SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the finale of “The Challenge: Total Madness.”
As the contestants on “The Challenge: Total Madness” prepared for their final competition, Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio toasted the group by telling them that out of all of the seasons of the MTV reality competition of which he was a part — and there were a lot, this being a record 20th — “this is hands down mentally, spiritually, emotionally the most draining experience I have ever been through.”
With its post-apocalyptic theme and bunker-style housing arrangements, “Total Madness” set out to make it feel like the world had ended and there was no one left but those competing for the million-dollar prize ($500,000 for the male winner and $500,000 for the female winner). And that was still before the group had to trek through miles of snow at 9,000 feet of elevation in the Austrian alps, carrying logs, building fires, solving puzzles and climbing steep terrain.
“I like to consider myself pretty mentally strong and I’ve done the show for a long time and I feel like it really doesn’t have residual effects on me after the season’s over, but this one really did a number on me and everyone in the bunker,” Devenanzio tells Variety. “People say this season wasn’t that dramatic, but it was because we were miserable. We’re underground, with no natural sunlight in the wintertime and in one of the coldest, most desolate places on earth, breathing artificial air and there’s this really mind-numbing game and so much on the line.”
For Devenanzio, there was also the additional pressure to win, he says, after last taking the title and prize money in 2016 on the “Rivals III” season. Then, he technically won the final challenge with teammate Sarah Rice, but a twist in the game allowed the team member with the best time to decide whether or not they would split the prize money with their partner. Devenanzio opted not to, pocketing the full $275,000 for himself, leaving Rice devastated — and leading many fans to wonder if the action sparked a curse when he then went five seasons not even making it to the final, let alone seeing a win. Devenanzio did bring it home on “Total Madness,” though. (Jenny West was the female winner.)
“The mental and physical anguish that I went through this season, to make it this far and to not pull it through, I just don’t know if I would have ever been able to to shake that — to get past that and to be able to do it again,” he says.
Devenanzio half-jokes that anyone with Italian grandparents grew up understanding the importance of a cornicello (a talisman to prevent bad luck) and is quick to quip, “Curses were made to be broken.” But, he admits he doesn’t really believe in karma, instead calling his multi-season losing streak the result of dealing with the changing competition.
“I think good things happen to good people and bad things happen to good people. I don’t want to credit some magical and mystical force out there,” he explains. “I was a victim of my own success and it’s like that with any professional sport: the team that is the most hated is usually the team that wins the most. I used to be able to come on every season and play my game; I wasn’t probably everyone’s target. Now, obviously, I’m the guy to get rid of.”
Devenanzio got his start on MTV’s “The Real World” in 2006 and then went onto “The Duel” season of “The Challenge” that same year. He competed 12 times, winning five, before “Rivals III” culminated in a move that cemented him as one of the biggest reality villains in a lot of viewers’ (and players’) minds. But it was a move that also cemented him as one of the biggest reality personalities, arguably allowing for new kinds of success, be it returning to the cable series six more times to date, as well as launching a career as a host in 2018 (an “Ex on the Beach” special and NBC’s “1st Look”) and appearing on scripted series (“American Dad”) and unscripted ones (“Fear Factor,” “Ridiculousness” and “Worst Cooks in America: Celebrity Edition”).
“‘The Challenge’ is familiar to me. Regardless of the cast that shows up or the format or the theme or wherever it takes place, I get how this works. I almost feel institutionalized in a way, like in ‘Shawshank Redemption’ when Morgan Freeman’s character gets released from prison and it’s an adjustment to be on the outside. It really has become such a part of me,” Devenanzio says. “The other projects were just a little bit scary [at first] because I had developed a specific persona on ‘The Challenge’ and I had to take pause and rethink because hosting is a completely different thing. I realized it isn’t all about absorbing all the oxygen in the room and soundbites and everything being a punchline; it’s more about being interested as opposed to interesting [and] it’s about giving the other person the spotlight.”
While Devenanzio notes that he doesn’t feel like he’s gotten to a point on “The Challenge” where he’s “done it all” (and maybe never will), splitting his time with travel series “1st Look” allows him to expand his cultural horizons in a new way. Although he flies all over the world for “The Challenge,” he doesn’t get to experience the local sights, experiences and people while there. On “The Challenge” he is limited to interactions with his fellow cast members, many of whom he has known for years. “1st Look” has “given me the opportunity to interact with some of the most unique human beings on planet Earth,” he says.
“I was in South Korea, a few months ago — I stepped foot into North Korea, I got to meet people and I got to brew wine with them and I got to go whitewater rafting with them. I just did a shoot in upstate New York and I got to spend a day with the first Black mayor,” he says.
Balancing his time between the two shows includes having to prepare mentally to shift in and out of personas, as well as physically, training in new ways but not necessarily more than in his earlier years on “The Challenge.”
“When I was in my 20s I didn’t have to work out. I could eat whatever I wanted, I could go out to bar appearances, and I had age on my side. I compare it to when there’s like a pitcher who comes up and he throws fastballs because he can go harder and faster than the other guys can hit it — but then as he ages, he loses his speed and he has to start spotting his pitches. You have to get a little more craft, a little more shifty,” he says. “I have to put in three times the work to get the same physical output that I did years ago, but I can’t train every day. If I train once, I need to rest for like three days. If we have a really physical challenge, I’m in bed, really banged up. [So] now it’s a much more cerebral game that I play. It’s my understanding [of] how the game is played and how to just navigate the troubled waters and figure out how to strategize.”
As much as Devenanzio has been expanding his reality TV footprint in the last few years, he is quick to give credit for his growth to the franchise that launched him into the spotlight in a prolonged way.
“I really do feel like I’ve learned over the years how to be a producer,” he says, noting that a current goal is to produce a show on which he is also on-camera talent.
He admits that making an alliance with former rival Wes Bergmann on “Total Madness” was not just “good for my game” but also “for an amazing story.”
“And then, it was like, ‘Hey let’s prank Bear and Kailah with putting photos on the ceiling,’ that’s a great story. I love doing that. I love showing up every season and setting up these amazing things,” he says.
But “The Challenge” also helped him grow personally, he shares.
“A really amazing byproduct of being on [‘The Challenge’] for as long as I have is it’s given me a very rare opportunity that most people don’t get, which is to watch myself grow up and be able to tweak things about myself and change things about myself that I see on reality TV that I like or I don’t like,” he says.
And, he continues, “‘The Challenge’ shows you that in a survival situation, you’d be shocked at what the human mind [and] the human body is capable of. And I felt it was beyond walls when it comes to me, and I think that, overall, has just made me a much physically and mentally stronger person.”