Skip to main content

Three UVA alumni go big on reality competition shows

In 2022, three UVA alumni played starring roles on reality competition shows: LEGO Masters, Iron Chef and The Amazing Race. Here’s the story behind the ’Hoos who you might have seen on your TV screen.

LEGO Masters
Emily Mohajeri Norris (Col ’94)

In the first episode of Season 3 of Fox’s LEGO Masters, Emily Mohajeri Norris (Col ’94) and her son Liam made a few missteps, not fully delivering on an ambitious Lego design that involved spinning concentric rings. As they geared up for the show’s second challenge—to build a dinosaur-themed piece with an actual ball of fire—Emily counseled some restraint.

“I’m just so proud of Liam having a big idea again,” she told the camera. “But time management is one thing that I bring to the table because that’s the natural mom role.”

The guidance paid off; Emily and Liam won the next two challenges. LEGO Masters, which pits teams of two against one another for a $100,000 grand prize, premiered on Sept. 21 and runs through the end of the year.

Emily Mohajeri Norris (Col ’94) and her son Liam are the first mother-son duo on LEGO Masters.

Tom Griscom/FOX

As half of the hit show’s first mother-son duo, Emily is playing a role she’s very familiar with—proud Lego mom. It began when Liam was a grade schooler and discovered the Lego bricks she’d hidden because they were unsafe for her two younger sons. (She found a safe place for him to build.)

It continued as she coached and mentored his FIRST LEGO League robotics team. And into high school, Emily helped Liam design independent study classes that focused on Lego design in the family’s homeschool. 

But Emily wasn’t much of a Lego builder herself until about three years ago when the show first reached out to her son. At the time, Liam, now a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Arizona, was a minor, and the show had opted not to include minors. But it was decided then that she’d be Liam’s partner if they reached out again. “He said, ‘Well, you know, Mom, you’ve been there by my side all along,’” Emily recalls.

Around the same time, her sons purchased her first Lego set. “I will say LEGO Masters was a gift to me because it kind of allowed me permission to become a Lego builder alongside my son,” Emily says.

The show is still playing out weekly on Wednesdays on Fox, so she’s limited in what she can reveal. But the mom and son have shared some updates on Liam’s Lego-themed YouTube channel, Brixter, and what she can say is that the experience was surreal. 

“It was amazing. Because we watch the show as a family, it felt, on the one hand, familiar, and on the other hand, way bigger than I imagined,” she says. “It was bigger than life.”

Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend
Mason Hereford (Col ’08)

Kristen Kish, co-host of Netflix’s Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend, had just done some field reporting in Iron Chef’s famous Kitchen Stadium to see how Curtis Stone, a reigning Iron Chef, and his competitor Mason Hereford (Col ’08) were faring. 

On Stone’s side was a “seriousness” and “urgency,” she relayed to co-host Alton Brown. “Over on Chef Hereford’s side, they seem a bit more—chill,” Kish said. “That’s because they’ve been drinking,” exclaimed Brown, as the camera panned to Hereford’s sous chefs, Colleen Quarls and Liz Hollinger, toasting with beers.

Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend co-host Kristen Kish and Mason Hereford (Col ’08), who said his goal on the show was to “be playful” with food.

Adam Rose/Netflix

At points, there was a “chill” vibe on his side of the stadium, Hereford says. But cooking on Iron Chef is a nerve-wracking experience, and those beers—and a few more drinks not shown on camera—took the edge off and highlighted their fun-loving attitude. The competition requires chefs to create five dishes within an hour, all based on a theme. Curtis and Hereford’s assignment was street food-inspired dishes with lamb and fire.  
“We knew going in that our options were to be very serious and lose; be very serious and win; or show everyone that we're really partying and having fun,” Hereford says. “And this is a big opportunity for us to not just showcase our skill or talent, but maybe showcase how we carry ourselves and that we want this to be just a really good time.”

This past year has been busy for Hereford, who owns two New Orleans restaurants—Turkey and the Wolf, which Bon Appétit named the best new restaurant of 2017, and Molly’s Rise and Shine, where Quarls and Hollinger work.

His first cookbook, Turkey and the Wolf: Flavor Trippin’ in New Orleans, came out in June, hitting The New York Times Best Sellers list. To promote the book, he made appearances on shows such as Late Night with Seth Meyers, where he made his popular elevated bologna sandwich.

On Iron Chef, his goal with his food, as always, was to be playful. His dishes included a lamb tenderloin walking taco, served in a bag of Fritos on a plate shaped like a hand, and a grilled lamb heart open-faced sandwich served on the back of a toy dinosaur. It wasn’t a win for Hereford. But it’s all good. 

“We accomplished what we wanted to accomplish,” Hereford says. “Whether or not we won or lost now, I don’t think my life would be anything different at all.”

The Amazing Race
Penn Holderness (Col ’96)

In an underground Mail Rail station in London, on the second leg of the 33rd season of the CBS hit The Amazing Race, Penn Holderness (Col ’96) held the next clue to move him and his wife, Kim, forward. But he was stumped.

Though four teams had passed him by, he was certain this challenge was more complicated. Holderness and another contestant kept searching before he realized he had what he needed.

Kim and Penn Holderness
Penn Holderness (Col ’96) and his wife, Kim, won the 33rd season of The Amazing Race, taking home the show’s $1 million grand prize. CBS

Holderness and his wife, YouTube personalities, had prepared for this. They’d trained for grueling physical challenges and watched every previous episode of the show, where pairs compete across the globe, to glean tips and tricks.

But their separate work with a marriage counselor might have been the most helpful. They wrote about communicating as a couple in their 2021 book, Everybody Fights: So Why Not Get Better at It?

“We learned from watching 32 seasons that it’s not really a competition show, it’s a relationship show,” Holderness says. “It’s the people who get along well and don’t try to kill each other who are going to have the best chance to win. So, Kim, in that particular incident, was practicing what she learned in our counseling, which is to give your partner grace.” 

The couple made it through that challenge—and every other—to win the show’s $1 million grand prize. The finale ran in March after the COVID-19 pandemic put filming on hiatus for 18 months. 

In front of the camera is a natural place for the couple. Nine years ago, the one-time TV news reporters released a video about their family’s Christmas pajamas and have racked up millions of fans on Facebook, YouTube and elsewhere with their skits and songs.

On the Amazing Race, however, they could not present edited versions of their lives. “At first, it made us nervous because we edit everything, and we control all of our own content,” Holderness says. “But Kim said something great. She said, ‘If you do something bad, they’re going to use it. Let’s give them as little as possible. And if we did, let’s handle it with humor and grace,’ which is kind of the way we live our lives anyway.” 

Life has returned to normal now. One fall afternoon, Holderness was headed to his teenage daughter’s tennis match, and the couple had more videos to work on. “We’re back to doing what we’ve done before,” he says, “which is just trying to give people a little humor about adulting and parenting.”