SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols

With season 41 of Survivor delayed 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.

I have heard a lot of stories over my 21 years of covering CBS' Survivor. Why, just since this Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire project started in July of 2020, we've learned of cocaine washing ashore on one of the beaches, how one player bravely dealt with an impacted colon, and how another tribe made an oven "out of cow s---." I've also been told stories by contestants about crazy things they did to hopefully give them an advantage in the game. It's amazing the lengths to which people will go when a million dollars and the title of Sole Survivor are on the line.

So, yeah, I have heard a lot of incredible tales over the past two decades. But I have never heard a story quite like David Wright's. In fact, it's the most epic and amazing pre-game preparation I have ever come across. And no, I am not talking about the fact that the fourth-place finisher from Millennials vs. Gen X extensively studied every single puzzle in the history of Survivor before his return performance on Edge of Extinction. That's nothing compared to the next doozy.

Just imagine this scenario: What if a person flew all the way out to Fiji, hired a boat to take him to one of the tribe beaches that appear on the show, and then buried a fake idol there that he could recover should he ever be cast on the series and end up on that exact same beach. You actually don't have to imagine it at all, because that's exactly what David Wright did. 

Ladies and gentlemen, bow down at the feet of the David Wright Quarantine Questionnaire and my favorite story in the history of Survivor.

It Smells Like Success
David Wright on 'Survivor: Edge of Extinction'
| Credit: Timothy Kuratek/CBS

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

DAVID WRIGHT: It's been one hell of a flippin' year, hasn't it? Many have described the pandemic as like living through some kind of Groundhog Day time loop. The sameness of everything. But, for me, it's been a year of change, not the least of which was my mom passing away in June due to complications from COPD. I recently popped the Millennials vs. Gen X finale into my DVD player (*yeah, I still have some DVDs on a shelf). As Jeff Probst takes the stage, the camera pivots to reveal the live audience. Seated in the front row, dressed in red, is my mother. The grief hurts a little less when I think of that moment and the big, beaming smile on her face.

And we just lost Sunday. Whether she was draping a warm blanket over me during a cold Fijian night or being a source of comfort as our helicopter performed an aerial stunt (a hammerhead turn that I was the sole vote against), Sunday was the epitome of kindness. She also had a great sense of humor. At Ponderosa, she told me she wasn't a pastor, but a professional poker player. In Vegas, she tricked me onto a roller coaster that went upside down. I miss her dearly.

What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?

I'm most proud of the weeks I spent screen-capping Survivor puzzles from every episode of the series, then having the images professionally bound in a two-volume set to study before my sophomore turn in Survivor: Edge of Extinction. And what a difference it made! Okay, no, that was an epic waste of time.

My actual proudest moment is from Millennials vs. Gen X. Shortly before leaving for Fiji, I was asked in a pre-game interview what I planned to do. I said I wanted to make a fake immunity idol to hide for someone else to find. Flash forward to the morning of Day 36. Arms full of coconuts, I'm following Jay back to camp. I suspect from his body language that he's spotted the bait: a coconut with a symbol painted on its exterior, inside of which, a fake idol was waiting for discovery. 

The lead-up to this moment was a month of ripping beads off torches and searching the beach for an unusual shell. A convincing idol would need a convincing centerpiece (*this isn't actually true anymore). I found one in a decorative shell resting on a table at the spa reward. 

Construction of the idol took place over two sleepless nights. After everyone fell asleep, I would tiptoe to a remote location away from camp, transporting fire in a frying pan. For added subterfuge, I mixed red and white paint to make pink, a color that didn't exist among the choices at camp. I'm no Bob Ross, so painting a complicated graphic on the coconut wasn't a possibility. Instead, I used palm fronds as a makeshift stencil to create a triangle, which comically ended up resembling nothing more than a pink blotch. 

I assembled the fake idol, wrapped the idol rules around it, and stuffed it inside the coconut. I placed the coconut along the path to the water well, so that Jay would be sure to see it. I tiptoed back into camp and went to sleep. As the sun came up, I awoke to discover my hands were covered in pink paint! After a frantic dash to the well, I was able to wash off all evidence of the crime.

Later, at Tribal Council, watching the fake idol pay off exactly how I imagined seven weeks before was incredibly satisfying. Best of all, Jay had a great sense of humor about it, and still does today.

What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experiences?

The final immunity challenge of Millennials vs. Gen X. Initially, I was somewhat relieved to be voted out on day 38. I worried what effect being handed that much money all at once would have. However, these days, when rent is due or my car needs maintenance, it's hard not to dwell on how all that stood between me and the million dollars was my inability to stack enough tiny bowls. Tiny bowls, Dalton. Tiny frickin' bowls!!

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

Okay, future Survivor players, listen up! Nobody knows what I'm about to tell you. You didn't see it on your TV screen, but I buried a fake idol on the island of Monuriki. I know this will make me seem like a crazy person, but... in December 2017, exactly one year to the day after the finale of Millennials vs. Gen X aired, Adam and I paid a local Fijian to take us to Monuriki on his very small boat. He dropped us off and left us there alone for a couple of hours. We had the entire island all to ourselves.

While Adam wandered the beach, I snuck off and buried the centerpiece of a fake idol at what was formerly the Gen X camp. I assumed I would be asked back at some point. And this was the first time in the history of the show where something like this was possible. And of course, I eventually was asked back for Edge of Extinction. As luck would have it, the Manu tribe's home was Monuriki. We set up camp in the exact same spot as the former Gen X camp — even down to the location of the shelter and firepit. Ultimately, I opted to leave the idol buried where it had been resting for six months because I didn't want to risk angering the Survivor gods. And there it will remain forever. Or will it? Wanna know its exact location? Of course you do! We'll start the bidding at $20.   

I Need a Dance Partner
David Wright on 'Survivor: Edge of Extinction'
| Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

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

Who wouldn't love being seen on national television every Wednesday as an uncoordinated nerd who cries in his underwear? The truth is, I'm very happy and even grateful for my edit in both seasons. Because I AM an uncoordinated nerd who (under stress) occasionally sheds a tear or two — and not just on Wednesdays. It freed me to stop lying to myself and others about all my insecurities and fears. It was tremendously liberating.

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

Readjusting to regular life was difficult when I returned home from Millennials vs. Gen X. On what would have been day 41, I walked around my Sherman Oaks neighborhood barefoot, in a daze, periodically stopping to shout, "Kennnnnn!" to the heavens.

It probably wasn't obvious to viewers, but I was livid when I learned at Tribal Council that Taylor buried and later ate the leftover merge feast. It was a betrayal and a line I naively thought no one would ever cross. In a last ditch effort to save himself, Taylor turned to me and volunteered, "There's still some ginger left." "Nobody's gonna save you for ginger," I replied. To punctuate how upset he made me, I drew a chicken leg with a bite taken out of it next to Taylor's name on the parchment. 

And so it probably comes as no surprise that when I got back home, most of my issues revolved around food. For example, I blew up at a friend when I saw him eating another friend's Italian beef sandwich from Portillo's. I'm still really sorry about that, Burke! 

Returning home after Edge of Extinction was a far smoother transition. Although I often woke up in the middle of the night and went to the kitchen to scarf down multiple peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. 

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

I'm in a much better place for having played Survivor, so I don't regret saying yes to the adventure of a lifetime. Before Survivor, I had completely retreated from the world. Post-Survivor, I fell in love for the first time (yeah, it took me until my 40s), which breathed new life into my zombie heart. 

Perhaps my only real regret is a confessional where I spoke ill of Paul. At Ponderosa, before the game started, I sat at the edge of the pool, staring down at the water. I looked up to see Paul in the middle of the pool, grinning at me. I instantly projected onto him some kind of Russell Hantz 4.0. Looking back, he was probably just amused at the sight of a skinny man-child dangling his feet in the pool rather than swimming in it. But Paul is, in fact, a wonderful guy. During a swim challenge in which I was on the verge of drowning, his voice guided me to the safety of a floating platform. I think about that moment often. Sorry if I never told you that, Paul.

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

Twenty contestants shared the very special experience that was Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X. But now only 19 are able to talk about it. It's difficult to put into words how much Sunday's passing hurts. When we got the news, the entire cast was part of a group text chain. I felt a strong urge to reconnect with many of them on an individual level.

I spoke with Chris over the phone the day she died. Must be the lawyer or coach in him, but he's always had a knack for articulating the plain truth of something that I'm grateful I could lean on. Jay and I grabbed sushi at a great spot he introduced me to. I admire his ability to hustle, and just take life as it comes. Figgy and I reconnected over a very tearful Facetime. It was like no time had passed.

I've had several recent phone conversations with Bret, because I really needed to laugh. Looking forward to the next time we can have face-to-face beers. Hannah and I got drinks and I met her new, giant beast of a dog. And Adam hosted me in his home for a few days. Fully vaxxed, we were able to engage in pre-pandemic social activities. It was just the feeling of normal I needed. I'll never be able to thank you enough for that, Adam.

From the Edge of Extinction, I text with Eric, Julie, and Rick only occasionally. In fact, Eric, if you're reading this, let's grab pints of craft beer next time you're in town. Julie, I hope to see you at Syracuse University's homecoming this year. And Rick, it's time for another visit to The Blue Dog!

Also, Reem and I play chess over text. It's Survivor meets The Queen's Gambit. She's the Anya Taylor-Joy to my Bill Camp. Reem, Knight to Queen's Rook 8. Check!

One Of Us Is Going To Win The War
David Wright and the Manu tribe on 'Survivor: Edge of Extinction'
| Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

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

Absolutely I still watch Survivor and am excited for its return! My favorite newbie season is Survivor: Cagayan. Is there a better, more entertaining Survivor player than Tony Vlachos?!

My favorite returnee season is Survivor: Cambodia. A rootable cast who all spoke to a relatable, underdog theme. Keith "stick to the plan" Nale?! A Tribal Council where no votes counted?! My future tribemate and fellow day 38 club member Kelley Wentworth?! ("Hi. Remember me?") It's got everything!

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

I've had dreams (and nightmares) about playing with a variety of past Survivor contestants. But if I had my druthers, the person I would most want to play with and starve alongside is Rob Cesternino. Nobody understands the game better than he does. Nobody has a better sense of humor about it. Plus, I consider him the first fish-out-of-water nerd who really popped on screen. Many came after, but Wantagh Rob (okay, I guess that doesn't quite have the same ring as "Boston Rob") will always be the original.

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

This is a super nitpicky note that due to financial restraints and other factors, Survivor isn't really in a position to do anything about, BUT… as a fan I miss the era when the location would change. It added another interesting layer to each season and gave us epic visuals like the Second Chance cast walking through Angkor Wat.

Finally, would you play again if asked?

I would like to take this opportunity to announce my retirement from Survivor. I feel so incredibly fortunate that I got to play twice, but the time has come for me to move on with my life and…. Wait, why are you asking? Do they want me to play again? What have you heard?! Dalton?! DALTON, WHAT HAVE YOU HEARD?!?!

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

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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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