Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Brendan Shapiro shares biggest regret from Ghost Island
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.
Speak now or forever hold your peace. Brendan Shapiro was not at a wedding when he should have heeded those words, but rather at the fourth Tribal Council of Survivor: Ghost Island. The clear leader of the Malolo tribe, Brendan was in danger after a ridiculously early tribe swap put his alliance down in the numbers. While indications were that the Navitis were voting out Stephanie Johnson, Brendan caught an inadvertent clue from Kellyn that he was the true target.
While alliance mate Michael was not buying Brendan’s theory, Brendan still blames himself for not fighting harder to convince him. “I missed an opportunity to jump up with an emphatic and dramatic objection the moment Michael told Jeff he was going to play the idol on Stephanie,” says Brendan. “To this day, I believe Michael would have reversed course if I stood up in front of everyone, told him he was making the wrong play, and demanded he play the idol on me.”
It’s a mistake that still haunts Brendan to this day in a never-ending game of “What if…” Says Brendan: “After all this time, I still imagine how our season would have changed if that idol play had gone differently and we went into the next Tribal Council with a 4-4 Malolo-Naviti tie.”
Sadly, we’ll never know, as the middle school teacher was voted out on day 12. But there is plenty more you can learn by reading over Brendan’s Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you’ve been up to since appearing on Survivor.
BRENDAN SHAPIRO: Just prior to filming Ghost Island, I changed careers and became a middle school teacher. I'm still at it and am really happy in my new career. Last year, I watched my son Will head off to college, while my daughter Molly is about to start her senior year of high school. It's crazy to think my wife and I are a year away from being empty nesters. I don't feel that old, but that's the reality of the situation. I'm probably due for a midlife crisis. Any ideas for big life decisions? I'm taking suggestions.
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
The first three days of Survivor are a blur. It's all mayhem and everyone is at risk. I felt particularly vulnerable because I was singled out as the leader of my tribe from the beginning. My season had the youngest cast in the history of the game. A week shy of my 41st birthday, I was the oldest man on my tribe by 15 years and I felt the target pinned to my chest. Going into the first Tribal Council, my goal was to stay under the radar, but steer the action to ensure everyone would go back to camp happy. I knew I'd be in serious trouble if I returned with disgruntled tribemates looking to shake things up.
For most of the afternoon, the consensus among the majority of the tribe was to vote Jenna. She and Stephanie Johnson had formed an early bond and were already attracting attention. As Tribal Council approached, I started to worry that Stephanie would come back angry and looking for answers if we blindsided her by voting out her closest ally. With about an hour to go before Tribal Council, I set the wheels in motion to move the vote from Jenna to Gonzo. I initiated a Gonzo whisper campaign in which I tried to make it seem like I was just the messenger.
In retrospect, I think Gonzo could have been a valuable ally, but the mayhem of the first three days is cloudy and confusing. She is as kind and sweet a person as you will ever meet. She is one of my best friends from Survivor, but there was a lot I didn't know about her in the beginning. All I knew at the time was that she didn't seem to have an ally who was close enough to come looking for me if we voted her out. At the time, Jacob was working to establish trust with Gonzo, but he was away at Ghost Island for the first vote and I thought he'd have trouble mobilizing a group against me when he rejoined our tribe. As we returned from Tribal Council, I felt good to have driven the action, but I was concerned that people would start to figure out that I was pulling strings.
It wasn't until the second Tribal Council that I really felt the pride of having steered a vote without any of the anxiety or worry that goes along with it. Prior to Tribal Council, Jacob came back from Ghost Island and quickly tried to rally people to vote out Michael. He claimed to have won an immunity idol. I didn't buy it. I convinced the rest of the tribe the idol was fake and worked up the plan to vote Jacob out of the game. My single proudest moment came on day 6 as I left another Tribal Council, the invisible leader of a harmonious tribe, having just hit my second target in as many tries. We were losing, but I was calling shots and without taking any heat. I didn't sleep well on Survivor, but I got my best sleep that night.
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experience?
The day I was voted off, I saw it coming. The original Navitis, who seemed to be taking orders from Kellyn and Bradley, were telegraphing a Stephanie vote out. It smelled fishy. I had the chance to spend some alone time with Kellyn that afternoon. I noticed a tear come to her eye when I talked about my long road to get to Survivor and how much I wanted to hang in the game long enough to see my birthday, which happened to be the next day. I was pretty sure she didn't catch me catch her tipping her hand.
Based on my gut feel that Stephanie was a red herring, and bolstered by my interaction with Kellyn, I spent much of the afternoon trying to convince Michael (who was in possession of an idol) that Stephanie was not the target and that they were coming for me. At the time, the original Navitis held a 5-4 advantage over the original Malolos. We planned to pin all of our votes on Bradley and hoped to guess right and protect the right person with our idol play. We knew we had the numbers to send Bradley packing if Michael played the idol correctly.
During Tribal Council, Jeff asked me if I felt safe. I told him the Navitis were coming for me and that they were trying to mislead us into thinking they were going to vote for Stephanie. Despite my pleas that afternoon and at Tribal Council, Michael remained convinced Stephanie was the target, and the rest is history. This gets me to a point of emphasis and my biggest regret. First, the point of emphasis: I don't put the result of that Tribal Council on Michael. I could have done more. Michael is a Survivor prodigy and I have nothing but respect for the game he played from start to finish. It was up to me to convince him to play the idol correctly and I didn't do it.
Survivor is really tricky. You don't know what you don't know, because conversations are happening all over the beach at all times. You end up missing important cues and imagining conversations that never happened. Michael did the best he could for the original Malolos based on what he had seen and heard. Now, my regret: I missed an opportunity to jump up with an emphatic and dramatic objection the moment Michael told Jeff he was going to play the idol on Stephanie. To this day, I believe Michael would have reversed course if I stood up in front of everyone, told him he was making the wrong play, and demanded he play the idol on me. After all this time, I still imagine how our season would have changed if that idol play had gone differently and we went into the next Tribal Council with a 4-4 Malolo-Naviti tie.
Oh... one other thing. I regret not carrying a few extra pounds into the game. By day 6, I was way too skinny. By day 12, I looked like Gollum from Lord of the Rings. I couldn't stand up without getting dizzy and lightheaded. It made performing in grueling challenges even more difficult. By the end, I could barely remember my tribemates' names in confessionals. I was in zombie mode. I would leave conversations with producers frustrated, wishing I had it in me to be more charismatic. I really didn't feel like myself for my final week on the island. In retrospect, I think coming into the game another five-10 pounds heavier would have done the trick.
What’s something that will blow fans’ minds that happened out there in your season but never made it to TV?
There was so much the viewers didn't see at the first Tribal Council. Gonzo became suspicious and sensed she was in trouble. She was not ready to go down without a fight. I'm pretty sure the edit showed her get up and whisper in my ear to confirm I was voting for Donathan, which was the lie I had told her earlier in the day. What the edit didn't show was that she assumed I was lying and she made a frenzied attempt to get the rest of the tribe to actually vote for Donathan.
It was a tense scene, with Gonzo whispering new fake instructions — which she claimed came from me — in each player's ear. At the time, I didn't know what she was saying, but reading the faces of my tribemates, I knew it causing confusion and chaos. As she leaned into each player to order the hit on Donathan, I used hand signals behind her back to signal she was still the target. Gonzo's plan didn't work, but you had to respect her ability to think on her feet and her willingness to go out swinging.
After Jeff snuffed Gonzo's torch, she sent a parting shot my way, saying, "This tribe is a lion and seven sheep. Sad." The whole lion/sheep part was cut and all she said on the show was "sad." It was such a cool line. I thought it would make the edit for sure. During the game, I was not happy about being called out as the lion (though it didn't seem to hurt me pre-swap), but after the fact, I was super excited for my family and friends to watch me become the Lion in front of a national TV audience. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little disappointed when it didn't happen.
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
My edit was fair. I think I was painted in a positive light and my words and actions were portrayed in ways that were true to my intentions. That said, most of the moments I'd consider personal highlights didn't make the edit. With only 47 minutes a week to tell a story, producers can't possibly get to everyone. I'd guess that viewers are seeing between 5-10 percent of the raw footage in the first few episodes. The reality is the 17th place finisher isn't going to get the biggest edit and won't always get credit for driving early action. If I had done better in the game, I would have received a more prominent edit. My lack of highlights is on me. I probably would have made similar decisions if I were in the editing bay.
What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
Reintegrating into regular society was relatively easy for me because I wasn't in the game long enough to get too messed up. I've heard stories of people developing serious trust issues and/or disordered eating habits, but that wasn't me. Don't get me wrong, sleeping in a bed and having unlimited access to food after even a couple of weeks on the island felt weird at first, but it wasn't hard. My challenge had more to do with sharing the experience with my family. After seven weeks of experiences and emotions that are bizarre, intense, and unique to Survivor, I didn't know the best way to share it all with my wife and kids.
Worse than that, I wasn't good enough at giving them the undivided attention we all needed. They were so excited for me and so supportive of my dream to play, so the last thing I wanted to do was to make them feel like I wasn't fully present once I got home. My honest self-assessment is that I fell down on the job. I can't speak for all players, but I found it difficult to let go once I got home. Maybe it's because the game hadn't gone how I wanted, but I spent too much time reliving and second-guessing my time on the island via text or FaceTime with my new Survivor friends and not enough time fully present with the most important people in my life. I figured it out eventually, but I will always regret not being more on the ball at the time.
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?
I've never regretted going on Survivor. I spent an unimaginable amount of time dreaming about the experience before I knew I'd get the chance to play. I applied every year from 2001 to 2016. It was/is a bit of an obsession for me for the better part of two decades, so I suppose there was the risk of a big letdown. Thankfully, I can tell all the people out there still chasing the Survivor dream that every moment — from casting, to pre-game press, to the game itself, to Ponderosa — exceeded my incredibly high expectations. Putting my result to the side, the experience was amazing and left me wanting more. It's hard to put into words how much it all meant to me.
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your season?
Oh man... we have an awesome group! I'm still in contact with just about everyone. My most regular interaction is with a number of the pre-merge all-stars, such as (in-game nemesis) Bradley, Morgan, James, and Gonzo. We spent a LOT of time together at Ponderosa and on the pre-merge trip to Australia, so those bonds are unique. It's been fun to see the relationships continue in different ways with different people: James has spent the last few Thanksgivings with me in Virginia, so my family and neighborhood friends have gotten to know him pretty well.
Wendell, Dom, James, Gonzo, Bradley, Kellyn, Chris, and I got to catch up for a few days at Morgan's wedding last August. Recently, Dom set up an online Survivor poker game/Zoom session, which has given us the opportunity to hang out with Survivors from a number of different seasons, compete, and talk a little s--- on a regular basis. I text or FaceTime various members of the cast from time to time, whether it's Sebastian to talk about our beloved Washington Football Team, or Michael so I can stay up to date on his adventures traveling the world. I'm sure I'm leaving people out, but you get the idea. I think we have a really tight and harmonious group as Survivor casts go. Most of these people are much closer in age to my kids than they are to me, so they are kind to continue to humor me with a text or visit as the years have gone on.
Do you still watch Survivor, and if so, what’s your favorite season you were not on and why?
I never miss an episode. I used to say Cagayan was my favorite. Maybe it still is, but it's a pretty popular pick so I'll go with another. I loved David vs. Goliath. It was great on so many levels. The cast worked about as well as any group of non-returnees ever has. In-game production decisions were awesome across the board and enabled a motivated group of players to drive the action at a consistently high and unpredictable pace. Everything worked. The editing was awesome. Even advantages that had significant potential to fall flat (Carl's idol nullifier) ended up working beautifully.
Who’s one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
This is a tough one. My short list includes Tony, Cirie, Tyson, Keith, Coach, Richard, Sandra, Denise, Yul, Mike Holloway, and a few others, but my number one is Jeremy. I'm a huge fan of all of those players for a variety of reasons, but I'd love to compete against the best of the best. For me, that's Jeremy. I think he's the most skilled player to have won. I know that sounds ridiculous given that Tony and Sandra each have more wins, but I'd still give Jeremy the edge in the long run. To make a baseball analogy, I'd put my money on Jeremy to come out on top (with the highest average placing) if they played Winners at War as a seven-game series.
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
I would ban swapping after just two vote outs. Whether you're shuffling two tribes or going from two to three, swaps after the second vote out invariably lead to Pagongings. You have to let things breathe for a minute before shuffling so you can give time for personalities to emerge and fractures to form in the tribes. I should caveat this proposal by saying Survivor hasn't swapped that early in the two years since my season, so maybe production has already come to the same conclusion. We can hope.
Finally, would you play again if asked?
I'm glad you asked! I can't imagine a scenario where I would decline an invitation. I love Survivor as much as I ever have. I might be delusional, but I'm still convinced I can win. I'm pretty sure I'm the most self-assured 17th place finisher in history. It probably won't surprise you when I say I've thought about this once or twice. I've even come up with a sales pitch for two return scenarios. Hear me out on this.
My first pitch is for Survivor: Unfinished Business. This is a season of pre-merge players. It would be awesome for a couple of reasons. First, you're bringing back players who showed promise and got a good reaction from fans, but were derailed before the merge for some reason. In addition to the Ghost Island all-stars previously mentioned, there are countless great candidates. How cool would it be to see people like Brice, Reem, Natalie, or Chelsea back out there battling every second to make it another day? That's the great thing about pre-merge players — we wouldn't take a single day for granted and would have our foot on the gas from the jump. Watching players scratch and claw to make the merge would be like having an extra Super Bowl in the MIDDLE of the season. Final Tribal Council would still be the Super Duper Bowl at the end of the season. Who doesn't want a double shot of Super Bowls?
My second pitch is for Blood vs. Water 3. History has been kind to the first two iterations. Let's go for one more! The format works and will only be enhanced now that we're in the era of Fire Tokens. Survivor currency in a season where there are real, meaningful inter-tribe connections from day one? Sounds like a winner to me. Blood vs. Water with Fire Tokens has the potential to give viewers all the strategy they can handle without shortchanging character development. There might have been a time when casting struggled to find enough compelling loved ones, but that day is long gone. I can think of a number of players who have made-for-Survivor loved ones. I have one in my house. My son, Will, is the younger, smarter, more strategic, more charming version of me. Together, we would stomp on everyone. You know people, Dalton. Let's make it happen.