Snuffed: 20 years later, Sonja Christopher relives being the first person ever voted off Survivor

By Dalton Ross

If you call Sonja Christopher on the phone, there’s a good chance you may get serenaded. And there’s an equally strong shot that the 83-year-old voice you hear on the other end may be accompanied by the most famous ukulele in reality television history.

“You didn't want me,” sings Christopher while strumming along. “You didn't want to do it without a preview to it. You thought that I'd be mean: imagine that! Eating rat, knife in my back. Give me, give me, give me what I long for, the chance to sing a song with you would get an encore. But I survived and I'm here.”

The song itself is an encore of sorts, a rendition of a tune the former music therapist once wrote and performed for Rosie O’Donnell, and played on the very same instrument that accompanied Christopher when she set out for Pulua Tiga in the year 2000 as one of 16 contestants to appear and compete on network television’s first reality competition show — a mysterious new program titled Survivor.

However, Christopher’s stay on the island was brief. In a lighter moment, she was famously shown singing “Bye Bye Blues” to eventual winner Richard Hatch, but after struggling while trying to transition from water to land in the show’s initial immunity challenge, the then-63-year-old was voted out of the game on day 3 when she received four votes (to three for Rudy Boesch and one for Stacey Stillman). That indignity made Christopher not only the first person to be voted out of Survivor: Borneo, but the first person to be voted out in 40 seasons and counting of the seemingly never-ending franchise.

Host Jeff Probst has now snuffed 610 torches in his Survivor career, but Christopher’s was his very first. And while that may seem like a somewhat dubious distinction for the ukulele-strummer, it has also given her a small measure of reality television fame as the first person to endure such a cruel fate — and do it with a smile on her face and a song in her heart.

But that early exit is not Christopher’s only measure of Survivor significance. Twenty years later, the pride of Walnut Creek, Calif. remains the oldest female contestant to ever play the game. And the woman who once serenaded O’Donnell and dined out with Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche is still a devoted viewer. Christopher was a big fan of the just completed Survivor: Winners at War. (Her take on champion Tony Vachos: “He was such a loose cannon, it seemed. And his hiding in the tree almost seemed laughable. But it turns out apparently it worked for him!”)

So while May 31 marks the 20th anniversary of Survivor’s debut, it also marks the 20th anniversary of Christopher’s exit. To celebrate both occasions, we caught up with the first person ever voted out of the game to get her complete story, including the remarkable chain of events that led to her ending up on the show, the last minute change of footwear that doomed her in the challenge, the other song she sang that got cut out of the episode, her initial reluctance to vote for Rudy, and how she feels now about her unique place in Survivor lore.

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ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give us the update, Sonja. How are you doing?
SONJA CHRISTOPHER: Well, for a long time after my retirement from the rest of my life, I was a music therapist. With my banjo, I'd go to assisted living places or groups of seniors and get them involved in singing along with all the old songs that our age group grew up singing. I was doing that sometimes five or six times a week. And also, people would ask me to play for club meetings or parties. So that's what I did, but I retired in December.

So how did you end up on Survivor?
I was newly recovering from breast cancer treatment. And I had been in a 11-year relationship and my partner got consolation elsewhere during that time of the cancer. So I had moved to a senior retirement community, and I was by myself, no ties, my son was grown and taking care of himself. I was reading the morning paper, and it said something in an article about CBS looking for 16 Americans to cast away on a deserted island and see who could survive for 39 days.

Well, I had always wanted to see if I could survive using only my hands and my wits. As I read on, it said something about the one who stayed on the longest would get a million dollars, and they'd vote someone off every three days, and the program was called Survivor. This was around October 1999, and about the same time I was one of 18 breast cancer survivors from around the country who were selected to go on a three-day outdoor training program, sort of like Outward Bound. We were taught mountain biking and kayaking and rock climbing and orienteering. I was by far the oldest of these breast cancer survivors. I was then 62.

On the plane after this three-day experience, I had two realizations. One was, I can still do physical things. And two, our survival is not just about ourselves, but it's about inspiring other people, being an example for other people so they know they can survive, too. Not only survive, but thrive. So I came home and I applied. You were supposed to make a tape three minutes or less, and so I got out my little ukulele, dressed in khakis, went out in the woods here, leaned against a tree, and sang, "It's not the islands there, they're calling to me. It's not the balmy air, or the tropical sea. It's the chance to survive and come out alive, on the island of Pulau Tiga."

Many months after the whole thing was over, CBS gave me a bit part in the Dick Van Dyke Show, Diagnosis: Murder. In conjunction with that, I was talking to Peter Goldman, who was the casting director for CBS, and he said, "You know about your tape, don't you?" And I said, "No." And he said, "Well, Mark Burnett brought about 40 of the finalists tapes in. And when Les Moonves saw yours, he said, 'That one, I want.'"

What it was like right there at the start when Jeff Probst is giving you two minutes to grab as many supplies as you can and jump off the boat in the middle of the ocean and this whole adventure becomes very real?
When I hit that water, it was heaven. It was warm water. Warm, beautiful water. I had been honing up on my camping skills. I would go to bed with a length of rope and practice knots every night in case I had to make a raft or something. It was like all of this now, it was here! This is it!  I remember feeling so wonderful hitting that water. Then it took us two and a half hours to paddle that big raft in.

CBS

What were your first impressions of your tribemates? What did you make of them?
I paddled for a while, but I got blisters on my thumb. We hit the beach and everybody started just talking and hugging and hollering, "Where are you from?" and da, da, da. I couldn't get a word in edgewise. So, I was just working. Older people have a strong work ethic, I think. So, I'm loading things, putting up the clothesline. The young people were quite outgoing. I remember just that the younger people seemed to come together more. And that was okay with me, except when the other gals went off to get water and I was on the beach working with the guys building a shelter.

They lifted the first crossmember, the high end of the lean-to, and they put it very high up. I can remember Rich putting it up there, with all of his height. And I said, "Hey, you guys, you know with the wind coming off the South China Sea, we need to lower that." And, "This is fine, Sonja," somebody said. Well, they just wouldn't listen to me. I felt like I was talking to my teenage son. And I finally said, "Well, from the books I've read," thinking maybe that will impress them — like, it's not me that's saying this. I remember Sean Kenniff, the nipple ring doctor, as he was referred to, brushing me off in a very sweet way.

When the gals came back from getting the water, Kelly Wiglesworth, who is a professional river raft guide, said, "What the heck? That's way too high. Get it down." So they jumped to it. And so I decided, they're going to find out who I am with time. And so I'm just going to be in the background and do the work that needs to be done, and so forth. And that was a mistake.

Someone once asked me if I thought my being voted off early was due to ageism. And I said, "Oh, no." And you know why is because I had no concept of ageism. I was always good at sports and very active physically. I just didn't realize I was, to some of these people, an old lady. And of course there was Rudy on our tribe, but he had a very strong sense of his military self. And he didn't care. If he wanted something done, he'd bark at us in orders. But I pulled back. And so sadly they didn't really get to know who I was.

Yeah, that's important in those first few days to make those social bonds with people to protect yourself. And back then performance in the challenges was really important, and you obviously had a struggle in the department.
Some backstory on that. Reebok was one of our sponsors, and they had sent us some open sandal beach shoes. When I got to Borneo, right away they put blisters on my feet. A crew member said, "Oh, yeah. We got ours and threw them away two weeks ago when we got here." They had the same problem. I was allowed to go down to a store and get another pair of sandals. I got a pair of Pumas, but I got a black ballpoint pen and crossed out the white logo of the jumping puma. Nonetheless, I had these very painful blisters that would pretty much get sand in them if I walked on sand. When we got the message we were going to have our first challenge that night, we were told it was going to be a beach challenge, so I wore these beach shoes with a pair of socks under them. And very loosely tied and put together, Velcroed.

I was swimming in, and I remember Rudy saying, "Sonja, you can touch the bottom now!" And so I tried to touch, but these great big things were not allowing me really to run along. So I kept swimming, and then when we got in about waist deep, I did stand up and I was running, but this raft was going fast. These people were strong young people. It was like running with slippers through water. I couldn't keep up! And so you saw me go down: the most embarrassing moment of my life played again and again on TV. I had to yell, "Stop! Stop!" Because I was about to lose my grip on it.

CBS

I remember watching that and thinking you looked okay when you were in the water, but it was in that transition from water to land where you seemed to have the difficulty.
Right! And do you see why, with these loosely Velcroed sandals? Big rims that floated, otherwise I'd sink. And the socks. I just couldn't with the speed of the raft that the kids had gotten. I couldn't get my footing in this drag.

After that challenge, did you have a feeling that maybe you were in danger of being voted off?
This was on a spit out in the sea. And so we were taken there by a motorboat. On the way home, I said to my tribe, "I'm really sorry, you guys. I feel I cost us that." And Kelly put her arm around me and she said, "That's okay, Sonja. That could have happened to anybody." And as I looked around at the rest of the tribe members, they were looking at me peacefully, if not lovingly, and I knew then I was going to be voted off.

I had a rather sleepless night. I remember getting up to go to the bathroom as the sun was coming up. The sunsets and sunrises were just spectacular there. And Susan Hawk approached me, and she said, "Sonja, come here." And she started walking down the beach. I followed her and we stopped and she said, "Kelly, Stacey, and I are going to vote off Rudy, and we want you to join us. All the women voting off Rudy." But I said, "Well, I cost us that immunity challenge, so I feel it's only fair that I go." And she said, "Nah, we like you. We don't like Rudy."

The first thing I said was, "Should we be talking like this?" [Laughs] I had caused us to lose, therefore it was only fair for me to go. But when she said, "Nah, we like you. We don't like Rudy," I thought, well maybe there is something to this social survival. But then I said, "Well, I have to vote my conscience." What a stupid thing to say on Survivor! Especially with Susan Hawk.

For the first time then that afternoon, Stacey started getting her rear in gear and doing some work. Before we ever went to the island for that period where we were learning about things, I overheard Stacey saying to a guide, "Oh, I don't need to learn to build a shelter. Somebody else will do that." And that really made me feel not positive towards her. But here we are the third day and she is helping Kelly now build a floor for our shelter. So I thought, "Okay, in good conscience I can vote off Rudy." And, also, it was cool to be having a women front here. It was nice. When I got to the Tribal Council, I didn't think I was going to be voted off. But I was.

How did that feel when you found out you were the first one voted out?
Well, it was three for Sonja and three for Rudy. When the fourth one with my name came up, I thought, "Who's the Judas?" And I didn't find out for another three or four days until Stacey was voted off and came back to the resort where we were staying and told me that Susan voted me off. She said then, "She did it to me, too!"

CBS

So, after you were voted off, in your final words you said, "It was an awesome experience." But you also said, "Being the first to be voted out was a little humiliating." So after you had your torch snuffed, how were you feeling about the experience?
Well, I had mixed feelings, that's for sure. I was pretty beaten up.

You hurt your leg, which was bleeding.
Yeah, and that was only after I got on the island. Before the game started, we were taken out to this old fishing boat — it was the one we had sailed to the island on — and when I started to climb up over the railing, there were a couple of guys up there who put their arms down to pull me up. So they jerked me up and dragged my shins over the edge of the boat and really did a number on the front of my legs. To this day, I still have bruises that don't go away. Physically, I had mixed feelings because a bad knee that I had gotten in my years of playing tennis was swollen up big time. So physically, it was hard. Walking more than an hour and a half to Tribal Council up and down ravines and hills and so forth and that stuff, I don't remember feeling pain, but I do know that when I got back my knee was very swollen and had to go to the doctor.

They don't make people walk 90 minutes to Tribal Council anymore. You all had it rough.
They also get a lot more food. But that's because when you're starving and your metabolism drops, all you want to do is sleep, and that doesn't make for good TV.

The weird thing about Survivor is you all you live it once when you are out there, and then you live it all over again when it airs on television. What was it like once it aired back on TV a few months later?
I played sports for many years, and I was a pitcher for a women's softball team that was pretty competitive in the region. So I learned about sportsmanship, and that immediately kicked in for me. I mean, yeah, it was tough, but hey, congratulations — somebody loses, somebody wins. That's really what kicked in for me, and allowed me to really enjoy and make light of the fact that I was the first person voted off. If somebody recognizes me — which is nothing like it used to be — and asks, "Weren't you on Survivor?", I'll say "Yes, I have the dubious distinction of being the first person ever voted off Survivor." Now, how many people can say that? I think it's pretty funny.

Absolutely! Jeff Probst has now snuffed over 600 torches. As the show continued on and kept going and going, did you feel that there was something unique and special about being the very first person voted out? Because not many people remember the second person ever voted out of Survivor.
I know! And so that's had its rewards. I could no longer go to the grocery store without being sure I put on my lipstick and my makeup. People would ask me for my autograph, and I'd feel strange. And I'd say something like, "Well, this isn't worth anything unless it's on a check." It's a mixed bag. I'm very glad it happened to me at the age I did, because if it happened when I was younger, I would've really gotten caught up in it and it would've changed my life more, I think, not for the good. I became aware that it would be easy to lose myself and get caught up in this and I didn't want to do that.

Not only do you have this notoriety over being the first person ever to have her torch snuffed, but after 40 seasons of this show now, you are still the oldest female Survivor contestant to ever play the game. You must take some pride in that, right?
That's right. There is something to ageism, because I see it again and again, that the older ones often get voted off first in the subsequent shows. It's not so prevalent anymore, but I find myself having that bias too, but it's the opposite: I get kindly disposed towards older women, unless they're a jerk, just because look at them go!

Do you feel a little bad for the first person that's voted out every season?
Yes, I feel bad, but not because I'm still feeling bad. Probably I feel, "Why did [the tribe] do that?” But usually there's a reason. I do remember one gal voted off in the early season, she was really a mess.

CBS

Sonja, the one thing I really want to know most of all is… where is the infamous ukulele?
It's hanging on my wall. I really should divest myself of all this memorabilia. Yeah, here it is!

And that's the same one that was on the island?
Yes! I've also got a ukulele that I took to the All-Stars reunion

Why did you pick the ukulele as your luxury item?
Well, I was going to take a Leatherman, a knife that has many different things you can use it, screwdrivers and scissors and everything. But we couldn't bring anything they said that would help us with survival. I play the ukulele, it started out around campfires and things, and I figured we'd have a lot of campfires, but the only time I ever played it was when Rich and I were alone on the beach and I sang the therapist's version of "Bye Bye Blues."

Now, I did play the ukulele on the big old fishing boat that we were transported in a couple hours to get to the island. Jeff encouraged me to sit up in the bow of the boat and strum the ukulele about going to an island. But it turns out that they couldn't use the song because of copyright things. But they could, it turns out, use what I called the "therapist's version" of "Bye Bye Blues" because it was a bit of a parody. And that's why they used it. The other one they wanted to use, it was like they'd have to pay 10 or 12 thousand dollars.  I did ask Rich to sign my ukulele at one of our reunions. So on the back it says, "Hi Sonja. Your ukulele brought me joy, and you always do. Love, Rich Hatch. I survived."

As you look back on your Survivor experience, what thoughts or feelings do you have when you reminisce about it?
Oh my God, what an experience! I'm so fortunate to have had it. And I've learned lessons about how to treat it, regard it, live with it, and go with the flow. The whole thing was so fortuitous. I mean, if I hadn't had breast cancer, we probably wouldn't have broken up the relationship. And if I hadn't been alone, I wouldn't have tried out for Survivor. And if I hadn't tried out for Survivor, I never would've got to go around the country speaking and raising money for causes and trying to inspire people with breast cancer that they could not only survive, but thrive. And that's been amazing.

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