Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Sean Rector speaks out on never being asked back to play again
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.
Sean Rector is one of the most outspoken and entertaining contestants in Survivor history. In one scene he could eloquently express how Black contestants were not competing on a level playing field because they could not naturally be themselves around others as the majority of white players could, while in another he could hilariously voice his plight of having crushed testicles while riding a donkey. He gave incredible confessional interviews. He quoted Passenger 57 while voting someone out at Tribal Council. There is no doubt that he was one of the breakout characters back in season 4 of the franchise for Survivor: Marquesas.
Which is what makes his absence since on the show all the more confounding. Sean was not brought back for Survivor: All-Stars and was not among the bunch of players fans could vote in to play Survivor: Cambodia — Second Chance. So what gives? “I was asked to participate in the first Survivor: All-Stars,” reveals Sean. “I had gotten certain inoculations, I was spiritually, mentally, and physically preparing to take time away from my family — my son was literally just born — and also time away from my students again. My bags were packed at the door and I stood ready to go, and not only was I not informed that I wasn’t selected, but I never heard from them again until 30 seasons later when I received an inquiry call to see if I’d like to play again.”
Stung by what happened for All-Stars, Sean had some demands if he was going to return after being burned so any years prior, yet he was again left out. “Needless to say, I was denied another opportunity of doing the show again,” says Sean. “Interestingly, I know for sure many returning players who have been offered either pay incentives or at least the opportunity to compete again based solely on whether you were liked or in the ‘inner circle’ of the host and showrunners and not on merit or, more importantly, fan choice. Trust me, this is no shade, just facts!”
The fact is, 36 seasons without Sean Rector is a mistake that needs correcting — especially when you consider how several other players have appeared four times since then — and his Quarantine Questionnaire proves exactly why. Sean weighs in on his time in the game, what he’s been up to since then, how the rainstorm of immunity idols has fundamentally changed the show, and what the franchise needs to do to achieve something close to real equality. Prepare to once again be educated and entertained.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you’ve been up to since appearing on Survivor.
SEAN RECTOR: Hey, Dalton. Thanks for checking in on a Brotha! Since appearing on Survivor: Marquesas 19 years ago, my partner, Margarita, and I have been raising our 3 children — Noah, Amaya and Josh. Many people may not know that I studied Theatre at The University at Albany SUNY and was a member of The Negro Ensemble Company where actors such as Denzel Washington and Samuel Jackson got their start, I also got to work with the incomparable Bill Irwin at The Roundabout Theatre literally on Broadway, so when it looked like I wouldn’t get a second chance to go back and compete on Survivor, I just went back to my theatrical roots and continued to do theatre and staged productions here in Los Angeles.
In addition, I appeared as a guest-star on shows like Without a Trace and Everybody Hates Chris. I’ve continued to do my work in education as a consultant working with charter and public schools. Most recently, as an independent contractor I partnered with the Sandy Hook Promise Organization, teaching thousands of students across the country the See Something Say Something and Starting with Hello programs — effectively teaching youth and adults how to prevent school violence, shootings, and other harmful acts and guiding educators on how to identify at-risk behaviors and intervention. The work I'm most proud of is my non-profit organization that I started 19 years ago right after Marquesas called T.Y.M.E. (Teaching Young Men Excellence). The Foundations’ Boys to Men Enrichment Program and — in light of the George Floyd murder and all the civil unrest that has followed — our African American Academy(AAA)program has been in demand to address the needs of Black students in education.
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
I've had many proud moments, but In terms of gamesmanship, I had many moments that stood out for me feeling blessed that I had the opportunity to lead the GREATEST power shift, at that time, in Survivor history — along with my sis Vecepia, Neleh, Kathy, and Paschal. Also, being the first contestants ever to play the game with every castaway from our season was pretty cool too.
Also, winning the food reward challenge with Paschal English, where we won a Marquesean feast while having my gonads with no pads compromised during the mule-like horse ride, which was supposed to be a reward lol — that was definitely a proud moment for me and subsequently America at that time, especially since Pascual “Pappy” and I couldn’t have been more opposite politically, socially and racially (that episode ironically won an Emmy).
The ultimate and the proudest moment, though, was winning a brand new Saturn Vue SUV, because of everything I had to overcome to win that challenge. In the early Survivor seasons, winning the car challenge used to be the most coveted prize outside of the million dollars. When I watched that episode, I realized that my faith and mental acuity had grown stronger and allowed me to overcome every obstacle that I had previously failed. I REALLY wanted to win that car, and by God’s grace and mercy I did! Ironically, I also ended up with another Saturn SUV at the finale, as did my other castmates, compliments of Rosie O'Donnell, so that was two cars in one season. Not bad for a Brotha that was riding the Iron Horse (subway) and the bus at the time
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experience?
The biggest regret that I had from my Survivor experience was that I was never given the opportunity to play again so that my children could watch their Dad “get the bag” as they would say lol, in my prime, in real time and as a much wiser and a more mature man. I wondered what life experiences and perspectives I would’ve brought back to the game.
I’ve always brought race, religion and politics in spaces where people were afraid to talk about any of these topics, because I believe these are some of the core values that help you understand people better, and if you add a little humor and empathy the better. As time went on, I figured they were going to wait for me to look like Fredrick Douglass and then extend an invitation to play again lol, who knows. I personally think Jeff Probst was biased against our season for several reasons.
First, because he was essentially ghosted because Rosie O'Donnell hosted our finale. Secondly, although I never claimed to be a Survivor “know-it-all” but I was an outspoken and a conscious Black man, and we all know that is a NoNo (just like the little black mosquitos on the island) on network television. And lastly, Vecepia Robinson, she probably wasn’t the winner some people wanted, but she upset the applecart and won the million dollars and the title of Sole Survivor.
If you don’t think racism and implicit bias exist, tell me why Vecepia has been completely ignored and has NEVER received an inquiry call or invite to even play in a season with all previous winners? (Please miss me with the “she was boring or not great TV” BS). Subsequently, ten seasons later, Earl Cole, a Black man, finally won and like my sis Vecepia and Marquesas, was largely ignored by showrunners. If you recall most of those early reality shows like The Real World, Road Rules and even Survivor and Big Brother, Black contestants, especially Black men, were always made to look stereotypically combative, lazy, ignorant, unaware, aggressive etc….
These are historically coded and loaded descriptions and depictions that have had deep repercussions on how we are viewed in society. My insights and criticisms are not necessarily collective knocks on my castmates, because I don’t believe anyone was being blatantly racist or prejudiced, but implicit bias and tribalism does exist in society, and especially in a game where you socially bond with people who share similar values and sometimes similar aesthetics.
Television, specifically the Survivor franchise, has a responsibility and the power to represent a more just and equitable playing field as a benchmark of real progress for ALL people, and not some concession of perceived power or standing that had to be compromised by one group to another. At the end of the day, I know it’s all about entertainment and distraction, so ultimately I’m grateful that Robyn Kass from Big Brother casting along with Mark Burnett and CBS (Marquesas was the only season not cast by Lynne Spillman at the time) gave me a once in a lifetime opportunity, alongside our entire cast, for a memorable season with a lot of Survivor “Firsts.”
What’s something that will blow fans’ minds that happened out there in your season but never made it to TV?
In terms of what happened out there and the thing that might blow the fans’ minds that was never shown on TV — however small it may seem yet I think was crucial, is that despite the editing of strategizing and combativeness, our cast mostly got along, especially at night. When we had to wind down into island life, there was a lot of sharing of stories. We got to know each other's families and backgrounds, specifically when we would share our love for food. Because we were extremely hungry we had to be very descriptive, so when it was my turn, I shared and confessed my love for chicken and waffles, a Harlem staple that came up in a lot of conversations as well as Roscoe’s in L.A.
Also, after every Tribal Council, we’d have a small boat take us back to the island, but it would drop us off at least 100 yards away from the island and we’d have to swim back in the dark ocean and return to island life soaking wet. I hated that! On a separate but similar Survivor note, when I went on CBS’ The Early Show with Bryant Gumbel he brought me in a private room before we went on air and shared some powerful and introspective words with me with regards to Survivor and life, words I’ll never forget. Ironically, I believe I was the last Survivor contestant he interviewed on May 17, 2002.
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
Listen, the producers shoot hours and hours of footage of mostly boring and monotonous daily activity on these islands, so at the end of the day if what you’ve said or done doesn’t fit the storyboard of that season’s narrative, then it’s as though it never happened. Welcome to so-called “Reality TV” — never scripted, always edited. My edit, although not perfect, did give my “character” an arc. Fans were able to see many of the complex sides of my personality considering the harsh conditions on Marquesas, especially those NoNo mosquitos, that literally ate us alive.
If this were Shakespeare’s The Tempest, I would’ve been an updated Caliban, but with a James Baldwin twist — though imperfect and complex, more in control and self-assured while simultaneously gaining strength and power from the Sun(God). Incidentally, my luxury item was my Bible. If you go back and look at our season, take a look at how badly everyone’s skin looked from those bugs. The producers probably couldn’t show everyone in their moments of glory, but I know I gave them lots of “must see TV,” even with the repercussions being death threats. Because I was genuinely myself as far as the editing, there's nothing you can do about it.
Some of those moments were embarrassing, and others were crowning moments of that season for me. When you sign on the dotted line, you just hope for the best. I did wish, however, that my gamesmanship was shown in a way so that I didn’t just appear as a character who had moments, but as someone who played the game and helped to really turn that season around.
What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
Returning back home to the U.S. was definitely an adjustment. Remember, we were literally playing Survivor a couple of months after the 9/11 attacks, and we had no clue as to the state of the world after the 9/11, so, for me, that was on my mind as I prepared to come home. In addition, I felt that I was still playing the game when I got home. The game took a toll on me psychologically, mentally and physically — especially because I went further in the game.
At the time, my son’s mother, at the time my girlfriend, and I could not sleep in the bed together because I was still conditioned from the game from sleeping on the ground to the overall environment of the Marquesian landscape. I had to sleep on the floor with one eye open. I kept thinking she's gonna vote me out of this relationship lol. It was crazy! Also coming from Harlem and moving out to Los Angeles, when I came back home from doing Survivor, I was extremely skinny and darker than charcoal and some of my family members were wondering if I were out in L.A. doing drugs and questioning what kind of tanning was I doing out in California lol.
That was bananas too because I couldn’t say anything yet. I could’ve definitely used some long term therapy, I certainly felt like I had some form of PTSD. I could’ve definitely used Lyanla, Fix My Life at that time.
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?
I rarely have regrets in life, but if there were some regrets after doing the show, it would have been that I wished I would’ve legally understood the SEG/Survivor contract I signed. I wished they would’ve had more transparency and explanation as to why certain people were able to capitalize off of their experience and others were not. Many of the opportunities that were offered to me from different networks, and even Viacom, were denied to me by SEG/Survivor and yet my image and catchphrases exploited on merchandise and monetized by various different entities and I couldn’t even mention Survivor let alone try and make a living off of my experience. (Again READ the contract if you’re planning on doing any of these shows). Oddly enough, I’d see many former contestants hosting daytime talk shows, doing commercials, sitcoms, etc… not long after their stint on Survivor, so that was a little baffling, but it is what it is.
Regrettably, after all of that, I was asked to participate in the first Survivor: All-Stars. I had gotten certain inoculations, I was spiritually, mentally, and physically preparing to take time away from my family — my son was literally just born — and also time away from my students again. My bags were packed at the door and I stood ready to go, and not only was I not informed that I wasn’t selected. but I never heard from them again until 30 seasons later when I received an inquiry call to see if I’d like to play again.
Consequently, this time I had a list of demands If they wanted me to go out. Needless to say, I was denied another opportunity of doing the show again. Interestingly, I know for sure many returning players who have been offered either pay incentives or at least the opportunity to compete again based solely on whether you were liked or in the “inner circle” of the host and showrunners and not on merit or, more importantly, fan choice. Trust me, this is no shade, just facts!
Nevertheless, I found out through the grapevine that I wasn’t the only one they did this to so just know that, just like the game, the business side of Survivor can be just as ugly and unpredictable as the game itself. In a weird twist of fate, a lot of the overt racism, bias, and misogynistic overtures have been exposed in more recent seasons, and, as always, those in power will feign sincerity and claim naivety for convenience because when the bottom line is compromised, folks will have a “come to Jesus” moment quick.
Our country has to have one of those “come to Jesus” moments if we’re ever going to heal and really move the needle forward. These are just some of my honest and real thoughts and opinions. If what I’m bringing up offends, it’s all good. If it doesn’t offend you, then it’s still all good! Let’s roll up our collective sleeves and have those hard discussions with neighbors, co-workers, and family members and truly make America great!
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your season?
There was a time period after our season where many of us kept in touch via email and text message as the years went on. As social media became more prominent in our lives, it was a great way to stay connected intermittently. Recently, we had a Marquesas reunion via Zoom and it was so great to catch up with folks from our season, but the main people from my season that I have kept in contact through the years were Boston Rob and Vecepia Robinson. It’s alwyas a cool vibe anytime Rob and I get to hang out and catch up. Rob even attempted to produce a reality show highlighting the work that I have been doing in South Central, LA with my programs.
My relationship with Vecepia is like fine wine that has matured and mellowed through the years. Our special bond and experience as African-Americans has always been grounded in deep spirituality, with God being at the center of our lives. It has allowed us to continue our bond throughout life’s ups and downs. I, along with Sara Jones Lauderdale and Tammy Leitner, joined Vecepia on TLC’s A Baby Story, where I accepted the responsibility of being her son Jordan’s Godfather.
Do you still watch Survivor, and if so, what’s your favorite season you were not on and why?
Unfortunately, after the way that I felt I was treated, and definitely the way Vecepia, an actual winner, was treated, I felt we were purposely dismissed and locked out of the so-called Survivor franchise, so I stopped watching and completely took myself out of the Survivor world. Every so often, I would watch periodic seasons that Boston Rob was competing on again or go to an occasional live finale to mix and mingle with fellow Survivor alum.
Occasionally, if there was a season where there was diversity of more than a couple of Black people and POC I would try to watch, but nothing stood out. Then they tried a season where they broke the season up into four different racial groups. Then was the season the first time a Black man won, Earl Cole, and then we never saw anything close to that kind of season again. Subsequently, seventeen seasons later, Jeremy Collins won the title of Sole Survivor followed by Wendell Holland, both Black men. I’d like to think that guys like Gervase, Nick, Clarence, myself, and Ted in the earlier seasons of Survivor helped pave the way for these Brothas.
One lesson us Black folk can learn is to be a little more humble towards each other and to stop unnecessary bickering. We don’t need to be that “one special Negro” who’s accepted by the larger society. We should support one another, in general, because we all stand on the shoulders of people who came before us, and that’s historical, as well as in the game of Survivor, specifically.
It’s funny, but back in 2003 I received a phone call from a woman I had never met, but she told me that she was going on a new Survivor style Reality show that took place in a corporate setting and that she was told that I was a person she should speak with. That person was Omarosa Manigault, right before she went on The Apprentice. We met at the Beverly Center here in Los Angeles, and I shared with her my experience and insight from doing a Mark Burnett production, and we both talked about a certain future president that would be “The Boss” on this show. Contrary to her perceived personality and at times public statements, of which I don’t always agree, she’s a smart, eager opportunist, in as much as those attributes, when designated to certain other folks, are considered positive attributes of climbing the corporate ladder.
We’re in different times now, especially with social media being so prevalent in our daily lives, so maybe in a way the world has gotten smaller and we’re able to communicate more intimately with each other than we did in the past so that alone may have had some influence on the current landscape of Survivor. It would’ve been great to have social media back then to have direct contact with the Survivor fans and the public in general when I did the show so when fans inquired about myself or Vecepia, or really anyone back then, we would’ve had access to bring balance to all the hearsay swirling around our names.
Who’s one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
Hmmm... there are many former contestants I would’ve loved to play/compete with/against but there are two that stand out. The first would be my boy Boston Rob because I got to play the game with him before he was “Boston Rob.” I believe our off-the-air friendship could’ve possibly given me a chance to take our alliance to another level. At the same time, It would’ve been interesting to possibly have had to scheme against him to win as well.
The other person would’ve been Sandra Diaz-Twine. I grew up in a very Black/Puerto Rican/Dominican community in New York, so culturally she reminds me of folks I grew up with. I also respect that she is the only two time winner (before Winners at War season), and in my opinion, that’s some Boss S--- right there! That doesn’t mean that we would not have been adversarial or competitive, but the only way to know if you are the best is to play with and against the best.
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
If I could change an aspect to the game, it would be to get rid of those hidden immunity idols and to force contestants to be more creative and strategic rather than climbing trees and digging ditches for mad idols. If they must have those idols, then maybe have only one. Whenever I’d get a chance to watch the show, especially in recent times, it seems like the whole episode people were running around searching for idols, so the natural camaraderie and social interaction that comes from being socially isolated would always seem compromised because everyone seems consumed with going off alone to frantically search for an idol rather than playing within the flow of the game.
Instead of hidden idols, allow each contestant one phone call to a relative at any time during the game without the other contestants knowing, maybe during confessionals. That call could be strategic or could just be an encouragement call to give you a boost.
Finally, would you play again if asked?
I’ll leave you with a quote from Sun Tzu. He says, “Victorious warriors win first then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first then seek to win.” I think Vecepia said it on Black Voices of Survivor on RHAP that if we could go out with our sons, that might be worth contemplating another run. I would really have to pray on it and see where I'm at with my family.
I'm glad though over the summer during the George Floyd protests I was able to be part of a consortium of Black Survivor contestants and from that we formed The Black Survivor Alliance (BSA), bringing light to our collective experience with implicit bias and racism on and off the show. We sent a letter on Juneteenth (June 19, 2020) to CBS and it’s executives as well as Jeff Probst. and since then we were able to have a series of meetings to hold them accountable for being more equitable and inclusive as far as casting and production, so we’ll either see change or CBS!
I was also able to collaborate and co-host with Rob Cesternino to bring our collective voices on his RHAP podcast for an informed roundtable with many different Black Survivor contestants to correct and address some the indiscretions and inconsistencies with regard to equitable opportunities for all contestants, as well as more diversity on the production side, so maybe once those things are rectified it would make sense to contemplate a comeback.
For so long, they were able to operate with impunity with how folks were treated and with how some of the behind the scenes shenanigans went on without any repair or corrective measures. It’s only when people get called out, specifically the host, do they act like they had some kind of epiphany to want to do the right thing. The showrunners never listen to the fans anyway, so maybe moving forward, the fans — you know the ones who’ve kept this show going for 40+ seasons — will have a greater say on who truly deserves to get another shot and not just those “decision makers” who decide if they do or don’t like you.
At the same time when it’s your show you can do whatever the hell you want. but just be prepared to take the heat when those karmic breezes start blowing your way. But for those of you reading this, don’t feel bad for wealthy people with positions of power, they usually have the “complexion for protection” and/or enough money to shield them from any real criticism, especially when there are so many folks near them that want to stay as close to “The Big House” and stay in good standing with folks in power.
As for me, I’m going to continue to try and reimagine a world in which my children and future generations can eliminate many of the current isms and ills of the world then maybe one day Survivor, as a TV show, will have a paradigm shift in structure and strategy in which lying and backstabbing will be frowned upon a little more, and being true to oneself and truly helping others will be a strategy to win and reflect a more equitable and diverse demographic. Then again, the current reality star in The White House was put in office four years ago by using those same tactics of deceptiveness that would’ve normally gotten the average American “Fired!” So who knows.
Imagine after all this and after the layoff, with all our collective rantings and screaming for equity, fans turn on the TV and see a majority that is Survivor: Wakanda...lmao!. Folks would be wondering if this is an episode of Love and Hip Hop on Fiji island. With my theatrical roots, I would reimagine Shakespeare's The Tempest: The Rise of Caliban. Either way, it would make for great TV.