This is part 2 of a research paper I did in 2009, updated with facts and figures as of 2011. You can read part 1 in the more recent blog entry.
After completing the filming of Survivor Micronesia: Fans vs. Favorites in 2008 and watching the edited episodes on television, I came to find I was in this strange world of being a “reality star”. After a few weeks of recognition as “That guy from TV,” it became very apparent that my expectations as to what reality celebrity entailed were not the same as my previous assumptions. A “reality star” on Survivor is more or less an average American that is plucked out of the American audience and given fame as a television personality by the powerful corporation that produces the show, in this case CBS. (Collins 89.) Despite the designation as reality “stars,” we are not to be confused with other celebrities in movies and television. There is a definite difference between the professional models, actors, or rock stars and the mundane American turned game show contestant who is placed under extraordinary circumstances that is embodied by contestants of programs such as Survivor. “Most celebs (except maybe reality-TV survivors) have conspicuously majestic lifestyles,” noted one article on celebrity lifestyle, going out of its way to mark the important designation between reality shows and actual celebrity. (Gerard 8.) Others have noted this difference realizing that reality stardom is a different brand of celebrity entirely due to it’s origins outside of the entertainment industry. This term is coined by author Sue Collins as “dispensable celebrity” and that many reality contestants come to find that their,”…actual status as dispensable celebrities blocks their entry into the larger system of celebrity valorization.” (Collins 104.) When talking with other fellow Survivor contestants I was able to see this opinion acknowledged in similar claims; Eliza Orlins from Survivor: Vanuatu and Survivor: Micronesia noting,” We’re not celebrities, but we’re not ‘unknowns’.” (Orlins.)
Because of my participation on Survivor and the peculiar position in the fame hierarchy that accompanies it, I am led to ask questions about my identity, as do other Survivor contestants. When talking with other cast members who were with me on the island and witnessing themselves on television, it becomes clear that there is a distinct issue of identity and question of personal worth following reality television. Chet Welch proves as an important example. Chet was a member of the Fans tribe in my season in which the celebrity twist pitted die-hard fans of Survivor against favorite cast members from Survivor season’s past. When speaking of “Chet from Survivor” as he was depicted on the show, many viewers regarded him as worthless, whiney, lazy, a quitter, and possibly the biggest waste of a contestant the show had ever seen. (“The Survivors: Chet” 3.) In a season where “fans of Survivor” where selected to play, many viewers doubted Chet’s ability to survive the elements and play a strategic game. In reality, away from the cameras, crews, and editing of reality television, Chet Welch is a successful and determined individual in the pageant industry helping coach eleven Miss Pennsylvania pageant winners and a pageant coach for Miss America. (“Chet: Biography”) Because of his belief that his edited-for-television personality is extremely limited in scope, Chet makes it a point to separate the two from each other claiming,” There is reality and then there is reality TV.” (Welch.)
I couldn’t agree with him more from my own experiences as well, but depending upon the way in which you were perceived by the audience you can benefit from this secondary identity. Alexis Jones of Micronesia admits that being able to look at yourself subjectively from a third person view can help a person question, assess, or redefine their own self image and identity for the better. “When you see yourself in a magazine or on television you’re able to judge yourself as others would judge you and ask yourself, ‘Who am I? What do I stand for?’” (Jones.)
This idea of dual identity is not something new. In my senior year I also was doing quite a bit of research on the civil right’s movement for another class and happened upon a lot of information that seemed strikingly similar to societal anxieties I had been feeling following my time on Survivor. Ideas concerning dual personas can be traced back through celebrity to the cultural teachings of W.E.B. Dubois’s notions of the “Double Consciousness”. (Okafor, 115.) Dubois’s term which can be found in his DuBois’s collection of social essays, The Souls of Black Folk, addressed the divisions African Americans faced with their own identities during and following the reconstruction period in the United States. This idea of two coexisting senses of identity refers to the notion that blacks within America had the difficult task of existing as both “Americans” and as “Africans living in America”. Even before Dubois’s time African Americans have had to struggle with this very personal question that has been the cause of friction during times in which these opposing cultural forces (choosing to identify with a discriminatory America or a rebellious and potentially lethal civil rights movement?) created a duality of identity which caused many African Americans internalized social, psychological, and cultural anxieties.
By no means to the same expansive extent as the Civil Rights movement, reality stars including myself have expressed feeling this same awkward pull between being culturally recognized as our television personalities and remaining true to our unedited personalities we maintain in our day to day life with friends and family. This was best expressed by my fellow tribe mate Chet. “[When on television] you lose your identity and become ‘Chet from Survivor’,” he says. Other former cast aways have also seen the effects of their conflicting public and private personas when regarding friends as well, and it can lead to difficulties in relationships. “(Survivor) serves as a litmus test for who your true friends are and helps you define your character.” (Jones.) There have been many times when I find myself in public enjoying the company of a close friend when a Survivor fan will recognize me, ask me many questions about the show, and proceed to act as if we were best friends all of our lives.
When looking at past Survivor contestants that have come to seriously question the pros and cons of having to live with their public identity, no one can overlook the huge personality that is Richard Hatch. A corporate trainer who was depicted on television as sneaky, manipulative, and willing to follow the Survivor motto explicitly (Outwit, Outplay, Outlast) he easily won the first season of Survivor: Borneo when it first aired in 2000. The show’s finale had 51.6 million viewers and single handedly put reality television on the map. (Kissell.) Following the show, Richard Hatch was turned into a celebrity overnight due to the shows unprecedented popularity and the shows depiction of him as the villainous mastermind. Because of his villiany on Survivor Borneo, Hatch was brought back a second time to weasel his way onto our televisions in Survivor: All-Stars alongside other favorite cast-aways from the first seven seasons of the hit show. After being bit by a shark, biting the same shark back, and stripping naked and causing another player to quit the game (after she accused Hatch of sexually violating her) he finished 12th and earned further notoriety and fortune. (All-Stars DVD.) In 2006, however, Hatch’s television personality would only hurt him when in January he was sentenced to 51 months in federal prison for tax evasion on his million dollar prize winnings. Richard argues that CBS producers had taken care of taxes included with his first place prize money in 2000 and insists his innocence in all charges against him. He observes, “People think I deserve prison because of the way I played Survivor.” Although Hatch reveled in the fame, fortune, and personal successes that came with his casting on Survivor: Borneo and All-Stars, it’s apparent he now holds some serious regrets concerning his participation and his resulting negative public image. He explains, “This isn’t what I signed up for when I played a game show.” (Helling, 89.)
Although there are many positive things a reality contestant can gain from the show Survivor, we have seen from the above examples that there are many more responsibilities and unforeseen dilemmas that arise from the instant fame that reality television promises. Going into the experience, I was under the impression that reality celebrity and actual celebrity were the same. Having realized, both through my own personal experience in being cast for the show and speaking with other reality stars, that they are very different things. While fame and fortune are part of the equation in both, there is also a sense of profound identity confusion when you look at yourself through the lens of television editing and public acceptance. The bitterness of a poor public persona can easily sour the effects that monetary gains can provide, just as the success of fame can aid in creating a future career and possible future broadcasting opportunities from television exposure. This was something I couldn’t possibly understand without going through the Survivor experience and the mass attention I received after the show.
Towards the end of my time on Survivor Micronesia I solidified my place in the reality TV history books with one fateful strategic move. It was down to the wire; there were five people left in the game and I was the only man left among four conniving women. The girls (who are all actually very nice people in the day to day) created a sinister plan to vote me out of the game by tricking me into giving up my “immunity idol”, a hard-earned game piece which safeguards the contestants who covets it from being voted off the island. The girls played their roles perfectly, convincing me that I had no friends left on the island, that everyone hated me, and that I would possibly be publicly disliked after coming back home to watch it with my family. Alone, desperate, and extremely confused I took a gamble and trusted two of the women in my tribe. I fell for their plans completely, gave up the immunity idol, and was voted out unanimously after lasting through 36 grueling days of starvation and twists in the game. Despite being a fan of the show, a strong physical competitor, and being depicted as a “really nice guy” throughout the previous 12 episodes, this terrible strategic blunder branded me the dumbest contestant in Survivor’s eight year history, which is quite a feat (Update: In 2010 my title as Dumbest Survivor Ever was given to JT at the Survivor Heros vs. Villians Finale). Wherever I go in public the humor and hard work I made in the first 36 days is recognized, but there’s always at least one person that will recognize me because of my terrible gamble I made on the island.
The effects of being on Survivor Micronesia has sent shockwaves through my entire life, especially in regard to my relationships with other people. I am much more cautious when dealing with strangers and have carried with me many trust issues, especially with people who are overly attentive. I tend to divide a great deal of the interactions I have in my day to day into two categories: “Fake” and “Authentic”. I have met many people through the show who simply recognize me for my tiny slice of fame, and because of this I seldom mention that I was on Survivor at all when meeting new people. I can recall many occasions when I am introduced to a friend of a friend at a party who ignored me outright and later acted as if we were the best of friends after learning about my 15 minutes of fame. In terms of romantic relationships I have also had a hard time trusting the intentions of those I am involved with, especially someone who is concerned more with my public persona then my true self on a television show. This aspect of my life, people recognizing my fame as a Survivor over my own identity, is one of the worst changes I’ve had to adapt to. After talking with fans I meet about the show I can only talk to them about what they saw of me on the show, and because of this I am left feeling very phony and hypocritical. The only people I have been able to find absolute acceptance with are my close family and friends; those who have known me before being a Survivor and are with me to understand the troubles I continue to face after the island.
Despite these social difficulties there are plenty of great things I have taken away from the island. For placing fifth overall I received some prize money, for lasting late into the game I was able to gain a new network of friends through the other cast-aways I met and played with, was part of an incredible adventure to a beautiful island paradise, and because of my notoriety as a memorable character on the program I’ve still am being invited to numerous charity events around the country. The experience is truly “Once in a lifetime,”
Of all these things I am extremely grateful, but I’ve felt the most important positive change I’ve been able to make concerns my own awareness of reality. When fans started to make comments about me, whether they were online blogs, phone calls, emails, or straight to my face, I faced down many different opinions from all across America. Some people loved me, thought I was hilarious, brightened their day, or just wanted to hug me, while other fans made it loud and clear how dumb I was, how shameful I should be feeling about my choices, and swore death upon me for making such a blatant error of judgment. When dealing with Survivor fans, I took all commentary and critiques extremely personal because I interpreted their advice as reflections on myself. After having some time to look back and reflect on this I realize I was only half right; it has taken a lot of time for me to understand that the viewer’s of Survivor aren’t able to make accurate judgments on my own character despite the detailed illusion of character the television displays to them. In fact a great majority of them don’t know who they are really talking to! The notion of “reality” is an illusion created strictly by those in control of the show, and this understanding has allowed me to be less judgmental in my own life when addressing other reality show contestants or other human beings. We are led to believe “what you see is what you get,” when in fact there are always different sides to a person you will never see or understand. This lesson, while it appeared best to me in the form of a television show, can be applied to nearly everything you don’t fully acknowledge or understand. This is one change I am proud to have, and I am very grateful to learn this lesson at such a young age.