She appeared in the most watched Survivor season ever. And she became part of Survivor royalty when she returned, winning Survivor: All-Stars and being proposed to on live television by Boston Rob Mariano at the reunion show that followed. And although Amber Brkich (now Amber Mariano) went on to appear on two seasons of The Amazing Race with her new husband, she had steered clear of Survivor ever since, even while Rob competed two more times (Heroes vs. Villains, Redemption Island) and served as a mentor on Island of The Idols.
But now the woman who once defeated Boston Rob is back alongside her husband for the all-champions season 40 edition of Survivor: Winners at War, premiering Feb. 12 on CBS. We sat down with Amber on location in Fiji right before filming began to find out why she’s back, how she’s changed, and if she wants to beat her husband yet again.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me what the discussions were like at home with you and Rob coming back to play because that’s a dynamic in itself. It’s interesting enough that you’re here because we all thought we’d never see you here again. Then the fact you’re both here makes it even crazier.
AMBER MARIANO: I didn’t think I’d ever seen me here again. I had kind of closed that book, closed that chapter in my life. How could I not? It’s season 40 for goodness sakes. 20 years in and I’ve been here since the beginning. I was on season 2. The fact that I’ve come full circle in the beginning and now getting to be here for the most epic season that Survivor has had yet, it’s an honor. I have to admit, when I was first asked to come back, I was in as much shock as you. My mouth was dropped open for a good five minutes before I could say anything. But my husband was like, “Come on, Amber. Give me a smile. We’re doing this, right?” Of course, I was doing it. I couldn’t say no. I couldn’t say no, number one, to my husband, because I know he would love to have me out here again.
He lives and breathes this game. He loves this game. This time around, it’s for a whole new reason. I was a kid the first two times I played. I was 22, fresh out of college in Australia. Now I’ve been married for 15 years. I have four girls at home who are going to be rooting for me. I mean, how cool is that? I get to experience it in a whole new way. Other people have come on here and left the kids behind before. I never knew what that was like. I’m getting to experience that. It’s going to be hard, but they’re also the biggest motivation you could ever have. I think that’s pretty cool. Rob and I are excited to be here again. How lucky are we to have played this game together now two times? I mean nobody else has that experience. Other people have won this game like we have, but nobody else has the same experience that we have. The fact that we’re doing it again is just remarkable.
Would you have done it without him? If it was just you and he wasn’t coming back, would you come out here?
I feel good about having him out here. I think it gives me a little bit of an advantage in a way because I know that, right off the bat, I got a pretty strong alliance — somebody that I can definitely trust. Nobody else has that. But surprisingly, yeah, I probably would’ve come out here without him. Number one, knowing that my girls were in good hands home with their dad, I wouldn’t have to worry so much. Not that I’m worried, but feel really comfortable with that. I mean, it’s Survivor for goodness sakes. If you are ever asked to play this game and you turn it down, I don’t know who you are. This is a game that changes you as a person no matter how many times you’ve played. Robert, this will be a sixth time, and he still wants to do it. He still looks forward to that experience and how you feel in the end, and what comes of it and to hopefully win another million dollars.
As you mentioned, you’ve had four children, so there’s a long period of time there where you couldn’t have come out to play. But did they ever approach you at any point before this and say, “Hey, Amber. Are you interested?” Or, “Hey, just let us know when you’re interested.” Or were you just too busy?
The timing was perfect. Honestly, a year ago, I probably would have said no. I wouldn’t have wanted to leave my three-year-old. It would have been at that time. She would have been too young. I don’t think she could have handled it. The timing was perfect. I would have said no if it was any other time. Robert and I are so lucky in the fact that being that we both won, we had a little bit of money to keep us secure, that I could stay home with the girls and raise them until they were all in school. I so wanted to do that. That was so important to me. He was able to leave and play the game a couple of times while I had the girls at home, but I couldn’t have done that.
You mentioned the advantage of having someone here that you have to assume is going to have your back. We saw the way he had your back even before you were married in season 8. It also can make you guys a target. Clearly a power couple. We’ve seen that before. How concerned are you about that?
It’s a huge concern of mine. Probably my biggest concern is coming into this game. As soon as everybody discovers that we’re both here, everybody has a target on the back in the sense that we’ve all won. But then you think, “Okay. We’re all the clean slate because we have all won.” Well, not with Rob and I. We now have a target that’s doubled in size because we’ve both won. He’s Boston Rob, for God’s sakes. I mean, he’s the best player to have played this game, in my opinion, and in a lot of people’s opinions. I guess the only person who could maybe stand up to that target is Sandra having won twice, which is why she needs to go pretty early on. Although, Rob might feel a little different about that. He got to know her pretty well over those 39 days. He might feel that he can use her in a way. I don’t know. It’s crazy. I’m glad I have him out here. I’d rather have him out here than not have him out here.
You two have made it to the end together before. If you make it to the end together again, does it matter who wins? Does he want to beat you? Do you want to beat him? Or does it really not matter?
I think he would love to win again, just because he loves this game so much. I’d love to win again just because, I mean I’d love to one another million dollars. It would feel so good to have the season 40 one with all these winners. I mean who doesn’t want to have that title? But if it’s both of us in the end I’ll be happy for either of us. We can both bask in the glory of winning.
We’ve seen a lot of reality show finale proposals. They usually don’t pan out. The fact that you guys are sitting here 15 years later with four kids is crazy. When did you know that this wasn’t just a showmance? Was there a point during All-Stars where you realized, “Wow, this could be really something.” Did you know that then or was it after you got back and said, “Listen, this isn’t reality. Let’s now be in reality and see how that works?”
I was hopeful while we are on the show together that it was real, but I was never sure until the game was over. It’s Survivor. It’s the game where you play and you get played. I was hoping I wasn’t getting played. But for me, it was worth going through that experience just because if it was real, then I knew it was going to be spectacular. No, I didn’t know for sure until it was over. But it was very helpful.
We’re sitting here before the game starts. You’re here with nine other women. You probably have your guesses who the other people are. You certainly know one of them. Of the people that you know are playing or that you’re guessing, whom do you think you want to work with here?
I have a couple of things in mind. There’s a couple out there who I really know nothing about besides just their name. That can be a scary thing because I don’t know anything about them. However, it could also be a good thing because I feel like it’s somebody that people might not expect I would team up with. That’s kind of a good thing. People would never realize in a million years that I would have an alliance with that person. There’s also people who intimidate me a little bit. They’re really good game players, so I feel like I should team up with those people.
I think Parvati’s a perfect example. She’s a really good game player. That’s why she intimidates me a little bit. However, I feel like we could get along really well. We both are married to Survivors. We have that in common. She has a new baby at home. I have kids. We can bond in that way. I feel like we have a lot of material that we could work with. We can really bond over and build trust. She’s a scary player. If I can keep those scary players close to me, that’s I think better for my game and keeping them far away from me.
The game you’re coming back to play is so different from the one you left. I mean, 32 seasons later, you’ve never played with the hidden immunity idol or advantages.
Right. Or blindsides.
None of that stuff.
People didn’t get up and start talking at Tribal Councils.
How much does that concern you that you’re going into a game that you won’t recognize?
It concerns me a lot, actually. My family, before I left, they just kept saying to me, “Look for hidden immunity idols. Look for hidden immunity idols.” I’m like, “I’m going to try, but I’ve never done that before.” It concerns me a lot. It’s a whole new game. However, the first time I played it, it was also a whole new game. It was season 2. There was only one season before that. Nobody knew what they were doing back then. I feel like I’ve felt that feeling before. It makes it more exciting. I have a feeling just because I’ve never played with blindsides or hidden immunity idols or any of that kind of stuff, Jeff’s going to throw us some new stuff in this season too that none of us are aware of and none of us have done before. I’m not going to be the only newbie out here.
How do you think others see you, Amber? How do you think others see you as a player in this game?
I think people see me as this friendly, probably naive girl, who they might not have realized that I’m now 40. I’m not 22 years old anymore, but I still feel like they might see me that way and still see me as this young kid who doesn’t know too much about real life even. I hope that they see me that way. I can use that to my advantage.
It is true because if you’re not close to these people outside the game, then they only know you from what they saw of you, especially Australian Outback, which was the most watched Survivor season. You were a completely different person.
Right. I was a totally different person back then. I mean I wasn’t comfortable in my own shoes back then. I was still trying to figure out who I was. I was fresh out of college. I didn’t know where life was going at all. Now I’m completely comfortable with myself. I have nothing to prove. I am so satisfied with life and just coming out with confidence. I didn’t have that confidence before. I’m married to probably the most confident person in this world. Obviously, some of that has rubbed off on me.
Does that mean that going into this game, are you less nervous than you were before or maybe you weren’t nervous when you played before?
I wasn’t nervous really the first time around just because I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. The second time around, I was nervous just because the suffering and how hard it was was still very real in my mind and so recent. This time around, I’m not really nervous because I really feel like I have nothing to lose. Just being out here, it’s just such an honor. I’m just so happy to be here. I’m excited to be here, getting to do something you’re only supposed to get to do once in a lifetime, three times, with my husband. My girls are at home rooting for me. I don’t feel like I have anything to lose.
What’s your biggest weakness in this game? What’s the thing you’re most worried about in terms of as a player or what’s waiting for you out there?
I guess probably my biggest weakness, but could also be seen the other way, would be to have never played with any of these people before and not really know them at all. I think some of these people have played together before so they’ve seen what they’re like on Survivor and not just at home in real life. That could hurt me a little bit. But then again, it also helps me in the fact that I feel like if you set up expectations in this game, they could come back to haunt you and hurt you. You kind of have to be ready for anything out here. That’s what I am. I’m ready for anything.