With Survivor: Winners at War coming to an end and the series’ 20th anniversary (20th!) just weeks away there’s no better time than now to honor the revolutionary reality TV competition. Welcome to Survivor Week, a celebration of the show’s best moments and characters.
There are a lot of reasons to watch Survivor. The intrigue of alliance-building! The brutal challenges that take players to their limits! The betrayal!
But there is also something to watching from the comfort of your home—on your couch, perhaps, with blankets and snacks at the ready—as a fresh batch of bright-eyed strategists plunge themselves into a month of physical misery. The show makes a point of telling viewers about some of the inherent unpleasantness—who can tolerate the meager food supply quickly becomes a matter of gameplay—but there’s a lot that’s left to the imagination. How do players handle the game’s sneakier elements when they’re constantly being followed by camera crews? After weeks of challenges and only an occasional plunge in the sea to wash, don’t these people really stink? And what happens when they need to, uh, you know?
Below, eight players from years past—Tyson Apostol, Rick Devens, Malcolm Freberg, Christian Hubicki, Eliza Orlins, Carolyn Rivera, Elaine Stott, and David Wright—discuss what it actually takes to, well, survive.
Is the reward food good? Or is it just good if you’re starving?
Malcolm Freberg: The reward food is good on the island, but if it was served in a restaurant you’d send it back.
Tyson Apostol: The first time I played [on 2009’s Survivor: Tocantins], I remember thinking the reward food was not good, and you were just eating it for caloric intake. And then I think that rumor permeated—every contestant was like, “The food’s no good! It’s gross!” … They’ve worked out a lot of those kinks. They’ve hired chefs. For the most part, I would say that [now] the reward food is pretty good.
David Wright: The steak was really good. One time we had a Fijian chef come and make us Fijian seafood, which was unbelievable. One of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life.
Christian Hubicki: The best reward we got was when we won the pastries and coffee and tea reward. The pastries lasted us for two days. I enjoyed the pastries. The brownies, actually, were really quite good. I enjoyed those a lot. I’m not normally a brownie guy. Overall, I think the food is decent. Decent to good.
Carolyn Rivera: I actually thought the food was good. Not just because we were starving.
Rick Devens: The Chinese food reward was delicious and I think it would have been great even outside of Survivor. The spa food reward was not great. The sandwiches had been out a while. They had at least one thing on every sandwich that you didn’t want.
Wright: The worst thing about the food that you get in a reward is when it’s Fijian pizza, which doesn’t come anything close to what we know as pizza in the States. I remember I was offered to sit out of a challenge for pizza and beer. It was an easy decision to not sit out because it’s just not appetizing at all.
What’s the deal with the pizza?
Freberg: It’s actually made of cardboard. There’s no flavor, there’s no sauce, the cheese. ... Everything about it was horrid.
Wright: How hard can it be to make bread and cheese? But that is what it is. Whatever bread or flour they’re using, and the cheese—there’s just something off about it.
Freberg: What they don’t tell you is because of production schedules, they had to have the pizzas like five hours early, so it’s not hot. It’s sitting under the Philippines sun for five hours, and then they serve it to you.
Hubicki: Honestly, it’s not that bad. I would not have sent it back, even in the United States. But I guess I’m not a pizza snob.
After scrounging for weeks, is it possible to eat a huge reward meal and not get sick?
Eliza Orlins: Nope. That’s a hard no.
Freberg: [Extremely long pause] Eh.
Wright: It’s impossible to restrain yourself, so yeah, you’re gonna get sick.
Freberg: I’ve never not eaten to sickness on the rewards.
Apostol: I’ve always been really good at bingeing. I think that’s one of my strengths.
Wright: All you do is think about food all the time.
Freberg: I did get a coffee reward and I wasn’t right for two days.
Hubicki: I managed to not get sick at all, despite really cramping. But it was hard at some points. Is it literally possible? Yes.
Apostol: I’ve never gotten sick from overeating out there, but I always get sick after the game ends when I overeat for like a week straight.
Hubicki: The most I felt ill was after drinking a bunch of wine and having all these weird wrap combinations with olives and stuff. That turned my stomach a bit, but I managed to keep it down. I remember Alison Raybould, the doctor from my season—she was doubled over in pain and lying on the beach that whole night, I think even hallucinating. She actually hallucinated something—that I was having a conversation with somebody that was strategically relevant as a consequence of these wraps. You can overdo it.
What’s the body odor and breath situation? Do the ocean water and bamboo toothbrushes really help, or does everyone just smell the entire time?
Devens: You try not to breathe in each other’s face too much.
Freberg: The breath isn’t bad because you’re eating all-natural diets, usually. So there’s no processed sugar or anything that fucks with people’s breath. The bamboo does help because after a few days you have moss growing on your teeth.
Elaine Stott: As far as breath goes, I could definitely tell mine was kicking, but I tried to not get so close where I [could] smell someone else’s.
Apostol: If somebody’s not scraping their teeth every day and they have a huge buildup of plaque, you notice all their teeth kind of grow together and there’s no seam in between each tooth. And that puts off its own unique odor that’s extra bad.
Orlins: Bamboo toothbrushes are insufficient, as are saltwater baths.
Rivera: Either way, you feel totally disgusting all the time, even after going in the ocean to clean yourself. I also used thorns to clean my nails.
Wright: Obviously see a dentist the second you get back to civilization.
Orlins: Some people naturally just stink more than others. And I think typically men stink worse than women.
Hubicki: You register exactly four smells on the island after a short period of time: You can smell smoke, mildew, urine, and feces.
Wright: I don’t think I smelled too bad because I was constantly tending the fire. I think I just smelled like ash, which is way better than body odor.
Stott: Overall everyone just kind of stinks, but everyone smells like fire more than anything.
Hubicki: When my loved one Emily came out, she said, “You smell like a campfire.”
Freberg: You don’t notice your body odor because everyone else around you stinks as much as you do. The cameramen will tell you that you stink. The producers will demand that you boil your clothes, because they’re the ones who have to suffer through it.
Hubicki: It’s only afterward you talk to the producers and they’re like, “No, you guys really smelled bad.”
Apostol: A freshwater season is really bad. You know it’s bad because the first week or so, when production is putting the mic on you for the challenges or tribal council, they’re normal. Then after the first week they have maybe a face mask on. A week later they have gloves and a face mask and an apron. And then near the end they have a full hazmat suit on and they’re turning away from you as they’re trying to get the mic on you as their eyes are watering. All the other seasons I’ve played have been near an ocean, and they never get that bad. They might put gloves on but that’s about it.
But you really can’t smell anyone?
Wright: I won’t name them, but there were two people the first season I played who smelled every damn day of the experience.
Did you ever try to bring that up with them?
Wright: You don’t bring it up, because you’re playing a game where the smallest conversations can have very large consequences, game-wise. The last thing you want to do is make anyone feel insecure or lesser than. You don’t want to insult them because you might need their help. Or it might just give them a reason—like, “Yeah, I do want to vote out that guy, he said I smelled!”
What’s the, uh, bathroom protocol and etiquette?
Orlins: We’re not provided with … anything.
Hubicki: Well, there are two techniques. One is dig a hole, use the hole, fill the hole—latrine style. That’s largely what I used.
Stott: Usually there is a designated area that people go which is called Coconut Grove if I ain’t mistaken. You kind of just say, “Hey, going to Coconut Grove,” and cast and crew leave you be.
Apostol: With the freshwater season, they don’t want you going in the water because it’s a real health hazard for whoever’s downstream. They have you dig a hole and bury it. They encourage you to designate a spot and a system where you know you’re not going to dig your hands down into somebody else’s shit, and be able to be far enough away from everything that you’re not going to bring critters and bugs in from them being attracted to your byproduct. It is particularly bad.
Hubicki: The method that’s more recommended is politely dubbed “the aqua dump.” You go into the ocean, you do your business, you come out of the ocean.
Wright: I never felt weirder than when I took my clothes off on a beach in Fiji and just walked into the water naked and just pooped in the ocean. It felt wrong somehow.
Freberg: Once you aqua dump you never go back.
Apostol: When you’re floating there pooping, guess what—you have a natural bidet there.
Wright: I remember we’re all starving and I’m pooping into the ocean and as I’m doing that I look down and all these fish are swimming up to eat it. And all I have to do is just reach my hand down into the water and pull that fish out and I can bring it back to my tribe—like, “Hey guys, I caught some fish! They ate my shit, but we should grill this thing up.” I let them go. I didn’t touch them.
Devens: Just doing it is weird. But add to that that you’re doing it in the water, so there are minnows everywhere attracted to what you’re doing. And there are literally blacktip sharks like 4, 5 feet away from you as you’re doing this, swimming around eating the minnows. And everyone’s like, “Don’t worry about the sharks. They won’t do anything.” And you just take them for their word and look back, and you’re like, Why did I believe them?
Apostol: It does take some coordination to sit there in a float or to squat in the ocean while the waves are hitting you and be able to relax enough to poop. I would say that between 25 and 50 percent of contestants have that coordination.
Hubicki: I never actually successfully performed the aqua dump. I don’t think I ever really tried, but other people got the hang of it.
Apostol: Here’s some TMI: When you get off the show and you start using toilet paper again, your b-hole gets so chapped.
Wright: In this pandemic, everyone’s running out of toilet paper. I think I’m the only one who isn’t nervous.
What’s the rule around talking on the trip to and from tribal council? And does anything happen if you break it?
Wright: It’s called lockdown—you don’t talk. It makes sure that the game happens on camera.
Devens: You’re not allowed to talk at all. You’re in the boat and you have a production person there, just watching and making sure no one says anything. If you do say something—like, I’d always want to make a joke. They’d just tell you to shut up. You grow to love these people—like, you like them. So they can tell you to shut up, and you just shut up. The production people just say, “Devens. Shut up.” He was Australian. “Devens! Shut ya ma-owth!”
Stott: The producers take their jobs super seriously and nip it in the bud if it happens.
Apostol: When they take you to tribal council, you have to wait in a tent while they’re still setting up and waiting for it to get dark. So you’re in a tent, same protocol: Everybody sits there in the tent, silent. But there is eye contact and winking and a little pointing. It’s a balance between trying to communicate or read what’s going on in those small communications and not getting caught by the one or two handlers who are trying to keep the talking to, honestly, a standstill. If they can.
Hubicki: In terms of consequences, it’s very vague. The show holds a lot of power over us in the sense that they could technically revoke our prize money if we break the rules, things like that. But I don’t know what the literal threat would be. For me there was enough respect for the game to know not to do it. I think there’s also a bit of a social pressure that if you get caught talking to someone and production calls you out, then you’re called out to the remaining cast members and the other contestants to say, “Oh, these people were trying to do something on the sly.” And that is sketchy. So that can actually have game ramifications if that happens.
Wright: The truth is, if you want to have a conversation with somebody about the game, it’s much better to just organically pull them aside. Like, “Hey, I’m gonna go get some water, anyone want to come with?” The people you’re working with know whether to go with you or not.
Freberg: I’ve never seen somebody really go over the line, but I’ve heard stories that the producers will make your life hell if you’re constantly breaking the rules—kicking sand into your food, things like that, constantly until you get your shit in order. And then Jeff [Probst] will come down on you with the fire of a thousand suns if the producers tell him that you’re breaking the rules. I’ve seen that before.
That doesn’t get caught on camera, obviously.
Freberg: No. I can’t go too much into this, but Jeff will make it very clear that if you keep pushing. ... It’s kind of like a mob threat. Like, you will be taken care of. You will not be sticking around for long if you keep fucking with us.
If a contestant were about to eat something dangerous, would production stop them?
Wright: Well, I would sure hope so.
Orlins: I don’t think so, but I don’t know. What I’m basing that off of is that they didn’t pull Mike Skupin out of the fire. They let him fall in the fire and let the tribe handle it.
Hubicki: They give you a manual before you go out there to say “These things are poisonous” and “These things are not.” But they don’t have the power to watch you at all times.
Apostol: In Brazil, one of the things was a cashew. Cashews grow wildly in Brazil and some places, but a cashew is not actually a nut—it’s the seed of what’s called a cashew apple. The fruit is very edible. But the cashew’s seed itself is toxic and will make you very ill in its natural form. It has to go through a process before you can eat a cashew. And they tell you that. They’re like, “You can eat the fruit. Do not under any set of circumstances let the seed touch your mouth.” It comes in a pod and if you break the pod open and get whatever on you or in your mouth, then it’s terrible. I found a cashew apple out there, and I ate the fruit part of it. Nobody really saw me do that, and then I had an interview. I told the producer—this was like Day 2—that I found a cashew and ate the nut, and that it was pretty good. And I remember them just having a full-on panic. She had to be like, “Did you really? Did you really?” And I was like, “Nah, I’m just messing with you.” … They don’t want anybody dying. That would be poor for a lot of reasons, to have someone die on your TV show. I mean, I don’t know how the entertainment industry works per se, but.
Wright: Fruit bats are out there. You can eat a fruit bat—it’s edible. But especially now that we know that bats are carrying coronavirus, it’s probably best to avoid those.
Devens: There are people around all the time, but there is definitely not always someone there to keep you from getting hurt. I remember one time going fishing out on the reef, and going out past the reef where it just drops down. And my whole heart just turned cold. There was no one around. This was on The Edge of Extinction. Like, there was no one in the water with me. I don’t even think they were watching from the beach.
Wright: There’s a lot of food you can eat out there that might not be safe to procure. You can eat sea snakes, but they’re very, very poisonous. They’re abundant out there—you see them every day, but you don’t want to risk getting bit. You’re not prevented from doing that. For the most part you’re not going to die if you play Survivor, but it’s a riskier thing to do than driving to work in the morning.
Freberg: I caught an eel and was stopped as I was cooking it and told I couldn’t eat it because it was poisonous and I didn’t know. We also caught a stingray once and had to wait two hours to eat it because nobody was sure if it was poisonous. The producers were like, “Just wait, guys,” and they made 17 different phone calls to the board of health of whatever country we were in that season.
Wait, how close were you to eating this poisonous eel?
Freberg: I brought it back and was all proud of myself, like—[singing]—I’m gonna feed the ca-amp! I’m about to get some brownie points! I’ve actually cooked eel before—that’s another story—so I knew what to do, and I skinned it and I put it on the fire. The producers had seen it, and whoever they were supposed to check with about the situation—somebody who would know the answer to if it was poisonous—wasn’t on our beach. But they had to call and find out if it was OK, and they had to describe what it looked like. And the guy said, no, you can’t eat that. That’s poison.
Wow, so it was really close.
Freberg: I think if I was about to serve it, they would have said “Stop” until they had the all-clear. They’re not really trying to kill us even though they’re kind of trying to kill us.
How do you manage to be secretive—about hunting idols or making allies—when you have a camera crew following you?
Freberg: You can always claim diarrhea if you need a few minutes to go look for an idol. That’s genuinely what everyone does.
Wright: The camera crews out there are everywhere. You get used to them, and they sort of disappear. You forget about them.
Rivera: It is very tough. And it will depend on the type of people on your season. How much they are familiar with the game will dictate what you can do.
Apostol: The camera guys perk up if anyone’s talking strategy. Once you see the camera guys perk up and really focus on a conversation, you know that you either need to get over there or that they’re building something between whoever’s there, so put that in the back of your mind.
Hubicki: A good example would be my friend Davie [Rickenbacker], who was on my season with me. He was one of our more notorious idol hunters. He made a habit of making himself scarce to the point where it wasn’t that unusual when he wasn’t around camp. I think he would actually try to throw the tails of the camera guys at times, which I’m not sure that they appreciated.
Apostol: At night it’s particularly easy [to track people] because you can see the light of the cameras.
Orlins: One of my infamous moments was The Stick. I was walking by myself back to where my bag was because Jason [Siska] told me he’d left it in my bag. A camera crew started running to follow me, and I was like, “What’s happening? I’m by myself, why are you—you know I’m by myself, right?” And they’re like, “Oh yeah, we’re good.” So they run, and they never run. Apparently they were told if they missed the moment when I first saw that thing that they were all going to lose their jobs. And they were like, “We had to make sure we got that moment that you saw that stupid stick.”
Hubicki: Watching the show, you might think, “No, man, I would just keep track of where all the camera guys are and where they’re going. That would be easy!” Well, when you’re out on the island and you’re starving, you rapidly lose most of your mental functionality, and the ability to keep track of lots of things at the same time rapidly degrades. So it becomes much more difficult in practice to track people by the movement of the cameras than you might expect.
Wright: That’s the thing that’s probably hard for people to appreciate while watching—just the level of paranoia out there.
Freberg: Learning how to play with the cameras is a part of the game that you just never see. That’s one of those give-and-take things. If you’re trying to run off and have conversations with no cameras around, that’s going to piss off producers. That’s going to piss off Jeff. That’s going to mean that the cameras won’t be sneaky for you. They won’t help you out. Like, if you ask them to give you five minutes, they’re not going to be kind to you. You have to build a relationship with the camera crews as well, so that when you’re going to have the alliance chat in the woods, they won’t just storm after you and make clear what you’re doing.
Hang on—you can ask the cameras to give you a few minutes?
Apostol: Sometimes if I want to do something sneaky, I’ll be like, “Hey, I’m going to go hunt for an idol, but I just want to hunt for it and I won’t look anywhere until I get there, so why don’t you have the crew meet me out there and film me out there instead of following me to film it?” You can communicate with the crew, and I think as long as it’s good for the show and you’re honest about what you’re doing with them, then it’s fine. ... They don’t want to screw up your game by them being in the way.
Freberg: You’re never allowed to go off in a pair. But there are times that it’s clear that you’re about to go have a strategy talk, and if you tell them, “Hey, can you give us a couple minutes?” I’ll go left and say Tony will go right and we have a designated meeting spot. We just tell the cameras that we won’t talk to each other until you get there. That’s a very whispered conversation that happens sometimes.
Apostol: I’ve been on the show four times over the last 12 years. I know most of the camera guys by name. I know about their lives. I’m friends with them—even on Facebook! So I’ll walk by and I’ll fist-bump them or high-five them, and they don’t treat everybody like that, and that’s probably bad for me, but a lot of these people are pretty close friends. ... Not everybody has that quality or even cares to have that with the camera guys, and some of the camera guys don’t even want that with some of the contestants. I’ve been told multiple times by people—they’re like, “You’re too good of friends with everybody.” And a camera guy—if he does not want to talk to you, he’ll just be like, “You’re not allowed to talk to the camera crew.” And meanwhile I’m over there just having the time of my life. It’s probably not a good look for playing the game, but it’s hard to not talk to your friends.
Are these people you would see even outside of Survivor?
Apostol: Yes! Yes, I will meet up with camera guys outside of Survivor. Like, if I’m in New York and they happen to be in New York on a different project—I’ve met up and gone to dinner with them and bought drinks for them and they’ve bought drinks for me. I’ve been to the home of the guy who’s head of security at one point, in Australia. I know these people. They’re not strangers to me. And they know me, and I think there’s a mutual respect and friendship. ... I’m not gonna apologize for being awesome.
What’s the mental toll of being around strangers 24 hours a day for a month?
Freberg: It’s the worst. Jeff used to say everyday Americans are cast on Survivor. It’s not everyday Americans. It’s a bunch of wackos who are on reality TV. So it’s not a normal, balanced group of functioning humans. It’s a bunch of people who are supposed to kind of go nuts and not get along because that’s why people keep watching after 20 years.
Rivera: This is one of the hardest things about the game. There is no break. You can’t just relax one day. You are always in game mode and so are they, so it is difficult. You are paranoid, you are worried, your mind never gets a break. It definitely takes a toll on you.
Wright: It’s hard. It’s not so much that they’re strangers, it’s strangers you’re not sure you can trust. And you’re never sure. Even if they vote with you like they said they were going to, what about tomorrow? You just never feel like you can truly trust somebody.
Orlins: I’m an extroverted extrovert. ... It’s being around people you can’t trust, and being pushed to your physical and emotional limit, and having to peacefully coexist with people who are trying to vote you off or who you are trying to vote off.
Wright: Out there in the game, the smallest little thing you say can be used against you. No one reads you your Miranda rights out there.
What’s the transition back to normal life like after Survivor?
Hubicki: It’s almost like you went to battle with these people—we’re way bonded. It’s all these people you should be tired of, but they’re the only people who understand what you went through.
Freberg: I gained 15 pounds in four days.
Wright: I landed in L.A. and my friend picked me up at the airport and I couldn’t even fit my shoes on my feet. I had been starving for so long that suddenly when I could have food, there’s a lot of water retention, and of course gravity takes it all the way down to your feet. I just had swollen feet. Hobbit feet.
Orlins: Physically it was very rough. I was very, very sick after my first season. I had picked up a parasite called Giardia and it went undiagnosed for a while. I was fairly sick for a long period of time. And I also became a person who was crazy about food. I would hoard food. I would have food in my bedroom. I would carry food with me everywhere I went. Every purse that I had, every pocket had a granola bar, candy, whatever, because I was so scared to be hungry afterwards.
Apostol: A lot of people, the first time they play they’re like, “We have so much excess in my house! I’m going to get rid of everything and live a minimalist lifestyle!” … A couple weeks into it you’re like, “I need more stuff! There’s so much cool stuff coming out all the time! I’ve gotta buy it all!”
Rivera: I was so pumped when I got home, all I wanted to do was talk about the experience. My family wasn’t out there, and they really didn’t understand what I was going through. How I needed to get some closure, how I needed to talk to the people I just spent time with.
Devens: I had to go straight back to work as a newscaster and straight back to work as a dad of two, and I think that really helped me adjust quickly because I had to get back into it and I couldn’t dwell too much. But the first day that I was back at work, I went and said hi to my co-anchor Ashley and our morning reporter Amaris, and then those two walked out of the studio together, and I thought—they’re plotting against me. Like, they’re in this together.
Stott: It’s hard to turn it off when you come home and just go back to the way things were. For me personally that transition was the biggest blindside by far.
Apostol: The only mental toll that I think is probably universal is that you know what you did on the show. You have six months to a year to think about that stuff, and then you have to relive it all through the lens of national TV. So if you did something really dumb, there’s a looming cloud of dread for the next handful of months—wondering how they’re going to show it, what they’re going to show, how dumb you’re going to look.
Freberg: After Philippines when I lost on the very last day, I got home and I was in my bed for the very first night. I had binge-eaten a dozen Krispy Kremes and a DiGiorno pizza and gone to sleep. I had the most vivid lucid dream that Jonathan Penner was a vampire and was chasing me through a VR cyberpunk nightmare. I woke up bawling my eyes out and sweating. When people say Survivor is scarring, they’re not messing around. It really is. Thankfully that was not a recurring dream.
These answers have been edited and condensed.