Michele Fitzgerald wants to prove she deserved winning Survivor

The season 32 champ gets candid about losing confidence after criticism of her win.

But while Michele can now use her underdog status to her gain, the lack of respect the now 28-year-old gained for winning Survivor: Kaoh Rong actually made it difficult for her to enjoy the victory. In a very candid and emotional chat in Fiji before filming began on season 40, Michele opened up about the self-doubt she experienced due to negative feedback from her first outing. "It's sad to say that that really impacted my experience, but it did," says Michele. "I'm out here to prove to myself that I deserved it the first time, to prove to everybody else that I deserved it the first time, and watch me do it again. It's a little bit of redemption for me."

Read on for one of my favorite Survivor interviews ever.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, Michele, give everyone the update: What have you been up to since people last saw you on the show?
MICHELE FITZGERALD: Yeah, it has been a few years. I think it's been four years now. At the time I was 24, I was a bartender, and then since then, I've moved into the travel industry. I was kind of flitting around from place to place, no real roots, and now somehow I've grown roots. I've grown up, and I'm an adult. I have a stable job in the travel industry, so new Michele, new and improved.

I'm a firm believer that who you are as a person and where you are in your stage in life impacts how you play the game. You won the game last time. Now you're a little older, a little wiser. How are you different and how do you bring that into the game?
I do feel like I am older and wiser. An interesting thing is, at 24 I thought I knew everything. It's so interesting that in our mid-twenties we think that, and we look back and we're like, "Oh my God, s—. We really didn't know anything at all!" I had that moment of reflection, recently looking back on my season knowing that I was coming out here. It makes you put a microscope on and be like, "Okay, what were you doing, and what could you have done better?"

So I played into what I knew at that point, which was my social strengths, and I think now, I feel more self-assured, that I can use the other things, the other tools in my box that might not be as sharp as that, but that still get the job done in a more efficient way. I'm interested to see what I can bring out this season. I want to be a little bit more multi-faceted, and show other sides of Michele Fitzgerald than this little beauty girl.

And is that also not just a function of getting experience with age, but also the confidence that comes from winning?
Absolutely. I think I gained a lot of confidence on the island when I was out there, and it's interesting, when you watch the show back, you can be really self-critical, and I think I experienced that, and I lost a lot of self-confidence, which I had to build up again in a different way by surrounding myself with family and friends, and putting focus on a different facet of my life. So I've grown exponentially from the experience in ways that I didn't necessarily think that I would. I thought I would go on the island and that would be it, and that would be the epitome of my experience. But it was so much more than that.

That's really interesting. I may be misunderstanding you, but are you saying that from watching your season back you lost confidence at first? Because I'm not sure if you know this, Michele, but SPOILER ALERT: You won the game!
I did. Yes.

So tell me about that. You win the game, you go out there and last 39 days, and the jury gives you the money, votes you the best player of the game, and yet then you watch it back and you become self-critical. Why?
It's so interesting, and when I talk to people about it, it's hard for people to understand, because they have the same perception as you. "You won the game; how could you look back on it and not be proud of yourself?" And I am proud of myself; don't get me wrong, but when it was airing, and I was watching it, and I was seeing all this stuff online and all of this criticism and controversy that was surrounding this season, especially my win, and it makes you second guess everything a little bit. And so it's sad to say that that really impacted my experience, but it did. I'm out here to prove to myself that I deserved it the first time, to prove to everybody else that I deserved it the first time, and watch me do it again. It's a little bit of redemption for me.

How do you come out here and avoid the experience that you had last time of watching it and being self-critical? Meaning how are you going to watch season 40? And are you going to watch it differently and take a breath and realize, "Okay, don't get too down on myself?"
Absolutely. I think my biggest regret out of the entire experience is how down about the whole thing I got after the show. And it really influenced…. Like, it should have been something really run to watch back with my family and friends. I was kind of sad that I let that tarnish the experience for me, so this time, I want to go in and no matter what happens, I'm going to enjoy every single step, because most people don't get a chance to have a do over, and I am lucky enough to have that.

Well, Michele, I watched this season, I wrote about this season, and I did write that I thought Aubry should have won because it's my job to give my opinion on the game…
Of course.

But it really is affecting me, hearing you say that it impacted you — not necessarily what I wrote, but just the general reaction. Because the way I always think of it is, this person, they won, and we can break it down in a million different ways, but this person won, and anyone that won — it's an amazing accomplishment. Anyone that makes it to day 39, even if they get zero votes, it's an amazing accomplishment.

And so I just want to say that I'm sorry that you had such difficulty with it, but I hope you know that what you did, regardless of what any yahoo writes online, that's incredible.
Listen, I definitely do not want you sitting across from me feeling sorry for me or pity. I don't want that at all.

No, but you're being really open and honest, which I appreciate.
Yeah, absolutely. It was just part of my journey. And everybody has different journeys, and different trials and tribulations that bring out a better version…. You come out on the other side of Survivor a better person, and it could be that you got blindsided and it brought things out in you that you didn't expect. Everybody has a different obstacle that they have to overcome to come out of the Survivor experience better. Mine was different than most people's, but I still feel like it was a really great, impactful portion of my life, that I was able to overcome something that at the time, I wasn't sure if I had the strength to. Overall, it was actually a blessing in disguise, and honestly, I'm just really grateful that I get to do it over again, and put my stamp on this game that love so much, part two.

I just don't think I've ever…. A lot of winners have come back, in a lot of different capacities, have come back to play this game before. And to hear a winner say, "I've got something to prove," is refreshing. To hear you say, "I'm not satisfied with just that." Most people are satisfied. No matter how it happened, they're satisfied. And it hurts me to hear that you were having difficulty with that, but also, at the same time, I like the fact that you're not satisfied with just that, that you want more.
Well, Dalton, I'm never satisfied. As for my friends and family, they're like, "Goddamn, Michele. Can't you just take it? Take life as it is and be happy?" I'm like, "No, I want more. I want to do more, want to be better, and I want to be the best." And this is giving me an opportunity to strive for that, so I'm excited.

Was there any hesitation about coming…

Not even a second. I didn't even let you finish the question. I never even hesitated. When I got the call, I was crying, screaming — one of the top moments of my life to get this call.

You're out here on the beach, and you know nine of the other people you're playing with. You've been here with nine other women before the game. I'm sure you have your guesses or theories as to who else is out there, but in terms of the people that you've seen here, anyone that you're thinking, "Hey, I want to work with this person?" Tell me about some of the impressions that you have of the people that you're with.
It's really interesting, because I look at everybody individually, and there are certain people who I naturally feel like I gravitate more to. But for every pro to one of those players, there's a con. So for every reason that I would want to work with somebody, I can think of probably actually 10 reasons to have my guard up with them. I feel like when my feet hit the sand and I get to talking with people and know where I need to go, but right now, I really am not sure. Do I go with Kim Spradlin, like go with the elephant and be the bird who sits on her back and eats the bugs, and latches on for a while until I fly off? Or do I take out the elephant? It's hard to know really which way you're supposed to go until you're there. I'm playing it really adaptable, really flexible. That's my goal in this game, to keep an open mind, and all my doors and windows will be open if you want to come inside.

Adaptability is always the key in this game.

Was there anyone you were particularly excited to see, just as a fan of the game?
Oh my God, I fangirled so hard when I walked up. I was the last person to walk up to this group of girls, the last one. And I flushed from head to toe, bright pink, because I had an overwhelming sense of fan girl. I've been watching this show since I was 10 years old, so walking into that room, I geeked out so hard, probably most over Parvati, who I've wanted to be like since I was a kid. And Sandra's there; I'm like, "Oh my God. What have I gotten myself into? I think you have the wrong girl."

But it's really incredible. I'm so honored. Looking at these women … Only 15 women have won Survivor, I believe, so to be one of 10 of those women, and I look at them and they're so strong and such positive beacons for independence, women's independence. I'm just proud to be part of it. Really.

It's a very exclusive club. And I'm sure you're making your evaluation of other players. But how do you think others see you? How do you think they see you as they make their evaluation of Michele Fitzgerald?
Well, I like to think that they underestimate me. That would be in an ideal world. I think it would be foolish for anybody to go into a winner season underestimating anyone, because we all won for a reason. But if you're looking at everybody's résumé, I'm probably one of the lesser threats. Which is great, such a great advantage for me, because I'm a very different person than I was, 24-year-old beauty tribe Michele, and I'm ready to play a much different game. So if they're underestimating me, that gives me flexibility to play more boldly without looking like I'm playing too bold. I can fly a little bit under the radar and make moves without all their alarm bells going off right out the gate. I'm hoping that I'm perceived a little bit less threatening.

This is season 40, so you know it's going to be huge. All-Stars was the first massive season. It was won by Amber, who was not seen as a threat going into that season at all. Heroes vs. Villains was won by Sandra. She's called the Queen now, but going into that season, she was not seen as one of the bigger threats of that season. So it is interesting what you say.
Yes. And that's a fear of mine though. Like what you just said, these are super fans out here, too, and they have their finger on the pulse of what's happening in these returning seasons, which by trend, seem to be taken over by under the radar players. If that's their mindset going in, then my ship might be sunk before I even leave the port, but I'm hoping that that's not the case.

What is your biggest weakness? What is the thing that concerns you the most about your own game heading into this?
My biggest weakness is that because I won, I'm not necessarily aware of when the tides shift, and, in particular, when they might switch on me. So because I've never experienced that act of being blindsided and voted out myself, I feel like it's a huge weakness for me to not know exactly when that could be happening for me. People who have been voted out before, they've seen what it's like, and they know the feeling and they can pick up on the cues. Because I don't have that, I'm scared that there might be a snake in the grass, and before I know it, I'm dead.

That's a really astute point, and I think that in all my years of doing Survivor, I'm not sure anyone's made it to me before. Because we always talk about why returning players do so well in this game. because they've experienced it before, and they know certain cues. And if the warning bells aren't going off, because it hasn't happened for them, that can be a danger. It's a great point. For someone who won this game, you're coming in here feisty, and I like it, Michele.
I have nothing to lose. I won already. I feel like a winner just being back out here. I'm so freaking honored, and I want to do this season justice, so I'm ready. I'm feisty, and I'm ready to go.

For more Survivor articles, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss, and for exclusive season 40 photos and video, follow Dalton on Instagram @thedaltonross.

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