When she was young, Gabrielle Balassone, of Westminster, always wanted to host her own nature show. While she dreamed of spending days outside helping audiences appreciate nature, those dreams probably would have transitioned into nightmares if she knew she'd do all of that while hungry, in the nude and operating on just a few hours of sleep.
On Sunday, Balassone makes her television debut, as the Discovery Channel airs her episode of "Naked and Afraid" — a survival show in which guests are left out in the wilderness with no food, shelter or even clothes.
Balassone said her journey to appearing on the show started in July of last year. A longtime fan of the show, she said she finally decided to go ahead and send in a submission tape online, and the very next day was contacted by the show's producers. After a round of phone and Skype interviews, she was flown out to Los Angeles for the final audition process.
"I was kind of surprised by the whole thing; it's a pretty serious screening process," Balassone said. "They don't want to invest money in somebody who isn't going to put a good effort for surviving out there."
During the audition process, she said they asked for videos of her touching animals, starting fires, hiking and climbing in order to prove she had the wilderness skills to survive on the show. Balassone said her childhood trained her for being on "Naked and Afraid."
"My dad's a Vietnam vet, and as long as I can remember, I've been building shelters and starting fires," Balassone said. "We did a lot of camping and a lot of hiking. Catching animals was one of my specialties; not hunting with a bow and arrow, but hunting with my hands."
Balassone said the turnaround process from auditioning to heading out to South Africa for the taping was surprisingly quick. A law student at the University of Baltimore School of Law, Balassone said she had to film before returning to class in time for the fall semester. After a few weeks of time to prepare and brush up on her survival skills, Balassone was flown out to the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa in August.
One difficulty she was least prepared for, she said, was dealing with the cold of the Southern Hemisphere in August, right on the cusp of winter and spring. She said the nights got down to the 40s, and when coupled with wind, rain and a lack of sleep, her body started to suffer.
"It's not like camping at a state park," Balassone said. "There are a lot less resources, and animals are pretty scarce at that point in the year. Natural foods are also very scarce."
In her 14 days in the wilderness, Balassone said she ended up losing 21 pounds due to physical exertion and lack of nutrition.
"There is always a question of how real is a TV show, and I would like the public to know that it's every bit as real and difficult as it appears on the show," Balassone said. "It's not a game; you're literally eating nothing. The risk is really real of parasites or getting sick and injured."
Balassone said she was concerned going in about the dynamics she would have with her partner, but was thankful to be partnered with a stand-up guy. Another aspect she said she was concerned about going in, but that faded soon after the filming began, was the aspect of nudity.
"I'm not a nudist; I don't spend time in the nude, and when you get out there, you're with a film crew of five or six people following you around," Balassone said. "But five minutes after your clothes come off, you revert into survival mode and there's a whole list of things you have to worry about, so it just flies from your mind."
Ignoring the nudity when you're in the wilderness with a half-dozen people trying to survive is one thing, but continuing to feel confident after returning to the states and knowing your footage is going to be broadcast coast-to-coast is another. Even still, Balassone said she didn't have too many concerns about her friends and family catching the show.
"I think everybody has insecurities about their body. Nobody's perfect, but the older I get the more I can appreciate myself for who I am," Balassone said. "Anyway, the blur team did a pretty good job at their job."
On Sunday, April 9, Johanssons Dining House and Restaurant will host a screening party for the episode, which airs on the Discovery Channel at 10 p.m. Balassone said she'll be working the bar and answering any questions that people have about the show.