By Dalton Ross
November 06, 2018 at 09:00 AM EST
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Whether coming up with a crazy scheme to liberate a jacket from a fellow player, almost falling victim to the goofily titled Rock Stars alliance, or defending herself from bizarre accusations from an ousted contestant, Angelina Keeley has been at the center of the Survivor: David vs. Goliath storm. (And she’s even been through two literal storms with the cyclones that landed during filming.)

With the merge finally happening on Wednesday’s upcoming episode on CBS, we checked in with Keeley to get her take on all the insanity of the first half of the season. And much like what we’ve seen on Survivor, the woman came to play — providing fantastic insight and explanations for her actions while revealing a lot that we did not see on TV. Read through all three pages for the entire interview, enjoying exclusive merge photos along the way!

Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Okay, Angelina, let’s start with Jacketgate. When and why did you hatch this plan to somehow take possession of somebody’s — anybody’s! — jacket?
ANGELINA KEELEY: Jacketgate was a moonshot mission that epically and hilariously failed! No one laughed harder while watching my pleas than I did, but the good news is that the jacket was never the primary objective. My focus heading into each tribal was always to vote out the person that advanced my short- and long-term game.

Before I get to why Natalie (and her jacket) ended up being the primary target for that infamous vote, let me start by setting the scene a bit: First, I would have given anything to bring my parka jacket with me into the game, but alas, what we wear is not entirely up to us as contestants. Our clothes are supposed to be a good representation of who we are and what we would normally wear in our day-to-day lives. We start with one pair of clothing, and what you start the game with is what you end your game with, unless you get creative. From the first day of the game when we jumped off the barge and headed to our camps, we started the game drenched, and for many of us our clothes continued to exist in a perpetual state of wetness for weeks. Even when the sun came out, the humidity ensured our damp clothes would haunt our dreams (or lack thereof).

Second, our season has had the most brutal weather of arguably any season of Survivor. Up to this point in the game, we’ve been hit by two cyclones, and wind and rain nearly every night. There are between 10 to 12 hours of darkness at night, the temperature drops significantly, and our shelters did not provide full protection from the elements. Most nights, the rain would get so heavy that water would leak through our roof for a large portion of the night. On top of this, there was essentially a wind tunnel as well, because we are not able to fully enclose our shelter since we are filmed 24/7 and there needs to be space for the camera crew. What all of this adds up to are very cold conditions, and as someone who naturally runs cold, I found myself hardly sleeping. I would lay awake at night thinking about how much I wished I had warmer clothing and how much having it would improve my game because I’d be able to actually sleep at night.

It wasn’t until the Immunity Challenge that I truly started to feel that Natalie was the best choice to go that day. During the challenge, she and Mike started arguing pretty intensely. Natalie had wanted to be the first one to try her hand at the snake puzzle, but Mike told her no, that we couldn’t risk it, and this set her off. I think their arguing was a distraction to Nick on the snake puzzle, and it made Mike really adamant on wanting Natalie out. I had already stuck my neck out once for Natalie in the first Goliath vote. I was working on developing trust with Mike and Nick, and I also wanted to show them that I was flexible and willing to work together. So I proposed a deal: If we get Natalie out this time, we get Lyrsa out next, and continue to work together for the long haul. (More on this in another question below.)

When we got back to camp and decided on voting out Lyrsa, I told Natalie I wanted Lyrsa’s jacket as a way to really make Natalie believe that Lyrsa was the target that night. I didn’t know Natalie would talk to Nick in the way she did, but the way she approached him further motivated Nick to want her out that night and to go along with our plan.

The first version of Jacketgate was actually quite simple: My plan was to try to get everyone to leave their jackets at camp before we left for Tribal Council. I said I thought I saw some rain clouds and we didn’t want to risk getting all of our clothes wet at Tribal. For a part of the afternoon, this worked. Lyrsa and Natalie both stored their jackets along with my thin sweater in a dry area at camp. Unfortunately, people started to get paranoid, so everyone ended up taking all of their clothes to Tribal that night.

It was shortly before Tribal that I went to Lyrsa with my idea. I told her I had a crazy idea that I would only do if she was cool with it. I asked her if she would be comfortable with me writing her name down so as to make Natalie think that I didn’t go against her and potentially get her to will her jacket to me before she left. Lyrsa laughed, and said that she was totally fine with it. I told her I would only do it if she was completely okay with it, and she assured me she was. I told her I would put a heart on it so she knew the vote was mine, and I told her I wanted to work together on the next vote to make sure we both make it to the next stage in the game.

Of course, no one likes to see their name written down, even if it is is a ploy vote, so I knew there was a risk of alienating Lyrsa by doing this, but I wouldn’t have done it if she had told me it made her feel uncomfortable in the slightest. I then proceeded to let Mike and Nick know about the plan, and make sure they were also okay with it, and they were. Then, it was just about executing and hoping for the best. Obviously, it didn’t work out in the slightest.

Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment

Did you think you had a good shot at Natalie’s jacket when you concocted the voting-for-Lyrsa ruse, or were you not surprised when she kept it?
After I swung the votes at the first Goliath tribal to be a Jeremy blindside and save Natalie, Natalie told me how Jeremy had asked her for her jacket since he thought she was on her way out. Natalie thanked me for working with her on this vote and told me then that if she ever did get voted out, that she would give me her jacket before she left.

Even though she had said this to me, I always knew Jacketgate was a long shot. Natalie is a tough and smart person, so I didn’t know how it would all play out. I wasn’t planning on getting up to hug her in that moment, and while the feelings of surprise that I expressed were not real, the feelings of sadness were. I know many people saw that whole shenanigan as an act to get her jacket, and that was a part of it, but I was actually sad to see Natalie go. I was one of the few people who got close to her in the game, and who tried to work with her. I felt she was a very misunderstood person on the island, because I saw moments of a very loving, funny, playful Natalie. Some of my biggest laughs out there were with her. Had she shown more levity and less abrasiveness, which I saw glimpses of, I think she could have made it deep in the game.

That being said, in the moment she was leaving what really tipped her off to it all was when I was hugging her goodbye, Nick blurted out, “Hey, Natalie, how about you give Angelina your jacket,” in a mocking tone and he laughed. I think this put her on notice more than anything. That, mixed with being blindsided, led to a silent departure and failed Jacketgate attempt. In the end, I wasn’t surprised that she kept her jacket. I hope my loss was viewers’ gain.

Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment

You said at the last Tribal Council that a plan was put in place when you all voted out Natalie and you were hoping to continue that plan. Does that mean there was a deal made with Nick, that you and Mike would vote out Natalie if he agreed to take out Lyrsa next?
I had a strong feeling that Jabeni would lose another immunity challenge, so when I was making decisions out there I was never thinking one vote at a time. I had to play through all the scenarios in my head of how the imminent move could impact the next, and my longer-term game. If we had voted Lyrsa out first from Jabeni instead of Natalie, then across all tribes Goliaths would still have had a 8-6 majority, and that would mean that at the next Tribal Council voting me out would not make a difference to whether or not we entered the merge with a Goliath majority.

Also, despite saying that she was “Goliath Strong” at the first Tribal Council, one night when we couldn’t sleep Natalie and I were walking around and she told me her hit list for the merge, at the top of it were several Goliaths. I never felt Natalie fully trusted me, and I felt she would go after me the first chance she got. I felt she would have been able to get Mike and Nick to work with her to get me out before the merge, especially if she were to explain the strong ties I had to many Goliaths, as well as my ability to flip the first vote.

I knew Mike was a smart and aware player, so once the numbers between the original tribes were 7-7, I presumed that he would not want to lose a Goliath majority by taking me out, since that would potentially ostracize him from the original Goliath tribe. I used the broader numbers between Davids and Goliaths as added insurance of maintaining my place in the game and ensuring I had a better chance of making it to the merge.

Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment

Did you ever feel in any trouble before or during that last Tribal Council?
Of course! The minute you start feeling safe in the game is the minute you get voted out. You can never let your guard down in Survivor. I also was aware that I had just made this crazy Jacketgate move, and that put me in the hot seat. I didn’t expect to be playing so hard out the gate, but I have a “go big or go home” mentality with most things in life, and I knew I would regret more not playing hard than I would laying low and getting voted off.  That being said, I worked every angle with Nick and Mike to give myself the best shot at staying in the game, and I prevailed.

What was your first reaction at the tribe swap when you saw your new Jabeni tribe in terms of whom you were with and how you thought you all would do?
My first reaction was that either someone had a voodoo doll of me back at Ponderosa or that I had some bad karma with the Survivor gods. I knew the only thing Jabeni had the best shot at was perfect attendance at Tribal Councils, and that it was going to be a dicey journey for me to get to the merge.

Earlier in the season, you and Alison echoed a point I have made before on my recaps: that the vast majority of hidden immunity idols are found by men. And yet here again, all the idols so far have been found by men. What’s your theory on why that is?
There are a lot of elements at play here and I’ll do my best to explain my theory on it, but of course this my opinion and I am always open to hearing other’s ideas on this. Survivor is fascinating because so much of what we see in the real world is alive and well in the game, especially as it pertains to gender norms and biases. First, the division of labor at camp tends to fall along stereotypical gender norms; the women often tend to the fire, clean the pots, cook the food, weave palm fronds, etc., while the men tend to go out for the more physically intensive labor of collecting bamboo and firewood, hunting crabs, fishing, and the like. This dynamic affords men more opportunities to be out and around the areas where idols are located. While occasionally idols are hidden around camp, most tend to be out in the jungle or along the beach. Not every foraging trek turns into an idol hunt, but it does allow them to better understand the area, make mental notes of key locations they want to come back to, and often gives them an excuse to wander unaccompanied into the woods. Those factors all come into play.

I believe the biggest factor at play though is that hunting for idols is viewed as very aggressive gameplay. In the real world, it has been well researched and proven that double standards for certain behaviors exist between women and men. Women tend to be socially penalized for displaying aggressiveness, while men are often rewarded and celebrated for it. From the old-school, traditional gender perspective, we expect men to be aggressive, but when women are aggressive we can be seen as breaking the mold of how we are expected to behave. When Ben, Russell, and Tony hunt for idols, they’re labeled as bold, daring, and taking their game into their hands, whereas women can be labeled as sneaky, conniving, and untrustworthy. Of course, the inverse can be true, but often this disparity in perception hurts women disproportionately and perhaps makes some of us less inclined to search for idols because the search itself has the potential to be more damaging to our game and how our tribemates perceive us.

For me, knowing that less than one in five hidden immunity idols are found by women was extremely motivating. For anyone who knows me, they know that I strive to live a life that empowers girls and women to achieve parity in all spaces, and this is one very small example of one of the many spaces we need to change. I was so happy when the show included this scene in the first episode, and my hope is that for all future women who play the game, they are even more inspired to boost that stat!

Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment

Jeremy caused a big ruckus both at your camp and in the media when he accused you of wanting to be in a showmance with John Morrison. What was your reaction when you heard that out there and then again in his exit interviews?
Let me start by being perfectly clear: There was no showmance between me and John. When I first heard from Natalie that Jeremy was using the word “showmance” about me at the Goliath camp, I was hurt. John and I were in an alliance, not a showmance. In fact, if you look at Jeremy’s definition of a showance (looking for coconuts together? pulling clothes out of the rain?) you realize those are exactly what good alliance members do. Part of what strengthened the friendship between John and I is that we are in very similar life phases: He was engaged and about to be married when he returned home from the game, and I had just gotten married the summer before. We were both out there fighting to create a better life for our new families. So Jeremy’s mischaracterization of my friendship with John was both inaccurate and hurtful to both of us, personally and for our games. But I always assume the best in people, so I went to Jeremy directly and asked him to not use that word because it was not true. He tried to laugh it off as a joke but then continued to spread his opinions without regard for how it might impact others. It was for this reason that I lost all trust with him.

So was I upset? Yes. Did his continued use of the word “showmance” help motivate me to whip the votes to get him out? Absolutely. But I also saw him as a threat in the game who would use his humor and wit to get far in the game. Jeremy’s claim about off-camera conversations to whip the unanimous blindside were untrue; every conversation I had was on camera. By making this claim, he is calling into question the integrity of the game. Jeff would never allow anyone to have that many off-camera conversations about strategy because it jeopardizes the entire premise of the game. As any fan knows, Jeff and his team are too good at their jobs and care too much about the process for that to ever happen.

As for Jeremy’s exit interviews: His conduct was entirely unbecoming, distasteful, and mean. He crossed a line by choosing to attack me personally with a malicious prepared statement that included slander. When he said that my husband told me to do anything to win the million dollars, that was a blatant lie. My husband literally told me the opposite, to not lose myself in a game for something as fleeting as money. My husband is an infantry officer in the United States Marine Corps, and if you know anything about Marines, you know they value honor and integrity above all else.

My hope moving forward is that people treat each other with respect and dignity in their exit press and beyond. There was a way for Jeremy to do that, but he chose the low road. Fortunately, his false accusations didn’t impact me in the slightest, and I think his exit interviews, as well as how he treated Natalie during that Tribal Council, confirmed to America why he was a unanimous boot.

Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment

So little of what happens out there actually makes it into the episode. What is one thing that happened that you wish could have made it to air?
There are a thousands of small, special moments that happen between each of us out there that don’t make it to the air, and those truly are the moments that make the experience so remarkably transformative and bonding for us as a cast. Lyrsa and I connected early in our Jabeni days about both being Latina. Lyrsa spoke on a personal level about how it was to grow up in Puerto Rico, and how the recent hurricane had impacted her and her family. I shared with her that my grandparents and great grandparents immigrated to the United States from El Salvador and Mexico, and how my heritage is a central part of my identity. It was special to have a tribemate who had shared this with me and who would throw out the occasional Spanish phrase or sentence when we didn’t want others to know what we were saying.

Of course, while playing you only see what you see, so when the episodes then air you get to see so much more. What has surprised you the most watching the episodes play back on TV?
Watching the season back is a bit like pulling aside the curtain of Oz. I’ve loved getting to see firsthand everyone’s strategies and thoughts throughout the journey. Seeing it all back now confirms for me that everyone cast on our season is tough competition and playing great games.

Last week, watching the last immunity challenge with the saucers was crazy to see from the outside and relive all over again from a viewer perspective. I can’t emphasize this enough: That saucer was REALLY HEAVY. I was really proud to see that even though we were completely blown out in the challenge, that Jabeni never gave up. My hands were so shredded and bleeding that I had to use my forearms to carry the saucer for the final stretch. Jabeni means “champion” in Fijian, and even though we were far, far from it that day, I am proud of how we lost together as a tribe and never gave up.

Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment

Finally, making the merge is a big landmark moment. How did it feel to know you had made it to that stage of the game?
Making the merge was a dream come true! This is the stage when the game really skyrockets, and I felt ecstatic to make it to this point. I was so excited to meet the people in the game that I had only seen from across our mats and to be reunited with many that I had already gotten to know. As a player, the options, paths forward, and relationships truly become so much more complex, and this was the part I was most looking forward to the new challenge of it all. For our season in particular, I got the impression that the level of competition was at an all-time high, everyone could hold their own, so I was eager to see all the trickery and masterminding that I knew each player was capable of and the potential chaos that could ensue.

For more Survivor scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

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