Digging Josh

Photo: Dietmar Busse

Josh Bernstein, expert explorer, stands in a second-floor hallway of the Museum of Natural History, looking for elephants. “I’m sorry, I’m not a tour guide,” he says, slightly confused by the two entrances. He studies the floor map for a few more seconds before choosing the door on the right. “I think it’s this way.” He walks quickly into the throng, weaving gracefully between large groups of children in matching T-shirts and petrified remains of ancient reptiles. I’m momentarily blocked by a family of five (“Look, Mom, a caveman penis!”), and finally sidle up to Bernstein, who’s found our first destination and is examining the large elephant herd.

“I’m doing an episode about why they’re killing people,” he says, referring to his new show on the Discovery Channel, Into the Unknown With Josh Bernstein, which premieres Monday. They are doing so because, he explains patiently, humans are encroaching on their territory. Then, before I have a chance to respond, he’s moved on to the installation down the hall. “That’s sort of what rain forests look like,” he says. “Have you been to one?” He says this casually, as if asking if I’ve been to New Jersey. No, I tell him, I haven’t had the pleasure. He bounds along in front of me. “The biodiversity per square mile is off the charts. You can blaze your way through the jungle, then two days later, it doesn’t even look like you’ve been there.”

I had asked the Upper East Side native to take me on a New York adventure, somewhere I didn’t necessarily know existed. He proposed kayaking on the Hackensack River, but it was far too rainy a day, and what I got instead was a trip to the eminently familiar Museum of Natural History. Bernstein is intent on showing me his favorite exhibits. He may not be a tour guide, and he definitely has trouble figuring out the museum map. Still, he’s a veritable Wikipedia of information about the natural world, a compulsive sharer of random factoids. It’s a quality that could be annoying if Bernstein weren’t so damned charming.

Over the past five years or so, networks like the History Channel and Discovery have reconfigured their lineups to introduce shows featuring hosts who blow things up, survive the elements, or work very dangerous jobs. But in 2005, in a stroke of counterprogramming that may not have been appreciated at the time, the History Channel launched Digging for the Truth, starring a refined, handsome, Indiana Jones–like Bernstein. In a way, it was a return to form: a sedate guide walking around dig sites like Pompeii and King Tut’s tomb, calm voice-overs explaining the story behind the ruins, nothing exploding and no one dying. But Bernstein smiled a lot and wore a cute cowboy hat. He looked a little like a charismatic high-school teacher, the kind all the girls hoped would chaperone the prom. He started appearing on morning TV shows, and turned up in a Men’s Vogue profile. He became, surprisingly, a thinking woman’s pinup boy.

Two years after Digging for the Truth became the History Channel’s biggest hit, Bernstein made it onto the short list for People’s 2007 Sexiest Man Alive. And as we pause at the giant sequoia, I notice that it’s hard not to pay attention to Bernstein. “This 300-foot tree was cut in 1891 and was over 1,300 years old,” he explains, as people, mostly mothers, stare. With his suntan, scruff, and very white teeth, he achieves that perfect cable-TV balance between Everyman and Brad Pitt. He also has, as one of my friends describes it, that Big Jewish Face: defined features with an actual nose, not a Hollywood button.

It’s a look that’s attracted an avid female fan base of a certain type. A blog called Jewlicious named Bernstein its inaugural Single Semite of the Month. An appearance last year at the Explorers Club was packed with eligible New York women hoping for a private audience with the hunky TV host. And there are numerous YouTube tributes to Bernstein—slideshows of glamour shots set to romantic songs.

As we stand under the iconic life-size hanging whale, I ask Bernstein about his Daily Show appearance last year, in which Jon Stewart teased him about being a New York Jew who also likes hard-core adventure travel. (“Are you sure you’re a Jew?” Stewart joked.) “Yeah, I didn’t really want him to go there, but it’s not like I could stop him,” Bernstein says. I ask him why he cares. He is a Jew, after all. He even spent a year in Israel after college and contemplated becoming a rabbi. “You know, my religion isn’t part of my job,” he says.

Josh Bernstein practicing archery in Koki, Papua New Guinea. Photo: Ulla Lohmann/Courtesy of the Discovery Channel

Well, fine. But he does allow that his mom, like any self-respecting Jewish mother, is pestering him for grandchildren. And at 37, he plans to settle down, sooner rather than later. “I do want a girlfriend at some point,” he says.

Romantic stability may be put on the back burner, though, if Into the Unknown takes off the way Bernstein and the Discovery Channel hope. After fulfilling his three-year contract at the History Channel, Bernstein was snatched away to be Discovery’s playboy, and they’ve expanded his milieu from archaeology to encompass all the world’s mysteries.

Into the Unknown is basically a sexed-up version of Digging in which Bernstein travels through exotic countries, dresses up like a gladiator, and frolics with killer elephants. Bernstein, who double-majored in anthropology and psychology at Cornell but has no advanced degree, attributes his success to innate curiosity and an ability to retain enormous amounts of information. Growing up in New York, he was always a bit of an outsider. He read at least two newspapers a day. He “hated the kids” at Horace Mann, his alma mater, who “were more interested in getting into a bar like Dorrian’s than anything else.” He started eating organic food when he was 16 and says he took his own lunch to school every day.

At Cornell, he joined a frat, Pike, and he’s careful to tell me that his brothers “give me so much shit about being on a dorky TV show.” But he seems to enjoy straddling two worlds. As the biggest star on the History Channel, he explains, he felt like “the cool kid in the nerdy fraternity.” Now at Discovery he is embracing his higher profile. “People I know watch the Discovery Channel,” he says.

We reach the Arthur Ross Hall of Meteorites. Bernstein, who just finished filming an Into the Unknown episode about possible life on Mars, has a newfound interest in outer space. He stands in front of a massive meteorite, caresses it, and begins a monologue about the origin of the space rock. “More than 30 tons of meteorites enter the Earth’s atmosphere each year, though most are obliterated before they reach the ground,” he says. An older woman approaches us, hands clasped behind her back. She’s wearing a museum name tag, and Bernstein demurs politely when he sees her. “Oh, I’m sorry, do you want to tell us about it instead”—Bernstein pauses and glances down at her tag—“Vivian?” he purrs. A faint blush creeps up Vivian’s cheeks. “No, no,” she replies, smiling. “I’m happy to hear you talk about it.”

Digging Josh