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The Untold Truth Of MTV's The Challenge

MTV's "The Challenge" is one of the longest-running reality series on television to date. The show has produced over 30 seasons, all while participating in various spin-offs and crossovers with other famous reality franchises, helping "The Challenge" make a name for itself across multiple platforms. With its most recent move to CBS, the heavyweight reality show champ is on the verge of creating its own universe. CBS announced that this version of the series would take champions across all its shows to crown the first-ever world champion of "The Challenge" (via People).

A show with this much history is bound to have some untold truths, and luckily, we're here to uncover some of the best facts for you. This comes just in time as MTV announced the launch of its own series on Instagram, "The Challenge: Untold History," which premiers in 2022. As "The Challenge" has over 500 episodes under its belt, it's safe to say that there will be more even secrets to uncover once the series airs. But until then, we're here to satisfy your curiosity. Here are some of the best unknown facts about MTV's "The Challenge."

The Challenge started as a crossover episode

The year was 1998. MTV's hit series "The Real World" had become a milestone in pop culture that was praised for boldly bringing forth complex and real emotions from different and sometimes marginalized groups of people (via The New Yorker). In 1998, camera crews followed the cast from "The Real World" as they met up with another MTV series that was filming at the same time, "Road Rules: Islands" (via The A.V. Club). Producers thought it would be fun to create a friendly game between the two shows. They created a series of lighthearted competitions with small cash prizes at the end. This was mainly a bit of enjoyment for both casts to unwind, but once the door was unlocked, there was no going back.

The crossover event provided the network with a serious boost in ratings for both shows. Therefore, the producers tried this little crossover again with another season of "The Real World" and "Road Rules," and the concept of "The Challenge" was born.

At first, The Challenge only had Real World cast members

Before "The Challenge" was given its name, the show was seen as more of a special that would air between seasons of "The Real World." Originally, the show had a much smaller budget, and it would pile "Real World" alumni in an RV to take part in challenges for prize money. At the time, only those who had been on a season of "The Real World" were allowed to participate, as "The Challenge" was largely used to gain excitement for the series. Unfortunately for "The Real World," viewership numbers had been dwindling over the years (via Prime Timer).

As "The Real World" faded in popularity, "The Challenge" began casting people from other MTV reality shows, such as "Are You The One?" In later years, "The Challenge" has since branched outside of the MTV network, with the only prerequisite being that cast members come from another reality TV show. Most recently, contestants from shows like "Big Brother" and "Survivor" have begun to dominate the series. 

The Challenge didn't always have TJ Lavin as its host

TJ Lavin has become synonymous with "The Challenge" as he has hosted the series since Season 11 aired back in 2005. Since then, he's become a staple for audiences who know that his biggest pet peeve is quitters, and his favorite challenge is trivia. Lavin is a criminally underrated host when it comes to reality TV, as his approachable personality makes him seem like a real person rather than just a reality host. With Lavin, what you see is what you get.

Lavin himself has said, "People can see right through a guy who's not using his real voice. I'm just the same dude. I didn't change any slang. If there's something in the script that I wouldn't say, I won't do it. Once in a while, they'll want something a bit sharper than I would say it. But it's still in my tone." (via GQ).

Before hosting "The Challenge," Lavin was a professional dirt jumping cyclist. It's clear that his love for danger and competition was a perfect fit for the show. However, Lavin did leave the series for a bit, as he wanted to be a firefighter. However, that didn't last as he ended up coming right back to the show. Lavin told E! News that he was fired within the first month of the training because of his laidback attitude. Luckily, this is something that "The Challenge" viewers love about him.

The Challenge shot a reporter out of a cannon

In 2019, a reporter from People was invited to the set of "The Challenge." Knowing that the show revolved around high stakes that pushed the body and the mind to their limits, Breanne L. Heldman held her head high and walked into the lion's den. As soon as she arrived, Heldman was asked how she would feel about being shot out of a cannon.

According to People, Heldman was the first reporter ever to have been invited to the set of "The Challenge." Her invitation saw her join the cast of Season 34, which was called "The Challenge: War of the Worlds 2." She got to sit down with some of the best champions from "The Challenge" to reflect on their status and to discuss what she might expect. Finally, she was approached by producers and told that she'd be shot out of a cannon over a lake of water. Heldman watched as "The Challenge" stunt coordinator used the cannon first to show her what to expect. Then it was her turn. Not one to want to disappoint the cast or the host, TJ Lavin, she climbed into the cannon and let it blast her into the water.

The Challenge does every stunt beforehand

Emer Harkin is an executive producer who has been with MTV's "The Challenge" for years. She was invited to Gold Derby as a guest to discuss some behind-the-scenes information about the reality series. Harkin happily spent the interview discussing the nuances of the show, all while she was being driven around the filming location of another "The Challenge" season.

When asked how the production team comes up with new and engaging challenges for the cast to take part in, Harkin revealed that whatever they come up with, production hires the best stunt team available to ensure that the cast will be safe. She explained that the stunt team will check out the gear and perform the challenges first and foremost. While the production does expect some cast members to get bumps and bruises, they truly don't want anyone to be severely injured. "The Challenge" has followed rules like these for decades to ensure a safe environment for everyone on set.

The Challenge's eliminations have changed

According to Prime Timer, "The Challenge" began to find its footing in Season 5, titled "Real World/Road Rules Challenge: Battle of the Seasons." Instead of simply having a group of people fighting for their team to win, the format was changed to introduce an elimination strategy. By each episode's end, someone would be eliminated from the competition. This would ensure that only the best person or team would take home the ultimate cash prize, which was significantly higher as each season got bigger and bigger.

While the show has thrown a few curve balls every now and again to keep things fresh, this elimination strategy has stayed and become a staple of "The Challenge." In recent years, it's now mandatory for all competitors to go into the elimination grounds at least once to earn their way to the finale. This was included because some players were too afraid of elimination ceremonies and would do everything they could to make their way to the final without having to survive an elimination round.

The Challenge will never have a vet-only season

A large part of "The Challenge" is the idea of bringing in new cast members to battle it out for the coveted prize of champ against older and more established players. This is typically bottled down to the idea of rookies against veterans. However, it may surprise you to know that "The Challenge" producers have stated that there will likely never be an all vet-season.

"The Challenge" casting producer Skye Topic spoke with US Weekly, saying that it wouldn't work for the show because "you need that rookie element to push the vets so they're not just playing into their friendships and politics." She wants fans to know that she understands, as she also has her favorites (such as the controversial Josh Martinez) but that she must cast for what's best for drama in the show. It's not about bringing nostalgia back.

Topic also shared that casting has become a massive process. Typically, they cast 30 people for the show with an additional 6 to 10 people as backup options should anything happen with the original cast members.

The Challenge casting process is long

E! News sat down with MTV producer and vice president of series development Dan Caster to discuss the intense casting process involved with "The Challenge." Aside from just finding someone who can stir the pot, so to speak, the production team must also find individuals who can physically and mentally compete with people who've made a career out of playing "The Challenge."

Despite that, physical testing hasn't been added to the casting process yet. Instead, production will watch old footage of each new potential cast mate from their previous time on reality TV to assess if they're ready for "The Challenge." That's why producers have found such success with "Big Brother" players, as they're used to the mind games that can be associated with the show. Similarly, "Survivor" contestants are often a good match for "The Challenge" because they are physically fit and can be competitive in intense challenges.

Caster also revealed that while longtime star of "The Challenge" Johnny Bananas has been with the show for years, even he doesn't have a guaranteed spot for each show. Production has to decide who works best with the theme of the season, and sometimes Bananas' established personality doesn't quite fit the mold.

The Challenge has permanently banned cast members

While there have been many cast members to come and go on "The Challenge," some were given permanent bans from returning, as their behavior required firm action to match the severity of the issue.

According to Distractify, Kenny Santucci, Evan Starkman, and Tonya Cooley were part of a serious case of sexual assault when Cooley said both Starkman and Santucci took advantage of her physically. Cooley filed a lawsuit against MTV that was settled out-of-court privately (via Jezebel). More recently, past contestants Dee Nguyen and Camila Nakagawa have been called into question for their racist and problematic behavior. Nakagawa was a staple on "The Challenge" as a vet and champ. However, her cast member Jemmye Carroll stated that Nakagawa was banned due to a physical attack on a PA. Afterward, she claims that Nakagawa stole and damaged MTV property (via Jemmye Carroll). Since then, MTV has been called into question as to why Nakagawa wasn't banned for using a racist term against her cast member Leroy Garrett in a season that she would later go on to win (via Us Weekly).

Dee Nguyen was banned after her comments came to light regarding the movement Black Lives Matter in 2020. MTV made a statement saying that they had "cut ties" with her after the offensive comments, with many of her castmates following suit (via Global News).

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

The Challenge doesn't pay off unless you win

"The Challenge" star Brandon Nelson was cast on some of the older seasons of the hit reality show. He first joined the show in Season 19, "The Challenge: Fresh Meat II" and immediately returned in Season 20, "The Challenge: Cutthroat." He went on to compete in the 2011 season "Rivals," Battle of the Seasons" in 2012, and "Free Agents" in 2014. He wrote about his experience with the show on Insider, giving audiences a sneak peek at what it's actually like to be cast on "The Challenge."

According to Nelson, the entire casting process felt like a job interview, with production going deep into his past and questioning him about things he completely forgot about. However, the biggest bombshell he dropped was that production doesn't really pay for very much. Nelson recalled that sometimes production would chip in for food but stated that unless you win the prize at the end, you don't make much money. He admits that times have changed now, with more recent seasons giving a higher base pay, but that it's truly not worth it unless you win.