For more than a decade, radio personalities Lulu and Lala Gonzalez have been keeping listeners entertained from NYC to South Beach, currently behind the mics for the New York, New Jersey, Connecticut Tri-state area each weeknight on iHeartRadio's 103.5 KTU from 7 p.m. until midnight.
So it's not often they find themselves at a loss for words.
But when producers gathered the twin sisters and their fellow contestants on the current season of The Amazing Race to inform them their journey had hit a Covid-shaped roadblock, they were floored. "Initially, I thought they were kind of joking around," Lulu admitted to E! News. Having been stripped of their cell phones, "The only thing you have access to is sometimes a television in your hotel room," explained Lala.
So while they had seen snippets of reports about the quickly spreading coronavirus, when they got to that pit stop at the University of Glasgow in late February 2020, and "they told us that they were shutting production down and flying us all back home, we were in total shock," Lulu shared. "It was then where we realized, 'Oh, this is for real.'"
Reality set in further back home in NYC. After weeks of reporting to work in a suddenly empty city ("It was a scene out of a horror movie: No cars, no people," recalled Lulu), they were thrown for a second time when iHeart Radio's executive VP of programming Thea Mitchem burst into the studio shortly before 7 p.m. one evening.
"She comes in saying, 'You need to collect your belongings and you have to get out of the building because we're going to bomb the building with disinfectant,'" shared Lulu. "And we look at her, like, 'We're about to go on!' Like, 'What do I tell the listeners? What do we do?' And she was basically like, 'No, you have to leave.'"
Forced to detour for the second time in less than a month, the New Jersey-based sisters settled into a new normal alongside the rest of the country.
Using iHeart-provided equipment, they set up the home studio they're still using nearly two years later, learning to navigate around the occasional disruption from their pup Duke or their parents, who would walk in the room and start talking before remembering the 37-year-old personalities were live on air.
But those hiccups were nothing compared to what happened that November when their beloved grandmother, Ana L. Perez, was struck with a particularly severe case of COVID-19.
"It was really difficult," recalled Lala. Though she remains "forever grateful for all the nurses and the doctors that took care of her," she and her sister struggled with the fact that the 93-year-old native of Isla de Pino, Cuba couldn't fully comprehend what was going on or even why she was hospitalized. "She doesn't speak English, so she doesn't understand," Lala continued. "You're not there to hold her hand. You're not there to tell her, 'Hey, you're doing fine, keep fighting.' It's not the same. So in a sense, we had this guilt."
They were able to speak with Ana on the phone, fielding calls where she would beg for help as she fought to catch her breath. "Hearing her gasping for air and not be able to do anything was just heartbreaking," said Lulu. "And we were going through it at the same time we're broadcasting and letting people know, 'We feel you, we understand. Protect yourself. Think of others.'"
The night before Ana passed on Dec. 14, 2020, they were able to visit for the first and final time. And though it still hurts to think of her passing away with just a nurse to hold her hand, "She stayed strong," marveled Lala of Ana, who narrated a book called Heart of Honor: One Man's Incredible Journey to Save his Family and Country about coming to the States from Cuba with her husband. "When we went to say bye to her, she had a smile on her face and she just told us that she loved us and she just kept it together." Echoed Lulu, "She immediately became strong for us. It's unbelievable her strength."
Which is why it was an easy "Heck yeah!" when Amazing Race producers reached out about resuming the competition last fall after a nearly 19-month shutdown. "My grandmother would have said, 'You've got to finish what you start,'" explained Lala. "And because of her we're definitely going to finish this. That's what she would have wanted."
It didn't hurt that production continued to check in and explain the extensive protocols they'd put in place to keep everyone safe. "Really, kudos to them," noted Lulu. "I have never felt safer than when I was on The Amazing Race second time around."
Having polished up their stick shift driving skills ("I definitely took a lot more classes," said Lala. "We had a friend that was nice enough to lend us his car"), they arrived in St. Gallen, Switzerland, with a new mission: Make Grandma proud. "She fought to the very end with dignity," explained Lala, "so we were like, 'You know what, we're going to run this race, we're going to do our best.'"
And though they were a little thrown to see eliminated contestants Michael Norwood and Moe Badger and Arun and Natalia Kumar back in the game ("A lot of us did say, 'It's great that they're back, but are they going to be given an extra challenge to prove, or a couple of extra penalties just to make sure and make it all fair?'" noted Lulu), they were grateful for the chance to continue. "If they would have said no," admitted Lala, "the season probably would have been a wash."
Instead they all adjusted to every-other-day COVID tests that were "actually kind of another challenge," joked Lulu, "like, 'Okay, everyone, let's test negative!'" and being forced to ditch one major habit: "The very first thing that I wanted to do was hug everybody and just kiss them and catch up," said Lulu. "But everyone had to keep their distance."
In the earlier legs, noted Lala, "When we got our clue, we would hug the person to thank them and we couldn't do that. It was like, 'Ugh, we can't, Thank you!'"
Then there was the chartered plane that spoiled them both for life ("Now every time I take a flight, I'm like, 'What is this? I need my private jet,'" joked Lulu) and added an extra wrinkle to game play.
"In prior seasons, you have to book your own flights, so you already know what country you're headed to," explained Lala. "But this time around, you're on a plane and we're looking out the window and we're just guessing where we could be. We see mountains, we see the ocean."
Still in the mix with five other teams on the Emmy-amassing CBS series (Wednesdays, 9 p.m.), the sisters feel like the extended layover made them a more formidable pair. "We learned to really communicate with one another and not make each other feel bad," said Lulu. "Because I think that's what our problem was in the first three legs."
But even if they don't cross the finish line first, they'll still feel like a million bucks.
Having an experience like no other in the series' 32-season history, the 22-person cast is exceptionally bonded. Thanks to a WhatsApp group chat, they're in constant communication, sending each other videos and updates on their lives. And they're making plans to gather at Lulu and Lala's finale watch party in Miami. "We're family," insisted Lulu. "We talk to each other every day."