aneesa seen through a firey chasm
Illustration by Zoe van Dijk 

Aneesa Ferreira Will Do ‘The Challenge’ Until She Can’t

Fresh off one season and knee deep in another, the MTV star’s career trajectory reflects the past and future of reality TV.

Aneesa Ferreira had what she calls a “spiral day” while filming the latest season of MTV’s The Challenge. Her then-partner, Fessy Shafaat, had been actively campaigning to dump her. Her best friend and castmate, Tori Deal, had just been eliminated from the game. Ferreira awoke from a bad dream and started sobbing. She and her castmates were filming the spy-themed season, The Challenge: Double Agents, under the most unusual circumstances: in the middle of a pandemic after months spent in lockdown at home. The cast had effectively gone from one form of quarantine to another, except in this case, they were competing for a million dollars in Reykjavik, Iceland.


As Ferreira fixed her makeup in the bathroom mirror, cameras rolling, a producer walked in and hugged her during her meltdown—a moment that didn’t make the final cut. She later cried all through her confessional. “I was questioning my friendships, missing my best friend. I didn’t know who I could trust,” Ferreira says via Zoom one March afternoon, a day after viewers watched her get eliminated. “I just needed to cry and get everything out.”

Inside her living room in Philadelphia, months after filming, she appears with no visible makeup and curls tucked into a loose updo. The night before, she was up late watching My Octopus Teacher, which, as you guessed, is a docuseries about a free-diver’s erotic relationship with an octopus.

“It was amazing,” Ferreira says, speaking in that dry, perpetually exhausted Aneesa tone familiar to Challenge fans. Having competed on 14 seasons of The Challenge over 19 years, she understands what she signed up for: a game where contestants battle and sometimes backstab to get to the end—and it never gets easy. Double Agents introduced a rule where players could steal other players’ partners, which meant Fessy became a commodity, and as it goes, he expressed concern about having to run a final with her.

“I was just happy I had a job during a pandemic, and then as the game started unraveling, I’m like, this is insane,” Ferreira says. “It was beautiful at first to hug people again and talk to them and not have to quarantine by yourself, but at the same time, it was very, very stressful. And the game is always like that. But this game especially.”


The Challenge has been an MTV staple for 23 years and spawned a rich world of fantasy leagues and podcasts. Rihanna is a confirmed viewer; Drake messaged Ferreira on Instagram this year to profess his support for her. The game’s general format hasn’t changed: host TJ Lavin leads a group of players who compete in a series of physically and psychologically demanding daily challenges to get to a final (or as he says, “run my final”). The show ends with said foot race, where players have had to hike up snow-capped mountains, sleep overnight in tents, and stand on a platform overnight in the middle of a snake pit to prove their endurance.

Going into each season, neither the players nor viewers know the land’s exact lay. Contestants could be competing in pairs, or as individuals, or in teams. They might have to battle it out in elimination rounds to qualify for the final.

The Challenge has grown more competitive over the years, with more insane games, a bigger cash prize, and a range of reality TV contestants willing to sacrifice their bodies and souls to win. Ferreira is among the players who’ve made a living off it, year after year. After appearing in Season 35 (Total Madness), she was recast in Season 36 (Double Agents), then filmed The Challenge: All Stars, an OGs spinoff spearheaded by Challenge vet Mark Long. (It premiered April 1 on Paramount+.) “I talked to Mark when he first came up with the idea, and I loved how passionate he was about it,” Ferreira says. “He was originally going to be part of the production and not on it, and I’m like, ‘Bro, you have to be a part of it.’ I mean, look at him; he’s a specimen.”


When MTV execs floated the idea of launching a companion Challenge Double Agents podcast in mid-2020, they recorded a test episode with Ferreira and Deal. The podcast launched with the Double Agents premiere this past December, featuring recaps and post-episode interviews with cast members and producers. (It has a 4.5 out of 5 rating on Apple Podcasts.) Ferreira, whose sarcastic tone is perfect for podcasting, is fluent in the language of reality TV production, which explains why she landed the gig and why she’s repeatedly asked to return to The Challenge.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who knows more about the game and the players, from strategy to drama,” Viacom Senior VP Dara Cook said via email. “Plus, she never holds her tongue, so you know she’s giving you her truth at all times.”

For years, The Challenge has been the under-appreciated sibling to more higher-rated competition series like Survivor and Big Brother. As with those shows, though, a cult Challenge following returns every season to root for favorites, gossip, and trash unlikable players. Ferreira, a 39-year-old bisexual, Black, Jewish woman, sometimes beloved and often discredited as a competitor, represents both what The Challenge used to be and how it’s evolving. After years of being a loose cannon, she’s recently become somewhat of a centering force for other players (spiraling aside). “I’m this voice of reason in this place that can get kind of messy and mean and superficial,” she says. “I kind of float in between two worlds and bridge them: the nostalgic old times that were fun and the more cutthroat. I could still beat girls that are 10 years younger than me because I think I’ve been there during a transitional period of it. But as it’s changed, I’ve had to change with it.”


The Challenge is as much a sport as it is reality TV. The show premiered in 1998 under the name Road Rules All Stars and then Real World/Road Rules Challenge before assuming its final form, and as such, earlier seasons only featured cast members from those MTV’s franchises. But lately, producers have rummaged shows like Survivor and Big Brother and even the British reality series Geordie Shore (yes, a take on Jersey Shore). Each season, Bunim/Murray’s producers choose from a rotating cast of veteran and rookie players, villains, and fan favorites, which means at any moment, casting producers could call on Ferreira to pack and head to a remote location for roughly eight weeks of filming. The series has shot worldwide, from Prague to Acapulco, Mexico to Bodrum, Turkey. It’s common for cast members to shoot back-to-back seasons, but their job is dependent on how strong, lovable, or hated they are and who producers deem suitable for a season’s chosen theme. While it is work, it’s not a typical job.

“I would never expect a job to be this physically, emotionally, and mentally demanding. If it were, I would quit,” Ferreira jokes. “I’ve been on TV more than I haven’t in my life. It becomes all you know, almost. Though it’s anxiety-provoking, it’s kind of a safe space, too, because I know how to navigate it, for the most part. At its core, I know what I’m getting into. It’s worked because there’s a check, but I have my own set of standards that go along with having this position. And I’m aware that it’s a reality show, but I’m so used to cameras. When you see them, it’s like, I am here, I am making a TV show. It kind of checks you and reminds you this isn’t life or death. It’s a show. It’s a competition. We’re here to win money.”


Ferreira’s reality TV career began on The Real World: Chicago, where she held a job as a counselor earning roughly $280 every two weeks, and in the Chicago Park District. Instead of appearance fees, each The Real World cast received work assignments meant to give them an authentic job experience. The Challenge, in contrast, is a well-paid television gig where cast members return season after season and receive appearance fees in addition to a potential cash prize, now set at a million dollars.

“I didn’t realize there weren’t as many people that were as comfortable or carefree as I was until I went on television.”

“There are certain guarantees. Of course, we get paid for our time and the fact that we are giving our lives up. But it’s not like Jersey Shore where the same cast came back each time and started getting paid per episode,” Ferreira says. “There are so many more of us—it would be insane to do. So clearly, the more time you spend on the show, you would expect to make more. That’s all I can say.” She won’t specify figures, not even to castmates or family members. “My mom asks me how much I make, and I get mad at her, like, no, I’m not telling you,” Ferreira says.

The show started feeling more like work than play when she filmed two seasons of The Challenge: Champs vs. Stars, an off-season spinoff that pitted Challenge contestants against pro athletes like NBA player Daniel Gibson and celebrities like Lil Mama and Brooke Hogan. When Ferreira returned after a two-year hiatus for Season 35, Total Madness, she found herself amid a gradually more diverse cast that was also fitter than ever before.


Even as the show has expanded, it’s still a sport and, therefore, a breeding ground for misogyny. Male contestants view themselves as more dominant and frequently underestimate their female counterparts. While producers actively cast the most physically fit men, there hasn’t been as much parity among the women. But in recent seasons, contestants—like Jenny West from the British show Survival of the Fittest, and former rugby and Big Brother player Kaycee Clark—have proven to be solid players seemingly capable of beating half the NBA at anything from cherry pit spitting to arm wrestling.

This season featured a challenge where players stood suspended in the air on a rig, forced to hold onto a bar as they answered trivia questions; with each wrong answer, they leaned further into a freezing body of water in the position of a full-on plank. The challenge was to hold on and not fall. But consider how it feels to hold a plank for two minutes, let alone several, and do it while leaning in the sky.

“There is a point where you’re so exhausted that you’re like, ‘I can’t physically hold onto this bar any longer.’ I was in a plank for a long, long time, and I couldn’t feel my hands,” Ferreira says. “I was like, I either wait it out and fall weirdly and hurt myself or take the last 10 seconds of grip that I have, swing out and pencil. Those moments where strategy comes in, it’s like, ‘What’s the logical thing to do here?’ Your mind’s the first one that’s going to try and shut you down. I know my body is going to hurt, but the pain is temporary, so you just push through it.”


Johnny Devenanzio, aka Johnny Bananas, one of The Challenge’s most prominent anti-heroes, first competed with Ferreira on Inferno 3, aired in 2007, and considers her not just a coworker but like a sister. He notes her social game as an unsung attribute—it’s a strategy to simply be likable enough to not get voted off. “She’s made it as far as she has every season not just on pure luck or seniority. She really does have a fantastic social game. And it’s not something that she has to turn on. That’s just who she is,” Bananas says. “Everyone focuses on who’s the strongest, who’s the fastest, who has the most endurance. What’s more important than that is emotional intelligence, the ability to read people and operate within that space. It’s a social experiment after all.”

He makes another point that storytellers like Ferreira serve precious roles as narrators, which is especially useful when considering The Challenge not just as a television production that needs its cast members to provide exposition but as a job where the most essential voices get rehired. “I’ve always said if you want to know the people who are the most important to the franchise, look who narrates the scenes, look who breaks down what’s going on in the house,” says Bananas. “There’s no better narrator of the show over the years than her, and the proof is in the camera time that she gets. A lot of people on the show now are great athletes, and they’re in amazing shape, but then they get in the interview and it’s like listening to paint dry.”


When Ferreira and Bananas started out in reality TV, cast members were wild, but there was no social media. “People had their characters, and we played them well, but a lot of us in our 20s, we didn’t give a shit what anybody thought about us,” Ferreira says. “It was a different time. We didn’t have a platform then.” For viewers, it’s refreshing to see players mature and tone down their salaciousness as they become parents, business owners, and indispensable narrators on the show, though, in later seasons, Ferreira has been routinely undervalued as a competitor. “I shouldn’t be the underdog, ever,” she says, sounding irritated. “Back in the day when I was tiny and 24 or 25, I wasn’t winning dailies, so people were like, ‘She ain’t shit, but she’s great in eliminations.’ Now, it’s, ‘Well, you’re winning dailies and eliminations, but you’re thicker, so you’re not shit now.’ It doesn’t matter what I do. I always find myself in a space where somebody doubts me. But if anything, it motivates me.”

The game requires a level of mental endurance not everyone can sustain. One player this season left early, citing mental health reasons. Lolo Jones, an Olympic hurdler and bobsledder, had trouble adapting to an environment where others controlled her fate. She later claimed that producers forced her off the show and rigged the game for specific players. Athletes may have a physical advantage, but The Challenge is more about wit and strategy than pure athletics.


“Lolo, a super athlete, has been groomed for so long in one thing, so she’s amazing at that one thing. You add a lot of different variables, and it can make things tricky for somebody who is very regimented and stuck in that kind of training,” Ferreira says. “And that’s not a diss. I mean, she’s great. It’s more like that’s the difference between people like her and C.T. or Laurel, who are good at just doing shit. Kam’s never played a sport in her life, but she commands respect and is good at being an athlete. You can bring on as many professional athletes as you want. It takes a certain kind of person to do The Challenge, and they won’t be beaten easily.”

Ferreira grew up competitive. Every Sunday, she would wrestle with her older brother, Robert, and serve as goalie when they played soccer. While she wasn’t a star athlete, she tried everything from basketball to field hockey in middle school. Starting at age 4, she attended sports camp every summer, playing softball, soccer, kickball, flag football, and volleyball. At Lower Merion High School, it was lacrosse and hockey, and she was a four-year varsity cheerleader, becoming captain in her senior year.

As a kid, Ferreira also danced tap, jazz, and modern and sang in the choir. She was a class clown who dreamed of going to Juilliard. “Knowing how many people get into Juilliard versus how many people apply to get in and don’t, I think, scared me,” she says.


When she was a freshman at the Community College of Philadelphia, working at The Gap, Ferreira convinced a young woman she was crushing on to join her at open auditions for The Real World at a University City bar. They waited in line, where a producer handed Ferreira a roughly 30-page packet with questions about her life. Ferreira filled it out at home and earned a second audition, commencing a five-month interview process. Though she’d only watched the show in snippets, she knew about pop culture fixtures like Pedro and Puck. Ferreira bought a camcorder to make a Day in the Life-type short film, then did another round of interviews in New York and L.A. before learning she’d been cast on Season 11, The Real World: Chicago, which aired in 2002. At 19, she says, she “didn’t care about anything,” which made her a perfect candidate for a social experiment show about growing pains.

“There’s going to be some point where either I’m not going to want to do this or they find other people to do it that are more fitting for whatever themes they're going for. But I’ll keep going until that time comes.”

A self-described “spoiled mama’s girl,” she’d barely flown anywhere and was excited about a new environment. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” Ferreira says. “I never aspired to be on the show. I never thought, Oh my God, that’s me. I have a personality. I’m going to do this when I get older.”


Once in the house, she quickly adjusted to being surrounded by cameras. “I didn’t care that they were there. I was living my best vegetarian, queer life and being me,” she says. “I didn’t realize there weren’t as many people that were as comfortable or carefree as I was until I went on television.”

During filming, Ferreira fell for a woman named Veronica, who she famously threw out of the house for bringing a girl over. (“Take the hoe… OUT!” Ferreira screams into an elevator in the episode.) It was also during this time that the 9/11 attacks happened on Ferreira’s 20th birthday. Producers, breaking protocol, brought in a small fatback TV to show the cast the news.

Ferreira experimented with hosting in her 20s when Philadelphia’s Power 99, 103.9, and 100.3 invited her to test at their stations. “I would come in and talk, and I would be pretty good,” she says. “They were like, ‘Is there any chance you’d like a job doing morning radio?’ I’m like, ‘Absolutely not.’” At the time, she enjoyed her freedom, and The Challenge became her profession. She joined the show in its sixth season, competing in 2003’s Battle of the Sexes

Ferreira balanced filming The Challenge with bartending and studying at Temple University’s Fox School of Business. She hated business so she switched to psychology, occasionally declining Challenge appearances to focus on school. It wasn’t until last year—after filming Total Madness in Prague—that she felt financially secure enough to end her bartending job. While Ferreira has yet to become a Challenge champion, she has become known as an elimination queen. “There’s going to be some point where either I’m not going to want to do this or they find other people to do it that are more fitting for whatever themes they're going for,” she says. “But I’ll keep going until that time comes.” 

Unlike the original The Real World, The Challenge has spent little camera time dissecting social issues. There’ve been instances of sexism, vicious bullying, countless physical altercations, and racist incidents that led to firings. One contestant, Camilla Nakagawa, hasn’t returned since she called her castmate, Leroy, a “black motherfucking pussy” while filming (though she finished the season and won). Another, Dee Nguyen, was fired last year for tweeting offensive jokes about Black Lives Matter while Total Madness was airing; producers edited her scenes down drastically to give her less visibility on screen. They also preempted each episode with a message stating that MTV had severed ties with her and that the network “strongly condemns systemic racism.” 

In the past, The Challenge has dealt with altercations among players poorly (rules about who gets kicked off for fighting have been inconsistent). But in recent months, reality TV has begun adjusting to changing viewer demands. Bravo fired Vanderpump Rules cast members for racist remarks, and The Bachelor had a long, long overdue Black Bachelor, the first in the show’s 20 years. In Episode 2 of The Challenge: All Stars, castmate Trishelle Cannatella apologizes to Ferreira for offensively questioning her racial identity while filming years ago. It was a fairly touching reality TV moment—a character seemingly owning up to past ignorance and showing accountability.

Executive producer Emer Hawkin describes Ferreira as a “chameleon,” integral to the show’s evolution and makeup. “We love everything she represents and want more of this,” Hawkin wrote via email, adding that producers are “committed to presenting the most diverse cast possible” and that it’s “super important to the fabric of our show.”

A scene from the Double Agents premiere shows Ferreira seated at a table, speaking with women in the cast about how people expect Black women to be strong. “When you want to be vulnerable, nobody’s there for you,” her castmate Kam tells the group. “Why do Black women always have to come in and be the ones to save the day?” Ferreira tearfully agrees, “It’s exhausting.” It’s a rare moment of social awareness and empathy that shows The Challenge widening its perspective to allow its cast to address race on camera.

Before Ferreira exited the season, she noted, also on camera, that only women of color remained, and one of them would be a champion. “It wasn’t a blatant, everyday ‘Let’s keep all the people of color here,’” Ferreira says. “It’s something I envisioned for women at the beginning of the season.” After the episode aired, some fans—primarily white, she says—sent her messages on social media, saying she’d unnecessarily brought up race.

 “I hate that these things are things now. They always should have been things. Insensitive behavior should be recognized. People should be held accountable,” she says. “But I also think we were doing things in different times, and I’m not trying to excuse anybody’s behavior. Different times call for a different call to action. There was no action then, and now it’s like, we can’t let all these privileged folks go around talking shit like they’re not going to offend.”

Ferreira returned home from filming this past season and, a month later, left again to film The Challenge: All Stars, now streaming concurrently with Double Agents, the finale of which aired on April 21. Out-of-practice veterans returned to a new landscape on All Stars, and Ferreira remains a bridge between two seasons. She recognizes what she’s hired to do and tries to leave her feelings on the field. “I don’t come off the show thinking that I’m a terrible human or I’m incapable of anything,” she says. “This is part of my life that has been my job for a long time, but when I leave, I know how to separate the two.”

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