There are plenty of reality TV shows that come and go. Some of them make normal people compete for the chance to be rich and (somewhat) famous. Some of them pit celebrities against each other for our amusement. Some just follow celebrities around to see what their daily lives are like. But out of all of them, none quite have the longevity or the quiet staying power of Survivor.
After 17 years on the air, you would think we were beginning to get bored of the format, but apparently not. The show takes a whole group of normal people and abandons them in an isolated area, alone except for the camera crews. They have to get their own food, water, and shelter together, and at the same time also try to compete in challenges. These challenges can give them rewards or keep them immune from being eliminated. One by one, the contestants are stripped away, until only one is left standing. That one player walks away with $1 million as the crowned champion.
Over 500 episodes later, you can be sure that there has been plenty going on behind the scenes that we don’t know about. Thankfully, some of it, we have heard about. From scandalous interviews to shocking reveals, these are the moments that rocked our perception of the show (and for the most part, made us want to tune in for the next season all the more).
These 20 scandals might have taken place behind the scenes of Survivor, but we’re about to put them right out in the spotlight!
20. The Contestants Are Head-Hunted, Not Chosen From Applicants
You might decide to take part in the show yourself and hunt down an application form. Sadly, though, this will be a waste of time for most people. One of the show’s producers revealed that most contestants are actually head-hunted, tracked down personally by members of the show’s staff. For example, Jenny Guzon-Bae from season 13 had her real estate profile spotted on the internet by a Survivor casting assistant. Similarly, Erin Lodbell from season 18 was chosen by a casting agent who saw her profile and wanted to audition her. Neither of them actually applied to be on the show. Only a couple of contestants on each season are chosen from applications to represent the “ordinary” American citizen. The rest of the contestants are chosen to fill roles, such as “The B*tch”. Season 3 contestant Kelly Goldsmith was told “Your ass is much bigger than I would have expected” at an audition for the b*tch role, but when she didn’t react in a b*tchy manner, she was cast as the Nerd instead.
19. Tribal Council Is Torture
Tribal Council usually takes somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes on the screen, with a lot of quick back-and-forth moments. But in real life, it’s a much more drawn-out process. The way that contestants describe it after leaving is horrible – for them, it’s much more like a torture session designed to wear them down and get them to say things that they normally wouldn’t for the cameras. The tiny stools they have to sit on leave their legs going numb quickly, and after several hours of asking questions and being drawn away from the others for private filming sessions, their minds start to go blank too. They give away vital clues about their game plan and their secret advantages. The producers deliberately put them under as much pressure as possible so that they will mess up.
18. One Contestant Got Very Messy
An unnamed contestant, who has been revealed via much sleuth work as Chet from Survivor: Micronesia, once had a very messy situation. As one of the cameramen from the show revealed later: “A contestant having sh-t themself after a challenge. … a quick dip in the ocean is all the freshening up they got. Had to wear the same sh-t stained salt water rinsed shorts for another couple of weeks as well!!” The scandal was revealed via a Reddit AMA, and was one of the juiciest bits of information that the cameraman was able to share. It’s incredible that they would force someone to wear those clothes afterwards, and also that they didn’t give him any further medical attention or the chance to recover for a while. Diarrhea could be an indication of a serious disease, condition, or food poisoning, and in itself can even be fatal, so it really seems that they passed this incident off far too casually.
17. They Used Body Doubles
So, by now most of us already know that a lot of reality TV isn’t really real at all. People are fed lines, the best bits are kept and the worst bits cut out, and the producers can even reframe a whole conversation to make it very different. But you probably assume at least that the people you’re watching on screen really are the people you’ve been told they are. Apparently not, since Mark Burnett has admitted that they also use body doubles. They use this when doing overhead shots, because during the real filming you would simply see all the crew members and cameras standing around – not the isolated experience that they want to give an impression of. They also used body doubles to recreate certain scenes that weren’t filmed satisfactorily the first time around, such as a swimming race.
16. They Create Wardrobes For Contestants
Just because the contestants are playing up for the cameras, and might sometimes be told what to say or do, they are still at least being authentic to themselves. Right? Well, no. It turns out, the producers dictate everything, even down to what the contestants wear when they enter the contest. John Cochran was a contestant who was notable for wearing a sleeveless sweater vest on the island. He has been quoted as saying, “They tell us what to wear. The lady on the phone said, ‘Justin Timberlake wears sweater vests’.” This manipulation is supposed to get the audience to view the contestants as stereotypical characters, so they can identify with them easier and make their choices on who to support. It’s clear that the people we see on screen really are just constructs created wholly by the producers, and a lot of fans weren’t happy to hear that.
15. Everyone Gets Paid
Considering that we have revealed that the contestants are little more than glorified actors, it seems fair that they would get paid for their work. But everyone only gets one shot at the $1 million prize, with everyone else going home empty-handed, right? Wrong. Actually, every single contestant gets paid. The first one to leave gets $2,500, which isn’t a lot, but is definitely a good payment to go on holiday and get your face on TV. Yes, the whole vacation is all-expenses paid, and you get to go enjoy it in a luxury hotel if you are voted off early. Everyone else might be struggling to survive, but you can put your feet up in the hotel bar. The runner-up also gets $100,000, and while it isn’t anything close to $1 million, it’s still a life-changing sum. Most fans would be shocked to learn that anyone other than the winner gets paid.
14. Aqua Dumps Are Real
If you haven’t seen the show, then you might not have heard about aqua dumps. This phrase gained notoriety when Darnell earned the nickname King of the Aqua Dump from his fellow contestants. This was a bit of a scandal itself, as it was the kind of topic you don’t usually see on shows like this. He was given this nickname because he would go out into the water close to camp, where the other contestants could see him, in order to relieve himself. Yes, he did his morning motions every day out there in the sea, with everyone watching. But wait – the fact of the matter is they were only calling him that because he was close to camp. In actual fact, everyone does it. The aqua dump is just supposed to be done far off or behind a rock so you can’t be seen. So, this means that the water around the camp is usually full of floaters – particularly gross if everyone keeps going in the same spot.
13. The Contestants Know All About The Challenges Beforehand
When producers spilled the beans on how the challenges are set up, it kind of ruined them completely for viewers. Firstly, the challenges are switched around and used deliberately to influence who wins the show. For example, they might decide that the scrawny nerd should tackle a physical challenge to ensure that they will lose. Plus, the contestants get a lot of a head start on deciding how to tackle each challenge. They are talked through, and then walked through, each one before they begin, with the cameras switched off. If they demonstrate a misunderstanding of the rules, the cameras can be switched off halfway through the challenge for everything to be explained again. It’s not the quick intro and then mad dash that it is portrayed as in the final edit.
12. They Get Driven Around In Luxury Vehicles
Being one of the cast members of Survivor must be exhausting. Every night, they have to walk to the Tribal Council through dense forest or along a jagged coastline. How do they make it when they are also deprived of food and put through physical challenges during the day? The truth is, they are actually transported around in luxury vehicles. A production car, usually a 4×4 to handle the terrain, with black windows comes to pick them up and drop them off. The only bit of walking that they do is staged for the cameras. They aren’t allowed to talk during the journey or see where they are going, and they often have to wait outside the council area until the light is the perfect quality for filming. That arduous walk it seems they are completing for each council is actually nothing more strenuous than a limousine drive.
11. One Contestant Sued The Producers
Stacey Stillman was one of the former contestants who saw through the games that the producers play, and decided that she wasn’t having any of it. She sued CBS over allegations that the show was rigged to have her kicked off at a certain point. She was voted off by the Tribal Council, but the 28-year-old heard from a few other contestants that the producers had actually told them to boot her off. Although the producers can only make suggestions and not literally give the order to kick someone out, they can apparently be very persuasive – especially for contestants who are fighting hard to keep their own spot in the show. If they did manipulate the vote then it would be very serious, as there are rules in place to stop this kind of thing from happening in TV shows.
10. One Contestant Did Coke
No, we’re not talking about someone sneaking in carbonated beverages. While filming Survivor: Panama, Shane Powers and Bruce Kanegai were wandering along the beach when they found a kilo bag of cocaine which had washed up on the shore. In Bruce’s words, “Shane took the machete and sliced it open and got to take a snort…then, the crew confiscated it. We could have gone a long ways without sleeping.” Shane was having a particularly hard time at this point because he was going through nicotine withdrawal – before going onto the show he was smoking around 70 cigarettes a day. He was also drinking 30 shots of caffeine daily, which to be honest sounds like going into a wilderness with none of his usual addictions probably would have done his body some good. When living a life of deprivation without proper food and shelter is better than your normal life, you’re going wrong somewhere.
9. Not Even The Reality Is Left Real
Most of the filming ends up being cut before it is shown, because it’s not very interesting at all. But as luck would have it, sometimes interesting things happen when the cameras aren’t turned on. This means that the contests then have to do it all over again for the cameras so that it can be included for the show. This includes moments like finding an idol or an important conversation between contestants about their alliances. When the producers find out that they have happened off-camera, everyone has to go through the tedious motions of pretending to do it again for real. This means that some of your favourite moments from the show might all have been play-acting instead of reality. Considering the amount of coverage the cameras have, it’s disappointing that they still resort to this tactic.
8. There’s Now A Gag Order
Because Stacy Stillman sued the show, even though she later settled out of court, you aren’t likely to hear more scandals coming out of the mouths of contestants. The reason for this is that all new contestants now have to sign a gag order. This prevents them from talking about the show in a negative light or revealing the outcome of the season before it has aired. If they do, they would be facing a penalty of $5 million. That’s a pretty stiff price to pay, so much so that even the winner wouldn’t be able to risk it. It’s a shame that they felt the need to resort to this tactic – after all, the scandals that have gone on behind the scenes have mostly served to make us want to watch the show more, not less!
7. One Contestant Was In Serious Medical Trouble
In Survivor: Kaoh Rong, one contestant was seriously injured. Much more seriously than the show would have had you believe, in fact. Three characters had to dig in the hot sun to try to retrieve bags as part of their challenge, and they all got into trouble medically. The worst affected was Caleb Reynolds, and his medical troubles didn’t go away once the show had stopped filming. He was given a medical evacuation after his temperature was recorded at 107 degrees, and he spent 5 days in an Intensive Care Unit to recover. He said, “If I walked outside in the sun, my skin felt like it was melting. I would get hot really easily. I’d sweat really easy. If I was inside without air conditioning, I’d be sweating. It really did affect me. My eyes hurt in the sun. I had five months of that.”
6. They Changed The Conversations
Clever cutting of the conversations on Survivor has also allowed the producers to put words into the mouths of the contestants – words which they claim they did not say. Dan Foley is one of the contestants who had a hard time with it, as he was made to look like a misogynist in the final cut. Speaking in an interview, he recounted his confrontation with the show host Jeff Probst after the show had aired. He said, “You did me wrong. You did me dirty. You screwed me on my edit. You made me look like a piece of s—.” And Jeff said, “How do you figure?” And I said, “You cherry-picked things to show, sometimes out of context.” John Cochrane also complained of this, saying that he had spoken out to insult Coach and then the producers chopped his words up and framed them differently so it sounded like he was complimenting him.
5. A Contestant Was Kicked Off Because Production Had The Wrong Answer
One of the contestants was in the unenviable position of having done everything perfectly right, only to find that he was kicked off anyway. It was totally incorrect, but the problem was not addressed until after the show had finished and it was too late to rectify anything. Lex van den Berghe was taking part in a trivia challenge in Survivor: Africa when he answered a question correctly – but the producers had the wrong answer written down, and his opponent was given the point instead. This directly led to another contestant winning immunity and going on to get second place, but when they were watching the shows back ahead of the reunion episode, one of the other cast members pointed out that Lex had actually been correct. CBS ended up having to pay a settlement of $100,000 to Lex and also to Tom Buchanan who was voted off after the trivia game.
4. The Show Violated Protected Areas
During the Survivor: Australian Outback season, contestant Colby Donaldson took coral from the Great Barrier Reef. This was a huge controversy because the reef is protected by its special status, and removing coral can be punished with big fines. At another point in the season, a helicopter which was filming scenes flew around the nests of some protected sea birds – another action that was against the law. In both cases, the local authorities were not happy with the irresponsible actions of the production team. Mark Burnett, the main producer, was forced to apologize and, luckily for everyone involved, no further action was taken. It could have turned out differently, as the Australian law doesn’t usually make any exception for status – as can be seen in the case a while back of Johnny Depp trying to bring his dogs into the country without following the correct procedure.
3. There Was A Potential Harassment Suit
During Survivor: All-Stars, Richard Hatch got naked while they were competing in an immunity challenge. For a brief moment, his genitals came into contact with fellow contestant Susan Hawk, who was obviously mortified. She quit the game a few days later, although Hatch had already been voted out for other reasons. She considered taking legal action, but CBS talked her out of it and, she says, helped her to “deal with the situation.” She later appeared alongside Hatch on a morning talk show, and seemed to have gotten over the incident. We wouldn’t be surprised if their way of dealing with it included an extra payout to stop her from causing scandal which would rock the show’s popularity. After all, losing viewers would cost them a lot more than it probably would to give a little hush money away.
2. One Contestant Was Sent To Prison Because Of The Show
Richard Hatch managed to avoid getting sued for harassment, but he did end up in legal trouble anyway. He was the winner of Survivor: Borneo, which of course meant that he was the recipient of a nice $1 million in prize money. He then failed to report his winnings to the IRS. They found enough evidence to decide that he had done this on purpose, and ended up finding him guilty of avoiding taxes in January 2006. He was sentenced to 51 months in prison. When they came up with the concept, we bet no one involved with the show could imagine that it would directly lead to someone doing jail time. This should be a lesson to all reality stars: the prize dangled in front of you is not as big as it appears after taxes are applied!
1. One Contestant Lost Her Job – Or Did She?
As part of their contracts, everyone who appears on Survivor must take the whole filming schedule off work so that they are around for any eventualities, even after they have been kicked off. One contestant, Denise Martin, claimed that she wasn’t able to go back to her job after competing and that the show had basically cost her career. Mark Burnett decided to pay her $50,000 in compensation for this unfortunate event – but then things took another turn. The school district where Denise worked revealed that she had actually taken a promotion before filming started, and had asked to return to her old position when she returned. Since it was no longer available, they had to turn her down. When this was revealed, Denise opted to give her $50,000 reward money to charity to avoid further embarrassment.
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