Leading up to the July 6th season 24 premiere of Big Brother, EW caught up with 10 former U.S. winners from the show with a set of questions designed to have them look back at their time in the house as well what life has been like since leaving it. Our fourth entry is with the season 10 winner who later staged his own on-air funeral. (Also make sure to check out our Q&As with Eddie McGee, Derrick Levasseur, and Jun Song.)
Dan Gheesling's Big Brother career did not begin well. Just days into season 10, Dan watched his closest ally, Brian Hart, get voted out of the game, with only Dan voting to keep him, putting him almost immediately on the wrong side of the house. Uh-oh.
Which is what makes what happened next so shocking. Dan went on to win that season in dominant fashion, beating Memphis Garrett in a unanimous 7-0 vote. He then returned four seasons later and pulled off what is generally regarded as the greatest moment in Big Brother history, staging his own funeral on the show while secretly scheming to stay alive — a moment so iconic it led to this 22,000 word oral history of the episode. Dan improbably rode that move all the way to the final two once again, this time being bested by Ian Terry in a 6-1 jury vote.
Often described as the best to ever play Big Brother, Dan has a keen eye for the game and strategic wrinkles, which is what makes his suggestion for what he would like to see producers do to tweak the game mechanics so interesting and unexpected. The reality TV legend weighed in on that when we caught up with him, and shared thoughts on how the game took a massive turn in season 20. He also explained why he no longer has the passion and drive to play himself, while revealing that yes, he and Ian Terry once built a flamethrower in the Big Brother backyard. Enjoy.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images Dan Gheesling on 'Big Brother'
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you've been up to since last appearing on Big Brother.
DAN GHEESLING: I am 100% a family man now. I have a five-year-old boy, four-year-old boy, and then a six-month-old girl. And so any free time I have, I try to free up to spend with them. Me and my wife are just enjoying raising a house full of young kids. Outside of that, I'm back into coaching football and then still running my Twitch show five days a week.
Besides winning, what is your proudest moment from playing Big Brother?
With some dad perspective, I'd say my proudest moment is that at some point I know my kids will watch it, and there's nothing that I'm embarrassed about. And it's also how much I learned on the show, and, as bizarre as it sounds, developed as a human. The first time I was on the show, I was really a fish out of water. Through that first season, I learned a lot about interacting with people and really gaining some confidence. My first season when I walked in, I felt like I was in a lot of trouble and then kind of grew up and learned a lot throughout that first season individually.
What is your biggest regret from your Big Brother experience in terms of anything that happened in the house in any of your seasons?
Playing twice, I really feel like I don't regret anything. I made the most of every moment. But there is one just an absolute off the wall regret. There was a time in season 14 when Ian and I, it was one of the most boring nights ever, and we were trying to create a flamethrower in the backyard. We had it all set up with an aerosol and a lighter, and neither one of us would pull the trigger to do it. And that's my biggest regret. I just would've liked to have seen how that thing played out, but we never did it. Outside of that, I just really look at everything, and I played so hard and there's not a whole lot more I could have done.
I know a lot of people say, "What about the jury segment in season 14?" It was what it was. I don't regret anything. I feel very lucky to be in that position because there's a lot of people who potentially have made a half-million-dollar mistake by voting out the wrong person or lining with the wrong person. And for me, I just feel like I did the best I could, and I optimized both endings the best that I could. And so I don't really have any regrets and I'm really at peace with both experiences. I guess it helps when you get first and second to be at peace with it.
Sonja Flemming/CBS Ian Terry, Julie Chen Moonves, and Dan Gheesling on CBS' 'Big Brother'
What are your thoughts about how you were portrayed on the network episodes of the show?
My take on that was always, they can't deep fake you into saying something that you didn't say. I was always aware of that on the show. So, because of that, I don't have a problem with how I was portrayed. If I said it, then I knew they could chop it up however they wanted to and present me in whatever way they did. And at the end of the day, it's a TV show. So they have to have good guys and they have to have bad guys. That's the producers' job, to paint you however they choose to based on what you give them. So I don't have any problem with that.
Some people may say I got a good edit. I would just say it's an accurate edit. I always look at it, when people come out and they're upset with how they were portrayed and it's like, "Okay, well then don't say those things."
What are your feelings on the Diary Room and the interviews you would do in there?
It's such a unique experience because you get to know the voices. You don't know who they are, but you have a general tone of who they are. My take on the Diary Room is that they've got to make a show. So there's a few times they're like, "Hey, say what you just said, but with a little more energy." Things like that, I understand, in terms of being able to make an entertaining show.
But I was never told in two seasons, in countless diary sessions, "Hey, say this," or did I ever feel influenced to make a different decision. I always looked at going into the Diary Room as it was their job to pull out whatever a contestant was thinking, and get them to talk about it, and even maybe things that were not considered.
But, ultimately, you have to make your own decisions in the game. When people come out and say, "Oh, the Diary Room influenced me…" In two seasons, I've never experienced that. You're a human. You're your own individual. You make the decisions at the end of the day. As a competitor, no one's going to tell me how I'm going to play this game, especially not a faceless voice in the Diary Room.
What was it like coming back to regular society after being in the house? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
For me, that's always the hardest part of Big Brother. It's not playing the game. It's not maneuvering in the game. It's the decompression after the season. After the first season, I'm like, "Okay, I've been through this once. I know how to expect the decompression." But after the second season, I think it was more of a struggle than the first season for me.
There are just so many facets to it. One, you're cut off from everyone you care about. When I play that game, I literally shut my emotions down. So when I get back into real life, you don't just turn them back on. It's like a slow drip. So that was always a hard part for me.
And then the second part, and I hope this helps people in the future, is dealing with all of the attention. For someone like me, I consider myself the average person. I don't necessarily seek that stuff out, but it can be a lot to deal with, and there's really no manual on how to do it. Because it's different than Survivor or shows that air real time. You're a part of that conversation as it's going on, as opposed to you're locked away, this conversation's going on, and you get thrown into it. It's just a lot to digest.
And so I will always say the hardest part is that decompression. And I think it's a couple things. Dealing with the fleeting elements of fame can be hard, meaning that for a week everyone wants to talk to you, and then it just slowly vanishes, which is fine.
And sometimes, especially now with social media, it makes it feel like it's bigger than it actually is. Because once you leave that bubble of online and social media, no one really cares. And I think the faster you can realize that, the easier it will be. But it's hard because that's all you know for three months, and then that's all anyone wants to talk about. And people can get into situations where people are still talking about their season years later.
What I always try to tell people is that when they're off the show and still want to be a part of the show — contribute to the show. Contribute to the show by commenting or providing insight on the current season that's going on, because that's a real way that you can provide value and be a part of the community, as opposed to always talking about what happened 7 1/2 years ago, week 3, in a competition no one cares about.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images Dan Gheesling on 'Big Brother'
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got out of the house where you regretted going on the show?
Never. For me, it was always a childhood dream to go on. And so even to this day, sometimes it just feels like a dream and that it didn't really happen. I remember being a teenage kid watching Survivor and being, "Oh, I love the show, but I would never survive the elements." And then seeing Big Brother and being, "I'd love to do this." And then to have that dream realized, it's pretty cool. I've never regretted any of it. It's impacted my life tremendously in a lot of different ways.
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your seasons?
I still speak with Memphis. He just got married. He opened up a bunch of lounges and bars and in Fort Lauderdale that I invested in, and we'll always be really good friends. Outside of that, around when Big Brother starts, Britney Haynes and I will start chirping a little bit. She'll send me just gold commentary, absolutely what you would expect from Britney Haynes. She doesn't do it publicly, but she'll text it to me. And I'm like, "You're depriving the world of comedy," because she is so witty and funny. So I'll text with her and then Janelle a little bit. And then Dr. Will, every six months he'll try to rile things up and we'll text and that's about it.
Do you still watch Big Brother, and, if so, what's your favorite season you were not on and why?
I try to watch as much as I can, but loosely translated, that means I don't watch. It's such a commitment, and with three little kids, any free time I have, I spend it with them. And they're not of the age to watch Big Brother. So I don't watch a ton. If something big happens, I stay informed through Twitter and social media. It's usually if there's something earth shattering or a big move, people always tag me in it, which I appreciate.
It was a little nostalgic to watch the All-Stars season just to see Memphis. Before that, I think the last full season I watched was season 20 with Tyler. I also found that to be a very landmark season. I think Kacee's a great winner, but it was the end of the era of being able to play the game in a way that may upset some people, but was not malicious. I think you look at how Tyler played. He upset some people, but was not malicious, didn't embarrass anyone, that kind of stuff. I felt like by him not winning, that was the end of the era in which you can win Big Brother in that fashion.
I just don't think you can win the game that way anymore. And it's been proven over time that juries are not rewarding that type of gameplay anymore. I don't have any feelings on it. It is what it is. So if you're playing now, that's the landscape. You need to adapt to it. So you can't cry over how the game's being played. You either adapt to it or you will continue to lose. But I just feel like people playing the game that way in the U.S. version has proven not to be successful anymore.
John P. Filo/CBS Dan Gheesling on 'Big Brother'
Who's one player from another Big Brother season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
My thought immediately goes to personalities that I think would be fun to be around. I was always geeked on season 14. I was just geeked to be able to play with Janelle and Boogie because I was such a fan of the show, meaning that those were people that I watched as a kid. So I'd say anyone from that early All-Stars era. I think it would be fun to play with Will, but it'll never happen.
If you could make one change to any aspect of Big Brother, what would it be and why?
I would go one season back to basics, zero twists. And I know that the executives wouldn't approve that or anything like that. I just feel like that could be really, really interesting. And just see how it plays out, one season where it's vanilla and see what happens. Because, to me, the most interesting part of Big Brother are the people and the interactions between the people. And when you have a really good cast, and you don't have those twists, it can give them a chance to get really creative and shine and do some things. Selfishly, I'd like to see what a vanilla no twist season would look like. It could be the most boring thing in the world, but I would just like to see how it would play out.
What did you do with your prize money from winning the game?
So this is back in the day, but when I won, I bought a LED TV and a PlayStation 3. I was still living at home and that's all I bought, and then I invested the rest. That was it. And we're cleaning our garage recently and I'm looking at the TV now, and my wife's like, "Hey, can we get rid of this?" And I'm like, "It's the first thing I ever bought!" It weighs like 40 pounds, versus a flat screen TV now that weighs as much as a piece of paper.
Finally, would you play again if asked?
For me, it's a non-option for a couple of reasons. The number one reason is my family. I'm starting to realize when people say it goes by fast, I can already feel that. And to be gone from my three kids for three months, I couldn't do that. At the same time, when I say I couldn't, there's a price tag on everything. So I just don't see that happening ever. Maybe when they're older, if they're in college or something, but that's so far away.
If we were to boil it down to like two points, one is my family. And two is, to play the game, at least how I play the game, I have to have this intense drive. Both times, I was willing to do whatever it took. I was like training before the season. I was there. I was ready. And I can tell you right now, I don't have that passion to play right now. I don't really have an incentive to play. I don't have that drive to play the game. I just don't. I like to compete in other things, but Big Brother, I just don't have that. I feel like I'm done.
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