Place your index finger about a centimeter above your thumb. That’s how close Andrea Boehlke was to packing up her life—and her dreams of becoming a TV host—in New York City and retreating home to Wisconsin in 2015. Then her agent called with a hypothetical: Would she be interested in trying out for a hosting gig on a new digital entertainment show for People? Rationing that she had nothing to lose, she went for it. One audition led to another. Then, when it was down to the final three and two hopefuls were about to be ousted, Boehlke pulled out a secret weapon. For the sake of this feature, we’ll call it a metaphorical immunity idol.
Boehlke, you see, already had appeared on Survivor twice and established herself to a national TV audience as a feisty-but-friendly competitor. “The executive producers of the show knew I had a bigger following from the show and did want me to play into the Survivor thing a little bit,” she recalls. She landed the job, and has since gone on to interview everyone from Brad Pitt to Robert De Niro at various glitzy events as well as to do monthly spots on Good Morning America. Looking back, she says, “It’s a cool thing to talk about. ... I mean, it’s a conversation starter, right? It gives you that extra boost.”
On September 22, Survivor will finally begin its 41st season as 18 new castaways vie for the chance at a $1 million reward. They’ll navigate a series of lies and deceptions, deal with being undernourished and overly exhausted, run brutally difficult challenges and solve intricate puzzles under the blazing Fiji sun over the course of 26 days. Someone will emerge victorious. But there will be a game within a game as well—one with infinitely higher stakes and bigger consequences. And for whoever masters it, fame and fortune await.
The post-Survivor economy is bustling, with several alums parlaying their as-seen-on-TV personas into success far beyond glad-handing at parties and having a presence on Cameo (though those options remain in rotation). Think high-profile gigs in front of the camera and behind the podcasting microphone; social media sponsorship and a sport ambassadorship; a New York City district attorney campaign and a loyal following on OnlyFans. For those coming out of a season of Survivor, there is no singular path to the promised land of opportunity … only an underlying theme: Unless you’re five-time player “Boston” Rob Mariano—i.e., an outsized tried-and-true personality and recent regular on CBS’s summer show Secret Celebrity Renovation—you have to be prepared to get your hands dirty and utilize some of that well-honed island strategy.
“It’s not like I won and now all the networks are coming to me,” says Wendell Holland, the Ghost Island champ who transitioned his furniture design business into cohosting his own home renovation shows, Hot Mess House and Home Town Takeover, on HGTV. “I still had to put in a lot of work. … But I was relentless because I wanted it so badly.” Boehlke declares a similar sentiment: “You see someone on Survivor, then you see them working on TV, and you think someone just called them and said, ‘Hey, you want to do this?’ But I really hustled. I was walking dogs for like a year.”
Before we continue, let’s make one thing clear: Any Gen Xer that once owned a 1994 Eric Nies wall calendar can tell you that Survivor was not the first reality show whose stars capitalized on their breakout buzz. Thanks to all those omnipresent and ever-provocative contestants from The Real World, The Bachelor, and Big Brother, the show doesn’t have the market cornered on the job boom either. But Survivor is the series to truly launch the reality TV genre into the mainstream. Players became household names based on their own magnetism as opposed to portraying a fictional character. Survivor’s original season in 2000 was such a phenomenon that affable waif Colleen Haskell—the sixth-place finisher!—got cast as a love interest in the 2001 Rob Schneider comedy The Animal back when Schneider was at his Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo peak. The follow-up season in Australia delivered more stars, with the congenial Colby Donaldson turning up on Curb Your Enthusiasm and Elisabeth Hasselbeck (née Filarski) landing a 2003 panelist job on The View that wound up lasting a full decade.
The early seasons also remain memorable for their classic archetypes worthy of placement on a reality TV Mount Rushmore. Ethan Zohn brags that he hasn’t worked an office job in more than 20 years because he’s still riding the goodwill of his 2001 Survivor: Africa triumph. “I was fortunate enough to win for being a nice and friendly guy,” he says. “All these opportunities soon came my way, and I don’t know if someone playing a different way would have had as much success.”
A then 27-year-old soccer player, Zohn put his advertising plans on the back burner to create the nonprofit Grassroot Soccer (an organization that uses soccer to help at-risk youth), appear on The Amazing Race, Fear Factor, Hollywood Squares, and Eco-Challenge Fiji Islands, judge the Miss Universe Pageant, and do public speaking. He’s still on the circuit, only now he’s talking about his TV past as well as educating and inspiring others with stories about his survival of lymphoma. “In general, I do think I’m a nice guy, so it wasn’t like I had to make a departure from my everyday life,” he says. Still, he knows that with this powerful persona comes great responsibility: He had to turn down a deal from Captain Morgan worth $25,000 because he promotes a healthy lifestyle to kids; same with a deal with Miracle-Gro fertilizer, as it has possible links to cancer. “I don’t want to fuck up my image because it may ruin more opportunities,” he says.
On the flip side, Jon Dalton landed on Panama’s Pearl Islands in 2003 with the mission of becoming the game’s most notorious villain. “I went with a pro-wrestling mentality,” he explains, “so I created a character named Jonny Fairplay and had total creative control over the character.” That meant selling the lie that his grandma had died mid-production in a bid to gain sympathy among his castaways and go farther in the game. He didn’t win, but the damage was done. In a good way. “I embraced the role, America embraced it and I made my mark.”
Fairplay effortlessly details his windfall: A two-year contract with Total Nonstop Action wrestling worth $300,000 (“I became the first wrestler to ever get health insurance”); hosting a few episodes of Fear Factor with Joe Rogan, participating in the Celebrity Poker Showdown and the Celebrity Newlywed Game, and appearing on Dr. Phil. He was asked to return on Micronesia—Fans vs. Favorites in 2008 but quit halfway through. He legally changed his name to Jonny Fairplay in 2012 and continues to do DJ gigs and turn up at conventions. He manages to squeeze in the web sites for four upcoming appearances during his interview. All told, he estimates that he’s made at least seven figures: “All of that just from a summer away in 2003.” (Fairplay was also arrested for larceny last December; he says charges were dropped.)
Twelve seasons passed before Survivor landed its first bona fide jungle boy: Oscar “Ozzy” Lusth didn’t win his first season, either, back in the Cook Islands in 2006—he finished second and lost by one vote—but he did endear himself to viewers as a sexy, free-swimming, tree-climbing Tarzan for the 21st century. “I think people really resonated with the fact that I tried to live every single moment on Survivor as if it were my last,” he says. He’s played three times since, and several other laid-back dudes with man buns have followed in his footprints, though none have quite been able to replicate his popularity.
But Lusth quickly learned that newfound fame had a downside. An aspiring actor at the time, he received a steady stream of nos at auditions because he was too recognizable from his time on TV. “They wanted a fresh face,” he says. “At least that’s the excuse they were giving me.” (He was even let go from playing a character in ads for freecreditreport.com.) Lusth wasn’t the first Survivor alum to hear the stinging rejection: Boehlke curbed her acting ambitions after her initial Survivor stint on Redemption Island in 2010 to focus on hosting. And remember her castmate Matt Elrod? He now stars as FBI Agent Charles Smith on Riverdale ... after changing his name to Wyatt Nash.
The problem, per four-time player Tyson Apostol, is that too many starry-eyed Survivor players back in the day didn’t understand that they had to compete with every other Hollywood transplant. And, well, an attachment to a veteran reality show that lacked a certain hipster cachet didn’t necessarily work in their favor. “They want you to be at your peak when you’re on the show, so the casting directors are filling you full of these delusions of grandeur,” he says. “They say, ‘You’re going to be the next big thing’ and you’re like, ‘Oh, wow, that sounds cool!’ ... That’s why you get a lot of former Survivor contestants ending up being bartenders for 35 years in Los Angeles.”
In a sure sign of the times, some of the more recent players are now desperate for the approval of a casting producer not even associated with the mothership. Skye Topic, who’s spotted talent for The Challenge for nearly a decade, closely monitors the latest Survivor episode each Wednesday night in the hopes that someone will make for a fascinating player on her cultural MTV touchstone. “It’s a natural place for us to pull from because they’re competing under very difficult circumstances … and Survivor is a very social game,” she says. The transition started slowly, with Jay Starrett from Millennials vs. Gen X (2016) appearing on The Challenge’s 35th season in 2020. Natalie Anderson, the winner of Blood vs. Water II (2014) and finalist on Winners at War (2020), showed up next, and on the current season Spies, Lies, and Allies, Michaela Bradshaw (Millennials vs. Gen X), Tommy Sheehan (2019’s Island of the Idols), and Michele Fitzgerald (2016’s Kaoh Rong and 2020’s Winners at War) are all participating—resulting in a totally entertaining mix of highly skilled competitors and boozed-up, bickering sun-worshippers.
Topic has a few criteria, sharing that everyone she eyes must still go through a rigorous audition process with Viacom executives. (“It’s definitely a difficult show to get on,” she notes.) The Survivor players should all be athletic, have strong social media followings, own big personalities, and go far in the game. Youth is a factor as well. “Some of the great Survivor players have aged out. Like we couldn’t cast Tom Westman or Jeremy Collins,” she says of the 2004 Palau and 2015 Cambodia—Second Chance champs, respectively. Plus, she tactfully acknowledges that players pushing the outer reaches of the coveted 18-49 demographic are less likely to return as a Challenge vet in future seasons.
Indeed, the new school of Survivor contestants may not be as nestled in the public’s pop-culture psyches as Mariano, Zohn, Fairplay, and Lusth, but they do hold a distinct advantage: A better understanding of how to brand themselves in the social media age. “During Tocantins and Heroes Versus Villains, [social media] was almost nonexistent ,” says Apostol, whose roots date back to 2009. “People weren’t really thinking of how to monetize Facebook.” Zohn laments all the physical appearances he had to make back in the day: “Technology’s finally caught up with what I’m good at—sitting on my couch and doing stuff on my phone”
Cut to 2018, when Holland, a furniture designer, grinded out what he says was a “very social, likable, and personable” winner’s journey on Ghost Island. He made a point to display a happy-go-lucky attitude while designing and building the tribe shelter—literally in the hopes that executives from HGTV might be watching. “Eight million people or whatever it was—I’d never have been able to make a commercial for myself like that,” he says. After the show, he continued to market himself and his work on social media, which led to a deal with a local Philadelphia production company before network executives reached out. “Being a newer player is better visibility-wise because we have all these social apps that the older players didn’t have so we’re really able to tune in our fan base,” he says.
Boehlke, who last competed in 2017, agrees: “I came at a good time because I understand social media and can help my career.” (She adds that she has done selective sponsored posts, some for $2,000 a hit.) But she jokes that even she can’t keep pace with the recent batch of players, noting that Lauren Beck from Island of the Idols is a TikTok queen with 13.6 million likes.
That’s why some of the more OG players catapulted outside the box. A few years ago, Apostol, the lanky, self-deprecating former pro cyclist, became enamored of playing a hybrid of tennis, ping pong, and badminton known as pickleball. In the aftermath of Winners of War, he took it upon himself to become, in his words, “the world’s foremost pickleball personality.” He now appears all over the country and has partnerships with Fila Pickleball and Gamma Pickleball. And while he maintains that “I would be who I am without Survivor,” he knows the pull of an internationally known series: “It does open doors because you don’t have to explain to anyone what it is. Even if they don’t watch, they know the premise and know that I was starving.”
As for Lusth? The man who appeared on the Playboy TV in his pre-Survivor era decided to fully embrace his sexuality and put explicit content on the subscription-based OnlyFans app. He has zero regrets. In terms of money, “Let’s just say the salary is comparable to a 50-plus-hour workweek as a general manager of a successful restaurant group,” he says. But he says he really did it because “my brand is about living in the moment and not being afraid. So now I can have fun and enjoy myself ... and make [sex] accessible to as many people as possible. I’ve really tried to take away the stigma of repression.” With no worries of repercussions from CBS (he’s already played Survivor four times, though he’s 0-for-4 when it comes to wins), he proudly promotes his connection to his past. His handle: OzzySurvivor.
You’d think that after excelling on a TV series that prides itself on outwitting, outplaying, and outlasting that you’d forever be watching your back. But the Survivor vets interviewed for this story say—insist, actually—that they’re all rooting for each other in a wide-open job market. Really.
Eliza Orlins, a fiery, outspoken underdog on Vanuatu (2004) and Survivor: Micronesia – Fans vs. Favorites, shares that she kicked off her campaign for New York City district attorney last spring by holding a Survivor Zoom reunion as a fundraiser. More than 50 players popped up in support, including original winner Richard Hatch, Boehlke, Holland, and Fairplay. About 400 curious fans tuned in and donated. “It’s just such an intense experience and it’s so hard to even come home and explain to your own family what you’ve been through. … That’s what forms these deep bonds among former castmates,” she explains. (FYI, she didn’t win the election, but acknowledges that “leaning in” to her Survivor past and “fighter” persona kept her in the race.)
“Back in the day it was more competitive,” says Zohn. “Now we’re collaborative.” When Zohn started hawking his own line of Survivor T-shirts last year (a portion of sales went to rare cancer research), nearly every former winner, including his ex-girlfriend, Jenna Morasca, proudly and publicly shared a photo wearing one. Boehlke says she welcomes people approaching her for advice; Lusth reasons that “when one person succeeds and is happy then it’s good for all of us.” For crying out loud, Fairplay himself says, “I want all my friends to make a lot of money and buy me steaks. I don’t need all the pie to myself.”
Or, maybe, just maybe, they’re all playing the long game. “I think people that go through reality TV can be very petty,” says two-time player and self-described “original superfan” Rob Cesternino. “They’ll be outwardly happy, but then they’re like, ‘Oh, why didn’t I get that job?’” To underline the point, Cesternino—the creator of Rob Has a Podcast, which has blossomed from a Survivor recap podcast of the same name to a wide-ranging TV wrap network over the past 12 years—freely admits his fire still burns: “I’ve been doing this the longest,” he says. “I feel like I get a little competitive, and certainly defensive. But then, you know, I realized that it helps keep me at the top of my game if I take my foot off the gas.”
He also has a theory as to what’s driving the alums to push their all-for-one, one-for-all stance: “There is a post-game and I think a lot of Survivors are also posturing to go back and play again. ... They want to make sure they’re not creating rivalries with people that they could eventually play with on the island. I’m personally not worried because that ship has sailed for me.”
He may be on to something. Cesternino aside, none of the alums 100 percent ruled out another go-round. “I know better to never say never because I think everybody can agree that it’s really hard to say no to CBS,” says Orlins, now back to working as a public defender in New York City. Though Holland says he was left bitterly depressed and anxious because of his damaging villain edit in Winners at War, he would be willing to go back too—especially now that the producers have committed to featuring more diverse casts. “You never know what the future holds,” he says.
And, yeah, some of these media-savvy reality show vets could also just be in diplomatic mode for the sake of good publicity. One alum scoffed at Fairplay’s assertion that he wakes up to 10 to 15 Cameo requests a day in his inbox—“He’s definitely selling you crap”—and begged me to contact Cameo for confirmation. (For the record, the communications department for the online service that lets people hire celebrities to create personalized videos will not divulge numbers without express written consent from the celebrity.) Another Survivor favorite asked me to fluff up their social media sponsorship paychecks for the sake of optics; said person was not Fairplay.
You really can’t blame the Survivors for trying to work any and all angles. After all, many of these players know they’ve gone eons beyond their requisite 15 minutes of fame and are just trying to hang on before the clock runs out for good. Fairplay recently became a licensed real estate broker and now lives in suburban Virginia with his two daughters. Zohn says he has a cover letter and résumé ready to go and “folks that I will reach out to when the time comes if I do need a full-time job.” Lusth called from Mexico, where he’s opening a “micro-boutique” hotel.
But here’s the interesting reality of the situation: Considering Survivor has been around since the turn of the century—that’s two years before three of the Survivor 41 contestants were born—the show has proved impressively durable. The pandemic launched a renaissance of sorts, as seasoned and newbie fans binged old seasons on Paramount+ to get their fix while the show was on a yearlong hiatus. Many of the alums reaped the benefits, whether it was via increased Cameo requests or additional paid speaking opportunities. “It feels like the entire world watched it, so my stock right now is probably higher than it’s ever been,” Fairplay boasts.
They expect another bump with the upcoming, much-anticipated premiere, with seemingly unlimited editions to follow. “Unequivocally Survivor is the best show that has ever existed,” Orlins says. “Even 20 years later, anyone who watches the show can find someone to relate to and get to know. … It crosses all races, genders, ethnicities, and age groups in that sense and that’s really special. And it’s why we’re lucky enough to be having this conversation.”
It’s also why everyone realizes that sitting through multiple tribal councils is the best thing that ever happened to them. “I feel I’ve been realistic about the long term sustainability of being in a position like this,” says Zohn, before adding: “Like, I’ve always expected this to end!”
Mara Reinstein is a New York City–based film critic and entertainment journalist who contributes to Us Weekly, Billboard, The Cut, HuffPost, and Parade.