Houston, We Have a Winner

June 1, 2005 by  
Filed under Edit

Even though Houston is the fourth-largest city in the country, its image on a national stage is usually colored by either oil, space or Enron. Attempts at building a better image for the city have met with limited success.

Thankfully, that all changed on the evening of May 10. Two Houstonians competing in a reality television program showed the world what Houstonians are really like. And they did it in grand fashion.

By finishing first in “The Amazing Race” on CBS, Uchenna and Joyce Agu became the first Houstonians to win a television reality program. Beating out 10 other two-person teams, the Agus were the first across the finish line of a 40,000- miles-plus race that took them to five continents and 25 cities.

In its seventh season on CBS, the Emmy award-winning program has a very simple premise: Teams race around the world completing challenges along the way in order to receive clues to their next destination point. At the conclusion of each leg of the race, the team that finishes last is usually eliminated. However, on certain segments, the last-place team is not eliminated but is instead stripped of all of their money and possessions. This was the situation in which the Agus found themselves going into the home stretch.

Regular viewers of “The Amazing Race” came to know a great deal about Uchenna and Joyce. They were both previously employed by companies that imploded in the wave of accounting scandals (him with Enron, her with WorldCom). They are both active people who enjoy a variety of outdoor activities. And despite their best efforts to the contrary, they had been unsuccessful in their attempts to start a family.

At the outset of the competition, they made it very clear that if they were to win the $1 million grand prize, they would use the money to fund further attempts at in vitro fertilization. During the course of the contest, this desire to be parents became even more apparent, as the couple displayed heartfelt emotions while visiting an orphanage in Africa, teeming with children who needed a good home. During the final leg of the race, the obstacles piled up against them. A flat tire in Jamaica coupled with the humiliation of having to beg for money tried their spirits. But the tide for them turned when they were able to catch a flight from Puerto Rico to Miami which had essentially already left – the doors were closed and the jetway had pulled back.

And finally, with the end of the race and the $1 million payoff within mere feet, the couple found themeselves short of cab fare to pay their driver. Instead of bolting to the finish line, they did the right thing, yet again, they gathered the money to pay the cabbie.

H Texas sat down with Uchenna and Joyce in the most logical of settings – a car racing to the airport. We caught them on a touch-and-go in Houston amid the whirlwind of appearances for CBS. Sitting in the back of a limo headed for Bush Intercontinental Airport, the Agus shared some thoughts on their experience and let us in on a few behind-the-scenes secrets.

H Texas: My big question, of course, is what did you say to that pilot to get him to let you on to that plane?
Uchenna: The ticket agent that had originally told us that there aren’t any flights. [That was] the same ticket agent that ushered [competitors] Rob and Amber onto the plane.
Joyce: But she had obviously told Rob about the flight, and we’re assuming that Rob had probably told them not to tell us.
UA: So, when we figured it out, by looking at the schedule board, we get there, and she’s standing by this closed door. [The television cameras] didn’t catch this part, but I yelled out, “You lied to me!” And then, she’s standing there, and just guilty. [And] we’re begging, and so finally [they] decided to call the pilot. But the pilot is the only one that can make that decision.

H:How far away were these cameras? Did the ticket agent see that you were being followed by cameras?
JA: Oh yeah, I think that might have had something to do with it. Might have. (laughs)
UA: Yeah, they stayed within 25, 30 feet of us. But you can’t [say] what you’re doing. All they know is you may be news, it may be whatever, so she felt pretty guilty. And I actually focused on her, like “You lied when I asked you about it.”
JA: And [Uchenna] asked the other people, “Did she just let a guy through here with a red hat on [Rob]?” [And she said] “Yes.” “Well, OK, so you’ve got to let us on.” That sucks, but they didn’t show that part.
UA: That was a little extra drama there.

H: Were there rules you had to memorize and everybody had to follow?
JA: Yeah, there were basic rules. You know, like don’t break the law.
UA: Drive the speed limit.
JA: One of the laws that we apparently did not read, or overlooked was you can’t beg on American soil. So, after they’d taken our money, our bags, everything else, and we caught up, we make it on the flight and we’re on our way to Puerto Rico, and we stop in Miami. We earn about $100, and then the producers came up to me and said, “You begged for money, didn’t you?” And I said, “Yeah, of course,” and so he said, “We’re going to have to take that back.”

H: And they took the money away?
JA: And they took it again.
UA: And that’s why we didn’t have very much money in Puerto Rico. So we’re like, OK, so we can’t beg money on American soil, but we can beg while we’re in the air, because air space is international. So, the flight attendants got together and raised money for us.

H: And how did you get them to do that because you couldn’t tell them what you were doing?
JA: We just said we’re in a race. We can say we’re in a race or a competition, and they kind of knew because they saw the cameras. And there are those envelopes that say, “Amazing Race,” on the front.

H: So that final thing, you really did have to get all the money for the taxi, but you couldn’t have just run?
UA: Run?

H: Because we’re watching at home going, “Just run!”
JA: You know, we could’ve totally went in and told the guy, look, “We’ll pay you in a minute because if it works out, we may just have a couple dollars.” But, we wanted to do the right thing, and I was like, OK, as long as we have time, and we could see anybody coming in or going out. UA: So, either they were already inside, and it didn’t matter, or they were coming.

H: So if you would’ve seen them pull up?
JA: Absolutely: Bail.
UA: See, the thing is I offered him my ring as payment, and he said, “No.” So we were like OK, we have to pay this guy because the rule is, A. Can’t break the law. And if we run in without him, it’s breaking the law. And at the same time we’re thinking he didn’t come here for a ring, so we went in and decided to do the begging that we could. And the whole thing is that once he agrees upon [an amount], then we can go.
JA: But we also wanted to keep our karma good. We just thought, OK, this guy wants his money, we haven’t seen any cabs coming, let’s just take care of him. So, it worked out. H

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