After surviving food poisoning, starvation and freezing in the Indian mountains for 21 days, Phaedra Brothers never thought the biggest challenge she’d face on Naked and Afraid would come when she got home.
To call Phaedra Brothers a survivor is an understatement. “My parents were very interested in any lifestyle that was different from the norm,” she revealed to me in a phone interview that was so engrossing we spoke for nearly an hour. “As a child I was raised in environments where there was no running water, no electricity, no modern conveniences and we lived out of tents most of the time.”
Without comfort or luxury, she learned at an early age that to survive meant to be reliant on herself. “In order to be able to live like that as a child, we had to use our survival skills on a daily basis, so I had a really strong background in that sort of environment.”
So when she heard of the Discovery program Naked and Afraid, Brothers knew it was the perfect opportunity to test her survival skills. “I was excited for the opportunity to use the skill set that I had. And I wanted to prove to myself that I could survive in that kind of situation and to re-experience some of the things I went through as a child that I look back kind of negatively on. I wanted to re-experience a long-term survival experience where I was an adult and I had control over that experience once I was out there.”
Phaedra was quickly selected; she was the perfect candidate: rugged, experienced and beautiful. And when she learned the location where she would be spending 21 grueling days — Northern India — it wasn’t a location like the deserts of her youth. But her date of departure was only two weeks away, so she scoured the Internet, learning everything she could about the area’s geography, getting to know the area’s flora and fauna, making plans of how she would shelter herself, and estimating where she might find water.
Her planning and packing were meticulous. She knew that she would be heading to the third world so she packed her luggage full of food — she’d be naked for most of her trip so had little need for much clothing — and made a strategic selection of the lone thing she’d carry into her survival experience — a fire starter. Brothers explained, “They do send a list of items that are allowed, but all of the items have to be pretty primitive — you can’t have any cool attachments. I originally wanted to bring a machete because I thought it was the best for the location, but knowing that the location was going to be as cold as it was, I was motivated to bring fire. I was betting that because most of the other males on the show have brought a blade, I was putting my faith that my partner would bring a blade and I would provide fire.” Luckily, as she learned later, her partner did bring a blade … one he had invented and built himself.
“A lot of people say they can survive and they have a vast knowledge of different tools. The fact that my partner had invented it himself was impressive because he had taken the time to really research what was needed to survive. So when I first saw the tool I was very excited by it,” Brothers said. Unfortunately, the tool had never been field tested and broke on the fourth day, an incident not shown on Naked and Afraid. An on-the-fly modification made the tool better and Brothers is confident that after such an intense field test, version 2.0 of the tool is much better.
A few days before she was to leave for India, Phaedra got a call from the producers. Their original shoot location was being terrorized by a man-eating tiger who had killed 13 people. The risk was too great, so instead of surviving in Jim Corbett National Park in Ramnagar Uttarakhnd as planned, she and her still unknown partner would be surviving in the foothills of the Himalayas, a completely different ecosystem over 900 miles away. “I spent sleepless nights getting a feel for where I was going,” said Brothers. “But none of the things I had been studying for the last two weeks even applied to the new location, so I did the best I could with the few days that I had … but both of us were blind going into it.”
When Phaedra arrived in India, her luggage was nowhere to be seen. Her carefully packed food was gone and her only nourishment for the 18-hour drive to the insertion point and the days ahead were granola bars. Those were quickly gone. The night before being inserted into her remote survival location, Brothers said, “I told one of the Indian men who was a part of the crew, that I had been eating only granola bars because I was afraid of getting sick from eating unsanitary food. He said that I needed to eat protein and he made this really great chicken curry dish. I have a picture of myself with the food and I was really excited.”
That night, Phaedra realized her mistake. “Three hours after I went to bed, I woke up sick, sick, sick. Just vomiting and diarrhea. It was really intense and really bad.” The next morning, she knew she was about to embark on a grueling experience, but she was encouraged to continue by the show’s producers. For the tough young mother who had never let adversity stop her, the only option was to push on and complete the survival experience. Because as you imagine, Phaedra isn’t the type of woman who would give up, so she started her 21-day survival experience already suffering from food poisoning and dehydration.
If you’ve watched Naked and Afraid, you know that Phaedra completed the 21-day survival challenge. She and her partner did not always see eye to eye, something that was well documented by the show. Phaedra’s partner was Hakim Isler, the owner of a gym/ Ninja Martial Arts center. He called himself “Black MacGyver” and talked about ninja-nuity several times throughout the episode. The episode showed them having an argument so intense (Brothers wanted to build a fire and Isler wanted to only focus on building a shelter) that she threatened to take her fire starter and leave. But the biggest strain between Phaedra and her partner wasn’t a fight over priorities or survival items; it was a difference in motivation. “We have different desires in life,” she explained. “He had the desire for fame, acknowledgement and greatness, and that’s his deal. He’s trying to do the best for him and his business. I can’t tear him down for that; that is his desire. My desire was a lot different. We had different experiences; we have different wants, and we didn’t see eye to eye on most things. And I don’t enjoy being around people who are self-centered.” In a video interview on HuffingtonPost.com, both Phaedra and Hakim agreed that theirs is not a friendship that is life-long; something they’re both okay with.
When Brothers watched the show months later, she was shocked and saddened. The show stated that her illness was a result of drinking untreated water despite the show’s producers knowing of her preexisting food poisoning. And since the contaminated food that she ate was given to her by an someone employed by the show, basically the production poisoned her. It makes me wonder: Why was the show making her responsible for her food once she left the airport anyway? Shouldn’t they have ensured that she arrived to her insertion point safe, healthy and ready to go?
I am a former reality TV producer, so I know firsthand the challenges of culling down hours of footage in to 44 minutes of television. The work of story producers and editors is unenviable and I can imagine that the hundreds of hours of footage that are available for each episode of Naked and Afraid can seem insurmountable. But to get such a major story point so blatantly incorrect seems unacceptable even if the experience is presented as “Entertainment” instead of “Fact.” I mean, we all recognize the faux story lines of WWE wrestling; should we also consider happenings on Naked and Afraid as fiction? If simply stating something on voiceover makes it fact, how far can the production twist (or change) the truth?
Several times throughout the episode, narration claimed that Phaedra’s illness was due to drinking untreated water (and the same shot of her drinking was shown each time) and called it “poor decision making.” What wasn’t shown was her partner also drinking the exact same water and suffering no ill-effects. The episode also didn’t show Brothers getting ill before her experience began — on the walk to her insertion point. It did show a medic examining Phaedra and declaring that she had dysentery mere hours after drinking the untreated water, but not the stool and vomit sample that the same medical professional took that tested not as dysentery, but as an intestinal parasite.
Since the episode aired on Aug. 17, Brothers contacted the show’s producers and the Discovery Channel about the incorrect statements made about her and her experience, and posted comments about her experience on Discovery website. “They said that if I said anything other than the storyline they picked, they would delete my online comments,” she said. And they have. “They decide the storyline. But in that particular incidence, I think they thought it would be a better, more dramatic story [to say her illness was a result of drinking untreated water], but it wasn’t the truth.”
At this point, she is looking past the misreporting of fact, having learned that “reality TV” sometimes isn’t. She’s focusing on the wonderful experience that she had in India, something that no amount of editing can take from her. And she found that the experience was far more than gaining control of the survival experience she had as a child, saying, “it was a lot more than completing the challenge; you find out a lot about yourself once you’re out there.”
I asked Phaedra if there was a moment she wishes was in her episode. She told me that she wished they’d shown her “Aha! Moment” when she and Hakim were both close to tapping out, and were able to mentally refocus. “The episode flipped past three days when it rained constantly and implied that we hunkered down in our shelter for three days. Our shelter had sprung a leak and filled with water, and both of us were very close to tapping out. But we pulled together; we gathered firewood, we got our fire going again, and we were able to dry out and it was a huge moment for us to come together …”
Brothers continues, “It was amazing to me because we were both so down in the dumps — you really lose your mind out there, you think you are really going to die out there. But in reality, if you just pick yourself up you can survive. Both of us picked ourselves up off the ground and we did everything we needed to do to survive those few days. We really both pushed ourselves to the limit.”
While still in India, one of the show’s cameramen showed Brothers that moment on tape saying to her, “This is really powerful, this is really awesome.” Yet that moment was left on the cutting room floor.
For Brothers, the experience showed her that she is a person of great mental toughness. “If you mind is in a good place, it doesn’t matter how bad you’re feeling because your mind can push you through, but when your mental state starts deteriorating, that’s when there is a problem. After I switched my mindset, that’s when I knew there was no going back and we were going to make it out of there no matter what.”
Despite the location change, her illness and the miserable weather, Brothers really enjoyed surviving in India for 21 days, even though she’s disappointed by how she was portrayed on television saying, “The experience was everything I thought it would be and more. The camera crew, the producers who are out on set, the people who were working there, they don’t help you. It really is human suffering and human triumph. The people in-office, they change the experience into something else. The experience itself was everything I thought it would be and more, the actual episode and airing of it was 100% different than I thought it would be.”
And when her episode aired, Phaedra was surprised by the number of people who commented on her resemblance to singer Miley Cyrus. (I admit, I did send out a “Wrecking Ball” tweet). “Truthfully, I’m flattered to be compared in any way to someone who is so successful and talented. If I had half of her talent and money, I’d be a lucky woman. I thought it was funny,” she laughed.
Phaedra Brothers and her experience on Naked and Afraid fell victim to the reality of television and the ability of the editing process to reshape what happened on-camera. Despite her disappointment at the misrepresentation of her illness (and that the show called into question her decision-making abilities by saying that she fell ill by drinking untreated water), Brothers chooses to look at the positive aspect of her experience. “Regardless of the challenge in my life, it doesn’t matter what it is, no matter how hard it is, physical or mental, I can make it through. And that was huge. It’s huge to have that right there in front of your face, knowing that anything that comes ahead, I can take it on and make it through.”
What do you think of how Naked and Afraid presented Phaedra’s experience? Is it fair for TV producers to change the facts through creative (or selective) editing?
Like Naked And Afraid? Check out these recaps:
Season 3, Episode 1: Namibia, Episode 2: Andros Islands, Episode 3: Cambodia, Episode 4: Nicaragua, Episode 5: Argentina, Episode 6: Dominica, Episode 7: India, Episode 8: Nicaragua, Episode 9: Botswana, Episode 10: Brazil
Season 2, Episode 1: Peru, Episode 2: Madagascar, Episode 3: Fiji, Episode 4: Belize, Episode 5: Malaysia, Episode 6: Bolivia
Polls, What survival Item Would you bring?, Who is your Favorite N&A Couple?
Other Fun Stuff: How to Apply & Casting Secrets
Naked and Afraid images © Discovery Networks.
Images of Phaedra leaning on a rock, of food, Phaedra with food in hotel room and Phaedra wearing a dress with a doctor © Phaedra Brothers