronavirus, too. Your well-being will be better preserved if you stay away from the villain.

The people in charge have a different objective than you

Reality TV producers are adept at getting what they want, and what they want is an entertaining program lots of people will watch. They don’t really care who wins the money or if the cast has a pleasant experience. They care about ratings. Similarly, politicians care about approval ratings, particularly if they plan on running for reelection. Our current president, famously of reality TV himself, also happens to care a great deal about TV ratings — even those from his coronavirus press conferences. He loves rallies because he enjoys the praise and energy of his supporters. As such, elected officials’ objectives aren’t always going to align with yours. It’s helpful to know the people in charge might be operating with different goals than you. So, who can you rely on?

A shot of the crew filming on “Challenge: Inferno 3” from the author’s point of view.

Trust the experts

Competition reality shows feature physical and mental competitions to determine player ranking, immunity, and prizes. The games are often complicated, demanding, and sometimes dangerous. In these instances, to ensure the cast’s welfare (and avoid lawsuits), there are safety personnel and stunt performers on set to advise and assist. It is their job to make sure we don’t die, and we trust them with our lives. Likewise, the people on the pandemic’s front lines — the doctors, nurses, and scientists — who are handling this crisis, are working to minimize loss of life. They know best. If you do what they say, you lessen the likelihood of infection and death.

Four things that do come in handy are strategy, strength, stamina, and a sense of humor.

The four S’s

Despite my relative success on reality competition shows, I am the furthest thing from a badass one can be. I prefer the library to the gym, I get a sitter’s high, and my idea of a workout is lifting a wine glass to my mouth. Luckily, you don’t have to be a CrossFit champion to win a reality show or survive a pandemic. Four things that do come in handy are strategy, strength, stamina, and a sense of humor. When you’re on day 45 trapped in a house with a bunch of people who talk so much you’d think they were paid by the syllable, mental stamina is critical. And if you’re in quarantine with a crappy roommate or, in my case, a seven-year-old with an endless list of questions, you’ll be glad you have a sense of humor.

In the end, reality TV and quarantine have the same effect — they put a magnifying glass on everything: your relationships, your joys, your sorrows, your goals. But if you do it right, it’ll bring out the best in you. And the hope is that you’ll be so functional and focused that you’ll be the best version of yourself, which ironically would make you a terrible reality TV cast member.

The author on the “Challenge: Inferno 3.” Sometimes the best seat is on the floor.

PhD in Religious Studies / Host of the @BrainCandyPod / Recovering Reality TV Personality / Instagram: susiemeister

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