Staying within the limits of his comfort zone is not Jeff Jenkins’ style – his motto, after all, is “life begins where your comfort zone ends.”
The Texas-based travel journalist is the host of National Geographic’s new show “Never Say Never with Jeff Jenkins,” and he’s more likely to find himself in a sumo ring in Japan, swimming with sharks in Mexico or dancing with penguins in Patagonia.
Jenkins spoke with the Texas Standard on how he got bit by the travel bug, what it means being a plus-size traveler and what places and companies can do to make traveling inclusive for everyone.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: It’s incredible what you’re doing with this new show. How did you get into this travel journalism bit?
Jeff Jenkins: I used to be a high school choir teacher, and I actually taught at Manor High School; I did that for nine years, realized I didn’t want to do that. And I got into entrepreneurship and I asked myself the question, like, what do I truly want to do? If money wasn’t an option, if whatever I was to dream up was to actually happen for me, like, what would you do?
And I was like, I want to travel the world, help people and get paid to do it. And that’s what took me down this journey of content creation and becoming a journalist in the travel space. And then I realized that nobody was talking about like being plus-size and traveling around the world, and so I wanted to be that representation.
You are a poster person for “follow your dreams.” I mean, really, all that advice over the years – “follow your heart; go with what it is that you really want to do” – you made it happen.
Yeah, I’m not surprised, but I am surprised. And like, now I tell people, “yeah, I’m drinking the Kool-Aid.” It’s one of those things of – it sounds woo-woo in a sense – but like literally committing to what you wrote down or you dreamed up. Because I promise you, as a kid, I had really big dreams.
And then I think just as life started going on or adults always was like, “Nah, let’s be more realistic. Let’s just find a job that you can do and work for somebody just to have that security.” And if I just stepped out, which I started doing, and started dreaming again and gave myself permission to dream, it was really easy to commit to those dreams.
One of your earliest episodes, wasn’t it in Japan, sumo wrestling? What was that like?
Oh, man, it was incredible. Japan is my favorite country to visit. So to be back there, it was like very full circle. And to be able to do a lot of martial arts stuff that I never even thought to do – to be able to even get in a ring with a sumo wrestler who was a former world champion – it was definitely daunting and scary and a lot of stuff, but it was a lot of fun.
You have a different take on the whole travel genre. You really throw yourself into this personally. Why do you want to sort of put yourself there?
I want to redefine what travel looks like. I want people that look like me – plus-size people, people of color, people who just never thought about traveling – to just get out there and travel. And even in that New Zealand episode, there was a really cool moment when my guide kept saying to me, “There’s no dignity in caving.” So he was like, if you have to get on your knees, if it looks ugly when you’re doing it is totally fine because this is what caving is.
I think that authenticity is what comes out in this show. I think your motto – correct me if I’m wrong here – is “life begins where your comfort zone ends.”
Sure is. And that was one of the first mottos I got to hear when I went to Japan for the first time. It was my first international trip, first time getting on an airplane at 20 years old when I was at college at Florida.
And so for me, I’m thinking of it in the same way as traveling. Like you don’t have to look a certain way to travel and enjoy yourself.
Can I ask you about that? You mentioned a couple of times you’re a plus-size traveler, and you’ve said there are other considerations that you just have to take into account when you’re traveling – like what?
Size restrictions, weight limits – those are two of the main ones. And then it’s just like more so just the industry hasn’t evolved, in a way, because one thing I feel like the show is teaching people is that if you make some modifications, small modifications in a safe way, you are now able to allow other people or a marginalized group of people to be able to do something.
And always go from the dollars and cents, like it actually makes sense for you, no pun intended, to make these modifications so that you can have more people and more business.
What kind of modifications, you mean?
So, like harnesses: You can buy larger harnesses, and a lot of brands don’t even think to do that. Extended sizes on wet suits – I didn’t even know that there were wetsuits in my size. There are wet suits in my size, but brands or these different excursions don’t actually include it; they always stop at a certain size. And so to be able to just have extra sizes now will allow more people to be able to do and enjoy those experiences.
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You know, I would think that at some level, one of the big obstacles could be, you know, yourself, if you’ll pardon me saying, because like, for instance, you have an idea of how you present yourself, then you have that complicated by, you know, television. You’re getting into a sumo ring and you decide to take the shirt off, right? And I know that there are a lot of people who’d be really hesitant to do that, but you’re going to live this experience.
Yeah. And so for me, I probably wouldn’t have done it if I wasn’t doing it for my mission. But yeah, I really do think that … there’s just a lack of representation. And so I always tell people, representation really does matter, because when people see themselves represented, they’ll get out there and do it.
And so for me, I get to be that representation to a lot of people. Now they’re like, “Oh, I could go do that. Oh, yeah, I can see me out there because I see somebody that looks like me doing it as well.”
You have a favorite moment so far?
You know, one, I love my crew. My crew are just dynamic, from the film producers to the PAs to the editors. I just really, really enjoyed everybody.
But one of my favorite times shooting was when we were in Vietnam, and I felt like I got to be Anthony Bourdain. We did a whole street food experience and got to ride around on motorbikes around the city; we’re zipping and dodging through the traffic. So that was just an epic time. And like, I even felt like my crew were all enjoying themselves as well.
Okay, that’s a fun part. Is there anything so far that you wouldn’t do again?
Oh, yeah, there’s a lot of stuff, but one in particular is like, I don’t see myself ever crossing another suspension bridge over a mile in the sky with planks in the thing that were slippery – like, I could just slip. Although I was harnessed up and everything, it’s still like, no, I’m good. This is something I did once and I don’t have to do it again, you know?
You get a lot of praise for this show. I was looking at Rotten Tomatoes, and the score is pretty impressive, man. Are you surprised by all the success?
Yes, and, well, not yes – to the level, yes, I’m surprised. To get a 98% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s like incredible; 9.6 on IMDB. But to see the impact it has been for multiple generations – so I feel like this is a multi-generational show – people are taking videos of like, “my child can never sit with me and watch a show, and they’re glued to the TV, and they’re entertained just as much as I’m entertained.” So it’s been beautiful to hear. It’s like, “this is a show I didn’t know I needed” – and that’s what I hear constantly.
“Never Say Never with Jeff Jenkins” is available to stream on Hulu and Disney+ and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. CT on the National Geographic channel.
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