Survivor winner Michele Fitzgerald talks joining The Challenge: I came out 'guns blazing'
"Survivor is like the kiddie pool, I'm in the big pool now. It's wild," Fitzgerald tells EW about competing on The Challenge: Spies, Lies, and Allies.
Make way for the Survivor social queen — after winning Survivor: Kaôh Rōng and making it all the way to the end as a runner-up on Survivor: Winners at War, Michele Fitzgerald is taking her dominating social talents and hilarious confessional one-liners to The Challenge.
The 31-year-old reality TV legend is competing in The Challenge: Spies, Lies and Allies, and even she's a little shocked by how she ended up here. "I was like, am I actually physically prepared for this experience?" Fitzgerald tells EW with a laugh. "Survivor is like the kiddie pool; I'm in the big pool now. It's wild."
But thankfully she's not tackling MTV's extreme competition alone. Fitzgerald is one of many Survivor alums on the season 37 cast list, so she already had some allies in her corner, even before arriving at the house. "I'm really excited for people to see the dynamic of the Survivor crew," she says. "There is this pressure, especially on me and Tommy [Sheehan] since we've both won Survivor, Michaela [Bradshaw] has her own reputation, and there are all these international Survivors too. I'm definitely excited for us to flex our Challenge muscles because we're not all Survivor."
Below, EW got Fitzgerald to reveal what Survivor fans can expect from her on The Challenge this season, how she wants to prove she's not a "fluke" when it comes to winning, her chances at a showmance (high, duh), and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Welcome to The Challenge! Was it always your goal to make the jump from Survivor to this franchise?
MICHELE FITZGERALD: I have been considering it since pre-Winners at War actually, probably like Josh [Martinez]'s first season I had started kind of thinking about it. And then when I saw Jay [Starrett] and Natalie [Anderson] on I was like, I'm inching closer and closer. It's always been on my radar. I love anything competitive. But I am so excited to finally do it. I feel like I'm at the perfect point in my life after Winners at War to do a show like this.
Obviously, The Challenge is so different from Survivor and much more physical. What did you do to prepare for this season?
I've always been good at the mental challenges on Survivor, but I really was never good at anything physical on Survivor, and so I very much was like, "Okay, I need to actually get in the gym. I need to start figuring out different ways to train, not just weight training, but I need to work on balance, stability, agility, boxing, things like that." I got creative. And obviously, with it being COVID, gyms were closed, I wasn't able to get a personal trainer, so it really required self-discipline, which is new for me. [Laughs] But I was not going on this show without being very, very prepared. So I was working out every single day, two times a day, three times a day. It was crazy.
Three times a day! I am impressed.
Honestly so was my family. [Laughs] Everyone was shocked.
Did you talk with Jay and Natalie to get any tips on how to survive The Challenge?
Yeah, Natalie and Jay are probably two of my actual closest friends from Survivor. I stayed with Natalie and obviously we were working very closely together, and Jay was a friend of mine. He was actually an alternate on my first season, so we've been friends for seven, eight years now. I was hoping they'd be on with me, and I kind of went into the season expecting them to be on. It was definitely a shock getting into the house and realizing that the two people I planned on aligning weren't there. But they gave me tips on who they would want to work with, how things were different, how they were kind of the same, who to keep my eye out for. So I felt a little bit more prepared than coming in green like some of the international people. But it was pretty difficult going in and not having two of my favorite people there. At the time, I was crushed. I was trying to keep a straight face, but internally, I was freaking [out].
Your strength has always been your social game on Survivor, so how did you adapt that for The Challenge?
I've always been respected as a social player, but it's different. On Survivor, I came in as this very, very small threat. I went out on my first season with Ivy Leaguers, professional basketball players; my second season of Survivor, I went out with the best of the best. Even on Winners at War, I'm against these giants who are Survivor winners. [In] neither of those seasons I was seen as somebody who really needed to be watched out for. And I go into The Challenge with a little bit of a different perception. I've been fighting so hard for respect my first two seasons, and then here I am on The Challenge, and I'm trying to blend into the wall like, "Don't look at me! I'm just a bartender!" [Laughs] Things have changed. Creating those social bonds but also minimizing your threat level was the balance I was trying to work this season.
What did you learn from Survivor that helped you this season?
Do not trust anyone! [Laughs] I've been blindsided so much in Survivor, people looked me in the eye, and I thought 100 percent they were with me, and then the votes were not that way. I learned very early not to take things personally but also not to put all my eggs in one basket, and realize that everybody is playing their game for themselves, so don't think that people are playing their game for you. They're not! It's about seeing all the different angles and seeing what motivates people. [Laughs] And sleep with one eye open.
Aside from winning, what was your main goal with how you played this season?
I went into The Challenge really wanting to have fun. My last Survivor season was so intense being out there with all the winners. And I went to almost every single tribal council, so it was draining mentally, emotionally, physically, so taxing. So I wanted to go out there, I wanted to hang out of helicopters, I wanted to jump off of cliffs and do all these crazy things. And I want to win money while doing it. [Laughs] So I went out there wanting to make friends, have fun, maybe get into a little showmance here or there, why not? [Laughs] And I really did that this season. This was way more fun to me than Survivor ever was. I mean, they had breakfast, lunch, and dinner catered for us and I slept in a bed. [Laughs] Are you kidding me?!
Now that you've done both Survivor and The Challenge, which one was more difficult for you?
When I was on The Challenge, I very much felt like it was more difficult because my paranoia level was significantly higher. But when I look back at it, the mental and emotional and physical toll that Survivor takes is definitely — I came back from The Challenge and I assimilated fairly quickly. When you get back from Survivor, it takes months to recalibrate into your regular life. And that showed me that it was probably a bit more draining, so Survivor is harder but in a different way.
You've never been voted off before. Did that add any pressure to this season?
One hundred percent. My reputation is somebody who's never been voted off; I've never experienced that real loss. I felt the weight coming in of needing to prove that I'm that social person; I'm not a fluke. There was a double-edged sword because I came in being a rookie but by no means did I feel like a rookie, and by no means was anybody viewing me as a rookie. I had the rookie negative connotations with people also being like, "She's won Survivor, we need to keep an eye on her," without having any of the vet connections that come with that respect. So it was difficult.
There are so many Survivor alums this season. Was there a Survivor alliance?
There was a lot of talk about Survivor. That was the word of the day, every day. Everybody take a drink when somebody says Survivor! If that was the case, we'd all be drunk because we were talking about it a lot. [Laughs] People were scared of how many Survivors there were in the house, but also I never played with Tommy before. I've never played with Michaela. I've obviously never played with these international Survivor players. So I was trying to distance myself and assimilate separately from the Survivor crew, but you also have this shared life experience, it's part of our identity. I came in definitely working with Michaela and Tommy, 100 percent. But I didn't expect there to be like six other freaking international Survivors coming on this show. [Laughs] It's something I couldn't have planned for.
So who else did you end up working with?
I was definitely drawn to the Big Brother group, naturally. I've known Josh from before this show. We've met a few times at reality TV events. I was working with Devin [Walker-Molaghan]. I really, really connected with Nany [Gonzalez] like pretty much off the bat, we had hotel rooms next to each other when we were quarantining, and I think she's just really down to earth and cool. I gravitate towards people who are their authentic selves, not trying to put on a show for TV, and there were a few of those gems. [Laughs]
Did the fact that rookies outnumbered veterans for the first time give all the rookies an upper hand?
No, I think the tricky thing with this rookie vet numbering is that yes, on paper, the rookies outnumber the vets. But the vets have played together how many seasons? They know each other, and you're trying to band together however many 15, 16, 17, whatever it is rookies that have never met, that have never worked together, and some of them are gravitating towards vets naturally. To pull together random strangers compared to a core group, it's a difficult task. [Laughs] Especially since people don't know how to keep their mouths shut.
What can you tease about who you get partnered up with at the start of the season?
My partner is somebody that everybody would want to be partners with. I really, really got the best partner in all the land. [Laughs] The ladies love him. Men love him. Everybody wants to be this person's partner and I was lucky enough to be paired with him.
Wow, I'm very happy for you. That sounds amazing!
Why thank you! [Laughs] But keep watching this season and then you'll be wondering if you should be happy for me or not.
Well, now I'm worried. What can you reveal about how this season goes for you?
On Survivor, I've always worked best when my back is against the wall, and I found my back against the wall a lot this season. [Laughs] I had to come out guns blazing. I am definitely proud of the way that I played, and I'm excited to watch it back because I think I played with integrity, I think I had fun, and I left it all out there. Survivor fans all know that I'm feisty and fun, and I'm a party girl, and because of the circumstances of Survivor, I am not always allowed to let my hair down as much as I like to, but The Challenge really fits in with my personality. You'll see a different layer and dimension to me. [Laughs] And maybe a showmance or two because I love reality TV men.
This is the second time you've said the word showmance, so spill: how did the romance go for you this season?
Well, I'm still single if you're asking! [Laughs] If you know anyone, let me know because I really need to steer clear of reality TV guys. But God, when they're in front of you on a season, it's hard. It's like MTV and these casting directors just choose people that they know are going to be ultimately my downfall. But it was fun. And why not have a little fun? But oh my God, I'm so excited to watch it. I'm so nervous, I don't know if I should hide during the first episode or throw a party. I have no idea. Either way, wine is definitely going to be on the agenda.
The Challenge: Spies, Lies, and Allies premieres Wednesday, Aug. 11 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on MTV.