SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols

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.

Survivor: Africa was no joke. For season 3 of the venerable reality franchise, 16 contestants were dumped in the middle of Kenya's Shaba National Reserve and left to fend for themselves — kinda. The problem was that producers mere mildly concerned that the players might end up, well…eaten. Due to all the wildlife in the area, the tribe camps came complete with fencing to keep animals away. And, according to contestant Teresa "T-Bird" Cooper, that's not all.   

"The locals were posted with guns to protect us should the wildlife turn on us," reveals Teresa. "I don't believe any of that was shown. And because of the wildlife, when we first arrived at our camps, we had to build a protective boma of thorny acacia bushes and other tree branches by stacking them around the camp to stay protected... that was a project!"

As if all that was not unnerving enough, the players were also not even allowed to sleep! At least not all at once. "We had to have two people throughout the night keeping the campfire lit to keep the animals away," says T-Bird. "We rotated every few hours. It definitely made the days even longer than they already were."

While Africa was a grueling experience for the players, Teresa gutted it out to become the last original Samburu tribe member in the game, finally having her torch snuffed on day 36. Along the way, she became part of Survivor history by being part of the first ever tribe swap in the show's long storied history. She also won that season's first individual immunity challenge, and single-handedly started an international incident with her mystery vote against Lex.

Now, courtesy of her Quarantine Questionnaire, T-Bird looks back 20 years later on her Survivor experience, and just missing out on the fan vote to come back and do it all over again on Survivor: Cambodia — Second Chance.

Teresa Cooper
Credit: Monty Brinton/CBS via Getty Images

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you've been up to since appearing on Survivor. 

TERESA "T-BIRD" COOPER: Dalton, it is such a pleasure to chat with you. How is it even possible that it has been almost 20 years since I got to play the life changing game of Survivor?! Crazy! Twenty years! The time has gone by quickly. My two children, who at the time my son, Tyler, was eight and my daughter, Ellie, was five, are now 28 and 25! What?! They are my heartbeat, my world, my everything! My husband, Glenn, is the absolute love of my life. I am blessed beyond words. And, the one thing that stands out from playing Survivor is that when everything is taken away the only thing that truly matters is your family and real friends. Truer words were never spoken. I am blessed.

I am still a German (speaking) international flight attendant for Delta Air Lines based here in Atlanta. I am now in my 40th year with the company! That is some kind of crazy. I love my job and I love my Delta. I am an active real estate broker here in Georgia. I obtained my license not long before leaving for my Survivor "business" trip to Kenya, Africa in 2001. Also, I have been so fortunate to team up with the amazing Rob Cesternino on [Rob Has a Podcast]. We do an entertaining podcast of Survivor interviews. It consists of former players that the Survivor fans want to hear from and it's called "Talking With T-Bird." Rob and I are having so much fun following up with former players and finding out what's going on in their lives since their time on Survivor.

What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?

A one-part question with a two-part answer. My proudest moment ever, wow, there are so many. I have to start with the fact that I was even cast. I first applied for season 2 The Australian Outback and then again for Africa. I was aware of the large number of applicants they were receiving and that the odds of a woman my age being cast might be small. That did not discourage me. I also thought if I didn't try, my biggest regret would've been not putting myself out there, even if rejected.

I am a psychology major and knew that this was one of the greatest social experiments of all time. I had to be part of this. I wanted to make the video I sent in for Australia fun. So, I dressed up like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz and did a little skit (including having my very own Toto look alike) but heard nothing back from casting. The second video I sent in for Africa was a very simple video. It was simply of me adlibbing out on our farm, just talking, no skit, no costume, no Toto, just me. Lynne Spillman, the former casting director for Survivor, later told me that she had seen the first video but couldn't tell if I was acting and if my accent was real. The moral to this story is KISS (keep it simple stupid) for all those applying in the future.

And, how can I not include the first individual Immunity Challenge after the merge, "When It Rains, it Pours," and being the last "man"/woman standing up against my wonderful friend, CB (Clarence Black). I still remember my kids giving me strength during the six hours and how cool they would think me winning that challenge would be! Plus, I knew if I didn't win the challenge my only alliance member, Frank Garrison, would've been voted out the next Tribal Council.

What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experience?

Biggest regret? It might surprise you. Well, I wanted to win, I thought I could win! I played the best game I could with the hand I was dealt. So, no regret there.

I regret we didn't have a family member visit us during the "family visit" part of the show, but at least we had a home video. I understood the logistics of getting a family member to Africa with the vaccinations, the location, etc ... so really not a regret I had any control over. 

But, my one, only, big regret is when Lex won the Chevy Avalanche truck and delivered the HIV test kits and the drug Nevirapine to Kenya's Wamba Catholic Hospital, (highlighting the HIV/AIDS crisis and its devastating effect in Africa), I wish I had asked Lex and Jeff Probst if I could ride along. 

My brother, Steve, passed away in 1990 of AIDS. It was a cause very close to my heart. No, I did not win the reward, but knowing the size of Lex's heart and the passion Jeff Probst had for this cause I believe they would have let me come along. So, my biggest regret was not asking them. It happened so fast and I was overcome with emotion when I saw all the supplies that were being transported. I didn't think fast enough to ask. (Dalton, if you see Jeff before I do, would you please ask him if he would've let me come along?)

What's something that will blow fans' minds that happened out there in your season but never made it to TV?

The conditions in Africa were challenging… okay, maybe even brutal. Our water source (or lack of it) made it rather grueling. We walked quite a distance every day to bring it back, boil it and then drink the warm, nasty stuff. Quite a few of the players got sick from the conditions. Africa was beautiful, the wild animals made it spectacular, but with a large degree of danger.

The locals were posted with guns to protect us should the wildlife turn on us. I don't believe any of that was shown. And because of the wildlife, when we first arrived at our camps, we had to build a protective boma of thorny acacia bushes and other tree branches by stacking them around the camp to stay protected...that was a project!

Also, we had to have two people throughout the night keeping the campfire lit to keep the animals away. We rotated every few hours. It definitely made the days even longer than they already were.

How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?

The edit, the edit, the edit, the edit...I feel as if my edit was pretty accurate. I know there are players at times that are upset with the way they were portrayed/edited. I know the producers are creating a theme, a story, a narrative and creating "characters" is part of the storytelling. So, if you give them any good material to use to help them tell the story, they are going to use it —  good, bad, or indifferent! I played a low key, quiet game. I did not want to draw any attention to myself or aggravate others too much. I found that in extreme conditions it is quite easy to get on other's nerves. I did a lot less talking than I usually, normally, always do in my normal day to day life. 

What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?

Coming back from Africa, getting away from the game, was a shock for me... mainly because I didn't expect it! I left for the game with a lot of irons in the fire. My kids were young. I knew I had a lot of catching up to do with them and my family on my return. And, I had just started my real estate business and needed to get back to flying with Delta.  But, no worries I will hit the ground running as soon as I get back home to Georgia... so I thought.

 Ahhhh, yeah, right. I couldn't concentrate on anything at all. Each week or so I would get a call from Dr. Liza. She was checking in, making sure I was doing okay, adjusting, acclimating, "yes, of course," I said and so I thought at the time. I didn't go back to flying or to real estate for quite a few weeks. I found comfort and peace emotionally in my "new" friends I had just spent the last 7 weeks with and needed to talk with them practically daily. I never, never, ever expected that it would be such an adjustment. 

Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?

I never had any regrets, none, zilch, nada, about going on the show. This game was made for me. I love how it totally mirrors life. And, to put that to the test with getting to play and to be part of one of the "greatest social experiments" of all time, blessed.

I also have no regrets for Second Chance. And it was not because I wasn't passionate about going ...I was! Rejection is simply redirection to a bigger, better dream. Second Chance pulled me even closer to my Survivor family. Getting the opportunity to work with Rob C on RHAP and doing my "Talking With T-Bird" segment has been so much fun and fulfilling. When one door closes, another one opens.

Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your season?

Oh wow, I am so blessed to have met 15 lifelong friends because of Survivor. Yes, there are definitely those I talk to more frequently ... Lex, CB (Clarence), Ethan, and Big Tom just this week but also Jessie, Carl, Kelly G, Linz, Brandon, Frank, Lady Di, and Mama Kim. Social media has been a good thing and made it easy to keep in touch, see what they are doing, how they are doing and what direction their lives have gone all equipped with pictures and story lines.

Do you still watch Survivor, and if so, what's your favorite season you were not on and why?

Yes, I still watch Survivor, and I'm looking forward to having it back on our big screens sooner rather than later. My favorite season/seasons... Dalton, I need a pass on this one. My favorite season has to be The Australian Outback. Cast plus and love my Old School. Followed by David vs. Goliath cast plus. I loved the players. Oh wait, I loved Cagayan, too. Once again, the cast was fabulous. Oh, wait a minute, I left out Pearl Islands and how can I not mention Borneo? And, then there is the amazing Palau cast. OMG, it's the players, the characters that make the season. Dalton, next question, please! I could go on and on.

Who's one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?

Dalton, you're killing me here — one player, one, just one?! I might need another pass on this one ,too. The very first one that comes to mind is Kelley Wentworth. Her game play, strategy, her "never say die attitude," her independent, sassy, opinionated, beautiful, "no excuse" self is the kind of player I want to watch, want to play with and/or against. The ones that truly honor and respect the game. How can I not mention the following players also for their love of the game and "fight to the end attitude," win or lose: Mike Holloway, Chrissy Hofbeck, Rick Devens, Aubry Bracco, Davie Rickenbacker, Carolyn Rivera, and my nemesis and good friend, Lex Van den Berghe, to name a few off the top of my head. Ugh, you just wanted "one" player.

If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?

Dalton, since you asked, let me throw in a couple of things. I want to see more "Old School" game interaction where we see the characters come to life and watch their bonds with the others grow, or even crumble, whatever the case may be. I want to see more of the players' social game. I think a 90-minute show a week would help accomplish this. I do like a few twists thrown in but not so many! And, let's go back to the Final 2. I like that.

And, who doesn't love and miss the gross food challenge unique to the "delicacies" of the region. Also, when a team has to sit out a player, let it be from a random draw or even better, let the other team decide which one sits that challenge out...ooh, fun. And, last but not least, keep the jury sequestered from each other so each jury member is voting based on what they saw when they were playing or what comes out during Tribal Council. One bitter juror can tarnish the others with their real or made up accusations.  

Finally, would you play again if asked?

Dalton, would I play again if asked ?! Well, there are so many things to consider. It  would depend on what is going on in my life at the time, if the stars were all aligned, would my family be supportive, could I get the time off from work...... ahh, what I actually mean is ABSOLUTELY, 100%, COLOR ME IN, SHOW ME THE DOOR, I'M ALL IN, MY BAGS ARE PACKED! You're never too old to believe in magic, fairy tales, dreams or another chance on the island!

To keep track of our daily Survivor Quarantine Questionnaires and get all latest updates, check out EW's Survivor hub, and follow Dalton on Twitter.

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Episode Recaps

SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols

Strangers starve themselves on an island for our amusement in the hopes of winning a million dollars, as host Jeff Probst implores them to "DIG DEEP!"

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