Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Bret LaBelle reflects on coming out as gay on the show
With season 41 of Survivor 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.
It was one of the most unexpectedly delightful moments in the history of Survivor. Bret LaBelle — a loud, beer drinking, sports loving police officer who at first blush appeared to be a seemingly stereotypical bro's bro — took the opportunity of a Survivor reward on the Millennials vs. Gen X season to inform fellow castmate Zeke Smith, "I will tell you you're not the only gay guy out here."
It was a powerful private moment in the very public form of national television, and the culmination of a long journey of fear and self-doubt when it came to Bret opening up and freely being himself.
"I had an internal struggle with myself with coming out and being gay for years," says Bret now. "When I mentioned it on the show, it was like a huge weight off my shoulders, and I found that it really helped me in my personal life going forward. The support I received from family, friends, and co-workers was amazing. I wish I had come out sooner."
Bret also appreciates that the moment came on screen at just the right time, after both castmates and viewers were able to draw their own impressions of him independent of his sexuality.
"I definitely loved that they waited to spring on everyone that I was gay till the end of the season," Bret says. "It gave everyone time to judge me and make their own conclusions on who I was long before they knew my entire story. It's a great old lesson that we should ALL learn again today: Don't judge a book by its cover."
And Bret now writes the book on his Survivor (and Amazing Race!) journey, reliving the highs and lows of his reality TV adventure. Crack a tall boy and make a toast to the Bret Labelle Quarantine Questionnaire!
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you've been up to since appearing on Survivor.
BRET LaBELLE: After the Millennials vs. Gen X finale, I boarded a plane and traveled the world. First stop: Australia, where I met some of the most beautiful Australian Survivors (Flick and Phoebe). After not spending enough time there (I need to go back), I flew to Hawaii, my second stop, for more rest and relaxation. This tuned out to be my last stop as I have never left. I loved the beaches, the weather, and the ambiance of this beautiful place.
It was here in Hanauma bay, while sipping on my fourth Mai Tai under my favorite mangrove tree, where I met the love of my life, Wolfgang Johan — a German surfer from Otterndorf, Germany who had recently relocated to Oahu. Our days were filled with beaches, food, surfing, and drinking. We made our home in an ancient Hawaiian hut called an Hale Noho. Life was good.
I only left paradise for a quick stint on Amazing Race with that ginger fool Chris Hammons. A month seemed like an eternity lugging around that giant Oakey on the race as I was longing to get back to Hawaii to shout "Akaw" to Wolfgang while doing 360s in A-Frames, bailing off breakers, and making fun of Barneys and haoles from the mainland. Now that I'm back, my only job is creating funny content for my podcast In the Drunk Tank With Bret and Larry, available on iTunes or wherever podcasts are found. What a full life I lead!
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
Coming out to Zeke. First off, it was a great scene because it was an amazing reward with a helicopter, lunch, and drinks on a beach with three of my favorite people. Second, because it was a long time coming. I had an internal struggle with myself with coming out and being gay for years. When I mentioned it on the show, it was like a huge weight off my shoulders, and I found that it really helped me in my personal life going forward. The support I received from family, friends, and co-workers was amazing. I wish I had come out sooner.
I'm also extremely proud of being the Survivor contestant to drink the most beer at rewards in Survivor history. I'd like to take a moment and thank producer Jimmy Quigley for refilling the cooler with Fijian beer and ensuring my cup never "runneth empty." Cheers, Jimmy!
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experience?
My only regret is that I didn't win more reward challenges so I could drink more beer. I would have also like to have been involved with the family visit. I cannot tell you how bad I wanted to talk to my father. When you are out there all alone with strangers and you then you see a loved one, and then they are taken away, it's like a crushing blow. I would have given up all my rewards at the detriment of entertainment, for that one reward with my father.
What's something that will blow fans' minds that happened out there in your season but never made it to TV?
Every night after the merge, I cuddled Adam Klein. And I was the big spoon.
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
I liked my edit for the most part. I think it showed my true personality: fun, energetic, gregarious, handsome, loving, hardworking, outgoing, no-nonsense, trustworthy, and funny. Most viewers seemed to resonate with who I was, especially middle-aged and older people, which is what Survivor was probably going for with casting me.
Watching the show back can be frustrating because the edit "tends" to follow the winner. Things you did and say may get cut in order to give credit to someone else. We (the Millennials vs. Gen X castaways) all had our own reality in our minds to what happened out there, and yet you live with what some CBS editor creates as "truth." I definitely loved that they waited to spring on everyone that I was gay till the end of the season. It gave everyone time to judge me and make their own conclusions on who I was long before they knew my entire story. It's a great old lesson that we should ALL learn again today: Don't judge a book by its cover.
What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
My best friend, fellow cop, and podcast partner Larry picked me up at the airport around midnight when I returned from Survivor. Larry, his cousin Steve, and I went back to my house had a couple beers and reconnected for a bit. As anyone who has met me knows, I'm an extrovert and I love being around people. However, once they left my house, I became on introvert for three days. I didn't answer the phone, or leave the house, and just spent some time by myself. Maybe it's because while taping the show I wasn't alone for 6-and-a-half weeks. I just needed some time to be alone and reflect on the amazing journey I had just been on.
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?
Never! I loved my experience on Survivor. It was amazing time and I met some of the most wonderful people who will be a part of my life until I'm gone. Recently, with Sunday's death, we have all taken time to reach out to each other and check in and mourn the loss of our friend. She really was special.
I think it was easier for me to be on reality television because I'm older and more established. I wasn't looking for it to be more than it was, a break from life, some time away, and a chance to play the best game ever invented for a million dollars. (Really, $550,000 after taxes.)
My only regret after the game was getting involved with social media. I was sucked into Twitter and Instagram, both of which I had never experienced before. It can be daunting, cruel, overwhelming, and, in the grand picture of everyday life, it means ABSOLUTELY nothing. I would suggest anyone who plays Survivor or any reality show stay off social media while your show airs. There are a lot of lies and misinformation, especially on Twitter. They will bring zero joy to your life. I'm still on them, but I limited my exposure to them which has made me a much happier human being.
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your season?
Chris, Zeke, Hannah, David, Adam, Michaela, Jay, Figgy, and I are in constant contact with texts and such. However, I do still talk to everyone from the cast and enjoy seeing them when I do. It was a very special cast and I'm so proud to be a part of it. I'm heartbroken that I can no longer pick up the phone and call Sunday anymore. Or just send a text to check in with her. I think we all are. She was something special to each of us: mother, sister, aunt, therapist, life coach, family member, and friend. Losing Sunday was like losing a part of our season and our story. We all love you Sunday... you are missed every day.
Do you still watch Survivor, and, if so, what's your favorite season you were not on and why?
I do! I love Survivor and I will always watch. My favorite season, besides my own, will always be season 2, The Australian Outback. It's the first season I ever watched and it got me hooked. I immediately knew I could play this game. I knew I NEEDED to play this game. Open auditions came to Boston for the third season and I tried out for it. They picked Ethan Zohn instead of me... lol. I never stopped trying out, and mostly just went to open calls, and that's where I was eventually cast, from an open casting call at a BMW dealer three miles from my house.
I loved season 2 because the characters were awesome. I was rooting for Tina Wesson. I loved Tina and her ability to play the motherly role that everyone loved all while having big game, like talking Colby into taking her to final two, which he did to his demise. I have met Tina several times now at Hearts of Reality and she's just as wonderful as she comes off on screen. The first time I saw her, I was walking with Sunday and I turned around and I said out loud to Sunday, "Oh my God, that's Tina Wesson!" And Tina responded to me in perfect Southern twang, "Well, Bret LaBelle! I was rooting for you!" My jaw hit the floor, I said out loud, "Oh my God, Tina Wesson knows who I am!" If you ever get a chance to sit and talk to Tina about her experience on that second season of Survivor, take some time and do it! She's fascinating, warm, and so easy to talk to.
I have met so many players from Survivor now and rarely get starstruck like I did for Tina. But a few still illicit a crazed response. Dinner with Richard Hatch was one. Hatchet throwing with Johnny Fairplay was another. Drinks with Corinne, and gambling for the first time with my now good friend Randy Bailey was up there as well. (If you've never played blackjack with Randy Bailey and Chris Hammons at the same table, you haven't lived. So many laughs...) I think because I've been a fan for so long, it's the Survivors from the early seasons that I'm still excited to meet and hang out with.
Bucket list: Dinner and drinks with Coach Benjamin Wade. I HAVE to meet the Dragon Slayer one day.
Who's one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
Boston Rob. Maybe it's the Boston connection. Maybe it's because I was a fan of his. Maybe it's because I used to go into his aunt's bakery around the corner from my house years ago and see the pictures posted of him playing the game I so desperately wished to play. Maybe it's just that a win on Survivor would be that much sweeter if you beat Boston Rob…
Also, Trish Haggerty. Again, the Boston connection. Second, because the two of us have the same sense of humor and literally laugh uncontrollably when we hang out. She would make the time go by much faster out there. I love Trish.
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
Just get rid of the stupid islands where you come back after being voted out like Edge of Extinction. I feel like Fonzie is getting ready to jump the shark every time a season has one. It's not fun.
Finally, would you play again if asked?
I'm asked this question a lot. Right after my season aired, the answer was yes. As times goes on, and after doing The Amazing Race, I'm not so sure. It takes a long time to recover from Survivor. The Race was an easy recovery. But I have unfinished business on Survivor… and I know I can win. Gun to my head right now and I must answer: "Would you go back on Survivor?" The answer is "Yes."
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