Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Lex van den Berghe revisits decision to save Amber on All-Stars
With Survivor filming for seasons 41 and 42 indefinitely postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, EW is reaching back into the reality show’s past. We sent a Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire to a batch of former players to fill out with their thoughts about their time on the show as well as updates on what they’ve been up to since. Each weekday, EW will post the answers from a different player.
The most famous couple in Survivor history might not be so famous if it weren’t for a tattooed and sometime mohawked punk drummer. Most fans remember that Amber Brkich was almost a goner on Survivor: All-Stars after the Chapera tribe lost the immunity competition. But as the tribe was leaving the challenge, Boston Rob Mariano approached Lex van den Berghe with a plea: “You take care of her, I’ll take care of you.”
Lex did, and Rob repaid the favor by voting him out at the very next Tribal Council. While Lex’s move had huge implications in the game, with Amber and Rob both making it the final 2, the person who ended up on the wrong side of the deal-not-kept points out that it had even bigger implications outside of the game.
“I also think you could argue that if Amber had been voted out, she and Rob likely would never have married,” says Lex. "Thing is, Amber would’ve been the last non-juror voted out and would’ve spent the last few weeks of the game in an exotic locale with someone she had romantic history with (you do the math). I’m still waiting for that thank you card from the Marianos!"
Four Mariano kids later seems to prove Lex may indeed deserve that card. In his Quarantine Questionnaire, Lex gets into all the details of how exactly the Amber non-vote went down. He also talks about a super-scary medical situation in Survivor: Africa that was never aired, and explains why he has no problem being seen as a reality TV villain: “I would much rather be remembered as a villain than disappear into obscurity as a hero.” You will certainly remember this Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you’ve been up to since appearing on Survivor.
LEX VAN DEN BERGHE: Hi Dalton! Can you believe it’s been nearly 20 years since Africa and 17 since All-Stars? My life is essentially the same as it was before I played Survivor, which is just how I like it. My wife Kelly and I are still living happily ever after in Santa Cruz, California, with our small herd of dogs and cats. My boys are not really boys anymore, but grown men now, and make me proud every day. I’m still playing drums in a few bands, including a couple of rock and roll bands, The Maids of Honor and The Lawn Vultures, and an instrumental surf band called Fascinating Creatures of the Deep. I’ve been lucky to do a bunch of travel all over the world (both recreationally and for work) which helps feed my insatiable wanderlust, and I make a point of visiting my old Survivor brother Big Tom every year for three weeks to work on his farm in Virginia. I also try to get out and go off-road backcountry motorcycle camping with my crew of close friends as often as possible. I’m incredibly blessed… I have a very good life.
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
I’d like to think that I may have played a small part in helping to break down some stereotypes and maybe open a few peoples’ minds so they might not be so quick to judge a book by its cover. It’s hard to believe in this day and age that just 20 years ago you never really saw heavily tattooed people on primetime TV (unless they were freaks, thugs, or bikers). Back then, being heavily tattooed carried a lot of negative social stigma. At the very least, people assumed that if you were heavily tattooed, you were likely dangerous, dim-witted or on the dole.
I remember the day that Probst called me to ask if I’d be interested in coming back for All-Stars — he told me that they’d conducted surveys and focus groups to find out which previous players were most popular with a list of audience demographic groups. Then he told me that he couldn’t believe the data showed I was a fan favorite with kids and older people. That really warmed my heart and got me to thinking: What might’ve seemed completely at odds with logic or common sense actually made complete sense — kids can still see good and bad with clear eyes because their minds haven’t been clouded and jaded by stereotyping, bias, or social pressure, and older people have the wisdom of a long and well-lived life behind them which has taught them the value of an open mind.
And this doesn’t just apply to people with a lot of tattoos — the heart of the issue is that anyone who’s different, be it because of their skin color, religion, lifestyle, orientation, or appearance is a human being who should be given the benefit of the doubt and judged on their actions and heart, rather than their appearance or stereotypes that might be associated with them. It was so validating for me to hear that I scored high with these folks, and I ain’t gonna lie… it was fun to see Probst struggling to understand those results. He may have learned something new that day too.
Other than that, I was pretty proud to win the lion’s share of immunity and reward challenges in Africa. Sure, those wins were an absolute necessity for me to stay in the game, but it sure felt good to win them.
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experiences?
“NO RAGRETS.” I don’t believe in them.
But would I do anything differently if I could go back? Hell, yeah! I’m sure I don’t need to mention it, but I would’ve tried much harder to convince Kathy that we should vote out Amber and keep Jerri on All-Stars. Unfortunately, a significant part of my Survivor legacy and what many people remember me for, was the game-ending decision to save Amber, which subsequently teed up Boston Rob to dominate the rest of the game. Most people don’t know this, but the decision to keep Amber in the game was actually Kathy’s.
She and I had made a rock-solid alliance to the end, and we discussed who should go in that Tribal Council at length. I wanted to keep Jerri — Jerri was a close friend of mine outside the game and I knew I could work with her. But Kathy felt we could trust Rob, and believed that saving his girl might curry favor with him once we merged. I’m also pretty sure Kathy preferred to let Jerri go because I was so close to her, but Kathy didn’t really know or trust her. But I believe that if we’d kept Jerri and sent Amber packing, All-Stars would’ve ended very differently with a final four of Kathy, Jerri, Big Tom, and me.
We would’ve had the numbers (Big Tom and I were locked and loaded before we even left the States) and we would’ve capitalized on Rob’s weakness, with him having lost his partner. I also think you could argue that if Amber had been voted out, she and Rob likely would never have married. Thing is, Amber would’ve been the last non-juror voted out and would’ve spent the last few weeks of the game in an exotic locale with someone she had romantic history with (you do the math). I’m still waiting for that thank you card from the Marianos!
What’s something that will blow fans minds that happened out there in one of your seasons but never made it to TV?
There are SO many things viewers at home don’t see, but would make for great TV, because 3 days of game are condensed into 44 minutes for each episode.
Most people don’t realize that Survivor: Africa winner and my good friend Ethan Zohn nearly declined my alliance, which arguably would’ve cost him the game. I approached Big Tom on day one and asked him if he wanted to make an alliance, because I knew we had a lot in common and I knew I wanted to work with him (this of course came as a complete shock to production, as they had likely put us on the same tribe assuming the redneck and tattooed liberal freak would clash from the get-go).
Within a few minutes of discussion, Tom and I were shaking hands and had forged what I believe to be the strongest alliance in Survivor history. I knew I wanted a strong third partner, so I approached Ethan on day two and pitched the deal to him. He was hesitant and told me he’d want a lot more time to evaluate and think about it, and he wanted time to weigh his options. I told him that was understandable and I wouldn’t hold it against him if he declined — but I gave him until sundown to make his decision, at which point, if he turned us down, I would move on to my next choice and the offer would be null and void. As the sun was hitting the horizon that evening, Ethan came to me and Tom, and we had our power trio on lock.
I also don’t think people fully comprehend how brutally difficult and taxing Survivor: Africa really was. Many of us experienced injuries or physical events that would surely get you pulled from the game in new school Survivor. For me, that came about two weeks in, when I was swapped over to the Samburu tribe, and I found myself peeing blood — not blood mixed in with my urine, but peeing straight blood. I privately pulled a producer aside and showed them what was happening, so they brought in medical, who confirmed that this was a sign that my kidneys were in early failure.
They gave me three days to hydrate and take it easier — if I wasn’t peeing clear in three days they told me I’d get yanked. I confided only in Big Tom, and over the next few days, he shared some of his water with me so I’d have a bit more and he worked harder so I could recover. Three days later, I finally peed clear.
Another challenge in Africa was that you had to have 2 people awake and on-watch throughout the night, to constantly keep a fire burning 3-4 feet high to keep predators away. At first, we tried having everyone take shifts, but it became quickly apparent that most players were building a big fire and then going to sleep, only to result in a dangerously low and dim fire when the next person’s turn came. We knew this was super risky, so Tom and I agreed to share watch duty for the rest of the game, because we could pull off the all-nighters. But I ain’t gonna lie, not having a single night’s sleep in 38 days is no joke… it tore us up. The upside though was being able to bond one-on-one, surrounded by the sounds and beauty of the African night around us, which often included the sounds of zebra being savaged and ripped apart by lions (it’s a hair-raising sound – a combination of manic donkey braying and screaming).
Most folks don’t realize we celebrated Thanksgiving on All-Stars. The holiday hit right around the halfway point, just before merge, when I was on a tribe with Kathy, Shii Ann, Jerri and Amber. I left early that morning to my favorite fishing spot and speared a nice catch of fish that the ladies prepared at camp. We had a nice “sit-down” meal and shared family stories of Thanksgivings past. It was a lovely experience.
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
I’m fine with it. We all know what we’re signing up for, and realize that producers have to create entertainment that will capture millions of minds – it’s big business. I never expected anything less than a provocative (and probably) villain’s edit because… look at me! I also provided producers with plenty of material to make that job easier for them. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I speak my mind and I’m intense (especially in a competitive context).
Combine that with starvation, dehydration, sleep deprivation, stress, and then dangle a million bucks in front of me… well that’s a sure-fire recipe for some volatile, explosive stuff. But I would much rather be remembered as a villain than disappear into obscurity as a hero. Villains are always so much more interesting than heroes, and though I don’t think I was really a villain in the classic sense — more of an anti-hero — I loved my role as a controversial and polarizing “love him or hate him” player.
What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
I was definitely a bit different when I got back from Africa — my wife Kelly said that I had “crazy eyes” — and the world that I came back to initially felt strange and unnatural to me. Make no mistake, I was ecstatic about the abundance of food and I ate everything in sight (I actually had a small food hoarding issue for a while after my return). But for a few weeks, I felt claustrophobic indoors — I hated walls and ceilings and had a devil of a time sleeping inside. I’d wake up constantly each night in a panic and cold sweat and had no idea where I was. I just wanted to be outside.
The utter noisiness of the world was also disorienting – the sound of automobiles, appliances, TV… all of it was a bit of a shock. I also had some challenges dealing with paranoia and trust issues after I got home — that part of my personality and psyche got temporarily warped after playing the game, and I even had difficulty engaging comfortably with close friends for a while. I came back a bit reclusive and socially awkward, and often craved connection with some of my fellow castmates, as I knew that only they could relate to my headspace and the challenges of our shared experience.
The other shock that I was never prepared for was the instant fame we all came home to. I naively had no idea how big a deal Survivor was in the media when I went out and played, and back then in the early days, it was a huge deal. A few weeks after coming home from the game I began to see myself on the covers of popular magazines, and on primetime TV commercials and I just wasn’t ready for it. I remember when TV Guide (which was a very popular magazine at the time) put out an issue where each of us got our own exclusive cover, and one day when I went to my local supermarket to shop for the week’s groceries, I saw my face filling the cover of every TV Guide on every cash register end-cap. I was kind of mortified and went to every end-cap and turned the magazines around front-to-back.
It was also strange to be recognized everywhere I went, no matter how far away from home. I traveled much of the world in the 3 or 4 years following Survivor: Africa, and wherever I went (Australia, Asia, the South Pacific, South America, or Europe) I was recognized and stopped many times a day. This all sounds like a lot of fun (and it often is) but when you go from anonymous to world famous in just a day, it’s a lot to take in.
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?
Again, I don’t believe in regret — every negative experience gives us information to learn from and grow on, so they’re ultimately good things. But if I tweak your question slightly and tell you if there was ever a time when I might’ve been feeling the negative impacts of playing Survivor in a profound way, that would be the effect it had for a few years on my family, who are my world to me.
It was especially difficult for my older son Corbin, who is autistic. People on the autistic spectrum are most content and successful when their world follows a regimented routine, and Survivor, as you might imagine, upended all of our lives dramatically. For Corbin, this was a nightmare… we couldn’t go anywhere outside the house without having a constant stream of strangers asking for photos and autographs (kind of fun for me, but definitely not so much for Corbin). There were evenings when we sat down to dinner and we’d look out to find news vans filming us through the window eating supper. I also traveled a great deal after playing Survivor: Africa, volunteering at charity fundraisers, speaking at big events, and doing a variety of other Survivor-related work, and this was also rough on my family.
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your seasons?
I talk to Big Tom at least once or twice a week and visit him on his farm for 3 weeks every year, I chat fairly regularly with Ethan and T-Bird, and I see Lindsay at least once a year… these folks are all like family to me, and I love them dearly. I’m still close to most everyone else as well, and keep in touch through social media.
As far as All-Stars, I am still very close to Jerri, Kathy, and Tina — all remarkably strong and lovely women who each hold a piece of my heart.
Do you still watch Survivor, and if so, what’s your favorite season you were not on and why?
I still watch every season of Survivor. My favorite season that I wasn’t on (and that I would’ve loved to play) has to be Survivor: Borneo, the original Old School season. It was brand new, uncharted territory and would forever change the entertainment world. I would’ve loved to have played with absolutely zero context or precedent.
Who’s one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
I’m gonna break the rules and pick two. I’d love to play with Shane Powers. I think he’s one of the most extraordinarily interesting and entertaining players not to be invited back. His passion, heart, and intensity are unmatched, and he’s whip-smart. I relate to his candor, respect his fearlessness, and admire his integrity. He’s also a good friend and I know we’d have a lot of laughs out there.
I’d also love to play with Courtney Yates… she’s a friend and I just adore her. We’ve actually chatted about how much we’d like to play together on the next season of Island of the Idols as the two mentors. I think we’d look fetching as giant statues. Be a pal Dalton, and see if you can put in a good word for us with Probst.
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
Return to the old school… no idols, nullifiers, gimmicks, special islands, Survivor currency… just players, reward and immunity challenges and Tribal Council. Focus on the people and their story… stick to the bizarre social experiment combined with Battle Royale.
I’d also love to see Survivor pull up stakes and leave Fiji. I understand that it’s logistically easier and way cheaper, but this is Survivor — it should be epic, and a lot of that comes from the location. I’m bored with the single location and I miss Survivor seasons that were themed by location rather than gimmick. Back in the heyday, each season, we were treated to new and exotic countries and learned about other cultures and peoples, while we watched our castaways fight to the death. The recipe was perfect.
Finally, would you play again if asked?
I guess that would all depend on when I get that call. I’ve gotten the call three times since All-Stars – I declined the first two times for a number of different reasons, but actually said yes recently when I got my third call. Unfortunately, the season theme later changed, so I was no longer a good fit for the cast and was cut from the list.