Phil and Louise Keoghan’s reality series ‘Tough as Nails’ returns

By Kamala Kirk

Phil Keoghan with the challengers on the upcoming season two of “Tough as Nails.”
Credit: (Cliff Lipson/CBS)

The ultimate entertainment industry power couple, Phil and Louise Keoghan are partners in life and business. Married for multiple decades, they met at the age of 22 when they were working in production in New Zealand. Throughout the years, they have created, developed and produced highly rated, award-winning TV series and documentaries.

Phil has been the longtime host of the American version of the Emmy Award-winning reality series “The Amazing Race” on CBS since its 2001 debut. He is also the creator and host of “No Opportunity Wasted,” a series that premiered on the Discovery Channel in 2004. Louise executive produced the series, which was inspired by a book that Phil wrote after a near-death experience he had when he was 19.

In 2009, they filmed “The Ride,” a documentary that chronicled Phil’s bike ride across America and raised $1 million for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

The couple’s latest project is “Tough as Nails,” a reality competition TV series that debuted on CBS on July 8, 2020, and celebrates everyday Americans who don’t mind getting their hands dirty while working long, hard hours to keep their country’s infrastructure running. The show was inspired by Phil’s grandfather Jack, who worked as a mechanic and a gunsmith.

“He was one of the brightest people I ever met, but he never got a chance at a high school education,” Phil said. “It had a lot to do with growing up during the Depression, his father decided that he should start working after his last year of middle school. Both Louise and I come from humble beginnings and this show really is a way of honoring hardworking men and women. These are the people who keep the country running every day — they’re the reason we can turn on the lights in our homes, flush our toilets, drive on smooth roads and so forth. All of these things we may have taken for granted, but now we can appreciate the people behind them. A lot of shows are about finding the next big singer or designer, but we want to put the spotlight on the people that are keeping the country running.”

Season one features 12 contestants from a variety of professions including a firefighter, a farmer and an ironworker, among others. Six women and six men of different ages and backgrounds compete in a series of challenges based on putting their practical skills to the test.

“The show is very character-driven,” Phil said. “Our focus is on character and diversity, and redefining what it means to be tough. When a lot of people imagine ‘tough,’ they think of big, burly guys with bulging muscles. There’s no doubt that those people are tough, but my 78-year-old mother is mentally the toughest person that I have ever known, and she’s not big and burly. We want to show that all kinds of people are tough — tall, short, big, small, young, old, Black, white — it doesn’t matter where they come from or what they do. If they’ve got a great story to share and have the perfect combination of strength, endurance, agility, life skills and mental toughness – that’s what we’re looking for.”

All of the challenges take place on actual job sites around Los Angeles and ran the gamut from shoveling coal to building brick walls. Nothing is brought in and contestants aren’t going through manmade obstacle courses or mazes — they’re using tools like hammers and shovels to complete real-life challenges.

“One of our favorite moments from season one was when Lee the roofer and Michelle the gate agent went up against each other in a challenge,” Louise said. “Both contestants are in their sixties and so strong, full of energy and bring decades of life experience to the challenges. They were neck and neck in this challenge, carrying and stacking hay bales, which they had to climb and then ring the bell. We were all on the edges of our seats. It was anyone’s game to win!”

A unique aspect of the show is that no one gets eliminated and sent home. There are two mutually exclusive competitions, so if a contestant is cut from the individual competition and has to “punch out,” they can still participate in the team competition.

“That’s a big point of difference from other shows where if you get voted off the island, you’re gone,” Phil pointed out.
“Because our show is focused on character and we spend so much time finding these amazing people, we want our viewers to be able to watch and enjoy them for the entire season. The team competitions are also more reflective of how these people work in their real lives, which is often in teams.”

Contestants compete to win a grand prize of $200,000 and a 2020 Ford Super Duty Truck, and additional prizes are available for the team competitions as well.

“Nobody goes home emptyhanded,” Phil shared. “Yes, the winner of the overall individual competition gets the most money because they have demonstrated that they are the toughest of them all, but everybody is competing for cash prizes in the team competition and they all go home with some money in their pocket.”

Fans of “The Amazing Race” will enjoy “Tough as Nails” because both are a celebration of the human spirit.

“The contestants from both shows come with a sense of adventure and a desire to discover more about themselves,” Louise said. “They all emerge transformed and mostly for the better. If you take a leap of faith and step out of your comfort zone, it invariably leads to change. As producers, it’s exciting to witness the personal journeys and I also learn a lot of life lessons from our entire cast.”

After a successful first season, the premiere of season two of “Tough as Nails” returns on Feb. 10. Viewers can look forward to 12 new contestants with powerful back stories.

“We have Celi, a nurse who has been working in COVID-19 wards, holding the hands of dying patients,” Louise said.

“She plays a really supportive role in ways that blow the minds of her teammates. There’s Merryl, a retired Air Force colonel who is the first and currently only African American woman to fly the U-2 aircraft. She takes on a leadership role but learns some wonderful life lessons along the way. One of our oldest competitors is Patrick (aka Freight Train), a UPS delivery guy who shows us that the definition of ‘tough’ is having a big heart. These are just a few of our wonderful contestants who take us on an emotional journey with them.”

Shooting a TV show during COVID-19 has presented its fair share of challenges, but the Keoghans credit their amazing production team and crew for doing a great job at staying on top of everything and ensuring a safe work environment for everyone.

“They had to submit a COVID plan for more than two dozen locations including where we park our cars and where we have lunch,” Phil explained. “We also had games where people could win prizes if they followed the rules. We were tested every other day and there wasn’t a single COVID case while we were in production. Our cast member Celi from season two is a travel nurse and said that she felt safer on the set of our production than she did in the hospital.”

As a married couple that has worked together since they first met, Phil and Louise have a special and unique dynamic. While they enjoy building on each other’s ideas, they also have their own separate areas of expertise and trust one another’s judgment.

“Louise is very good with the big picture, she loves story and characters,” Phil said. “I love the minute details in terms of cinematography. Then we have this overlapping passion for good storytelling.”

When they’re not in the midst of production, the Keoghans enjoy spending time with their 25-year-old daughter, Elle, and hanging out in Santa Monica, where they’ve lived since 1997.

“We love the beach and this neighborhood,” Phil said. “It reminds us a little bit of New York, where we used to live. You get to know your neighbors and it has that nice community feel.”

Louise added, “The pandemic has been incredibly challenging, but there have been moments we will treasure forever, focusing on things that really matter like health, friends and family. It has taught us that life can change on a dime and it’s important to spend quality time with those you care about. Zoom has allowed us to make connections with people we haven’t spoken to in years. Having virtual dinners and coffee dates is now a weekly occurrence. We can’t wait to see everyone in person, of course, especially in a restaurant or cafe on our beloved Main Street.”

“Tough as Nails” season two will premiere on CBS at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 10. Check local listings.