The first time Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio appeared on MTV’s The Challenge he suffered the worst humiliation of his life. It was October of 2006 and the brash 25-year-old was still riding high from his recent run on The Real World: Key West. Little was required of him on that show other than flirting with his housemates during the day and getting into drunken fights with them in the evening. But now he was in an enormous oceanfront mansion in Búzios, Brazil, packed with veteran cast members of The Real World and Road Rules engaged in a Machiavellian power struggle to earn the top prize of $150,000. “There was a whole game going on around me and I had no idea it was even happening,” he says. “I was the first one eliminated. I vowed that it would never happen again.”
The Challenge began in 1998 as the Real World/Road Rules Challenge, where former cast members from both reality shows competed in Survivor-like elimination events that could include anything from dangling off a skyscraper to scarfing down bull testicles until an individual, duo or small team wins. (The exact rules change every season.) The 32 seasons MTV has somehow packed into 20 years have featured competitors such as WWE Superstar Michael “The Miz” Mizanin and Wisconsin congressman Sean Duffy (who met his future wife Rachel Campos on the first season).
And the biggest winner across all that time is Johnny Bananas, who has won six of his 17 seasons and racked up $682,793 in the process. He’s also become the most notorious competitor in the vast Challenge universe — and the only one basically guaranteed to come back every season and wreak havoc, whether or not he actually makes to the very end.
But at age 36, Bananas is now a decade older than many of his Challenge competitors and there’s a whole new breed of them from shows like Big Brother, Ex on the Beach, Geordie Shore and America Ninja Warrior that are eager to take him out and establish themselves as the new top dog. It’s meant that Bananas has come up short in his last four Challenge appearances and faces an increasingly hostile atmosphere each time out, especially as trusted friends from his original era disappear from the show.
“I fight a different battle than any other cast member in that I show up on day one and I have to begin fighting the second I get there,” he says. “The list of people with me has dwindled down to no one and the list of people against me is bigger than it’s ever been.”
The changing landscape has prompted him to prepare for a career outside of The Challenge. Last year, he became the new host of NBC’s 1st Look, a long-running travel series that airs after Saturday Night Live. It’s sent him to train with NFL players, visit a cannabis farm, work in a Jelly Belly factory and chill with one of the biggest wine producers in France. “The guy you see on reality television isn’t going to fly in a situation like that,” he says. “I have to find this new person to be in front of the camera as a host. I’m forced to be a more well-rounded personality.”
His ultimate goal is to be the next Anthony Bourdain. “I found myself watching all of his old episodes,” he says. “I want to see what made that guy so successful and that’s who I’m trying to emulate. That’s really what I want to do, whether it’s traveling or hosting something in a studio. I want to take that next step.”
That doesn’t mean he’s retiring from his day job. The Challenge: War of The Worlds began on February 6th and will likely run for five months. This season, veterans like Bananas are teamed up with newcomers from shows like The Bachelor, Bad Girls Club and Vanderpump Rules. “A lot of people complained last season about the lack of physicality and the lack of difficulty of the challenges and the final,” says Bananas. “You can throw that into the dust. This one is beyond brutal. Most seasons we’re in these sexy, tropical, glamorous destinations. This one is straight apocalyptic, Mad Max, middle-of-nowhere desert landscape [in Namibia]. The house felt like Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.”
It was basically the last place on earth that Bananas, who grew up in Santa Monica, California, could have imagined his career taking him back in high school when he was a C student with absolutely no plans for the future beyond rebuffing his dad’s constant demand that he follow in his footsteps and join the Army. When his father was transferred to Long Island, he followed him across the country and signed up for Nassau Community College. “By the grace of God, I made the Dean’s List two semesters in a row,” he says. That allowed him to join his cousin Vince (who would later appear on two seasons of The Challenge) at Penn State, where he majored in economics (his third choice after marketing and communications, “because I’m a basic bitch”).
He grew up in a house without cable and had never seen The Real World, but he fell in love with a woman named Amy that watched the show religiously with her friends. “I kind of got hooked,” he says. “I was like, ‘Let me get this straight: This is basically about guys who live in a house with hot girls and they party and they argue and they get a little bit of notoriety for that? I can do that.'”
When he learned MTV was accepting applications for a new season, he checked out a video camera from the Penn State audio/visual department and made a little tape of himself. Before he knew it, he was headed to Key West, Florida. “There were two reality shows back then: The Real World and Survivor,” he says. “The Real World used to go 25 episodes. You were on TV for six months. Because there wasn’t much competition for reality shows, fans really got to know you better.”
When the show wrapped, Bananas was suddenly incredibly famous by reality show standards. “I literally thought I was King Midas,” he says. “Everything I touched turned to gold. My first season off The Real World I did over 100 bar appearances. I was doing 20 a month, different city, different state, doing spring break appearances, college speaking appearances. It was insane.”
But even the type of super reality show fame that was possible back in 2006 fades pretty quickly unless you follow it up. After whiffing on his first season of The Challenge, Bananas got into incredible physical shape and learned how to work the show to his advantage. He earned a reputation as a master manipulator — the guy that saw the entire chessboard of the game and ruthlessly plotted against his opponents.
The most infamous moment of his career came in August of 2016 when he won the The Challenge: Rivals III and was given the chance to either keep the entire pot of $275,000 for himself or share it with his partner, Sarah Patterson. He kept it. Patterson had betrayed him in a prior season and the move was his long-awaited revenge, though it didn’t sit well with many fans who thought Patterson undeserving of such a dastardly maneuver. (That finale was, however, recently named the 42nd-best television episode of the 2000s by The Ringer.)
“The absolute tsunami of negativity on social media was unlike anything I’d ever experienced,” he says. “But how lame would it have been if they had created this plot twist where one person could take all the money and I didn’t take advantage of it? It would have been the most lackluster, anti-climactic finale ever.” (He also notes that Patterson “is married to a multimillionaire wine distributor guy; she’s good.”)
MTV has yet to announce the cast for next season’s Challenge, but odds are very high that Bananas will be on it. “I know this sounds cliche, but age is just a number,” he says. “Tom Brady is in the Super Bowl and he’s 41. I might not have one left in me, but I might have eight left in me. I’m going to continue doing Challenges until MTV says no more, my body says no more or my mom says no more. But my mom loves The Challenge. My dad is a more traditional guy. He’s like, ‘When are you going to get serious and get a real job?’ Until three years ago he was still trying to get me to join the Army. I’m like, ‘Dad, I don’t think they’ll let me join anymore. Can you move on?'”