Challenge Fan Friday: Paula Meronek, the perfect partner
As time passes, the idea that Paula was carried to her two Challenge victories, on Rivals and Rivals 2, remains consistent. Yes, she was lucky enough to be partnered with two of the three greatest female competitors in Challenge history (Evelyn and Emily). Yes, she was not on their level. At the same time, in order to win, especially in pair Challenges like Rivals, the members of a partnership have to complement another. Once you remove the absolute top tier alpha-females, Paula is one of the girls you want most as your partner, especially when running a final.
One of the most underappreciated parts of Rivals 2 is that Paula won her and Emily the final. After the first two portions of the final, they were trailing Cooke and Cara Maria by a solid 10–20 minutes. Paula completely demolished the bizarre buffet, and gave them the lead they would maintain until their eventual victory. The same thing happened during the Rivals 1. Her and Evelyn maintained the lead for most of the final, until Cara/Laurel’s cardio kicked in and they passed them right before the eating portion. Cara and Laurel’s chances died there, Paula devoured the steak and from there, their victory was in the bag.
In those finals, Paula showed why she is the perfect partner — a girl around 5'6 (not too short), with better cardio than most guys, a good swimmer, with an iron stomach, and capable when it comes to puzzles — great support for a strong physical player. A great competitor doesn’t only operate on one level. She was a great competitor because she could do multiple things. Maybe she wasn’t the best at eliminations, but she also never lost to anyone terrible (Aneesa twice, Evelyn, and Emily twice).
Some of Paula’s best moments have come during her losses. When competing on Fresh Meat 2, she and her partner (Jeff) faced Evelyn and Luke in Exile. Jeff viewed himself as a premiere athlete — trying out for the Navy Seals. When they hit exile, you might have thought Paula was an Olympian, and that Jeff a couch potato. She pushed him the whole way through, only to end up losing. On Exes 1, Paula finished in 5th place with Dunbar as her partner — Dunbar is a terrible competitor. In Gauntlet 3, the veterans recognized Paula as their second best female player (after Evelyn), and in Inferno 3, Paula ended up being so good that Susie was forced to throw in her friend, Colie, before she could throw in Paula.
Paula was never considered an elite player during her challenge career. However, she showed she was far better than people expected. Yes, she lost her first seven Challenges, but so did Sarah Rice, Cara Maria Sorbello, and Brad Fiorenza. Hell, CT didn’t win until his 9th Challenge, and many consider him the greatest competitor in Challenge history. The “loser” narrative followed Paula for way too long. Bringing down her Challenge wins is futile, because at the end of the day, she WON.
The good and the bad. Paula didn’t always have the brightest moments — hooking up and dating Dunbar wasn’t a great idea. Expecting players to keep their day one promises is a classic rookie mistake (one she made a few times during her first seven challenges). Worse is being heartbroken after these promises are broken (can’t call yourself a veteran and be disappointed when someone breaks a promise). Paula’s tears were annoying 90% of the time. EXCEPT when she cried her way to a final by getting Marlon/Jordan to vote in Camila/Jemmye, even after Paula/Emily voted them into elimination all season — that’s what being a veteran is.
About six months ago, I watched Real World: Key West for the first time. I had only previously read about Paula’s anorexic past, but actually watching her on the show, struggling to eat a whole meal was heartbreaking — she thought if she ate a slice of pizza, then she would balloon. Paula was constantly knocked out at bars and getting into it with Johnny. In retrospect, it’s inspiring how far Paula has come by the end of Rivals 2.
In Paula’s final Challenge moment — her victory speech after Rivals 2 — she spoke about how she viewed herself as “not good at shit”. Her first win was something that she had dreamed of, something she was always striving for. One win could be luck, two wins is legitimate. Getting that win also freed Paula up. She had done 10/12 seasons in a row non-stop, reality television had become her life. The win allowed her to walk away on top, and finally move on to bigger and better things.
Today, Paula is a proud mom who stays in shape and, from what it looks like from the outside, loves her life and herself. When asked if she’d do another Challenge, her answer is always no. Not because she can’t compete, but because with the life she has now, there’s nothing better than finally living outside of a camera lens. If she ever decided to come back, we’d welcome her with open arms. However, for now, the final chapter of her Challenge career has a happy ending.