It’s been nearly two decades since Josh Kronfeld and Joe Cotton washed up on the original Treasure Island. Tara Ward finds out what drew them back for Fans v Faves.
There aren’t many New Zealand celebrities who have been buried alive on national television, but Josh Kronfeld and Joe Cotton have been there, done that. 18 years ago the former All Black and TrueBliss singer were competing in a typically bonkers Celebrity Treasure Island challenge that saw them buried in separate graves with their feet and hands tied, tasked with being the first to escape. Cotton bowed to team pressure and started untying the rope before the challenge started, only to be betrayed by a camera hidden inside the coffin. She had cheated in front of the nation, and Kronfeld was not impressed. “I shouldn’t have listened, I should have just stuck to my guns,” Cotton remembers, but Treasure Island is nothing without regrets buried in the sands of time.
Now the celebrity pair are about to bury themselves in Treasure Island’s shifting sands again. Treasure Island: Fans v Faves begins on January 30, and the return of two players from the original Treasure Island era is a welcome nod to the show’s long and glorious past. The reality series first graced our screens back in 1997, when 12 everyday New Zealanders first landed on a deserted Pacific island in search of $25,000, but that Treasure Island was more of an observational social experiment than the intense physical contest we know and love today. In season one, eliminations were decided by castaways answering a multi-choice quiz on a chunky laptop that must have had a very powerful battery.
Over the next 25 years, Treasure Island was the gift that kept on giving, but it’s the celebrity seasons that viewers hoovered down like they were fresh crayfish and we were Dame Susan Devoy. The first Celebrity Treasure Island season washed ashore in 2001 (won by John “Cocksy” Cocks), and over the following years, an eclectic array of celebrities were enticed to live on a beach and win money for charity. Everyone from Dominic Bowden to Rebecca Loos to Suzanne Paul appeared on the show, as the format morphed into Superstars of Treasure Island, Treasure Island: Couples at War, and Treasure Island: Pirates of the Pacific, won by Hayley Holt in 2007.
Cotton and Kronfeld made their Treasure Island debuts in 2004, in a celebrity season hosted by Louise Wallace and starring Charlotte Dawson, Matthew Ridge and Nicky Watson. Though Kronfeld won, the series is best remembered for Lana Coc-Kroft becoming dangerously ill with blood poisoning after suffering a coral cut on her foot. It was a season filled with drama and three-quarter length boardshorts, and little footage exists online apart from this intriguing ad that promises brawn, beauty and Simon Barnett throwing coconuts at three women in a sack race.
Speaking in Fiji the day before Fans v Faves began filming, Cotton and Kronfeld have fond memories of their first dip into Treasure Island’s waters, mostly due to the friendships they made. The celebrities were separated along gender lines and the teams were fiercely competitive, but Kronfeld remembers the joy when the cameras left for the day and everyone would ignore the rules, meet up and socialise long into the night. “We used to have a little bonfire and we’d sit around and we had these amazing discussions, which was an education on everybody’s life and world,” Kronfeld says, recalling deep chats with Barnett about religion and getting to know the “amazing” Dawson, who died in 2014.
Cotton agrees, describing her first season as “camp for grownups”. “It was so fun, but I was young and just having a good time. I wasn’t worried about game strategy or anything. I was just like, ‘oh, I get to hang out with all these celebrities’ and have a great time.” She knows the game has evolved since then – there was no monolith in 2004, not even a poo cave – and she’s not sure how she’ll fare in Fans v Faves. “In terms of the gameplay and the mind games, that seems to have been taken up a notch, which is so awkward and uncomfortable for me because I don’t know how to tell lies,” she laughs. Was she lying? It was impossible to tell.
The game may have changed, but so have Kronfeld and Cotton. 51-year-old Kronfeld is mindful he’s now the oldest bloke on the island. “You know, nothing works. My brain doesn’t work as good, my body doesn’t work as good. I don’t have all those little nuances that gave me an edge anymore, and here I am doing it all again.” For Cotton, who came third in her season, homesickness wasn’t on her radar in 2004. “Because I was young and single, I was like, ‘oh, I could just stay here forever’,” she remembers. “This time, there’s a definite thing of ‘oh my God, I miss my husband, I miss my fur babies’. It’ll be interesting to see whether I can overcome that feeling.”
What both Treasure Island veterans do have is experience, particularly Kronfeld. Not only is he the only winner to compete in Fans v Faves, but he’s the only two-time Treasure Island winner, ever. After his 2004 triumph, Kronfeld returned the following year to win Superstars of Treasure Island, playing against previous competitors – both celebs and non-celebs – from Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. The second victory wasn’t as sweet for Kronfeld, with the game played more ruthlessly than he was used to, and he admits to hating the experience. “The lies, the backstabbing, trying to get people axed for cheating and/or not cheating, I just didn’t like it. So when I got to the end, it was probably more about ‘I’m over this, I just want to win it so I can go home’.”
Kronfeld vowed never to return to the show, but after 17 years, the chance to come back to Fiji and raise money for his chosen charity was too good to refuse. He hasn’t watched CTI’s recent seasons, preferring not to form preconceptions about his teammates, but he’s stoked to be back on the beach with old mate Cotton. “I’d like to think that we’ll have each other’s back,” Kronfeld says. “She’s the only character that I truly know here. All these others have been on the show together and know the ins and outs of how people react. It’ll be fun. We’ll just get on with it.”
As for Cotton, being asked to appear on Treasure Island again was an opportunity she couldn’t refuse, no matter how terrified or unprepared she was. Her enduring love for the 2004 season has pulled her back to Fiji for another unpredictable stay at the wacky camp for grown-ups, and it’s a bonus to share it with the same pal she was buried alive with all those years ago. “I had such a great time last time. I really do hope that this doesn’t change how I felt about that experience, but I may never get asked again. So I’m like, shit yeah!”
Treasure Island: Fans v Faves premieres on Monday 30 January on TVNZ2 at 7.30pm and TVNZ+.