How Johnny ‘Bananas’ keeps his sanity on top of MTV reality kingdom
It was never a choice for Johnny “Bananas.”
In one of the most dramatic moments in the history of MTV reality show “The Challenge,” Bananas — real name Johnny Devenanzio — took the money right from the hands of partner, Sarah Rice. The 2016 season was called “Rivals III” and it teamed enemies together with the caveat being that the player who performed better in the grueling final would have a chance to keep all the money — in this case a $275,000 first prize — from their partner.
“The first thing that came into my mind was I have to do this for myself financially and I gotta do this for the show,” he said.
“Why would they put this twist out there? And who better to do it than me and Sarah with the history we have. If I don’t, I feel like I’d be letting people down. That’s why I actually say, ’it’s the fans who took Sarah’s money.’ I had to do it for them. Had I split the money would we still be talking about it right now?”
That’s Bananas the reality TV star talking: brash and cutthroat. The one who will be back on TV sets Wednesday night (8 p.m., MTV) for his 20th appearance on the show, which is entering its 35th season and has been on the air since 1998. There is a different side to the 37-year-old.
Devenanzio, who lives in Orange County outside of Los Angeles, cooks all his own meals and “is very handy” when he’s not on the road with MTV or the NBC travel show he hosts. He was adjusting to the new reality that we all are dealing with since the outbreak of coronavirus. He hopes “The Challenge” can be the distraction people need during these times when there are no live sports to provide it.
“I always says, what people envision me to be like, in reality is not who I really am,” Devenanzio, who is a six-time champion on the show, said. “This guy who you are talking to — Johnny Bananas — in real life, would never survive on ‘The Challenge.’ When I go on the show, it’s like a coat of armor and changing who I am.
“It’s a psychological and physical war. One of the hardest things to do is to distinguish between who I am on and TV and who I am in reality. That’s another reason why it’s important for me to draw a clear line, so I don’t completely lose my mind like The Joker.”
Devenanzio is the most recognizable face on the show. He has played alongside some of these competitors for years and that involves spending two months at a time with them in close quarters.
“I am forced to deal with these people on camera. I keep my circle very small. You spend so much time with those people and they do really get on your last nerve. A lot of this newer generation I just don’t like,” Devenanzio said.
“It makes it more difficult. The larger the circle you hang with off the show, the harder it gets when you’re on it. You’re going to have to screw one of them over. That adds a whole other murkiness to your life. Plus, I need an escape, I need a break. I can’t live and breathe ‘The Challenge’ year-round. That’s how I’ve maintained and not completely lost my mind. I say completely because there’s parts of my brain that [are] missing from doing years of this show.
“There’s no way there can’t be. What I’ve subjected my brain to, I don’t know. Science is going to study my brain one day and be like, ‘Wow, what the f—k?’ I have my left foot grounded in reality, so when I am home I have my normal life away from ‘The Challenge’ and my right foot planted in chaos.”
Devenanzio puts himself in the center of that chaos seemingly each season. He has long-standing rivalries, most notably with Wes Bergmann, and is outright dismissive of the new characters whom are often picked from various reality shows through the years.
Devenanzio’s divisive nature, along with the athletic ability that is needed to thrive in the various competitions the challengers are put through, is what makes him stand out on the show.
“I am a producer first, talent second. I know how this show works and what makes TV and storylines,” Devenanzio said. ”Just winding people up and creating drama. Over the years I’ve gotten really good … I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been the ones to call producers in on scenes.
“I am out like a shot when there’s something going on. ‘You gotta get there. This one is about to punch that one. This one found out she’s sleeping with this guy.’ Sometimes moments that last 30 seconds if you capture that on camera is an intricate part in a massive storyline and without that clip you wouldn’t understand that storyline. I love doing that.”
A large part of the game is setting up alliances to tilt the numbers in your favor when it comes to voting people into weekly eliminations that decides who goes home each week. This season the 28 competitors (14 men, 14 women) are living in a Soviet-style bunker that added to the stress of the game.
“I enjoy it being over… We are forced to be in the game for 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Devenanzio said. “They’ve taken everything away from us in terms of an escape from the game: no books, no magazines, no contact with the outside world, one 10-minute phone call a week which is nothing. We are forced to sit there and deal with the game day in and day out.
“That’s all you have to talk about, think about, breathe. It really does get overwhelming. When you do have a strategy come to fruition it is one of the greatest feelings ever. Other than winning a elimination or a final, orchestrating a well-constructed strategy is one of the greatest feelings ever. Every season is a test.”
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