Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Earl Cole on being the first unanimous winner ever
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.
Earl Cole had Survivor winner written all over him. From the very first episode of Survivor: Fiji, it was clear that Earl had the leadership skills and social charm to win the game. And win he did. Not only did Earl become the first African-American male to become the Sole Survivor, but he became the first player ever to win unanimously.
The only surprising thing about Earl's dominant performance is that he went into the season not having a clue what he was doing because he had never even watched Survivor before playing. "I had never seen the show and didn't have any past situations to refer to, as many other people do," says Earl. "It was just raw gameplay of adaptation, observation, and figuring out how to survive, day by day."
Earl has been more than busy since his Survivor days, especially as the founder and CEO of the Smart Tire Company, a startup that is currently working on a big project with NASA. Work and parenthood have kept Earl from returning to the island after his epic run, but he hints in his Quarantine Questionnaire that he may just have another go at it in him. Read on for more intel and inside scoop from the champ!
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you've been up to since appearing on Survivor.
EARL COLE: I traveled the world (40-plus countries), founded a nonprofit organization (pertheskids.org), got married to an amazing woman (Shelley), had two beautiful kids (Kaia and Alani), recently produced an critically acclaimed film documentary (Crutch), and continue working as a serial entrepreneur and super-dad!
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
Making history as the show's first unanimous winner ever, as well as the first African-American male winner. Making my family proud with the type of game I played, then actually winning on Mother's Day and my mother's birthday weekend.
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experience?
That our season did not have a family visit due to the then political climate of Fiji. I worked really hard for the opportunity to see and hug my mother (JoAnn) on that island in those tough final episodes, but I guess it wasn't meant to be.
What's something that will blow fans' minds that happened out there in your season but never made it to TV?
In other interviews, I've shared the story of the camera crew and I getting lost on the island late at night, as it turned pitch-black outside while I was on a solo journey to find food for my tribe (a very distant mango tree I had spotted), and it took us around six hours to find our way back to the camp (camera was off because it was serious, but we chose not to radio for a helicopter), blindly chopping our way through brush and vegetation within a ravine…
However, one small story I've never talked about is the fact that our tribe (Ravu) in the early days was suffering from real dehydration, due to no water at all at our disposal, and we had yet to win a flint to boil/filter parasite-ridden well water. So my tribal mate Anthony and I decided to stay up all night to build our own Gilligan's Island version of a Roman aqueduct system made from palm fronds, branches, and bamboo to harvest small bits of water from the morning dew that dripped from tree leaves! It was an incredible structure that showcased our ingenuity, work ethic, craftsmanship, and creativity (with limited resources). However, it never made it into the episode! I never knew why.
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
I was totally fine with my edit. Of course, my edit had to be favorable being that I was the eventual winner. However, I played the game knowing that I had to represent my community and my family, so I kept it as clean and honorable as possible. I was a little disappointed at first that CBS really downplayed how much I dominated the game socially as a leader, big move-maker, and critical thinker, but I understand that there must be a balance of story lines with other characters so that it is not too obvious who the winner is.
My edit made me appear as an under-the-radar winner to some (I'm even referred to as an underrated winner sometimes), but those that were out there know the deal. I think our Fiji season was full of vibrant characters, tough challenges, and pioneering gameplay, but a lot of things do get lost in the edit. Overall, I liked my edit. My mother said I looked like a true hero. Her son. :)
What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
There was definitely an adjustment period (around 30 days) getting acclimated back into regular society. I had a hard time sleeping in my bed with such luxurious amenities like a pillow, sheets, and a comforter. You learn to appreciate simple things like bottled water, ice, toilets, TP, showers, soap, toothpaste, or even having a conversation with your friends… who are NOT trying to vote you out or have an agenda! LOL!
Every night my mind would be racing in deep thought as if I was still on the island. The paranoia and fear of being voted out stays with you for a few weeks! I always lightly compare it to aspects of a soldier returning from war. It sticks with you, and that shared experience you have with your tribemates really brings you close together, for life. Only people that have been actually played Survivor know what it's really like. There is no way possible to truly analyze or critique any player or situation on the show, based on the edited version people see from their couch.
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?
I never regretted going on the show. Ever. No matter how hard it got, I knew I was made of the right stuff to win. I stayed positive and stayed focused. Even after the show, I was proud of what I did, win or lose. Fortunately, I did win, so that made it even better.
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your season?
I still stay in contact with some people from my season, like Anthony, Cassandra, Yau-Man, Liliana, Rocky and such… especially since they all live in California. I also stay connected and friendly through social media with plenty of others from my season, like Rita, Dreamz, Boo, Stacy, Mookie, etc. We're all still family in some sort of way. When you experience something traumatic like Survivor together, I believe you will always be linked to the other castaways of your season, as well as other seasons.
Do you still watch Survivor, and if so, what's your favorite season you were not on and why?
I do watch Survivor whenever I get the chance, although more rare now that I have kids. I don't watch it as much as I used to, but I try to stay in the know, since fans often reach out to get my thoughts on certain seasons. Survivor is a lot different from when I played. It seems a little easier when it comes to food availability, the elements, and idol gameplay, but still a crazy cast of characters to keep you on your toes! I'm glad that the show is finally evolving into more gamesmanship and strategy, as opposed to just social gameplay.
I don't have a favorite season, but I did enjoy watching the seasons I was invited to come back for but couldn't do it due to scheduling. I'm sure my presence could have affected many people's games had I been able to join (Game Changers being one of them). When I watched season 40, although I did not participate, I do wish I had the opportunity to get to know a lot of the other winners (many I have never met). Some great, good-hearted people out there that I have watched from afar. What better way to build friendships than suffering together on that ratchet island and playing this crazy game! There's always plenty of downtime to get to know people on a deep level, even when you're competing against them. Maybe I'll go back again one of these days, if the timing is finally right for me.
Who's one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
Richard Hatch — because he was the first and there were no recycled gameplays back then. My season of Survivor made me understand what season 1 may have been like, as I had never seen the show and didn't have any past situations to refer to, as many other people do. It was just raw gameplay of adaptation, observation, and figuring out how to survive, day by day.
The other two would be Sandra and Tony. I think it would be fun to play against two two-time winners.
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
I would make the "hidden" immunity idol more hidden again. I had to work really hard to get my two idols, now they just literally grow on trees. I like the Fire Token idea, so I hope to see more expansion of that. I think it's time for the next decade of Survivor to have an evolution of the rules to make it fresh. Fire tokens and other things add to the strategic gameplay, to really challenge people to think before they act, and to also add more opportunities for players to affect the game in ways that you couldn't before. It shouldn't be a game just dominated by social players and the person you liked the most wins… now it's time to up the gameplay.
The main change I'm really happy about is CBS' new commitment to a 50 percent BIPOC cast! Diversity is the backbone of this country, so a show as iconic as Survivor was far behind when it came to diversity efforts in front of and behind the camera. Glad to see that changes like that are being made.
Finally, would you play again if asked?
Yes. I've been asked back four different times, but my schedule just didn't line up with the shooting dates. Maybe fifth time a charm? ;)
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