Fast Talk: Phil Keoghan
Published: June 2009
Phil Keoghan, host of CBS's hit reality series The Amazing Race, is by any definition a well-seasoned traveler. Born in New Zealand, he had lived in a dozen countries by the time he was 10. Twenty-five years later, he hasn't slowed down a bit. He maintains his frenetic pace every week, trying to keep ahead of the 12 couples he's sent racing around the world for a million-dollar prize. "Believe me, it's not a studio gig," he says. "It's more of a marathon experience." T+L caught up with Phil in New York City on the morning of The Amazing Race 3's final episode. Here, he offers insight on the popularity of reality-adventure shows, tells what happens when you don't sleep for four days, and divulges his secrets for staying healthy under the most nightmarish travel conditions.
1. Tell us a little about your past year.
This year has been nuts: I have not stopped. We shot two full seasons of The Amazing Race, so that's two loops around the world just to start with. In June, my family moved from New York to Los Angeles; I still haven't unpacked. I've been back and forth to New Zealand a couple of times, as well as to Hawaii for a new series called The Best of Both Worlds, for A&E. I just recently got back from Hong Kong. Tomorrow I fly straight to Sydney for a wedding, then back to New Zealand for the holidays, then home to Los Angeles. And then we start filming The Amazing Race 4 in January 2003.
2. While filming the show, you cover about 41,000 miles in 30 days, sleeping an average 2.5 hours a day. How do you manage to stay healthy under these conditions?
This show is the hardest gig that I've ever done, mentally and physically. There's a cumulative effect of tiredness, so your brain starts to retain less and less. At one point this season, I didn't sleep for four days. I've managed to stay pretty healthy, though. Before the race begins, I get myself into really great shape: I work out, go to the doctor for a checkup, have a dentist check out my teeth. I don't drink any alcohol or coffee. And then I just focus on getting through each day, grabbing sleep wherever and whenever I can.
3. Moving at such a frantic pace, do you ever feel as if you get to know a place?
No. Races are whirlwind trips, teases. You never get to know a place in depth. You're not absorbing your surroundings, because you're half-asleep most of the time, and any moment you get to sit down, you nap, because if you don't, you might not get another chance for a long while. Other times, you're pumped full of adrenaline, and it's very exciting, like being at a really good sports match.
4. The Amazing Race brings out the best and the worst in people, pulling some teams together, some apart. What qualities do you see as making two people successful travel partners?
It's hard to say, because some of the teams who've ended up in the final three (like Tara and Wil, in Race 2) were just constantly fighting with each other. I don't know what their secret is. It must be luck. As for me, I'd want to travel with someone who'd keep an open mind and a good sense of humor, no matter what.
5. What are the best and worst things about hosting the show?
There's not really a lot of bad, because even the lack of sleep is part of the experience: it makes you feel as if you're on an expedition. The best thing is the people, the teams, some of whom have never traveled or owned a passport in their lives. As the host of the show, I get to live vicariously through them as they experience everything for the first time—from culture shock to their own sleep deprivation.
6. What do you make of the reality-adventure show phenomenon that has overtaken network TV in the past few years?
I think the fascination with a show like Survivor, or even Fear Factor, has a lot to do with the fact that until recently (particularly before September 11th), the world was getting very safe. We were all talking about airbags and knee pads and watch out for this and watch out for that—we had just started to live in a little cocoon. The reason that these shows capture people's imaginations is because they tap into something that is inherently within us all: our survival instinct.
7. What does adventure mean to you?
Adventure is a very ambiguous word, but to me it means what happens when an individual is taken out of his or her comfort zone. But it's all relative. A walk around Central Park could be the biggest adventure for one person, but someone else, to get that same thrill, might have to bungee-jump, or climb Mount Everest.
8. What's the most unusual travel experience you've ever had?
I couldn't name one thing. Can I give you a list of a whole lot of things?For Adventure Crazy, a show I used to host for the Travel Channel, I ate a five-star meal with an Italian chef at the edge of an active volcano on Stromboli. It erupted just as we toasted Italy. I spent three days at a nudist resort in Palm Springs, California, with a couple who wanted to get married in the nude. I got my reindeer-racing license—and slept in an ice hotel—in Finland. I played golf upside-down under a frozen water-filled quarry in Chicago. I went white-water rafting on the Jordan River. I went scuba diving with a dog in Boynton Beach, Florida.
9. With such an impressive range of experiences, do you still have the capacity to be amazed?
Well, I'm always looking to be amazed, but it does get harder all the time. I once swam across the Bosporus, from Asia to Europe. That was scary, with all those big ships passing through.
10. What drives your thrill-seeking?
I had a close call with death when I was 19, in a diving accident. It was a pivotal point in my life, and it really made me identify all the things I hadn't done that I wanted to do. It was a wake-up call. September 11 was like that for a lot of people. We all sometimes need a little bit of a jolt, a shot of vitamin B in the ass, to make us realize that we need to do what we dream of today, not "someday."
—Interviewed by Jaime Gross