Metro Weekly

Naked and Afraid XL’s Jake Nodar: Survival Instinct

Naked, afraid, and stalked by wild animals: For Jake Nodar, it's what keeps life interesting

Jake Nodar -- Photo: Todd Franson

Jake Nodar — Photo: Todd Franson

Spoiler alert: Jake Nodar lives.

The 6’2″ Maryland native did not get devoured by a leopard. He did not get poisoned by a scorpion — though he did get stung. He was not felled by toxic bacteria consumed from a rank, excrement-filled watering hole.

We still don’t know, however, if Nodar makes it to Day 40, the proverbial “finish line” on Naked and Afraid XL, in which 12 people are literally plopped into the wilds of South Africa without clothing or shelter and forced to contend with the elements, hunger, and the very real threat of wild animals on the prowl for over a month. The special eight-episode show, currently airing on Discovery, is a spin-off of the cable network’s popular Naked and Afraid, in which two people, a man and a woman, brave similar situations for 21 days. Nodar was part of that show as well, and his resourcefulness (plus his TV-ready good looks) made him an ideal candidate for XL.

“So much of survival is being able to adapt to your environment and your surroundings,” he says during a two-and-a-half hour interview at the horse farm he resides on in Potomac, Maryland. “There are people that live like we do in the show, that if you put them in the city, would struggle just as much learning how to adapt and adjust. You have to reset everything that you know and relearn everything.”

The 38-year-old horse trainer last appeared on the cover of this magazine in May, 2009, just after returning from his first reality TV series, Out of the Wild, in which a group of survivalists were left in central Alaska, the endgame being to find their way out. At the time, he was the first openly gay man to be featured on a Discovery Channel show. And while being gay didn’t really do Nodar much good in the wilds of South Africa, he feels a difficult coming out process in a deeply religious, somewhat hostile environment gave him the inner-strength to survive in stressful situations.

“That whole struggle without question is one of the reasons I can go into these challenges and have the mental strength that I do,” he says. “That whole year of my life pushing through things that I didn’t think I was going to be able to push through completely changed me for the better and made these type of challenges — I don’t want to say easy, but it put everything in perspective.”

Being naked wasn’t an issue for Nodar, though the show reminded him “that naked women still make me as uncomfortable as they did back when I was in my late teens.” Being afraid, however, was a completely different story.

“The sounds at night were absolutely horrifying,” he says with a visible shudder. “It was nonstop the second the sun went down — hyenas, lions, leopards. Zebras make a very bizarre sound. It goes on throughout the entire night. It was definitely hard to sleep through that. But as time went on, we grew accustomed to it.”

To protect themselves, the contestants had to build a perimeter around their camp. “It’s made out of acacia trees and thorn bushes. It’s about eight feet tall, eight feet wide. That, in theory, is suppose to keep the animals out.” He laughs. “Chopping down acacia trees naked is not fun. That was a miserable job. You’re just getting cut up like crazy with all the thorns, but that’s pretty much the only thing that’s going to keep a lion out.”

Even during the daylight hours, when a full production crew was capturing their every move, Nodar never quite felt at ease.

“If you’ve got a lion or something stalking you, they’re going to be on you in seconds,” he says. “There’s nothing that somebody’s going to be able to do. You just have to be really cautious the whole time. It is just non-stop scanning the horizon, constantly being on the lookout.”

He grins. “I never took a comfortable poop the whole time I was there.”

Jake Nodar -- Photo: Todd Franson

Jake Nodar — Photo: Todd Franson

METRO WEEKLY: It takes a special personality to want to be on television in a reality-type format. It also takes a special kind of person to want to put themselves in situations where they are in such obvious peril. What is it about you that draws you to doing a show like Naked And Afraid XL?

JAKE NODAR: I’ve loved going on adventures for years, even before I started doing TV stuff. I like pushing myself. I like being outside of my comfort zone. It’s definitely a little bit crazy, but I feel like it keeps life interesting for me.

MW: Do you need survival skills to even be considered for a show like this?

NODAR: You do have to have some set of skills. They’re genuinely concerned during the casting process because they know you’re going into a pretty serious situation. They don’t want to put somebody out there that’s going to have no chance at all.

MW: The men on the show, and even some of the women, all tout their hunting skills.

NODAR: Everybody says they’re an amazing hunter. I feel like, as a man, you have to say that. It’s comical at times. There’s some people who are amazing hunters, and then there’s others who claim to be. You look at all their social media and everything else, and there’s no sign of any real hunting. Maybe posing with a stuffed deer head on the wall is the extent of proof that they’ve actually hunted before.

MW: There’s a telling scene in one episode where three guys are hunting a huge warthog. They throw a spear at it and it just bounces off it. It made me think back to prehistoric man. How the hell did they ever catch anything to eat?

NODAR: That’s why they were all so thin. I have a great appreciation for all those Neanderthals now, because it’s no joke. Granted, they grew up with that. We’re out there figuring it out. Even the people that do have a lot of hunting skills, most of them do not have experience with primitive hunting. The animals aren’t used to people, so they’re on heightened alert all the time. You breathe heavy, and the herd’s off and running. It’s very tough. It’s definitely a test of patience. You can sit in a hunting blind for ten hours straight. And we don’t want to just injure an animal and having it running off. It’s a matter of waiting for that perfect opportunity. There’s days that’ll go by where you don’t even get a single shot.

MW: It was different in your first show, Out of the Wild. Remind us how that worked?

NODAR: Nine of us were dropped into the interior of Alaska, given some basic survival tools and segments of maps, and basically told, “Find your way back to civilization.” I loved that experience. I was out there with some incredible people. There’s no prize money. The only reason we’re doing this is for personal satisfaction, which I love, because it takes out a lot of the backstabbing, unnecessary drama.

MW: No prize money? Did you get paid at all?

NODAR: There was a very small stipend given.
MW: How difficult was that show compared to something like Naked and Afraid XL?
NODAR: There’s pros and cons to both. In Alaska, we had clothes, which was nice. We had guns, which makes hunting a little bit easier.

MW: A lot easier.

NODAR: You’re in an area where animals are not used to people, so things are still running from you. But the odds of hitting something with a bullet versus chucking a little wooden pole is a little bit more likely. We were also dealing with snow and below-freezing temperatures. With XL it was 110, 120 degrees. Crazy heat. The one thing that was really nice about XL was you knew when the last day was. In Alaska, we didn’t have a last day. It could have been two weeks later. It could have been three weeks. You just are always guessing. We had no way of knowing how it was going to end or when it was going to end. With XL you could go, “Okay, I’ve got 30 more days. I’ve got 20 more days.”

MW: What came after Wild?

NODAR: I did a jousting show. It was a series called Full Metal Jousting on the History Channel. Eighty-five pounds of armor, two-thousand pound horses, and eleven-foot solid wood poles. We would just beat the shit out of each other.

MW: Wow.

NODAR: Yeah. Great times. The production company that did the Alaska show was doing this one, and they knew that I had horseback-riding experience. Figured what the hell, why not? I was the token gay. Every three days we would compete in a joust and you’d pick one person from each team to go against each other. The first time, they put me against a guy with eleven years jousting experience just to knock me out. I knocked him hard off his horse and I was on target — they wear a small target on their breastplate, and if you hit it, you get 10 points. I think everybody was shocked that I was able to do some serious damage. I ended up making it to the semifinals and then had my ass handed to me. I got knocked off my horse twice, really hard.

MW: What does that feel like, to be knocked off a horse?

NODAR: It feels like if somebody put you in a metal trashcan and threw you down a flight of steps. Don’t think I’ll be jousting again.

MW: So then, Naked and Afraid?

NODAR: Yeah. A friend of mine, her boyfriend, was asked to do it. He just wasn’t in a position where he could get off work. They asked him if he knew anybody outdoorsy and crazy enough to want to do this. He immediately thought of me. Went through casting. They asked for a videotape.

MW: Did you get naked for the audition tape?

NODAR: In it, I was just wearing a bathrobe. I dropped it and I was just wearing a tube sock. That definitely got their attention. Went out to LA for interviews and the psych test and evaluation. They ask to see you in your underwear. Of course, I found the smallest pair possible. When I stripped down, my testicles fell out the side of them. It happened very quickly after that.

MW: How did it feel to be chosen?

NODAR: I wasn’t surprised. I feel like I offer something special. [Laughs.] I’m going to sound like a cocky dick.

MW: Well, you’re confident.

NODAR: I am. I’m confident in my skill set. Being out there, I knew that I was capable of doing it. Having done these two series prior, I’m very comfortable in front of the camera. I have a sense for what they want and what they’re looking for. I’m much more comfortable now letting my freak flag fly.

MW: In the first one, you were in the Amazon and you had a partner.

NODAR: In the twenty-one day challenge, there’s always one guy and one girl. I helped her out quite a bit. She was in over her head, I think. Skilled outdoorswoman. On paper, it seemed like we were going to be very compatible. After day one, you could see she was a little overwhelmed with the seriousness of the situation. After seven days of crying and negative outlook on everything, I raised a little bit of hell and basically said, “You’ve got to shit or get off the pot. I’m happy to do all the work. I just need a positive attitude.” It’s hard enough to try to keep yourself upbeat and positive alone in that situation, but having somebody constantly bring up how terrible the situation is over and over again wears on you.

She really turned around. We got through the challenge together, and built a raft, and ended up paddling out of the swamps out into the Amazon River. There’s an extraction point that you have to get to, to complete the challenge.

Jake Nodar -- Photo: Todd Franson

Jake Nodar — Photo: Todd Franson

MW: Do you win something for that?

NODAR: No. It’s another one where you just go and torture yourself because you want to. One of these times I’m going to start thinking about doing a show where you win a challenge.

MW: Being naked leaves you tremendously vulnerable to the elements.

NODAR: To everything. Thorns, insects. When you’re laying in that shelter at night, that’s when it was the most apparent. Even having a sheet over you or something that simple makes you feel covered and protected. You have nothing. You’ve got bugs crawling all over you. It’s amazing what a simple pair of clothes will do for you.

MW: Does it make you appreciate the creature comforts more after you’ve gone through something like that?

NODAR: I have never been so happy to see toilet paper in my life when I get home. There’s so much we do take for granted. Just the fact that we can turn on the faucet and crank the A.C. After being in that situation, everything seems amazing.

MW: There are people in this world who live in similar conditions. This is their way of life.

NODAR: For sure. We brought it up several times in Africa as we were sitting there bitching about the heat and the lack of food. There’s a lot of people that live in worse conditions than what we had. We’re in a location where at least there’s an opportunity to find water.

MW: XL is unlike Survivor in the sense that there’s no scheming or backstabbing. Instead, it’s about trying to come together, to forge a team. The show is actually extolling, as I see it, the positive elements of humanity rather than looking for the worst in people. That’s what’s really interesting.

NODAR: People have asked me why I don’t do Survivor. I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t invest that much effort into the backstabbing stuff that goes on with that. With XL, you’ve all got the same goal in mind. You’re all pushing for each other. That said, you’re out there with a lot of big personalities. In XL, there’s 6 girls and 6 guys out there. You’re going to butt heads. But it’s not backstabbing.

MW: Part of that’s because there is no prize money, presumably. It seems one of the purest forms of competition.

NODAR: Yeah, you start forming these bonds the minute you get out there. It gets to the point over a short period of time where they’re family. You’re fighting for each other to stick around and make sure everybody’s fed. There’s an amazing sense of unity and everybody pushing for each other. We’ve all got various reasons for being out there, but the same goal.

MW: If you get sick during one of these shows, are they liable or do you sign a waiver?

NODAR: You sign your life away. You’re covered for a certain amount of days after you return to the States with their insurance.

MW: Do you know how much you were insured for?

NODAR: [Laughs.] I have no idea, no. Hopefully a lot.

MW: Something viewers perhaps don’t think about — you have to perform. You’re not really being yourself. You’re performing with other people, for other people. It doesn’t make good television if you just sit like a lump and do nothing.

NODAR: The thing with this kind of show is that you can’t do nothing anyway. If you’re not up working, you’re not going to be successful. You have to keep pushing yourself. In Africa, we had to feed the fire all night long to keep the predators away. You’re just going, going, going. There’s never any real downtime.

But every time I’ve done one of these shows, I come back and am always in a little bit of a funk, because you go from being on and having camera crews and everything 24/7, and then you’re back home and it’s just — there’s something very weird about it.

MW: Do you ever find yourself talking to pretend camera crews?

NODAR: I live like a hermit anyway. I will walk around the farm and I’ll see deer and I will actually say, “Hey, deer,” which is embarrassing when you do have guests over and you continue to talk to the animals.

MW: When they called you to do XL, you didn’t hesitate?

NODAR: No, I did not hesitate at all. The main reason for that was the Amazon had very little options in the way of hunting.

MW: What did you eat in the Amazon? Fish?

NODAR: We lived primarily off heart of palm, which, side note, will make you very constipated if you eat too much of it. It was probably the worst pain of my life. I had to hang from tree branches. I just screamed at the top of my lungs, and I forced out a football. But we would keep eating it because we were so hungry. Granted, our other foods were grubs and things like that, so it tasted amazing in comparison. We had next-to-no protein. I would go hunting every day and never see any signs of animals. Then I went on a tarantula hunt so we could at least have some protein.

MW: Is that even edible?

NODAR: You take their fangs off.

MW: Ouch. Because, you know.

NODAR: Yeah, that’s just bad news. Then chop off the lower parts of their legs, but the rest is edible.

MW: How do you get the hair off?

NODAR: You don’t.

MW: What do they taste like?

NODAR: A mixture of how burning hair smells with charcoal. We also cooked the hell out of them to just make sure we weren’t going to die.

When you go hunting for them, you take a long piece of grass and just go around the outside of their hole. They come lunging out. They’ll actually stand up on their hind legs and jump at you. It was a little adrenaline rush. They don’t show the hunt. They just show us eating it, I think on the last day.

Jake Nodar -- Photo: Todd Franson

Jake Nodar — Photo: Todd Franson

MW: They don’t want to show you actually hurting animals?

NODAR: I think it was more technical reasons than anything. They don’t seem to shy away from that too much, especially if it’s an ugly, unattractive animal. I think they have a harder time with the really cute ones. But killing ugly animals is strongly encouraged. You’re welcome, PETA. [Laughs.]

MW: We’ve all been on camping trips. We usually bring a roll of toilet paper. But you have no pleasantries of keeping yourself fresh.

NODAR: I took it very seriously. I had seen in past episodes when people get the bigger blur on their backside. I was worried that was because people were not really wiping properly, or using a wet leaf or something.

MW: So that’s why there’s sometimes a bigger blur back there.

NODAR: Yes. I was very concerned. I did not want to have blurry ass, and people be like, “Oh, look, he’s got poo blur.” When I would do my business, I would douche my ass with the water to make sure I was not going to get butt blur. It was a whole process that makes you feel human. A little bit of hygiene goes a long way.

MW: The straight boys all have huge butt blur.

NODAR: Exactly. Me, on the other hand — my butt’s showing.

MW: It’s interesting that they don’t address the bathroom situation.

NODAR: Actually, when they do the [after show] “bare-all episode,” they talk about that. They had a segment with me talking about pooping out my baby seal. They don’t usually show it in the regular episodes, but everybody wants to know that. They also want to know what the girls do when they get their periods.

MW: I hadn’t even thought about that.

NODAR: That was when I wanted to tap out. I was like, “Holy Moses.” When groups of girls are together, they all cycle together. It was like a Christmas miracle. I was like, “I’m going to start bleeding if this keeps up.” It was traumatic.

MW: How do they deal with that?

NODAR: They are allowed tampons. Production will give them when needed, because it is a danger with predators that are attracted to blood. On night three in South Africa, we had a leopard charge our perimeter. We can’t have a bunch of bleeders in there.

MW: What is it like to stumble upon another human being and you’re naked, they’re naked, everyone’s guard is down? We’re judged so quickly by how we look. Does that come into play?

NODAR: It doesn’t really. I think the greater things are sizing the person up as far as their skills and things like that than any type of physical appearance. Part of that is physical, because if you have somebody that’s huge, you know that they’re not going to be sprinting away from leopards any time soon. But no, it’s weird how normal it was.

MW: Is the penis the first thing you look at on another male contestant?

NODAR: Just want to make sure that mine’s bigger, yes. [Laughs.] No, I make an effort to look at the eyes first and then drop the head slowly. Then you glance at the wiener. That’s Naked and Afraid etiquette.

MW: Did you win the size competition?

NODAR: You’re going to have to ask the girls about that, but somebody did promise me a penis-shaped trophy. I felt happy about that. There might not be a prize at the end, but there’s a wiener-shaped trophy. Dreams do come true.

MW: Any unwanted erections?

NODAR: The thing of it is, by day four or five, you’re already starting to feel the effects of starvation. Sex drive goes out the window really quickly. There was a few times that I woke up late night, early morning to feed the fire, and I was very aware that it was just pointing straight out. Everybody’s asleep. I was like, “If they wake up right now, they’re going to think I’m a perv, but my only option is to tuck it between my legs, and that’s even weirder.” So I just let it be.

MW: Do you think that the show helps with the idea of positive body image?

NODAR: I do think it’s helpful. One of the great things about the show is that it’s not people that are just trying to get on TV. It’s regular people that are either into survival or love the outdoors or something like that. They just want the opportunity to challenge themselves. You get people from all walks of life, all body shapes. Not everybody has a six-pack and perfect teeth and perfect hair and all that stuff. It’s a great mix. I think it’s great for people to see.

MW: Does the experience give you a newfound respect for animals?

NODAR: I’ve always had a lot of respect just working with animals on a regular basis, but I think the bigger thing is just, especially when you don’t have any weapons or anything like that, you really aren’t shit out there. There’s so many animals that can take you out in no time. You’re just kind of one of them out there. It’s pretty wild.

MW: Let’s talk about ticks.

NODAR: Let’s talk about ticks.

MW: They keep cutting to a shot of throngs of them. A big problem out there?

NODAR: Just always working out in pastures, I’m used to checking myself regularly for ticks — it’s something I do out of habit, but nothing could have prepared me for the ticks in Africa. They will hang out on stalks of grass and things, so when you’re walking to get water or whatever, as soon as they feel something brush up against them, they just latch on. You’ll have ten, twenty of them climbing up your leg in no time.

You’d be laying in your shelter, and you’d just be seeing them climbing all over the place and on the ground. It was gross. I would wake up every morning, and for whatever reason, they loved my genitals. I would pull a handful of ticks off my junk every single day.

MW: They liked your penis.

NODAR: They loved it. Can you blame them? I must have pulled off at least 300 over the course of my time there.

MW: You have to be careful about removing a tick.

NODAR: The one upside to these ticks, for the most part, they pulled out a lot easier than the ticks we have here in the States. Silver lining.

MW: Tell me, what does it feel like to starve?

NODAR: It’s terrible. The initial stomach growling hunger pains go away, and then it feels like you just finished running a marathon — you are completely depleted of any energy. You can actually feel your mind slowing. It is amazing how much just a small amount of protein helps. I ate rancid meat — it was just terrible, but I ate it. I hate fish, and I loved it there. I mean I was eating fish eyeballs. I would fry up the skin. I would eat the spine. I ate everything, and I loved the hell out of it. I ate scorpion.

MW: Does an experience like this cause you to reflect on those who confront starvation on a daily basis?

NODAR: Yeah, we actually talked about it while out there. Again, it’s a different thing because we know that it’s just a challenge. You think about the people out there that this is life for them, and it sucks because after a couple days, you feel how much it affects you. Just getting up off the ground, little things that I’d never think about taking so much energy, absolutely exhaust you. It’s tough to think about the people for whom that’s it — they don’t get to day forty and get to eat a big steak. They just have to keep trucking with whatever they can get.

MW: Does it arouse any activism in you?

NODAR: Not enough. I think so much of my focus has been on the gay issues that I probably haven’t really put enough thought into the people that are living in those situations, people that would have thought my first watering hole [on XL, which was filled with animal excrement] was a freaking oasis.

MW: Would you go through it again?

NODAR: I feel like my mom would kill me if I decided to do something like that again, but I’m a sucker for it. It’s just such an incredible challenge. I do feel like I come back with a greater appreciation for life. I am so much more grateful for everything I have. I do feel like I grow from each one of these experiences. It would probably be incredibly dumb for me to do another one. But I would do it in a heartbeat.

MW: If forced to, could you live like you did on XL for the rest of your life?

NODAR: I would rather die, but yeah, I honestly think that I could. But then, how would anybody know what I’m doing if I didn’t have Facebook?

New episodes of Naked and Afraid XL air Sundays at 10 p.m. on The Discovery Channel. Catch up with past episodes at discovery.com.

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