It was a big showdown in the Big Easy on the season 32 finale of the CBS reality competition show, The Amazing Race. The final three teams raced from the Philippines to back to the United States where Hung Nguyen and Chee Lee (Team Red), Riley and Maddison McKibbin (Team Yellow), and Will Jardell and James Wallington (Team Purple) made their way to New Orleans, Louisiana.
In the end, after 12 legs, 11 countries, 17 cities, and over 33 thousand miles, Will and James win The Amazing Race, becoming the third same-sex couple to win the competition. In the first part of my interview with them, we talk about their win and the long wait to tell their family and friends about it as well as Will’s proposal to James at the finish line.
Gerald Biggerstaff: First of all, congratulations on winning The Race.
James: Thank you so much!
GB: It must be a whirlwind few hours for you.
James: Oh my gosh, yes!
Will: It was a little overwhelming but honestly just super exciting to relive the moment with our families and celebrate the engagement finally.
James: And a weight was lifted off our shoulders, for sure.
GB: I had figured when I interviewed you previously when you said “no comment” I was thinking they’re going to either win The Race or one of them is going to propose on their last leg of the race.
Will: It’s been really hard to keep it a secret especially like we’re getting married in New Orleans and telling our family and friends that the wedding’s in New Orleans, everybody’s very confused. “Why?”
James: “Why? What’s the significance?” And I’m like “Oh, you know, we love to travel. It’s a destination wedding.” Now everyone understands the real significance. (both laugh)
Will: Yeah, so it’s been hard to keep a secret especially from our families, but the best-kept secret.
— James | The Challenge USA (@JamesWallington) December 17, 2020
GB: What was it like to go from celebrating your win at that moment then going back to the “real world” where you couldn’t tell anyone you won for two years, or to be precise as James put it in his tweet, 744 days?
James: You know, it definitely was hard because you want to be able to celebrate it. You want to be able to share that moment with your loved ones, but because Will and I had each other to that, and we got to talk through our experience. We would go back and read through our Race journals just to bring back all those memories and then, the other opportunity was our cast. Our cast was able to just get so much closer than we already were from all that time and so, it was difficult but also a blessing in disguise.
Will: Yeah! Those two years with the cast and like being able to get to know them as people because those are the only people you can really talk about the experience with was honestly a blessing in disguise just because we’ve gotten so close over the two years.
James: Yeah, we’ve had like two cast reunions and like many meetups with some teams here and there and it’s really been all positive.
GB: Will, how long had you planned to propose to James?
Will: We had talked about four years being when we would start talking about getting engaged and The Race was around four and a half years and we had looked at rings. We had already planned on getting engaged eventually and The Race opportunity happened, and I was like “Oh, this is perfect.” I had two instances where I would have proposed and that was when we were eliminated and if we traveled to a country where we’d been there before as a couple. The only country that we traveled to together was the Philippines and that leg was a little stressful, so I didn’t feel it was the right time. And then knowing that we made the final three, I said you know, whatever place we get like cherry on top to propose to James and see him complete his dream and then also just to be able to start the next chapter of our lives and being engaged leaving the show was what was going to happen, and I was excited.
GB: Did anyone, besides James, know you were planning to propose?
Will: James’ parents and my parents knew that before I left for The Race that I was gonna propose at some point on The Race just because it all just felt right. No one on the cast knew. I don’t think any of them expected it either. The crew did know just because they helped me hide the ring at some points of The Race so that James wouldn’t see but it was definitely a secret from the rest of the cast too.
GB: James, did you have any suspicions that Will was going to propose?
James: I had no clue! (Will laughs) Like Will said, we had talked about it before the opportunity of The Race presented itself, so going into The Race we were so focused on preparing that it just never came up again. And then, of course, I knew everything Will packed in his backpack. Like we packed together. We coordinated our outfits as you saw on the show. So it never even dawned on me that it was something he slipped in there, and of course, at every pit stop, we would do laundry, air out our clothes, empty out our backpacks. Nope, never dawned on me. Never crossed my mind. Now looking back on it, I’m like, oh, Will never let me carry the (Amazing Race) fanny pack (laughs) for obvious reasons. And then we were in Paris, there was one moment where Phil (Keoghan, The Amazing Race host) at the pitstop kept referencing the city of love and I was very confused why he kept bringing it up especially when we had a hard day with the stick shift. And then nothing happened. So I completely disregarded it and then when we got to the finish line, it happened. I was even more speechless than I already was. (Will laughs) You saw me choke on air when I was trying to say yes. I was so caught off guard. It was such an adrenaline rush and out of body experience. Definitely fun to relive.
GB: Your proposal, if I’m not mistaken, is the first same-sex proposal in the 32 season history of The Amazing Race. How does it feel to know your proposal is now part of the history of not only the show but also in same-sex representation in television?
Will: To be honest, it dawned on us at the time that this was more than just James and I. It was a moment for the LGBTQ community because you know, growing up, reality TV for LGBT youth is the only time you really get to see real people living out their truth and I think for us, The Race offered us the opportunity to see couples. In the very early seasons, there were domestic partners. There were married people who were LGBT and so, seeing that on TV is something that helped us in our stories growing up. And so, getting engaged on The Race and them referencing us as boyfriends, and to be honest, they never once said: “the gay couple” or that “they’re gay” and they did a wonderful job of representing us as just a normal couple. They did a really great job of making us feel as though we weren’t different and that we just showed love to each other and I think it was just a moment where the significance was not lost on us. It was a very great moment for us.
James: And you have to think about how far our community has come where that happened. Like this happened. Like Will said, it didn’t dawn on us until probably when we got to the hotel room after the finish line and we were like, wait a minute. Let’s talk about this. Let’s unpack what this means for our community. Even Phil, after it happened, had such wonderful questions. There was one where he looked at us and (said) “I want to make sure you guys said everything you want to say because this is actually a huge moment for your community.” And even then, we felt like we said everything we wanted to say but when we got back to the hotel room that night, that when it was just like “oh my gosh.” That’s when it hit (us).
Will: And I think being a gay couple on television is already very intimidating. You’re putting yourself out there for judgment. You’re putting yourself out there to people who maybe don’t understand or have never experienced a gay couple and it is very intimidating. And that pressure of just being in a loving relationship, you want to do your best because you want to help people understand that gay relationships are just the same as straight ones—
James: And love is love.
Will: And love is love and so, we were so ecstatic with how they (the producers) showed us and showed how much we love each other the entire season.
James: LOVE WINS!! (laughs)
Will: Especially when we were in Bogota, me and James got the volqueta correct and we shared a kiss and them putting it in the episode. Those moments are super significant for youth who are gay or questioning to see because it offers a glimpse into a relationship that could be you. It will get better and having those people on TV and seeing the potential is super important.
GB: Which of your trips you won on The Race do you plan to use as your honeymoon? Bali or Vegas? Or both?
Will and James: Bali!!
Will: We love Bali. We’ve actually been once, and we were only there for two days. So we’re really excited to go back and have our honeymoon in Bali when it’s safe to travel.
GB: In one of the videos from The Amazing Race YouTube channel, you were talking about one of the things you were going to do with the million-dollar prize was buy James a car. James, any thoughts on what kind of car you would want to get?
James: It’s funny because I think now that it’s been two years. I feel like Will and I are at a very different place in our life with that thought process because we might move out of L.A. And we might move somewhere we might not need that. And Will already has a car. I think if anything we’re more focused on our wedding and setting ourselves up for those next milestones in our lives. You know, becoming husbands, adopting children. We really just want to start having a strong foundation for our future.
GB: The two of you were obviously overcome with emotion when you were on your way to the Superdome. How did it feel watching yourselves on the way to the finish line as it aired?
James: But also, I’m not gonna lie. I was watching our parents more than I was watching that moment because I think we’ve waited so long for this that just to see the pride in our parents’ eyes and them crying like that was something that I know meant so much to us. So it was just a really fun night all around to relive especially with our parents.
Will: Yeah. We filmed our entire family’s reactions just to have it as a big moment in our lives and so we can re-watch them crying all the time. My dad couldn’t sit down the entire episode. He was so anxious. And I think just watching their reactions was a major highlight for us because we lived it, so our memories of it are buried still in our brains and we’ve kind of relived every day for the past two years. And now that they’re able to talk about and we’re able to share that memory is really cool.
GB: This year has been one where everyone’s plans had to be changed or put on hold. How did the pandemic affect your plans?
James: Not only our wedding, we had to push it back because of COVID but I would say it’s a blessing in disguise because it would have been October and The Race would have not aired yet, and because we are getting married in New Orleans, now our family and friends understand the significance as to why. So now it will make our wedding day even more special. But beyond the wedding, it would just be travel. Will and I love to travel. We have a really hard time sitting still so any of the travel plans we did have for this year obviously didn’t pan out the way we would have hoped.
Coming soon in the second part of my interview with Will and James, we talk about the alliance, what souvenirs they saved from their time on The Amazing Race, and much more.