‘I’m Sitting Here at the Top of Genius Mountain’: Wes Bergmann on New Season of ‘The Challenge: All Stars’

THE CHALLENGE ALL STARS S3 - Credit: Laura Barisonzi/MTV/Paramount+
THE CHALLENGE ALL STARS S3 - Credit: Laura Barisonzi/MTV/Paramount+

Back in 2005, a red-headed, cocky frat boy got on The Real World: Austin by showing up to his audition drunk. It was a spontaneous decision for Wes Bergmann, who had met a girl at his Arizona State University fraternity house the night before. “She was very pretty, and for whatever reason, my moves were somewhat working,” Bergmann, 38, says over the phone from his home in Kansas City.

Eventually, she told him she had to go get some sleep for her Real World audition the next day. “I thought quick on my feet and said, ‘You know what? So am I! And I’ve got this idea. Why don’t we stay up all night long, get really drunk, and then show up to the interview together and tell them the story of the hijinx that we did?’ That was a successful strategy.”

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Sadly, the girl in question didn’t make it onto the reality show, but Bergmann did. A year later, his ego, wit, and dry humor won him a spot on The Challenge, the Real World and Road Rules spinoff that features former cast members from those shows living in a house and competing in hardcore elimination events, vying to make it to the final and win big money.

Since then, Bergmann has played in roughly 20 seasons and won well over $300,000. He’s one of the smartest, most cunning competitors on the show, making him either a bitter enemy or steadfast ally of fellow cast members, never falling in between. “Either I’m getting smarter or the other people are getting dumber,” Bergmann says. “But either way, I’m sitting here at the top of genius mountain, and there’s not even really a close second place.”

On May 11, Bergmann will appear on Season Three of The Challenge: All Stars, a Paramount+ spinoff that solely features Challengers who’ve made it to a past final. He spoke with us about the upcoming season, his friendly rivalry with Johnny Bananas, and which player he thinks is the greatest of all time.

This was your first time on All Stars. What was that like for you, versus a regular season of The Challenge?
Both the flagship show people as well as the All Stars people like to paint these really big delineations between the two. They like to say, “Oh, well, ours is this and that, and the other one is this and that.” And as essentially the only guy that’s done both of these [in] modern times and back-to-back, they’re both as close as they could possibly be. It’s the same name. It’s the same production company. It’s the same rules, it’s the same prize money, it’s the same kind of grit and politics. So much of it is the same with just slightly different casting choices, and that just shines a light on how slightly different personalities can make a wholly different show, even though everything else is all the same.

It was an honor to do All Stars just cause I’d watched the first two seasons and I am in love with it. I was very proud to be a part of it.

Is the level of competition the same, or does it feel like a senior tour to you?
Well, I’m going to speak on the guys, because that’s basically the heat that I’m in. The men on All Stars 3 would beat the men on [recent Challenge season] Spies, Lies, and Allies, no question. This is one of the most ridiculous male casts that has ever been assembled. And yeah, a few of them are a little on the older side, but they make up for that with wisdom and strategy and a level of intelligence that some of the newer people on the flagship show will never be able to achieve in their lifetime.

I don’t want that to turn into an All Stars-versus-flagship type thing, because in the grand scheme of things, I think the flagship show probably would win outright. But if we were just isolating the most recent male casts on both of the seasons, the All Stars group is a definitively better male team. And that’s not the case with Season One and Season Two, and who knows what will happen in future seasons of the flagship or future seasons of All Stars. But this particular one was one of the harshest male casts that had ever been assembled. And when I found out who was going to be there, it sucked, because I was hoping to roll in and have a little bit easier opportunity. When I saw the list, I was like, “Shoot, I’ve got a better chance of winning the flagship show. What did I sign up for?”

Fans were psyched to see some vets for the first time in a while, since recent seasons of The Challenge have been packed with rookies.
I love that. Whenever I hear those cries, I am flattered, but I also want to shake them. I’m flattered because they’re basically saying they want to see more of my friends and I, and that’s cool. But what they don’t understand is a lot of my colleagues and friends have had to move on and get jobs and start families, and rookies are the lifeblood of our operation over here. I know change is hard and different, and I know some of these people totally need to get fired after their first season. But if they don’t put a bunch of new people into the flagship show and test them out, we’re going to end up with a very bad cast, because we didn’t invest in the future. And then what’s fun is all those rookies that the people complain about, after a season or two, they start to get compliments and then they start to build up fandoms.

You’re fairly or unfairly known for shepherding rookies and being their leader, but rookies aren’t on All Stars. So what was your game plan going into this season?
My hope was to kind of lay low. I had a few friends that were there, and so my hope was to kind of corral them as best as possible. But, you know, I found out really early on that that just wasn’t going to be the case. I am in a small group of people who get to rightfully complain about having a harder, uphill battle than the average Challenger. Every game that I play in the flagship show, the problem is jealousy and insecurity, and people thinking that if they take me out, they’ll be able to take my attention, money, and power, and that’s just really not how that works. So I have to compete against a lot of young egos that don’t understand how I got to where I’m at.

And on All Stars, a little bit of the mentality was, they just don’t want to be made to look stupid. They’re adults. They’re mature. They fear me because of my rightful reputation of being a renowned genius, and they would rather have their ass kicked in a fistfight on international TV than lose in a puzzle or a strategic game against me. So my hope of just laying low really wasn’t all that possible, because the entire group was just sitting around trying to figure out how to get rid of me.

Credit: Laura Barisonzi/MTV/Paramount+
Credit: Laura Barisonzi/MTV/Paramount+

Laura Barisonzi/MTV/Paramount+

I’m sure there were people in the house that were psyched to see you, though. Was there anyone you hadn’t seen in a long time you were happy to reconnect with?
I mean, anyone that was happy to see me, I’ve seen recently. I keep in very good contact with Melinda [Collins] and Brad [Fiorenza] and Nehemiah [Clark] and a few others. But I was also walking into a group that I knew was going to be a problem. I’ve got known rivalries — big ones with Derrick [Kosinski] and Darrel [Taylor] and Jordan [Wiseley] and Veronica [Portillo]. But then, I didn’t really realize all the new people that were going to be there that I’d never met. So the MJs [Garrett] and the Yes’ [Duffy] or any of the gaggle of people that Veronica can manipulate. I was going to be walking in on Day One to [being] in everyone’s crosshairs, and I didn’t know it.

You had a really astute observation of Yes, that everyone sees him as this innocent, sweet competitor.
In my opinion, he’s actually one of the worst humans that’s graced the show, because he puts on this front like he’s such a great human, but those are sometimes the most dangerous humans that there are. I’m trying to remember the metaphor I was using before. It’s something along the lines of: We all show up as wolves to play a very cutthroat game, and he shows up pretending he’s a sheep. But really, he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And I think that’s almost worse, because we all acknowledge that we’re coming for each other. But he shows up in and hopes that we all roll out the red carpet for him and that he’s going to be treated like some angel of a human. He’s just as bad as the rest of us, if not worse, because he comes in under false pretenses.

You were also in the house with your ex-girlfriend, KellyAnne Judd. Was that awkward at all?
It’s not my first show that I filmed with her post-breakup, but there’s always going to be a little bit of awkwardness to it. But then to a certain extent, in a weird, small way, she’s still a friend. So there is still some fun associated with her being in there and getting to see her.

But yes, it was awkward, and always a weird conversation to have with the wife when you get home. Because I ended up rooming with KellyAnne on accident — actually, probably not accident. It was probably purposeful on her part. I went in and chose the room. I was the first one to pick a bed. I found out several hours later that she had picked one of the last beds in my room. And you can’t mention people’s names on the phone with your significant other, so my wife doesn’t know that I’m rooming with her and I have to come home and explain to her, “Hey, not only was my ex-girlfriend there, but I was actually one bed away from her the entire time.” Thankfully, I’ve built up a lot of trust with her for doing all the things that I’m supposed to do, and she takes it very well. She’s very mature herself. But it’s still an uncomfortable, not-fun conversation to disclose when you go home.

I was listening to you on Bananas’ podcast, and he mentioned he views the game as a producer first, and a competitor second. Do you agree with that? Do you put the show first, or your own game first?
It depends on the scenario, but he’s definitely right in the sense of, I guess you could say I care about both equally. Sometimes I care a little bit more about the game, but about half of my effort and headspace and creativity goes towards making the show better. And this is one of those lessons where I really hope that they sit the flagship-show competitors down in a classroom and play All Stars and point out everything that I do, so they can see how a true expert not only navigates a challenging game, but also makes a really good show. I just put on a master class of how to be entertaining.

With all the seasons now streaming on Paramount+, it’s easy to notice different the show used to be. The competitions were like carnival games. What are the biggest changes you’ve observed over the years?
It’s definitely gotten a lot more like a sport. The art of it all is just so much better. When a helicopter rolls through to drag us down the desert or something, it’s proving big, fundamental changes. We’ve got — insert helicopter, it could be tank, it could be train, it could be bus, it could be cliff. But not only are they pulling in something like a helicopter, but said helicopter’s got Challenge branding on it, and then there’s an explosion underneath that. And then we come down to those great, big Challenge letters, and the jerseys are so much cleaner and nicer. The overall cinematography of it all, every last morsel that is on that show, is just so much more beautiful than it used to be. It’s almost like every area of making every asset that they’ve got, they just continue to level up their game.

Speaking of sports, Bill Simmons once compared Bananas to Michael Jordan and you to Charles Barkley. Are you flattered, insulted, or somewhere in between?
For whatever reason, my wife has the biggest crush on Charles Barkley, so I think it just fits. At the end of the day, Charles Barkley has a lot more fun in his life, right? He’s still working. He’s hilarious. People like him a lot. He might not have won as many championships, but he is a more fulfilled man. And in that respect, I would say that’s an apt comparison.

What’s your relationship with Johnny like right now? After you guys teamed up together on Total Madness after years of feuding, you weren’t exactly friends.
The man recently tried to cut my beard off on national television on his Celebrity Sleepover show. So this is both a compliment and an insult, but he’s so much more like a mischievous cousin than a friend or an enemy. As in like, I would never treat him like an enemy, but I would never treat him like a friend. He’s more like that bad kid that just happens to be connected to you by blood. I won’t let anyone outside of my family bully him, but I’m gonna bully him as best as possible. Because, dang it, he deserves it. He’s an anomaly of a human being.

Again, I mean that both in a complimentary and insulting way. He’s a little bit like those Sweet and Sour Patch Kids, where you could be on the phone with him or in person, and one second, he’s very sweet and charming, and then the next minute, he says or does something so obnoxious and insulting. And then right as your blood is boiling, he comes back to the charming side. I think he’s got this internal angel and devil on his shoulder that just make him go from one end of the extremes to the next, and you can see both sides of it in just about every conversation he has.

Do you regret throwing yourself in elimination against him in Total Madness?
Hindsight is 2020. The armchair quarterbacks love to say that I should [have] waited. But given all of the information that we had at that exact time, I don’t take back the decision. Now, if I was allowed to take a time machine back and choose to not go into that one, I would have, not only because I lost, but also because we now know that there were several other eliminations after that. One of them would have been one that I would have been particularly good at.

It’s just, at the time, we knew that there hadn’t been a Hall Brawl yet, and that was coming up. There was a lot of big boys left that didn’t have their skulls, so it was going to be a Hall Brawl, and I was correct about that. We never know when the finals are, and we never know how many total eliminations there are gonna be. And [host] T.J. [Lavin] sits there and he annoys us with the whole, “This might be your last chance to get the skull!” thing, so I’m using every bit of data that I’ve got to make a smart, informed decision. And it’s easy when you’re watching the show to say, “Oh, well, there’s three more episodes left in my DVR that’s on the schedule, so therefore there’s two more eliminations and then the finals!” But given all the information that I had at the time, I don’t take back the decision.

You’ve taken leaves from The Challenge in the past. What keeps bringing you back?
I don’t know. I guess I’m a little bit obsessed with the game. There’s nothing that really could ever scratch the true itch of The Challenge. Like, if you want to play a little sport, sure. Go join an intramural soccer team, which I do [laughs]. If you want to get a little bit into politics and cutthroat nature, you could start a business, which I do. But there’s nothing that you could do that really would mimic The Challenge. And if there was, I think I probably would not go back on The Challenge, because I don’t really care anymore about being on TV after so many years. More television time doesn’t equate to any extra fun or anything worthwhile. I go back because they’re the only purveyors of that type of game in the world, and, in ways, it’s hurt me, but in more ways it’s helped me, and, in ways, it’s made me a better man.

Take yourself out of the competition really quick. Who’s the GOAT: Chris “C.T.” Tamburello or Bananas?
That’s a tough one. I’m going to ultimately say that it’s C.T. I’m looking at both of those two guys, and I have to ask myself: Who would I rather not go into the elimination with? It’s C.T. Who would I rather not run a final against? It’s C.T. Who would I rather not compete against politically? It’s C.T. And so when you kind of look at those three main buckets, he’s the best. And then you start to give compliments to Bananas on the entertainment side. He’s more fun to watch navigate the politics. He’s got some one-liners in his interviews. But then you realize, “Shoot, C.T.’s also funny, in his weird kind of way.” So it’s like, that man checks off every box that we could be looking for, whether it’s in the scare factor, the size factor, the endurance factor, and quite frankly, even the entertainment factor. He’s got it all. And it sucks to not give the gold to Bananas because quantitatively, he’s won the most, and that fact will never go over my head. But you know, we’re talking about Chris Tamburello here. That’s the fucking man.

He is indeed very funny. He’s got that raspy dad voice.
He’s fun to watch on TV, but that’s not funny in person. Like, no one sits there and says, “Oh, man, I’m really enjoying my time with Chris.” That’s just not the case. Whereas with Bananas, half the time you hate him, but at least half the time you’re like, “OK, this is kind of entertaining.” Oh, that raspy dad-joke stuff is really like the perfect modality, and the only modality for it is in an interview chair and you watching it on your couch. But in person you’d be like, “What is he talking about?”

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Are you trying to change the bad rap gingers get?
Oh, no, I’m not trying to change that. I hope that I’m the only ginger. I feel like there should be some intellectual property protection that is put there, and I should be the only redhead that’s allowed to compete. But that said, I don’t really need a good reputation nor care about one. If you pay attention to me, you know that I’m already good. And if you don’t pay attention to me, you fall for the platitudes and the propaganda that the other people say about me.

But if you pay attention, I fight the bullies. I go against the bad people and I use bad tactics against them, but they always cross the line first. It’s just once they do, I really hit them where it hurts. Kind of like, I would never shoot anyone unless they came into my house, and then I’d have to protect my family. Well, in the game, I don’t leave my house and go hunting people. I stay in the confines of my home. But when you step onto my property after hours, I’m gonna kill you before I find out what you’re there for.

There’s been a few homecoming seasons of The Real World. Have you heard anything about your season of Austin?
Yeah, I’ve definitely heard the rumblings, but there is definitely nothing official that’s in the books. I know that our squad there would love to do it. I’ve talked to essentially all of them, and for various reasons, we’re all down. We were one of the most entertaining seasons of all time. I love the first three seasons, but we’ve got a different dynamic than what [they] are putting out there. It’s weird watching the New Orleans cast, and they’re saying things like, “None of us kept in touch and we hardly know each other anymore,” whereas we are very much ingrained in each other’s lives, and sometimes on a daily basis. For example, not only have I just spent All Stars 3 with Nehemiah and Melinda, but I talk to Melinda weekly. Nehemiah lives in my hometown and works for a company that is basically one of my clients, and so I see him regularly. And then I keep in touch with Danny [Jamieson] and Lacey [Buehler] and Rachel [Moyal].

And that’s just me. The rest of them, in their own ways, keep in touch with each other as well. And so to capture the magic in the bottle that was us getting drunk on Sixth Street every night actually might be plausible, because we would relish the opportunity to go there and showcase a lot more fun and jovial atmosphere. At the same time, we still have quite a few really pressing issues that would need to get discussed. I mean, Danny and Melinda had a divorce and have never talked about it. Johanna [Botta] and I had a messy breakup, never really talked about it. Danny lost his mother, was basically beat up within an inch of his life. I can keep going. There’s a bunch of these points of contention that really need some therapy.

Some fans have speculated that Johanna doesn’t want to do it. Is that true?
I don’t know. She’s the only one that I don’t keep in contact with, but I’ve talked to Lacey about it. She says she’s down. I mean, she obviously has questions. But I would be surprised if she didn’t do it. At at this point, if she’s the only holdout, then not only would she be saying no to a great opportunity to clear the air and some good therapy, but she’d also be preventing the opportunity for the other six people. Which means she’d essentially be saying, “I no longer want to keep in contact with any of them, because I’m going to be dead to all of them if I say no to this.”

I want to run a rumor by you: Some fans think you’ve been taking steroids or HGH. Do you want to respond to that?
Oh yeah, totally. No one that’s ever lifted weights before looks at the way that I’ve looked and says, “Oh, man, that’s a steroid body.” It’s all these fat or skinny people that don’t understand: If you lift weights for years and you eat right, your muscles grow. That’s how that works. At first it didn’t bother me, because I took it very flattering. But now I actually find those remarks to be very dangerous, because there’s some skinny or fat person at the beginning of their weight-lifting journey that thinks that the way to look like me — a.k.a. incredibly sexy and ripped — is to take steroids. And so when people’s insecurities make them hurl those kind of rumors out into the ether, they’re actually harming the world a lot more than they’re hurting my feelings.

I’ve also heard there’s a flagship Challenge season coming up. Have they contacted you about that?
I’m not sure if I’m allowed to discuss that.

OK. Do you hope to be doing this when you’re as old as Mark Long, a.k.a. the Godfather?
I don’t know. I hope to do them for as long as I possibly can. If it starts harming my family life too much, if it starts harming my health too much, if it starts harming my business too much, I hope that I have the maturity to step back, and that’s essentially what I do when I take a season off here or there. I’m like, “The timing just doesn’t work out for me right now because my business is under the gun and I really need to be here during this time of transition or growth” or whatever. Or, “I need to stay home because there is a personal responsibility that takes precedence.” And I’m proud of myself for being able to step out for a season or two when I know that my life is more important. And so as long as I’m able to keep that maturity, I don’t see why I wouldn’t be able to always have one foot in some capacity in the Challenge world.

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