The Blue Ridge’s Biggest Badass Is a Ballroom Dancer
Anthony Coppage Defies the odds—and stereotypes. Brawny and muscular, covered in tattoos, Coppage has worked for years in elite security providing executive protection. However, he gave it all up for his nine-year-old daughter, and he now works as a ballroom dancer near Waynesville, N.C.
Anthony Coppage was also Southern Appalachia’s first and only contestant in Naked and Afraid, a survival reality show on The Discovery Channel. Participants are paired up and sent into the wilderness to survive for 21 days completely naked. They must forage or hunt for their food, construct shelters, build fires, and avoid deadly predators.
Anthony Coppage first appeared in Season 8, where he was dropped on a Brazilian island. After four days, Coppage became so dehydrated that he was medically evacuated. But he was given a shot at redemption this year in Season 15, which took place in the South African desert.
Even though Coppage has decades of bushcraft skills and experience, he says that the most important part of survival is managing your mind. Anthony Coppage shares with BRO his mental approach, previous mistakes, and what it’s like to strip naked on camera.
BRO: Why did you choose to live in Western North Carolina?
AC: I had been working security contracting in Vegas, where everyone is the worst version of themselves. I was throwing people out of clubs, rescuing prostitutes, fighting sex traffickers. Then my daughter was born. Daughters wreck you. They steal your heart. I quickly decided that I was not raising her in Vegas. So I opened a map and looked for places where there were forests and mountains. Site unseen, I packed up my RV and drove across the country to Waynesville, N.C. My daughter and I lived in an RV park by a creek for several months while I figured things out.
BRO: How did you become a ballroom dancer?
AC: Working security, I had done everything from executive protection to anti-piracy. There was a lot of violence. I have broken my ribs and my nose several times. Thankfully, I have also been able to save a few lives along the way. But all that started to weigh heavily on me. I started seeing everyone as threats or victims. I built barriers around myself and cut off friends and relationships.
I had to make a change. I went all in on ballroom dancing, and eventually I ended up competing professionally. When I moved to Western North Carolina, I opened a ballroom dance studio — American Ballroom Company. Ballroom dancing instantly breaks down barriers and puts you in contact with people right away. You get to hold someone in your arms. When I am dancing, I am completely in the moment.
BRO: How did you apply to Naked and Afraid?
AC: I had never watched the show, but I had done a lot of search and rescue, rock climbing, and mountaineering. The show reached out to one of my colleagues and asked if I might be interested. I didn’t think I would do well. I felt like I had used up all of my luck in this life staying alive while working security. I applied, but I treated it as kind of a joke.
But then I got a call asking, ‘Can you pack up and go in four weeks?’ All I knew was Brazil. I trained hard for my first appearance, and I expected the Brazilian Amazon. After a month, I was jungle-trained. Then they dropped me on an island.
BRO: What did you do differently in preparing for your second appearance?
AC: In Brazil, I pushed it too hard and too quickly. I was going as hard as I could searching for food, and I overdid it. I ended up completely dehydrated on day four. I didn’t want to tap out. I wanted to set a good example for my daughter. I wanted to show her how to overcome adversity. But I had become so dehydrated that the medics couldn’t even get an IV in my collapsing veins.
After that experience, I was really disappointed. I rarely talked about it. To feel like I failed at something just tore me up. Worst of all was the idea that my daughter would see this.
I waited five years for a shot at redemption. Finally, this year, I got another call, and a few weeks later, I was on a flight to South Africa. This time, I didn’t train at all, other than walking around barefoot to build calluses on my feet. Most of survival success is mental, I’ve learned. You need some basic skills, but mostly it’s a mental game.
BRO: Did you gain weight ahead of time?
AC: I put on a lot of weight. For a month before, I ate peanut butter and avocados—and also ice cream and junk food. It’s garbage weight that burns off quickly, especially for me. The more muscle you carry, the more energy expenditure you have.
BRO: What was it like to be naked in front of the camera and other people?
AC: The first five minutes are the weirdest. The camera crew, the production assistants—are they staring at me? I had to strip down and then have a normal conversation as I was being filmed. But the awkwardness goes away shockingly quick.
BRO: At age 51, you are one of the older participants. Was that a factor at all?
AC: Age is just a number. People don’t start dying until they stop living. A lot of people just exist. They don’t really live.
BRO: Do you stay in touch with any of the other participants?
AC: We talk often—probably every few days. Even though it was only 21 days, we were together 24 hours a day. It was intense, and it brought us closer than most people ever get to experience.
BRO: Were there any moments in your second appearance when you thought about quitting?
AC: This was my personal trophy: I can say 100% that I never once doubted myself. It’s what I am most proud of. I was not going to let my daughter down.
I saw others go dark. When they start focusing on the pain, they tend to keep sliding down the dark tunnel. For this second time, my focus was on managing my head.
BRO: Does your Naked and Afraid experience stick with you when you return home, or does it fade after a while?
AC: I think it stains your soul. I don’t think about it every day, but I know it’s always there. Whatever else may come and go, redemption is permanent. Probably the best part is my daughter’s reaction. She now says, “Let’s do the Naked and Afraid challenge. I want to be partnered with you. But let’s bring sleeping bags. And snacks.”
Cover Photo courtesy of Anthony Coppage