Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Karishma Patel regrets becoming a 'punching bag' on the show
With Survivor filming for seasons 41 and 42 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.
Karishma Patel did not have an easy time on Survivor. Not with the elements. Not with the challenges. Not with the knife. And certainly not with the tribemates. Yet, she proved herself to be a resilient survivor, lasting all the way until day 32, when she was finally voted out in eighth place.
But while Karishma often appeared to be persona non grata among other members of her tribe, looking back now, she blames herself for allowing others to treat her that way. "The root of so many of my regrets is not having enough courage and confidence while playing the game," says Karishma. "The reason it haunts me is because it's so drastically different than how I lead my life. Why wasn't I more assertive? How did I become a punching bag? I was overtly aware, yet didn't do the right things about it."
Not only was Karishma not treated well by all of her fellow tribemates, she didn't exactly get the sweetheart edit from producers out of the gate. "I was first portrayed as having cultural differences that were causing isolation," she says. "Then I was constantly berated by Jeff's yelling during challenges to create the illusion that I was the reason we lost. And finally, I'm sleeping all the time because I'm lazy and selfish, not because I had side effects from taking medication without food. Tack on some non-game related, out-of-context discussion about my family, and you have reality gold at my expense! Up until my last few episodes, I was shown as a joke."
Watching it all unfold on national television was tough for Karishma to take, although she also notes that she understands the editing arc of tearing someone down so then their accomplishments later — like finding and then correctly playing a hidden immunity idol — can seem all the more triumphant. "This is production 101," acknowledges Karishma. "Underdogs who are buried way deep, and then find a way to dig themselves out is good TV."
Karishma certainly made good TV, and she makes for an even better Quarantine Questionnaire as she spills all about the multiple reward challenges that never made it to TV, what she should have done differently in the game, and that time a rat tried to go INSIDE HER MOUTH!!!!
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you've been up to since appearing on Survivor.
KARISHMA PATEL: Back to the grind! I returned to my desk at the law firm within a few days of landing in the U.S. from Fiji. I picked up my cases and got cracking, even went to trial the same month I returned. I spent a lot of time with the family and friends who gave me strength while on the island. Those first months were filled with many joyful quality-time trips, tearful boasts of gratitude and overall just appreciating life. 2019 was like being on a carnival ride, twirling around to one extreme after another. It felt like a continuation of this big rich adventure of self-discovery.
After the finale, things started to quiet down quite a bit. The year 2020 came at us all like a freight train. While it unfolded, I found myself being forced to slow down and stop trying to "do it all." The Survivor experience, while still a significant event in my life, is now in the rearview mirror instead of all around me, and I fondly glance back often. This past year, I've been concentrating on my health and career more than anything. As age 40 approaches, new priorities and goals have pushed their way forward and I'm eagle-eye focused on making them happen.
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
Most people would expect my answer to be finding an idol, or playing it correctly at Tribal Council. And while I am supremely proud of myself for both, my real proudest moment was making it to the family visit so I could share this experience with my husband, Drew — even if it was for just a few minutes, haha. There are certain milestones on Survivor, and after each one you give yourself this silent pat on the back: The first vote, the swap, the merge, loved ones, and of course, final Tribal.
For me, making it to each milestone felt like a feat of strength. Just getting there, on my own two feet, felt like an accomplishment of a lifetime. And no gift was grander than seeing Drew's face through those trees on that island. I did that. I made that happen through grit and perseverance. And now he is part of this adventure with me forever.
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experience?
I will be upfront — I have a lot of regrets from my Survivor experience. I try not to dwell on them, but they come back to me in nightmares from time to time.
The root of so many of my regrets is not having enough courage and confidence while playing the game. The reason it haunts me is because it's so drastically different than how I lead my life. Why wasn't I more assertive? How did I become a punching bag? I was overtly aware, yet didn't do the right things about it.
Early on, my biggest regret was not bonding more with the girls at Lairo. There were real sparks there, they just failed to ignite. And as each day went by, the distance grew farther and farther, and I felt sidelined so I put on a security blanket. I wish I had pushed those insecurities aside and kept at it more for the game's sake. I had a lot of trouble putting my tail between my legs and sucking up. My natural instinct is if you don't want me, well then I don't want you. But that attitude just will not work on Survivor.
As for post-merge, I have three main regrets I can think of:
First, I should have put more effort into reconnecting with old Lairo, and getting to know Tommy and Lauren after the merge. I barely talked to Tommy and Lauren, and instead relied on others about where their allegiance lay. I had made up my mind to vote with Vokai, who I felt more closely bonded with after the swap, but I now regret not keeping my mind more open and exploring the deeper dynamics after the swap. There was opportunity there that Dean saw and seized, but I failed to.
Second, I wish I had told Elaine and Elizabeth about my idol to make a big move. I wasn't working with them, heck I wasn't working with anyone, but I just didn't see the big picture that making a big move with me would be in their best interest. I thought about telling them, with a plan to blindside Dan that had been simmering in my head for a while. But as I approached them sitting in the ocean — idol tucked away in my bra ready to be whipped out – I got spooked. The first few minutes of conversation felt off to me.
I now know that was because the plan was to unanimously vote me out. I had no idea at the time. I figured I'd get some votes, per usual, but never did I imagine a plan to put every vote on me. That's terrible game strategy! So, in the water, next to Elaine and Elizabeth, my instincts screamed "I can't trust them. Retreat." What I should have thought was "I might not trust them — but what do I have to lose?" You don't always need trust to pull off a move and make a seismic shift in the trajectory of your game — an idol and some good luck can be good enough. Alas, I got scared, and that fear prevented me from better positioning myself in the game moving forward.
And third, I wish we would have targeted Dan instead of Tommy at the Tribal I went home. I still wonder why we didn't… The original plan was to blindside Lauren to break up an obvious duo, but when she won immunity (hats off to her!) the plan switched to Tommy. I adored Tommy, but he was honest with me about how I'm a liability to work with (that brutal honesty is one of the reasons I voted for him to win), so I was ok with that plan for my game.
What baffles me is how I didn't pick up on all the signs of hesitation Dean was showing with that new plan (because unlike me, he WAS working with Tommy). I should have talked to Dean more openly about what he wanted, instead of placating his doubts about Noura and reassuring him of the "plan." I should have talked this out with Elaine, just the 2 of us, specifically examining Dean's point of view. Maybe if it wasn't Tommy, Dean wouldn't have jumped ship. Maybe if it was Dan, the vote would have worked and shifted the power dynamics. Who knows. Dean and I played 32 days together but never could get on the same page, which is a shame because if we did, we could have done some real damage.
Oh, and how could I forget! I definitely regret not being more careful with the darn knife on day 7! Getting hurt just made me more physically uncomfortable than I already was, which made it that much harder to keep my mind clear. I was supposed to keep it dry to avoid infection, so I didn't go in the water for the next 2 challenges — and that leaned me to that fish puzzle. I have a feeling if I didn't hurt myself, some of the dominoes may not have toppled the way they did. By the way, still can't feel my index finger!
What's something that will blow fans' minds that happened out there in your season but never made it to TV?
There is so much that never makes it to TV, I sometimes wish Survivor had a live feed format.
But then I think about how much mindless boring walking through the jungle there is, haha. There's a good amount of trial and error. For example, as soon as we were marooned (with no Jeff in sight!) we were led to a location where we had to choose either tools to build a shelter or a basket of food. I believe the vote was unanimous for tools and we made our way to camp. During confessionals the first few days, I was asked about that decision and why I voted tools. Then that little "twist" just disappeared. I bet production decided it was "meh" and dropped it.
There are a lot of random hiccups that happen during the challenges, which is natural when you think about the sheer magnitude of the whole thing. During the first immunity challenge post-merge, we had to hold up a heavy plank with 3 balls balancing on them. I honestly thought the rules were that once a ball fell, you were out. So when Jeff called start, and one of my balls rolled off, I just set down my plank in defeat and started walking to the bench. Then, someone else did the same thing. Jeff was like "Wait, wait, wait, we need to start over, ya'all don't get the rules — you stay up there until ALL three balls fall." Oops! So we reset and started again, and this time I lasted a whole lot longer, haha.
In one challenge where coconuts had to be thrown into a net, the net just ripped and we had to pause until it was fixed to start again. In another challenge, one team couldn't hear the rules clearly so both teams got the reward out of fairness. Two whole challenges were actually never even aired! One, we had to hold up sandbags in teams of 2 made by schoolyard pick (Elizabeth and I were captains). This was for a burger BBQ. Another was an obstacle course with climbing and digging and throwing — you know the drill. This was for pizza. I didn't win either, haha. In fact, the only "reward" I ever got on Survivor was half a PB&J sandwich thanks to Elaine's comp win!
A few more little tidbits — the original Lairo island is infested with the Matamanoa bird, which at night will start a loud, wailing concert that sounds like crying demon babies. They look like crows and dig large holes in the ground to nest, so walking in the dark is incredibly dangerous. And when you are trying to get just a slight bit of sleep, the sound is like a nail grinding in your head. Oh, and they are fearless too! They would randomly jump around the camp at night, on us and even through our fire! The merge camp, also original Vokai island, is infested with rats. They scatter and hide during the day, but at night you can hear swarms of them under the bamboo we sleep on, and in the morning there are droppings around. One jumped in my mouth in the middle of the night! I know we're supposed to be super outdoorsy and all, but gross!
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
You know, I could go one of two ways with this answer. I can complain about production to my fiery heart's content. Or I can blame myself for giving them the ammunition in the first place. I'll do something in between. Short answer, my edit was uncomfortable and painful to watch much of the time. Frankly speaking, I haven't watched my season again, but I'm looking forward to doing so when I'm ready.
Survivor, as a show, is in the business of telling stories. And I cannot blame them for taking the "Karishma Story" in the direction they did, but I disagreed with some decisions on how to tell that story. I was first portrayed as having cultural differences that were causing isolation. Then I was constantly berated by Jeff's yelling during challenges to create the illusion that I was the reason we lost. And finally, I'm sleeping all the time because I'm lazy and selfish, not because I had side effects from taking medication without food. Tack on some non-game-related, out-of-context discussion about my family, and you have reality gold at my expense!
Up until my last few episodes, I was shown as a joke. This is production 101: Underdogs who are buried way deep, and then find a way to dig themselves out is good TV. If I'm gasping for air, bloody and bruised, and then suddenly I find an idol and can pull my own head up to take a deep breath… well, that's a story arc. Ultimately, I was buried far too deep to ever get myself out, but the story was still there to be told. And while I take responsibility for my part in getting into that hole, the gameplay and subtle moves along the way that kept me safe Tribal after Tribal weren't shown because they didn't fit into the above storyline.
Ultimately, I rely on what I know I accomplished out there — and not my edit — to give me pride in my Survivor experience. The edit of falling so hard is just the fluff. What's real is that I got up, dusted myself off, and came home stronger.
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 after I returned. Although work and life had to start up almost immediately, my mind was still trying to process what happened on the island. In all seriousness, I was elated to rejoin the people in my life who accept me for who I am. But I had a lot of sadness, anger, and confusion that led to some dark moments, for sure. I remember looking in the mirror one day and thinking, "Am I unworthy?" The adjustment period was spent getting back to loving myself because I'm a wonderful person with so much to give. And Survivor was just a game. I learned to accept the experience I had, instead of dwelling on what it wasn't. It took time, but I came out the other end happier, and grateful for my peoples who helped me remember what I should have never forgotten to begin with.
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 during the game, I was too mesmerized by the fact that I was on the show to begin with! There were 2-3 times during the airing when I momentarily regretted it, but those feelings were short-lived. My decision to go on the show was absolutely the right decision for me. However, it came with baggage that I quite literally signed up for, and when that baggage became real and tough to handle — yeah, I wondered what if?
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your season?
Honestly, I don't stay in touch with my cast as well as I should. This isn't by conscious choice, more a product of being extremely preoccupied in my world and not living in close proximity to anyone. However, I am a firm believer that you don't need to talk to each other all the time for there to be real love and friendship in your heart. Many members of this cast know that I cherish our experience together and that bond means I will always be there for them — tomorrow, or in 20 years. A good handful of people in this cast, if I were to send a three-word text, they'd just get it. Sometimes those are the best relationships to have.
That being said, I think Drew keeps in touch wayyy better than I do, haha. The loved ones' bond was real too! They all had matching t-shirts made to commemorate their time together in Fiji, it's really cute. We all had a blast at Elaine's wedding last year with a big group of Elizabeth, Jack, Chelsea, Aaron, Dean, Molly, Janet, Jamal, and Kellee. I'm looking forward to the next reunion because with this crew, it'll always be like just yesterday we were…
Do you still watch Survivor, and if so, what's your favorite season you were not on and why?
Yes, I'll always watch Survivor and hope they keep evolving with the times with diverse casts, fresh and improved challenges, and clever new twists that really work for the essence of the show. My favorite seasons are Cook Islands, China, SJDS, Ghost Island, and DvsG. I really enjoyed Winners at War, minus Edge, and some of the Fire Token stuff. And I liked Cagayan's 2nd half a lot, same with MilvsGenX. My eight-year-old niece's favorite player of all time is David Wright.
There are still a few seasons of Survivor I've never seen. I tried to binge some this past year, but felt a little bit of Survivor fatigue. After your life revolves around something that you're thinking about nonstop for so long, you get a bit exhausted and need a break. I'm waiting for just the right time to watch them. And I can't lie, I'm pretty stoked that I get to watch them with fresh eyes! Even though I know who the winners are, haha.
Who's one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
I would have liked to play with Tai. He was a compassionate person and also an astute player. The one thing I craved out there more than anything was compassion. I think our energies would have fit like a puzzle.
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
The change I'd want to make is happening. By the relentless and fierce diligence of powerful voices for positive change, we are going to see more diversity and inclusion in future seasons. When you are represented equally as a part of the world, the world is yours for the making. I'm proud to have been the first Indian-American person on Survivor after 20 years. I'm even prouder knowing that I am not going to be the last. Survivor flourishes when it highlights genuine, unique, diverse people. There are so many out there for the picking! Pick them!
Finally, would you play again if asked?
If the timing is right, absolutely yes. And with a lion's share of courage in tow this time around.
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