Journalist Marc Fennell’s whip-smart interviews with celebrities have racked up more than 25 million online views. But recently something else has had him fired up. Literally.
Chillies, and those who competitively eat and breed the world’s hottest, are at the centre of a new five-part audio series written and hosted by Fennell, co-anchor of SBS Viceland’s nightly news show, The Feed. It Burns, out today, is the first-ever Australian Audible Original (content produced by audible.com.au, the local arm of Amazon’s downloadable audiobooks and other spoken content).
Fennell was raised on chillies, but the idea they could incite competition – beyond the “chilli-offs” he’d have with his Singaporean-Indian mum – piqued his interest. The first intentions for the series were a light, “quirky” story about a lesser-known subculture and what attracts people to melt-your-face-off pain. But it turned out to be about much more: body image and attitudes to food.
Early in the piece Fennell tries a chilli that’s hundreds of times hotter than the average jalapeno. “It stings on the way in, it stabs on the way through, and on the way out, well, it burns,” he says in the series.
This brand of chilli eating is “wreathed in pain” and for some people, he discovers, physical pain can be a proxy for emotional pain. His quest to figure this out takes him to the dungeon of a dominatrix (with a masters and a PhD in psychology), a church in North Carolina and the Portland town of a chilli-mad Youtuber who calls himself a “fire-breathing idiot”.
“There’s a psychological transaction that I think I understood [growing up in front of cameras], that you would do things for an audience – real or imagined – that you probably wouldn’t do without that audience,” says Fennell. “But this was just such an unusual way of that transaction manifesting ... I’ve never seen that sort of thing up close.”
The cutthroat race to breed “the hottest, most munted chillis on earth” has been plagued with sledging, cheating accusations and death threats. Fennell traces the larger-than-life players across Australia, the US and the UK to get to the bottom of a years-old mystery: was an Aussie chilli-growing family cheated out of a Guinness World Record?
Fennell doesn’t usually implant himself into a story. But at a chilli-eating competition in Arizona, audio production in full swing, he had a very personal realisation about his past that not even his wife knew about until listening to the series. “It’s certainly the [section] I’m most nervous about,” says Fennell.
When watching people smash their bodies with unbearable hot chillies his initial reaction wasn’t disgust. It was: “Fuck yes! Go you! You are beating your body into submission,” he says. In complete control of their bodies, literally for sport, they stood in stark contrast to his younger self, which he reveals in the series. “Sucking the fun out of eating is exactly where this began for me – standing alone in front of the fridge, as a kid, feeling like I could not stop [eating],” he says.
Fennell overlays the spice-fuelled drama with pockets of sober self-reflection that don't feel misplaced among his characteristically smirk-worthy one-liners. His is a hyper-candid, rarely heard perspective on male body image and food attitudes.
“I’ve been in front of cameras most of my adult life, and it’s terrible, but you do find yourself thinking about how you look on camera,” he says. “The series became an interesting venue within which to address it … I grew up and got better habits. That opened the door for me to start thinking about why food is something that still occupies my brain a lot more than it probably should.”
While Fennell’s notched up years in both national radio (as Triple J’s “That Movie Guy”) and TV, he says, “Audio is definitely the most interesting medium in the world at the moment for tapping into real-life storytelling.
“When I was first researching I really did think it needed to be visual, I thought you needed to see people put themselves through this pain. But in some ways I loved the challenge of creating that theatre of that pain in audio.”
A mental image isn’t hard to conjure when your headphones swell with the frantic splutters and gags of chilli eaters in pain, or the guttural aftermath of Youtuber Ted Barrus’s infamous Carolina Reaper chilli “bong rip”. Heed Fennell’s warning in episode one: “You might want to think twice about eating while listening.”
Listen to It Burns on Audible here.