Island fever

I was willing to spring my gay porn past on my unsuspecting family if it would get me on the TV show "Survivor." But would it?

Published March 13, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

The news came Christmas Day and blew away anything I'd unwrapped that morning. A wild pack of nieces and nephews had worn me out wrestling, and I'd sneaked off to my parents' room to check my voice mail back in Denver. A few minutes later, I bounded back into the rec room yelping so frantically that the rug rats actually toppled off their next victim. "They picked me, they picked me! I'm a semifinalist for 'Survivor'!"

My sprawling Irish Catholic family returned a collective look of bewilderment. "What the hell is 'Survivor'?"

They hadn't even heard. CBS was planning to strand 16 people on a desert island off the coast of Borneo. Six weeks working together to catch their own food, build their our own huts -- and voting every three days to boot one of the team off the island. The last one standing wins $1 million.

I'd made it to the semifinals, one of 50 from the Denver region. The producers were coming out mid-January to interview us down to three. Those finalists would be flown out to L.A. with 45 more from 15 other cities for intense interviews and a battery of physical and mental evaluations.

I was still an 800-1 long-shot for the million dollars, but I wasn't thinking about the money. I was just dying for the adventure. Just a chance to take on the pythons, deadly sea snakes and wild pigs -- not to mention 15 desperate, greedy, back-stabbing teammates.

"Eight-hundred-to-1, my ass," my brother sneered. "Way I figure it, your odds are a million to one. Not a chance in hell those people are going to pick you. Not a chance in hell."

My brother just didn't grasp how badly I wanted this. Bad enough to let the whole wide world in on my dirty little secret: I'd worked my way through grad school as a gay porn star.

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I really did grow up dreaming of running away to the circus, only vaguely aware I'd been born into the wrong century. Eventually, I was sure, I'd be an astronaut. I just needed some sort of adventure to tide me over until adulthood. The Eagle landed just after my eighth birthday, and I spent the night plotting my own private space race: making it to my 20s before NASA could make it to Mars. Moonwalking was taken, but perhaps I could be first onto a planet.

I did run away finally, from college, halfway through my senior year. NASA had no plans for a Mars mission; I realized that the Apollo program was a one-shot fling. All the great adventures had already sailed. So I enlisted in an ancient one: the infantry. I signed up for a stint in South Korea. Never made it there. The Army kept me on at Fort Benning, Ga., as a drill corporal after basic training: a year training troops, then on to Officer Candidate School, where they turned me into a lieutenant.

The infantry was heaven -- digging foxholes, sleeping out in the rain and attacking defensive perimeters in the Georgia back country -- but my peer group was getting away from me. After I left the Army, I had to fight hard to catch them, and began a 10-year stint in the corporate grind. But I got the strangest satisfaction out of playing against type. I spent five years at Ross Perot's company as a systems analyst, another five management consulting for Arthur Andersen. I finally got to Asia after the Gulf War: two years consulting in Kuwait through the reconstruction period, with plenty of time off to trek through Thailand, Morocco, India and Vietnam.

Suddenly, I chucked my corporate career, headed to grad school to start a new life as anthropologist or author. But there was still this other fantasy, dating back to high school. It never achieved the status of dream, because it seemed so implausible, a one-in-a-million shot compared to space travel. In high school I was an awkward, gangly dork. But I had a wild imagination, and what I really wanted to do was be a Chippendales dancer.

Twenty years later, at 34, when porn stars are supposed to be washed up or dead, I stumbled onto the ad. "Jackoff Contest Thursday," the headline read. Jackoff contest? What the hell was that? Was it even legal? Turned out that it was about style, not speed. You jerked off for half an hour and audience applause determined the winner. I blush to say that I won first prize. It wasn't quite my Chippendales fantasy, but I was just thrilled someone wanted to see me naked. And eventually I progressed from fat, old, balding men in towels to fat, old, balding men in bars -- and occasionally even a bachelorette party. I hadn't intended to make a career out of it, but the promoter doubled as an agent, and a year later I was posing for magazine pictorials and pumping out pornos in front of a video camera in L.A.

I did that for another year -- a pretty good run in the industry -- making periodic trips to West Hollywood to star in films like "Why Marines Don't Kiss" and "In the Deep End." The pay was decent but not as good as you'd expect -- women make tons more in this business. My colleagues were of course quite a varied bunch, but many were smarter and wittier than I'd expected. I can't say I made any lifetime friends, though. (I actually got a lot closer to some of my regular, uh, customers.) It was a blast for a while, but my Denver boyfriend found it unappetizing, so I gave it all up in the summer of '97. It seems like it's been forever. The past couple of years have been really restless, writing about life instead of living it. I was way overdue for my next adventure, and running out of ideas.

And then I heard about "Survivor."

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It was Oct. 12, approximately 10:42 a.m., MST. I quit work immediately, spent the rest of the day pounding out my application.

Surely CBS would receive thousands of entries. I wondered if the porn stuff might grab the producers' attention. Friends I'd confided to had warned me those videos would haunt me the rest of my life, but so far they've come in kinda handy. They're a great ice-breaker at parties, and it certainly livens up your chat-room profile, though they're not so good at attracting long-term boyfriends. But a shallow, short-term relationship was all CBS had in mind. Mentioning my film work on my application was definitely a gamble. It could either pique the producers' interest or send me straight to the scummy losers bin.

I slipped it in under "previous occupations": right between management consultant and graduate instructor. I was a little torn on how to describe it. Porn star seemed a bit pretentious, but everyone used the term that way. So I went with quotes and a disclaimer: "Stripper/minor gay porn video 'star' (as in, anyone who appears in one is called 'porn star' -- I made five, one bi)." Can't be too humble, right? People seem to appreciate humility in their porn stars. I decided to hold back on the more unseemly activities of the period until we got to know each other better.

I tried to answer creatively but sincerely:

If you could hold any political office, what would it be and why?

"Pope (and it's definitely a political office). There are so few openings for benevolent dictator remaining in this modern world. And I could sure liven up those awful Masses."

List three (3) items you would take with you.

"Five hundred pounds of Hostess Ding Dongs in a cast-iron combination-lock vault. Those people are never going to kick me off that island without the combination to that Ding Dong cache."

Then came the toughest question of all:

Which former ["Gilligan's Island"] castaway would you be most identified with?

Hmmm: the professor or Mary Ann? I liked to picture myself as the brainiac devising ingenious little solutions to puzzling predicaments, but I had to admit it: Emotionally I was all Mary Ann. She must have been a middle child, always negotiating disputes. I was lost in the middle of nine kids, running shuttle diplomacy missions in the sandbox since I was 6.

But I just couldn't bear the thought of identifying myself with the girl. I hated the idea they'd see "gay" and read "queen." That this would surely seal the stereotype. The instructions said the show was looking for strong-willed, outgoing, adventurous people -- gays were probably suspect from the get-go. Thank God I never identified with Ginger. But for some people, gay plus girl signaled flaming homo in a frock.

I switched my answer several times, but finally decided to bare the truth, along with my apprehensions: "Yikes, don't make me go with a girl! I hate to reinforce the notion that I'm nothing but a big fag, but the truth is Mary Ann. I'd identify with her a lot better if she were a guy. Because I'm not a big fag. I just love sex with men." Great, now I pictured some gay guy screening the applications, vetoing mine for using the word "fag." But that word was exactly the point: gay yes, fag no, not in the sense the term is commonly applied.

The deadly part of the entry packet was the required three-minute video. Despite many hours performing in front of the camera, I have zero aptitude for the visual arts. Suggesting I produce a knockout audition video was like asking most people to compose a Shakespearean-grade sonnet.

I'd been slacking off on the gym since I dropped out of the business, and I was never going to build Brad Pitt's cheekbones, so I figured I better be funny. I can be pretty amusing, just not on cue. Be funny for three minutes -- rolling! I knew I couldn't face the camera for three minutes of stand-up. My only chance at appearing natural was to script out half a dozen scenes, and act them out as characters more or less corresponding to aspects of my personality.

First impressions are everything: The video had to open butch. Sixteen castaways suggested a single gay slot, maybe one gay guy and a lesbian if we were lucky. Packaging the homo factor became priority No. 1. I didn't want to be cast as the ballerina boy, and nothing gets my juices flowing faster than the opportunity to play against type.

I opened the video heaving on a heavy frame-backpack over rugged Eddie Bauer duds. I lowered my pitch, assuming the command voice practiced so many late nights in Officer Candidate School: "I'm just taking off on my daily 12-mile mountain hike. Nothing beats a light morning workout to really get the blood pumping." Then I cut to a faux hidden-camera shot of me digging wads of crumpled paper out of the pack: "You think they'll buy the rugged-outdoorsman look?"

I allowed myself one gay joke. I gave a ridiculously hard-assed speech about the rigors of Officer Candidate School, dressed in full battle costume. "OCS taught me 90 percent of defeat is in your head," it concluded. "Plus look at the great outfits I got!"

"What, are you crazy?" my little sister howled weeks later, long after I was boxed into the butch persona. "American television doesn't have room for aberrations. The gay guy on that show is going to be a leather queen from San Francisco. Sixteen stereotypes is exactly what they're looking for."

I hadn't intended to spend a third of the video on the porn thing, but it offered such great material. I played it straight for the first two minutes:

Army, consulting, Kuwait ... "Then I returned to the States to pursue a master's degree in creative writing -- and women begging desperately for my body. It turned out to be mostly men, though. [Here the camera zoomed in on my video box covers.] That's the thing about porn consumers: Hardly any are women. Just as well, that's about the time I finally accepted I was gay. After two-dozen girlfriends and a seven-year bi stint."

The most fun were the deadpan descriptions of the videos, like "The Hills Have Bi's," which I described as "a hardcore musical comedy bisexual parody of 'The Hills Have Eyes.'"

A month of scribbled ideas, two weeks scripting, a day and a half of principal photography, 12 hours editing. I finally presented my masterpiece in a private premiere for my boyfriend 17 minutes before the deadline for FedEx pickup.

"Is that it?" he asked.

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But it paid off -- I got the call. Now, I was going to bust my butt to make it over the next hurdle. I plunged into a crash course at the gym: split-level training, five punishing workouts a week. Two weeks to the first interview, another couple till L.A. I could use at least 10 pounds of lean muscle and a 3- to 5-percent drop in body fat. Worst thing about telling people you were in the porn-film business is watching the way they size you up, trying to hide their surprise. I always picture the same thought zipping through their head: "He was a porn star? God, talk about going to seed!"

I'd spent weeks brainstorming ideas for my entry packet, but only performed a modest level of research. Once I got back from my parents' place in Chicago, I downloaded every article ever written about the show, discovering very little save the absolute obvious: They were looking for conflict. And I'd spent most of the application trying to convince them how nice I was!

"I hope we get a cop from New York, and maybe a small petty criminal from some other city," producer Mark Burnett told CNN. "They won't get along." The final -- "and most intriguing" -- application question had asked why I thought I could win. I'd described how I'd pull everyone together and diffuse all the fights. I can't help it, I need people to like me, I need everybody to like me. Why do you think I spent two years pulling my pants down in public? For a G-stringful of dollars? The money didn't hurt, but mostly I did it for the adulation. You can't imagine the luminance in a graying man's nervous smile as you brush the wispy hair back from his temples and bounce your plump basket gently off his thigh.

The information packet arrived just after New Year's. Reading through provoked an unexpected chill. There was a page and a half of information, 50 more of medical forms, releases and detailed documentation of the malaria, hepatitis and Japanese encephalitis prevalent in the region. Battling wild pigs sounded exciting, picking up a virus that would rot my liver over the next 30 years less so. And what about that pig? Sure, it sounds exciting, but aren't wild pigs quite dangerous? Page 5 of the agreement was where I released the producers and fellow contestants from any claim against injury, illness, damage or death.


The first page of the release granted the producer "forever more the right to use, throughout the universe, my name, likeness, photograph." Meaning they could blow my porn secret just to promote me as a finalist, then can me and leave me to deal with the fallout? Had I really thought this all the way through?

I tossed and turned all night, but was giddy again by the morning.

I wondered if they planned the packet to be disturbing, if the plan was to weed out a few contestants with straight talk right at the beginning. The Peace Corps has been using that technique for years. And these guys followed it up with an annoying to-do list with a grossly unreasonable deadline. I had a week to get a physical. I didn't have a regular doctor, and spent four freaking hours on the phone trying to find an opening. Several hours more on the forms and the passport renewal, and $300 in expenses.

The local CBS affiliate called four days before the interview. They wanted a segment for the evening newscast. Could they stop by in half an hour? Sure! I hung up the phone and panicked. What if they knew about the videos? What if they had been briefed? What if they asked about it on camera? Deny it, make light of it, beg them not to use it? I wasn't ready. I hadn't told my parents. I had to fly to Chicago and somehow appease my parents.

False alarm. No one had been briefed. But it was only a delay. Was I really ready?

The shoot was a blast. They said it would take 40 minutes, but pretty soon they had me digging out photos from Vietnam, scrapbooks from basic training. They stayed two hours and the segment ran minute after minute, more than twice the time they'd anticipated. This was fun. I liked being on TV!

People started coming out of the woodwork after that: "Hey, I saw you on TV last night." "I saw that 'Survivor' thing on the front page of the Post yesterday." I even got a call from a wacko who'd seen me on the news and looked me up in the phone book. He kept me on the phone half an hour "helping" me plot "our" strategy, and growing progressively weirder. "Are you going to dig a cave?" he asked. "You don't want to cut down too many trees, you're going to displace those apes -- do they have apes? -- or those sloths. You're going to have to try that transcendental meditation. Have you checked out the Hare Krishnas? Those Buddhists are really worshipping a false God."

The attention was instantly habit-forming. I was hatching a million marketing schemes: Even if I didn't win the million dollars, surely I could work something out of it. I could be a star! I could host "The Grind"!

And what if I just made an ass of myself? Oddly enough, the most fearful thoughts sparked the giddiest exhilaration. Anything could happen: not just on that island, anything could happen to my life! The blind leap, that's the real thrill, the moment Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, must have savored most. No telling what's waiting for me out there. No one's ever done this with Americans before; they've done "The Real World," but that was cable, that was a bunch of brats hanging out in a house contemplating their ennui. This is going to induce real mayhem, people are going to flip out. They did it in Sweden, and the first guy booted off the island killed himself a month later!

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Would I rue the day I ever plunged into this? God, that thought was exhilarating. What's going to happen when the word spills out about my porn career? Amazing how my little secret remained securely inside that isolated little gay porn world so long. Not this time. It's all about to scream out into the open. I could be unemployable for the rest of my life. Was appearing in a porno worse than confessing to a felony? Hmmmm. Was prostitution a felony? I'd sworn I was going to look that up before I turned too many tricks.

The interview was at the local CBS affiliate. I was immediately intimidated. They had several contestants backed up in the green room; the guy up after me paraded around like a hyped-up version of Crocodile Dundee. I pictured him scaling icebergs for vacation, wrestling polar bears on his coffee break. I withdrew into my notes. Contestants kept showing up until I got sick of introducing myself.

A thin, surly woman in her late 20s slinked in, avoided eye contact all the way to the snack tray, so I just let her go. But what if they were surreptitiously observing us for strong-willed, outgoing, adventurous interaction? I smiled at the cheerful woman who followed her in, offered a firm handshake and chatted her up.

I was finally escorted to the studio, a soundstage large enough to film the burning of Atlanta in "Gone With the Wind." The interview scene was set up like "The Tonight Show" set, drowning in floodlights, camera crew lurking just back in the shadows. It turned out the surly woman and the cheerful one I'd seen in the dressing room were my interrogators!

But I was more excited about the setup. I quickly figured they were trying to weed out anybody who couldn't perform on camera. Finally my porn training was demonstrating real-world applications! A film crew and a soundstage were hardly intimidating after group buttsex with a camera poking into your scrotum and a drag-queen director squawking out orders through the foreplay: "Look up into his eyes. Fabulous! Now pass it over to Paris without anyone touching it. I don't want to see any hands. Dylan! Dylan! Ease up on the angle. Oh -- that's kind of hot! But let's try it again the other way. Try not to fumble the hand-off, Paris."

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So many wistful memories, all rushing back at once. I reached out for Surly's limp handshake -- Just try to forget the camera's there. Just try to forget the camera's there. That's what everyone advised me on that first scary shoot -- and then kind of chuckled to themselves for suggesting something so preposterous. That was my favorite studio. Everyone was so thoughtful and gracious on that set.

My agent had filled my head with all these horror stories -- "You better be ready to get it up on demand! They don't fuck around out in L.A., baby." But my first director turned out to be a dowdy old creative writing professor from the Midwest who me took me aside before the shoot to ease any apprehensions. "Waiting for wood is perfectly ordinary, and not unexpected," he said. "You mustn't feel any shame when the inevitable occurs. Just try to forget the camera's there."

The irony was, that's where my worst personality traits -- absentmindedness, tunnel-vision and a ludicrous level of detachment from my surroundings -- bailed me out. I may have been the first person in the history of adult cinema who really did forget the camera zooming into the insertion shot.

"OK, I can't believe I'm actually saying this," the director moaned the fifth time I swung a stray appendage right in front of the lens. "But you've got to remain a little aware of the camera."

Holding up my number card for the camera to kick off the "Survivor" interview swept me right back. I knew I had eight seconds of talking to Surly before that camera dissolved back into the shadows.

And sure enough, at the end of the interview, when she asked me to hold up my card again, it took me by complete surprise: Oh yeah, they were filming this. We've been on a soundstage.

The sunny interrogator gushed over my responses, sprinkled in tell-me-more follow-ups, but Surly was clearly in charge. She voiced her questions quite pleasantly, right through the scowl that persisted on her face like a challenge. I never felt a real connection, yet the line of questioning was quite reassuring.

"You sent me a great video," she began. "You've led quite an interesting life." Apparently she didn't mean Kuwait, the Army, five careers or backpacking across four continents. She meant gay porn. The interview focused almost exclusively on my film career, with a brief clarification of my precise sexuality.

It made perfect sense, actually. By the end of the brief interview, they had clearly outlined my persona for the series, and the two story lines charted out for my character. I would play the lascivious gay antagonist to the Bible Belt fundamentalist, with a steamy subplot offering the ultimate challenge to the female castaways: Can the gay guy be turned? Deprive him of dick for six weeks; see how desperate he grows.

They were quite open about all this. "What if you had a really hardcore Bible-thumper on your team?" Surly asked. "What if he really had a problem with it? How would you handle that? What if he were really vocal about it?" Like a moron, I tried to convince them how effectively I could neutralize every confrontation. That insidious need I have to please everybody. Halfway through my explanation, I recalled they were looking for drama. "Of course, if he were really in my face about it, I can get pretty in his face, too," I said. Didn't sound very convincing.

Sunshine said the strangest thing then: "The videos, they were softcore, right?" Softcore? No! Wow, this was better than I expected. If they thought softcore was intriguing, a hardcore case should really blow them away. Shouldn't it?

Toward the end they shifted to my sexual history, nailing down specific dates and quantities. First time with a man? Twenty-eight. Last time with a woman? A year and a half ago. "And you consider yourself gay, not bi?" Yes. "But you're attracted to women?" Sure. "And if you were stranded on an island, with only women available, could you see yourself ..." I forget exactly how she put it, but basically she asked if I'd be inclined to do one of them. "Oh, sure!" Once they spelled it out for me, I saw exactly where they were going.

The truth is, I probably could end up with one of the women. But that answer felt a little hollow at this point, and I was determined to prove my sincerity. "I mean, my first preference is definitely a man, but if nothing else were available I'd probably resort ..." I trailed off, trying to avoid insulting the two women I was looking at, even if they had implied the same thing with their own question. But they didn't seem to mind.

I couldn't believe it when Sunshine announced the final question. It turned out to have been 15 minutes, exactly the allotted time, but it felt like we'd just sat down. She repeated the application question about what item I'd bring. The Ding Dongs response felt way too goofy to repeat out loud, yet I felt compelled to retain consistency. I couldn't remember my second item, so I blurted out the third: "Nabokov's memoir, 'Speak, Memory.'" A book! Can you imagine a duller answer? All this work to present myself as this wild adventurer with a scandalous sexual history, and I close down the audition painting a dorky little bookworm. They want a lapsed gay horn-dog chasing loose women around the island; can you see the riveting footage of me retiring to my hut each evening for a quiet bedtime read? "See you in L.A.," I said hopefully.

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I may not have given all the right answers, but I had been painfully honest, and ever so bubbly and engaging. Most of the answers seemed to go over well. And that character and plot lines they'd scripted for me -- who on earth was going to top that?

So why did I feel like shit? Something about that dismissive quality as they said goodbye, turned to the next packet, forgot I existed before I'd even reached the door. Four solid weeks I'd blown preparing, pumping iron, researching, rehearsing, $300 in expenses -- all for 15 minutes in the floodlights. Was that it? What if that was the end of it?

Then it hit me on the drive home: I'd forgot to mention I'd been a whore! I'd been saving the hustling for the interview; that was supposed to be my trump card. They were so rapid-fire with the questions, I never got a chance to check my notes. I thought about running back up and slipping them a note, maybe phoning them Monday morning in L.A. Something to save for the next interview? If there was a next one. They said they were looking for "colorful." How much more colorful can you get?

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The questions about my parents didn't start eating at me until the next morning. "How are your parents going to react when they find out about all this?" Surly asked. "Because we're not going to hold anything back on the show." I said I'd been planning to tell them for a while, would have to take a trip to Chicago. "How do people react when they recognize you? What if your dad walked into a video store and saw one of your tapes?"

Of course I brushed aside all of her concerns, but was I really ready? Just when would I tell my parents? Could I wait to get home from the island? The show itself wouldn't air for weeks -- would the producers keep it secret until then? How badly would "Hard Copy" want to know? How good is CBS's security? If I told my family now, it would be sure to produce a major meltdown. My parents were both ordained Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion in the one holy and apostolic Roman Catholic Church.

My dad could handle it, my mom was a different story. "It will crush her," my sister said. "She'll never get over it." Well, I couldn't hide it forever, but I couldn't very well let them hear it on "Entertainment Tonight." But one thing I know about my mother, she processes stuff like this in stages. Three weeks of dead silence, suddenly she's overdue for a bloodletting. Could I tell them and then just disappear for six weeks? Rule No. 1 on the island was complete communication blackout.

And what about the turmoil I'd be hurtling myself into? All those flying leaps I've taken have brought on the truly magical moments of life -- but I never really took them on alone. Every time I felt myself in free fall, I reached around for a grip on the tether connecting me back to my family. I never could have taken one of those plunges without the steady reassurance of that small Irish army ready to reel me in if I found myself crashing toward any real danger.

I've got a firm grip on reality most of the time, but I've taken a couple of scary trips right down to the jagged rocks of a nervous breakdown. Friends were great, but everything impermanent dissolves in those paranoiac moments on the brink; all I've seen in my moments of true panic have been my mom and dad and the eight embattled siblings I grew up with. Plunging into emotional warfare off the coast of Borneo without them there behind me was unthinkable. Was I really ready?

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I got the news two weeks later. Collapsed into the couch, couldn't be roused for hours. How could they reject me? Not even worthy of the finals? Was I too gay, too straight, too unconvincing that I could toe the line? Was I too bookish, too candid, too full of myself? Did they expect a porn star to be better looking? Or was it all about the pornography? All those ridiculous fears about not being colorful enough; I never know when enough is too much. Did their entire interest hinge on the possibility that those might only be softcore films?

This wasn't "The Real World," this wasn't MTV. Broadcast television prefers its whores safely scripted into made-for-TV movies where they can redeem their sordid history. Or maybe they just thought I was an awkward gangly dork. If this was how it felt to get rejected from the selection process, imagine the feeling of getting booted off the island. At least my pout wasn't being televised.

The rejection was quickly overwhelmed by disappointment -- and the exasperation at those idiotic dreams of money and notoriety. It wasn't until the moment I got the news that I realized how little I really cared about all that crap that had overwhelmed me the past couple weeks. I just wanted to be on that island. Desperately.

"We hope you'll apply again next year," the woman on the phone said. Next year?

Who the hell wants to play next year, once everyone understands the dynamics? Next year will come with a guidebook: Here's how it all played out last time. Next year will pose no risk whatsoever. Those 16 castaways will know exactly what they're getting into. I wanted to be a pioneer.

Does that sound preposterously pretentious? That's really how I saw it. I never wanted to discover the North or South Pole, or circumnavigate the globe in a hot-air balloon; I just wanted to be a part of the first group in America to attempt that imposing island adventure. I wanted to take a blind leap off a steep cliff on national television. I wanted just a glimmer, just a tiny prefab glimpse, of that first taste of alien air Yuri Gagarin sucked in from outer space. All I really wanted was to risk everything I ever held dear.

By Dylan James

Dylan James is a journalist and author. He is writing a memoir about his adventures in the skin trade.

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