'Survivor' players reveal what it's really like to compete on the show
- Former "
Survivor" players told Insider what competing on the reality series is really like.
- There is a med box away from the cameras with sunscreen, bug spray, and tampons.
Although it's one thing to watch the challenges and councils from the comfort of your home, it's another to compete on a remote island for up to 39 days with minimal food and supplies.
Insider spoke to former "Survivor" players to see what it's really like to participate on the hit show — from applying to toughing it on the island, and everything in between.
The audition process can take weeks, if not months
Before you have the chance to compete for $1 million, you have to get through the highly selective application process. Former players said "Survivor" hopefuls have to be patient and keep a flexible schedule.
Four-time player and one-time champion Tyson Apostol, who recently became an official sponsor for FILA, said to apply if "you're good at the waiting game."
"They're like, 'Oh, we'll stay in touch' and 'We'll call you next week,' and then three weeks will go by and they'll text you, 'Sorry, we don't know yet,'" Apostol said.
"Survivor: David vs. Goliath" player Davie Rickenbacker was originally denied a spot on the season but was told he'd be considered as an alternate. He told Insider he was surprised he later got called to join the show.
"You have to always be training just in case you get that phone call," Rickenbacker said.
Competitors try to prepare as much as possible before they go on the show
Before his first shot on the show, three-time player Malcolm Freberg worked as a bartender at night to "pay the bills" and created challenges for himself during the daytime. He said that within a month, he learned how to tie knots, work with bamboo, and solve an array of puzzles.
Three-time player Andrea Boehlke competed on her first season, "Survivor: Redemption Island," over 10 years ago and told Insider that she put herself through the wringer and did "any sort of game or challenge you would see" on the series.
"I was balancing on fences on our farm," she recalled. "I made fires in the backyard. I brought out a bow and arrow — you never know if they're going to have a bow-and-arrows challenge."
Meeting host Jeff Probst is as nerve-wracking as fans would expect
During the grueling audition process, several competitors said that the most anxiety-inducing step was meeting Probst.
"Survivor: Island of the Idols" competitor Elaine Stott said she was riddled with nerves before she met him and the other producers, but she got through it with her trademark sense of humor.
"I was nervous going into the interviews, but I just knew that once I got to talk to these people and tell them a joke or two, or just be myself, it would be OK," Stott told Insider. "... I said, 'Jeff, you're just a man, you put your britches on just like I do.'"
Freberg was also nervous before he met the producers, but said Probst came to his defense mid-interview after an executive producer teased him for being a bartender with an Ivy League degree.
"I started tensing up, I started getting nervous, like, 'Oh my God, that's Mark Burnett telling me I'm ruining my life,'" Freberg explained. "And Jeff actually stepped in and defended me."
Sleeping arrangements are rougher than viewers might think
As soon as they're cast on "Survivor," competitors know that life on a remote island is going to be challenging, but several players said that sleeping in a bamboo hut took a surprisingly harsh toll on them.
"The sleeping arrangements are a lot harder than what you would imagine," Stott said. "It's miserable."
Rickenbacker agreed that even though it's "all part of the 'Survivor' experience," it was difficult to get a good night's rest since there is no "perfect" way to make the huts.
He said that even a "nice shelter" was "never going to be big enough" for 10 adults to comfortably sleep in.
There's a lot of downtime in between challenges and councils
By the time "Survivor" airs on CBS, editors have trimmed down hours of footage to the most crucial and entertaining scenes, but players said that there is a lot of downtime left on the cutting-room floor.
"Survivor: Island of the Idols" competitor Lauren-Ashley Beck, who has been sharing her "Survivor" secrets on TikTok, filmed in Fiji and told Insider that she and her fellow players would spend time enjoying the beautiful island.
"When we have a down day, no challenge, no tribal, no immunity, nothing, we would just explore," Beck said. "We'd go out in the ocean — we took the raft."
Freberg added that competitors spend a lot of time outside of challenges and councils just getting to know each other.
"You spend hours together every day, doing fun little things to keep yourselves busy," Freberg said. "... Spending day after day with people, you just create all these bonds."
Players forage for a lot of their food, but do get rice
When it comes to food, competitors often start out with a limited supply of rice to split amongst their teammates.
Subsequent challenges often come with tempting and tasty rewards — like chickens, beans, and vegetables — but players said that a surprising amount of food comes from the island around them.
Beck told Insider that she and the other players found breadfruit, which she said tasted similar to eggplant.
"My fellow castaways would take the breadfruit, put it in a pan with a little bit of seawater, so it would get salty," Beck said. "Then sometimes we find the breadfruit like really, really ripe so it kind of tastes like a banana."
Apostol said he would often catch fish offshore but would "eat a million coconuts" if he had the chance.
Although the players get rice, not everyone knows how to properly cook it.
Freberg recalled a "rice revolt" incident where a player filled the pot to the top with dry rice since he didn't realize that it expands when cooked, causing the rations to overflow "like a science experiment."
Competitors keep contacts, medication, and tampons in a special box
Although viewers might not get to see it, competitors have access to a shared medical box filled with necessary supplies and personal belongings they submit in advance.
"They have a medical chest that's in the woods," Stott told Insider. "If you wear contacts or if you have medicine that you have to take, that's in there, as well as these vitamins they give us to take."
Stott added that specific products like birth control and tampons are kept there as well, alongside bottles of sunscreen and bug spray.
According to "Survivor: Island of the Idols" player Karishma Patel, certain competitors received pain medication while on the show.
"There were some people who got pain meds," Patel told Insider. "And maybe they had preexisting injuries that qualified them for it, which is probably the case, because I can't imagine they just handed them out."
The drinking water can get less appealing as the days stretch on
Competitors have access to drinkable water on the show, but Apostol told Insider it's worse than viewers might think and that he left the show never wanting "to drink water again."
Due to the heat and the limited food supply, drinking water is a necessity, but the warm supply becomes less appealing as the weeks go on.
"The only liquid you're ever putting in your body, except for coconut water, is regular water," he added. "It gets dirtier and dirtier throughout the season. You're grossed out by it."
The players' clothes also get dirtier and stinkier
"Survivor" competitors come to the island with a single set of clothes to last them up to 39 days. After weeks in the elements, those outfits can start to stick, which the camera crew sometimes points out.
"You don't notice when it's on you, but there are camera crews who aren't as filthy as you," Freberg told Insider. "They'll tell you when you stink ... At least in my case, I had this one guy say, 'You've got to wash your clothes.'"
Players have different tactics for laundry — Beck said she used hand sanitizer from the med box and Apostol recalled trusting direct sunlight to kill off the bacteria. Freberg said he resorted to methods like boiling his clothes in the camp's cook pot.
"All you do is boil it, just toss it in the pot you cook with, which is just disgusting now that I'm thinking about it," Freberg said.
Competitors said losing weight and muscle mass is unavoidable
Between eating less and competing in arduous physical challenges, "Survivor" competitors put a lot of strain on their bodies.
Stott said that her figure changed so much throughout her season that she had to request a new pair of underwear, which is usually not allowed.
"I had lost so much weight that they wouldn't stay on me," Stott told Insider. "... My a-- was hanging out and I see the family-visit challenge coming up. And I was like, 'I have got to get new britches, you know?'"
Freberg said that he dropped nearly 25 pounds at one point and still hasn't restored the sheer amount of muscle mass he lost.
"I don't work out like I was when I was a teenager or anything like that, but I can't build the muscle mass back," Freberg said. "I always had skinny legs and now they're just twigs, and I don't think that's ever going to come back."
Tribal council lasts way longer than it does on TV
Tribal council is one of the most high-stakes parts of the game, as players will either return to camp or get their torch snuffed by Probst.
Patel said that despite it lasting only around 10 minutes on-screen, tribal council is "a lot longer than you see" since editors splice and dice footage.
"Jeff asks the same question to multiple people and then they pick which answer they like or which answer works and they go with that one," Patel told Insider. "So for us, there is a lot of repetition at tribal."
Patel added that because of this, there are a lot of unaired moments and facial expressions, so "there's so much good stuff at tribal that you don't get to see."
Some camera shots require multiple takes from the players
Although "Survivor" is unscripted, there are certain elements of the show that are set up multiple times or reenacted to achieve the perfect shot.
Patel said they would often have to film multiple takes of the iconic walk down the beach to tribal council.
"[When] they get that shot of us walking down the beach holding our torches ... they do that shot about three times," Patel said. "We have to rewind and do it again from different angles."
The cameras are almost always rolling, with a few exceptions
To capture as many moments as possible, the camera crew is almost always filming, but players said that there are a few exceptions, and, in turn, rules to limit off-film strategizing.
"The cameras are always on unless we're going to the med box or we're putting on sunscreen because they want to keep the illusion that it's a reality show," Beck told Insider.
Beck added that players are also not allowed to go to the med box alone or talk strategy while putting on sunscreen because there are no cameras there and the crew wants to "make sure they're not missing anything."
Apostol added that crew members are around to call out players who test those boundaries.
"There's somebody there to yell at you every time you do talk," Apostol said. "And when you're like a grown adult and you have a younger grown adult yelling at you ... it's an inner struggle for some people, an outer struggle for others."
Probst shouts nonstop commentary during challenges, which can be distracting
During challenges — whether competitors are swimming, tossing rocks, or climbing ladders — Probst yells out commentary in real time, so players can hear how well or poorly they're doing in relation to others.
Patel said that Probst's commentary during challenges is more constant than viewers might expect and can be distracting.
"He's screaming the whole time. They're cutting it for you at home," Patel told Insider. "But when you're out there, he's doing it because we only do it once, so he's got one chance."
Patel praised the host for delivering an endless stream of commentary during challenges, admitting that it can't be easy. But that didn't stop her from shouting back when Probst would give her a hard time.
"I screamed back a couple of times and it was funny," Patel said. "My tribe didn't like that, but sometimes you have to stick up for yourself."
Winning too many challenges can actually be a bad thing
Boehlke said that one of the most difficult parts of "Survivor" is being good at challenges, but not exceedingly so.
"You want to be somewhere in the middle when it comes to challenges," Boehlke explained. "You want to be good enough at the challenges so you're not a liability, but you don't want to outshine everybody."
Regardless of whether it was for reward or immunity, Boehlke said winning multiple challenges in a row comes with a price, especially after a midseason merge.
"Everyone's looking for some reason to target someone that isn't them," Boehlke added. "And if you're good at challenges, that's a perfect reason."
Plus players often feel sick after food challenges or rewards
On "Survivor: Redemption Island," Boehlke was chosen for a reward challenge in which she and her teammates had to eat as much chocolate cake as possible in a minute.
"I just shoveled it down — I was eating it so fast," she said. "And then at the end, I put chocolate cake all over my face to save it for later, which eventually became a meme on the internet."
Boehlke said although it tasted great in the moment, the cake came back to haunt her when she returned to camp and was "so sick" she could "barely move."
She added that after three seasons she's learned the hard way that food rewards can be dangerous because competitors aren't acting rationally when they're starving.
"Your brain is seeing food and thinking, 'I'm not going to get this for a while,' and so you just gorge yourself," she told Insider. "And it's really not good because a lot of times you end up throwing it all up."
Players sometimes sneak back rewards for each other
Bringing back rewards for other competitors is discouraged, but that doesn't stop some players from trying.
Beck recalled one night from "Island of the Idols" where Tommy Sheehan, Noura Salman, and Dean Kowalski went on a massage reward and brought back drinks for the other players.
"They snuck back three bottles of alcohol in their water bottles," Beck told Insider. "We got so drunk and we were all talking and saying which camera guys we thought were cute."
Eventually, she said, the camera crew "realized we were hammered" and asked for the water bottles.
"So we're like, 'Yeah, sure, you can have them. All the alcohol is gone at this point,'" Beck said.
Some competitors feel like the show doesn't feature enough of the positive moments
Stott said she knows that her season is rife with serious topics.
Fellow castaway Dan Spilo became the first competitor removed from the game for inappropriate behavior after an off-camera incident that didn't involve a player. Before this decision, several of the women said that Spilo's touching made them feel uncomfortable.
Acknowledging the weight of those issues, Stott said she still wishes that the editors and producers had included the happier moments too.
"There's a lot of stuff like me and Lauren[-Ashley Beck] hanging out in the hammock and laughing until we're crying," Stott shared. "We had a really great bond and I don't think that was shown a lot."
She went on to acknowledge that the nature of a competition show lends itself to drama, but she feels like the "audience was left out of a lot of great times."
Beck echoed a similar sentiment, recalling a conversation she had with fellow player Jamal Shipman when she chose to wear pants during a water challenge because she didn't "feel comfortable or confident" in the shorter outfit.
"[Shipman] was like, 'There's a lot of young girls who are going to see you on here, who look just like you and are going to look up to you ... and I want you to feel comfortable and wear that for them,'" Beck told Insider. "And so from that day forward, I did."
"And I thought they were going to show that, but what do they show? They show me saying that Elaine is not smart enough to have an idol," she continued.
Although players can be edited to seem nicer, some said the villains' portrayals are true to life
Editors can sometimes take words out of context or change the tone of a situation, but Freberg said they don't have to alter too much when it comes to the villains of the show.
"... If you insult somebody, it's like, you can't pull that out of thin air," Freberg said. "If you were insulting people every day, you were a d--- and you probably got what you deserve."
"If somebody came off as the huge villain, chances are they were the huge villain," Freberg added.
'Survivor' can catch even the nicest competitors at their lowest
Several players said that it was hard to be their best selves on the island — the stress, coupled with constant hunger and lack of privacy, can push people past their breaking points.
"When you're playing 'Survivor,' it shows the best and the worst of humans," Boehlke said. "And sometimes you do things that you wouldn't normally do or say because you're hungry and miserable, and that's on national television."
These stakes can also affect the camp dynamics. On "Island of the Idols," Patel was often ostracized and singled out at camp.
She told Insider that although she didn't feel like herself on the island, she was surprised by her fellow castaways' behavior. She added that "there's a different set of right or wrong in the game."
"I'm proud of myself that I was never malicious to anyone," Patel said. "Granted, you know, I was run over, over and over again, but I never resorted to maliciousness, and I think some people who are good people did."
Some players were surprised by how they came across on the show
Rickenbacker said he felt "a little insecure" about how he was portrayed on his season.
"I kind of felt like they were making me the comic relief of the show too much," Rickenbacker told Insider. "And, you know, that's kind of a cliché with Black characters sometimes."
"I did say some crazy things on-camera, but they chose not to use those," Rickenbacker added. "And I guess they chose not to use them because they wanted to paint me in a particular way."
Players with vaginas often have to deal with their period while on the island
Although it's rarely mentioned on the show, many competitors get their period while competing on "Survivor." For Beck, it was something she had to deal with not once, but twice.
She explained that she could only submit a certain amount of tampons for the med box, so she was out by the time her second period arrived.
"I'm just bleeding, and I go to one of the producers and say, 'Can you please get a tampon?'" Beck told Insider. "And I think I waited about 24 hours before she could get them in my med bag, because I had to wait until they went to a village for her to get them for me."
Periods get more complicated when players have to wear the same pair of underwear for up to 39 days.
"The hardest part is, as a woman who gets a period, you have to change your tampons without any sort of clean underwear or soap or anything to wash with," Boehlke said. "So it's hard because mentally you're just anxiety-ridden about what is getting up there."
For more details, read 'Survivor' players reveal what it was like getting their periods on the island.
There are typically sharks in the water, which players have encountered
There are several shots nearly every season just of sharks in the water, and Stott told Insider that she had a close call with one when she was out swimming beyond the ocean shelf.
"I wish the audience could see the scenes off-camera," Stott said. "I was almost bit in the face by a shark."
On the beach that day, Beck recalled, she heard splashing and saw player Aaron Meredith running and screaming about a shark, leaving Stott standing there "to get eaten alive." But Beck added that Stott "seeks out the danger" and probably "liked it."
Beck also told Insider that the crew won't let players go to the bathroom in the ocean at night "because they don't want you to die."
After they're voted off, jury members get to relax at Ponderosa
To soften the blow of missing out on the $1 million prize, jury members — players who were voted out after the merge and get a say in who wins — stay at a tropical spot called Ponderosa as they await the final tribal council.
Despite the fact that players are still cut off from the outside world, they are treated to nice beds, hot showers, and an endless parade of food.
"You can eat as much as you want. You can drink as much as you want," Boehlke said. "Eventually the people in Ponderosa stop caring about the game. You're just having a big party every single day."
Breakfast on the last day tastes even better than it looks
Every season before the last tribal council, the final three competitors are traditionally treated to a decadent breakfast packed with assorted meats, fruits, and treats.
Apostol said that after a month of scavenging for food, the celebratory meal tastes even better than it looks on-screen.
He called it his "favorite meal" and said he cooked bacon and then pancakes in the bacon grease. He recommends that "everybody try that at some point in their life."
After taxes, the winner doesn't really take home $1 million
All players get paid a sum of money to compete and appear on the show, but it's the $1 million prize that drives competitors forward.
However, after winning "Blood vs. Water," Apostol didn't actually take home $1 million.
He said between federal and state taxes, "most people are walking away with about $600,000."
Some competitors still carry physical and mental scars from the show
With choppy ocean waters, dangerous terrain, and challenges designed to push people past their limits, injuries are bound to happen on "Survivor." But some lasting scars followed players off the island.
"I've got two scars on my fingers still from chopping bamboo and having the machete skip off into my finger," Freberg told Insider. "I didn't get stitches or anything. They did give me a butterfly bandage, and I had to splint it with bamboo and a sock."
Patel also recalled the time she sliced her hand with a knife while prepping a coconut.
"That was painful," Patel said, holding up the hand in question. "I can't feel this finger anymore."
Some of the post-show pain can be felt mentally.
Rickenbacker said that returning home from "Survivor" can be a disorienting and "depressing" experience since many of the friends you made on the island "backstab you while you were out there."
"It's a lot of back and forth in your mind," he explained. "A lot of sleepless nights. 'What could I have done differently? Who could I have selected differently?'"
After losing a televised competition and reeling from broken alliances, players can feel extremely isolated — but Rickenbacker said CBS provided him free therapy for the first year after the show.
Players form genuine friendships that continue off of the island
A lot of competitors find ways to stay in touch and form lasting friendships that go beyond the scope of the show.
Beck told Insider that between talking at camp, swapping stories, and playing truth or dare around the fire, you become "so close" with the other castaways.
"Even though I didn't walk away with $1 million, I walked away with 19 or 18 new best friends that I love," Beck said. "And those moments are the ones that I really cherish the most."
Rickenbacker said he also formed lasting friendships on his season, mentioning his "David vs. Goliath" group chat with castaways Gabby Pascuzzi, Christian Hubicki, and Nick Wilson. He added that it's important to have people "you could talk to who went through that same experience."
Stott told Insider that she talks to "almost every single person" from her season, and most of them attended her wedding last year.
"It was like going to war with my mates, you know, and then you come home and you ain't got them," Stott said. "So all I wanted to do was talk with them, and hang out with them and [bullshit] with them."
Follow along with our series of interviews to see what else the former players told Insider.
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