Kitty O’Neill had a sense early on that her son was ready for bigger challenges, bigger opportunities, than those he was getting as a boy in the tiny town of Jefferson.
So O’Neill allowed her son — James Davis — to move to Las Vegas with a friend’s family when he was just 16 years old. He had a band, he had stage presence, and he had confidence beyond his years.
“It was nerve-wracking for me, but he just needed something bigger than Maine,” said O’Neill, who works as a speech pathologist in Bath schools. “He was just the type of kid who always knew what to do. He just got things. He probably could have lived on his own when he was 7.”
Davis has continued looking for bigger challenges, bigger opportunities, and bigger stages. In Las Vegas he first became a model, then one of the famed Chippendales dancers, going shirtless to entertain women around the world.
Now his thirst for bigger stages and his strong sense of self-reliance have helped him reach the finals of the CBS globe-trotting reality show “The Amazing Race,” which will air Sunday at 8 p.m.
He and his teammate on the show — fellow Chippendales dancer Jaymes Vaughan — will be seen vying with three other teams for the $1 million prize. Though he’s spent much of his life in glitzy Las Vegas, Davis probably will stick close to his Maine roots if he and his teammate win all that loot Sunday night, his mother thinks.
“He’s been pretty tight-lipped about it, but he’s pretty sensible when it comes to money,” O’Neill said. “I think he’d try to do something important with it, and certainly wouldn’t squander it.”
Davis, 27, has been seen on “The Amazing Race” this fall, traveling more than 25,000 miles through nine countries on three continents. At each destination, the teams are given challenges to accomplish, and those who don’t do well in the challenges face elimination. The challenges Davis and his competitors were seen facing this fall included rappelling down 10 stories in Los Angeles, frying an egg on their heads in Indonesia and catching rats in Bangladesh. The season began with 11 teams competing against each other.
Davis’ family members say they have no idea how he did on the show — he’s required to keep quiet about the results and CBS isn’t letting him give interviews until Monday — so watching him weekly this fall on TV has provided some nail-biting moments. In the first episode, Davis and his teammate finished second-to-last and had to run at top speed past another team to avoid being last.
In Bangladesh, Davis was seen sweating profusely as he agonized about his efforts to replicate some bamboo pieces for one challenge.
“He’s always been very adept at handling himself, so it’s not surprising to me that he got past (the challenges) and has made it this far,” said his brother, John Davis, 29, of Bath. “He’s always been athletic, and he’s never had stage fright, even at the age when most kids do.
The “Amazing Race” episodes were filmed earlier this year, so O’Neill has seen her son since and knows he came through his world travel just fine. Still, she said watching the episodes in which he looks tired and dehydrated has been tough.
“He’s a big guy and he’s used to consuming a lot more calories than he probably did (while on the show), O’Neill said. “You can see the exhaustion.”
Growing up in Jefferson, near Waldoboro, Davis went to Jefferson schools and then to Erskine Academy in China for some of his high school years. John Davis said he and his brother got into weight lifting in high school, a hobby Davis stuck with, as evidenced by the sculpted upper body he displays as a Chippendale.
John Davis said his brother’s biggest passion is music and always has been. He’s had his own bands since he was in middle school in Maine, and now sings and plays bass in a metal band called My Name Engraved.
“It’s a really a passion for them. They don’t get paid much at all, and they end up spending quite a bit to do it,” John Davis said of his brother and his band.
When Davis first went to Las Vegas, he continued his high school education and graduated with honors, his mother said. While in high school, he got an internship with a bank and was eventually offered a full-time job there.
He declined it.
“He told me he just couldn’t imagine spending 30 years in a cubicle, O’Neill said.
In Las Vegas, he started modeling, and that led to an audition with the Chippendales dancers, known for their bare chests and bow ties and for being a staple at millions of bachelorette parties. The Chippendales job — which Davis has had since 2007 — surprised his mother.
“When he had to do square dancing as part of gym in eighth grade, he told me he’d rather leave school,” O’Neill said. However, he took a crash course with a dance instructor and went off to the (Chippendales) audition.
O’Neill said the routines her son does are “not offensive,” but there are some moves other dancers do that she hopes her son won’t have to do — in front of her, anyway.
When he first joined Chippendales, Davis toured the world, including stops in Latvia and Switzerland, before settling in to work in Las Vegas.
So will his globe-trotting for Chippendales help him in any way Sunday night?
Well, CBS publicists say the two-hour finale Sunday will begin with four teams racing through France and then New York City. In New York they’ll face a “terrifying Houdini-inspired roadblock,” the publicists say, but they won’t give more details.
If that roadblock is anything like Houdini’s famous water escape, Davis might be well suited for it.
After all, as a dancer, he’s used to moving his body in ways most of us probably can’t; and as a Chippendale, he’s pretty comfortable with his shirt off.