For Grad, Art Imitates Life’s “Amazing Race”

One Harvard Alum continues fame on CBS series

After being told that he’d lost his seat on a flight, B.J. Averell ’02 ran past airport employees, hopped a security railing, snuck onto the plane, and hid in its bathroom. And all of that happened more than five years before he became a contestant on “The Amazing Race.”

Averell, whom friends and family describe as “a legend,” “a little bit crazy,” and “what God created on the eighth day,” has found a national audience for his unique personality by racing around the globe on the ninth edition of the CBS reality show, which debuted last night.

He gained national fame for the airplane incident and its resulting legal battle, made a name for himself at Harvard with a catastrophic bid for the presidency of the Undergraduate Council (UC), and performed in the Hasty Pudding Theatricals (HPT), the On Thin Ice improvisational troupe (OTI), and an event called “The B.J. Show.”

Although his contract with CBS prevents him from giving interviews of any kind at this time, Averell’s lifestyle on campus and off suggest that he has tried to live in the spotlight—making his globe-trotting antics unsurprising.

“THE HIPPIES IN FRONT OF US”

“We’re competitive,” Averell says of himself and his team partner during the show’s season premiere, “but competitive in a fun way, where we’re

just beat them thoroughly.”

That competitive spirit was put to the test during last fall’s 30-day filming of “The Amazing Race.” The show pits 11 teams of two against one other in a series of scavenger hunt-like challenges that take the contestants to locations all over the world. At the end of the last episode, whichever team arrives to the final location first will win $1,000,000.

Each of the pairs has some prior relationship to one another, be it romantic, familial, or friendly. Averell applied for the show as a pair with Tyler MacNiven, a friend he met during a “Semester at Sea” program four years ago.

Juxtaposed against the other contestants, Averell and MacNiven looked somewhat bohemian. Teams such as a mother-daughter duo from New York wore matching athletic outfits, as did sisters from Texas and Florida.

Averell, on the other hand, spent the entire first episode dressed in a frilled, pink tuxedo shirt and tight pants, while sporting a long beard and oversized, gold-colored, wraparound sunglasses.

Throughout the episode, Averell was prone to non-sequitur outbursts, such as “Put on some pants—it’s time to dance!” or a long session of scat-singing while jogging to a clue.

He and MacNiven quickly gained a nickname among other contestants—“The Hippies.”

“We’ve got the hippies in front of us?” one contestant asked her partner as they sped down a road to an airport. “How the hell did they run that fast? They haven’t been smoking pot for a while, I guess,” she concluded.

The pair finished second at the end of the first episode, allowing them to continue to the next round. The show finished filming in December, but the outcome has been kept a secret.

“Dude, is this the most James Bond thing you’ve ever done?” MacNiven asked Averell after landing on a Sao Paolo rooftop in a helicopter.

“It’s pretty James Bond,” Averell replied, nodding.

THE ORIGINAL B.J. SHOW

In fact, Averell engaged in at least one Bond-esque chase sequence while he was a sophomore at Harvard.

On Nov. 24, 1999, he arrived at Logan Airport, expecting to board a Delta Airlines flight to Philadelphia. However, he was told that he had arrived too late, and that his reserved seat had been given away to another passenger.

In response, he ran onto the plane and hid in the bathroom, where he was promptly caught by flight attendants and arrested for disorderly conduct.

The story made the national press and even merited a mention on NBC Nightly News.

Two months later, state prosecutors and Delta Airlines agreed to drop all charges against Averell. At the time, Averell’s lawyer told The Crimson the decision came because the student “was not belligerent to anyone.”

The next year, Averell gained campus-wide fame with an outsider run for the UC presidency. A member of the UC, Averell faced massive campaign problems and the council ordered his campaign to shut down. Each candidate was allowed 50 “points” for campaign violations, with points deducted for each violation made.

Within weeks of launching his campaign, Averell had lost 49 of his 50 points, due to what the UC called “excessive campaign violations”—including placing photos of himself and his running mate into a comic strip they regularly drew for The Crimson.

Averell told The Crimson at the time that the punishments merely showed “how The Man is afraid of B.J.. Very, very afraid,” and continued to run for president despite the UC’s order. He ran through the campus, naked, on the day of voting in order to garner attention.

He lost the vote.

His continued performance, during campaign time, of an annual event called “The B.J. Show” also brought him under UC scrutiny.

It was a rare sort of comedic revue, hosted by Averell and his friend B.J. Novak ’01 in venues like Lowell Lecture Hall and Sanders Theater. Novak now writes and acts in NBC’s “The Office.”

In the two years that it ran, they performed surreal sketches before sold-out audiences and brought celebrity guests like Bob Saget of “Full House” and Crystal McKellar of “The Wonder Years” onstage for raunchy skits about popular TV shows and Harvard life.

Averell also performed with OTI and HPT during much of his Harvard career, and friends from those groups claim his presence was “legendary.”

John P. Blickstead ’06, President of HPT and a member of OTI, credits Averell for encouraging the then-freshman to try out for both organizations. He also recalls an incident of outrageous comedy that he feels was particularly representative of the Averell mystique.

According to Blickstead, OTI went on a trip to an International House of Pancakes, where Averell started to laugh while drinking chocolate milk. The results were of scatological proportions.

“He starts to sputter milk out,” Blickstead recounts. “And then he laughs harder and starts to vomit at the table. He runs to the bathroom, but doesn’t know where it is, so he just starts spinning around, looking, and vomiting at the same time. Like ‘The Exorcist.’”

Blickstead followed Averell to the bathroom. “I told him, ‘it was a close call there, because when I see vomit, I get sick,’” Blickstead continues. “’Well, then don’t look there,’ he said to me. But I looked at the countertop, and there was vomit all over it, so I started throwing up, too.”

As B.J. Novak puts it in an e-mail, “B.J. Averell was born to be a reality TV star. He was a reality star on campus before there even was reality TV.”

“AN INTELLIGENT HOMELESS MAN”

Since graduation, Averell has led an itinerant existence.

He acted in some theatrical performances in the Boston area, went home to New Jersey, drove across the country, and eventually wound up in Los Angeles, where he started living with friend Jon B. Eirich ’03.

“B.J. is an intelligent homeless man,” Eirich says.

Eirich recounts the tale of how living arrangements were sorted out in the apartment. Averell decided he would save money by not buying a bed right away, and instead “temporarily” borrowed another roommate’s air mattress.

“From about November to April of 2005, he was just living on the air mattress,” Eirich recalls. “He had this fake plastic pirate’s hook. For six months, his room had a plastic pirate’s hook and no bed.” Averell finally caved and bought a bed.

Currently, Averell performs in a local improv troupe, and, according to Eirich does “odds and ends jobs—extra work on TV shows, commercials.”

“Mostly, he just tries not to spend any money, if possible,” Eirich claims. “He doesn’t really have a job, so I don’t really know where the money comes from.”

According to Eirich, Averell decided to audition for “The Amazing Race” on a whim, sending in videotapes of himself and MacNiven doing odd tasks and talking about themselves. Last July, he got an interview with the producers, and by the fall, he was off to Denver to begin the race.

Eirich says he was sure that, despite the odds, Averell was bound to get in.

“I kept thinking, ‘Yeah, he’s gonna get this.’ He went to Harvard, he’s funny, he has this enormous beard that he never shaves, for some reason.”



RACE TO THE FINISH

Averell’s parents, as well as Eirich and Blickstead, claim that he has managed to stick to his contract and not mention any events of the show. Thus, the outcome is still uncertain, even to those closest to him.

However, Eirich has a guess about what happened. “Me and my other roommate can’t imagine him taking it seriously enough the whole way through to win,” he says.

But Blickstead claims that winning is far from the point for Averell. “He’s told me that he’s convinced that it will make him famous,” Blickstead says. “I’m convinced that, even if this doesn’t make him famous, something will.”

—Staff writer Abe J. Riesman can be reached at riesman@fas.harvard.edu.