“What makes me unique,” says Robert “RobRob” Hakel in his audition video for the reality show Solitary 3.0, “is that I’m a 38-year-old white software developer who likes rap music.” He’s either being modest or ironic, since what’s actually unique about the Maple Grove resident is that he became such a fan of Solitary in its first two seasons that he built his own solitary confinement pod to mimic those used in the show, subjected himself to all the endurance tests the actual contestants were subjected to, and successfully petitioned the Fox Reality Channel to include him as a contestant in the third season.
We don’t know—and Hakel isn’t allowed to say—what happens beyond the season’s first episode, but he is not one of the two contestants eliminated in that episode, which will air on January 17. The premise of the show is that each contestant is placed in an octagonal solitary-confinement pod, where a supposed computer named Val monitors them and subjects them to various challenges; the winner is the last contestant to crack and beg for release. In the first episode of the third season, contestants are forced to sit for grueling hours on bicycle seats and bowling balls, and compete to run laps around their pods. Hakel’s training pays off immediately, as he drops his trousers for the jogging test. “I’m in my underwear to keep cool, so I wouldn’t be weighed down by my jeans,” he explains to Val. The computer sniggers sarcastically, but in fact Hakel is among the top finishers in that challenge.
In the faux-epic arena of reality TV—“I wanted to show everyone the power of the human spirit,” moans one of the first contestants to fail out—Hakel is a true gladiator. In a phone conversation monitored for security purposes by a Fox representative, he talked about his life before, during, and after his Solitary adventure.
Among all the reality shows you could have latched onto, why Solitary?
It’s the best reality show I’ve seen. I don’t really like a lot of reality shows, but I became obsessed with Solitary. I like the idea of testing your own limits—there are no alliances, no voting out. I’ve tested myself my whole life—staying up all night at church camp, seeing how long I can go without eating, without watching TV.
Does your homemade pod still exist? What did your friends and family think when you built it?
I did build my own pod, in my living room, which I used for training. I tested how long I could stay in it. I practiced sleeping on the floor, so it wouldn’t be so wearing when I did it on the show. My friends and family think it’s cool.
Did your training prepare you for the actual experience of being on the show?
It didn’t prepare me as much as I thought it was going to. I purposely made my pod about half the size of the show’s pods, so when I entered an actual pod it would feel huge. In past seasons they explained that they made the pods octagonal so the space wouldn’t feel familiar, but for me it was just like sitting in my living room. I practiced the things the contestants did in previous seasons, but I wasn’t prepared for the 24/7 experience—not seeing the sun, not having a computer or the Internet or text messaging. When I was on the show I felt my phone vibrating in my pocket the whole time, and I didn’t even have it with me. I practiced estimating time, which was a challenge they posed in one of the first seasons, and practiced standing on the edges of things like barbells. I laid across a bed of barbells, like the bed of nails people on the show had to lay on. On one of the episodes people had to hold something spicy in their mouths, so I used Dave’s Insanity Sauce—though I overdid it with that one, and was throwing up all over. I let friends shock me with a stun gun.
The audition video that won Hakel a spot on Solitary 3.0
So how do you feel about being presented to the nation as that guy who built his own solitary confinement pod?
Yeah…I don’t know. I’ve been really excited since the commercials have started airing. I wonder whether I’m going to be portrayed as “that crazy guy” or “the Solitary expert.” I haven’t seen any episodes—just the commercials. I’ve been pausing every frame of the commercials to see what they show.
It must be tough to keep from telling everyone how the show turned out. What’s the nature of your agreement with the network? What are you allowed to say, and what aren’t you?
I can talk about the show and tell people when it’s going to premiere. I can talk about the first episode, the twist that at first someone was in the pod with me. That was really shocking—I didn’t expect that. I was afraid I was going to spend the whole time with that other person. I can talk about the prize of $50,000 for the winner, though obviously I can’t say whether I won. My whole family wants to know…they’re always trying to look me in the eyes and guess. It’s hard not talking about it, but it’s also fun to make them wait and see.
Do you watch reality TV any differently now that you’ve actually been in a reality show?
Well, since the Solitary 3.0 commercials started airing, I’ve been watching the Fox Reality Channel 24/7. I watch shows I don’t even like, just so I can see the commercials. I watched every episode in the first two seasons hundreds of times, but now I realize there were still things I missed. That background music you hear on the show? They actually play that in the pods. When you wake up, they’ll play a song over and over and over. When you’re going to compete, they play pump-up music over and over and over.
So now that you’ve done the Solitary thing, what’s your next project going to be?
Before I went on Solitary, I was a workaholic. My whole life was about working. I’d try to break my personal records for number of hours worked in a week—one week I worked 129 hours. Now, I’m more patient. After I got back from being on the show, I didn’t work for over four months. I just really enjoyed having time with my family. I went up to Duluth and spent time with my parents. Me and my dad drove out to Ohio and stayed with family, went to plays and the symphony. I caught up with everyone I’ve neglected for years. I work on the computer, and it’s so easy to distract yourself—you just get on the Internet and you don’t have to think about life. But I still test myself—for my birthday present, I just let myself have heat for the first time this winter. I still like testing myself, seeing what my tolerance is. I found a new pepper that has a million Scoville units. I tested myself to see how many shots of tequila I could take before passing out.
How many was it?
I took 13 shots in an hour before I passed out—of course, they’d never let you drink on the show. I still hear Val talking to me though, even now that I’m home. I keep hearing that click that means she’s about to speak to me. When is that going to stop?