- Earl Cole (Fiji)
Fiji has such an unlikeable pre-merge. Fortunately, there’s Earl to help balance things out. Throughout the season, Earl is just so likeable. Whether it’s his scene on Exile, and calling it ‘Earl’s Island’, or pushing Dreamz in the water during an immunity challenge, he has a charisma that makes you root for him.
In addition to this, Earl plays such a dominant game. He leads an alliance of Yau-Man, Cassandra, Michelle, Boo, Cassandra, Stacy and Dreamz, and manages to get rid of the 4 Horseman, and never be the target of a vote. His most endearing moment has got to be forming the ‘Rush Hour’ alliance with Yau-Man. Watching these two guys from different backgrounds coming together is one of the best bromances in the series. Thanks to his charisma and strategy, Earl becomes the first unanimous winner, and had it not been for a stray vote in the pre-merge, would have become the first golden winner. Not too shabby for a guy that had hardly seen any Survivor before.
- Yul Kwon (Cook Islands)
Nobody is ever going to accuse Yul of having too much personality. But that doesn’t mean that there is nothing interesting there.
The point of the controversial Cook Islands season was to feature more diversity on the series, and Yul wanted to take this opportunity to be a role model for Asian-Americans. So while there are no funny confessionals from Yul, he makes up for it with pure strategy talk. On Exile, he immediately finds a super idol, and uses it to leverage power in the game. After the mutiny, he becomes the leader of the Aitu 4, and gets them to the end by Pagonging the Rarotonga tribe. One of my favorite scenes is where Yul uses the idol to flip Penner into voting with the Aitu tribe, by basically threatening him. Ultimately, Yul gets rewarded for using his brain, and acting like the ‘Godfather’ of Cook Islands.
- Stephenie LaGrossa (Palau, Guatemala, Heroes vs. Villains)
Stephenie really has 2 major appearances.
Her first appearance is one of the most memorable moments in the series. She is placed on the Ulong tribe, where she is one of the strongest members, and great at challenges. Unfortunately, they get decimated by the Koror tribe, and have to attend every tribal council. The season is pretty bleak for the Ulong tribe, but Stephenie keeps fighting hard to try and win challenges, and keep Ulong strong. The pre merge ends when she has to compete against Bobby Jon in a fire making challenge in order to make the merge. After Bobby Jon teaches her how to make fire, Stephenie manages to beat him. She returns from tribal council as a tribe of one, and in a great scene is in camp alone, feeling guilty for lasting so long and helpless at what is to come.
Stephenie joins Koror without any friends or allies. But she keeps fighting and manages to survive a tribal council, and even gets someone to quit so she can stay in the game longer. In the end, she manages to survive longer than she has any right to.
Stephenie is so well liked that she returns for Guatemala. She plays a similar game to her first appearance, only this time, her tribe is successful. As a result, Steph comes off as entitled and arrogant. She leads the dominant alliance, and blindsides her allies that trusted her the most. Because of this, Steph ends up becoming a goat for the FTC.
Still, Steph is more fondly remembered for her appearance on Palau, where she was the underdog that fought hard, and made it far. And honestly, that is the Steph that is a lot more fun to watch.
- Kass McQuillen (Cagayan, Cambodia)
Kass may be one of the best villains the series has ever had. Typically, older women in the series are portrayed as nurturing mothers. However, there is nothing sweet about Kass. She is the most critical of her tribe members, which leads to some great confessionals.
But what makes Kass memorable was how she played the game. Kass was willing to flip on her allies at any time. At the merge, she flips on the Aparri tribe, just because Sarah having the power of swing vote annoys her. Kass continues to flip on allies throughout the rest of the game, and cements herself as villain after she flips off Trish at Tribal Council.
At the loved ones visit, Kass shows a whole new side to her when she sees her husband. At first she jokes about showing emotion for the first time. When Kass talks to her husband, her entire character can be summed up with this quote. “If I were a man, I would be strategic. But I’m not, so I’m just the bitch.” It’s the sad truth about how women, especially older women, are often perceived in Survivor.
In Cambodia, Kass tries to change her image by bonding with women, and even makes Kelley a birthday present. But it’s too late, her reputation makes her a target, and she goes out at the merge.
Kass, zero chance of winning the game; but 100% chance of being beloved.
- Benjamin ‘Coach’ Wade (Tocantins, Heroes vs. Villains, South Pacific)
There is no denying that Coach is probably the biggest personality the show has ever seen. In Tocantins, Coach becomes the leader of the Timbira tribe. He has the mindset of ‘Iron sharpens iron’, and he only wants the strongest to go further in the game. However, he actively wants to get rid of Brendan. He gives people nicknames like; “The Dragon”, The Wizard”, and “The Warrior”. One of the funniest moments of the season comes when Coach tells one of his ‘stories’ to lighten the mood. But his entire tribe calls BS on it.
Coach ends the season with possibly the best boot episode ever. Coach makes a big deal about going to Exile. The guy who has done nothing but brag about how great he is at survival is afraid of being forced to survive on his own! When he gets sent to Exile, Coach suddenly has a really bad case of asthma, and a bad back. While on Exile, Coach walks around, and explains how Exile is no problem for him.
He returns to the game limping with a cane, and claims that he loses the Immunity Challenge to his bad back. He’s just fun as a joke character. You love watching this guy that claims he’s so good at survival fail at everything.
Coach going back on his idea of integrity and honor makes him an obvious choice for the Villains tribe in Heroes vs. Villains. He keeps doing his thing of preaching loyalty, and being a brilliant survival expert. But, he’s seen as a joke to his tribe. There’s a hilarious moment where he goes to his friend Tyson and asks for advice to be accepted by his tribe, and Tyson just lays into him. Coach goes back on his word and switches his loyalty from Boston Rob, to Russell. He has a satisfying moment, where Boston Rob calls him a ‘Little Man’ for going back on his word. In his jury speech, he calls Russell a ‘Little Man’. Still a solid joke character, and he has some funny moments.
His final, and controversial appearance is in South Pacific. This time, Coach is no longer a joke, but a strategic mastermind that needs to be taken seriously. He has a strong control of the Upolu tribe, and no one is willing to turn against him. He manages to get Cochran to flip, and Pagong the other tribe. Unfortunately, at Final Tribal Council, he is unable to own up to the moves he made, and ends up losing.
Still, Coach is incredibly fun to watch. He is so busy preaching about strength and honor, yet he is always the first one to get rid of the most honorable players. Fun character, I will always love Coach.
- Chris Daugherty (Vanuatu)
Out of the ‘Fat Five’ Alliance of Lopevi, Chris was definitely the funniest. He gave consistently engaging confessionals, and had fun moments like shouting, “Julie is a bad influence!” when Sarge starts sunbathing.
What puts Chris so high up is how great his story was. He becomes quite literally, the last man standing in the game. He manages to work his way to the end by forcing Eliza and Twila to work together. After his original tribe was down 6-1 in numbers, Chris manages to fight his way to the end of the game.
All of this comes to a head at Final Tribal Council. All of the jurors are still upset that Chris chose to take Twila over them. Especially after Chris made it seem like they were so close. Chris does an excellent job of explaining how the friendships he made were genuine; he just had to hurt those he cared about in order to win. Chris managing to maneuver the Final Tribal makes his victory all the more satisfying, and caps off a great season.
- Jonny Fairplay (Pearl Islands, Micronesia)
“I go by the moniker of ‘Jonny Fairplay.’ It’s because I don’t play fair”
This quote sums up one of the biggest personalities on the series. Fairplay is this young douchey guy. But there is something strangely likeable about him. From going to tribal drunk, or the “Fuck You” voting confessional, Fairplay is always entertaining. But, he comes alive during the post-merge of Pearl Islands. He takes a play out of Rob Cesternino’s where he would betray an alliance then go back and try and ally with them. He annoys his tribe with his laziness, by taking additional naps, but is still able to blindside the hardest worker in camp Rupert.
Still, if there is one thing that Fairplay will always be remembered for, it is now the infamous dead grandma lie, where he told everyone his grandma had passed away in order to gain sympathy. This works like magic, and Fairplay is able to keep making final 3 deals with everybody the other 6 players. Ultimately, Fairplay gets one of the most satisfying comeuppances, when he loses in the FIC. He keeps trying to make deals with Lil, but she won’t budge and refuses to let him win. In embarrassing fashion, Jonny Fairplay lost to the a woman 20 years older than him.
He returns for Micronesia, but quits after he gets hit in the head by Yau-Man, and doesn’t feel like competing anymore.
Still, Jonny Fairplay is one of the most notorious villains that the game has ever seen. Whether you love him or hate him, he keeps doing ridiculous things that are hilarious, making an iconic character.
Side note: Showed Pearl Islands to a friend that knew nothing about it, and he was shocked at the Grandma Lie. All these years later Fairplay is still shocking people.
- Ami Cusack (Vanuatu, Micronesia)
One of the more compelling characters in Vanuatu has to be Ami. She is the member of the Yasur tribe that takes the men vs. women theme to heart, and starts eliminating the men. Ami is seen as the ‘Ice Queen’, because she coldly cuts out the men and Lisa from the game. But this doesn’t paint the full story of Ami. The truth is that Ami is actually a very good friend to a lot of the women. This is seen when she was the only one willing to befriend Eliza while the rest of the Yasur tribe wants to get rid of her. Her social skills allow her to take control over the early part of the merge.
Ultimately, her game is over once her ally Leann gets voted out. But, Ami keeps fighting and tries to break up the alliance of Twila, Scout, & Chris.
In Micronesia, Ami doesn’t get as much screen time. She tries to bond with the Fans and goes out pre-merge.
Still, Ami deserves to be recognized for her role in Vanuatu. Ami was more than just a villain, she was a close friend to others. She could build really close friendships, but also cut them off very quickly. It was these traits that make Ami a great character.
- Sean Rector (Marquesas)
Sean’s first confessional is describing Sarah coming into the Marammu camp “She comes in all mah-va-lous like Cleopatra, with her boobs hanging out.”. Immediately, you know this guys is going to be hilarious. Sean has a lot of funny moments in the pre-merge. One of my favorites is his Al Sharpton impression in ‘Wake Up Marammu’. He also is part of one of my favorite rewards, where he goes on a trip with Paschal. They are two men from completely different parts of life, yet they are able to become friends.
There is a lot more to Sean than just being the funny guy. For example, at the merge he yells at John when he finds out John wants to vote for him. In his confessional Sean explains that he isn’t mad at John because he was going to backstab him, it was because the two men bonded over being societal outsiders; Sean for his race, and John for his sexuality. To Sean, this betrayal stung more than just being a part of the game, because it was from someone who he thought understood him on the island. That’s a pretty complex string of emotions for a reality TV show. Sean was also one of the more socially conscious players. He voiced his concerns frequently to Vecepia that he would always be the first one voted out of his alliance because his race still made him an outsider. In the end, Sean was sadly proven right, and he was the first one out of the Outsiders Alliance he helped to create. Sean wasn’t just ‘the funny guy’, he was a real person with emotions, that was always able to explain his point of view.
Hands down one of the funniest contestants on the show. I think the only way I can properly honor Sean is by giving out the advice he gave John. “The next time you’re in Vegas, always bet on black.”
- Yau-Man Chan (Fiji, Micronesia)
When the season starts Yau is this older Asian man that does things different from his younger tribe members. Initially it seems that he is supposed to be similar to the previous season’s Cao Boi as a comedic relief contestant. But here’s the thing, Yau-Man is just a complete badass. In the premiere, he manages to open the supply box by dropping it, when none of the strong young men can open it. In challenges, he always tries different ways to solve them, and they end up working for him. He is the sweet older man on the season, and everybody loves him. This allows him to form the ‘Rush Hour’ alliance with Earl, which is awesome. Throughout the season, he gets a bunch of fun moments, like finding the Immunity Idol, “It’s a turtle!” Yau is also this great strategist, but he feels bad about them. His biggest strategy move is also one of the most infamous moments in the series. At the Final 6, he promises Dreamz the car he just won, if Dreamz gives him the Immunity Necklace at the Final 4. Unfortunately, this backfires on Yau once Dreamz reneges on his end of the deal. Still, at FTC everyone berates Dreamz for not holding up his end of the deal, while Yau is the one that actually apologizes to Dreamz. Thus, cementing his status as one of the nicest guys in the shows history.
Returns for Micronesia, but is an early target for being a strategic threat. Has a nice moment where he offers to help Jonny Fairplay with any parenting advice, after Fairplay had done nothing but badmouth him.
In a game where lying and cheating are the main qualities, Yau Man leaves it as one of the most sincere, and best players of all time.
- Rob Cesternino (Amazon, All Stars)
If Richard Hatch invented strategy for Survivor, it’s possible that Rob may have perfected it. After the tribe swap, he forms a majority alliance on Jaburu with Alex, Deena, Heidi and Jenna. He rides this alliance into the merge, flips on them to get rid of Alex then flips back to get rid of Christy, and finally flips back to get rid of Heidi. Rob understands that he can always team up with people on the bottom to get rid of the ones at the top of the game.
But Rob isn’t just this robot that talks about strategy. Throughout the whole game he is just dropping one-liners like, “Why does he need the machete so sharp? I think he’s going to kill us”, or “Two girls, one brain, divide by two, only one halfwit left”. Unfortunately, he has some really bad lines, like “Camp Vagina Monologues”, which drops him a few spots.
He returns again in All Stars, but gets voted out pretty quick for being such a big threat.
Still, Rob leaves the game as a legend as one of the best strategists of all time, and one of the funniest
- Ian Rosenberger (Palau)
Ian is the young guy on the Koror tribe. He plays a huge role in his tribe dominating the pre-merge by being an athletic threat. Throughout the game, Ian has a friendly rivalry with Tom, where they both want to provide food for the tribe.
What makes Ian a compelling character is the relationships that he makes with Tom and Katie. He forms such strong bonds with them, but then ends up betraying them. With Katie, he promises to take her on a reward, but but doesn’t. He then betrays Tom by saying that he considered voting for him if he didn’t win Immunity.
Now in the grand scheme of Survivor, both of these are minor offenses. But, because Koror never had to attend tribal council, these friendships had never been tested. And for the first time the entire season, Ian has his character questioned. With his friends angry with him, all Ian can do is look at the camera with tears in his eyes and say, “I didn’t come out here to be the bad guy”
Ian goes into the FIC with these feelings that he’s betrayed the two people he cares about the most. He then holds on to these feelings while he and Tom hold onto the buoys for 12 HOURS! The challenge ends when Tom makes Ian an offer: If Ian drops out, then Tom will take him to the Final 2. Ian accepts on one condition. If he drops out, then Tom has to take Katie to the final 2. In the end, he loses the million dollars, but he wins back his two best friends.
The sad truth about Survivor, is that contestants never get to tell their story. It’s left up to an editing team to give them a character that can wrap up by the time they’re eliminated. But just this once, Ian got to make the choice of how he wanted his story to end.
Likeable character, great conflict, and a perfect ending keep Ian as one of the most memorable characters the series has ever had, and a fan favorite years later.
- Twila Tanner (Vanuatu)
One of the standout characters from Vanuatu. Twila was the outspoken highway construction worker of the all woman Yasur tribe. In the beginning of the season, Twila butts head with the younger women , because she cannot relate to them and views them as lazy. It is not until the tribe swap when Twila starts feeling more comfortable. She relates more to the guys than she ever did with the women. However, at the merge, Twila decides to vote with the women, dooming the men.
Twila’s story picks up at the Final 7. We see a whole new side of Twila at the family visit. When she sees her son, and breaks down crying, the audience sees that Twila is not just a stern woman, but a loving mother.
After the family visit, Twila joins an alliance with Ami and LeAnn, and swears on her son’s life that she is loyal. However, she quickly realizes that she will be on the bottom of their alliance. To solve this problem, Twila decides to flip and joins with the last man standing Chris, and her mortal enemy Eliza to take out LeAnn. Nowadays, this is a normal move players would make. But when Vanuatu premiered, this was the ultimate betrayal, especially after she swore on her son’s life. From this point forward Twila is painted as the villain of the season. She continues to bully Eliza by hiding bananas from her, and spying on her conversations with Chris.
The climax of Twila’s story comes when she makes it to Final Tribal Council, when she finally has to answer to the people she has screwed over in the game. At first, she brushes off most of the comments the jury makes. But by the end, their comments get to her, and she starts breaking down. Honestly, it’s a heartbreaking moment to watch. She begs the jury not to insult her anymore, because she already feels terrible. Then she hits at the sad, ugly truth of the show; this is a game for $1 Million, and there are people on this planet greedy enough to do things far worse than lying to for that amount of money. She really doesn’t even ask the jury to vote for her, just to be willing to forgive her, just so she can forgive herself. And if you look at the end result as a narrative conclusion; Twila isn’t redeemed, the jury doesn’t forgive her for what she’s done.
As a character, Twila has one of the best stories ever. It would be easy to walk away from the season viewing Twila as the villain that got her comeuppance, but that doesn’t paint the full picture. Twila was a woman that wanted to win to better her life by any means necessary. Along the way, she crosses lines she would not normally. While Twila never returned, fans of the series still remember her for her outspoken personality, and the regret that she had for how she played the game.
- Jerri Manthey (Australian Outback, All Stars, Heroes vs. Villains)
The best story arc of any contestant ever!
In Australian Outback, Jerri became one of the most despised characters ever because she was a better cook than Keith, and she had a crush on Colby. (I guess this passed for a villain in 2001). Still, Jerri is hilarious in the confessionals and has some great moments, like when she talks about food with Amber. Ultimately, her flirting with Colby gives her the reputation as the ‘Black Widow’. Australian Outback is a slower paced season compared to what’s seen on TV today. However, Jerri’s confessionals are one of the few things that holds up well. She’s a great narrator, and isn’t afraid to be a little snarky.
She returns for All Stars, and is still hated from her previous season. Throughout the season, you can tell that Jerri doesn’t want to be the villain this time. But she falls back into that role by butting heads with Rupert, and Colby. But the most pivotal moment for Jerri comes at the reunion, where she gets booed off the stage when she rationally explains that sometimes the castaways form real friendships, and when they are blindsided it can be taken personally. (Okay, seriously. What was up with the Jerri hatred?)
When she returns for Heroes vs. Villains, it is a whole new Jerri. For the first time, she feels comfortable with her status as the villain and leans into it. She plays a killer social game by being able to be a swing vote on the Villains, but in never hated for it. She is always a bit nervous dealing with Russell, but recognizes she can beat him. By the end, she is one of the most respected players in the game, and coming literal seconds away from winning the game!
This time, when she returns to the reunion stage a decade later, she isn’t met with boos, but applause. As a new generation of fans have come to appreciate Jerri.
Not bad for the original reality villainess!
- Cirie Fields (Panama, Micronesia, Heroes vs. Villains, Game Changers)
At this point, we all know the story. She was the woman who got off the couch and decided to get into the game. She is self-described as “A gangster in an Oprah suit.” And she is possibly the most dangerous Survivor player of all time.
Cirie’s story starts in Panama, where she is completely out of her element. She starts off upset that she is on the older woman tribe. She isn’t much use for her tribe because she has no survival experience, and is afraid of leaves. (Leaves? Seriously? LEAVES?) But she eventually turns things around. She is placed on the dysfunctional Casaya tribe, and is able to eventually fit in. While on Casaya everybody fights with each other, Cirie manages to build bonds with her tribe members. Cirie is fantastic as she reacts to the craziness of Casaya; like the time that she needs to inspect Shane’s penis. More importantly, she has some really touching moments. She manages to catch Shane a fish on his birthday and cheer him up. On the loved ones visit, her husband spends the night at camp with her. At this moment he is shocked to see the way she’s living and it highlights how far she has come. Cirie also manages to have a badass moment by pulling off the 3-2-1 blindside of Courtney.
She returns for Micronesia and becomes the swing vote for the Favorites tribe. She goes from being the odd woman out to running the game. She helps lead the Black Widow Brigade with Parvati, where she comes up with two of the best ideas ever. First, by blindsiding Ozzy. But her cruelest idea is trying to get Erik to give up hi Immunity necklace to blindside him. In the end, Cirie gets blindsided by a surprise Final 2 twist, and gets voted out on Day 38.
In Heroes vs. Villains, she returns as a Hero for how she puts her family first, and being a strategic mastermind. She starts out as the brains, but, gets idoled out by Tom Westman early in the game.
She comes back one last time for Game Changers, and plays a huge role in the post-merge. She is a mentor to Michaela, and one of the major strategic leaders. She has a nice scene where she shows her son what it is like to live in the jungle, and he is shocked. In the end, she gets eliminated because she is the only one without Immunity. Continuing the trend of being eliminated by circumstance.
In the end, Cirie is mostly remembered for being a great player. She knows how to get herself in a good position, and how to play on people’s emotions in order to get what she wants. But, to me, she will always be the fish out of water that learned how to adapt and master the game.
- Natalie Anderson (San Juan Del Sur)
I’m not as hot on San Juan Del Sur as a lot of other people, but I love Natalie!
Natalie has a harsh personality that can be off putting. She’s willing to yell and fight John Rocker, and on her reward with Jon/Jaclyn she gets so annoyed with Jon talking about wine that she wants to smack him.
But, Natalie also has a softer side. When her twin is the first boot, she is heartbroken because this will be the first time she has ever had to do something on her own. Natalie also has a great relationship with Jeremy, as they bond over having their loved ones voted out.
After the merge, Natalie’s story arc is based entirely on revenge. She wants to get payback on the people that lied to her and sent home her closest ally. What follows is a masterclass in gameplay, as Natalie single-handedly controls the entire endgame. Throughout the merge, Natalie manages to flip back and forth between Jonclyn and Missy/Baylor, in order to blindside every one that got rid of Jeremy. What’s crazy is that even though she backstabs Jaclyn & Missy by voting off their loved ones, they both still want to work with her. Natalie goes on to win, and completes her arc by being able to prove to herself that she can stand on her own and find success. In the end, it’s one of the most satisfying endings, because you saw how much far Natalie had come in order to win.
Modern Survivor’s editing has changed by shifting from character driven stories to gameplay related ones. And if that is the direction the show is going, then I believe Natalie is the perfect character they should make more of. If you love the show for strategic gameplay, Natalie plays a near perfect game with some of the flashiest moves from the Final 7 to the end. However, if you like character driven stories, you get to watch Natalie slowly gain independence as she realizes she can survive without the help of her sister.
Phenomenal winner and needs to make a return!
- Kathy Vavrick-O’Brien (Marquesas, All Stars)
Kathy dives into Marquesas headfirst. She is obsessed with trying to make fire, and is able to find a food source for her tribe. Because of her enthusiasm, she rubs a lot of the Rotu tribe the wrong way. While this upsets her, she never lets it stop her from trying to help out. She continues to find food for the tribe, and in an iconic scene, pees on John Carroll’s hand after he is stung by a sea urchin.
At the tribe swap, Kathy finds herself on the new Maraamu tribe. Here, she is able to bond with her tribe, and her excitement for the game is appreciated. Once the merge comes, the old Rotu tribe is still trying to get rid of her. This prompts Kathy to pull off the first major power shift in the series, as she teams up with Paschal and Neleh to form a new majority. At the loved ones visit, Kathy is able to see her son, and he can hardly recognize his mother. Kathy’s story ends after Neleh and Vecepia make a Final 2 deal during the FIC, which ends Kathy’s journey.
On a personal note, Kathy holds a special place in my heart. I got a temp job shortly after graduating college where a lot of the staff treated me terribly. Around this time, I was rewatching Marquesas when I would get home from long days at a job I hated. This time, something about Kathy’s journey spoke to me on a personal level. Even after her entire tribe would mock her, she never stopped trying. Each episode Kathy would always work her hardest around camp and treat everyone nicely in spite of how how mean they were to her. Watching Kathy actually inspired me to walk into a job I hated with a smile on my face, and try as hard as I could to be the best person I could be.
Normally, Kathy would be around my #1 pick, but she loses points for her All Stars appearance. She says that Sue was ‘Dragging her tribe into her core of hatred’ after the Richard incident. She also says that Jenna is ‘Like a cancer to the tribe’, while her mother had stage 4 cancer (Seriously, WTF Kathy?) To her credit, no one comes out scot free from All Stars.
Her second appearance isn’t enough for me to stop liking her though. She is the original archetype for the older woman that doesn’t fit in, but goes on to do really well in the game. The thing that makes Kathy still stand out after all these seasons was her sheer enthusiasm for the game and sense of adventure. Great story! Great Character!
- Kelley Wentworth (San Juan Del Sur, Cambodia, Edge of Extinction)
The patron saint of pre-merge boots!
There isn’t a lot to Kelley in San Juan Del Sur. She is targeted by Drew Christy for being the biggest threat in the game, and has some great reactions to this. Ironically, this causes Kelley to form an alliance to vote him out, and fulfills his worst fear. She then gets voted out after a tribe swap when her dad has trouble fitting in on the new tribe.
This makes her an odd choice to return for Cambodia, and the one that fans were the least excited to return. But she definitely makes the most of it. In the first episode, she manages to find a Hidden Immunity Idol at the first challenge. She is invisible for most of the pre-merge, and I kind of forgot about her. But then, she uses that idol to pull off one of the most satisfying idol plays of all time! From that moment on, Kelley is on the outside looking in on the majority alliance. However, she keeps moving on by finding joining ‘voting blocs’ and winning Immunity challenges. She keeps going until she loses the FIC, and cries knowing she will be going home.
What makes Kelley stand out is her status as the underdog. She fights harder than anyone else to stay in the game, but can never break into the core alliance. But, this never stops Kelley from fighting until her torch is snuffed. Kelley manages to go from a decent pre-merge character, to one of the savviest players in the game in a matter of season. Looks like Drew Christy was right all along, and she should be taken seriously as the biggest threat in the game.
[EDIT: Here is the update on Wentworth after her latest appearance.]
Wentworth’s latest appearance wasn’t as good as her previous one. As I’ve stated before about Survivor and storytelling; framing is everything. And this time, Wentworth isn’t always framed in the best light. Because she is in the majority alliance on a weak tribe, her sarcastic comments are less fun, and more biting. But that’s the thing about trying to continue a story, the dynamic has changed. Wentworth can’t be the underdog everyone overlooks and a dominant player at the same time. Also, I have to cut her some slack. I’d definitely roll my eyes if I were on a tribe with Keith and Wendy. And honestly, I didn’t think she was that unlikeable. I like her friendship with Lauren, and her love-hate relationship with David Wright. Plus, the season takes a nose dive after her elimination. I’m going to keep her here
- Aubry Bracco (Kaoh Rong, Game Changers, Edge of Extinction)
To quote Debbie Wanner,” It was fun to watch your transformation from neurotic nerd to geek warrior’. When Aubry starts the season, she looks like the person that won’t be able to handle the game. She has an anxiety attack in the middle of camp. To make things worse, her closest ally Neal gets evacuated and takes his idol with him. But Aubry never stops fighting. She gets herself into an all women’s alliance with Cydney, and regains numbers. She orchestrates the blindsides of Debbie and Julia. Plus, she pulls off a major social move by getting Tai to flip on Scot and Jason. Throughout the season she has some great lines, from talking about the ‘Jocks and the pretty people’, or how Survivor is like the Oregon Trail. Everything is going well for her in the game, until her other ally Joe gets evacuated. She then manages to beat Cydney with fire to get to the final 3. Unfortunately, she can’t explain her moves well at FTC.
She comes back for Game Changers, but gets a much smaller edit. Still, she has some great moments. She wins immunity by breaking the record on the Teeter Tower and celebrates by hugging Jeff. And she has a great confessional wondering why Tai always controls her fate in the game. She makes it to all the way to Day 37 before getting voted out.
I think the reason people still fiercely defend Aubry online is because of how relatable her story is. She keeps getting thrown to the bottom of the tribe, but she keeps fighting back to regain control of the game. I think that’s a story people can identify with. People aren’t always in complete control of their lives, they make mistakes and have to overcome them. On top of that, Aubry isn’t flawless. She’s quirky, and not the most popular on her tribe. But she never lets any of that stop her from succeeding. Watching Aubry overcome her mistakes in Survivor is so satisfying because I think at one point or another most people have been in her position. Aubry’s growth arc is truly one of the best of the series and highlights how the series is still capable of creating brilliant underdog stories.
[EDIT: Here is the update on Aubry after her latest appearance.]
Aubry gets booted really early on in the season, and doesn’t get a chance to do much. I guess I should really knock her down a few spots… But I love Aubry so much, I was just glad to have her on my screen again
- Malcolm Freberg (Phillippines, Caramoan, Game Changers)
Honestly, at this point are you surprised to find out that I’m a Malcolm fanboy?
The reason why I love Malcolm may not entirely be on his gameplay, and more on when he came into the series. Between Nicaragua to One World most of the contestant were either unlikeable, or boring. Then in the Philippines along comes Malcolm. He starts off on the inept Matsing tribe and manages to survive and be placed on the Tandang tribe. While the other young contestants on the season are either zombies (Carter), or have no problem bullying other contestants (Pete & Abi Maria); Malcolm goes in a different direction. His closest ally is Denise, the older woman of Matsing. Then when Lisa finds his idol, he doesn’t get angry, but instead puts on the charm and swings her over to his side. In addition to being a nice guy, Malcolm gives solid confessionals, like when he says “Abi has all the social grace of a Mack truck”. He goes from being in the minority, to flipping people over to his side and eventually gets to a position of power. Unfortunately, he loses the FIC and gets voted out on Day 38.
Malcolm’s underdog status allows him to come back in Caramoan as a favorite. He doesn’t get as much screen time, but still has some great moments. His ‘Hold up Bro!’ line to Reynold is one of the best moments of the season. Or the time he played 2 idols to save the 3 Amigos, and get rid of Phillip. And anyone that gets rid of Phillip moves up in my book! The only times this season has a pulse is when Malcolm tries to shake things up.
Malcolm is brought back for Game Changers where he is the primary physical player on both Mana and Nuku. Unfortunately, he gets voted out in a twist, after ally JT tells the other tribe who they are voting out.
Malcolm is always one of the most likeable contestants on each of his seasons. He has this natural charisma that makes you want him to succeed, all while being good at challenges and making great strategic moves. Ultimately, he’s one of the good guys from the series, and I would welcome him appearing on any season.
- Parvati Shallow (Cook Islands, Micronesia, Heroes vs. Villains)
At first, there’s really nothing to her. In her first appearance, she’s the flirt, who gets herself into a majority alliance. But then once the Aitu 4 takes control of the game, she mostly waits to get voted out. The only thing of note she does is get naked in a hot tub with Ozzy and Yul. This made her an unusual choice to return for Micronesia. She does the same thing: flirting with James, getting into the majority on the Favorites tribe. But then she starts playing more strategic. She has a final 3 deal with Amanda and Cirie because she knows she can’t beat James or Ozzy at FTC. Then at the swap she makes strong connections on the Fans tribe with Natalie and Alexis. With these numbers she leads the Black Widow Brigade with Cirie, where they pull off huge blindsides on Ozzy and Jason. She has a fun scene where she is on Exile, but feels so strong with her position in the game, that she would rather tan than search for the Idol. Throughout the game, she always gives fun confessionals. Ultimately, she wins not only for her strategic game, but also for the friendships that she made with the Fans tribe during the game.
She returns once more in Heroes vs. Villains, with a huge target on her back. Initially everybody on the Villains tribe wants her gone, because they are afraid she will form an all female alliance. But, she forms a strong relationship with Danielle and Russell, and together, the three take control of the Villains tribe. Even though she was never a huge physical threat previously, this time she wins several Immunity Challenges. She also pulls off one of the most entertaining moves of the series by playing 2 idols for Jerri and Sandra in order to save the Villains tribe, and gets the iconic line, “It would be downright depressing to watch green bananas turn yellow without my debaucherous little villains around”
Parvati is usually the default answer people use when people are asked for their favorite player. But, when looking closer, it’s not hard to see why. With each appearance she learns from her mistakes and progressively becomes an even bigger strategic and physical threat in the game. Even though she’s remembered for being the ‘flirt’, the truth is, she always wins using her mind. As a player, she captures the idea of ‘beauty, brains, and brawn’.
- Tyson Apostol (Tocantins, Heroes vs. Villains, Blood vs. Water)
I love Tyson! In Tocantins he’s this goofball of a character that acts as if he doesn’t want to be there. “I don’t really know, I wasn’t paying attention”. He also has some great villain quotes, “It’s fun watching people cry, when you crush their dreams.” He’s such a bully to Sierra, which I normally don’t appreciate, but he has so many great lines while doing it. Ultimately, he gets too full of himself and is blindsided by none other than Sierra, which is a satisfying end to his story.
In Heroes vs. Villains, he doesn’t get much screen time. But, he definitely makes the most of it. His first confessional is questioning Colby’s masculinity for losing to Coach in ‘Battle Dig’. I also love when he tries to comfort a distraught Coach, but just insults him for wearing feathers to Tribal Council. He’s in a great position, but gets tricked by Russell Hantz into essentially voting himself out of the game.
As far as gameplay goes, Tyson reaches his peak in his third outing. Initially, he’s just doing his thing of being sarcastic and making fun of Aras. But once his girlfriend gets voted out because the other tribe views him as a huge threat. Once this happens, Tyson flips a switch and becomes this huge strategic player, forming alliances with other players that lost their loved ones, and knowing when to cut other players from the game. Still, Tyson has some funny moments. Forming the ‘Coconut Bandits’ with Gervase, the ‘ruffle feathers’ moment, having to empty out his bag to get the idol at Tribal, and telling Katie where her seat was. In the end, he pulls it off and finally wins after playing a great strategic and social game.
Throughout his time on the show, Tyson goes from this snarky guy that can’t keep himself from doing/saying something stupid. Eventually, he learns from his mistakes, and realizes his full potential as a player. Also, the fact that he can make me laugh every episode he’s in definitely makes him one of my favorite contestants of all time.
- Courtney Yates (China, Heroes vs. Villains)
Courtney has to have one of the greatest introductions of all time. A monk corrects her praying in a Buddhist temple, and she gives him a dirty look. This pretty much sums up her character in a single scene. She’s a waitress from New York City, and she doesn’t want to deal with this world of Flight Attendants and Sunday School Teachers. Initially, she seems like an easy boot because she is lazy and terrible at challenges.
But let’s be honest here, nobody likes Courtney for being a challenge beast or a brilliant strategist, but for how great her personality is! Just about every single confessional she has is perfect. For example, “It’s great that everyone wants to vote Jean Robert out now, but he’s like the Susan Lucci of tribal council, his name is always up there, but never gets voted out,” On top of that, Courtney has a great sense of humor, “Like I’m gonna keep anyone warm. I weigh seven pounds. I can’t even keep myself warm. Get off of me.”
But Courtney’s brand of humor isn’t just an act for confessionals, she isn’t afraid of using her sense of humor to mock her fellow castaways. Like her impression of Jamie: “We’re Team Abercrombie and Fitch, and you guys are all like, Team What’s Left” Or any time that she would go after her arch-nemesis Jean Robert: “Bad boy… not quite the term I would have selected. It’s always interesting to hear people talk about themselves, he’s a really bad boy, just because you play poker or something, do you have a Harley or something.”
Occasionally Courtney crosses the line, like her comments about Todd’s sister, or saying Denise sucks at life. But she still manages to be likeable.
Going into FTC, Courtney is still keeps making jokes, “I won an Immunity Challenge. Did you?” What is even crazier is that even with her snarky attitude, Courtney almost wins China. She gets rewarded with votes just for her brutal honesty. She even manages to get more votes than Amanda who took FTC seriously.
She returns for Heroes vs. Villains, but she receives an invisible edit because she isn’t Russell Hantz and goes out before the merge. Still, she manages to get a few great moments. Courtney gives the definitive Russell Hantz impression, has a great friendship with Sandra, and even manages to put Jeff Probst in his place. Fortunately, Courtney is on the jury, so we get to watch her reactions throughout the craziness of the HvV post-merge.
The reason I love Courtney is because she is the type of person that shouldn’t be good at Survivor, because her attitude would drive people away. However, she goes on to make friends, and get far both times that she plays. Courtney Yates may be a villain, but she is a loveable one; her negativity is so relatable.
- Tom Westman (Palau, Heroes vs. Villains)
Tom Westman is a 1980’s action hero trapped in the body of a Long Island dad. He’s basically the coolest player the game has ever seen.
Tom was the leader of Koror, the most dominant tribe of the series. What’s crazy is that initially this is seen as the weaker tribe, but with Tom’s leadership and challenge abilities they manage to win every Immunity Challenge and decimate their competition. Along the way Tom was in charge of his tribe’s camp life and nearly every decision that was made. He wins a ton of Individual Immunity Challenges, and the few times he was vulnerable, no one wanted to target him.
There’s more to Tom than just gameplay, he also had some fun moments throughout the game. There was the time Tom killed a shark and dragged it on the beach, and the time he got really drunk after a reward. He even has some folksy lines like, “Caryn’s more nervous than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.” or “I’m a stubborn Irishman, I can be out here all night”.
His dominating performance brings him back for Heroes vs Villains. He’s on the bottom for most of the season because he stands up for Stephenie early on in the season. But he still manages last for a little while. He has a great Idol play that keeps him in the game for a little bit. But Tom has some all time great one liners. “Tomorrow we make our apologies; Tonight we make our move.” is one of the most badass lines ever uttered. Also, “You’re all mass and no class” is one of the best insults in a voting confessional.
The reason I love Tom so much is that he’s the type of person you wish you could be on Survivor: an amazing physical physical/strategic threat that is beloved by the entire tribe. It’s the kind of fulfillment that no other contestant gives you. The fact that he’s also the biggest hero of the series also helps.
- Sandra Diaz-Twine (Pearl Islands, Heroes vs. Villains, Game Changers)
Is this an obvious choice for #1? Yes. Yes it was. But let’s not pretend this isn’t deserved.
In Pearl Islands, Sandra was the sassy, no-nonsense member of the Drake tribe. It didn’t matter who you were, Sandra was not going to put up with any of your BS. In the second episode she tears down her opponents’ shelter for a tarp and mouths off when they don’t help her.
However, the biggest target for her mouth was season villain, Jonny FairPlay. Her fights with him are some of the funniest moments of all time. Whether it was Sandra shouting “I CAN GET LOUD TOO! WHAT THE FUCK?” When Jon raised his voice at her or “Where’s that snake mother-fucker Jon? I tell you what, can’t nobody trust that bitch right there!” Sandra truly never cared and was willing to mouth off with no filter.
No one ever targets Sandra because she is weak in challenges and sassy around camp. So she manages to get to the end with her “Anyone but me” strategy. The crazy thing is that, she wins! The only thing that is crazier… is that she does it a second time.
She comes back for Heroes vs. Villains and introduces herself saying “Last time I was mean and this time I’m meaner!”. Sandra is back to her old self, mouthing off to everyone around camp. She gets stuck with super-villain Russell Hantz, and spends the entire season messing with him and making jokes about him. Sandra manages to highlight how frustrating it was dealing with Russell for such a long time. She tells him point blank “I’m against you Russell”, and he still can’t figure out that he should target her. In a twist reveal, the audience discovers that the real threat to win was Sandra, sitting right under the dominant alliances’ nose the entire time.
What makes Sandra so entertaining isn’t that she wins, but how she wins. Sandra put herself against two of the biggest villains of all time and manages to take both of them down, essentially with her mouth. She never tolerates anyone’s BS, and always knocks them down whenever they get too arrogant. Both Pearl Islands and Heroes vs. Villains are incredible seasons; but what makes them great is that it’s Sandra, the woman that fought against the villains and was viewed as too weak to be a threat that walks away with the victory. It’s a satisfying conclusion that makes each of these seasons go from good to the two best seasons in series history. Even if you know the conclusion, both of these seasons are worth your time because Sandra makes them worth watching.
Hell, Sandra’s even entertaining when she loses. Her Game Changers appearance feels like Sandra fan fiction. She takes control of her tribe, takes control of her swapped tribe, eats her tribe’s sugar supply, blames it on someone else to stir up drama, then blindsides her biggest threat to be the last winner standing. It’s no surprise that as soon as Sandra leaves Game Changers, it becomes an awful season.
I see no better way than to honor this list than with Sandra’s most iconic line: “The queen stays queen. Adios!”