Desi Williams was one of the Survivor players on The Challenge: USA, and I talked with her this afternoon about her experience, from what actually happened when Enzo quit to the cast’s clothing that disappeared.
We also talked about what viewers didn’t see on TV, including how early alliances affected the entire game; the differences between the two shows; and how her experience as a fan of The Challenge compared to her experience on it.
Despite the way the season ended for her, Desi said she’d ultimately return for another season of The Challenge or Survivor.
“I like to think in my head I’m done, but I’m not. Obviously, if somebody asked me, and the timing’s right and all the stars align, nobody’s going to say no to this once-in-a-lifetime, bizarre, crazy opportunity,” she told me.
Desi—actually Dr. Desi Williams, PT, DPT—owns an in-home physical and occupational therapy practice in Los Angeles, and does that full time—and also told me that she has other TV projects in the works. “Even if I never go back on Survivor or The Challenge, I will be on TV again.”
What actually happened when Enzo quit
I asked Desi if The Challenge: USA cast—all Survivor, Big Brother, Amazing Race, and Love Island alumni—knew they’d have to compete alongside other people in the final, or just suspected that as a possibility.
“Pretty much nothing was super, super clear,” she said. “So I won’t say that we knew explicitly we’d be paired up on the final, but just based upon watching past seasons, we all made the assumption that if we had partners at some point in the season, they would bring back that partner component later on.”
While the alleged “algorithm” paired her with Big Brother’s Enzo Palumbo, one of the weaker players, Desi told me that she was okay with that.
“I was actually kind of excited to have Enzo as my first partner to get it out the way—and then have nothing but good partners after that who wouldn’t quit on me,” she said.
“Based on the fact that Enzo was the only player who explicitly did not complete a challenge early on in the season, we all had an idea in our head that he probably wouldn’t make it to the very end of the final,” she added. “Kind of sadistically, I was almost excited to have Enzo [as a partner] first, because I figured at some point in the final he was going to quit. Who’s going to quit the first leg of the final after seven weeks trying to get to the final?”
Of course, the answer was Enzo, who gave up moments into the first leg, which involved swimming from a raft to shore.
“All of us knew that Enzo wasn’t a strong swimmer. But also, we had a handful of swimming challenges—or more than a handful—all season long, and he completed it, even though it took him much longer than everyone else,” Desi said. “I can’t say I was super excited to have Enzo for the swimming component of the challenge, but I also figured he’d at least finish.”
I asked Desi how safe she felt during the swim. Were there safety divers, for example, who could help someone in distress?
“I come from a show like Survivor where, yeah, there are safety divers,” she said, “but also you’re never going to get a wetsuit, you’re never going to get a life jacket. Of course [Survivor producers] have safety divers in that condition. There were not safety divers” on The Challenge.
But Desi added that “there was never a moment for me where I felt unsafe, because we had life jackets. Worst-case scenario, I’m just gonna bob in this water for a while. So I thought it was very safe. At a point with Enzo, I was like, Literally just stop moving your arms and rest for a minute. You can just float here.”
“I totally knew we would come in last place, but it didn’t matter,” Desi said. “Let’s just finish and I’ll figure out the rest.”
A producer told Desi to ‘rest’
Alas, Enzo did not take Desi’s advice, and quit instead, swimming toward and then climbing aboard a camera boat. Desi wanted to finish the swim anyway.
“This was actually kind of a tricky incident that happened,” she told me. Host “T.J. [Lavin] did explain when we started the game: If your partner quits, you quit. So when Enzo was quitting, I actively felt in my soul, Okay, this is the end of my game.”
“But then as Enzo was getting on the boat, they kind of summoned me to the boat as well. I asked the producer, Just for my own personal dignity, can I just swim to shore? And I’ll meet you guys there, just so I can feel like I did something in this final?”
“The producer, at the time said to me, No, come get in the boat and rest. This is only one leg of the final; there’s still four more legs—kind of contradicting what T.J. had said. So in that moment, I thought, Oh, I’m still in the game! Things are great again. Then we got to shore, and that’s the clip they show where I’m bawling.”
That’s when Challenge: USA producers told Desi: “Oh actually, we had it wrong. You are out of the final because your partner quit,” she said, describing that as a “rollercoaster ride of emotions.”
The Challenge’s rules
That kind of inconsistency continued throughout the rest of the course, according to other players, who’ve talked publicly about everything from rules that changed to producers giving incorrect information.
On the final, the players were only told about the first leg, not given the rules of the entire competition. “All we ever got was one leg at a time and that’s that what I expected to get as well,” Desi said.
“It’s definitely not like Survivor; there are no written rules for us to see,” she added. “There are written rules; they read them aloud, but we can’t physically hold the rules in our hand and look through them.”
Having to compete solo in the final
Had Desi continued on in the final, she eventually would have run one leg alone, because there were an odd number of players after the production removed Ben from the game.
I asked Desi what she thought of that. “If I’m looking from a purely objective perspective, yeah, that’s totally unfair,” she said. “The women are obviously working harder on this final than the men. But again, I think we had all been playing The Challenge long enough to know that not everything in The Challenge is fair. It’s par for the course for The Challenge that it may or may not be fair, but you just have to put your head down and power through.”
Desi said that she thinks she would not have quit—though she acknowledges that’s easier for her to say.
“From my point of view, by the time they’re out in the field, hauling cement in the rain, I was in a hotel room, having a warm bath,” she laughed. “For me to sit on this side and say that, yeah, absolutely, I would have crushed it, I would have finished it…”
But she also said “I truly believe I would [have], because I’m not a quitter.” Desi prepared mentally by writing mantras she could recite. “I’ve watched finals before and I know people come close to death—I mean, not death. They can get ill, [producers] call the paramedics. I was reciting a mantra in my head: If I am not dead, I can keep going. They’re not gonna let me die.”
“Whatever they asked me to do, if I wasn’t dead, I was just going to put my head down and keep going. We’ve come too far to give up at that point,” she said.
What happened after the finals
Desi and Enzo went to the cast hotel while the other players completed the rest of the legs of the final—or did not, as it were. And she did not find out what happened until the next day.
“They still keep us pretty isolated. We asked the producers and the handlers: Are they still out there? What’s going on?” Desi said. “Even once all the people who quit got back to the hotel, we weren’t allowed to interact with them at all. We had a balcony in our room, but they told us to go inside our rooms so we couldn’t see as the bus was pulling up.”
Desi told me that “we really didn’t get to see them for the first time until the next day, getting on the bus to head back to the airport to fly back to Buenos Aires. Everybody was pretty—I don’t know if somber is the word, but just very much over it at that point.”
Early alliances = less drama
I asked Desi about something I noticed throughout the season: the cast’s living space was quiet or empty, and there wasn’t much drama.
“There were a lot of times when The Challenge house was pretty dead, just because there’s so much downtime. It’s not like Survivor where, when you’re sitting around, you still need to gather firewood, and you still need to figure out like what we’re going to eat tonight,” she said. “There’s just so much less to do. The food is catered, the beds are made. What are we gonna do for the rest of the day? There’s no labor to be done. So we’d work out and hang out pretty much all day.”
What really affected the lack of drama were early alliances, she said. “Danny and Dom became my closest alliance, probably week two in the game, which was not an alliance that was shown at all on the show. I became really close to Cayla, also week one or two, Justine as well. So there’s a lot of relationships that were built so early on the game that there wasn’t really that much strategizing—unless you’re trying to keep yourself out of the elimination arena. That’s when the strategizing came into play. But I think most of us just created really strong relationships from the start. We felt we were protected under those umbrellas.”
Theft of players’ property
Speaking of living in a house where food is catered and laundry is done for the cast, I asked Desi about what Tyson’s claim that clothing was stolen from cast members.
“I think we all had some laundry misplaced,” Desi said. “Yeah, I certainly came back with less clothes then I went to Buenos Aires with.”
I asked if they’d be reimbursed, or if the show’s production company, Bunim-Murray Productions, had been apologetic.
“It doesn’t appear like they plan to do anything to rectify that issue,” Desi told me. “I think they’re well aware of what’s missing and how much went missing. I sent a list to HR of all the things that I had missing, and that was kind of where that ended, and that was back in May.”
“I will say we were told not to bring anything valuable, but you still don’t expect for things to go missing as much as they did,” she added.
Speaking for myself: That is absolutely outrageous that cast members on a network TV show would not be reimburse, even if it was not the responsibility of anyone employed by the production, and was completely out of their control.
Bunim-Murray and CBS profit from the show, and Paramount Global, CBS’s parent company, is worth $15 billion; literally the least they could do is pay contestants back for what was went missing. To not do so is shameful and pathetic, and I hope they will immediately rectify this. Why not give, say, a few thousand dollars to each player as a gesture of goodwill and be done with it?
What The Challenge’s editing left out
“There’s a lot that’s not seen—a lot. There are a lot of relationships, a lot of backstory,” she said. “I just want viewers to keep that in mind because I think there were a lot of votes that people didn’t understand or maybe they thought it was a dumb move, or the move didn’t make sense because of the context in which they were shown on the show.”
Desi said that, after appearing on two CBS shows now, “that’s actually the most nerve wracking thing about reality TV: we know everything that happened and the context in which it happened, but they might show it on TV in a completely different way and take it completely out of context, and then you become the villain of the season, or then you’ve got the Twitter trolls coming at you.”
“I think that’s the biggest fear of being on a reality TV show where they have time to do this type of editing. They could literally take a comment that you said week seven, and insert into episode two—which they’ve done, and they did—and completely transformed the story just based on that.”
Even though she knows what happened, “I definitely watch it back; until I do like, I’m nervous.”
Survivor vs. The Challenge
As a fan of The Challenge, Desi said that the actual experience was not what she imagined.
“I actually expected most of the challenges to be a more physically taxing. We didn’t really didn’t get physically difficult challenges until the final, the challenge before the final,” she said. “I did expect there to be a little bit more of a physical component throughout the season.”
She also said that, “as someone who’s watched The Challenge for years and years, there was definitely less drama than I expected there to be.”
But Desi prefers The Challenge, both for comfort and game reasons. “I felt much more comfortable in the setting of The Challenge,” she said. “On Survivor, obviously, there’s the elements. I’m not living outside, I don’t have crabs crawling across my face at nighttime. There is that level of physical comfort.”
“In the game of The Challenge, there’s also that comfort of knowing if somebody throws me into elimination, I can fight my way back out. And Survivor, obviously, doesn’t have that. If everybody has just decided to turn against you, there’s very little—unless you have an idol—you can do to save yourself.”
Desi didn’t have a chance to save herself; she won two main challenges, and never placed last nor was she ever voted into elimination. “People who ended up in the arena say that they were happy to go into the arena because they felt like they got the full Challenge experience. I personally think that’s bullshit; nobody actually wants to go into the arena.”
“I am pretty proud of like my social, physical game because I never ended up in the arena,” she added. “I maybe came close once, if that. To me, that like was a testament to my physical and social game, and that’s something that I’m proud. I can’t reflect on my Survivor experience and say that I was never on the line; I was on the line until I wasn’t.” (Desi was the first member of the jury on Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers.)
Desi told me the game of The Challenge is “more in line with who I am as a person: I’m not a backstabber, I like to stay loyal to who I’m loyal to, and I don’t talk a lot of crap. But I’m gonna show up physically when I have to. The Challenge lends itself to that, whereas Survivor is a much more social/strategic game. There’s no clear way to get to the end. It’s a a game of luck and strategy.”
That said, she’d do Survivor again: “If they asked me to go back and starve on an island for 26 days, I would probably say yes.”