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The Ringer’s ‘Survivor’ Hall of Fame

After 20 years and 40 seasons, TV’s most iconic reality show is still showing no signs of slowing down. To celebrate, we’ve crowned the most impressive—or just most entertaining—survivors ever.

Adam Villacin

Twenty years ago, when 16 Americans arrived in Borneo to compete in a TV show called Survivor, no one expected what was to follow. The show became an instant phenomenon—125 million people watched the finale! In the years since, Survivor has become a television staple and the most influential reality TV show of all time. Sometimes it can even feel like another major American sport.

While Survivor doesn’t draw nine-figure audiences anymore, it still is going strong, having just completed the most anticipated season in years. The long-brewing all-winners edition of Survivor wrapped Wednesday, and to celebrate the momentous occasion and mark the 20th anniversary of the show, The Ringer is unveiling our Survivor Hall of Fame. We sifted through the nearly 600 players who have appeared on the show over the past 40 seasons to bring you the most impressive, most entertaining, or just most iconic castaways ever. Here is who we selected:

Mount Rushmore

Tony Vlachos

Survivor résumé:

  • Winner in Cagayan, Season 28
  • 19th place in Game Changers, Season 34
  • Winner in Winners at War, Season 40

Riley McAtee: What you need to know about Tony Vlachos is that Tony Vlachos does not sleep. The Winners at War champion said as much Wednesday night, stating that he used every single night on the island to hunt for idols. It’s something fellow Survivor contestant Spencer Bledsoe confirmed in an AMA years ago. While players are going through one of the most physically challenging experiences imaginable (well, for what’s acceptable on TV), Tony has the energy of a toddler revved up on fun dip. There’s never been a player like Tony—and there never will be.

His game in Cagayan—a whirlwind of chaos, lies, and surprises—was masterful, but considered unreplicable. His reputation came with him on Game Changers, where he crashed and burned and was voted out second. But somehow Tony not only won Winners at War, he did it without a single vote ever cast against him. He’s not only the second player ever with two wins, but each win alone is in contention as the single best game ever played. Tony is the GOAT, and it’s not really all that close.

Sandra Diaz-Twine

Survivor résumé:

  • Winner in Pearl Islands, Season 7
  • Winner in Heroes vs. Villains, Season 20
  • 15th in Game Changers, Season 34
  • 16th place in Winners at War, Season 40

Amelia Wedemeyer: Sandra Diaz-Twine is, and always will be, the queen of Survivor. She’s the first two-time winner and the only two-time winner to achieve her two sole survivor titles without the help of an all-winners season, and while it frustrates some that she’s openly bad at the challenges, Diaz-Twine’s “anybody but me”-style of play proves that you don’t have to be a hulking, immunity-challenge-winning, dominant player to be good at the game. In the 40th season, other players respect her status as the queen—I mean, how many times did we hear Denise called “the queen-slayer” by the other remaining players because of her bold blindsiding of Sandra? (The answer: Honestly, too many times to count.)

Sandra’s ability to be likable enough to win the game twice is not only a feat in itself, but the fact that she’s done so while also managing to never back down against arguably stronger, more vindictive players like Russell Hantz and Jonny Fairplay is a true testament to her abilities as one of Survivor’s greatest. As Sandra always says: The queen stays queen.

Rob Mariano

Survivor résumé:

  • 10th place in Marquesas, Season 4
  • Runner-up in All-Stars, Season 8
  • 13th place in Heroes vs. Villains, Season 20
  • Winner in Redemption Island, Season 22
  • 17th place in Winners at War, Season 40

Katie Baker: No one has spent more time playing Survivor than Rob Mariano, who has competed in five seasons and served as a larger-than-life guru-mentor in another. The man known as Boston Rob has been voted sole survivor, and he has also flamed out early on. He met his wife, All-Stars winner Amber, on the show, marrying her in a two-hour special on CBS. He plays with a gleam in his eye, a sneer on his lip, and a target on his back.

From ousting golden boy Hunter early on in Marquesas, to mastering the art of the confessional, to controlling, Robfather-style, an entire tribe for weeks on end in Redemption Island, Mariano’s decisions and actions have influenced the show’s ongoing evolution for nearly two decades; his own arc is inextricable from that of the show.

Here’s how long ago it was that Rob Mariano arrived for Marquesas in his New England Patriots hat, ready to film Season 4 of Survivor: Tom Brady had played only a few games in the NFL at the time. Since then, there have been new hats and four children with Amber and countless great moments across all realms of Boston sports—and Survivor—history. Tom Brady has been responsible for a few of them, sure, but so has Boston Rob.

Parvati Shallow

Survivor résumé:

  • Sixth place in Cook Islands, Season 13
  • Winner in Micronesia, Season 16
  • Runner-up in Heroes vs. Villains, Season 20
  • 15th place in Winners at War, Season 40

Jason Concepcion: The best way to understand Parv’s game is to listen to her fellow competitors. Since her debut on Cook Islands, she’s been labeled the flirt, spoken of in heated tones dripping with derision, paranoia and jealousy. In Cook, Jonathan Penner—among others—warned darkly of Parv’s charms. In “Fans vs. Favorites” in Micronesia, the site of her greatest triumph, James Clement, one quarter of the so-called “couples alliance” that saw himself and Parv and Ozzy and Amanda pair up, brooded after finding himself shut out of a blindsiding. “The paranoia got to you and you made a big move,” he tells her on the beach the day after Parvati helped organize Ozzy’s ouster. Parvati went on to win that season. And on Heroes vs. Villains, Jerri Manthey—an OG manipulator in her own right—whined that she wished she could bottle Parv’s sauce to use in her own life. Throughout her Survivor career, Parv has eagerly copped to using flirtation as a weapon.

But her brilliance as a player, what separates her from her many copycats, is her instinctive understanding of human nature and her willingness to be underestimated. Flirtation and charm in Survivor, much like poison in Game of Thrones, is derided as a woman’s weapon. And Parvati is content to mask her top-notch strategic mind under batted eyes and smiles. As if winning challenges, spearing fish, and chest-pounding blindsidings were the only legitimate routes to final tribal.

In Micronesia, when Cirie asked her about the couples alliance, Parv responded by noting that it gave her cover because the boys love to think that they’re in the driver’s seat. “James hasn’t asked me a single question,” she said. In Heroes vs. Villains, Russell Hantz truly believed that Parvati rode the brim of his beaten fedora to the final. This despite the fact that Parv managed to get Russell to give her a second immunity idol, in addition to the secret one she already had. Parvati’s insight is that charm is a weapon of inclusion. It makes those it’s being used against feel good even as it’s being used to stab them in the heart.

Old-School Icons

Richard Hatch

Survivor résumé:

  • Winner in Borneo, Season 1
  • 14th place in All-Stars, Season 8

Michael Baumann: Richard Hatch invented the reality competition villain. Back in Season 1 of Survivor, he was the first to understand that the show was not a mere test of survival skills and capitalize on the game within the game: the alliances and interpersonal manipulation that have come to define the show. This caddish antihero was the man who turned teamwork and earnestness into weaknesses. Reality TV competition was never the same again.

Hatch returned for Survivor: All-Stars in 2004, and was voted out after his Season 1 ally, Sue Hawk, said Hatch touched her with his genitals while he was walking around naked at a challenge. Hawk quit the game the day after the vote. He later spent time in federal prison when he tried to skirt the tax man on his Survivor winnings. As groundbreaking a competitor as Hatch was, he also illustrated what has become a universal societal truth 20 years later: You are what you pretend to be, particularly on television.

Ethan Zohn

Survivor résumé:

  • Winner in Africa, Season 3
  • 11th place in All-Stars, Season 8
  • 18th place in Winners at War, Season 40

McAtee: Throughout Survivor’s run, the best players have not always won—much less the fan favorites. But Survivor audiences got a real treat back in 2001, when good guy Ethan Zohn won the third season of Survivor thanks to a strong social game and his unending positivity.

Ethan also successfully navigated the first twist in Survivor history: The tribe swap. After being separated from his allies by the swap, Ethan suggested that his new tribe throw the upcoming immunity challenge—and they did. That allowed Ethan to keep his alliance together at the merge, setting himself up for his eventual win.

On All-Stars, Ethan lasted longer than he should have. Winners were targeted at the beginning of that game, with Australia winner Tina Wesson going out first and Borneo champ Richard Hatch going out fifth, while Amazon winner Jenna Morasca pulled herself from the game on Day 9 to be with her ailing mother. But Ethan made it all the way to Day 21, becoming the seventh player out of the game and falling just a few votes short of the merge. He didn’t make it past Day 9 on Winners at War, but his ouster was the result of his proximity to Boston Rob—it felt like he could have made it much further. Once out of the main game, Ethan did something even more phenomenal: He made the much-maligned Edge of Extinction twist work—even if just for an episode—showing that even after nearly two decades, Ethan is still one of the most likable contestants in the history of the show.

Susan Hawk

Survivor résumé:

  • Fourth place in Borneo, Season 1
  • 13th place in All-Stars, Season 8

Baker: More than 120 million viewers tuned in to the finale of the first season of Survivor. And thanks to a straight-talking truck driver from Wisconsin named Susan Hawk, they were treated to one of the legendary moments in not only the span of the show, but in the history of reality television.

At the final tribal council, Hawk addressed her fellow jurors about her final vote, between Richard Hatch and Kelly Wiglesworth, setting the gold standard for all speeches to follow. The two finalists were, she said, a microcosm of one of the island’s ecosystems: Richard a toxic snake and Kelly a scurrying rat. Both awful, one worse. “Let it be, in the end, the way Mother Nature intended it to be,” Hawk thundered. “For the snake to eat the rat.” She voted Richard. The Survivor careers of both Hawk and Hatch would ultimately end abruptly after she said he tauntingly brushed up nude against her during a challenge in All-Stars and she, haunted by the violation, quit the game. But that incident, too, was one that underscored Sue’s resolute take-no-shit ways.

To Kelly in that Borneo finale she had said, directly: “I would let the vultures take you and do whatever they want with you with no ill regrets.” This was genuinely riveting stuff during the dawn of reality TV, the kind of moment that people remember exactly where they were when they watched. No one has ever been better than Sue Hawk at drawing a line in the sand.

Yul Kwon

Survivor résumé:

  • Winner in Cook Islands, Season 13
  • 14th place in Winners at War, Season 40

Sean Yoo: Although Cook Islands was a controversial season, given the producers’ decision to split the tribes by race, it brought us Yul Kwon, and as an Asian American, I am eternally grateful for Yul’s integrity and desire to be a positive role model for the Asian community. While Yul used his intellect and personality to mastermind the game, he also spent the season speaking candidly about various issues regarding race within his community that helped shed light to millions of people each week. Yul broke boundaries of Asian stereotypes and also played a near-perfect strategic and social game.

Cook Islands was an absolutely stacked season with Survivor icons like Parvarti, Ozzy, and Penner, and featured the Aitu Four, one of the most notable underdog alliances in Survivor history. That squad—led by Yul’s masterful use of his hidden immunity idol and Ozzy’s extreme challenge prowess—overcame the odds to eventually run the table and make the final four, where Yul eventually became the sole survivor. Yul will go down as one of the most influential castaways and his victory will be remembered as one of the most dominant performances we’ve seen.

Villains We Love to Hate

Russell Hantz

Survivor résumé:

  • Runner-up in Samoa, Season 19
  • Second runner-up in Heroes vs. Villains, Season 20
  • 17th place in Redemption Island, Season 22

Dylan Berkey: During Episode 1 of Survivor: Samoa, Russell Hantz made the most memorable first impression in the history of the franchise by lying about surviving Hurricane Katrina, pouring the water out of his entire tribe’s canteens, and burning one of his tribemates’ socks just because, as he puts it, “If I can control how they feel, I can control how they think.” The best part about it—or worst, depending on your perspective—is that it actually worked. While playing back-to-back seasons in Samoa and Heroes vs. Villains, Russell made it to Day 39 both times. Over the course of those two seasons, he was part mafia godfather, part chaos agent, and part idol hunter—and the most notorious villain in show history.

Despite the fact that no one has played harder than he has, his attempts to win ultimately have come up short. Russell was never able to overcome the one obvious flaw in his game: his poor jury management. Nevertheless, his style of play influenced the future of the game, and he still goes down as an all-time reality TV villain. Perhaps the real win was the friends Russell lost along the way.

Jonny Fairplay

Survivor résumé:

  • Third place in Pearl Islands, Season 7
  • 20th place in Micronesia, Season 16

Wedemeyer: Two words: Dead. Grandma. With one stunning lie, Jonny Fairplay launched his career as an iconic reality TV villain, and created an unforgettable Survivor moment. Devious yet ingenious, Fairplay’s lie—that his grandmother had died, and thus, couldn’t participate in a loved-ones reward challenge—not only worked (he won the challenge), but was just jaw-dropping. The move was heightened by the performances of a cast of secondary characters, both those in on the joke (Fairplay’s best friend Thunder D, who helped deliver the fake news with the incredible line, “She died, dude”) and those unwittingly part of it (Fairplay’s grandmother, who in reality was, according to Fairplay, at home “watching Jerry Springer right now” and appeared at the reunion to say she found out about the lie when Survivor called Fairplay’s family to see whether they could help and she picked up the phone).

Looking back at Jonny Fairplay’s lie nearly 17 years later, it just drives home the fact that people were, and still are, willing to do whatever it takes to take home the $1 million and the title of sole survivor. Fairplay almost did, too—he came in third place on Pearl Islands only after Boy Scout leader Lil chose to sit in the final two with Sandra instead.

Jerri Manthey

Survivor résumé:

  • Eighth place in The Australian Outback, Season 2
  • 10th place in All-Stars, Season 8
  • Fourth place in Heroes vs. Villains, Season 20

Juliet Litman: Jerri Manthey is certainly a Hall of Fame Survivor player, but I’m not sure to which label she belongs. In the Australian Outback, she was explicit about sex, her interest in Colby Donaldson, and how she perceived her standing in the pecking order. She was aggressive in all aspects of the game. As a result, she’s often described as a villain, but she’s more of a transgressor. Survivor was and is a fluid experiment with a moral code that shifted as seasons progressed, but Jerri managed to violate most of those that existed back in Season 2. She may have been disliked and ridiculed at the time, but she provided drama and entertainment necessary for a successful reality show.

The Best to Never Win

Cirie Fields

Survivor résumé:

  • Fourth place in Panama, Season 12
  • Third place in Micronesia, Season 16
  • 17th place in Heroes vs. Villains, Season 20
  • Sixth place in Game Changers, Season 34

McAtee: If Cirie had even one win, she’d have a case for being the GOAT. Even without a title, she’s probably the best thinker in Survivor history, always finding a new option when none seem available. It was Cirie’s idea to convince Erik Reichenbach to give up his immunity necklace in Micronesia, allowing the Black Widow Brigade to vote him out in arguably the most iconic moment in Survivor history. She also engineered a historic 3-2-1 vote at the final six in Panama, sending Courtney home despite not having a majority on her side. She nearly did the same thing in Game Changers, as well.

Cirie’s played four times, yet she’s never been voted out in a straightforward way. In Panama, she lost a fire-making challenge at the final four. In Micronesia, a surprise final two (instead of a usual final three) robbed her of the chance to argue her résumé to the jury. In Heroes vs. Villains, she was the victim of a hidden immunity idol. And in Game Changers, advantage-geddon happened—she was eliminated without a single vote against her. I still don’t want to talk about it.

Amanda Kimmel

Survivor résumé:

  • Second runner-up in China, Season 15
  • Runner-up in Micronesia, Season 16
  • Ninth place in Heroes vs. Villains, Season 20

Sean Fennessey: Amanda is a compiler. Though the former Miss Montana has never won a season of Survivor, she is the sort of player who makes us long for a Survivor Reference statistical database: three top-10 finishes, including trips to the final tribal council in back-to-back seasons. Kimmel is one of the strongest purveyors of the deep alliance strategy, forging bonds with cast members and holding tight to them for the entire run of a season. Mediocre performances at those final tribals kept her out of the winner’s circle, but she set the record for most consecutive days on the island (108) with being voted out, which still stands. She’s also the first female castaway to find an immunity idol, and only one of two show alumni to star in the 2009 film Into the Blue 2: The Reef, alongside the woman who triumphed over her in Micronesia, Parvati Shallow. Iconic.

Ozzy Lusth

Survivor résumé:

  • Runner-up in Cook Islands, Season 13
  • Ninth place in Micronesia, Season 16
  • Fourth place in South Pacific, Season 23
  • 12th place in Game Changers, Season 34

Litman: To watch Ozzy Lusth spearfishing is to watch a man totally at ease.

Unfortunately for Ozzy, hunting and gathering is not the totality of the game. And though he was also an Olympic-level swimmer, this beautiful survivalist never won the game. That’s OK. Ozzy remains a legend. He came to Survivor with a modicum of reality TV experience, having appeared on Playboy TV’s Foursome, but he retained his naivete and authenticity, winning over fans and one-time girlfriend Amanda Kimmel. He was the fan favorite from Cook Islands (Season 13) because he was a joy to watch. He admitted on later seasons that he didn’t play with enough strategy, but Ozzy was so singular that he managed to get to the final three and make four total appearances on the show. He deserves a bronzed fishing spear.

Colby Donaldson

Survivor résumé:

  • Runner-up in The Australian Outback, Season 2
  • 12th place in All-Stars, Season 8
  • Fifth place in Heroes vs. Villains, Season 20

Fennessey: Sure, Colby set the template for the Challenge Beast, a physical specimen beyond compare who dominated one aspect of the game in full. And his decision to take Tina Wesson along to the final vote sealed his legend and concretized “the goat” strategy for future seasons. With his infamous second-place finish, Donaldson might just be the most consequential first-generation player the show has seen, barring Richard Hatch. But Colby rides into the hall for extra-Survivor reasons: He’s the only cast member to ever lay claim to a pivotal role in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Returnee Champions

Tyson Apostol

Survivor résumé

  • Eighth place in Tocantins, Season 18
  • 15th place in Heroes vs. Villains, Season 20
  • Winner in Blood vs. Water, Season 27
  • 11th place in Winners at War, Season 40

Mallory Rubin: It’s strange to think that there were 17 seasons of Survivor before Tyson entered our lives on Tocantins. He’s deeply entwined with Survivor history, a four-season player who’s stolen our hearts along with his tribemates’ coconut water. He followed up an infamous tribal council snafu on Heroes vs. Villains with a title run on Blood vs. Water, and he has choice words for anyone who’s more interested in focusing on the former than the latter: “Between you and me and whoever reads this,” Tyson told EW’s Dalton Ross before Winners at War, “I feel like I’m one of the best Survivor players of all time. And I don’t think people realize that. I don’t think I get the credit that I deserve for being as wily as I am, being as athletic as I am, and being as personable as I am.” Having the chutzpah to say that out loud is part of what makes Tyson Tyson, but he also happens to be right!

Tyson’s one of the strongest reminders that the best players don’t always win, and in fact, often lose. But his Survivor legacy outstrips his tribal record. He’s a four-tool player in a three-tool game: He knows how to outwit, outplay, and outlast, and he also knows how to out-narrate, entertaining and engaging the audience as well as anyone. He’s turned surliness and wit into a signature brew—his “I’d rather just swallow it” fire token commentary after his first Season 40 ouster is just one recent, hysterical example—and he’s not only shrewd, but eager to remind everyone of that fact, a delicate balancing act that few can manage, but that Tyson masters like it’s another challenge balance beam. Tyson was in his late 20s when he first played Survivor. Now he’s married with kids, willing to shed a tear on TV when talking about a generous act that touched his heart. And we’ve had the pleasure of watching that growth, while knowing that his signature humor and roguish spirit haven’t abated. We’ve had, in other words, the pleasure of watching Tyson live his life on our television screens, and of sharing that time, and those laughs, with him for just a little while. It’s been a joy, and that alone is an achievement. Now pass the peanut butter.

Sarah Lacina

Survivor résumé:

  • 11th place in Cagayan, Season 28
  • Winner in Game Changers, Season 34
  • Fourth place in Winners at War, Season 40

Yoo: Sarah is a player whose multiseason growth on Survivor has made her fascinating to watch. The police officer from Iowa played up to her role as a cop during her first season of Survivor, when she wanted to keep her word at all times. In that season, Cagayan, she saw that trust backfire on her with fellow cop Tony, leading to her eventual blindsiding shortly after the merge. When Sarah returned for Game Changers three years later, she switched up her strategy and continually played the swing vote, going from one backstabbing to another—all while maintaining enough finesse to not alienate her allies in the game and the jury voters who would eventually decide her fate.

At the final tribal council of that season, Ozzy confronted her for lying, but Sarah defended herself, stating that although she played this very unloyal and strategic game, she was still able to maintain strong social connections with members of the jury. That was enough to convince the jury, giving Sarah a 7-3 victory and crowning her the winner of Game Changers. You can’t win Survivor without lying here or there and once Sarah fully understood that, it unlocked her game and sealed her status in the Hall of Fame.

John Cochran

Survivor résumé:

  • Eighth place in South Pacific, Season 23
  • Winner in Caramoan, Season 26

Litman: The Survivor generational divide is widely acknowledged. There was no official torch-passing, but John Cochran ushered in a new era when he appeared on Season 23. Cochran came to the game with a unique résumé—he had written a paper at Harvard Law School about how the juries of Survivor compared to the American justice system—and one specific request. He asked Jeff Probst to call him by his last name, which Cochran identified as a Probstian term of endearment. Probst obliged, and Cochran was off. Two seasons, one win, and a job in Greg Garcia’s writers’ room for The Millers later, Cochran is one of Survivor’s most prominent sabermetricians. Unlike many of the great winners, one of his smartest choices has been to hang it up since outwitting, outplaying, and outlasting. His résumé remains sterling.

Jeremy Collins

Survivor résumé:

  • 10th place in San Juan del Sur, Season 29
  • Winner in Cambodia, Season 31
  • Eighth place in Winners at War, Season 40

Yoo: What’s not to like about our fireman, Jeremy Collins? Jeremy is one of the most impressive—and most vulnerable—players seen on the show. During his first run on Survivor, he dealt with the fallout of sending his wife to exile island, which eventually led to her exit. He showed even more of that vulnerability in Cambodia, as he persevered all season long battling with the emotional weight of Val’s pregnancy.

Jeremy is beloved by Survivor fans, and he’s also been a consistent threat every time he plays. He has the innate ability to dictate votes, but can build strong social bonds that allow him to survive for days even when he’s got the bull’s-eye on his back. He’s also a consistent challenge threat. Although Jeremy might have finished 10th in his first season, his speech during final tribal championing Natalie as the best player of the season helped propel her to a victory. In Cambodia, Jeremy became only the fourth player in Survivor history to win via unanimous vote. Jeremy is one of the rare players who embodies all three pillars of Survivor: outwit, outplay, and outlast.

Sky-High Entertainment Value

Rupert Boneham

Survivor résumé:

  • Eighth place in Pearl Islands, Season 7
  • Fourth place in All-Stars, Season 8
  • Sixth place in Heroes vs. Villains, Season 20
  • 20th place in Blood vs. Water, Season 27

Baker: Rupert Boneham has one of the stranger Survivor résumés, on both ends of the spectrum. He may not have actually won Survivor: All-Stars, his second appearance on the series, but he went home with a million dollars following that season anyway, having captured 85 percent of an “America’s Tribal Council” fan vote in which 38 million people cast ballots. He may not have received any votes in Survivor: Blood vs. Water, his fourth stint, and yet he was still the first person eliminated after a chivalrous attempt to switch places with his wife (and win a Redemption Island challenge to return to the game) backfired.

He is one of only a handful of Survivor players to have appeared in four seasons, and the true beauty of Rupert always has been that there’s no telling which version of himself—the pirate? the cornball? the man who won’t stop talking about honor?—will appear. His look (gentle giant; tie-dye; Grizzly Adams) always made his short temper all the more jarring. He wholesomely catches fish, so many fish, and yet he also competes in more dastardly ways: stealing people’s belongings; putting a rock in his pocket and calling it an idol. Just maybe don’t ask him to build a shelter, unless you want to wind up in an underground river.

J.T. Thomas

Survivor résumé:

  • Winner in Tocantins, Season 18
  • 10th place in Heroes vs. Villains, Season 20
  • 16th place in Game Changers, Season 34

Yoo: J.T. Thomas would be a no-brainer pick for the Hall of Fame even if he was solely judged for his first season, which was the first perfect game of Survivor. In Tocantins, J.T. completely dominated the game from all levels. He never received a single vote against him, and then won the final tribal council by unanimous vote—the first player in history to accomplish both feats. That alone is enough to make J.T. a Survivor legend.

But his infamous runs in Heroes vs. Villains and Game Changers are the reason he’s in the Sky-High Entertainment Value tier. J.T. made one of the dumbest moves in Survivor history when he gave Russell, who was on the opposing Villains tribe, his hidden immunity idol, which Parvati eventually used to send J.T. packing. In Game Changers, J.T. also tried to make big moves, attempting to spark a live tribal at a rare joint-tribal council that revealed his tribe’s target, allowing the opposing tribe to play an immunity idol and send one of J.T.’s own tribemates home. At the next tribal council, J.T. didn’t even bring his own hidden immunity idol and was blindsided.

J.T. showed the full spectrum of Survivor gameplay during his three seasons; a perfect season, a dumb fun season, and an early blindside exit. He’s a unique player who entertains every chance he gets, and someone who can play at an elite level that can be stopped only by his own hubris.

Coach Wade

Survivor résumé:

  • Fifth place in Tocantins, Season 18
  • 12th place in Heroes vs. Villains, Season 20
  • Runner-up in South Pacific, Season 23

Concepcion: He was born Benjamin Wade. But in the cauldron of competition known as Survivor, he was transformed by dragonfire into: Coach. Some facts about the legend known as Coach: fond of wearing a single hawk feather earring to tribals; he unironically refers to himself as “the Dragon Slayer”; he loves doing tai chi on the beach but in a way that makes people want to make fun of him; he, again unironically, calls himself “Maestro,” a reference to his work as a conductor; he has multiple Asian-themed tattoos (Coach is white). Simply, Coach is one of those people who is so performatively woke that it feels racist, albeit in a way that’s hard to explain.

Coach’s most iconic Survivor moment occurs in Season 20, Heroes vs. Villains. After Sandra goes at him in tribal, bruising his tender male ego, Coach pulls Tyson Apostol aside and the following exchange occurs.

Coach: What did I do to deserve Sandra saying that to me tonight? There’s never been someone like me out here. And there’s never going to be anyone like me again.

Tyson: [Shocked silence.]

Coach: I did noble things out here and I look ignoble.

Tyson: [Stunned.]

Coach: Fuck all of this, man. I don’t need it. I’m fucking the man. And I don’t need anyone to validate that. I’m the only person out here who will not compromise.

Tyson: [Speechless.]

Coach: [Begins to weep.]

Tyson: I understand where you’re coming from.

Coach: [Tears flowing, whimpering] I’m sensitive.

Tyson: I know you’re sensitive, dude. If you want to stick it out, I’ll help you through it. … If you want me to coach you through it, I may tell you things that you don’t like.

Coach: Like what?

Tyson: Don’t wear feathers in your hair at tribal. Don’t tell your stories. People don’t believe your stories. They mock you. There’s no reason to tell them. And do your tai chi in private where nobody can see you.

Coach: I can’t do it, man. My heart’s not in it.

New-School Fan Favorites

Malcolm Freberg

Survivor résumé:

  • Fourth place in Philippines, Season 25
  • Ninth place in Caramoan, Season 26
  • 17 place in Game Changers, Season 34

Rubin: How to sum up the Malcolm experience? Perhaps we should let him do so: On his official cast bio, Malcolm answered the “3 Words to Describe You” prompt with “Charming, brilliant, and cocky” and the “Why You Think You’ll ‘Survive’ SURVIVOR” query with “I’m smart, I’m athletic, and I’m nice to look at.” It is to Malcolm’s unending credit that after three Survivor stints and no wins, those submissions still read like immensely insightful snapshots of a Survivor lord rather than self-owns. Malcolm may not have a title, but he has legions of admirers. Consider: Often, when contestants get blindsided, they’re derided for falling short. Malcolm’s the kind of player who earns sympathy to this day for one of the strangest twist-aided blindsidings in Survivor history. His trophy case also belies a stacked Survivor résumé. He’s a capable challenge participant, a smooth social player, and a whip-smart strategist, and he excels at a specific type of Survivor alchemy: converting bitterness into purpose. He deserves to be the sole survivor, and one day, surely, he will be. Until then, his ponytail will remain etched firmly into the Survivor landscape, as ingrained as the swaying palms.

Aubry Bracco

Survivor résumé:

  • Runner-up in Kaôh Rōng, Season 32
  • Fifth place in Game Changers, Season 34
  • 16th place in Edge of Extinction, Season 38

McAtee: Aubry’s game in Kaôh Rōng is one of the greatest underdog stories in the show’s history. She began that season on the beaches of Cambodia, sweltering in the intense heat and becoming an early target of the Brains tribe for her perceived weakness. She wriggled out of that situation only to find herself separated from her allies after a tribe swap. When the tribes finally merged, Aubry lost her closest ally due to a medical evacuation—and he left with an idol in his pocket. Then at the final five, she lost another key ally—and a person she wanted to sit on the final tribal council with—due to another medical evacuation. But thanks to some strong alliances and delicate strategy, Aubry made it all the way to Day 39.

There is just one caveat to Aubry’s impressive game: She didn’t win. That honor went to Michele Fitzgerald, who despite far fewer obstacles (she didn’t even attend a tribal council until the merge) made more friends on the island, riding her social game to a 5-2-0 victory. Superfans will still talk about how Aubry was “robbed”—even Probst himself has hinted at it. Aubry returned for Game Changers, where she finished fifth, and Edge of Extinction, where she was voted out pre-merge. But it’s that Kaôh Rōng appearance that will live on in the minds of fans for eternity as one of the most fascinating performances in Survivor history.

Michele Fitzgerald

Survivor résumé:

  • Winner in Kaôh Rōng, Season 32
  • Second runner-up in Winners at War, Season 40

McAtee: Michele has played Survivor for 78 straight days and has never been voted out. That makes her a bit like Amanda Kimmel—except Michele has a win to go with her back-to-back appearances at final tribal council. As she detailed on Winners at War, she came out of Kaôh Rōng with a sense that her win wasn’t respected among Survivor fans. But Michele proved on Season 40 that she’s one of the best social players in the history of the game. It’s a shame the jury didn’t award her any votes at the final tribal council.

Dominant Winning Season Performers

Earl Cole

Survivor résumé:

  • Winner in Fiji, Season 14

Berkey: Any time you find yourself on a list with J.T. Thomas, John Cochran, Jeremy Collins, and Adam Klein, you probably did something right. Survivor: Fiji winner Earl Cole is one of only five players in Survivor history to win the game unanimously at the final tribal council—and he was the first to do it. Like most of the players mentioned above, Earl was a dominant force on his season, and played a smart and “clean” game on his way to victory. His biggest move—and only real betrayal—came on Day 38 when he voted out his longtime ally Yau-Man Chan, who was his biggest competition for the title of Sole Survivor. He is the Lawful Good of Survivor players, the epitome of the old-school game, and extremely easy to root for. CBS has tried and failed, unfortunately, to have Earl return to the game five times. Of the former victors not chosen for Winners at War, there was no one I wanted to see return more (OK, besides Cochran).

Kim Spradlin-Wolfe

Survivor résumé:

  • Winner in One World, Season 24
  • Ninth place on Winners at War, Season 40

McAtee: It says a lot about how impressive Kim’s game was in One World that I think her biggest flaw was being too dominant. On a cast filled with fools and weirdos, Kim quickly became the center of gravity for the strategic, social, and physical elements of Survivor. No plan was made without Kim knowing about it. Everyone wanted to take her on rewards and sought to be her friend. And Kim won four individual immunity challenges, the record for a female player in a single season.

This is why I think Kim was almost too good. How did no one notice that she was running the table and organize a blindside? Kim’s dominance was so obvious that it should have made her a giant target. That’s where the fools and weirdos part comes in—the One World cast was exceptionally incompetent (even Jeff knew it; at one point he compared the female tribe to a class of sixth graders). Kim was like LeBron James playing against an AAU team, but that shouldn’t be a knock on her game. In Winners at War, she showed herself to be one of the more perceptive and subtle players on the island, clawing her way from the bottom to go deep into the merge. In fact, she’s the only person that noticed Tony dominating Winners at War in much the same way she dominated One World—but her attempt to rally the troops and get Tony out fell just short.

Natalie Anderson

Survivor résumé:

  • Winner in San Juan del Sur, Season 29
  • Runner-up in Winners at War, Season 40

Berkey: Natalie Anderson’s Survivor career has been extremely difficult, to say the least. In San Juan del Sur, a Blood vs. Water redux, her twin sister, Nadiya, was the first castaway voted out of the game. Over the remainder of that season, she would lose her closest ally, Jeremy Collins, to a blindside, spend two brutal days on Exile Island, and have her tribe lose its flint and run out of rice before the merge. Despite these struggles, Natalie proved herself as one of the most resilient players to ever appear on Survivor. Motivated by her sister’s early departure, she used her strong social and strategic skills to fly under the radar post-merge, ultimately orchestrating three consecutive, crucial blindsides toward the end of the game that would make her the obvious choice for Sole Survivor at the final tribal council. The resilience she showcased in her first season was elevated to the nth degree on Winners at War, when she was the first person voted out of the game. The word “impressive” does not do her time on the Edge of Extinction justice. She somehow turned the island, which is specifically designed to crush your soul, into her own personal gym—and then won her way back into the game and made it all the way to the final three.

Her awe-inspiring victory to return to the game after more than a month spent on the Edge is a testament to her physical game. The four votes she received at the final tribal council in her runner-up finish to Tony are a testament to her social game. Natalie is one of Survivor’s most impressive winners and her resiliency is an inspiration to us all.

The Fame Portal

Elisabeth Filarski

Survivor résumé:

  • Fourth place in The Australian Outback, Season 2

Litman: Season 1 of Survivor was an utter phenomenon that captivated millions on the strength of Richard Hatch’s villainy and Sue Hawk’s cutting soliloquy. But Season 2 played a different game. Tina Wesson, Colby Donaldson, Rodger Bingham, and Elisabeth Filarski were nice—especially Elisabeth. In 2001, before she became Elisabeth Hasslebeck, the fighting conservative from The View, she was just a sneaker designer from Newton, Massachusetts, with an abundance of charm. America swooned. Craig Kilborn declared her “America’s new sweetheart.” She came in fourth, and along the way established a few archetypes for which she’s rarely credited. In her friendship with Rodger, she forged one of the first unlikely, cross-generation alliances, which remain a hallmark of savvy gameplay and a tacit (though often unearned) testament to a player’s character. Ultimately, Elisabeth was and is sustained by her undeniable charisma, which is the fuel behind her Survivor run and her broadcasting career, and the last two decades of reality TV.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Lil is a Girl Scout leader.

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