As countless "Challenge" loyalists can relate, Diem Brown's untimely death hit me hard.
Exactly one year later, I remember that Friday at the MTV offices vividly: I had just wrapped up my morning editorial meeting, and as soon as I got back to my desk, an email popped up with the breaking news report that she had passed away from her third battle with cancer -- just days after she tweeted that her condition was worsening and she needed prayers. I quickly went into overdrive and, trying to hold back my tears, published her obituary.
From there, the remaining work hours continued at a dizzying pace: As her fellow cast members flocked to Twitter to offer their memories and condolences, I gathered the touching tributes into one story. Meanwhile, my co-worker compiled a list of Diem's most triumphant moments on the battlefield for another piece. I helped collect some of her cast photo shots from her eight "Challenge" appearances for our social accounts -- and made sure to select the ones that really captured her undeniable zest for life (an easy assignment). The whole office, all of us feeling incredibly solemn, rallied to screen old seasons and pull her most memorable and sentimental moments (a plethora of options) for a video tribute, which you can see below.
When that difficult day was over, I couldn't help but feel an overwhelming sense of sadness and finally let the tears roll when I got home to my cramped Chelsea studio apartment. As soon as I got comfortable on my couch, I tried to distract myself by watching a previously recorded episode of "Scandal," but that proved to be ineffective. I needed to see Diem -- and scratch the final terrible image of her being in pain out of my head. I pulled out my laptop and watched the clips that were in our MTV articles (from her stunning "Ring Toss" win below to her unique relationship with CT).
Then, an unknown grief came over me -- a feeling I can only compare to the experience I had after Heath Ledger died back in 2008. He was someone in the public eye who I applauded and followed because of his talent (he had me at that "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You" performance in "10 Things I Hate About You") and undeniable charm during interviews. His death on that bitterly cold New York January day was a complete shock to the entire world. But mourning Diem was different.
For starters, and unfortuantely, Diem's passing wasn't unexpected. But it was more than being ready for the inevitably sad news: I felt like we could be friends -- even though we weren't in real life. I greatly respected her candor (even during cutthroat competitions), her compassion (toward others who were also going through medical hardships) and her infectious demeanor. She was so well-liked, by everyone. No matter how terrible and painful things were for her, she was optimistic and full of hope. She was capable of pure poetry about how important it is to live life to the fullest. Talk about enviable personality traits. Like Diem, I also love to dance -- and always wished she would teach me how to properly perform that infamous hair flip without looking like a complete bozo.
While I coincidentally met Diem just once (at a birthday party, shown above, back in December 2013 before I started working at MTV five months later), I felt like I knew her both professionally and personally. I rooted for her -- as a viewer and, later, as an employee of the very network that launched her into the spotlight. As an editor for MTV News, my responsibilities include writing about current and retro MTV programming -- and in this case, covering Diem's third battle with with ovarian cancer, her tragic passing, the mourning period afterward and her brief appearance on "Battle of the Exes 2."
It sort of put me in a unique boat: I was doing my job, but also having an intense reaction to the subject matter as a genuine fan. I consider myself an MTV junkie -- and it gives me a lot of joy to write about people (especially "Real World," "Road Rules" and "Challenge" faves) who I have seen on this network flourishing in their lives off-screen outside of those fancy houses and the clunky Winnebago, respectively. But up until this point, I had never covered someone who was gravely ill and later, someone who died. Diem is a person who I had watched for years -- someone who is only five years older than I am. I greatly wished for her to be healthy and never really dreamed that I would be the one responsible for helping to execute the coverage, at MTV, of her death.
My first introduction to Diem was during her inaugural season, "Fresh Meat." As an avid "RW," "RR" and "Challenge" supporter (ask me about any season and I'll probably be able to rattle off trademark incidents and trivia from the Bunim Murray Productions), I was excited but also skeptical to see the new players enter the fold. But Diem quickly opened up about her heartbreaking secret to her alumni partner Derrick during Episode 3 (seen in the clip below): Soon, she would begin intensive treatments for cancer.
I remember my 20-year-old self watching this during the summer before my senior year of college and feeling stunned. How on Earth could she be sick? She looked totally fine, she was in great shape and she was strong. While her future was unknown -- and she made it clear that she was unsure when she would be able to do anything on a physical level like this again -- she remained committed to competing tirelessly and relishing the time she had during this once-in-a-lifetime Australian adventure. She didn't complain once -- and it was a wake-up call that I should try not to be so negative (it's a terrible fault of mine) because I am fortunate in so many ways. Simply put, I admired her immensely.
I was disappointed when she barely missed out on the final (oh, Tina and Kenny), but even more worried about what was next when she returned home to her reality. I had never known anyone to battle cancer at such a young age -- let alone someone who was so candid about their uphill climb on the small screen. The "Fresh Meat" reunion show confirmed that her prognosis was good, and I was really relieved. "The Duel" came next -- and just like her previous appearance, she touched me: I was amazed by her courage when she removed her wig and became a big puddle of mush (it still gets me) when she and CT shared that unbelievably romantic first kiss. As far as "Challenge" seasons go, and mainly because of Diem, this was truly the crème de la crème for me -- and I'm assuming I'm not in the minority on this topic.
I tuned in for Diem's next few appearances -- "The Gauntlet 3," "The Duel 2" "The Ruins" and "Battle of the Exes" -- but there was a tough development six years after she went into remission: The disease had returned for a second time in June 2012. Like after her first diagnosis, I kept close tabs and wanted to stay informed about her status. From her tremendous bravery documenting her hair loss and posing for that powerful bald photo shoot, I was in awe, again, of her steadfast goal of remaining honest and open about her recovery as a way to inform everyone to be proactive about their health. I certainly took note -- and to this day, I make sure to keep on top of important doctor's appointments. I have Diem, in part, to thank for that.
Next came "Rivals 2" -- and like "The Duel," her return to the competition shortly after completing her treatments. But the very first day (and episode) in the Thailand-based installment spawned a strong emotional reaction for me: Diem's late-night dip in the pool turned into CT encouraging her to shed her "weave" so that he could "see her already." The image of the two embracing in the water, with Diem's short brown locks exposed while both shielded their faces during the intimate moment, was truly beautiful. CT's ability to give her confidence, when she felt uncertain, was incredibly moving. We should all be so fortunate to have a bond like this with someone. Today, watching the clip still makes me teary-eyed.
Fast-forward to shortly after Diem's passing: The premiere of "Battle of the Exes 2" -- which was dedicated to Diem's memory and fellow competitor Ryan Knight -- was imminent. Recapping her history with CT and listening to her as she competed for the gold, plus a mashup of her grooving, were part of the plan to celebrate her life and her final time displaying her incredible will to fight. When she became ill in Panama on "BOTE2" -- and the melancholy last footage as she departed the game with her partner CT aired several months after her death -- we all already knew the outcome. But, as was always the way with Diem, her words were exquisite and her perspective was profound. She was truly comforting all of us, way up in heaven.
“I’m realizing that no matter how organized your ducks are, life can change in two seconds, so you can’t keep on waiting," she said. "If you keep on waiting, it’s gone.”
Thank you, Diem, for impacting my life with your unbelievable spirit. I know I am not alone with all of my personal memories of Diem -- so please share yours in the comment section below.