Jeff Zausch started his journey to reality-TV fame the same way he finished it: buck naked.
Unable to sleep, the Pocatello man watched the reality TV show “Naked and Afraid” one night. At the end, a solicitation for new cast members aired. So while his wife, Gabby, slept beside him, Zausch grabbed his laptop and typed up a humorous application at the Discovery Channel’s website.
It was 2 a.m.
The next day, Zausch was shocked when his phone rang. The concept of spending three weeks in the wild with a nude woman he’d never met suddenly became a potential reality.
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“I never thought I’d ever get a call back from these people,” Zausch, 28, says. “And so when they DID call me back, that’s when I had to go to my wife and be like, ‘Uh, hey, babe, so I applied for the show last night ... . So that was a difficult, uh, conversation.”
Zausch is a convincing husband. Not only was he naked in Madagascar less than three months later in an episode that first aired in 2014, he’s back for a pants-free sequel. This time, Zausch is part of a spinoff, “Naked and Afraid XL,” which drops a dozen adventure seekers in a Colombian jungle for 40 days.
The 10-episode series starts Sunday, July 12, on the Discovery Channel.
“Basically, it’s ‘Naked and Afraid’ on steroids,” explains Zausch, a geographic information systems specialist at Idaho State University. “It is not only a survival challenge now, but it is also a societal challenge. It’s how are you going to interact not only with the survival aspects, but how are you going to survive the people, as well?”
Zausch grew up as an adrenaline-loving outdoorsman in Pocatello. He’s a skilled survivalist. His biggest fear before his first “Naked and Afraid” stint had nothing to do with doing stuff in the buff in front of a camera crew. Any concerns about modesty soon disappear when hunger kicks in. But Zausch was genuinely worried about getting bitten by a venomous insect or snake while sleeping on the ground.
Instead, his harshest challenge wound up being cacti. And thorns. And limestone that locals nicknamed “razor rock.”
“I had totally underestimated how being barefoot was going to affect me,” he says. “It got to the point where I was literally leaving bloody footprints behind me walking across the desert floor. It was excruciatingly painful, and my feet got infected, so every morning when I woke up, I’d have to squeeze the pus out of the wounds on my feet — just before I got up to go cut them some more. It was just horrible.”
That said, “ ‘Naked and Afraid XL’ was exponentially more difficult than my first go-round in Madagascar,” he says, “in almost every way that you can imagine.”
In a promotional spot for the new show, Zausch spears a massive electric eel and kills it with a fellow cast member. After getting zapped in the water by the writhing serpent, the naked men squawk like cattle being branded.
Gee, I wonder how that shock feels traveling up through your privates?
“I felt the electric shock in my heart,” Zausch says. “Oh my gosh. I was scared for my life. It’s horrible. It’s worse than if you stuck a knife in an electrical outlet.”
It looks totally insane.
“That’s just one moment in the 40 days of adventure we experienced,” Zausch adds. “I think that it’s going to make for an incredible television series.”
So set your DVR. Pop some popcorn. Turn on the TV. And take off your clothes while you watch “Naked and Afraid XL.” Hey, it’s hot out.
Just don’t be like Zausch after his trip to Madagascar.
“The first couple of weeks after I got back, my wife was constantly telling me that I had to put clothes on,” he says, laughing. “We live in a corner house, so our house is right on the corner of this intersection. And so there’s a lot of traffic — foot traffic, car traffic, and our windows are always open. So my wife’s always yelling at me when I’m walking by the window naked, and what not. But we’ve got that under control. She’s kind of trained me.”
Michael Deeds’ entertainment column runs Fridays in Scene and every other Sunday in Explore. He co-hosts “The Other Studio” at 9 p.m. Sundays on 94.9 FM The River.