The Challenge Is Chaos, But TJ Lavin Keeps It Sane

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Clover Hope
·11 min read
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It’s mid-afternoon in Las Vegas when TJ Lavin logs onto Zoom, peering from behind the wheel of an F-250. His iPhone is propped on the dashboard, angled upward so that the steering wheel artfully frames his face from below. To boot, he’s wearing a beanie and tinted Tom Ford shades that make him look like an unlocked Vice City character. It’s a view that seems staged to convey maximum coolness, but it also somehow doesn’t feel like a pose, which is the essence of Lavin’s appeal.

For 15 years, Lavin has had the rare television job that allows him to be himself on camera without the pretense. As host of MTV’s long-running The Challenge—a reality competition built around adrenaline, endurance, and spectacle—his role is to maintain order each season as cast members risk egos, friendships, and injuries in the name of money and sport. His decades of experience as a world-class BMX rider, though he no longer competes professionally, bring a certain legitimacy. The Bachelor’s Chris Harrison and, more comparatively, Survivor’s Jeff Probst double as Oz-like producers of their respective shows. Lavin, a fan favorite known affectionately as TJ, wields no production wand behind the scenes. He’s neither intrusive nor rehearsed as a host and is more into the spirit of competition than drama. As the face of The Challenge, he’s an arbiter of authenticity.

“People can see right through a guy who’s not using his real voice,” he says, flanked by palm trees and freeway signs outside the driver-side window. “I’m just the same dude. I didn’t change any slang. If there’s something in the script that I wouldn’t say, I won’t do it. Once in a while, they’ll want something a bit sharper than I would say it. But it’s still in my tone.”

Even when laying the ground rules for the show’s most inconceivable activities, Lavin is understated. In a recent episode of Season 36, The Challenge: Double Agents, he tells contestants they’re about to deep-dive into the freezing waters of Iceland between two tectonic plates with a limited supply of oxygen to retrieve puzzle pieces, which they must then assemble. “You’re gonna do this without ever coming to the surface for air,” he says straightforwardly. His temperament is often somewhere between serious athlete and Pac Sun salesperson. He hates quitters and is known to cackle when contestants bomb trivia questions like “What is Muhammad Ali’s real name?” (One player replied, “Mahatma Gandhi?”) Lavin’s famous, most coveted compliment for challengers is a well-deserved “You killed it.”

The Challenge began as an amateur competition known as Road Rules: All Stars and then Real World/Road Rules Challenge, which, over the years, has evolved into a legitimate athletic showcase with increasingly higher stakes. Contestants face off in daily challenges that demand physical and mental agility: drops, dives, mazes, puzzles, gross eating challenges, elimination rounds, and anything from skydiving to doing math—all in hopes of advancing to a final round and winning a pot that has ballooned from $40,000 to $1 million. Each season is themed, with concepts like Rivals and Battle of the Exes, and, currently, the spy-based Double Agents, which begins its two-part finale on April 14.

For years, the show’s production company plucked cast members solely from MTV programs: The Real World, Road Rules, and later Are You the One? But The Challenge now welcomes contestants across the reality TV spectrum, including Big Brother, Survivor, American Ninja Warrior, and Love Island. The show has become its own Marvel universe of returning villains and underdogs, with Lavin as its nucleus. Season 35, The Challenge: Total Madness, premiered last April in a world void of professional sports, attracting a new crop of game-starved fans as weekly ratings frequently reached or exceeded a million first-run viewers. Instead of delaying production, Bunim/Murray filmed Double Agents in Iceland amid lockdown and premiered it in December 2020; it’s already followed by the just-commenced The Challenge All-Stars, a Paramount+ spinoff which Lavin also hosts.

The Challenge’s niche is that it’s where physical specimens, like the college football players who have participated in recent seasons, compete next to contestants who struggle to complete a set of burpees. The thrill is that these are real people pulling off Herculean tasks. “That happens a lot in BMX or MMA. You push yourself past the limit, and you just do it because you have to,” Lavin says. “That’s the direction we were trying to go. Having a show that’s filled with drama is all well and good. There’s a place for that, but competition shows are where it’s at now.”

The show gets its fill of scandal, nonetheless. Last year, producers fired contestant Dee Nguyen over offensive tweets about the Black Lives Matter movement. The firing came amidst a larger reality TV reckoning that saw Bravo letting go of Vanderpump Rules villains Stassi Schroeder and Kristen Doute after a Black castmate, Faith Stowers, exposed that the pair had wrongly accused her of stealing and called the cops on her. In the past few years, The Challenge has benefited greatly from opening up its casting pool -- in a recent episode, veteran player Aneesa Ferreira noted that the show’s remaining female finalists were all women of color.

But including more top-tier athletes, as the show did this season with the Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones, introduces new controversies and debates about fairness. While Challenge players train for months beforehand, it’s also “a mental game as much or more than it is physical,” as Lavin says. Even the most seasoned athlete might struggle with the game’s social strategizing or adjusting to a remote location with no regular access to phones or televisions—an optimal environment for stress and mayhem. In other words, The Challenge is a game, but it’s still reality TV. “When you get in the house and you’re away from everything, there’s nothing else to do except fight with people or make something happen,” says Lavin. “It’s really, really hard. And that’s why it’s so amazing when people like Bananas or CT have won more than one or two or three.”

That means it’s hard out here for contestants the likes of Jones, who exited this season early, accusing castmates of blocking her from competing. After her final episode aired in February, Jones claimed that producers “forced” her off the show and fixed a challenge (which she lost) for two contestants. “There are so many secrets that are not known to the viewers,” Jones tweeted. “Hope that people remember The Challenge is not a real competition it’s a tv show. They do not show the full picture but what is entertaining.”

Lavin is adamant about maintaining the show’s integrity. “There’s no such thing as being fixed or us changing rules or anything like that at all, ever. We’ve never done it, nor will we start doing it,” he says. “We would never make somebody win just to make a show. Ever.”

Still, cheating accusations almost legitimize The Challenge as a sport. “Lolo being such a high-level athlete, it’s probably really hard for her to lose,” Lavin says. “The Challenge is different. It’s different. Any NBA player, any baseball player, wouldn’t last a week. BMX dudes, MMA fighters. No one. It doesn’t matter how good of shape you’re in or how amazing of an athlete. It has to do with agility, balance, and all the mental and strategic games they have to play. Some people are made for that, and some people aren’t.” Not even TJ. “I wouldn’t do very well. My strategy would be, ‘Alright, let’s just try and tell the truth.’”

Born Thomas Joseph Lavin, TJ has lived in the desert all his life. He grew up with his parents and his sister in South Vegas, where his dad worked as a pit boss for the craps tables at the Dunes, Treasure Island, and Bellagio. His mom was a card dealer at Bally’s. Like the average toddler, Lavin first rode a bike when he was 2. He advanced to pro riding in the shadow of neighborhood kids who were doing it. He and his friends would drive three hours to Lake Mead in high school to set up a ramp and do backflips into the water for fun. There was no professional dirt biking industry and no X Games. Lavin was among a crew of riders who pioneered the sport and turned it into a global phenomenon. He won his first pro contest, King of Dirt, at 19 and remembers watching the first X Games in summer 1995 with friends, who told him he could win the whole thing. That November, he entered and beat 20 top riders whose posters had adorned his wall.

The Challenge gig emerged around 2004 when he reconnected with a friend, Vinnie Potestivo, who’d gone from Viacom production assistant to head of talent development. Postestivo saw Lavin’s charisma and asked if he wanted to take over hosting duties from Dave Mirra. Even though Lavin himself nominated the dirt jumper, Corey Nastazaio, for the job, he was an obvious choice. That Christmas, he gifted a producer with 323 feet of rope because Viacom’s office was on the 32nd floor, and he figured it would be handy if the building ever caught on fire.

Lavin continued juggling The Challenge and BMX competitions until a crash at a Dew Tour event in October 2010 left him with a brain injury. He blames the accident on nerves—he’d seen another rider crash in his backyard earlier that day. When he awoke from a medically induced coma two weeks later, the first thing he thought about was medical expenses. He took speech therapy and relearned how to count money and tie shoelaces, but he still has lingering effects, like double vision while lying down. “It’s weird because I like my vision,” he laughs. “I come up and reset, and when I lay back, I close an eye. It’s just weird. If I try to read a text, I can’t when I’m lying in bed.”

Within months of the crash, he was back hosting The Challenge: Rivals. He could barely see straight and slurred his words, but as usual, he took the job seriously. “Everybody has a job, and it’s way harder than mine,” he says. “We’re either in a really cold place or a really hot place or really windy or rainy. And my job is the easiest job on the whole damn crew. I’m dead serious when it comes to business and getting it done.”

The Challenge’s format that’s liable to change constantly; even within seasons, it can suddenly switch from an individual game to team competition. The twists make it fun, but the show is so unbeholden to rules that producers appear to be winging it sometimes. Even Lavin is unaware of the twists ahead of time, though he assures that it’s all pre-planned. “They know I’ve had a brain injury and that I could reveal the secret or something,” he jokes, with a slight cackle. “They keep me in the dark, and that’s good. I like it like that. Doesn’t clog my head full of weird rules.”

Though Lavin appears chill on screen, the job takes him away from home and, of course, gets stressful. During a season in South Africa, his dad died of stage 4 lung cancer. Lavin found out online and chose to continue filming for two weeks before returning home for a second funeral. He recalls, “My dad’s last words to me were: “TJ, go to work.”

Lavin had planned to retire after season 30 in 2017 to become a firefighter in Las Vegas, which he trained for, but the lifestyle wasn’t flexible enough to sustain. The work-life balance on The Challenge is hard to beat: After filming, he returns to Vegas with his wife Roxanne and their dogs Sonny and Cooper. As the Season 36 finale approaches, producers have begun plotting the next one. Meanwhile, Lavin is relishing The Challenge: All Stars, a reunion of veteran Challenge players in their late 30s and 40s who hadn’t competed in years. “They’re getting a full taste of what the new Challenge is like, and they’re like, Oh my god, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” says Lavin. “Yeah, we’re not The Challenge from back in the day. This is a whole different level.” It’s harder, way more cutthroat, but the host is the same.

Originally Appeared on GQ