How my wife and I entered the bizarre world of MrBeast

Beth O'Connor, the author's wife, holds a photo of Hunter, her grandson, who has cancer. (Courtesy Anne Gardner)
Beth O'Connor, the author's wife, holds a photo of Hunter, her grandson, who has cancer. (Courtesy Anne Gardner)

If you’re old enough to do your own taxes, you’ve likely never heard of MrBeast. But with 161 million subscribers, YouTube sensation Jimmy Donaldson — aka MrBeast — has revolutionized his little corner of the internet, creating a cadre of stunts and endurance challenges, much to the delight of his rapidly-growing audience.

MrBeast, now 25, was raised in the sleepy town of Greenville, North Carolina. While still a teenager, he began posting videos of himself online. Those first reels were relatively tame. In one clip, he attempts to count aloud to 100,000. In another, he spends 50 hours in solitary confinement. But something about his quirky experiments struck a nerve, particularly with YouTube’s younger demographic. It wasn’t long before he dropped out of college and hired a handful of his childhood friends to help design more extreme competitions. Now, flush with advertising cash, his gauntlets offer significant prize money.

His philanthropic efforts are now legendary, and in part, responsible for his selection as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2023. But it took the magic of Hollywood to alert me to the soaring popularity of MrBeast. And the conduit, much to my surprise, was my wife.

Following our recent move to Los Angeles, Beth decided to try her hand at acting. She had no prior experience or connections. She just went to JCPenney one day, spent $100 on headshots and submitted her information to an online casting agency. Within days, her phone was ringing off the hook.

About a month ago, she answered a post looking for adults between the ages of 70-100. She was quickly contacted by a production assistant. When asked to disclose her age she cheekily replied, “Well, I’m 70, but without my makeup, I look 100!” A few days later, she was told she had been chosen for MrBeast’s latest competition.

Our grandchildren were over the moon when they heard the news that Beth would soon be a contestant. Word spread like wildfire through the hallways of their local schools, giving them some serious bragging rights. They were not alone. I went right down the rabbit hole with them, giddy at the thought of what might happen next.

But that’s as far as my imagination got. I then learned the first rule of MrBeast’s competitions is that no one talks about MrBeast’s competitions. Everything is planned and produced within a silo of complete silence.

A few days later, Beth headed to LAX, bound for parts unknown. Neither of us knew any details of what was to come. Any breach of confidentiality or contact with the outside world would result in her immediate expulsion. Every aspect of the experience was to be held in the strictest of confidences.

Was it weird? Yes. But was I worried? No.

The author's wife, Beth, finishes a challenge. (Courtesy Anne Gardner)
The author's wife, Beth, finishes a challenge. (Courtesy Anne Gardner)

In a world gone mad for connectivity, our imposed separation initially felt unnatural to me, and at times, unnerving. But I also buzzed with excitement for Beth. It’s a rare thing, particularly in your Medicare years, to be given the chance to test your mettle. Or frankly, even to be noticed. Not knowing anything about what would happen next filled her with a sense of freedom and possibility. This was not the moment to pull back. This was the time to lean in. For both of us.

Beth soon discovered she was headed to the East Coast. Upon arriving at Raleigh-Durham, she was met at baggage claim by a team of assistants and whisked away to a nearby hotel. Not knowing how best to prepare for her upcoming challenge, she ordered a cheeseburger from room service and went to bed early. Her adventure was about to begin.

The specifics of her endurance test were revealed the next morning. Each contestant would be placed in a room with only a bed and television. Each would be given a small bag of toiletries. Only a change of underwear and prescription medications could supplement this meager supply. The last person to leave their self-imposed exile would be declared the winner.

At first blush, the parameters seemed reasonable. It didn’t hurt that a heap of prize money awaited the most tenacious. But it wasn’t long before participants began to wither. As the saying goes, “The devil is in the details.”

The “rooms” given to each competitor were actually 10-by-10-foot plexiglass cubes, laid out in rows of ten, each cell assigned according to the age of the participant, 1 to 100. (The youngest and oldest were allowed to bring caretakers.) The televisions were not actually connected, but instead used for challenges offered as part of the competition. And if that weren’t enough, participants quickly learned a portable toilet would be wheeled into their square when needed, with no more than a thin drape for privacy.

The only distraction from this void of decorum and boredom? A pile of 500,000 one-dollar bills thrown in a heap at one end of the grid of transparent boxes.

Each contestant was issued a bright red sweatsuit with their age emblazoned across the back and then confined to their cubes. No further instructions were given.

Almost immediately, the numbers began to dwindle. The parents of the very young tapped out first. An additional gaggle was cut after losing the first challenge. As for Beth, she bided her time as she most often does, in conversation. She quickly made friends with her closest neighbors, “80,” “60,” and “69.” She transformed her deodorant stick into a marker, scrawling inspirational messages and competition tallies onto the plexiglass walls of her cube. And like everyone else, she slept, she watched and she waited.

On day four, with just 38 competitors remaining, Beth made the difficult decision to leave her cube. By that point, she knew endurance alone would not result in a win. She watched as many of her peers were voted out by other competitors, largely based on their perceived popularity. The rules were constantly changing and no clear path to victory was apparent. But mostly, she remembered her primary motivation.

Beth leaves her cubicle and the competition. (Courtesy Anne Gardner)
Beth leaves her cubicle and the competition. (Courtesy Anne Gardner)

Before the event started, Beth had written the number 38 on both of her wrists, an homage to our grandson’s football jersey number. Currently in treatment for brain cancer, his has been a tough road of late. Seeing his number every day motivated Beth to fight.

But now, with the chances of her winning feeling unlikely, she decided she, too, would proudly don his number, exiting as competitor number 38.

MrBeast’s 1-100 endurance challenge was the first-ever of its kind. By pitting generation against generation, the competition highlighted the strengths and frailties of every age on the spectrum. 100 storylines. 100 strategies.

Who eventually emerged victorious? You’ll have to watch to find out.

Follow Cognoscenti on Facebook and Instagram.


Anne Gardner Cognoscenti contributor
Anne Gardner is an Episcopal minister and author of "And So I Walked: Reflections on Chance, Choice, and the Camino de Santiago."



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