It was a far cry from Folly Beach.
Ben Fagan jumped from the pirate ship, splashing through blue waters as clear as a swimming pool. Emerging from the water, he forged his way through a tropical jungle until the green mountains were in sight. Dominica was the most beautiful place he'd ever seen, but he couldn't stop to enjoy the view. Even though Fagan was tired, sick, and undernourished, he had a treasure to unearth, and he had to do it before any of his shipmates.
Over the course of his 33 days filming the CBS reality TV series Pirate Master, Fagan had been faced with one obstacle after another — a snake-infested mud pit, a thorny net of vines, a collapsing bamboo tunnel, and an avalanche of coconuts. And he endured them all with the same determination that had enabled him to earn a kung fu black belt at age 12, a double major at the University of South Carolina, and a loyal horde of supporters for his two bands back in the Lowcountry. In early 2007, though, he was focused on one thing — beating his fellow contestants and walking away with the gold. And that he did, even though the nonstop production schedule had pushed him to his physical limits. But no one seemed to notice. Pirate Master was yanked from the prime-time line-up, the remaining episodes shown only on the internet.
"I would have paid to go," says Ben, a fit and tanned 24-year-old with blonde hair and a pleasant, easygoing demeanor. "I wouldn't have told CBS that, but I was ready for anything. I would have slept on a dirty cold floor eating cockroaches if I had to."
However willing Fagan was to eat cockroaches and wear a silly pirate costume, being a reality TV star has never overshadowed his true ambition — to play music for a living. "His whole adventure on the TV show didn't distract him from his goal of getting attention for his bands. He's devoted to his music," says his father Bill, who owns East West Health Arts on James Island. "Charleston isn't the musical center of the country, but a couple of people have made it out of here, made it big."
The ever-optimistic Ben shares vocals and plays percussion and guitar with his older sibling Chris in The Fagan Brothers and is a singer and rhythm guitarist for The Plainfield Project. The Brothers' sound leans toward heavily harmonized acoustic rock set to the beat of an African djembe while The Plainfield Project is a hard-working four-piece featuring Fagan, Daniel Shahid, Carter West, and Overstood's Matt Thompson, which plays laid-back white boy reggae rock. (Think Jack Johnson meets Matisyahu.) The Plainfield Project regularly plays at O'Malley's Bar and Grill, and they were the 2008 Best of Charleston readers' pick for best local band.
"As with all musicians, there's a thin line between genius and half crazy," says Ben wryly. "Nothing makes me happier than writing and creating music that people can connect with. It's therapy for me."
And it was during one of these therapy sessions that Ben caught the eye and ear of a CBS recruiter who asked the musicians to send a showreel to the producers of Survivor. A few weeks later, Ben was tapped for something that he thought might be even better — he was asked to try out for Pirate Master. The network flew him out to LA for several days of interviews, and on the last night they told him he had made the cut. The timing couldn't have been better; he had just graduated from USC in December. The show would start filming in January.
Given the short time frame, Ben prepared for Pirate Master as best he could. With no specific guidelines for training and no prescribed destination, Ben could only imagine how the game would work before shooting began. "It was an unbelievable feeling knowing that I was going to be a part of such a unique and potentially life-changing event," says Ben. "The anticipation between the tryouts and when the game actually started was crazy because they tell you nothing about what you will be doing until you are actually doing it."
His dad worked to get Ben into tip-top shape, but living the life of a musician complicated matters.
"He came and went and trained at his crazy hours, usually rolling in in the afternoon," says Bill. "He's like a vampire, sleeping until noon."
Although Ben was told nothing about the swashbuckling new series, he knew there was booty up for grabs. A grand prize of $500,000 awaited the winner. To the network execs who had lofty hopes for a ratings success, the reward would be money well spent; after all, the show concept was a no-brainer: Survivor meets Pirates of the Caribbean, with photogenic young contestants like Ben, bartender Sean Twomey, and Joy McElveen, another South Carolinian, to hook viewers. Older participants like Nigerian Christian Okoye and Reno Deputy District Attorney Cheryl Kosewicz promised to add some maturity to the melee.
Judging by the crowds that flocked to last year's American Idol auditions at the North Charleston Coliseum, nearly everyone wants to be a reality TV contestant. The risks are nominal — maybe a month away from home and the prospect of embarrassing yourself in front of a few million strangers when you're the first contestant sent home — but the potential benefits are enormous: fame and fortune, maximum glory with a minimum of work.
But while the glossily shot Pirate Master, the brainchild of reality TV mastermind Mark Burnett, looked and felt like the adventure of a lifetime, all thoughts of Hollywood glamour left Ben's head as soon as his plane landed in Dominica.
"Growing up on the coast is one thing," says Ben, "but being in a tropical atmosphere took some getting used to. That in itself was tough."
Ben still didn't know the premise of the game, and nothing could have prepared him for the 20-hour shooting days. As soon as the sun came up, the competitors were set to work. Food was hard to come by, with a meal at 7 a.m. and then nothing until midnight. The portions were small and not very nourishing. In fact, the producers did everything they could to keep the pirates tired, sick, and grumpy. Who wants to watch a survival show where everybody's being nice to each other?
"The purpose of the conditions was to break everyone down to test their composure in tough situations," Ben says. "When the game called us to do something crazy, the real players stepped up."
Gradually, he learned the rules of the game. Over the course of 33 days, 16 contestants would live aboard a 179-foot pirate ship, seeking clues in the nearby rainforest that would lead them to gold coins. Taking its cue from Survivor, there were challenges, the pirates were initially split into tribes (in this instance, crews), and betrayal was encouraged by the producers. Unlucky lubbers got voted off the show by a pirate court and "set adrift" on a raft. "It was a stressful time," admits Ben.
The pirate theme extended to the outfits that Ben and his crewmates wore. "They were very goofy," Ben recalls. "We didn't get to choose them flat out. I did what they told me to do. I was grateful enough that I was on the show. I wasn't going to tell people 'I'm not gonna wear that.' Although I had a little orange vest that was pretty embarrassing. You do what you need to do. I was just there to try to win some money."
When they were ashore in the verdant rainforest, the contestants ran expeditions on miles of rough uphill terrain, searching through mud or under waterfalls for treasure. Sleep was fitful, snatched between the lengthy shoots. "It really tested my social, emotional, and mental strength in an unfamiliar environment," says Ben. Camera crews and microphones were ubiquitous — the crew was being filmed 24/7, so that the production company could grab as much footage as possible from week to week. The structure of each show was shaped during editing.
Although some viewers complained that the program seemed scripted or over-edited with events steered by the producers, Ben says everything was shot in sequence and actual events were screened with scant post-production trickery. "They did not change the storyline much," he recalls. "It was actually delivered pretty accurately."
Despite all the hardships and distractions, Ben survived his ordeals and found the grand prize at the end of the game. "The feeling of popping open the final treasure chest was a feeling that is unmatchable ... to finally look down at a chest packed full to the rim with $500,000 in coins was the craziest feeling imaginable. I just ran around the boat screaming in celebration. Honestly, it is still slowly sinking in that I actually won."
Of course, he couldn't tell anybody about his victory, or he'd ruin his chances of walking away from the experience a moderately rich man.
With taping complete, Ben thought he could finally relax and look forward to well-earned national fame. The show's high production values, good-looking cast, and Burnett's Midas touch practically ensured that Pirate Master would be a monster-sized summer hit. It wasn't. There were bad reviews and complaints about the show's rigid formula and utter lack of humor. A shifting time slot didn't help matters either. The show sank in the ratings. At the end of July 2007, CBS decided to broadcast the remaining five episodes — including a two-hour finale — on the internet.
Ben feared his prize would disappear like the ratings. "I was unsure if I would still get paid if it was taken off of the network," he says. "Knowing that 500K was on the line, I was super stressed, but because no one knew that I had won but me, I couldn't talk to anyone about it."
A few days after the cancellation, the participants heard news that was far worse. Thirty-five-year-old Cheryl Kosewicz, voted off the ship during the fourth episode, had died in her home from an apparent suicide. Her boyfriend Ryan O'Neil had reportedly committed suicide six weeks before her.
"I feel so deeply for her," says Ben, who formed a friendship with her despite the competitive element on the ship. "She must have been going through some terrible things. It was devastating to lose someone like that."
The press made an inevitable link between Cheryl's death and that of The Contender's Najai "Nitro" Turpin, who had shot and killed himself in 2005. The Contender, a boxing themed reality show, shared the same creator, Mark Burnett. Was it possible to push an addictive TV format so much that it could become harmful to someone's mental health? Were the casting agents, harsh critics, or popular culture to blame?
"I'm just floating around lost," Kosewicz had written in a comment on crewmate Nessa Nemir's MySpace page. "And this frik'n show doesn't help because it was such a contention between Ryan and I and plus it's not getting good reviews." Kosewicz's own MySpace page is still online.
"She enjoyed herself on the show, and she was rock-solid tough on the surface. I'm guessing she had deeper rooted issues," says Ben. "I don't think the show being canceled or Cheryl not winning had much to do with her committing suicide." He points out that "she had a professional life and was doing plenty of big things with no relation to the show," so she didn't have all her hopes pinned on winning.
As to the criticisms of reality TV's powerful influence, Ben says, "The program makers do a lot of research when they're picking people. They needed us to be a little quirky, with personalities that are not quite average. But they're not going to put someone on who seems like they would be the type to do something crazy or commit suicide."
Since winning Pirate Master, Ben has returned to Folly Beach with most of his loot stashed away in a most un-pirate-like fashion — it's earning interest in his bank account. "I took a little to catch up," he says. "I was wearing hand-me-down clothes. My car had problems. But I'm still working to pay the bills."
In the long term, he plans to invest some of the money, put a down payment on a house, and use some as start up capital for a business or two. Since he focused on entrepreneurship in college and he's already had a couple of small businesses (including a landscaping company), he hopes to create "another money-making machine."
"Some jackasses buy a sports car and live in an apartment and just blow all the cash. But Ben's got intuition. He's taking his time, keeps plugging with his music," says his brother Chris.
"It went to the right young man," says Ben's father Bill. "The money hasn't changed him apart from making him more serious while he's weighing what he should do to build a safe financial base for himself. People who've won the lottery, it can destroy them."
Right now, Ben could be the wealthiest struggling artist in town. He plays music full-time and has been writing and recording new tracks this year. "I have a lot of hopes and dreams, but I like a simple, stress-free environment," he says. "I need to take life one a step at a time — if there's too much stimulation, it's hard to appreciate. Life's going too fast as it is. I just want to be free to create music."
More than the fortune or the brief flirtation with fame, Fagan cherishes the experiences that Pirate Master gave him. "It removed me from my comfort zone," he explains. "The harsh conditions broke me down and allowed me to start clean with a new appreciation for how cool regular life in America is."
At least how it is for a happy-go-lucky guy who won half a million dollars on a TV show.