‘It was surreal’: Woman represents Utah in Netflix reality tv show ‘Squid Game: The Challenge’

Dec 6, 2023, 4:08 PM | Updated: Dec 7, 2023, 2:39 pm

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SALT LAKE CITY — Erin Goulding got to represent Utah on a global scale when she was cast in Netflix’s reality TV show, “Squid Game: The Challenge.”

The original Netflix sensation, “Squid Game,” was released on Netflix in September 2021. The new reality show finale will be released Wednesday night.

“Squid Game is a fictional show. It was Korean originally so – fully in Korean, but they did an English dub. It was a Netflix Original,” Goulding said. “In the original show, the characters are basically a bunch of people who are down on their luck, basically running out of money, either from like medical bills or like gambling problems, stuff like that. They are essentially kidnapped and brought into this game, where they are forced to play children’s games as adults, but in the fictional version of the show, if you lose the game, you are killed.”

Goulding explained how the show was a dystopian commentary on capitalism and what people are willing to do for money when they’re desperate.

“So the new version ‘Squid Game: The Challenge,’ is essentially a reality version of that, but nobody gets murdered,” Goulding said.

The application process

Goulding saw the application and decided to apply on a whim.

Erin Goulding and her husband, Matt Goulding. (Erin Goulding)

“I saw a link on Twitter, I think, way long ago last year. To apply you had to fill out some questions on a questionnaire and film a 30-second video of yourself, essentially saying, ‘This would be my strategy to win, please cast me,'” Goulding said. “The whole process for getting cast took about six months.”

Goulding submitted the video and waited several months before she heard anything.

“I thought nothing was gonna happen and suddenly I got a call from a casting director, who was like, ‘I’m a casting director from Squid Game,’ and I immediately googled the phone number and his name because I thought I was getting punked like I thought it was a scam. But it was real,” Goulding said.

But she wasn’t done with the application process yet. She had a Zoom audition with another casting director that was sent to Netflix executives to review. Then she had to do a mental health evaluation with their psychiatrists to make sure she was in a good place and not a danger to herself or others.

“And all of this had like months in between. So it was very strange … I would hear, ‘We’re gonna have you do an audition,’ and then I would do the audition and then I would go like three months of just like nothing. I was like, ‘OK, I guess I’m not making it,’ and then they’d be like, ‘Great news. We’re moving you to the next round of casting,'” Goulding said.

One day, Goulding got the call. She was in.

“When they told me I was going to be on the show, it was like surreal,” she said. “I remember later my reaction felt kind of underwhelming … and then like, five hours later I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ like, then I actually lost it.”

The prize itself would be worth the effort, $4.56 million would go to the winner of the challenges.

“I realized this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing and I don’t know that there’s ever going to be a time in anyone’s life that’s like, perfect to do anything,” she said. “So I figured, … I might as well try and win $4 million. What’s the harm in taking two weeks to do this crazy once-in-a-lifetime thing?”

The whole process from applying to filming to the show premiering spanned over a year and a half.

“I think I applied in May 2022 and I found out that I was cast in December of 2022. So we filmed in January of 2023. And then the show didn’t come out until November of 2023. So lots of gaps in there,” Goulding said.

Contestants poured in from all over the world.

Erin Goulding in “Squid Game: The Challenge.” (Erin Goulding)

“The only requirement to apply for the show was that you had to be at least 21 and speak English. It filmed in London and there were contestants from all over the world. I was told that 450,000 people applied. There were 456 cast members,” Goulding said.

But, only two from Utah.

“So it’s just wild, so many people from different backgrounds and I felt very lucky to be the only person from Utah,” Goulding said. “People kept saying to me, Utah, I haven’t met anybody here from Utah. So, like, I was like, I’m special.”

Behind the scenes

One of the hardest parts was not being able to talk about her experience until the show aired.

“It was hard to not talk about it,” Goulding said. “We had so many things we could say. Essentially, we were told that we could not speak about the show until it came out … I was not allowed to post about the show until the day it was released. So the morning it came out I was like, ‘I’m on a reality show.'”

Goulding was allowed to tell her emergency contacts what the show was, and where she was filming, but other than that she was not allowed to talk about her experience. Throughout the challenge, contestants were not allowed to have any contact with the outside world.

In addition, all the contestants had to quarantine for a few days in a hotel and take COVID-19 tests before they could begin filming.

“Everything on reality TV takes at least 20 times as long as the viewer is thinking. So every single clip that you see, like you can just imagine that there were probably several hours of like waiting, organizing, taking lunch breaks in between the shots.” Goulding said. “This was the biggest cast of a reality show ever and so even with the small logistical things like people’s microphones and outfits, took hours.”

Each of the 456 cast members were given a number, a tracksuit, and a microphone.

“I was number six,” Goulding said.

Erin Goulding, contestant number 6 in "Squid Game: The Challenge" (Erin Goulding) Erin Goulding, contestant number 6 in "Squid Game: The Challenge" (Erin Goulding) Erin Goulding, contestant number 6 in "Squid Game: The Challenge" (Erin Goulding)

The dorm set was truly as seen in the show with five stacked beds from floor to ceiling with stairs to access each bed.

“The big bunk bed set, that was all real and we did sleep there,” Goulding said. “It’s not like we were spending the day there and going back to a hotel, it was like we all claimed our beds and you would sleep there and all the bathrooms were like communal unisex bathrooms, with one side that was for showers and one side that was for toilets and sinks.”

The environment was not an easy one. Contestants had no outside contact and none of the comforts of home.

“We also had no idea what time it was at any given time, no sunlight, and you’re just talking to strangers all day,” Goulding said. “It can be really, really mentally exhausting. I had to take a lot of breaks to like, sit away from everybody, kind of re-center myself, be like, ‘I’m here to play a game. Ultimately, there’s no bearing on whether or not I’m a good person, whether I win or lose, you know, and all I can do is try my best.'”

The challenges

Competitors were bussed from London to the set which Goulding said was some type of airplane hangar warehouse.

“Our first game was red light green light, which is the super famous game from the show,” Goulding said. “In the reality show, there’s a five minute timer on the clock and in reality, it took about seven and a half hours.”

Goulding said in the Korean version of red light, green light, when they were given the “red light” or the song ended they were expected to hold completely still, the timer would be turned off as producers dealt with some logistics. But during that time, they could still be eliminated.

“We all had to stay completely still, for they told us up to 15 minutes at a time,” Goulding said.

Goulding survived the round and moved on to the next challenge.

“I participated in two challenges. So red light green light was the first one.  The second game that I competed in — which, spoiler alert, I got eliminated in game two — is called Dalgona, which is a Korean game,” Goulding said.

The game involves round pieces of honeycomb candy with different shapes stamped into it. The contestant then has to carve the shape with a needle without breaking the candy.

“There were four shape options,” she said. “So there’s a circle a triangle, both super easy, a star, which is a little bit more hard, and then an umbrella, which is extremely difficult. If you watch the show, you’ll see the process.”

Goulding was given the umbrella. She did not make it through the challenge.

“We all were equipped with squib packs … it’s essentially a vest that goes under your clothes so you can’t see it and it had an ink canister that’s pressurized,” Goulding said. “They could remote control the ink canister to explode so when I got eliminated I literally had just like a pack of ink explode on my chest.”

She said it didn’t hurt, but was a little bit scary. The ink appears almost like a gunshot wound. “It kind of sounds like you’re cracking open like a soda can really loud because it’s pressurized air,” she said. “And then it was like this cold wet ink just like all over and when my squib exploded, it shot like all the way up my face. I had like ink in my mouth and I had to like clean off my glasses. After our squibs exploded, we were instructed to lie down and pretend to be dead, and then over the intercom, the producers would announce your player number so when I was eliminated, they said, ‘Player six eliminated.’ Then I laid in the dirt and pretended to be dead. Which was bizarre, but really fun.”

The takeaway

Goulding did not end up taking home the $4.5 million, but she did bring home a bunch of new international friends.

“I was a lot more stressed and anxious than I expected I would be. I did cry a few times. A lot of people did … but I also met like some really incredible people that I would never ever have met otherwise,” Goulding said.

She said she has “more compassion” for people on reality shows because after being on camera all the time, it’s easy to get casual about things you say, especially as an extrovert trying to make friends.

“When you watch reality TV, you’ll be like, ‘Why would they say that if they know they’re on TV?’ like you know when people say weird, problematic stuff on reality TV shows,” Goulding said. “There were a few times that I would even say things on camera about another classmate being annoying, or whatever. Then I would say it and I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, wait. I am on camera. I am mic’d up at all times.’ It’s so easy to forget.”

She also said she would do it again.

“I would say it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, but it was a super good testament that I can do really hard things and I can come out of it. I didn’t have to win to learn that. I am kind of a champion, you know, kind of a little bada**. So I don’t regret it at all. And I might do another reality show again, maybe something lower pressure,” Goulding said.

Editor’s note:This article previously stated that Erin Goulding was the only Utah contestant, it has since been corrected. 

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‘It was surreal’: Woman represents Utah in Netflix reality tv show ‘Squid Game: The Challenge’