The 40-year-old self-described "Tom Brady of The Challenge" reveals what keeps him coming back -- before getting honest about the show's "negative side effects" and "consequences."
Johnny Devenanzio -- better known as Johnny Bananas -- made his reality TV debut on "The Real World: Key West" back in 2006 and never looked back. In the 17 years since that show, he's appeared on 21 seasons of MTV's "The Challenge" -- at least once a year, with the exception of 2021 -- winning seven times.
Bananas is one of the rare personalities who has made a nearly two-decade career out of appearing on reality TV -- "I consider it a real job, even though other people don't," he tells TooFab -- and this week, the 40-year-old Challenge legend is back at it again with his 22nd attempt at making it to (and possibly winning) host T.J. Lavin's final on "The Challenge: World Championship."
But what is it that keeps him coming back? Sure, that $500,000 prize can't hurt -- but, according to Bananas, that's not all that it's about.
"Every season I have to find something new to drive me because after seven wins it really is difficult to match the intensity and desire that people who have never won bring to the table," he explained.
After being paired with Nany González on "Ride or Dies" last year and coming in second place, Johnny said he was looking for some redemption. "We lost in the 97th hour of a 100 hour long final after 9 weeks of hell, I just let one slip through my fingers. So I feel like coming on this season, my motivation was to avenge the loss that was so close to winning," he added, saying he hoped to "right some wrongs."
Johnny said he previously considered leaving on top after winning "Total Madness" back in 2022, calling it an "emotionally, mentally and spiritually-draining season." But, pointing to Tom Brady's record of retiring and un-retiring from football, Bananas added, "You look at the guy and he's 45 years old ... he's still just as good, if not better, than 95% of the quarterbacks in the NFL. I kind of consider myself the Tom Brady of 'The Challenge.' And I think he considers himself the Johnny Bananas of the NFL."
While the highs are great, devoting his life to "The Challenge" has had some personal drawbacks for Bananas. Being away from home for long stretches of time, multiple times a year, doesn't exactly make a long-term relationship easy to maintain.
"I mean there's a reason why I'm 40 years old and I haven't settled down and don't have an immediate family of my own. I think that's one of the consequences of doing what I've done for so long at such a high level," he explained. "Here's the thing, there are some cast members who have stepped away and they have started families, got married, and whatever. I think the reason that I have, I guess, rose to the level of notoriety that I have over the years is because I've never stepped away, right?"
"And while certain cast members have and they have the benefit now of having a family and this other life, they also missed out I think on some very important years [of the show] and the fact that I have stuck with it all this entire time and the fact that I have never steered away and my focus and attention has always been on my career, I have the benefit of reaching the level that I have, of infamy and whatever you want to call it," he continued. "But then there's the drawback of not really ever having the time or ability to really be in a long term, meaningful relationship because I just feel like where I'm at right now and where I've come, I've invested so much time and energy, it's like my career in this point in my life is always going to come first."
Acknowledging that "something's gonna have to give at some point," Bananas also said that while it's "unfortunate that there are some negative side effects" to being career-driven, it's the choice he's made and focused on for the time being. And though he's definitely had moments of burnout, at the end of the day, he's thrilled to have a job where he loves "every aspect" of what he's doing.
"What I do is I weigh the pros and the cons, and it's like, yes, is it emotionally draining and soul sucking sometimes? And the confines of the challenge house and that whole experience, and the pressure cooker environment we're put in, and the negativity sometimes and the backlash and the hate that we receive online, there are drawbacks in those regards," he said. "However, I get to do what I love. I get to compete, I get to travel. I get to experience new places, meet new people."
"I look at it from that perspective, I feel like instead of working 365 days a year, stressing out all year, I cram all of my stress into 6-9 week blocks and then I have the rest of the year to do what I want to do, focus on the goals and my career aspirations," he added. "And you know, I have that time off. There's obviously really difficult aspects of 'The Challenge' that I have to deal with, however, when it's all balanced out, the pros far outweigh the cons."
In the many, many Challenges since 2006, the show has changed big-time. The season before Johnny's debut was the first to include people who hadn't previously been on either "Road Rules" or "Real World," opening up the competitor pool to some major heavy-hitters. In addition to the contestants becoming more cutthroat, the challenges they're thrown into daily have also intensified ... leading to, as Bananas put it, a never-ending cycle.
"When I first started 'The Challenge' way back in 2006, The Challenge was just making its transition from a game show with circus-y type games, it was a sideshow. The challenge aspect was a sideshow. It was all about the drama, the house reality, the challenges were just something to break up the monotony in the house," said Bananas. "The evolution that took place then is when it turned from a reality show into a legit physical, athletic competition show."
"Back in the day when we'd do 'The Challenge,' there was no fitness equipment in the house. They didn't have a treadmill, they didn't have a yoga mat. You'd show up and everyone would be in the shape that they were in and everyone would slowly, over the season, deteriorate," he recalled. "Finals were six hours long, the show was less than a month, and over time with the evolution of more difficult challenges, it forced players to take the physical fitness aspect of the show more seriously."
With that, he said, came the addition of gyms to the house, so players could maintain their physiques ... and also more difficult challenges to "measure up to the increased competition." He cracked, "the competition's getting better and younger and I'm over here getting older and wiser and more handsome."
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At 40, the reality star still said he doesn't "really see retirement in sight" when it comes to being on the show. While he may not have the "same physical intensity and endurance, strength, stamina" that he once had, Bananas said he can now rely "a lot more on my methods of manipulation and my connivery and my tomfoolery."
"These guys just keep getting more and more physically intense but if one thing 'The Challenge' has shown, it's a mind game and I think my mind is still there and you know?" he added. "We'll see."
Outside of current, never-ending gig, Johnny said he'd also love to "take the skill sets that I've developed" and apply them to other reality TV competitions. While being stuck in a house for months on "Big Brother" doesn't exactly appeal to him, he said he'd be down for the shorter "Celebrity Big Brother" seasons, as well as something like "Survivor," "The Amazing Race" or "Dancing with the Stars."
"And who knows? 'Teen Mom' could potentially be in my future at some point too!" he quipped.
Let's hope not.
"The Challenge: World Championship" premieres Wednesday, March 8 on Paramount+.