''Survivor'''s winner earns the grudging admiration of Mark Harris

By Mark Harris
Updated August 26, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

He’s here, he persevered — get used to it

Six weeks ago, in a Hot Topic column about Survivor Richard Hatch that ran right after his newly formed alliance had shocked the show’s fans by ruthlessly picking off its first Pagong target, Gretchen Cordy, I called him evil. Soulless. Villainous. I compared him to Richard Nixon, J.R. Ewing, and Machiavelli. And I wondered if he’d be the last man standing. Six weeks later, I’m here to tell you I like the guy. And if that makes me two faced, treacherous and double dealing, so what? As we’ve learned from the 13 weeks of ”Survivor,” those are GOOD things.

Having rooted AGAINST Richard for almost the entire run of the series, I found myself unexpectedly pulling FOR him in the final two hours. Part of it was the competition: I had no patience for runner-up Kelly Wiglesworth and her inept attempts to curry favor with the ousted Pagongs (although the series finale, with its glimpses of Kelly doing yoga, hinted at a more interesting person than earlier episodes had revealed). Susan Hawk, as I think we all learned from the Big Speech, has some unresolved issues. As for Rudy Boesch, call me oversensitive, but about the 85th time he used the word ”queer,” he lost me.

Interesting, isn’t it? Grumpy, homophobic Rudy gets tagged as ”lovable” by just about every news outlet in America (even Bryant Gumbel essentially stated that Navy SEALS who served their country well are allowed to be homophobes). Meanwhile, Richard, who, for all his manipulation, was just about the only contestant who never said anything personally nasty about his teammates, is called the following: ”King Rat” (the front page of New York’s Daily News), ”Fat Naked Fag” (Sean Kenniff, ever the doofus, although I guess he was responding to one of Rich’s jokes), ”Evil Queen” (Washington Post), ”Darth Gaydar” (his teammates), and ”Queer” (you know who).

If you think it’s an accident that four out of five of these references make note of his homosexuality, get real. I’m not saying that people didn’t like Richard because they were homophobic — his glinting glee in manipulating those around him was reason enough to hiss him — but it’s telling how quickly words like ”queen” and ”queer” tend to make their way into the conversation when anyone dislikes a gay man.

For that reason, Rich’s win is a wonderful finger in the eye of a great number of people who deserve a lot worse than a finger in the eye, and I applaud it. I also think Rich did himself proud on two fronts: The first was the final tribal council, in which he bluntly reminded his teammates that IT WAS A GAME — a game that you’re supposed to play to win. (Frankly, that rang a lot truer to me than Kelly’s ”vote for me ’cause I’m a good person” speech.)

The second was his appearance on Gumbel’s post game show — a useful cool down session in which all 16 contestants came off as far more likable, easygoing people than the ones we’d just watched for three months. When the question of Rudy’s homophobia came up, it was Richard who defused it with thoughtfulness and generosity of spirit; he and Kelly even gave Rudy a couple of gifts. He announced that he’d use some of his winnings to start a camp for troubled teens — also generous. And in CBS’ poll, although most Americans said they’d been rooting against him, most also admitted that he played by the rules. So, call him whatever you want. The guy’s a millionaire, and he got there fair and square.