"If you've watched me on Survivor, you realized that I would be good on this show," Anderson says of joining MTV's franchise.

By Sydney Bucksbaum
December 03, 2020 at 10:00 AM EST
Credit: MTV

Natalie Anderson is ready to dominate another reality competition series. She won Survivor: San Juan del Sur, overcame a debilitating concussion that delayed her return to the Survivor franchise, and finished second on last season's Survivor: Winners at War when she was finally deemed medically safe to compete. Before that, she came in fourth place on The Amazing Race and returned for The Amazing Race: All-Stars with her twin sister, Nadiya. Now Natalie is turning her attention to The Challenge.

The player known for her physical prowess and sharp tongue is making her MTV debut on The Challenge: Double Agents (premiering Dec. 9), and she says the franchise is "basically made for" her. "If you've watched me on Survivor, you realized that I would be good on this show," Anderson tells EW. "And there's never been a Southeast Asian chick on this show, and I was the first Southeast Asian girl to be on Survivor and I ended up winning my first season. So hopefully I can keep the luck going."

But she also knows a lot of Challenge fans won't have a clue who she is, and that means she's got a lot of work to do. "With me, it's either you're going to be super-stoked and I'm on because you've watched me, or people are like, 'Who's that random brown girl?'" she says with a laugh. "I don't think that there's a middle."

Below, Natalie breaks down what fans can expect from her on The Challenge, how she trained for the season, whether she formed a Survivor alliance with fellow alum Jay Starrett, and more.

Credit: MTV

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your Survivor record is impressive, but did that add any pressure to coming on The Challenge?
NATALIE ANDERSON: I embrace that pressure, but that's also hard because I'm not going on here just to have fun. I'm obviously a super-physical player; I got cast because of that. People want to see me perform, so it's a double-edged sword. It also is a lot of weight on my shoulders to live up to everybody's standards, including my own.

You've always been such a challenge beast on Survivor. Did you always want to cross over into The Challenge because of that?
No, The Challenge and MTV seemed like a world that was so far away. The merging of MTV and CBS made it possible. I had just been with CBS, and the thing that I thought I was going to go on next, if anything, was Big Brother. The MTV-Challenge thing kind of came out of left wing. I got so much feedback from fans saying, "You need to go on The Challenge. The show was made for you." Basically all you have to do is wreck a bunch of girls, and if anybody tries to eliminate you, you can always come back by performing physically. On Survivor, if anybody tried to vote me off and all I had to do was beat another girl in a challenge? I would be impossible to vote out. I would never go home! It just seemed like a win-win for me.

But obviously The Challenge is an entirely different game, so how did you prepare for this season?
I just trained harder than I normally trained. On Survivor, I knew there's a lot of endurance challenges, there's balance, I knew what I was getting into. For The Challenge, I just watched film of every challenge, every elimination, certain specific challenges like Hall Brawl. There's a lot of pulling, a lot of tackling, and I trained specifically for that. I legit bought a helmet, and my boyfriend played football in college and so I made him let me tackle him, he tackled me. I just love it. I didn't do too much mental prep, which I should have done, maybe a little bit more math and equations. [Laughs] I just trained specifically for physical eliminations, tackling, balance, grip strength, so I would be competent at the things I could control.

It sounds like you're more prepared for a season of The Challenge than most rookies are, and even some vets.
Yeah! I have videos of me doing tackle practice, and I'm going to post those on Instagram. On Survivor there's no real one-on-one battles, nothing where you're just like, "Holy s---, this is do-or-die. I need to do everything in my power to run through this chick at any means necessary!" We have really intense challenges on Survivor, but they're really different. I was nervous, but that nervousness was really exciting. I'm happy that I did what vets do because clearly the vets know how to prep for these seasons.

Did you talk with Jay before the season began to get any tips on how to survive The Challenge?
Yeah, I talked to Jay. But clearly, I was taking everything with a grain of salt because he didn't do too well his first season. [Laughs] It was almost like, "Jay, what you did is what we must not do!" But I was really excited to have a plus-one going in with Jay. I had to trust somebody, and Jay was the only person that I could trust going in because of our history; I'd never met him before the show, but we had this unspoken bond with Survivor. He and I touched base on the phone and I was like, "I'm your girl. You can trust me, I can trust you." I was excited that he had my back. And there was never a moment in the game that I doubted him.

Aside from this Survivor alliance, who did you want to work with at the start of the season?
I gravitate to chicks like myself, so I saw that Lolo Jones might be on and I was hoping I could work with her. I remember watching her Olympics, and for me, if there's going to be a girl that is as strong as Lolo on the season, I want to be with her — I don't want to be against her. All the vets were mysteries for me. I loved watching Aneesa [Ferreira], but I didn't know if we would get along in real life. Everybody else I was just going to play by ear.

This is your rookie season, but in the extended trailer you're seen huddled up talking strategy with a lot of the vets. Who did you end up working with?
I'm a chameleon this season because technically I could have played the rookie card whenever I needed to. But at the same time I have this ability to hang with the veterans, not only because of my age but also because of my experience. I'm considered a vet in the ways that I've been on multiple reality TV shows, I've won a competition reality TV show, and so I could morph between the two groups, which was awesome for me. I can work with a lot of people so as far as alliances go, just know that everybody that I worked with, it was not that deep. It was just me testing the waters and always realizing that you can't trust anybody in the house, no matter what.

What surprised you about what it's actually like competing on The Challenge?
Definitely living in a house with a bunch of crazy people, and realizing that we are all sharing a space and that I can't just leave everybody and go swimming to get away. We are in a confined area and there's no way for me to be like, "I just need some time to myself." You are 24 hours a day stuck with these crazy people.

How did your time on The Challenge this season compare to your experiences on Survivor?
Survivor, we are starving and sleeping in the dirt and the cold. This last season of Survivor for me makes my first season seem like literally a vacation. [Edge of] Extinction was a different beast. I went in probably 150 pounds for Survivor and I checked out at 125 pounds. I was emaciated. The Challenge, you have a bed, you have warmth, you have food, you have a bathroom. But with all those comforts comes the dynamic of being surrounded by 30 strangers. I'm really good on the beach, in the wilderness; I can find my peace even though I'm starving. That's my jam, so that was what I was most nervous about, the close-quarters living arrangements. It was very, very, very different. It was wild for me to be in a bed and realize I can't complain because I'm not sleeping with rats at night. But at the same time, there were moments where I'd miss the quietness of the ocean, of the beach, and I sometimes wished I was back on Survivor instead of being in that house. Sleeping in that house was basically Mission: Impossible. I should have just brought my own tent and pitched a tent outside in the cold and slept outside so I could have gotten peace and quiet. I'm the most comfortable when everybody else is uncomfortable.

You’ve now done The Challenge and Survivor, competed on The Amazing Race twice, survived the Edge of Extinction. What's the hardest show to compete on?
Regular Survivor is a piece of cake compared to Extinction. Extinction is definitely and will probably be the hardest thing I ever have to do in my life. I was also there the longest, so my perception of Extinction is very different from somebody who was there one week. I was there for 36 freaking days! I went 48 hours sometimes without eating a single thing. It is definitely harder overall, but the physical challenges of The Challenge are definitely more physical, more reckless, and it makes me more nervous than any challenge has ever made me on Survivor.

What did you learn from Winners at War that you applied to this season of The Challenge?
I took away a lot, from not only reality TV but in general and in life. You have to just go all in. You can't win if you play afraid to lose. The biggest thing that I did on Survivor that cost me $2 million was playing scared at the end. I should have taken Tony [Vlachos, the winner] out in fire and I would have won that $2 mil. But I played scared. So I just knew on The Challenge, it's no regrets. It's better to say, "Holy s---, I f---ed up," than to say, "What if?"

What do you think is going to surprise Survivor and Amazing Race fans about seeing you on this season of The Challenge?
It's going to be weird for people to see me in regular clothes! I'm definitely not like the other Challenge girls where they were dressed up every day. I was like, "Holy crap, I can wash my face and brush my teeth while I'm filming a TV show? This is weird!" The girls brought all these cute outfits, and all I had was workout clothes. [Laughs] On Survivor and Amazing Race, I was a hot mess start-to-finish. I'm still a hot mess on The Challenge, though. [Laughs]

What are you most excited for people to see from you this season?
Probably testing my skills in this new kind of gameplay. I know Survivor, I know how it works. The politics of The Challenge are very different. I'm excited to perform in a new and different social game. Everyone knows that I'm physical, so I'm excited for everyone to see me show out in physical challenges, but I think it will be cool for to see me test the waters in a different political platform.

Get a sneak peek at the new season with the preview episode The Challenge: Double Agents Declassified on Dec. 7 at 8 p.m. ET on MTV. The premiere will follow two nights later.

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