“You look at the Johnnys and the CTs and you wonder – Of these rookies, who’s going to replace them?” Jessica McCain’s tone is smooth and collected. Her North Carolinian accent is effortlessly sweet, popping more acutely when her voice sparks and sizzles while discussing a passion (of which there are many). She speaks without irony and with a self-confidence and a nuanced self-awareness. I wonder if she realizes that the answer to her question may be closer to her than she realizes.
Every season of The Challenge has its own distinctive characteristics. The gameplay format is a transient tool that allows for heightened stakes in a particular dynamic (often social) range. The location, climate, and living conditions affect the type of challenges that can take place and can influence the relative happiness of the competitors (the air conditioned-challenged Thai house on Rivals 2 was a test for all). Despite many veteran constants and consecutive season streaks, player participation is an independent variable that makes the road to victory easier for some (Team San Diego benefitted from the rookie heavy cast on Battle of the Seasons) and harder for others (partner seasons seem to have a higher level of difficulty).
There are also a set of Challenge tropes and constants that have become near sacrosanct as we embark on this silver anniversary season. Since season eleven, TJ Lavin the Great has been the indelible and trusted host, guide, and spiritual leader, doubting internal fortitude of quitters and offering up “You Killed Its” to the lucky deserving few. The Final Challenge has become a kind of right of passage into insanity, asking competitors to push the human body to an unimaginable extreme often involving some wacky, weird, and wild stuff and lots and lots of running. And, each season, there are a handful of new (or newish) competitors who come out of the Real World farm system to break out, to reach unthinkable and unimaginable heights, and to establish themselves as deserving competitors to compete with the big boys (CT, Johnny Bananas) and the big girls (Paula, Ev) of the modern Challenge era (Frank did it on Battle of the Seasons. Jordan did it on Rivals 2). This cycle of greatness, present in all forums of professional athletic competition, does not allude this Fifth Major American Professional Sport, and in many ways, is even more pronounced in an environment constantly infused with new and promising talent.
On the The Challenge: Free Agents season premiere episode last week, there were a few competitors who placed their names on the ballot as candidates to join this aforementioned cycle of greatness as early as this season. Jessica’s fear and adversity conquering on the rolling log of doom, set over a forty-two story urban Uruguayan drop, was instrumental in setting up her team for the win and in dispelling a chattering chorus of doubters. It was also one of those symbolic, “against all odds” moments on The Challenge that matter more in an attempted ascension up the competitor latter. I had the pleasure of speaking to Jessica last week on the precipice of this new season. Our wide-ranging interview touched on topics far and wide, from her spotlighted, public MTV career to the values, the people, and the hopes and dreams that fill her heart and consume her dedicated daily efforts.
Jessica’s speaks so confidently, eloquently, and passionately while discussing her professional aspirations that it at first takes you aback. Many of us continue to live with the unknown (I know this is certainly a struggle for me) on the question of “what are we going to do with our lives?” Jessica’s understanding of her journey has a commendable focus. “My all-around goal is to become a well rounded and dynamic personal trainer to meet the needs of various types of people, specializing with athletes.” Her answer strikes with a polish as if its repetition was part of her daily workout. Then Jess delivers the end game as she were talking to a prospective client about training goals, “I would like to open up my own gym someday.” Her two season experience on The Challenge (“…and if I am lucky enough for them to pick me again in the future”) is just another arena for her to train and continue to learn how to train.
Despite editing on The Real World that may have pushed a different narrative, fitness training and athletic activity are not new passions. “Fitness has been a part of my life for a long time even though on the shows it doesn’t really…it’s not really apparent.” In the offseason, Jess describes functional fitness like “cross fit, hiking, and biking as part of [her] daily life.” Although both The Real World and The Challenge afford time for maintaining her fitness regimen, Jess encountered an unexpected result. “I gain a lot of weight when filming due to stress.” Undesirable weight gain is one thing. Undesirable weight gain while filming on television is quite another and Jess has received some unfortunate feedback. “On my show when I gained some weight, I had some problems with an ex-boyfriend telling me that I needed to work out more. It gave me a kind of a body complex.” She recounts this tale deliberately and with a refreshing openness. This happened. It was difficult, but here is what I have learned. She continues, without missing a beat, “It made me realize that if I’m feeling that way about my body than other girls and other guys are going to feel the same way and I can help them.” It is hard to doubt her commitment, partly because of how clear it is how much Jessica trusts herself and partly because of the weight of her uninhibited openness. The consideration and thoughtfulness of her ideas and beliefs are most apparent, with a spirituality and generosity deeply rooted in her faith in God.
Jessica has at times struggled to manage the ramifications of her edited television persona in which “only part of you is going to be shown and only part of the story is going to be told.” Much of her narrative, cultivated on a sometimes tumultuous experience filming The Real World, has focused on how she goes about romantic relationships. “I know on TV they make me look like this hopeless romantic and that I fall in love with everyone, but I usually get really excited about dating someone new for about two or three weeks – maybe four weeks – but after that, I find something wrong with them and a reason not to date them anymore. So, my parents call me either the ‘black widow’ or a serial dater.” (She makes a point of differentiating between “dating” and a relationship. “I wouldn’t call it a relationship because relationships are when you’re serious.”) When I press her on this issue, she quickly identifies the root cause. “I have a fear of commitment.”
This “hopeless romantic” misconception about Jess has been filtered through her Real World fling (I am not sure she would call it a “relationship”) with Tyler, one of her last serious dating experiences that also happened to take place in front of a national audience. “I was terrified to be with Tyler. I wasn’t sure. And they don’t show any of that. They just show the dumb part.” She is comfortable and open talking about the ups and downs of her past and is ready to take responsibility for what role she may have played in things not working out. She also knows some of the reasons why she can be challenging to be with. “I’m a mess. I leave wet towels on the bed or on the floor.” She may not be hopeless, but I am not convinced she isn’t inherently romantic. The vivaciousness and joy retelling stories from her past and the heightened interpersonal savvy describing the kind of man she wants to be with showcase a person who sees the promise of love, but is realistic and at times subsequently risk averse about its potential downfalls. I believe she is increasingly open to finding the right person and will be able to fully embrace him and all that comes with it when that time arises. For now, don’t even think about talking to her about marriage. “I don’t think I’ll be ready for that anywhere in the next seven years.”
Jessica came upon the Real World in an unusual way. Living in the confines of Fayetteville, North Carolina, she had minimal knowledge of the pioneering reality television institution before applying. “I was sitting in my kitchen looking at casting calls because I was into modeling at the time. I saw it and said, ‘Do you want to go live in a house and are you adventurous?’ It just listed all these things and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m that. I’m that too.’ It found me in a way.” Compelled by the desire to discover a world outside of Fayetteville, Jess went into the process with an open heart and mind, but the adventure did not always live up to its promise. “It turned out to be the best and worst experiences of my life.”
Having your lived taped twenty four hours a day is one level of intrusion, but having to watch it back and face the public criticism and scrutiny is an entirely different level. I ask Jess to describe the night of the premiere. “I think I was at home on my couch with my family. That’s where I usually watch everything. You’re excited. I mean, I was scared. I didn’t know what…I mean I knew what they were going to air because they sent me the DVD [screener], but I was just so nervous and excited. When you watch that first video, you’re just like, ‘Man it’s all over with now.’ That was filmed long ago.” Much of the initial positive excitement dissipated deeper into the season. “The first episode wasn’t so bad, but once you get midway into the season you start to cringe…It’s just a lot of self-reflection and self-torment.”
Jessica describes dealing with some of her detractors. “You start to tear yourself down and if anyone says they didn’t do that [when on] television, it is a bold-face lie. Sometimes when we show up on TV, someone has something negative to say and you just have to struggle and fight past all of the negativity to find your reason to continue to do it.” Sometimes Jessica wishes that her Real World edit had painted other sides of her personality more accurately. “I am lot more intelligent than they portray and I am a lot more feisty and quirky. I am such a dork, but they didn’t show that. They almost show me as a prude, and that is the furthest thing from what I am.” Jess has been able to find ways to cope better (“Usually I have a glass of wine on hand…sometimes a bottle…most of the time.”) as her time on television has continued and is finding re-watching The Challenge significantly easier than watching back The Real World: Portland.
Jessica’s first season on The Challenge aired last summer immediately after her Real World season finished airing. She only lasted two episodes on Rivals 2 before she and partner Anastasia were defeated in a jungle elimination round. Unlike her partner Anastasia, a bird that did her share of feather ruffling in the short amount time she was in Thailand, Jessica had a positive social experience (she describes Diem as being particularly supportive) and turned some heads with a gutsy performance in both her final challenge (marking the creation of her Princess Hulk moniker) and in her elimination. Despite this promising, but short rookie campaign, Jess is surprised to see herself heavily featured in one of the most memorable Free Agents promotional clips (the aforementioned rolling log of doom challenge atop Uruguay’s tallest building). “When I saw it, I was so excited. I mean people hardly know that I was even on Rivals 2 because of my performance and if they did know that I was on Rivals 2, either they are like, ‘Yeah, you picked that girl up’ or ‘Yeah, you’re the chick that got kicked off first.’ It’s kind of thrilling to see that I made an impact on producers and on the staff enough to give me my own promo as a second season rookie.”
The exhilarating clip depicting Jessica’s battle against a fear of heights compels a reaction. One of the strongest comes from Jessica’s grandmother. Jessica recalls, amping up her souther drawl, “My grandmother saw the preview and she goes, ‘Oh my god, Jessica. You better get down from there.’ ‘Grandma, we filmed it a year ago.’ And she goes, ‘Oh, ok.’ I said, ‘But to be honest with you, when I was standing up there, I’ve never been closer to Jesus in my life.’” Upon viewing the episode, Jess digs deep to conquer this fear, completing the challenge and setting her team up to win. For a competitor with a short Challenge track record, this was a bit of an “I have arrived” moment.
If Jessica had barely heard of The Real World before applying, she may have known even less about The Challenge. I try to question whether she was at all starstruck by appearing on a show with Johnny Bananas and CT, but she sincerely answers that these are “just people I compete against.” Unaware of most of the Challenge social world and its dynamics, she is relieved to have seen a familiar face again. “I was really glad that Nia was going to be there because I didn’t really know that many people this time. The fact that Nia was going to be there gave me great comfort because at least I was going to have a friend. I think we are two of the most misunderstood people [of] my season [on the Real World]. They just see the villain for her and then the innocent, no nothing [for me]. Having her there to reconnect with was really awesome.”
She describes the lack of social game knowledge as one of her potential weaknesses in this game. “As far as my weaknesses: my social game and definitely alliances…I still don’t get it. I just want to be friends with everybody. I just want everybody to get along and be honest and not everyone’s honest.” Although she may “suck at” the social game, it allows her to have greater focus on her performance in challenges and converts this potential weakness to a core strength. “I might be short, and smaller than most of the other girls, but I’m strong. I take every single bit of anger from what I’ve been through in my life – every little heartbreak and tragic moment that I’ve experienced – and I put it into my Challenge competition.” One episode into Free Agents, so far so good.
The more I speak to Jessica, the more she continues to impress me and surprise me with her intuition and her diversified set of interests and passions. Her all-time favorite movie is Forrest Gump because she appreciates the unconventional romantic story and she feels a certain kinship with Forrest’s love interest (“I kind of feel like my alter-ego is Jenny.”). Her favorite television show of the moment is Burn Notice (“…any kind of crime TV”) because she “needs a conclusion.” After an enriching European trip this past winter (Venice was the highlight), she would love to do more traveling (Australia is her most desired destination). I am fascinated when I ask her to come up with artists for her “Mount Rushmore” of musical interests. She answers Frank Sinatra and “Motown” without flinching, and then takes more time (and was more uncertain) throwing in “Good ‘ole Redneck” Miranda Lambert, and Hillbilly Casino. She describes her ideal birthday meal as a plate of steak (“medium rare”), twice baked mashed potatoes, and macaroni and cheese made with truffles and is quick to mention the restaurant Elliotts on Linden (in Pinehurst, North Carolina) as a place where you can get it.
I ask Jess how many people in this world she trusts completely. Throughout our conversation, Jessica has an infectious warmth and vibrancy, but I am not sure I hear more potent passion than in her answers to this question. “Two – I can tell you who they are. My mother and my best friend Shelby.” Hearing Jess speak of her mother is like hearing an awestruck fan speak of her idol. “I think the most special thing about my mother is her giving heart. She is so loving and she is so caring and so selfless. Her heart is more concerned about other people than her own well-being. It’s beautiful. She amazes me every single day.” Jessica tells me a story whose details I will refrain from sharing (“my mom would kill me”), but let me tell you that Jessica’s mom walks the walk of selfless giving and generosity. “I just hope that someday when I have children that I’ll be able to provide for them financially, but especially spiritually and emotionally the way that she has nurtured me.”
Jessica’s friendship with Shelby dates back to the fourth grade. “My absolute favorite thing about Shelby is just her personality. Her personality is so dynamic. One minute she is so giving and loving. The next minute she is doing something crazy and we’re laughing until our stomachs hurt. I think God accidentally put my soulmate in a female body sometimes.” When I ask Jess what Shelby likes the least about Jess, her answer is totally unfiltered, “She would probably tell you that I am selfish. She would probably say that I am a selfish brat.” Conversely, when I pressed Jess on what Shelby loves about her, it is just as easy, “She loves that I am who I am and that I’m honest about it.”
This is hard to dispute. Jessica is just “honest about it” and everything we spoke of. It’s been an enriching experience removing the filter from the television narrative lens that frames our collective experience of these real people we watch on television. The real Jessica that I spoke to has an electric and dynamic energy, is a thoughtful and insightful open and honest book, and bleeds her passions through her loving heart. As the “Johnnys and the CTs” reach their final chapters on The Challenge, somebody has to replace them. Why not Jess?
For my final question, I ask Jess to consider how she wants to be remembered – ostensibly what does she want the first line of her life’s byline to read. “Jessica was a light to the world.” And Free Agents may just be the perfect chance to turn that switch on, although I am confident she has already been glowing for some time.