Over the past 18 years, MTV's The Challenge has quietly influenced the reality shows we've all come to love. Here's how this bananas-crazy series shaped the genre as we know it.
It was the biggest dick move in reality television history.
Over the course of 13 episodes, MTV’s The Challenge rivals Sarah Patterson and Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio put their bitter history aside and worked as a single impressive unit, steamrolling through the most recent season, dubbed Rivals 3. The longtime friends were dire enemies a year earlier, after Patterson betrayed their alliance on Battle of the Exes 2 and cost Devenanzio the chance to win $250,000. So this year, after the fractured friendship was slowly repaired, it seemed the two — he, a bombastic egotist with the goods to back it up; she, a dynamic warrior with a limitless love for competition — were now, blessedly, rivals in name only.
But a huge shock was revealed seconds before the final showdown of the last episode: Host T.J. Lavin announced that just one person in the duo, an ultimate champion, would decide whether to share the $275,000 winnings with their season-long partner — or claim the full sum for themselves.
Prior to the final challenge, Devenanzio and Patterson swore up and down that they’d split the winnings if they triumphed. And after devouring a host of disgusting animal parts, problem-solving to trigger a dazzlingly fiery chain reaction, thriving through an all-night endurance test, and climbing to the summit of a massive mountain, their team won Rivals 3. Lavin revealed that Devenanzio had earned the most points and thus was the solo winner of the season.
Then he went back on his word: He kept the full $275,000 and left Patterson with nothing.
Sure, she was upset about the money. But more than that, she believed her season-long partner’s words of support and encouragement, sentiments she genuinely thought her onetime ally spoke with utmost sincerity as they slowly rebuilt their friendship. The realization that he’d played her the whole time smashed into her like a truck. Patterson crumbled to the ground in a fit of uncontrollable hysterics. Toldja: dick move.
The Challenge, more than any other reality show, has long thrived on viewers’ deep connections to the players, who also return season after season. It’s the kind of intense emotional investment audiences usually reserve for characters on a scripted series. In that finale moment, Devenanzio used Patterson’s betrayal a year earlier as a justification for his actions. But the most twisted part of all is that, on some level, fans were rooting for exactly this kind of treachery. The thrill of watching these players backstab one another will always supersede the desire for everyone to live happily ever after — it makes for amazing TV.
High-stakes melodrama that stems from real-life relationships is one of a dozen TV show tricks that were invented or perfected on The Challenge, and those successful building blocks are what other programs — like Survivor and Big Brother, which are more visible and more celebrated — have tried to emulate from the 18-year-old cable show over its 28 seasons. They are the reasons why MTV’s The Challenge is the single most compelling reality series. This is the story of how that show came to be.
To truly understand how MTV quietly produced the hugely influential reality series, you must begin with the network’s most prominent successes: The Real World and Road Rules.
For nearly a decade, they were the only reality shows on TV. Eight seasons of each had aired before Survivor premiered in 2000, so MTV was able to truly corner the reality television market and, in doing so, receive years of undivided attention.
“It’s like people saw themselves on TV for the first time.”
The Real World and Road Rules proved hugely popular, and their casts quickly became equally adored. “It’s like people saw themselves on TV for the first time,” Real World: San Francisco alum Rachel Campos-Duffy (who’s married to Real World: Boston alum Sean Duffy) told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. “Whatever it is, they find what it is about you they relate to. I have a lot of Hispanic people who come up to me and go, ‘I was so excited to see a Hispanic woman on TV,’ because, at the time, there weren’t a lot.”
MTV capitalized on its near-decade-long reality TV omnipresence by running countless marathons of The Real World and Road Rules on the weekends. That programming decision cemented the participants’ place in television history and, more importantly, in the formative memories of viewers who grew up right alongside the houseguests — something producers Mary-Ellis Bunim (who died in 2004) and Jonathan Murray understood, and sought to capitalize on.
“It was really the first time I think that little bell went off for someone in reality TV. ‘Look, we’ve created these stars, why aren’t we doing more with them?’” Murray told BuzzFeed News in his Van Nuys, California, office, which is covered in portraits featuring dozens of Real World, Road Rules, and Challenge cast members.
Unbeknownst to Murray, he was about to embark on a series that would fuel the greatest shift in reality television history: “At that point, people didn’t think of reality participants as quote-unquote stars. But it was clear that the audience viewed them as stars,” Brian Graden, MTV’s president of entertainment from 1996 to 2009, told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview.
Bunim and Murray’s eponymous production company, Bunim/Murray, embarked on a five-episode experiment, filmed over the course of three weeks, called Road Rules: All Stars, which featured Real World fan favorites Eric Nies, Jon Brennan, Rachel Campos, Cynthia Roberts, and Sean Duffy. Part life-spanning docuseries, part nerve-jangling competition, it was the program that set the stage for all the Idols, Top Models, Big Brothers, Apprentices, and Bad Girls Clubs to follow.
The first outing was a rousing success, so MTV and Bunim/Murray committed to more seasons and opted for a title that would open up their field of possible participants: The Real World/Road Rules Challenge, which would eventually become simply known as The Challenge. It returned for its second season in November 1999 — more than a full year after Road Rules: All Stars first aired — and emphasized the playful conflict between alumni from its flagship programs. “There was always a friendly rivalry between Real World and Road Rules — even within the company,” said Scott Freeman, executive vice president at Bunim/Murray. “People used to say that Real World had the cushy job: They just have to sit around a house and talk.”
Every season of The Challenge brought contestants to a different international destination (Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, Australia, Brazil, South Africa, Panama, New Zealand, Thailand, the Czechia, Costa Rica, Iceland, Chile, Turkey, and Argentina have all played host to The Challenge), and they were competing for serious cash. “It was all about doing things outside your comfort zone. It was fun,” Veronica Portillo — who made her debut in Challenge 2000 (Season 3) — told BuzzFeed News. “We were all young and competing for money.”
Like the game itself, the competitions were originally designed for maximum silliness: Ride a mechanical bull, sit on a block of ice the longest, put together a puzzle with pieces found at the bottom of a pool. “People didn’t take it seriously,” Aneesa Ferreira — who started in Battle of the Sexes (Season 6) — told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview.
Then Survivor premiered on CBS in May 2000 and it quickly became a pop culture behemoth: More than 50 million people watched Richard “The Snake” Hatch beat Kelly “The Rat” Wiglesworth in the Season 1 finale, upping the ante for all other reality competition shows. Bunim/Murray saw the additional layer of scheming and manipulation that emerged when the participants voted someone off every week and adopted eliminations beginning with 2002’s Battle of the Seasons — a decision that was a literal and figurative game changer.
“There’s a lot of emotional bullying and a lot of physical bullying.”
“When I first started doing it, the show was just six people getting together and doing crazy things and you didn’t have to watch your back all the time. But when they started the elimination part, it made the game more of a strategy game,” said Portillo, who’s competed in eight seasons.
The need to emotionally and mentally manipulate the competition in order to win made the show an infinitely more enjoyable experience for viewers (see: complicit joy felt over Devenanzio’s betrayal) but indescribably tougher for the players. That dynamic manifested in many ways over the show’s run, but one simple description repeatedly cropped up. “There’s a lot of emotional bullying and a lot of physical bullying,” Real World: Los Angeles alum Beth Stolarczyk — who joined in Season 2 — told BuzzFeed News. Taunting and name-calling quickly became a staple of The Challenge, and few have endured torment on par with Stolarczyk, who watched as Tonya Cooley threw all her clothes in the pool during 2005’s The Inferno II and was punched in the face by Tina Barta during 2006’s The Duel.
The players learned the hard way — by losing — what was now required of them to be successful on the show. “I got screwed out of the first two elimination challenges I did and then I kind of was like, OK, if I’m going to block off my calendar and decide to film this show, I might as well figure out how to financially gain as much from it as possible while I’m there,” Portillo said. Those who went on to be successful on the show had to make concessions and accept they’d be manipulating others in order to win.
With the rise of other action-heavy reality competition shows like Fear Factor and Dog Eat Dog, The Challenge producers looked for new ways to up the ante. Justin Booth, a field producer with a Navy background, took over as showrunner in Season 10 with the goal of making the competitions harder and overall more physically demanding. “We were spending too much time with campy games and not enough time with some more aggressive and adrenaline-packed games,” he told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. “I just didn’t want to see somebody dressed in a chicken suit for every single game.”
Increasing the intensity of the challenges — plummeting into the open ocean from hundreds of feet in the air, being buried alive, traversing a maze while wearing a shock collar, and eating a disgusting array of animal innards, to name a few — offered a new storytelling spin. Contestants “started taking these things seriously” instead of “going in and competing half-hungover and drunk and playing a game," Booth said.
With that macro change in place, Booth also made a micro change — one that ended up having massive implications: He removed the computer from the cast house. At first the ban came out of necessity (production was plagued by internet connectivity problems on location in Manzanillo, Mexico), but Booth also realized email access was keeping the cast from interacting with each other — so he added it to the already long list of outlawed items, like cell phones, books, magazines, television, and music.
“People are acting like they’re in a zoo because it feels like you’re in a cage.”
The showrunners didn’t want players distracted by “things that take us away from facing our problems and facing other people we have issues with,” Ferreira explained. It’s a form of sensory deprivation that CBS’s Big Brother had used to its advantage; but whereas the Julie Chen–hosted show is built around being cut off from the outside world, The Challenge cast suddenly found themselves juggling emotional separation with physical intensity and mental acrobatics. That includes dealing with the sheer amount of downtime they had between competitions and eliminations.
“The boredom is truly the worst part,” Susie Meister — who made her bow in Extreme Challenge (Season 4) — told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. “It’s mind-numbing, and that, for me, is why people are acting like they’re in a zoo, because it feels like you’re in a cage.”
Murray said the show’s stricter policies have aided the need for secrecy (who is eliminated and in what order), but stressed that the cast was typically allowed to patronize local bars every few days. Katie Doyle — who began making waves in The Gauntlet (Season 7) — pulled the curtain back on that claim, however. “If you watch and see the cast in a bar, they rent out that bar,” she told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. “So it’s still just the same damn people.”
While seeing “the same damn people” was a source of a frustration for some of the cast, bringing contestants back year after year truly fueled The Challenge for all those seasons. Subsequent editions of the show were built entirely around these ongoing personal ties: 2011’s Rivals paired Chris “CT” Tamburello and Adam King, who violently brawled on 2009’s The Duel 2; 2012’s Battle of the Exes reunited Dunbar Merrill and Paula Meronek, who’d hooked up on 2008’s The Island.
This interconnectivity linked every installment of The Challenge to another, creating an expansive storytelling tapestry with threads extending back to the very first season of The Real World in 1992.
And viewers had a deeper — and unprecedented — connection to the houseguests as a result. Spending a formative year with seven people, “our audience had a relationship with them like had never been experienced before on television,” Graden said.
A reality show doubling down on the very stars it made in the first place is one of the genre’s most commonplace concepts today: Survivor, The Amazing Race, and Big Brother have all produced all-stars editions comprising of fan-favorite players from past seasons. Entire franchises, like The Surreal Life — which launched with Survivor: The Australian Outback alum Jerri Manthey — are predicated on the notion that viewers care about continuing to follow noteworthy personalities from the world of reality television. But when Bunim/Murray hinged an entire series on the popularity of its stars from The Real World and Road Rules, it was unheard of for an ongoing series.
“It really is a soap opera that continues from season to season.”
If The Real World was partly inspired by Paul Almond and Michael Apted’s award-winning Up series — a documentary that reconnected with 14 participants every seven years over the course of nearly 50 years — The Challenge took that principle one step further: At least one installment has aired every year since 1998.
“It really is a soap opera that continues from season to season, with hookups and people being wronged and getting revenge for conflicts from three seasons ago,” Freeman said.
From romances (Rachel and Sean, Brad and Tori, Danny and Melinda) to rivalries (Veronica and Katie, Coral and Julie, CT and Adam), viewers routinely had a front-row seat to the beginning, middle, and end of countless relationships. As Freeman said, “The Challenge married everything people loved about both [The Real World and Road Rules]: You have all the house drama of them living together and all these thrilling games and death-defying challenges and eliminations. So you really get the best of both.”
The Challenge not only hooked its viewers with its repeat players, it also yielded its own memorable new talent. In May 2006, Real World/Road Rules Challenge: Fresh Meat paired 12 show veterans with a dozen players who had never been featured on either of the namesakes. Four of the Fresh Meat newbies proved to be key additions to the franchise: Diem Brown, Kenny Santucci, Evelyn Smith, and Evan Starkman.
The “fresh” innovation was co-opted by Survivor in 2008’s Fans vs. Favorites season, and it also served as a new pipeline through which Bunim/Murray could flow contestants: Most of the Fresh Meat players had applied to be on The Real World but simply weren’t right for that show.
Incorporating Fresh Meat ended up being prophetic, because the end of Road Rules was on the horizon. “The Challenge made Road Rules seem secondary,” Graden said of deciding to end the road trip in 2007. “Because The Challenge had so many of the same elements, they both started to feel duplicated in a way [and] Road Rules felt less-than.”
With The Real World the sole path by which people could join The Challenge, fans who grew up idolizing iconic players like Coral Smith or Alton Williams and wanted in on The Challenge action had only one option.
“It’s what I always wanted to go on The Real World for,” Patterson — who kicked off her run in The Ruins (Season 18) — told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. “What isn’t attractive about The Challenge?” Devenanzio — who entered in The Duel (Season 13) — asked rhetorically in a phone interview with BuzzFeed News. “I wanted to travel, I wanted to party, I wanted to do crazy stuff, and I wanted to get paid for doing it.”
For Devenanzio — who has competed on 13 seasons since his debut in 2006 and often films more than one per year — the show has become something bigger than just a fun way to make a little extra cash. “I really do feel like this is my 9-to-5 job,” the self-described “full-time stay-at-home son” said. “Most people have 12 months of stress and anxiety that work causes them. I go away twice a year for eight weeks, so I squeeze all of my stress into 16 weeks and then I have the rest of the time to kind of chill and do what I want to do.”
“I wanted to travel, I wanted to party ... and I wanted to get paid for doing it.”
Financially speaking, Devenanzio’s plan is feasible. Participants are not only given cash up front (one alum said he was paid $20,000 simply to get on the plane) and have a chance to win the season’s six-figure first-place prize, but there are lucrative offscreen options as well. In short: They get paid to party.
For years, bars and clubs would pay Real World, Road Rules, and Challenge alums to show up and drink with the patrons. “When I first started on The Real World in 2005 — and I did The Challenge ever since — the bar promotions and college speaking tours were happening all the time, so I was doing that three to four times a week,” Real World: Key West alum Paula Meronek — who made her debut in The Duel (Season 13) — told BuzzFeed News.
“This was before the Housewives, before Jersey Shore, before all this constant programming was sucking up bandwidth,” Starkman told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. “The old-school kids were making so much money outside the show. … I think The Real World: Austin kids were making several hundred thousand dollars off the show. They would do 30 to 40 appearances in a row. They were just [on The Challenge] to have a good-ass time because they could make more money at home, so they would just come out to have a party and just fucking rock.”
At her peak, Doyle said she would get paid to make celebrity appearances at bars and clubs on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights for a fee of $1,000 to $1,500 per venue. Those appearances also played into the egotistical nature inherent in doing reality television. “At the time I was 20 years old, I was fairly popular, so it’s like the exact perfect amount of famous,” Starkman said. “I think when you’re genuinely famous for being talented, you can’t go to a bar and make out with someone, because it’s going to be in the news. But for us, it was the perfect amount of idiocy.”
“It’s like the exact perfect amount of famous.”
The Challenge has produced some legitimately famous personalities over the years. A straight line can be drawn from the start of Jamie Chung, David Giuntoli, and Mike “The Miz” Mizanin’s careers directly back to their time on MTV.
By and large, the degree of middling stardom that allowed the cast to make money for partying was more than sufficient. But there are only so many bars to go around. With much of the cast living in the same major cities to capitalize on their fame, competition to book appearances also meant having to stay relevant — in other words, continue to be cast on season after season. “You have to commit to being a character on the show,” Meronek said. “You can’t just go on the show and hang out in the background, because then you’re a wallflower and then you won’t be asked back. If you want to continuously be on this show, you have to be a part of the story.”
That’s exactly what Murray is looking for in a repeat Challenge player: “They have to want to win,” he said. “They care about the political dynamics in the house and they care about figuring out a strategy that will let them win. They have to be unfiltered; they have to be unapologetically themselves. Those are the main things, in addition to charisma and humor.”
Every contestant interviewed for this story admitted they’re portrayed fairly, for the most part, on the show, citing some version of reality TV’s adage that “they can’t use footage I don’t give them.” But they all also talked about how easily they exaggerated their personalities once The Challenge cameras start rolling. “It’s really strange how the second we get on the show, it happens,” Devenanzio added.
With hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line, many contestants intentionally turn everything up to 11 in hopes of ensuring their Challenge future. The confrontation-prone Doyle said she could tell when other contestants were talking about her behind her back because the crew would take an interest in filming her in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable activity. “They wanted to get that shot of them talking about me and then a shot of me, all lonely, making a sandwich,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Why are you filming me making a sandwich?’ That’s how I knew they were talking shit.”
By returning season after season, many of the more savvy contestants began noticing production patterns and started to use those to their advantage. “I can’t sit here and act like I haven’t played into it all,” Tamburello told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview of his former hot-tempered brawler persona. “Say I’m doing an interview about you and I’m like, ‘Jarett is a piece of shit,’ they can only use that for you. But if they’re like, ‘What’s up with you and Jarett?’ I can be like, ‘You know what? He’s a piece of a shit!’ Because I didn’t say your name, they can use that with anybody I get into fights with throughout the whole entire filming process.”
Devenanzio took his shrewdness one step further and essentially became an unofficial producer and camera operator in Season 27. Cara Maria Sorbello and Abram Boise met on Cutthroat (Season 20), and their relationship was chronicled sporadically through the following seven seasons; it all culminated in disaster during in a scandalous moment between Sorbello and Thomas Buell, which Devenanzio himself captured. “I knew how explosive that Cara Maria and Abram and Tom love triangle was going to be and how huge of a storyline it was going to be. Which is why when Tom and Cara were hooking up, I was the one who got the GoPro footage of that. I knew it was going to be the biggest storyline of this season.”
“I should get a producer credit because I do so much off camera that usually isn’t seen to help the storyline out,” he added. “After 13 seasons, I hope I would have learned something, and at the end of the day, I love making great television.”
Committing to the drama is a double-edged sword, though, as it easily consumes contestants’ waking lives; like making money and getting attention, it’s something they’re not able leave behind when filming wraps. “I absolutely say we have PTSD,” Patterson said. “That’s not a joke. Clinically, if you look at what the qualifications for what PTSD are according to mental health manuals, we absolutely fit all of the criteria.”
“This is a dirty game. It is impossible to play this game nice.”
Life between seasons can be quite isolating for the repeat players. “It’s weird because when you come home you feel lonely, like nobody gets you because you were immersed in this crazy life for so long,” Meronek said. “It’s nice to be around people you don’t necessarily have to explain The Challenge to. You’re just around all these people that get the same weird world that you do.”
This Challenge community serves as a de facto support group as cast members readjust to the (lowercase) real world, but it also has the potential to amplify the very hysterics The Challenge thrives on. For example, when Devenanzio turned on Meronek in Season 16 (The Island), he wasn’t just backstabbing an alliance member, he was turning on a longtime friend. “I didn’t let that go for years,” Meronek said. “It is so real for me. I’m a very emotional, heart-on-my-sleeve person, so it’s like if you hurt me or betray me, even if it’s for a game, I take that into my real life.” She added that after a momentary rekindling of their friendship, she and Devenanzio are currently not speaking (again).
For Devenanzio, those raw emotions are simply something everyone on the show needs to accept — or, at the very least, make peace with. “This is a dirty game. It is impossible to play this game nice,” he said. “It’s set up for manipulation and the conniving and having to screw people over. So, at the end of the day, I’m just playing the game.”
While that’s earned him a slightly unfavorable reputation, he ascribes to a mentality that has helped many a reality show star over the years: “It’s better to be talked about negatively than not talked about at all.”
Sometimes contestants’ deep emotional investments in each other lead to genuine romantic relationships — Sean and Rachel, who met on Road Rules: All Stars, are now married with children, as are Brad and Tori, who met on Gauntlet 3. In both those instances, their coupling happened offscreen. On the one hand, dating a co-star is easier because they occupy a similar fame level and won’t typically get jealous or annoyed when fans want photos or to talk about the show. “But it’s hard when your real life is on camera too,” Sorbello told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview.
As for her relationship status now, Sorbello said, “Well, I can tell you I am seeing someone now — my therapist. Hope that answers that question.”
Far and away the most significant Challenge relationship was between Tamburello and Fresh Meat’s Diem Brown, who also became the show’s most memorable cast member.
In the third episode of Brown’s debut Challenge, she revealed to her partner Derrick Kosinski that she had ovarian cancer and planned to enter treatment once shooting ended. “I want to do this because I have another big battle after this,” she said in a testimonial. “I want to really be able to do everything physical now because I’m not sure when I’m going to be able to do anything physical again.”
Brown placed fourth on Fresh Meat and she returned the following season, The Duel, after completing treatment.
Tamburello and Brown’s relationship began with an iconic moment in the second episode of The Duel, when Brown struggled, emotionally, to remove her wig in order to participate in a competition that took place in a mud pit. (Her hair had only just begun to grow back after chemo treatments.) “It’s the first time anyone’s ever seen me without it,” Brown explained in the episode, through tears. “Taking it off shows vulnerability, and I hate being vulnerable.”
Tamburello’s was the first voice of support viewers heard. “In that moment, she takes her wig off and turns into G.I. Jane, looking like a little sexy supermodel secret agent,” he said on the show.
“Those are the [moments] that make you feel that reality TV can actually change lives and inspire people,” Freeman said of Brown revealing her natural look. “Those shows are when you know there’s something more here. And you feel the responsibility to tell their story properly.”
Tamburello and Brown got closer and closer throughout that season. Tamburello’s unwavering love and support continued to be a source of strength for Brown, who regained her self-confidence and made a special connection in the process. “He was this force for her, he was this comfort, he loved her, he motivated her, he made her feel safe,” Ferreira said. “She was this little fairy princess who didn’t drink a lot, wasn’t promiscuous, and was really smart. He was this tough Boston kid who likes to drink and party and probably had a billion girlfriends. … It was Beauty and the Beast. … It showed such a nice side of him that I don’t think a lot of people would have been able to see otherwise. They were good for each other.”
Tamburello and Brown’s relationship was as tumultuous as one would expect of any bond forged on a reality show: They dated for a year and a half following The Duel and played on the same team in 2008. Then they split, but competed as partners in two Battle of the Exes seasons in 2012 and 2015. “They were both very, very deep, and it’s almost like they were rewarding you over the years with more and more of themselves,” Real World: Austin’s Wes Bergmann — who also joined The Challenge on Fresh Meat — told BuzzFeed News. “They’re two of the most dynamic people I’ve ever met in my life and they kept giving you more.”
Despite the fact they’d broken up for good, viewers constantly held out hope Tamburello and Brown would get back together. But Brown’s cancer returned, and she died on Nov. 14, 2014.
“What can I say … she’s a good one. She was a good one,” Tamburello told BuzzFeed News, the longing in his voice obvious, even over the phone. “I’ll be honest with you, when I first met her … I was four, five shows deep. I was going around doing appearances, shaking hands, kissing babies, taking photos, doing that whole song and dance, but it was all smoke and mirrors.
“Diem helped me re-appreciate the simple certainties in life that I had taken for granted. I didn’t realize it, but at the same time I did something for her I will never understand. I’m grateful and thankful. And that’s all I have to say about that.”
While real love is the rarest of all prizes on The Challenge, betrayal and manipulation are expected — and, to a large degree, required. But the competitive structure of The Challenge has also resulted in a more problematic side effect: rampant misogyny.
“Think about it: The goal of the people there is to win money and, there’s no doubt about it, when you have a co-ed team, the women are going to be less helpful in completing the physical challenges than the men,” said Meister. “So women are often seen as baggage and [that] bleeds over into our dormitory-style living where we are seen as disposable or nuisances, so that often creates a feeling of gender war. And on top of that, everyone is pretty attractive, so there’s sexual tension, so it’s all messed up.
“It does become difficult if you want to maintain any sense of dignity or self-respect when you are a woman on this show.”
“The guys try to take your tops off in the pool or whatever, and there’s unlimited alcohol. It’s sort of like a breeding ground for bad behavior. So it does become difficult if you want to maintain any sense of dignity or self-respect when you are a woman on this show.”
Such degradation becomes so pervasive that many have fallen prey even when they think they know better. “I go in there very confident but ... I get very insecure about halfway through and start to feel really bad about myself and start thinking maybe looks are that important,” said Patterson, who considers herself an outspoken feminist. “Then I come out of it and am like, Holy crap, I’m getting my master’s degree, I have a real life, I’m married, and none of this matters. … Something happens when you’re in there.”
The frat mentality has permeated dozens of reality shows, the most recent being Big Brother 18, which featured female contestants confronting their male counterparts for groping, catcalling, and talking about their bodies in disparaging and despicable ways. Like on Big Brother, the majority of contestants on The Challenge are in their early to mid-twenties (due in large part to The Real World, which exclusively casts 18- to 24-year-olds). Theirs is a formative age: While men on the show aren’t necessarily misogynists, it can be unfathomable for a wide-eyed 22-year-old dude to lose to a woman in a physical competition; that fear sets the stage for a myriad of possibly unevolved responses, including chauvinism and out-and-out sexism.
Given the strong gender disparity that exists in The Challenge house and a system that has a habit of rewarding sexist behavior, misogyny thrives — creating an environment that was routinely mentioned as several women spoke on The Challenge’s most noteworthy controversy.
On Oct. 27, 2011, Tonya Cooley filed a lawsuit in California Superior Court against Bunim/Murray, MTV, Kenny Santucci, and Starkman claiming — among other things — sexual harassment, wrongful termination, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, and sexual battery. The claim, obtained by BuzzFeed News, says that during production on The Ruins (Season 18), Santucci and Starkman “took another male participant’s toothbrush and ... insert[ed] the toothbrush into [the] plaintiff’s vagina” after she had passed out from drinking too much.
In the suit, Cooley’s lawyers also alleged that Bunim/Murray plied the contestants with a lot of alcohol and a little food in an attempt to “encourage the participants to engage in scandalous behavior that would increase viewer ratings. Participants were encouraged to be more outrageous than others so that they would be filmed more often. Participants who were more often filmed were more regularly called back for subsequent seasons.”
The suit also claimed that Bunim/Murray and MTV “encouraged and condoned male contestants to mistreat females, usually in a sexually offensive matter.” Examples cited include the following: “male cast members forcibly removing female cast members’ bathing suits, male cast members inappropriately touch[ing] female cast members’ bodies, male cast members call[ing] female cast members derogatory terms, including terms that were offensive and directed at their gender.”
The case never went to trial; it was settled privately and closed on Oct. 18, 2012.
Cooley — who made her MTV debut on The Real World: Chicago before her eight-season Challenge stint, beginning with Battle of the Sexes (Season 6) — told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview she was legally unable to discuss anything that happened on The Ruins, but she did speak about the demons she fought throughout her time on MTV. “I was drinking too much and it … stopped being a game of sport for me and I [made] some unhealthy choices,” she said.
Several episodes after the alleged incident occurred, Cooley was kicked off The Ruins when she slapped Portillo in the face during a heated argument. After that, Cooley said, “I figured it was time to look inside myself and get a little straight.”
BuzzFeed News spoke to several other Ruins cast members, some of whom were present on the night Cooley said she was sexually assaulted. They claimed the incident wasn’t exactly as Cooley and her lawsuit depicted it.
“My bunk bed and Tonya’s bunk were basically right next to each other,” Devenanzio said. “Tonya was laid out, passed out on the bed, the toothbrush was brought out.” A photo of Starkman and Santucci with the toothbrush and Cooley was taken, but it never came close to her, according to Devenanzio. “They were guilty of hijinks and playing pranks, but nothing even close to what they were accused of.”
Patterson said, “I, as somebody who is an advocate for sexual abuse victims, would not call that sexual violence. Nobody ever penetrated anybody with a toothbrush. That didn’t happen. Were the actions inappropriate? Yes. Were they illegal and rape? No.”
Devenanzio and Meister both mentioned there is nonstop surveillance in the house — which includes cameras mounted in every room. If what was alleged had happened, they said, production would have first intervened and also caught the incident on tape. Meister, who married Adam Butler, a crew member on The Ruins, told BuzzFeed News, “My husband was on the night crew that night and I talked to him about it and said, ‘Did I miss something?’ And he’s like, ‘Absolutely not. There was nothing.’ The truth of the matter is, Tonya got wasted, passed out on her bed with her bikini bottoms falling off, and the guys did hold up this toothbrush as a joke to take a picture — which is totally inappropriate and disgusting. But there wasn’t an assault that happened.”
Given that Cooley was unconscious at the time of the incident, Devenanzio believes she was unknowingly fed an inaccurate version of events by other cast members with an ax to grind with Santucci and Starkman. “The feeling I got from it was there were some people who strongly disliked Kenny and Evan and … when they found an opportunity to try and bring the two of them down, they did in a horrible and disgusting way based on lies and horrible fabrications,” he said.
Murray declined to comment on the matter.
“The reason why it’s believable is because of the behavior they promote on the show. People fight and punch each other out and then they get invited back the next season, so why wouldn’t people believe that this happened?” said Meister. “It’s kind of evidence of the fact there is a fraternity mentality in the house and also a ‘boys will be boys’ mentality, but Tonya in particular had some problems with alcohol that created a situation where she didn’t really know what was going on, so she believed what people told her. And unfortunately, Kenny and Evan got in big trouble for something that didn’t happen. I just feel sad for all the people involved.
“I don’t think Tonya is purposefully accusing people that didn’t do it. I believe she believes it happened when it didn’t.”
“It would have been nice to have people see that I actually made it.”
Santucci and Starkman are both legally prohibited from talking directly about the lawsuit, but pointed out they both appeared on seasons of The Challenge following The Ruins, implying MTV would not have asked them back if they believed the incident occurred. “Anybody who’s willing to read the [lawsuit] and not take it at face value … let me know if two plus two equals four,” said Santucci. He noted that while the accusation earned widespread attention, he remains upset that fans seem unaware that he was never formally charged.
“I don’t think people realize how much it’s affected my life in a negative way,” he said. “It’s really cost me a lot of opportunity and money and time and everything else you could possibly imagine. I’ve never been a negative guy — yes, I can say mean shit, but I’ve always kept my nose clean. For that to have happened and for everything to have gone down the way it did, it’s kind of like, fuck this. I don’t need it, it doesn’t define me.”
In spite of the incident, Cooley — who is now sober — has fond memories of her years on The Challenge. She also now recognizes that the manipulation-heavy show exacerbated her pre-existing personal problems. “I’m not going to hide the fact I became an alcoholic on the show,” she said. “I was a great competitor, but I was just lost personally. Mentally, I wasn’t mature enough to handle some of the situations I was in and, in turn, I drank a lot.”
Cooley openly discussed her childhood in foster care throughout her time on MTV and told BuzzFeed News that her upbringing created a system where she was never forced to confront her issues. “Watching those shows became like a parent to me: my morals, my values, my ethics, where I really stood. I had to witness good, bad, and ugly on those seasons. When you float around in foster care, you can run away from … anything you don’t want to change about yourself, but on those seasons, I couldn’t. It just reminds me to live a better version of myself.”
Though The Challenge is no longer an option for Cooley to make a living, she expressed a desire to show viewers how far she’s come. “If [people] could see where I am versus five years ago, I think they would be shocked,” said Cooley, who recently opened her own hair salon. “I am a genuinely happy person now. I still have a bit of the wild and crazy Tonya in me, but I’ve learned to balance her out. It would have been nice to have people see that I actually made it.”
While Cooley’s journey to inner peace happened off camera, The Challenge has, very much by design, borne witness to countless personal evolutions and reinventions. And that ongoing exposure to familiar contestants has, more than any other innovation since The Real World began in 1992, shaped what reality television looks like today. Whether it’s Andi Dorfman taking the reins of The Bachelorette after she failed to find love on The Bachelor, Rupert Boneham’s repeated entries on Survivor, or Phi Phi O’Hara’s desire for redemption on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars for her bad behavior on Season 4, countless shows have wholly leaned into the undeniably compelling drama of second chances.
Although many Challenge returnees have bowed out of the franchise after it’s given them that opportunity to grow and mature, at least one has absolutely no plans of stopping.
“Nobody wants to be the last person at the party,” said Meronek, a dig aimed at Devenanzio, a target for many of the contestants who spoke to BuzzFeed News. The Challenge, she said, “is his life, so if it goes away, then so does his paycheck and so does everything, and he’s going to have to figure out what a 36-year-old man with zero things on his résumé except The Challenge does with his life.”
“[The Challenge] shows you the things about yourself you’re going to hate, but if you’re a person who wants to grow, you can look at yourself and choose to be a better person.”
Of course, Devenanzio sees it differently. “I don’t feel like I am the last one at the party,” he countered. “I feel like I’m the one that’s keeping the party going! … Growing up, I’d always been good at a lot of things, but I’ve never been great at one particular thing and it’s kind of cool to look to The Challenge and be, like, As of right now and where I stand right now, I’m the best that’s ever played.” And by all accounts, he’ll have the platform to keep playing — linear and digital ratings for the most recent season of The Challenge are up, and Murray plans on producing new seasons of the show as long as viewers tune in.
That puts Devenanzio in a rare power position: The participants on The Challenge typically have little control over when and how they exit the show. So when a player feels like they’ve gotten everything they can out of it and decides to say goodbye to the series for good, it’s particularly noteworthy.
“I feel like I served the purpose of seeing a full story,” said Meronek, who left the show in 2013 after winning Rivals 2 to start a family. “My Real World was very emotional and I had a lot going on, and then I think seeing me on The Challenge — as my confidence progressed and as my ability progressed — people watched me become a stronger, more secure person.”
The show has provided its participants thrill, fame, and pleasure-seeking chances of a lifetime as well as a window of time — one that narrows by the season — to experience the cushy life of a “reality star.” But more than anything else, The Challenge offered them the opportunity to evolve into the best possible versions of themselves. Whether they seize it is another matter entirely. “The show really teaches you tolerance and patience and it shows you the things about yourself you’re going to hate, but if you’re a person who wants to grow, you can look at yourself and choose to be a better person,” said Ferreira.
Which might be why so many contestants refuse to resolutely state that they’ll never do another season, why it’s proved difficult for so many to permanently leave their Challenge days behind them, and why so many current players have no plans to retire.
“How long am I going to be young? How long is my body going to be able to do these things? How long can I challenge myself or have these opportunities? There’s thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people who would kill to be in my shoes, so for me to turn it down would be ridiculous. If they ask me, I’ll do it again,” said Sorbello.
“Unfortunately,” she added. “It’s like a fucking drug addiction.” ●