Johnny Bananas is the de facto star of MTV’s The Challenge, which, at 30 seasons and counting, is one of the longest-running reality television franchises in history. He’s also my favorite professional athlete.
Those two statements don’t appear to be compatible. After all, The Challenge is, as I myself once put it, a mutant hybrid of The Real World, Survivor, summer camp-like competitions and that one night you got wasted and started a fight. If we are to consider it a sport, it’s likely the only one where one contestant has given another contestant a clandestine handjob on the back of the bus—in the name of strategy.
But what began in 1998 as Road Rules: All Stars, has, nearly 20 years later, with numerous iterations, reinventions and spin-offs, managed to snake itself into the public consciousness. It’s always been kind of considered a joke, yes; and yet, by dint of its longevity, it’s one that deserves to be taken seriously.
You might say the same about Johnny Bananas—or simply, “Bananas,” as he’s referred to on the show. Starting out as a yappy 22-year-old on The Real World: Key West, in 2006, he has, with a little luck and a lot of brand savvy, stretched his fifteen minutes of fame into a nearly 12-year-long career on The Challenge. Given the six wins he has to his name, he’s the most successful castmember of all-time—the Michael Jordan, if you will, of what Bill Simmons and Grantland (RIP) have not-so-facetiously dubbed America’s fifth major sport.
Currently, Bananas is competing on Champs vs. Stars, a spin-off where Challenge champs face off against celebrities, such as Terrell Owens, Riff-Raff and Lil Romeo, to win a $150,000 prize for the charity of their choice. (This is the second such spin-off, following last spring’s Champs vs. Pros.) On January 2nd, he’ll be on The Challenge: Vendettas, where, for the first-time ever, the show will draw castmembers from franchises such as CBS’s Big Brother and MTV Europe’s Geordie Shore.
“I thought American kids were insane,” Bananas says of the new season. “These Brits are bringing a whole other element of insanity to the show. And I love it.”
In a no-holds-barred conversation, Bananas sounded off on Terrell Owens, the keys to his success as a reality TV personality and how he’d fix The Real World...
How do you like doing these spin-off shows in comparison to the normal Challenge?
I’m actually a huge fan of this new spinoff. Champs vs. Stars is based a lot more on the competition. I like that about it. We do all the “house reality” stuff on the normal Challenge. Like you just said, I’m your favorite professional athlete. [Ed. Note: I 100% did say this.] There are people out there who have compared The Challenge to a sport and us as athletes, so being able to be in an arena where we get to compete against professional athletes [on Champs vs. Pros and Champs vs. Stars], it really puts us to the test and shows that, while we’re all about creating controversy and stirring the pot, we also have the ability to compete against, hang with and win against some of the best athletes in the world.
How does your mindset change going into one of these spin-offs versus The Challenge?
It’s not as mentally draining as the other challenges. It’s more about the physical game. But you see some Stars come on and...they come in expecting it just to be an athletic event. They’re then forced to start backstabbing and manipulating and creating alliances, and that’s the best part to watch. They want to have this appearance of having the most perfectly well-balanced team—seeing it start to crack at the seams, it’s pretty awesome to watch.
Challenge vet CT has been relatively calm these last few seasons. Why did Terrell Owens get on his nerves so much?
There was a lot that built up to that [confrontation in episodes 2 and 3]. From the day that we got there, everyone on the Stars team, with the exception of Ariane [Andrew], really jumped right into it and were really nice and outgoing. Terrell Owens walked in and that he felt like he was above the show. He basically separated himself from everyone—not just on our side but on his own side. In my opinion, we’re here to compete, we’re here to play for charity, why don’t we just accept this for what it is? He’s done all these other reality shows—Dancing with the Stars and all that—and all of a sudden he comes The Challenge and he’s too good for it...He was just being a poor sport the entire game. CT was just sticking up for Ashley and the rest of the team, and we were just kind of letting him know that this might’ve flown in the NFL, where you were going around and being a prima donna, but you’re on a show now where people are going to be ten times as big of assholes as you are.
Camila, a longtime fan favorite, got kicked off Champs vs. Stars after a drunken outrage, and also hurled some racial slurs on last season of The Challenge. Should she retire?
I think Camila for a long time was able to spin what we saw—really sad and ugly behavior—into a caricature of herself, by calling herself the “Camilinator.” And unfortunately, MTV kind of supported that and encouraged it. But it really did get to a point where it became too much. Now it’s not even entertaining anymore. I think that Camila has a lot of demons, and a lot of things she needs to work through, and I don’t think The Challenge is an environment for somebody to do that. It never has been. And I don’t think it ever will be.
What do you attribute your longevity to? Why have you succeeded where other reality TV stars—not just those on The Challenge—have failed?
I made all my mistakes when I was younger. I always say if I could go back and meet myself when I was 22 I’d beat my own ass. It was just taking the lumps and kind of finding my path in an age where social media didn’t exist. Because now—it’s crazy. People will not let you get away with anything. And I was almost able to tune up my persona and my personality to a point where—you know, yeah, you could say I’m hated, yeah, you could say people don’t like me, but it’s more for who I am in the game, and not for who I am as a person. I’m kind of known as the guy that people love to hate. But the things they hate about me are what I’ve done in the game and the way I’ve acted as far as the game is concerned, and not the person that I am. And I think, possibly, had social media been around when I was younger, that that might not have been the case.
Also, I always say I feel like Jim Carrey on The Truman Show. I’ve watched myself grow up on television. I started doing reality TV when I was 22; I’m 35 now. I’ve had the rare ability to see myself from a different perspective and fine-tune who I am. I see the things I like about myself and I’ll keep those things, and the things I don’t like I’ll throw away. I’ve always ben the type of person who’s had a larger than life personality, and I’ve always been the type of guy who’s mischievous, and I enjoy pranks and I enjoy stirring the point...I’ve found a job that can allow me to really be who I am. I’ve been able to use The Challenge and MTV as an amazing springboard to put myself out there and really establish myself as a household name, as a brand.
I’ve started to think of you almost as a player-coach, especially in the past few seasons. It seems like you know where to pick up the thread of the narrative and what sort of things to say in the in-the-moment interviews to set the stage. I’m curious about the Sarah thing, where you essentially chose to take all the prize money instead of sharing it with your partner on Rivals III. How much of the calculus of, “Oh this is going to be good for TV, or good for my brand” goes into a decision like that?
I’d say 50-50 dude. One of the most popular insults I get [about The Challenge] is: when are you going to get a real job? And my response to that is always: what’s a real job? Is a real job sitting behind a cubicle with a 401k, working a 9-to-5 and never having a life? If that’s a real job, then I never want one. Because I prefer to be the guy to that travels seven months out of the year to exotic locations and competes and has the opportunity to win a ton of money and notoriety all at the same time. I’ve found the perfect job in my eyes.
So over the years...I almost consider myself more like a producer-castmember. I almost feel like an embedded producer within the show because I can see from an outside perspective what’s going to be a storyline, whether it’s a hookup or an argument or a rivalry or whatever. It’s almost like predicting weather—you try to figure out where the storm is going to be and when it’s going to be there. And you know if you’re able to exacerbate it or work your way into it or create a storyline out of it, then that’s what they want.
With the Sarah thing, before even going into the season—the whole taking the money thing, that wasn’t known before the season started. What I did know was that we did have a broken friendship. What I always thought was stupid was, castmembers would go into the show as rivals and within the second day they’d be best friends. And I came onto that show thinking, from a storyline perspective, it would be so much better if we came in and we still hated each other. But then we start winning, we start working well together, we kind of bury the hatchet publicly, and we make it into the end and we ride off into the sunset and both win together. In all honesty that was my game plan going into that season. Until we got to the final and [host] TJ [Lavin] dropped that bomb on us about taking all the money. Obviously my first instinct and hers as well is, given the opportunity, I’m going to take all this money. Not just for the revenge, not just for the monetary gains, but for great TV. I put my producer hat on and I’m like, they’re doing something they’ve never done on The Challenge before. So I’m now given the opportunity of probably making one of the biggest, most badass, boldest, backstabbing, heartless moves not just in Challenge history, but in reality TV history.
I did it for the fans more than anything. What a letdown it would’ve been if three teams in the end all had the opportunity to take the money and none of them did it. Love it or hate it, it was an amazing moment and I think it’s still the most talked about moment. When I see people out in public, that’s the first thing they ask—did you feel bad? Would you do it again? And my answer is: no, I didn’t feel bad, yes I would do it again in a heartbeat. There’s not a day I wake up and I look at my bank account and I’m sad that there’s not 275,000 less dollars in it.
How would you fix The Real World?
I’d go back to the format that worked. And that was a bunch of adolescents, early twentysomethings, who had things in common. Who were strong personalities, but not necessarily personalities that just did not mesh. They’re taking people from completely opposite ends of the world and putting them in a house. What made The Real World work back in the day was, you had attractive people in a house who wanted to party, wanted to hang out and wanted to hook up. There was drama, but the drama wasn’t like this crazy visceral hatred. There wasn’t this racism involved, there wasn’t all these other really toxic issues on the show. And while that’s something we obviously face in society, that doesn't need to be the focal point on the show.
People want to watch a show and they want to be entertained. That’s why I started watching The Real World. The first season I watched was Real World: Philadelphia. And the guys were going out hooking up and they were all partying and having a great time—it made me watch The Real World and go, like, this is something I would love to do. The past few seasons of The Real World, I’m like, this looks miserable. These people are beating the shit out of each other, they’re arguing with each other, nobody wants to hang out with anyone else in the house, nobody gets along. So they almost have to come up with all these gimmicks—the skeletons in the closet, the exes. You shouldn’t need that. They thought to hard about the characters. You let me cast [The Real World], it’ll be the best season ever.
How do you feel about the Are You the One? farm system, where The Challenge has been drawing a lot of its new castmates?
I’m not a fan, but obviously they’ve got to get ‘em from somewhere. I was like, dude, we could put up a Craigslist ad and I think the talent would be better than what we’re getting out of Are You the One?. The problem is, Are You the One? is a dating show. The only criteria for getting on is: Are you attractive? And: Are you slutty? With The Real World, love it or hate it, it’s a pretty rigorous casting process that you need to go through in order to get on.
What would your response be if I told you that next season the entire cast of Floribama Shore was going to be on The Challenge?
Oh god. It wouldn’t surprise me. I don’t know, dude. I would prefer the Jersey Shore guys to come on, to be honest. I think they proposed that idea a while ago. That would be great television.
Other than you, who’s in your all-time Challenge top five?
Obviously CT. He and I are one and two, respectively. Kenny and Evan—unfortunately their time was cut short on the show. And then you’d have to say Derrick and Darrell.
More importantly: is Cory the greatest cocksman in Challenge history?
[Laughs] Yes. Cory is the MVP of just being a total fuccboi. And you love it man you gotta have that. Unfortunately, his skills in the bedroom haven’t translated onto the field.
You have six wins. At what point will you retire?
When I feel like I don’t have something to give to the show anymore. I feel like, in a lot of ways, I’m an overprotective father. I want to know if and when I leave The Challenge it’s in good hands, and I just don’t see it [right now].
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.