Alum Talks Strategy and Struggles, Competing in Third Reality Show Since Summer 2021
Photo courtesy of CBS
Derek Xiao '19 won the season 34 of "The Amazing Race" in December, splitting a $1 million prize with his partner after beating 11 other teams. He spoke to Maryland Today after the third episode of the season aired.
From racing an 88-pound wheel of cheese through the streets of Italy on “The Amazing Race” to being forced to play chess against himself after being ostracized in the “Big Brother” house, Derek Xiao ’19 has shared both thrills and tears—and even a little romance—with TV viewers over the past year.
Such drama is all standard fare for reality TV, but it wasn’t the path Xiao expected while growing up. He recalls rarely seeing Asian Americans on television or in movies, and briefly dreamed of starring on TV himself. Instead, he earned a University of Maryland degree and pursued a stable career. That is, until last year—when he joined the cast of the first of three big-budget reality competitions.
“I knew if I didn’t do it now, I wouldn’t be able to do it in my life,” he said. “I have the least responsibilities, so I can take this risk and put my life on pause.”
What he thought would be a three-month break to go film the claustrophobic, head-game series “Big Brother” in summer 2021 turned into opportunity after opportunity, shooting the all-star CBS reality-star gathering “The Challenge” in early 2022 to traveling primarily across Europe for a COVID-limited season of “The Amazing Race” that’s currently airing Wednesdays on CBS.
He and girlfriend Claire Rehfuss, a fellow “Big Brother” contestant, are partnered up for the travel competition, which pits teams of two against each other as they take on cultural challenges in different countries for a million-dollar prize. The two had been together for just eight months when they filmed the show over the summer, but their navigational skills and cool heads put them in first place for the first leg of the race in Munich, which won them each $2,500.
“It was such a confidence boost!” Xiao said.
That win was a harbinger of greater success. He and Rehfuss overcame struggles yodeling in the Austrian alps, digging for clues in the hot desert sands of Jordan and diving (while memorizing complicated volcano names and dates) in the frigid waters of Iceland to win the season, which finished airing in December.
Confident isn’t how he would have described himself when he arrived at UMD. He hadn’t been popular in high school—something that would come back around in the “Big Brother” house—but he came in with a plan. He majored in computer science and finance so he could pursue online stock trading. But an internship with Capital One gave him his first experience building and launching mobile apps, and he enjoyed it so much that he ditched his day-trader dreams and took a full-time job with the company after graduation.
Then, the pandemic hit. After moving from New York City back to his parents’ house in Baltimore, Xiao felt the itch to do something more. He quit his job and worked for a startup briefly before launching his own, creating meal kits out of popular social media recipes.
“Any entrepreneur has this thought: How do I get my first 1,000 customers?” he said. That’s when a friend posted the “Big Brother” casting announcement on social media. The show puts strangers together in a house for 90 days, where they are continuously filmed and have no contact with the outside world. Contestants form alliances and play games to prevent being voted off weekly. Xiao, who had never seen the show, applied on a whim, thinking it could be a good opportunity to promote his business.
He made the cut—but he almost didn’t make it past the first week. “By the second day, I was bawling. It’s a microcosm of high school, amplified 10 times, with cliques and bullies and popular people.” He was alienated the first week—hence the one-man chess—but he lucked out and got a chance to earn immunity. He started his relationship with Rehfuss after being eliminated on day 51, when the two were stuck together in the “jury house,” still removed from the outside world but able to talk without cameras present.
He’s glad he’s been able to positively represent Asian Americans on a national network. “We have this stereotype of being the model minority. But I wanted to be 100% true to who I am: funny but nerdy at the same time, smart but also a strong competitor. That’s contradictory to how people view Asian Americans, especially Asian American men.”
Between his stints on television, he closed his first venture, but he’s not ready to give up being an entrepreneur. Now he’s looking to combine his unique reality show experiences with his developer acumen. “How can I combine all this together to exponentially improve my life path?” he mused. “I have a couple different startup ideas.”
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