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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Pop CultureSeptember 6, 2022

I survived Celebrity Treasure Island 

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

For two blissful days in a mystery Northland location, The Spinoff got to scratch around every nook and cranny of Celebrity Treasure Island. Here’s what we found. 

Karen O’Leary is worried. “I have a question about periods,” she says, sidling up to one of the executive producers of Celebrity Treasure Island. “If I’m here until the end it is going to happen, and it is always a surprise to me.” She makes a good point – what does one do with one’s menstrual cup in the middle of nowhere? A friendly medic pipes up across the gazebo. “Just tip out in the sea, I’ve seen it done before.” 

The Wellington Paranormal star stares out pensively at the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, then down at her crisp white pants. “Maybe I’ll just free-bleed through these,” she sighs. 

We are all on the remote outpost that is Celebrity Treasure Island, and O’Leary is not the only celebrity voicing last-minute concerns. Alex King’s allergies are “out the gate”. Iyia Liu says she was so stressed about the “no phone” rule that she left her phone all the way back in Auckland. Courtenay Louise is struggling with the howling coastal winds. “I’m fucking freezing,” she laughs, cradling herself. “How the fuck am I going to survive this?”

The first thing that struck me during my 48 hours on Celebrity Treasure Island was how gnarly and remote the Northland location really is. We spent hours in a packed car headed north, past the zany Hundertwasser toilets in Kawakawa, past multiple “Jacinda leave our kids alone” signs and even past a rundown cottage with a mannequin dressed as Spiderman doing a questionable salute. We were not in Kansas anymore. 

The beginnings of a brutal beach challenge. (Photo: Alex Casey)

Once you’re in the right postcode, getting to the top secret Celebrity Treasure Island location is its own off-roading, sports-bra-requiring mission. The TVNZ four-wheel drive pulled into a private farm, closely guarded by Ngāti Kuri representatives checking everyone’s Covid-19 status at the gate. “Hōhā weather, aye?” a woman remarked as she scanned our Warner Media vaccination passes. Her phone glowed green: we were cleared for entry to Celebrity Treasure Island.

Our four-wheel drive then headed cautiously down a gravel driveway, making a splash through low-lying creeks before charging up a steep hill. At the top of the ridge, I peered out at the first glimmer of ocean, spotting the CTI challenge lighthouse in the distance. Rafts and boats were scattered through the paddocks. Production crew wearing bumbags and boots milled around, while the odd cow looked confused. We parked up near the spot where Lance Savali and Chris Parker had their famous off-camera midnight chat last season. Down the hill, I could spot a camp. We had arrived.

Welcome to my (Ron)crib(b). (Photo: Alex Casey)

The night before, we were welcomed onto the land with a pōwhiri that brought together the family who own the land, local iwi, production crew, the celebrity cast and the media hangers-on like me. Locals spoke of their connection to the place and the history of the area, and production spoke of the enriching experience that was making the last season collaboratively on home soil. The rākau kōrero, hand-crafted by local iwi, was presented to the group of celebrities, along with a message: “They carry a mauri and a mana from those who have come before you.” 

Most people probably wouldn’t expect this level of care and respect from the same reality franchise that once saw Sam Wallace and Eric Murray dress up in coconut bras. But many on the cast felt that Celebrity Treasure Island was serving a bigger purpose than just filling up the time between the ads. The use of te reo Māori in the show, for example, was a big drawcard for radio host Alex King. “I think it’s really important that these big companies making massive TV shows really care about it,” she said. “Because if they make moves on it then hopefully other companies will make moves on it, and it will all trickle down.” 

Hosts Matt Chisholm and Bree Tomasel with the rākau kōrero. (Photo: TVNZ)

Representation was also at the heart of many celebrities’ motivations for going on the show. Lynette Forday, who was the first Asian woman to regularly appear on mainstream New Zealand television as Shortland Street’s Grace Kwan, said she was delighted to see both Iyia Liu and Perlina Lau in the cast. “When we all saw each other I feel like we all went ‘oh my god, oh my god, there’s not just me, there’s three of us!’” Liu agreed. “It’s very cool that there is so much diversity in the cast,” she said. “It is very cool that we have come this far.”

Dancer and TikTok star Elvis Lopeti arrived on location at Celebrity Treasure Island twerking and wearing a sports bra, determined to carve out a space on television for people like him. “I am a big flamboyant Poly and I didn’t get to see myself on TV when I was younger,” he explained. “To represent people like me on national TV is huge, for people watching at home to think ‘yeah, it’s Elvis in a sports bra, what about it?’” Menstrual cup concerns aside, O’Leary agreed that Celebrity Treasure Island was a chance to “shake up” perceptions about gender stereotypes. 

“This is the most watched show in New Zealand, after Wellington Paranormal [citation needed], so you have to think about the fact that you are reaching a wide range of people who probably wouldn’t normally be involved in these sorts of conversations,” O’Leary said. “What we say has the power to influence their perception, even in a small way.” 

Elvis Lopeti in episode one of CTI. (Photo: TVNZ)

Although there were some huge motivations driving our celebrities to the island, not everyone seemed as hugely prepared. I believed actor Eds Eramiha when he told me he had barely seen the show, and had no real strategy going in to the competition. “I’ve come into this not even knowing what it’s really about… I’ll just go easy, go like water,” he mused, lifting up a water bottle the size of a water cooler tank to his lips. Dr Joel Rindelaub also told me he hadn’t watched the show before, revealing his strategy was to “take naps, chill out and do nothing.” 

“All I know is that we have teams and somebody wins at the end, and some stuff happens in the middle I’m sure.”

That “stuff” that happens in the middle is not for the faint of heart. As we wrote about last season, the physical challenges on Celebrity Treasure Island are frequently torturous, forcing contestants to lug around sandbags in water, balance balls on impossible paddles, and navigate a maze with a whole Sir Buck Shelford tethered to their arse. I got a sneak peek at one of the challenges, which required contestants to swim out to sea, run up a huge bank and then push giant heavy tiles across a massive sliding puzzle to spell a word. I only had a go at the very last part of the challenge, and I was knackered after 10 seconds. 

Not the best Scrabble game I’ve ever played. (Photo: Alex Casey)

Our next stop was the infamous hoop-shooting challenge that saw teams tied up in a Human Centipede formation and forced to weave through bamboo to retrieve their wayward balls. The sun was beating down as myself and Seb from Women’s Day took to the arena in a media rivalry for the ages. I tried to shoot and missed, the ball landing near my competitor’s foot. In a move of pure sabotage, he kicked it further away to buy himself more time. I groaned and sweated profusely as I contorted myself through the bamboo in search of the ball. I was in hell, and I didn’t even have Sir Buck Shelford tied to my arse.

Welcome to hell (Photo: Alex Casey)

Finally, I managed to sink the ball into the chute in the middle of the maze and secure my place as the winner of Media Scum Treasure Island 2022. The prize? An exclusive geeze of the elimination arena, complete with a lifesize plane crash. I am told that the art department built an entire plane and then broke it into pieces, scattering bits of the wreckage around various locations used on the show. The plane is made of wood, but you wouldn’t know it. I knocked on the side of the cockpit, and the executive producer told me that they used Selleys No More Gaps to emulate the rivets. If that’s not Kiwi ingenuity, I don’t know what is.

Where’s Captain Sully when you need him? (Photo: Alex Casey)

The final stop in the tour was to check out the different camps that our celebrities would be calling home for the next few weeks. Crew were still tinkering with final touches – a fire pit here, tying up a sunshade there – but the camps were very much as you see on TV. Which is to say, there’s not a lot to them at all. The beds are saggy sacks draped over a frame. There are no pillows, no luxury loos, and a meagre outdoor solar shower. Seb from Women’s Day bravely took the shower for a spin. “If that was an Airbnb, I’d be taking a few stars off,” he said, slamming the “poor water pressure.”

I poked around the camps desperate to find clues. There were vintage radios tuned to certain frequencies, old tool boxes that may or may not have belonged to the actual set builders, and even an airplane seat that had landed nearby. An old armoire sat near one the camps covered in curious etchings. Could they be clues?? As I got closer, I realised what the inscriptions were. “Ange” “TAMMY” “R.B” – they were the names of fallen competitors from seasons gone by. 

Actually quite luxurious (Photo: Alex Casey)

I lay down on one of the beds, enjoying the sun on my skin, the gentle breeze, the lapping afternoon waves. People would pay good money for this, but maybe only for a night or two. I picked up a small piece of rope and put it in my backpack as a souvenir before we left, headed for Auckland past an ominous road safety sign that also happens to be the tagline of this season – “expect the unexpected.” My journey was over but, for 21 celebrities, this was just the beginning.

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Celebrity Treasure Island airs Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7.30pm on TVNZ2

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