For three weeks, Karen Coffee endured the sweaty hardships of a Filipino jungle, fighting a monitor lizard with a machete and eating a pair of slow-roasted skunks – braving it all in the mud-streaked nude.
She hiked barefoot over sharp rocks, slept under bamboo leaves and contracted a jungle virus that turned out to be meningitis. By the end of her 21-day tribulation, her hair fell out in clumps and she could stomach nothing more gastronomically challenging than Eggo waffles and syrup.
At age 52, Coffee can tolerate a more arduous routine than the everyday Chatham County mom. She can run a 20K. She can hold the “plank” yoga position for an hour. She can shoot and field dress a deer, then drag it back to camp.
But as the TV-watching world will soon witness, Coffee made her hardest slog on an episode of “Naked and Afraid,” the Discovery Channel survival show that drops a pair of strangers into the exotic wilderness minus their clothing, then films them barbecuing snakes and crafting coconut-shell brassieres with their naughty bits blurred out. As the show’s oldest female star, Coffee said her family supported this adventure so avidly that her mother held the camera for a casting interview.
“It’s not about being totally naked,” she told me over a latte at Carrboro’s Open Eye Cafe. “It’s, ‘Can I survive this without anything?’ You’re too busy to remember you’re naked.”
If you’ve seen the show, now in its fifth season, you know that its survivors are allowed a single tool. In a recent spoof on “Saturday Night Live,” “Game of Thrones” star Peter Dinklage carried along a fire-starter kit, while “SNL” cast member Leslie Jones toted a bottle of hot sauce that she sprinkled on both leaves and her partner.
Coffee and her naked companion, Matt, a skinny Louisiana native, had a slingshot, fire starter and dull machete between them, which they used to chop out a bamboo shelter complete with a shared but platonic bed.
“Everything I do is real,” said Coffee, who has not yet seen her episode. “I put myself out there. I would be happy for people to see the times I was crying.”
I’ve written about reality shows and their semi-real participants before. I came to believe that one show in particular, which centers around a tow truck, involves the same amount of realism seen in professional wrestling. “Naked and Afraid,” like many of its cousins in the bug-eating wilderness genre, has encountered critics skeptical of its true-to-life starvation drama.
“The channel asserts that Shane and Kim spent three weeks in the jungle with nothing but a machete, a fire starter and a camera crew instructed to offer no aid,” wrote Mike Hale of The New York Times in a review. “But they’re awfully clean, apart from some Martin Sheen-in-“Apocalypse Now” body paint, and Shane’s beard must grow very, very slowly. We see them obtaining food just twice – one snake, one turtle – and Shane and the writhing snake never appear in the same frame.”
But while Coffee will admit to a few deviations from true life, she called the show 85 percent to 90 percent real. She and Matt really did strain stream water through a gauze strip in their first aid kit. They really did catch a river shrimp and dig up wild potatoes. They really did suffer through tropical diarrhea. The worst part – worse, even, than not knowing where and when food might be found – was existing in the wild without shoes.
I had doubts about the survivors’ handmade critter trap, which snared the skunks, but I poked around and it turns out the Philippines are rife with stink badgers and, according to Field & Stream, stick and noose traps are fairly easy to make. Coffee told me that her partner, Matt, was laid up with the virus when she toted home their first stinky meal, nearly gagging on the smell until she noticed that skunk meat tastes a lot like roast beef.
The lizard, she told me, wandered into their shelter and wound up on the campfire after Matt grabbed the end of its tail. “We hacked a monitor lizard to death,” said Coffee, uttering a phrase seldom heard in a Carrboro coffee house. “That was meal No. 2.”
I won’t tell you how their story ends, whether they quit in starved exhaustion or emerge triumphant and nude from the woods. You’ll have to wait until Sunday night and watch for yourself – remaining, as a TV viewer, merely clothed and concerned.
Watch her episode
Karen Coffee’s episode of “Naked & Afraid” airs at 10 p.m. Sunday, April 17, on the Discovery Channel. She will have a meet and greet plus a raffle at Carolina Ale House in Chapel Hill starting at 8 p.m.