What’s it like to be a contestant on The Amazing Race?
In entertainment, an awful lot happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
Since its launch in 2001, The Amazing Race has been widely considered the Cadillac of American reality shows. The globetrotting game has won an armload of Primetime Emmys, including nine for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program. The show, currently in its 23rd season, has even birthed international versions, including The Amazing Race Asia, The Amazing Race Norge, and HaMerotz LaMillion, the latter from Israel. Considering the show’s grand scale, it should come as no surprise that, behind the scenes, the production is a well-oiled machine. Still, viewers at home get thrills from watching contestants race from unknown place to unknown place, having to navigate with just the clothes on their backs and some gimmicky clues. So what’s it actually like for those contestants, all of whom are spending months at a time racing around the world hoping to win a million dollars? The A.V. Club talked to Mark “Abba” Abbattista about his appearance on the show’s 21st season. Turns out running from China to Indonesia to Turkey to Russia on relatively little sleep and nursing two broken legs doesn’t actually feel all that amazing.
The A.V. Club: How did you end up on the show?
Mark Abbattista: My partner, James LoMenzo, and I wound up applying; we weren’t recruited. In fact, I didn’t even know about recruiting until I wound up getting involved, which is disappointing because the people who want to get involved should have the first right to get on the show. I understand the practicality of casting, and that sometimes the person you need to come through the door doesn’t come through the door, but I feel more honor because I was an applicant.
Anyway, we were running through an airport in Poland and I turned to him and said, “Hey, you ever watch The Amazing Race? We should apply for that.” It was sort of a “ha-ha” moment until we started thinking about the skill sets we had. We’d both traveled around the world. He’d been in bands like Megadeth and White Lion and Ozzy Osbourne. He had a 30-year career as a touring musician, and I’m a music lawyer, so I go out with a lot of my clients. I also travel extensively myself so we started thinking about, “Well, I’ve been in 500 airports and you’ve been in 500 different airports and I’ve been in 70 countries and you’ve been in 70 different countries and our bodies have seen bacteria in Asia and South America. We’re set up differently than any other team in the history of the race.”
So that’s where the idea came from. We ended up making a pretty funny video at 3 a.m. during this trip I made out to L.A. I was in the studio and we just let it roll. I thought it was great and submitted it and got called back and ended up going through the regular audition process.
AVC: What happened then?
MA: I think they get a hundred million applications and go through them all quickly and pick the ones that initially look good or bring attention to themselves in odd ways. Then they keep whittling down the astronomical numbers of people that apply. We wound up out in L.A. doing a bunch of interviews. You’re always being filtered through to the next level. You’re always jumping through hoops, but the whole time it’s not like, “You’re on the show,” it’s that you’re in consideration. You’re in the dark for most of it.
And then we got a call several days before we left, “Okay, you’re going to L.A. to start,” and that was it. I got dropped off at the airport and it was like, “Okay, where are you going?” “I don’t know.” “When are you coming home?” “I don’t know.” And that was even the way I ended up coming home. I called at midnight saying, “I’ve got a flight coming in at 7 p.m. tomorrow at the airport. Come pick me up.”
It’s a very big stress, especially for people who have families and children and normal kinds of jobs. If you’re 20 and coming out of college and don’t have any responsibilities, it’s really easy to leave. But even on the last season, the roller-derby moms, Beth and Mona, they both have three children. You take mom out of two different households and it’s very interesting to think about dad, who doesn’t typically make the lunches for the kids or do the laundry and do the homework and drive them to school. It changes the family dynamic for some people in such a drastic way. And even the one with the ER doctors, they’ve got five or six kids and you took mom and dad out of the equation. So now you have grandma and grandpa and aunts and uncles and friends having to get these kids to school and dressed and do logistical things like walking the dog. I don’t think a lot of people realize the impact that it has on these peripheral people. It’s harder to go away because if you have kids, you’re going to bed at night thinking about your kids. If you’re in college, you’re thinking about your fraternity brothers like, “Bro! Dude!” Having gone through it and seeing this last season, I’m a little more sensitive to those people because I relate to them and I understand it more, whereas before I never thought about it. I never thought about kids or what you had to do to get there.
AVC: Or if you can get time off your job.
MA: Right. You can’t say you’re going on the show, either. Imagine going into work and saying, “Hey boss, can I have some time off of work?” “Sure. How long?” “I don’t know.” “When do you want to get off?” “I don’t know.” “When are you coming home?” “I’m not sure.” “Well, what are you doing?” “I don’t know.” “Are you traveling?” “I think so.” “Where are you going?” “I don’t know.” “Are you on drugs? We should fire you.”
The people you see on these shows tend to be younger couples that aren’t established in family and work situations, so it’s easier for them to disappear. Or you see the older couples that are either retired or have a seasonal job or they’re self-employed and they can redo their schedule. James and I are perfect examples of that.
AVC: How long does the actual taping take?
MA: The whole thing, when we were away, was like a month. We ended up running for like three weeks when we were actually taping, and then there’s the logistics of going around the world. We’re moving all the time. We were never in one place, and it’s not just us; it’s a tremendous amount of production people. There may be 100 people on the road with us, and the cost of keeping all these people out on a daily basis has to be ridiculous. That’s why you’re never sitting around. If you are, you’re just costing money and not getting anything back for it. And that’s Phil [Keoghan, the host] and Bertram [Van Munster] and Elise [Doganieri, the creators]—they’re all out there with us. They’re road warriors, too.
AVC: Their hotels might be nicer than where you guys stay.
MA: We’re all in the same hotels. Actually, most of the times after the legs, we ate with the crew. It’s kind of like you’re traveling as a family. You’re not in the rooms with each other, but Phil and Bertram and Elise, it’s their show and they’re out there with you. It makes you respect them because you’re like, “God, Bertram is seventysomething and the guy is unbelievable.” He’s had a fascinating life, and he’s not phoning it in. He’s out here directing these episodes with you, he’s on the red-eye flights with you, and he’s a tough son of a bitch. And he doesn’t have to do that, but the pride in his show is what brings him out there. Elise is his wife and they have a small child and, again, they make it happen. So, hats off to them.
The Amazing Race is one of the most interesting shows on television in terms of putting it together. You’re not on a soundstage. You don’t drive your car and park in your spot and walk there. You don’t have six cameras, and everything is moving all the time. You’re in rain and sand storms and in places where sound is bad and lighting is bad. What they do to bring the world into your living room is truly the amazing part. It’s phenomenal.
AVC: There are so many moving parts on the show.
MA: The only non-moving part is really Phil at a pit stop because that’s the only place you know will be where it’s supposed to be. Everything else is completely variable. If they know there’s one flight that everybody is going to get on, but one team has a flat and can’t get on that flight, think about it. Production has to be like, “Hold on, we have to wait till tomorrow.” The fact that everyone stayed together—even though some of that is manipulated with flights and those early-morning start times and stuff—it’s pretty fascinating.
AVC: Let’s go back. You get the call that you’re going to be on and you have to leave in a couple of days. Do they tell you what kind of bags to bring? Do you have to get shots? What don’t we see?
MA: They don’t tell you what to bring. What they do is give you a list of what you can’t bring. If you want to bring your anvil collection and carry it around on your back, good luck to you. Nothing is supplied to you. Whatever clothes you choose to wear, you pick out. There are some limitations of what you can’t wear, like they’d have to clear the rights for you to be able to wear logos.
We had someone on our season with three pairs of sneakers in their bag. That’s not something I recommend. When I saw that I almost broke out laughing. James and I ended up going out with the lightest bags ever in the history of the race. Mine ended up being under 10 pounds. But I do a lot of hiking and climbing and camping, so I was familiar with all of this gear. That was sort of a big advantage, I thought. There’s a difference between having weight on your back for this period of time while you’re running, with the weight of the pounding on your back and your hips and your knees and your feet and your spine and everything else over the course of running around the world. Now, weirdly, after taking that stance, I was the guy who winds up with two broken legs, and I don’t know if the weight had anything to do with that.
AVC: How did you end up with two broken legs?
MA: I ended up breaking both legs on the race, so if you saw the season, you saw me limping around. I don’t normally look like an 85-year-old man with a diaper on. It’s kind of embarrassing to look at, and that story never really came out on the air. The right leg happened the first day we were in Shanghai, China. We were running into the pit stop and James ran down these stairs. I stepped, pivoted, and felt something pop. I thought I tweaked something. I went back to the hotel that night and got some ice on it and woke up the next day and was like, “Oh my God, I can’t move my leg.” Still, there’s so much adrenaline going on that I did my best to try and massage it and stretch it out a little and put it in the hot tub to kind of loosen it up, and we went out the next day.
For the other leg, you don’t see the fall on air, but you see me coming out from behind a bus. I stepped off this sidewalk in Bangladesh and the whole thing collapsed. I fell through the sidewalk and into this big monsoon gutter. Three-quarters of my calf was in this human filth that was raw and disgusting. I wound up landing with my left leg underneath me. I got out and they show this guy pouring water on my legs because it’s literally human shit. There’s a part in the cab where I’m rubbing hand sanitizer on my leg because this stuff got into my shoe, and it was soaking wet. I couldn’t get my clothes off. I went on a game show, but I didn’t go there to die.
So I got questioned a little bit about that and they were saying, “Are you sure you’re not overdoing it?” Amy and Daniel were on my season, and Amy was the double-amputee snowboarder, and I thought, “There’s a person out here with no legs, no kidney, and no spleen because of bacteria, so I don’t think I’m overdoing it.” Things happen when you expose yourself in these crazy places around the world, so I was really nervous about that.
I thought I had torn the meniscus in both legs. It was awful. I ran through this whole thing without medical attention. There were some scenes that wound up in the bonus scenes, like there’s one in Turkey where a doctor came to my room because I just couldn’t take it anymore, so I got a shot in my ass. It didn’t do anything.
After we got eliminated in Russia, we got stuck there. I ended up going to the hospital and they were like, “You’re so inflamed.” The day I got home I went to the knee surgeon for the Colorado Rockies and he was like, “No, it’s not the meniscus. The tendons are fine, the ligaments are fine. You have two broken tibias.” And I was like, “Hold on, what?” I had a plateau tibial fracture right behind the kneecap and the tibia. The bone right in front of your shin broke straight down. I had to wear these big magnetic bone-growth stimulators on my knees for three months, and then for six months I had to go to physical therapy. So, yeah, nobody saw that, and there’s your expert witness.
AVC: What’s the medical care like on the show?
MA: My concern before I went on was that we’d be in a village in the middle of nowhere and I’d have some witch doctor pouring goat blood on me or something. It’s not so much that you’re not getting the best care available, but rather what the best care available is.
On the show, they have several paramedic and EMT guys there with you. They deal with the day-to-day stuff. I would imagine the show has people in every location so that when things do happen catastrophically, they’ve got evacuation plans and things like that. It’s not just the people you see on the show; it’s crew and people they need to move out if there’s some kind of civil uprising or an earthquake or fire. They’ve come close a few times. I remember when the tsunami hit Thailand, they were in Sri Lanka a day or two before that. I think there was a sand storm they came across in Africa one time. They got out the day before Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, too. So things happen that they can’t control and they do their best. I’m sure they have doctors on call and if they have to get you to a hospital somewhere, there are ways for them to do that.
AVC: But contestants are putting themselves in relatively dangerous situations. Sure, they can handle it if you get thrown off a camel, but you wouldn’t normally be on a camel at home.
MA: On the last two seasons there’s been a lot of self-driving. My season, we didn’t have it. We drove to the airport from Pasadena to LAX and from there, we never drove. The season after me, everywhere they went, they were driving. Ford was a sponsor of the show, and guess what cars they were driving?
From a practical point of view, having driven on the other side of the road or in a car you’re not used to, it can be a harrowing situation. I’m always concerned about the liability part of it because I’m a lawyer, and if you put someone in a situation like that, where they’re driving on the wrong side of the road in the wrong side of the car with a stick, even if you’re used to driving a stick, you’re driving with it in your left hand rather than your right hand, and your rearview mirror isn’t looking over your right shoulder, it’s looking over your left. You put them in these crazy places where there are goats and cows and chickens flying around roads, and you’re going around circles the opposite way of what we’re used to and doing it at night, it’s pretty crazy. The fact that nobody has been more injured in car crashes is astounding to me.
AVC: When did you guys sleep?
MA: My normal rule of traveling is you sleep, eat, and shit when you can, not when you want to. If you see food along the way, even though you’re not hungry, grab it because you may never see food again. When you have that opportunity and you’re in the airport, you go to the bathroom because you can. So when the pit stops are over, you sleep.
Some of these things end in the middle of the night, sometimes they end in the middle of the afternoon. Sometimes you’re leaving in the middle of the afternoon, sometimes you’re leaving in the middle of the night. Sometimes you flip-flop jet lag. For people that live on a clock, it’s very difficult to get your body accustomed. The first thing we did was, we left L.A. and flew to China. So you’re already upside-down in your time. You’ve crossed the dateline, you’re running around, and that’s part of the show. I think they do that on purpose because it gets everybody off their game immediately. You’re already foggy, you don’t know what’s going on, you’re hungry and dehydrated, and that’s why you see some of these intelligent people making dumb decisions. You’re sitting in your living room with your air conditioner on and a cold soda and you’re thinking, “How stupid are they?”
The conditions are also quite a bit different. When we slept in hotels, they were always nice. But we didn’t always get to sleep in hotels. Sometimes it was a cot in the middle of a field of Indonesia with a mosquito net. We slept on the floor of an airport in Bangladesh. The day we went to Moscow, we got the first flight in there and got stuck waiting for the museum to open the next day, so we slept on the floor of a Russian apartment building. Had we not got on that flight, we’d have been able to sleep inside of an airport.
This is an odd thing that people don’t see: They don’t wake you up, because you’re on your own. You get into your hotel and it’s 11 o’clock in the morning and they’re like, “Okay, you’re going to leave at 11 o’clock tonight.” It’s hard to sleep like that. But you know that if you’re going to be up all night, you should sleep while you can. That creates a stress that I think affects a lot of people’s sleeping. You sleep until 11 o’clock and then get up and go to this place and it doesn’t open up till 7 o’clock in the morning so now you’re up all night, whereas this person you beat by seven hours gets to sleep in a bed until 6 o’clock. Then they get up, and you’re both at the same place at 7 o’clock in the morning.
Still, they can’t let anyone get too far out. It is a race and there has to be some kind of competition to it. If one team finished eight days ahead of everyone, that’s not a good TV show.
AVC: You guys came in first on two legs, so you won two trips, correct?
MA: That’s correct. We won two in a row in Bangladesh and won trips to Antigua and Malaysia.
AVC: How does that work?
MA: You don’t get to go on any of your trips till after your season airs. The trips are sponsored through whatever hotel puts up the trip and Travelocity is also a sponsor, so you have a liaison you go through. When the season is over, you do a bunch of legal paperwork then they turn you over to Travelocity. The woman I dealt with there was really helpful and nice and I wound up going on the trips and, yes, you pay taxes because it’s considered income as a prize. So if the trip is worth $10,000, guess what? You owe Uncle Sam $3,500. And they’re not all-inclusive. Your air is paid for and your hotel and they include some other things, like massages or a snorkel trip, but all the food is not included. So you’re spending money and going to places that you’re not necessarily interested in.
I don’t know if a lot of people never use the trip or not, because it is an expense and not everyone has the resources to do that. It sounds good in theory, but I think a fair amount of them don’t get used. Of course, if you win the money, you can use the money to pay the taxes, and if you win a car, you can sell the car, which I think a lot of people do. I think a lot of people that go on these game shows might not be sophisticated enough to know that ahead of time. You think you’re winning, but it’s like, “Hold on. If I flew there myself, it would have cost me $300, but you booked a ticket and told me it’s a $6,000 flight.”
AVC: Do you get a stipend for being on the show?
MA: Yeah. I don’t know what they call it; it’s certainly not “paid,” but you get some kind of money for the order that you come in. If you’re not on food stamps, you wind up losing money on it. It cost me quite a bit of money to go on the show, just because I wasn’t working. I’m self-employed, so if I’m not bringing money in, it’s not coming in. And, again, I’m not complaining about that. I knew that was the cost for me wanting to do the show, and fortunately I was able to do that. Still, it becomes a financial burden for some people. If mom and dad are going away and not getting paid for that period of time, and they don’t win, you’re not compensating yourself with that money.
AVC: Can you talk about when you were eliminated?
MA: I make the distinction that we were eliminated—never beaten—and that I did not lose my passport, it was stolen. We were in Moscow. On the show, you’re not supposed to use gypsy cabs. They only allow you to use official cabs, but the culture of Russia is different. They don’t have too many official cabs, so you just stand on the corner with your hand up and they’re like, “Oh, where are you going? I’m going over there. Here’s a dollar, get in a private car.” It’s kind of like paid hitchhiking. Anyway, we were allowed to do that with these cars.
We came out of the synchronized-swimming challenge where you get to see myself and James in Speedos—that’s one of the highlights of my television career, being in a Speedo in front of millions and millions of people. When we got in the car, they asked us to put our stuff in the trunk and I didn’t want to, but I did. We got to the clue at the locks, and we thought we were just running up and grabbing a clue and getting out. When we got out of the car, the cab took off with all of our stuff. They even got my passport.
I always carry my passport with me, and I will carry this with me until the day I die. When we came out of the pool with the synchronized swimmers, we had to walk through all of these corridors to get to the locker room area, and I had been in the pool for hours. My legs were killing me, the floor was all slippery, and I got to the lockers and there were no towels there. I was not about to walk back out to the pool, so we ended up just putting our clothes on soaking wet and my passport was in the zipper pocket that I have in my pants, in a plastic bag so it wouldn’t get wet. And I don’t know why I did this, but I took it out of my pants and put it into the backpack. When he drove away with the backpack, that was our fatal thing because without the passport, we couldn’t get out of Russia.
So if you’re going to go out, go out like Halley’s Comet. In the history of the race, nobody has gone out like that before. There have been a couple of teams that lost their passports, but I distinguish that mine was stolen. It was an act of malice and theft. I never got it back. We lost both of our backpacks, and I came home with the clothes on my back, a hair tie, and a pen. I combed my hair with a fork for several days.
It was an incredible experience, because the show moved on and we were stuck in Russia. I had been to Russia prior and had done some business in Siberia and had cleared some work visas, so I knew the whole cultural bureaucracy was different than ours. It’s a lot more stern and by the book and I was familiar with this and had dealt with it. We caught a lot of flack online like, “Oh, why didn’t you just go to the embassy and get a new passport?” Well, guess what everybody? The U.S. government issued another passport, and that was done very quickly, but the more important part was getting an exit visa from the Russian government so we could get out. This all happened to us on a Friday and Saturday, and Tuesday was their Independence Day, so the entire Russian government was shut down for the week in celebration. It couldn’t get done. Through a weird act of God, really, someone recognized me who was Russian and in the U.S. embassy. I was in the embassy every day, inside Interpol and the police department trying to find my passport, and it was a nightmare.
But, again, the race moved on. A letter of diplomatic immunity was declared for me which kind of allowed this crisis situation to be evaluated, and that’s how I got the visa to get out of there. We got back to New York that night in time for the finale. So if that hadn’t happened, we probably would have been there for close to a month.
AVC: So what would’ve happened if you had gotten back? Do they keep you sequestered?
MA: Yeah, they keep you sequestered. You can’t go home three days after you leave because then everyone knows you didn’t win. So, to protect the integrity of the show, once you go out, you’re out. They bring people to a sequestered location after they get eliminated and they stay together. From what I’ve heard from everybody, it was a pretty nice experience. I didn’t go there so I don’t know, but they’ve got to take care of you to a certain extent. They feed you and there’s some entertainment. I don’t know how they pick the location. I’m sure there’s some cost, like you’re going to put people in cheaper countries rather than in Norway. Then, for the finale, people typically get flown back so that they’re all there when the finishers come into the final pit.
AVC: How receptive are the communities that you stop in on the road? Is it awkward at all?
MA: Not on my part. I would imagine that a lot of planning goes into setting this stuff up locally, especially in the more remote areas. If you go somewhere in Ghana, to a village with 100 people, you have communication situations and electricity and phone and things that a lot of people don’t think about. And then there’s shooting permits and having 100 hotel rooms and being able to feed this amount of people, so there’s a tremendous amount of planning that goes on that we don’t see.
Locally, I’m sure they’re very supportive of the places that they go to. The show is very respectful of the local customs. They always gave us a little heads-up, like in some Muslim countries they’ll remind us about the decorum, especially toward the women. You cover up and don’t wear shorts and tank tops, because that’s not only disrespectful, but probably illegal in a lot of these places. So places like that where safety is an issue, we got the heads-up about how not to behave.
If you get on the show, you’re kind of an ambassador for the United States. You see people behaving poorly in that ugly American image, but I’ve seen it when I travel not for the show. I think it is kind of disrespectful, because you get off the plane and—bam!—everyone is barreling through and you’re pushing kids down escalators. You’re running up behind people and they have no idea what’s about to hit them. You’re going down the line and getting in the bus and cutting in front of them and cutting in front of cab lines and doing what you can because you’re in the middle of a race and those people aren’t. So it was kind of interesting.
And I guess it was kind of disrespectful, to be honest, but I think that James and myself having traveled like that before, we ended up having a wonderful cultural experience wherever we went. And after the show was airing, it was brought to our attention in emails, like, “Wherever you go, you have the local kids there!” We always had the kids running after us. It was a big, giant parade and we’re high-fiving them and that felt really nice. One time there was a little guy selling soda and candy at a kiosk. By the time we were done, there were 100 people around us and it was a big deal. So I said to James, “Let’s just buy all the candy and throw it up in the air,” then I thought we might end up setting off some kinds of fights. I wanted to say thank you, but at the same time, I don’t want these kids fighting over the candy. So we ended up just buying all the soda that he had. I handed them to the kids as a way of saying thank you. A lot of them might not have ever had a Coke. And the guy only had five or six of them so it was like, “Okay, just give them all to me and I’ll try to do something nice.”
AVC: Would you do it again?
MA: I would run to the airport right now with the clothes on my back. I’ve had kind of a difficult time with this whole thing only because I really believed, in my heart, that we were the only team that could have and should have won it. Being eliminated in the way that we were, having to deal with the things that we did that some of the other people didn’t have to deal with, being eliminated by someone not in the race… If another team beat me because they were better, stronger, faster… But nobody beat me, nobody beat James. And that part, to me, was so inherently unjust. And really, until we get a chance to redeem ourselves, that will haunt me and I’ll be out of balance.
AVC: So are you lobbying for a slot on one of the Unfinished Business seasons?
MA: No. I’m not desperate. I have a job and a family, but I definitely want everyone to know that we’re interested, we’re available, we have motivations that no other people have going in. How in the world can you have an Unfinished Business season without us? We were eliminated the only time ever like this, and then you throw in two broken legs… Sure, other people have been hurt and maybe had one broken leg, but I had two broken legs and ran around the world like that! That, I think, entitles me to something. We had to deal with James’ father. The first phone call that I’m aware of that ever got through to the show was informing us that his dad had terminal lung cancer. Nobody knew that at all. We had another team steal our money! And we overcame that through the generosity of strangers and angels and, honestly, that stuff was in one of the crappiest places I’ve ever seen. That was never really on the show. And we beat the people who stole our money. So you have to take the personal victories in this, but I also have to spin it for my own sanity. James feels the same way. I don’t know how any other team deserves that spot.