The comedian dishes on his enduring bromance with Lance, why he adores Edna and how this silly show somehow became a sensation and changed his life.
He had no chance of winning, not really. Chris Parker was meant to be the narrator, the comic relief (alongside a bunch of fellow comics), another touching backstory to fall along the wayside. The finale of revived reality show Celebrity Treasure Island saw him pitted against the devious genius of dancer Lance Savali, and the ferocious entrepreneur Edna Swart. Each a physical specimen to match their formidable intellects, and utterly focused on winning.
The unforgettable finale saw them race off to an enormous, seemingly insurmountable lead, with Chris looking like he might not only fail to make it to the business end of the treasure hunt, but might not make it past the first obstacle course. As he said in an in-the-moment interview though, “the one thing I am good at is perseverance”.
He kept at it from literally miles behind, accompanied by the most charming (and seemingly delusional, given his position) positive self-talk. Throughout the finale, as he did through the whole show, he tied his own teenage anguish to the mission of his chosen charity, Rainbow Youth (for whom he won an enormous $100,000), and drew huge strength and inspiration from it. He plugged away and somehow emerged victorious – and, just as unlikely, the end of a revival of a weird pirate show from decades ago had its cast and viewers wiping tears away.
Just hours before it screened, having been given a sneak preview, The Spinoff’s reality TV obsessives at The Real Pod caught up with Parker for an emotional debrief which examined how this funny little show became an enormous hit for TVNZ 2, and how his life has changed as a result of the win.
This interview has been condensed and edited
The Real Pod: How did you keep this inside you?
Chris Parker: It’s destroyed me. It has absolutely destroyed me. It has felt like a dream, it’s felt like a nightmare, it felt like it wasn’t real. And I’m slowly beginning to cognitively relive it again by watching the show. Just to be able to finally talk about it and be able to emotionally process it, it’s taken me so long to be able to do that.
This whole experience is a mixture of a life changing celebrity school camp and having to make a TV show. And you always find the juxtaposition of those two things. So having won it, it was like, “Woohoo.” And then it was like, “Okay, pickups. We need to do pickups.”
We’ve been watching you closely and never suspected a thing.
I had a breakdown. I went to my agent, Imogen [Johnson] and said, “I don’t know what to do.” She goes, “I’ve never seen you like this. You seem broken.” I couldn’t process what was going on. I couldn’t look at my phone. She had to print off all my emails for me on paper so that I could read them like a book.
It was an intense experience. It was a lot of time away. But more than that, it was a lot of time invested in something, it was like the greatest improv of my life, where you didn’t drop character, you just stayed in it. And it wasn’t until I got home to the Airbnb, I stood in the shower and literally just broke down. Because I had finally dropped [character], in a way.
Watching the show, it felt like it changed you. It felt like Rainbow Youth was carrying you through, particularly in the finale, in which somehow you had the worst winning performance of all time.
This whole thing, on some level, felt like it was a performance that existed for 14 year old Chris and 14 year old Chris-es is all around the country to say, “It gets better and you’ll get through it and you’re more than you know”.
I think the final is such an interesting one to look at, because I’m not a good runner. I don’t have good aim. And I’d kind of joke about it and everyone’s like, “Yeah, you do, you’re smoking it. Look how good you are swimming.” At the end of the day, I actually wasn’t good. I am not good. That’s fine. I’m not an athlete, I’m a comedian.
What was revealed to me in that final, was that the thing I am really good at is not giving up. And I think that is the key takeaway here. If I surrendered at any point in that final, it would’ve been over. I knew after the slingshot that I had lost, in many ways. But if I had got lost in the bushes and then started hamming it up for the audience, then it would’ve been over and it would’ve sucked and it would’ve been disrespectful to everyone who had been on that show. It would’ve been disrespectful to the audience who had watched and invested in me.
How long did that whole process take?
All day. All day. It killed us because we had nothing in us. We had a bit of food in the garlic bulb tent, but not enough. We hadn’t been training, we were all famished and then we suddenly ran across that beach, and it almost killed Lance. Literally almost killed him.
That’s the power of doing something bigger than yourself. It is 28 degrees. I can’t get a grip on the sand. This flag that I have to run to seems miles away. Because I could see how far I had to run because Lance and Edna were running ahead of me on the beach.
How far behind were you when they started digging?
It seems like hours.
Beautiful. The magic of television.
The most beautiful thing, aside from the money for Rainbow Youth, is that final moment. The way that Lance and Edna cluster around you and seem to feel it as deeply as you do. Tell us about those relationships subsequent to the show. You and Lance seem bonded for life.
We still catch up all the time. I think he did a bit of travelling afterwards, while we had freedom. But now that he’s back, we’ve had a few distance walks and we message a lot.
I have a really funny relationship with men. I always have. I’ve always felt intimidated by them, or like I’m not part of the group. So when I do come across a man, like Lance, who just sees me, allows me to be me and can blow me up and just make me feel dynamite. I know how good he is. I’m like, that is a pure light.
He’s the best. He’s just so loyal, so compassionate, so caring. I think, being in that dance community, of course he’s around gay guys all the time, so many iconic trans performers as well, so he’s not uncomfortable in this world. I don’t need an ally, but he’s such an ally for the community.
What about Edna? She had the most stacked against her, in terms of how much opposition she faced throughout. And she just stood firm all the way through.
She’s so fierce and strong and honest and just so inspiring. I think she probably had the biggest impact on everyone on the show because a lot of the women are like, “I’ve just got to be more like Edna.” You hear Brynley [Stent] talk about that and Kim [Crossman] talk about it. And I was exactly the same, you’ve got to deal with conflict the way that Edna deals with it, which is get it out in front of people and solve it fast.
She doesn’t fester on stuff, she just moves beyond it. She’s so incredible. I’m so glad we got to see all of her because I think it’s really important for New Zealanders to see women like that and what they are actually capable of, rather than just putting them in a box as an influencer, which she’s not – she’s a business woman.
The whole casting of the show felt like we got this much more diverse and textured and interesting vision of New Zealand and New Zealanders than I can recall seeing on screens in a long time.
The net was cast much wider than it has been in the past. I got an inkling of that in the first season. I felt like when you got to hear the celebrities talk about their charities, I thought, “Wow, there’s something quite powerful in this reboot.”
With this season, they just gave it space and allowed the chaos and conflict to happen. And the conversations that would arise out of that: ageism, sexism or underestimating women, queer politics, race. It all boiled up and I feel that’s the power of this. It was special. I’ve been on a few sets, because I work in this industry and you’re like, “it’s just another day at work.” Whereas I knew this was going to be great.
Buck Shelford exemplifies that – he opens the show as this taciturn guy. By the end, he’s talking about the rainbow community in his whānau. Watching an All Black captain embrace that community, maybe quote unquote “middle New Zealand” can let go of a bit of their stuff as well.
This is prime time and I think that’s the thing that’s not lost on me now. I exist in the echo chamber, I know the echo chamber well and I’m tired of the echo chamber because it feels like you’re never going to make any progress. Whereas, to hit the mainstream in this way – it can be clunky, but the power of it, that’s where we make the change.
I’ve always thought that, even writing for Jono and Ben, I was like, “little do these little shits [in the audience] know that it’s two gay men writing this series now.” That’s where we can begin to have that influence and hopefully we can just keep moving forward with it in this space, now that people trust it. And I’m so glad New Zealand has got on board with the series and embraced it in a way that there’s been no pop cultural cringe.
And it’s rated its ass off – it’s a real hit.
It’s huge. And I put that down to the cast. I’m so proud of us, all 21 of us. You are the script writer, you are the director of your own story every day and it’s up to you to throw yourself in there, create story, open yourself up, be vulnerable, be funny. You’ve got the power. If you want a quiet day on set, then you could just sulk, hide in the back, whatever. But if you want to create TV, then you throw yourself out there, and everyone did. Everyone did. Everyone was willing to do that. And holy, it made such great TV.