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I’m sitting next to this cute guy at a wedding in Tehachapi, Calif., listening to him talk about his month in hell. He lived in the rain forest with no shelter, just a tin of rice for 10 people, insects attacking every inch of skin, no toilets, no toothbrushes, TV cameras following him around 24/7. Ben Henry — Benry, as he was known to his fans — came within six people of winning $1 million on Survivor: Nicaragua. He was voted off on Day 32, his athletic abilities and naïveté working against him. He had lost 25 pounds.

Naturally, he wants to do it all again. “It was the most miserable experience of my life, and the most amazing,” he says. “But the coolest part about the Survivor experience is the stuff I’ve gotten to do after the show.” Since Survivor: Nic?aragua wrapped in 2010, he’s traveled the world, entertaining U.S. troops in Southeast Asia and doing benefits and fan events Stateside, meeting people from all walks of life, from ranchers to NFL coaches. Now with Season 25, Survivor: Philippines, debuting this month, Henry’s been getting nostalgic about his time on the beaches of San Juan del Sur, as well.

Getting on Survivor isn’t easy. Tens of thousands of people apply for the 20 spots. Henry,
a club promoter in L.A., was out partying with a group of 30 women (that’s not a typo), getting them to dance on tables, when a recruiter spied him in early 2010. The next day — Oscar Sunday — he found himself at the DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel Santa Monica, eating with other hopefuls while cameras rolled, no talking allowed. “You couldn’t say anything. They’re observing you eat,” Henry says. There was an hour to hang by the pool, lots of “hot girls,” but again no talking allowed. “Eight people in a Jacuzzi and dead silence,” he says, laughing.

Finally, they hauled the finalists off to the CBS studios for an interview with a dozen producers, execs and casting directors (an additional phalanx of execs from New York watched via remote TV). He was a wreck. “I’m 23, I’m fairly nervous, I’ve just met Jeff Probst and Mark Burnett, the producers. It was my first time in front of a camera.” All he remembers is he made the execs laugh, telling them tales from the L.A. bar scene. He made the cut — and that’s when the real work began. He had five weeks to prepare, but what to do?

“Should I stuff Krispy Kremes and Big Macs in my face? Or get in tiptop shape to look good for TV?” he says. He worked out at a gym, drank protein shakes and watched five seasons of the show to study the psychology of the competition. “Sitting on my couch in L.A., I would watch Survivor for eight hours a day,” he says. “My roommates and girlfriend thought I was crazy. I ate, slept, breathed and dreamed Survivor. I had a chance to win $1 million!”

In June 2010, Henry got the call: “Pack your bags. You’re going to Nicaragua.” He researched the weather: It was peak rain season — with 200-plus inches of rain — in June and July. For the first four or five days, there were torrential downpours. The shelters stank. The mosquitoes were so bad he had to tear the sleeves off a T-shirt and wrap them around his ankles so he could sleep. “After the first week, I thought, ‘There is no amount of money worth this,’ ” he admits.

Each day, they rationed out a shell’s worth of rice to each player. To keep from starving, the players learned how to fish and catch crab. (They didn’t know that Jane Bright — the best at fishing — went out every night, caught her own fish, stole embers from the tribe fire and cooked a feast in the rain forest.) By the time he got voted off a month later, Henry had a parasite, dental cavities from no brushing and a fungus across his back. He was skinny, with a “weird gut.” His hair was matted, his beard six different colors. He went on a day of binge eating and drinking in Managua, he says; then CBS shipped him home to see the doctors and dermatologists in Hollywood.

The best part for him, he says, has been traveling to meet Survivor fans. In the Indian Ocean, U.S. troops on Diego Garcia island turned out for Survivor challenges and greeted “Benry” by name. In Orlando, Fla., at a “Give Kids the World” benefit for kids with life-threatening diseases, he met a girl named Emily who had retinal cancer. Her mom drove her three hours just to get his autograph. They’ve kept in touch, and Henry says her cancer is now in remission. Despite his Hollywood time, Henry’s still the grounded Colorado kid his parents raised him to be. “Survivor couldn’t have come at a better time of my life,” Henry says. “It made me really value what’s important.” Things like dry socks — and great fans.

Want to talk to Cathy?Reach her at editor@americanwaymag.com