The Amazing Race is back for Season 23 this Sunday, and host Phil Keoghan is opening up to ET about a season he promises will be full of ultra-competitive characters.
ETonline: Can you tell us about the new season and what the fans will be excited about?
Phil Keoghan: The tone is quite different just because we really made a point of selecting people who have crazy competitive spirits and by doing that we've ended up with this really eclectic mix of competitive people, so, you know, when you think of an ER doctor, you would have to assume that they're A-types, that they're incredibly competitive to have got through med school and that they're hardened individuals in terms of their mental toughness. But then if you look at say, Brandon and Adam, one of whom lives off the grid, who have these big beards, they are really almost the antithesis, of say, an ER doctor, and yet what these teams have in common is that they are incredibly competitive. So that's really the theme, I would say, this season, is extremely competitive characters.
ETonline: Can you tell us a little about the challenges that the contestants will be facing?
Phil: Well, as a result of us having these competitive teams, we've also had to make the challenges a little more competitive, I guess, just sort of up the ante a wee bit. So one of the exciting places we get to [go] this season is Norway, and that's Viking country, so let's just say that we tap into some of the Viking spirit, and perhaps some things that Vikings were tested with, and we have the teams sort of immerse themselves in that world for awhile, so, yeah, you take a bunch of competitive people, you've really got to up your game with the challenges, and we’ve done that.
ETonline: Would you say that the teams are also physically fit and will the challenges be more physical, or is it a combination?
Phil: It's a combination, but you're right about the teams being very fit. There isn't really a team that we have there that isn't really fit. I mean, maybe Rowan and Shane are more of the theater-district variety, maybe not quite as fit as, say Chester and Ephraim, but still, the majority of the teams are fiercely competitive and with that, extremely fit. And at the end of the day, it really is about the right choices, because even a fit, strong team, can be out of the race in an instant because of a poor choice at an airport, or poor choice in terms of moving on to a different challenge if they're struggling. And that's sort of, to me, why Amazing Race works, is that it isn't just about strength, or how fit somebody is, it really is about a combination of so many factors.
ETonline: Very true, like choosing the right cab driver. As has happened so many times over the years.
Phil: Exactly, and you know, on Amazing Race, I don't think there's been a more deciding element. I would say if there's one element in Amazing Race that has had the most impact, it would be cab drivers. Outside of poor decisions from teams, but in terms of an outside influence it would be a cab ride.
ETonline: Can you tell us about some of the regions you're going to, besides Norway, this season?
Phil: Sure, we actually start off in Iquique, Chile. Iquique is right on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, along the west coast of South America. Chile is a long country that runs right along the coastline, and this town called Iquique has the Atacama desert come right to the shoreline and from the sea, these enormous sandy mountains just rise up out of nowhere, and of course if you keep rolling inland you get all the way across to the Andes Mountains. And it's actually a place that I visited back in the '90s when I was going for my [paragliding] license. It's an amazing place for paragliding because of the prevailing winds and because of the sheer cliffs, and so it's very dramatic, and unlike anything most of the teams would have seen in their entire life. I just love that one minute you're in Los Angeles and the next minute you're on the coastline of South America in a little place called Iquique.
ETonline: Definitely, I think that's part of the allure to the fans, that you feel like you're traveling right along with the show.
Phil: Yeah, and when the teams are racing to the airport and they find out where they're going, you know, "Make your way to Iquique, Chile and when you get there, get ready for the ride of your life," whatever that set up is at the beginning, and the music is going and we're cutting back and forth between the teams, we're getting to know the teams, and the audience really, I agree with you, the audience really is on that journey. That line that I say at the beginning of the race, "The world is waiting for you," it really is, it's very pertinent in that moment, because the world really is waiting for them. Somebody is going to make it all the way around the world and win that race, and we have stuff set up all around the world in all these extraordinary countries. I mentioned Iquique, Chile, I mentioned Norway, we also get to Lisbon, Portugal, we get to new countries that we haven't been to before, so the world is waiting for not only the teams in that moment, but also, the audience. And I think that is absolutely a key factor on Amazing Race, is that people tune in and they go, alright, let's head off on a journey together and follow these teams around the world for the next 12 weeks.
ETonline: Definitely. Americans are kind of stereotyped as not traveling as much as the rest of the world, do you think that the show has had an impact on American perception of other cultures?
Phil: No doubt in my mind. I was just talking about this this morning. I was a guest on a radio show, and this very topic came up, and I said one of the things that I'm most proud of on Amazing Race, is that we have a unique opportunity in primetime television to share the good things that the world has to offer. That, for the most part in network primetime television, when ... people are exposed to what's going on in the rest of the world, they are looking at a war, a natural disaster, civil unrest, they are looking at what's wrong. ... And so I think people's perception of the world is unfortunately tainted one way, based on the fact that it's mostly news that determines whether somebody gets to see another country.
And for Amazing Race, here we are, a primetime show where we have more than 10 million viewers, and of course many more around the world because this show is in over 100 countries, and for that hour of television, they are being transported... to another place around the world. And their eyes are being opened and their minds are being opened to the idea that, wow, these Muslim people, or, this different culture, or this different country, isn't all about killing, they're not all suffering, and look at how warm and inviting and hospitable they're being to these, in some cases, very loud American travelers, because not everybody that comes on the Race is exactly the perfect American ambassador, and yet, look at how they are inviting us, meaning our cameras, our viewers, our racers, into their homes and into their country, and I think it does open people's eyes.
ETonline: Can you talk about some of your favorite challenges over the years?
Phil: Well, I was involved in putting forward some of my favorite challenges. I think if there's one challenge that kids always ask me about, it's the Zorb down in New Zealand. A friend of mine actually dreamed that idea up, they had a dream about getting inside a giant beach ball. And I'd love us to do that challenge one more time. But to be honest... I love the challenges where the teams are participating in the jobs that local people have to do on a daily basis. If you remember a couple of seasons ago, they had a challenge where they had to take sand out of a river and load it onto the top of their head, and then walk about 100 yards or more up these very steep, muddy steps to a brick maker and dump the sand off. And what I love about challenges like that, is that they are ... exposed to the challenges that everyday people face in their everyday lives.
And I think it's kind of humbling when you realize that a woman who's maybe 110, 120 pounds is carrying a 50-pound basket of sand on her head up these very, very steep hills and that a big 250-pound guy is sort of humbled by the idea ... of this woman whose job it is to transport this sand, [who] really is quite an extraordinary human being and almost performs the impossible. It's an eye-opener for the teams when they get there, because they are physically going through that challenge, but it's also an eye-opener for the viewers to go, you know, maybe it's not so bad that I have to walk up the stairs at work, or walk a little extra distance to go get something at the store.
ETonline: What would you say is the biggest life lesson you've learned from all of your travels around the world?
Phil: I think the biggest life lesson is that if you treat people with respect, if you acknowledge others, they are ready to return that respect and acknowledge you in return. And it goes a long way when you go to somebody else's country, if you're prepared to accept that perhaps they do things differently, but it is their country after all and you are a guest, then you will more than likely receive a warm welcome. I try to go into a new place and a new situation with open eyes and being open to having my mind changed, or just being receptive to difference. And being accepting is crucial and I think that's definitely something that ... all of us could learn more of, which is just the idea of more acceptance in the world, and accepting that not everybody thinks like we do, wants what we want, does things the way we want, maybe has a different spread on their bread and that's okay. There's nothing wrong with that.
Phil also shared that he recently returned from filming the follow-up to his documentary The Ride with a new doc, Le Ride, which follows him around France as he retraces the 1928 Tour de France on an 85-year-old bicycle. The film will open in Regal Cinemas in the first part of 2014; for more information visit PhilKeoghanLeRide.com.
Season 23 of The Amazing Race premieres this Sunday night at 8/7 c on CBS.