Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Lauren O'Connell dishes on the reward you didn't see
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.
"Lauren O'Connell can totally win this game." That was the clear consensus among members of the press who met the then-21-year-old in Fiji the day before filming began on Survivor: Edge of Extinction. As a former Division 1 soccer player at Baylor, Lauren had the athleticism. As a student about to attend Georgetown for her Masters in Physiology and Biophysics, Lauren had the smarts. And it was clear after chatting with Lauren for just a few minutes, that the ebullient and engaging contestant would easily be able to master the social game dynamics as well.
Of course, Lauren did not end up winning that season, but she came damn close, finally being eliminated in fifth place on day 37 after wasting her hidden immunity idol on eventual champion Chris Underwood. Now, in her Quarantine Questionnaire, the triple threat explains in detail why she played her idol on Chris, leaving herself exposed at the next vote.
Lauren also takes us inside an entire challenge and subsequent reward that took place but never made it to TV — an unseen reward trip that Lauren says was ultimately responsible for Kelley Wentworth being blindsided. Do you want a heaping helping of insight and intel? Well, you're about to get it courtesy of Lauren O'Connell, so dig in!
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you've been up to since appearing on Survivor.
LAUREN O'CONNELL: Since playing Survivor, I graduated from Georgetown University with my Masters in Physiology and Biophysics, and I'm currently interviewing at medical schools for admission in 2021.
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
Okay, I know that I should probably say being the youngest female to ever find an idol, or being the last Manu to be voted out, or somehow surviving 14 Tribals without being immune, but what I really find a lot of pride in is actually an article that came out after the episode where I passed out in the challenge. Jeff gave an interview about the incident and at the end, he said that I was one of the most competitive players they'd ever had on the show and that I managed to play very hard while still being very kind. He said that was a "rare kind human."
During the pre-game, when we are all going crazy from silently staring at each other over dinner plates and head nodding and winking every chance we got, I tried to journal every day so that I could remember exactly how I was feeling pre-show. The night before we were marooned, I wrote down a few goals I had for the game. There were five: 5. To not get voted out first. 4. To win individual immunity. 3. To find a Hidden Immunity Idol ( in retrospect maybe I should have added "and play it correctly"… but I digress). 2. WIN 1. To love everybody.
Regardless of what happened during the game, I wanted to play with a lot of love and a lot of kindness. So when that article came out, from a relatively objective party, a party whose opinion I valued and whom I had admired since I was five years old watching him count votes and snuff torches, I felt proud that in a game full of deceit and mistrust, I made it to day 37 while still being kind.
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experience?
Haha, I feel as though this question should be worded "Do you regret giving your idol to Chris????" And the obvious answer, today, having all of the information I now have, is OBVIOUSLY YES. If I had known that Chris and Rick had become friends while on the Edge and would be working together… if I had known that Chris would be given an idol upon re-entry to the game on day 35…. And especially if I had known that whoever re-entered the game would be a huge jury threat because of the relationships that were being built on the Edge, then MAYBE I would have played differently. But that's the beautiful thing about Survivor: You never have all of the information.
I think I have explained my thought process on my decision to play my idol for Chris a few times, but this is my party so here we go again.
My endgame goal since day 28 was to sit in the final three with Gavin and Julie. In the episode where we ultimately vote out Aurora, I fought that entire day to save Julie and to preserve my endgame. When Chris entered the mix on day 35, I truly believed at the time that his return was one of the best-case scenarios for me personally. I knew he could beat Rick in fire, but, most importantly, I knew that I had played a part in voting him out way back on Day 8.
Since then, to my knowledge, he hadn't been playing what I perceived as the "real game" in more than three weeks. Therefore, I thought there was no chance he would get any jury votes. So, on day 35, my endgame shifted to include any combination of Julie, Gavin, or Chris. This left me with two people in my way: Rick and Victoria. It didn't matter to me what order they were voted out in, but I didn't want to sit next to either of them at the end. Chris did not change my thoughts on Victoria, I never planned on taking her to the final three.
So, on day 36, Julie wins immunity. This means that I have the opportunity to vote out Victoria or Rick. Rick was public enemy number one, but I was almost certain that the Hidden Immunity Idol Rick had flaunted at the prior Tribal was real, so I needed to have a contingency plan. I had multiple conversations that day. My first conversation was with Chris and Julie, who both agreed that Rick was option one, but that Victoria could be option two. We decided that Gavin and Chris would put two votes on Victoria and then Julie, Victoria, and I would vote for Rick.
The next conversation I had was with Gavin, who told me that Victoria wanted to vote out Chris and that she had talked to Rick, who was also on board. I talked to Victoria next, who relayed exactly what Gavin had said. She wanted to vote for Chris.
To sum it all up, going into tribal I thought there would be:
Three votes on Rick, from Gavin, Julie and me
Two votes on Chris, since I knew Victoria would vote for Chris and I assumed that Rick would be voting along with her. I also figured there was no way Rick would be stupid enough to take the chance of competing against Chris in fire.
And then Chris would put one vote on Victoria.
My plan was to play my idol for Chris if Rick played a real idol for himself so that Victoria would be sent home and I could take full credit.
This plan was not influenced by any conversation I had with Chris other than the fact I knew he would be voting for Victoria and that I did not know he was working with Rick. I never wanted to sit by Victoria and I already knew that in order to win the Jury's respect I would need to make a big move with my idol. Our jury was very good at sending non-verbal signals (haha) and I was positive that they knew I was in possession of an idol prior to the moment I played it on day 36.
I also think it is important to mention that for some reason I assumed Kelley would share that information with them. I didn't perceive the Edge as an extension of the game, I perceived it as more of a waiting room where jury members shared information, so I assumed whoever entered the game would know about my idol.
Now let's take her home…. At Tribal, Rick plays his idol for himself, it's real. I now know that our votes for Rick will not count and it is time to put the contingency plan in motion. I still believe that two votes will be placed on Chris and one vote on Victoria. I want to send Victoria home so that leads me to make the decision to play my idol for Chris.
The list of what I didn't know that day is extensive. The most important being that I didn't know Chris had been given a Hidden Immunity idol or that he would turn on me and play it at the next Tribal. On day 37, I still had the numbers, so in an ideal world Gavin, Julie, and I would have voted for Chris after Rick won individual immunity, and Chris would have become the next member of the jury. But Survivor is far from an ideal world.
I assume that if Gavin, Julie, and I had been successful in voting Chris out then, my idol play on day 36 wouldn't look quite as bad (hahaha). But, alas, you can only play with the information you have in the moment and just try and make the very best decision you can. That's what I did. It didn't work out and I lost. But those kinds of screw-ups is what makes Survivor so fun to watch.
What's something that will blow fans' minds that happened out there in your season but never made it to TV?
On day 26, there was a reward challenge that was never aired. I think this challenge and the reward trip that followed ultimately resulted in Kelley being blindsided. Here's why: On day 23, a six-person majority alliance was formed between Julie, Gavin, Ron, Warpup, Kelley, and me. This group of six decidedly controlled the next vote on day 25 when we voted off David. There was a promise made among the six that we would not vote against each other until we made it to the final six — then it would be fair game.
However, the alliance possessed an interesting power dynamic, because although there appeared to be an equal number of original Kama and original Manu members, the relationships that had been built post-merge muddied the waters a bit. Gavin and I had built an incredibly strong relationship at this point, both assuring the other that we would take them to the end. I had also built a genuine relationship with Julie, and, of course, the Lesu three had voted as a unit up to this point in the game. What we all knew in the back of our heads, but never said out loud, was that once we reached the final six, we needed to assure that the numbers would fall in our favor. That is, if we upheld our promise and waited until then.
On day 26, there was a reward challenge where three teams of three contestants threw coconuts into a large basket that, when heavy enough, released these really large and really heavy puzzle pieces that we assembled on a platform to form our season's logo. We drew rocks for captains and then conducted a schoolyard pick. I drew a captain's rock and chose Gavin and Kelley. We decidedly won the reward thanks to Gavin's coconut throwing skills and Kelley's puzzle expertise. This was also the first reward Kelley and I had won, so we were really excited, and a little sad when it didn't air.
Jeff let us choose one other person to come with us on the reward, leaving five players back at camp. This is where the power dynamic comes into play. Kelley, Gavin, and I chose Julie, thinking that if we chose Warpup, then Julie and Ron would feel isolated and might be easily swayed by the remaining players at camp to turn on us. Kelley, Warpup, and I had also talked about actively fighting the appearance of a tight Lesu three so that the other people in our alliance would feel more comfortable. Overall, we assumed choosing Warpup would only hurt us.
Choosing Julie was a catalyst for Warpup's realization that he was one of the biggest threats at that point in the game and that it was unlikely that anyone in our six-person alliance would want to sit next to him in the end. If we got to the final six, Kelley and I would not only have had both of our idols, but we also would have had the majority with Gavin and Julie, so he knew that he would have to make his move before the final six while he could still find numbers to work with him.
That next night before tribal, Kelley and I talked about how the vibe had been off at camp ever since we returned from the reward, and we brought up the possibility that we would both need to play our idols that night, but we assumed that it was too early to make a move. Whoever did would most likely be next.
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
I laugh when I think about my comprehension of Survivor at the time I applied. I grew up watching the game with my family every week, but when I got to college none of my friends had seen it for some time; so in my head, Survivor seemed more like this incredible game that I wanted a chance to compete in rather than a TV show that millions of people would watch each week.
My only thought regarding the edit while on the show was that whatever you say is fair game — so don't say something you wouldn't want on TV. Or, as my mom yelled through the car window when she dropped me off in LA: "Don't say anything that will keep you from getting a job one day." I say all of this to help explain that not once before, during, or really up until the premiere episode did I worry about my edit. I just felt lucky and overwhelmingly thankful to have been afforded the chance to play — regardless of the outcome.
It was only as the season played out on TV and I began to see the people I had lived with for over a month portrayed as characters on a reality TV show, did I start to more fully grasp the capacity reality TV possesses to twist narratives and distort reality. Overall, I think that my edit was true to who I was on that island. I wasn't hateful in my words and I wasn't malicious in my actions, and I think that showed on TV.
Do I wish they would have shown a little more of how I somehow not only integrated myself into but eventually lead what initially appeared to be a rock-solid Kama alliance? Absolutely. Anyone who participates in reality TV has to be a little vain, haha. But I also understood that the story being told is so much bigger than just my perspective, and when all was said and done and I walked away from the finale, I felt the same way I did when I initially applied — really freaking thankful.
What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
The morning after I was voted off, I woke up shaking and had to remind myself that I wasn't on the island and that I didn't have to account for every players' locations and conversations any more. After I got home, I was SO confused how I ever used such a huge cell phone, and the light was so bright I couldn't even look at it. I don't think I even touched my phone for at least two weeks.
I had a really difficult time having long conversations with anyone and I ignored a lot of phone calls from friends and families because I just didn't have the mental or emotional energy to have what I perceived as "fake" conversations. I also had a really hard time regulating my eating schedule, haha. I would wake up at two in the morning and eat six waffles, two pints of ice cream, a quesadilla and a whole frozen pizza. I never traveled anywhere without food because I never wanted to get hungry.
I remember about a month after I got home from filming, we had a family reunion down in San Diego, which was only a four-hour drive from my house, and I packed a snack bag filled with enough food to feed the whole family for the entire week-long trip. I kept family-sized bags of peanut M&Ms by my bed for a long time and never left any food on my plate at restaurants.
Physically, my recovery took a long time. I had gone into filming while still relatively in soccer shape, and over the course of the show, all of my muscles had atrophied. I remember looking in the mirror for the first time and seeing that my arms and legs looked concave. I think it took about a year to feel normal at the gym again. I'm sure the waffles, pizza, M&Ms and ice cream didn't help that.
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?
There was never a time that I regretted going on the show, but man, was I naive. I had absolutely NO idea how freaking hard it was going to be. I vividly remember the morning of day 2, after our brilliant tribe decided not to build a shelter for night 1, but instead have a big group kumbaya and sleep on the coldest side of the island right next to the water… I asked Kelley if it would get worse. That liar said no, haha.
I imagine, had we won more than one challenge, that the pre-merge experience would have been a little easier. But we were SO bad. We just couldn't win anything, and then we tribe-swapped and the same group of losers got stuck together again on an island with a camp that we had to completely rebuild. Lesu was miserable. I actually think miserable might be an understatement. Our shelter consisted of a few bamboo sticks attempting to block out the gusts of wind that came shooting through our camp at night. We slept on the ground, praying that it wouldn't rain so that our "bed" wouldn't turn into mud, the only place we could find wood was at the bottom of a HUGE hill that oftentimes seemed too menacing to walk back up, and on top of all of that, we lost A LOT.
All of this is to say, on day 11 when we voted out Rick, I thought to myself for a split second right before Jeff read the votes at Tribal that night… a burger and a warm blanket might be nice tonight????
To me, Survivor is the ultimate competition. It's a game that simply cannot be simulated any other way that strips you to your core and forces you to show up and compete every single second of every single day. There were moments that I mentally and physically struggled, but I also thrived off of the competition and this innate drive to prove that I could not only survive but that I could win. That kind of competition is addicting, and I have yet to find anything else that matches it.
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your season?
I still talk to Gavin and Reem, and Warpup will always be like an older brother to me. I absolutely adore Aubry and have crashed on her couch more times than I can count, but I don't think it will come as a surprise to anyone that I talk with Kelley the most — at least once a week. I would be willing to bet — although not a lot of money because I only placed fifth — that I have gushed over Kelley in every post-game interview I have given. This one won't be any different.
Kelley is the type of friend you want in your corner from the second you meet her. She makes you feel like the sun shines only on you and that everything you have to say is the most interesting and most important thing she has ever heard. That's why she is so good at the game. Beyond our initial communication and the general idea that Kel and I were a tight twosome, I think a lot of our relationship was left out of the edit. Kelley was my rock during those MISERABLE days on Lesu. She was compassionate and motherly when I was sick and couldn't eat, she was strong and selfless — staying up all night to try and keep the fire going through the wind and the rain because we were all too tired to build a real shelter when we tribe swapped to Lesu. She was my confidante, my encourager, and my best friend out there, keeping me grounded, sane, and focused. She also probably kept Wardog from drowning me in the ocean a few times because I wouldn't shut up about the merge feast.
I was aware that Survivor was a game for one million dollars and that at the root of it all you shouldn't be able to trust anyone, but I trusted Kelley fully. I knew that she would have my back till the end and I would have had hers. However, although I was extremely sad when she was blindsided by Warpup, a part of me was thankful that I didn't have to do it, because I knew that I wouldn't have been able to vote her out, but I wouldn't have been able to beat her at the end either.
Kelley is and always will be the older sister I never had, and I would go through Lesu ten, maybe five more times if it meant I could leave that game with such an inimitable friendship. All of this to say, if you watch Survivor and you think Kelley Wentworth is cool, I can promise you she is one million times better than anything that could ever be depicted on TV.
Do you still watch Survivor, and, if so, what's your favorite season you were not on and why?
I still watch every episode with my family. My dad likes to pause the TV whenever there is a challenge on the same beach where we played our loved one's challenge and say "That's OUR beach! We were there!"
My favorite season is Micronesia. I remember watching it when it aired and I loved that my favorite players were back, but even more, I loved the idea that contestants, who I viewed as royalty, were playing with peasants, just like me. It made the show, and the potential that one day I would have the chance to play as well, feel a little more tangible.
I recently watched the season again, and it stands the test of time. Every episode is just so good!! There's humor intertwined with strategy and I think you really get to see how much fun the game of Survivor can be through the relatable eyes of the Fans who are a bit awestruck by their Favorites and also through the returnees, who bring this sense of carefree joy and love for the strategic aspect of the game. Micronesia just feels human. Also, just to stay on-brand, I think Parvati is masterful from start to finish. The way she seamlessly created and destroyed alliances is what I imagine made fans fall in love with her.
Who's one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
I'd love to play with Stephen Fishbach. I liked him in Tocantins, but recently I got to play the online game Sequester with him, and he's so witty and likable and so strategically dangerous. I think we'd make a good little duo if we got to play together.
Otherwise, I honestly got my wish. I think back to when Jeff asked me this exact question during one of my final interviews when I obviously had no idea what production had planned for our season or even if I would get cast on the show and I said Kelley Wentworth. He asked if I thought we would be friends or we would be enemies. I said "Let me play with her and we'll find out"
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
Edge ends at the merge, and they don't get an idol when they come back. I'm biased though.
Finally, would you play again if asked?
I'd jump off the boat tomorrow.
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