Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Mitchell Olson on being outed after the show
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.
Mitchell Olson had something he wanted to keep under wraps when he went out to play Survivor: The Australian Outback 20 years ago. “I went on the show not admitting to being gay,” says Mitchell. “The producers tried to get me to admit it, but I wouldn’t due to my South Dakota roots, and my family, and their religious beliefs. So I just stuck firm during the auditions.”
After over 50 million people watched the first season finale of Survivor, the network knew all eyes (and scrutiny) would be on the cast for season 2. “CBS told me numerous times, ‘The press will call you gay. The fans will call you gay. David Letterman and Howard Stern will call you gay,” says Mitchell. “And I guess I thought I’d take my chances.”
It didn’t work out how Mitchell had hoped: “One day I was walking through my local supermarket in N.J., and I was in the checkout aisle and I saw my face in the National Enquirer, and it said, “Mitchell From Survivor: GAY!” And I truly started crying. I wanted to crawl in a hole. I didn’t know what to do.” And the news only spread from there, being picked up by other media outlets, including Entertainment Tonight, who, according to Mitchell, led their show with the news of his possible homosexuality.
“It was mortifying for me,” says Mitchell. “I remember a quote within the Enquirer article, where they did this large bubble quote off to the side of the article, and it was a quote from my sweet mother, who I’m sure was cooking supper for my farmer dad as he was getting out of the field on his tractor, and she had to get this call from them to say that they have evidence Mitchell is gay, and she said ‘Not my boy!’ and hung up. And they put that quote in huge font next to the article, kinda making it look like she was disowning me or something. It was a very difficult time of my life.”
While Mitchell’s story highlights the downside of appearing on reality television (not to mention the downside of shoddy, sensationalist tabloid journalist), the towering contestant says he has gotten to the point where he would actually considering playing again if asked. And he has plenty to say about his experience on the most-watched season of Survivor ever, including plenty of juicy details about how and why he went down in the show’s first-ever deadlocked vote. You want the inside scoop? Mitchell is ready to deliver in his Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you’ve been up to since appearing on Survivor.
MITCHELL OLSON: I lived in NYC when I auditioned and filmed the show. I stuck around for at least 13 years. I even did a lot of temp work with some really amazing people and media sources. Mostly EW. Ha. But my family and friends all lived back in South Dakota, and it was only a matter of time before I returned. So I moved back to rural S.D. I met my husband about a year later.
We were married 3 years ago this October (Thank you, Supreme Court) and I’ve really enjoyed living a very typical lifestyle. One that I never thought would ever be an option for the first 40 years of my life. My husband Mark and I live in an awesome four bedroom on a lake. We each have a set of folks who love Trump and if it came down to voting for our right to be married, or voting for Trump, we’re well aware they would choose Trump. That being said, they adore us, and they love us, and they truly are the best. And Mark and I have lived in this state growing up, so we are well aware of our conservative surroundings.
Most of what I do is MC work for cancer walks, diabetes fundraisers, domestic violence functions, etc. I do a couple of those events every month. Of course, I do them gratis. And from these events I’m asked to help facilitate corporate Christmas parties, scavenger hunts, and a bunch of other for-profit gigs that pay me.
I’m on the most listened to radio station every Friday morning during the drive time — talking about entertainment news, totally in my wheelhouse — called Hot 104.7 out of Sioux Falls S.D. There’s an app and anyone can listen around the world. I also do a similar segment on the local ABC and NBC affiliate. (I do help out CBS when the opportunity presents itself. But, ironically the other affiliates brought me in.) Anyway, that keeps me super busy, and as some would say “relevant” to a certain degree.
I also have created and am the president of many local festivals. I love planning stuff like that. The S.D. Peach Festival, the Galway Park Party by the Pond, and my next venture, the first-ever Apple Gala. These are things I enjoy, and it’s not a profitable thing by any means, but I’d call myself an advocate for community in general, and I truly enjoy bringing things like this to life.
So, all in all, it’s nothing exciting. But, in my little world of the 200k residents in Sioux Falls S.D. It makes me feel completely content, in every way.
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
Hmm… I guess having the height ability to light that torch at the very top of that very first challenge on season 2. That made me feel great. I was thrilled to be included on something so crucial at the very start of the show when we were just getting to know each other. I guess that’s not a great answer. And if you’re looking for something scandalous and juicy?? I have no shame sharing further. My CBS contract 2 decades after the show is fairly loose and weak. So, I’m not afraid to share actual events. Even the ones they said I could never share. I don’t dislike CBS, they just haven’t been extremely clear on what we can and can’t say, especially when we see others share things.
So, this isn’t like the juiciest thing ever, but it’s something I was proud of. During our walk to find our base camp — a walk that took hours — I did find time to steal Jerri away and flat out ask her, “What are your thoughts on joining into an alliance?” She was totally on board. So we discussed who we would choose to be part of our alliance and why. We chose Amber first, because she would listen to us. We chose Tina next, because she seemed to have nothing to lose. We chose Colby, because he was our muscle, and he would be helpful in many ways, and he might even listen to us because we have Jerri. So I felt super confident. I knew Jerri would never turn on me, we talked to Amber next, and I knew that she would never turn on us. And after talking to Tina and Colby we felt confident that they would go along with it too.
So that was a proud moment for me. Starting the alliance that eventually fell apart, but for a while, it worked famously.
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experience?
Easiest question ever. I F’d up. And guess what? Every single Survivor can pinpoint the exact moment they F’d up and it cost them the game. Everyone! We all know when it happened, and we all regret it. But, it happened. I’ll give you two quick examples. Mad Dog knew she blew it during that challenge when we were all tied together and had to do a huge obstacle course. If you watch the footage closely, we all had to run down this huge, steep, sandy hill at the beginning, and she tripped, and hit the water, and breathed in that water, and was unable to recover. In any way. She was useless from that moment on. Colby had to carry her. And at the end of that challenge, I remember pointing into the camera and angrily screaming ‘You won't be happy until one of us dies!” None of us were more angry until after that challenge.
But I digress. You want to know my biggest regret.
On the way to my Tribal Council (which is a 3-4 hour walk over mountain, river, sand, hills, it's brutal), but during that long walk, the vote was set. There was no discussion. We (the alliance) were all voting for Keith. So, when the camera crews pulled aside to ask who we were voting for? The answer was the same: Keith. Our alliance was Me, Jerri, Amber, Tina, and Colby.
Vote one was easy. We all hated Kel. He would oddly creep on us while we slept, and we just never trusted him. The second vote, we loved Mad Dog, but she wasn’t part of our alliance, and so, due to our love for her we did have a discussion. And we bounced around the idea of “What if we don’t all vote for her, we spread out a couple fake votes, so that she doesn’t feel like it was a complete ambush against her?” And we all agreed. So, basically we all nominated ourselves, “Throw out a vote for me?” etc.. But we just needed the majority to pick her. (This becomes important later, because, with my permission, Keith tossed a vote at me.)
So my biggest regret! (OMG, Dalton, you’re beginning to wish you had never asked me to do this. Ha. Sorry. I’ll be quicker.) So, on the way to what ended up being my Tribal Council, but was supposed to be Keith's. (And every single field producer will confirm this because they interviewed us each individually prior to that Tribal walk, and it was 100% five votes for Keith. One vote for me (from Keith). So, on the way to Tribal, a 3-4 hour walk, I would generally hang back from the tribe and shoot the s--- with Colby during that walk, like with Kel’s vote and Mad Dog’s vote. And so this time I kinda motioned to Colby, “Hey, you ready to hang back and shoot the s--- like usual?” But he was hanging toward the front. And helping get people down these cliffs and over these rivers. I just could NOT get him alone. When normally it was just us. So I knew something was up, but I couldn’t pinpoint it, and I wasn’t gonna jump to conclusions.
So finally, halfway through this walk of being ignored, I caught up to him. And we shot the s---, and laughed, and it seemed okay, but I said, “What’s going on? You’re not being yourself, and neither is Tina. So, what’s up?” And Colby motioned to Tina, and she joined us, and they both said to me, “We’re nervous! Keith is strong physically. We keep losing challenges. Why should we vote off Keith when it would be so much easier to vote a weaker player like Amber?” And I was mortified! And I said, “We are not voting off Amber tonight! I just can’t!” And then Colby said, “Okay, that’s fine. Then let’s vote for Jerri?” And again, I emotionally and aggressively turned that option down.
I explained, “Tina, Colby, I’m just not turning on them in the 11th hour. We can see Tribal Council from here. This isn’t something I’m switching my mind on an hour before that vote. I’m sorry. We gotta stick to the plan! And that plan is Keith.” And they both looked at me. A little disappointed. But they agreed. And then jokingly said, “Maybe if you won’t bend, we vote for you?” And we laughed, but it did make me uneasy. So to say I walked into that Tribal Council feeling safe is a lie. But I completely felt we were still on the same page. Keith. I knew Amber and Jerri could end up on the chopping block. But me? No way!
So, we stood outside Tribal while the producers put mics on us, and as usual, they picked the seats that we were to sit at even though we had a theory the person sitting closest to the exit was most susceptible to getting the boot. But, all in all, we felt strong with our original alliance. Why break it? Let’s just vote off Keith like we planned and move on!
Well… that brings me to your next question.
What’s something that will blow fans’ minds that happened out there in your season but never made it to TV?
So, [Jeff] Probst spoke with us for about an hour. (Most people think Tribal Council lasts around 1 hour. But it’s more like 3-4 hours). And Probst said. “Well, it’s time to vote. Colby, you’re up first!” And Colby went to vote. Okay, keep in mind he was the only one to vote so far!
Then Probst said, “Mitchell, you’re up next.” So, I walk up to vote. (Quick side note. You’re far enough away, with wind, etc, that nothing you say will be heard or get back to the remaining players. They will not hear you. But there are about 200 cameras, PAs, Sound guys, assistants, makeup, costumers, etc. 200 people watching this vote live. Most people don’t know that.)
Anyway, I held up my vote for Keith, I gave my reasons why, I wished him well, and that was that. I then opened that Tribal-esque canister to put in my vote for Keith. (Remember, only Colby had voted so far) and inside that canister, I clearly saw Colby's vote for Mitchell. Devastating is the understatement of a lifetime. I was in utter shock. Fear. Helplessness. There was nothing I could do but to look at that vote for about 5 mins. Cuz I was just so stunned.
Remember, you fold the vote, and stuck it in the box. He placed it inside folded side down, so it was open and my name was clear as day! I went back, tears in my eyes. Jerri leaned over and asked what was wrong. And I said “It’s me! Colby voted for me!” And she wouldn't believe me and gave me every possible way I could be wrong, but I assured her, it’s happening. And I remember her saying, “We will kick his ass out next time!” And I was like, “I don’t think we have a next time, this is it for me.” And I looked over at Tina (who also tried to get me to change my vote and I denied her and Colby) and she was crying. And then I knew for sure it was me.
It was a bit strange because CBS wasn't aware what to do in the event of a tie. They never shared that lack of protocol with us. But for about 3 additional hours they wandered back and forth on the phone with L.A. asking what they should do. And since they didn’t have a clear way to solve it, they decided (off the cuff) to just vote again, but this time, the two people who tied don't get to vote. Well, it went exactly the same. Still deadlocked. So we sat for another very awkward hour and finally they came up with a make-shift plan. Probst said: “We are deadlocked. Therefore, we are going to eliminate whoever of the final two deadlock votes, which of you has had a vote cast against you during any previous Tribal Council. Well? I know Keith voted for me during the Mad Dog Vote cuz we told him to. We didn’t want to hurt her feelings. So, I raised my hand, I had one previous vote. And Jeff said then it’s you. And he put out my torch. The end.
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
This is no slam to the editors. It’s actually a compliment. If they wanted to make me say the most bizarre things, they could somehow make me say that. I was reality show naive before I got into this, so I learned quickly. If you want to know how I felt. I was presented as boring, a follower, someone who did almost nothing to help physically or strategically. And I think that's inaccurate. But, would I ever blame them? No. They’re watching 24 hours of footage from 3 different camera crews and they are narrowing that down to 43 mins a week. I get it. Pick what works the best. No worries on my end.
What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
As you know, I worked as a temp at Entertainment Weekly magazine long before my audition with Survivor. Which was pure coincidence. Prior to you, I was a temp at Time Life magazine, and Showtime networks, as well as numerous organizations such as hospitals, banks, law firms…. Coming back home was weird. My family was sworn to secrecy (contractually), and I stayed as tight-lipped as I could. In terms of culture or society? I was very hungry. We often talked about Taco Bell in the outback. Or pizzas. So, I did partake in that a lot, and I gained a ton of weight. But I lost 35 lbs on the show. So it wasn’t tough gaining that back! Ha!
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?
Good question. Overall, not really. I’m so happy I didn’t do it during social media. But it was at the cusp of websites and chat rooms. And those were difficult to look at and hear people say things about you that weren’t true. And, like an idiot, I would fight them back on their post. But nowadays I’ve learned its better for the mental health to just ignore it.
As you may know, I went on the show not admitting to being gay. The producers tried to get me to admit it, but I wouldn’t due to my South Dakota roots, and my family, and their religious beliefs. So I just stuck firm during the auditions. And CBS told me numerous times, “The press will call you gay. The fans will call you gay. David Letterman and Howard Stern will call you gay.” And I guess I thought I’d take my chances. And one day I was walking through my local supermarket in N.J., and I was in the checkout aisle and I saw my face in the National Enquirer, and it said, “Mitchell From Survivor: GAY!” And I truly started crying. I wanted to crawl in a hole. I didn’t know what to do.
I called my CBS PR rep, and she was like, “We tried to squash it, but we couldn’t” and then that night the top story on Entertainment Tonight was the first 4 mins of the shows: BREAKING NEWS….MITCHELL MAY BE GAY! And many other media outlets went with that. And it was mortifying for me. I remember a quote within the Enquirer article, where they did this large bubble quote off to the side of the article, and it was a quote from my sweet mother, who I’m sure was cooking supper for my farmer dad as he was getting out of the field on his tractor, and she had to get this call from them to say that they have evidence Mitchell is gay, and she said, “Not my boy!” and hung up. And they put that quote in huge font next to the article, kinda making it look like she was disowning me or something. But…you know. Anyway, it was a very difficult time of my life.
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your season?
Easy: Although I fear you want me to list them in order from my season. And so, I will list them in order from all seasons. Fair?
This is the group of Survivors I talk with from hourly, to daily, to weekly, to monthly. Does that work. No season barriers.
In order from most to least: Ethan, Joel, Gervase, Jerri, Gretchen, Tina, Hatch, Rodger, Mad Dob, Holly Hoffman, Lex, Big Tom, Keith, Tyler, Mike (winner), Sierra Dawn, Jenna (season 1), Kimmi, Sean Kennif, Ramona, Elisabeth, Diane, Neleh, John, Hunter, T-Bird…I know I’m missing plenty, like Tanya Vance, Coby, Sarah Jones Lauderdale, Jonny Fairplay, Rob Cesternino. Again, I’m sitting a bunch. But this is a good start.
Do you still watch Survivor, and if so, what’s your favorite season you were not on and why?
I do not watch the current seasons of Survivor. My folks do, my friends do. I know exactly what’s going on. But, in a very weird way, after living it, it is very hard to watch it. So, I just catch highlights.
Who’s one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
I adore all of season 1. So, truly any of them. I also love Sierra Dawn. We’ve met many times, and we would be great. I just want someone I can laugh with, and joke with, and make the best of a usually difficult situation.
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
I hate the hidden idols. I didn’t play it that way, So, I would cut that part. It isn’t needed.
Finally, would you play again if asked?
For many years I said no. But recently, I feel like I’ve lived a much fuller life. With marriage and overcoming LGBT equality and getting to an age where I don’t give as much of a s--- about friendships, I think I could play the game much stronger and less biased.