If MTV’s long-running reality competition show The Challenge were the NBA, six-time champion Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio would undoubtably be Michael Jordan. But Chris “C.T.” Tamburello would be Shaq. His enormous size, intimidating demeanor, athletic prowess and keen gameplay have kept him a key component of the game across 14 seasons, over which he’s won $265,000. In the old days he was such an unstable force that he was once sent home by producers for throwing a punch at a castmate before the game even started. In recent years, however, he’s mellowed into a wise elder statesman who’s happy to let the new kids drunkenly wail on each other while he stands back and plots his next move.
Earlier this month, C.T. returned to the franchise on The Challenge: Final Reckoning, which airs on MTV at 9:00 pm every Tuesday. He phoned up Rolling Stone to talk about the new season, what he thinks spoiled The Real World, how he’s grown and why he thinks he might hang it all up in just two years.
Do you go by Chris in your day-to-day life or C.T.?
I always say that calling me C.T. off the show is like calling a dancer by their stage name when they’re not dancing.
Got it. You’ve been part of the Real World/Challenge universe ever since you were on The Real World: Paris in 2003. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in that time?
The Real World started out as an experiment that was all about bringing different cultures together to see if they could co-exist. It felt like you got lucky and you won the lottery and were on a free trip. I’m not trying to knock the show because I love it, but now I feel like it’s basically a machine. The Real World got put on the back burner because it felt stale. It just seemed like it was the same seven people cast every season with different names and different faces. It is what it is. If it makes a comeback, it’ll be nothing like the original. Then again, I’m about to be 38. Maybe it’s not the same for me because I’m not in my twenties anymore.
What about how The Challenge has changed specifically?
Back in the day, it was one giant party. It was like a vacation. I remember at one of the first Challenges, the producers would come out and tell everyone to go to bed because we had a challenge the next morning. I remember being like, “Oh, right. That’s why we’re here.” Now it’s almost become a professional sport. It’s not a vacation anymore. If you just kick back, you won’t be there very long.
We also used to wear whatever we wanted. We had phones! One of the biggest changes is we used to have communication with the outside world. We were sponsored by T-Mobile at one point. I remember people would be arguing and I’d be on my phone. I’d walk by and be like, “Do you guys mind?” Now that’s a no-no. We also used to get days off. Now you’ll occasionally see us at a beach or whatever with the camera crew there, but back in the day we’d get a real day off. They’re drop us off somewhere in town and be like, “Be back by 4:00 pm. If you’re not, you’ve got to find your own way back to the house.”
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The things that happened during what I call the “golden age” of The Challenge can’t really happen anymore. That’s because, I think, people tend to be more premeditated when they come on the show. They have a goal. It just doesn’t feel as genuine to me, I guess. People are crazier. They are more willing to do whatever they’ve got to do to get that ripple of traffic. Back in the day, you’d get called out more for being “fake.” I mean, everybody does change a little when they’re on TV, but now it’s just a different kind of animal. The competition is so intense. Everybody is out to get everybody. Everybody is out to fight.
How long before filming begins on a typical season do they call you up and invite you on?
Usually we get a couple of months, or maybe just a month. Some people get the call a week before. Some people will get the call while we’re filming.
What happens in the preseason? Do you try to figure out who is going to be on and then form alliances?
No. Back in the day, I would try to go around and figure out who was going to be there. But now, honestly, I don’t want to even know where we’re going. That would take the fun out of it. I like showing up at the airport, checking in, making my last phone call, signing my life away, and then I get the plane ticket to where I’m going. Not counting Champs vs. Stars, I’ve never actually filmed a show in the United States.
I really feel like the luckiest dude on Earth. My entire life has been on TV. At one point or another, I’ve been on every continent expect for the South Pole. And I still think it’s one of the best shows on TV. It’s like the Willy Wonka of our generation. You win that Golden Ticket and you’re off to another land. You see the world.
Do you think you go in with a target on your back because those new kids want to make a name for themselves and take out the champ?
No. I mean, I am sure there are people that wouldn’t mind if I went home. But at the same time, I’ve really been playing up the whole “old man dad-bod” vibe for a while now. I try to come off as non-threatening as possible. Look, I’ve done very well since I came out of retirement. I’ve won three out of the five shows I’ve been on in the last couple of years, which is surprising. I’m doing better with my dad bod than I did when I was in my twenties.
How bored do you get in that house since there’s no phones, Internet, TV, music or really anything?
One phrase that comes to mind is, “Hurry up and wait.” But it’s easy to deal with those things since I’ve been lucky enough to do it for so long. When you’re a young buck without a care in the world, there’s plenty to do. You sit around, party a little and plot someone else’s demise. With me, it’s a little different. I don’t want to say it’s boring if I’m trying to gas the show up, but there is a lot of downtime. Like you said, there’s no television. There’s very little escape. You’re not even allowed to leave the property. And when you make it further in The Challenge, there’s less people and less to do. There’s a lot of idle time. But I can’t complain. You’re getting paid to be in another country on a TV show. It’s hard to knock it.
When I do get bored, I like to indirectly stir the pot. We call it a movie night when two people start fighting. When something starts between two people you’ll hear someone yell out, “Movie night!” Then everybody stops what they’re doing and they come running out to watch the fight. When someone gets too loose at the bar back home, you tell them to pump the breaks. But when you’re on a show, it might be a good idea to buy everyone another round.
Do you ever wake up on a bunk bed in a room full of crazy people in the middle of the night and think to yourself, “I’m too old for this shit. I want to go home.”
Yeah, all the time. I’ll think to myself, “I miss my kids. I miss my home. This is my life?” My back is killing me. The mattress is all worn out. I’m in a room with 500 people with stinky feet and they snore. There’s always somebody running around drunk that doesn’t let anybody sleep. But this is my life. I’m getting paid for this? What?
You were obviously a lot crazier in your early years on the show. They even threw you off a couple of times. What do you think when you look back to the old C.T.?
Oh my god, what an asshole. I guess it’s part of growing up. I do regret getting into fights and getting kicked off. Looking back now, I’m like, “Oh my god, so many wasted opportunities.” It’s all part of learning. I’m lucky that I had another chance to come back. I do think I hold the record for the longest-running alcohol restriction. I think I’m grandfathered in at this point. I don’t even want to take my belt off. It’s like an award.
I sometimes think that I’m in the shadows of the old me. I’m not that guy anymore. I guess some people still look at me in the same way and there’s this intimidation factor. When I get into an argument with someone I don’t even have to raise my voice. I’m probably gonna get hit with a stun gun or a tranquilizer. These kids now run around all night, chasing each other with knives, throwing stuff over balconies, falling through glass windows… They just get a slap on the wrist and a night in a hotel room. They come back in the morning. They used to carry me out of there like I was Hannibal Lecter.
It’s true. But there were times where it seemed like you were truly going to murder somebody.
[Laughs] The rules have changed. The things we used to get away with, we’d never get away with now. Every season the fines list gets longer and longer. You get fined if you show up to a challenge drunk. You’ll probably get kicked off the show because that’s a liability. We do these crazy stunts where we’re hanging above a tall building on harnesses. You can’t be doing that if you’re drunk.
Do you still want to be doing this in your forties?
I have a timeline. My son will be five when I’m 40. Honestly, I can’t see myself doing this when I’m 40. I mean, I know I said that about turning 30 when I was in my twenties. Then I said it about turning 35. But honestly, they’re popping these shows out at a much faster rate now. Back in the day, they’d make one or maybe two a year. Now we’re pumping out four or five. It’s a lot different. My son is going to school soon. I want him to come home and have me there. I don’t want to be a dad that’s never around.
But it’s a changing scene. Now we’ve got Champs vs. Stars. Personally, I prefer doing that. Granted, if you win you don’t get the money, but it’s for a good cause. It’s filmed in L.A. I get my own room. There’s no bunk beds and I get to keep my own phone! At the same time, I’ll be 38 very soon. I’m lucky to still be doing this. I never thought my 15 minutes would last 15 years. And I don’t expect it to last much longer! I have termed the lease. I really can’t see myself doing this over 40. I want to ride off gracefully into the sunset and pass the torch to a new generation.
Without saying any names, there’s some people on the show who are starting to look a little desperate. It’s like they’ll do anything to stay on these shows. A lot of people think they have to act a certain way or do certain things to secure their position in another Challenge. They’ll come in like, “Oh, I really need to hook up with someone this season or otherwise I don’t think I’ll get invited back.” That’s sort of the mentality now.
Sometimes I wish it would go back to when people just went all-in and they were proud to be themselves. They didn’t have to try and be something they weren’t. When you watch the show now, you can tell that people go on these shows and get the star effect. They specifically try to hook up with certain types of people in the hopes they’ll be partners on a future challenge. They also might pick a fight with a strong competitor in the hopes they’ll later be on the same team.
That does feel like the case now. You need a story line or you’re nothing.
I get it, but it’s a different world. When I started, reality TV was frowned upon in the entertainment industry. Now you see people from reality TV moving forward and doing other things. It’s a stepping-stone, which is great. The new generation coming up is far more productive in applying this exposure to something else. I’ll give them that, for sure.
In recent years they’ve brought back old-school players like Veronica Portillo, Derrick Kosinski and you. Are you hoping they’ll keep doing that?
Yeah. I think it would be cool to have an “Old School vs. New School” season, for sure. It would be like that movie where the old astronauts go up in space and bang heads. What’s that called?
Yeah! But then again, this younger generation is starting to look like a bunch of pro athletes. They’re all jacked up and in shape. They’re in much better shape than I was at the time.
How do you feel about the decision to bring on cast members from other shows like Big Brother, Ex On The Beach and Geordie Shore?
Honestly, it was only a matter of time. There’s no more Road Rules. There’s no more Real World. They need to find casts. At first I was against it, being a stubborn old man. “This is my show! Go back to your own show! Get lost! Oh, now you guys want to jump on our show and be a part of it?” I remember back in the day when nobody wanted to touch this show. They were too good for it. It was bad for your career if you did reality TV. That’s just the changing of the times. That’s the direction everything is going. The numbers are up! What am I going to do when it’s working?
They are bringing Real World back. How do you think they should format it?
Look at Jersey Shore. It’s basically another Real World, but they let them do what they want to do. They let them be themselves. Not that the Real World doesn’t let you do that, but honestly if they bring it back they should try and bring some substance into it. I know I’m old and it’s a young person’s show, but I’m tired of just seeing people fight, hook up and cry. That’s all it really is. I want to see kids talking about something else other than, “So-and-so is a piece of shit and I want to get with this chick.” I want to see them doing something productive. I want to see them have fun. Don’t get me wrong. The fights and hookups and crying will always be there, but they also need… I don’t know.
Fans are always curious about your off-camera life. Do you have a job?
I’ve always kept a job off the shows. I mean, I never forget where I came from. Back in the day, there was no monetizing your social media. You couldn’t be like, “I did this show for X number of years, now I’m gonna file with an agency and do casting.” I always took the guaranteed show money and came home and got a job.
What sort of work do you do?
I’ve been doing real estate and construction for years. I do bang in nails, but typically what I’ll do is look at online options. I don’t know if I should be telling you this since I don’t want any competition, but typically we’ll go in there with our crew, find a property, fix it up and we’ll just sell it. Right now, the way the market is, rent is going through the roof. It’s better to hold onto a bunch of rental properties than it is to sell them.
But I’m not going to talk about the work that I do. It’s whatever. I will say this though: My private life? Stay tuned. I’m sure you guys are going to get an in-depth look at what my life is like outside the show. You’ll see.
Are you going to be on another reality show?
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