Popcorn and booze are usually the only things you need for an episode of The Challenge: Battle of the Bloodlines, but Wednesday's episode required a full box of tissues as Chris "CT" Tamburello returned to honor his late girlfriend Diem Brown.
Brown was a newcomer to reality TV when she made her first appearance on in 2006, but she immediately captured the hearts of the audience. Brown had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and came on the show to prove that the disease wouldn't stop her from living her life. She made a total of eight Challenge appearances between 2006 and 2014, sharing her roller coaster of cancer battles and remissions in front of the camera. Her relationship with Tamburello was also documented, from their first kiss on The Duel in 2006 to their bitter breakup on The Duel II in 2009 to a heartwarming reconciliation on Battle of the Exes in 2012. Audiences at home fell in love with their relationship as they fell in love with each other.
Brown was filming Battle of the Exes II with Tamburello in Panama in 2014 when she collapsed and was flown back to New York for emergency surgery. The cancer was back and she passed away a few months later on Nov. 14 with Tamburello at her bedside.
After her death, Tamburello retreated from the public eye and social media. He made his return to The Challenge with Brown's younger sister, Faith, by demonstrating a challenge that resembled Brown's most iconic appearance on the show. During The Duel, Brown took off her wig before the "Ring Toss" challenge, revealing her post-chemo pixie hairstyle for the first time in front of the cameras.
Tamburello talked to TVGuide.com about what it meant to him to do the tribute and hisChallenge future.
Why did coming back to The Challenge and running this demo feel like the right way to honor Diem?
Chris Tamburello: Originally, I was done. MTV has been super supportive. They never tried to push me too hard, but they always let me know that there's always a place for me with them. I honestly don't think it would have been right for me to just dive into another Challenge. I don't think I would have been ready for it. When I found out it was with Faith, it made things a lot easier to know she was going to be there. If I was going to claw myself out of the hole I dug myself in, what better way to do it than where it all started and with Faith? In a weird way, it was kind of like [Diem] was there. I'm glad I got to run a challenge with her one more time.
What was it like for you to see the challenge they were having you demo and the parallel it had to "Ring Toss" when Diem took off that wig?
Tamburello: The whole balance thing over a wire and helping each other across reminded me of the challenge that Diem and I did together where we had to cross a drawbridge. I helped her get all the way across and in the end I fell off the drawbridge after I did the goofy dance. Faith and Diem have a lot of the same mannerisms. As I'm trying to push Faith across she's giving me that look like, "I'm going as fast as I can. Please just shut up and stop talking."
What is it like to have an audience that has such a deep emotional attachment to you, Diem and your relationship when they don't actually know you?
Tamburello: It's weird when you're out and about, and they come up to you and feel like they know you. I didn't realize how much of an impact [Diem] had. I knew she was special and I knew so many people looked at her for inspiration — and that's why she continued to do these things. After she passed, the overwhelming amount of support online and people just reaching out and contacting me...it made me feel like she was a superstar. I didn't realize the effect that she had.
You say in the episode that coming back for the demo made you nervous. Why were you nervous?
Tamburello: I don't know if I wanted to be in the public eye. I have a different appreciation for privacy compared to someone who has spent his life on TV. I didn't know if I wanted to deal with that again. I've tried so hard in the past to keep a private life. I don't think I wanted to expose myself the media and circus that comes with it. I had a hard enough time after Diem passed. I didn't want that attention anymore. At the same time, I felt like I needed to show my face again. I'm OK. I'm not in a gutter with a needle in my arm. It was something that I needed to do, not to move on but to move forward. It was closure in a way. The chapter ended. I've done it since 2003 [and] I've had enough. I say that and then I do two guest appearances back to back.
Speaking of which, we know that you also return for a in a more competitive capacity. What did it feel like to do that?
Tamburello: I've been doing these shows for so long that it's like a dysfunctional family. For me to come back on and actually compete again, there was a sense of normalcy. It was familiar. So much has changed over the past two years. I just wanted to not lose. I wasn't really thinking about making these kids cower in their boots. I didn't think I'd be able to do it again. I think Diem would want that. She'd want me to get off my butt and go do something.
This is not the first time you've been brought back for a special appearance — and the last time it happened we got "the Bananas backpack." How does this time compare to that?
Tamburello: At that time, me and Johnny ["Bananas" Devenanzio, fellow competitor] could not stand each other. I didn't know who I was going up against and when I saw him I thought, "This MoFo is going down." This one is not the same. It's not my comeback. I was such a knucklehead back in the day that I was lucky just to get on the show again. I thought I was blacklisted because of the way I was acting. I was a liability for sure.
Who were you hoping would go against when you showed up in Turkey?
Tamburello: I wanted to go against Bananas! It's funny because [we] are always in each other's way to get to a final. We're always going up against each other in the elimination before the final. We're now 1-1 against each other in a final. I think there needs to be a tie breaker to finish it off.
So does that mean this has reopened the possibility of coming back to The Challenge for a full season?
Tamburello: It's always in the back of my mind. I love these things. You get to be a kid. It's Never Never Land. You get whisked away to this magical land where there's an endless supply of food and you can just act like a big kid while you compete for money. Never say never. I have a lot going on right now. I'm kind of getting used to my new life. I'm starting a new chapter.
The Challenge: Battle of the Bloodlines airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on MTV.