Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Marty Piombo regrets being an 'a--hole' after the game
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.
Marty Piombo knew he was going to be the villain on Survivor: Nicaragua. Producers told him as much in casting before the season even began. But the only thing that truly haunts Marty about the way he played is something he did after the game, and it is the way he treated Holly Hoffman at Ponderosa (where players go after they are eliminated in the game).
"When Holly was finally voted off, we were all eating at Ponderosa," explains Marty. "Danny and others were not happy about their exit from the game (in part due to how Holly voted in ousting them), so it was suggested that we ignore Holly when she walked in after her final Tribal. To this day, I can't believe we actually gave Holly the total cold shoulder — usually a time when people come off a totally exhausting, emotionally draining, mentally warping experience!! We should have all stood up and hugged her and welcomed her in. Instead, I can speak for myself — I/we were a--holes. I regret that, almost more than anything in my Survivor experience — even though this was not 'in-game.'"
Marty and Holly have patched things up since then, and Marty notes that "I've been forgiven…because that's who she is. But I still carry that with me."
It's a candid admission from a big personality whose own game was undone by a less-than-fortuitous tribe swap coupled with a raging feud with fellow tribemate Jane Bright. Still, Marty was able to fight and claw his way to 11th place and a spot on the jury, finally being voted out on day 24. A Survivor superfan himself, Marty peels back the curtain on season 21 in his Quarantine Questionnaire, revealing more about his journey before, during, and after the game — including the true story of why he was forced to tell the tribe about his hidden immunity idol.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you've been up to since appearing on Survivor.
MARTY PIOMBO: I started working for a startup right after Survivor which went public, and after 10 years there, I just took a leadership position at Zoom. Still live in the Bay area, drove our daughter out to Boulder this fall to start college during the pandemic, and have our last guy graduating high school next year. So, staying busy, enjoying the outdoors in NorCal.
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
I would say finding the immunity idol… however, that would never have happened without Jill helping with the clue. So, technically the idol was as much hers as it was mine (maybe more hers!). Alas, rules allow for only one person to have it. I would say, given our season, and given the bad luck of the tribal swap, making it to the jury. Listen, the odds were stacked against the Older Tribe from the get-go, so, no small feat making it that far.
Also, the Tribal Council where the young tribe tried to flush my idol, and I called their bluff and didn't use it was also a highlight for me. Generally speaking, I can say that I was destined to be a villain in my season. Probst made sure I understood that as I went through casting, as did the rest of casting. Now, don't get me wrong, I can embrace villain. As we all know, some of our favorite Survivor players are, after all, "villains." We'll get to my edit later, but I guess what I'd say is that I'm proud of how I played the game — meaning, I never lied to any of my players, I never went back on my word, and I was transparent with all my allies. To be fair, I'm sure that would've changed had I made it deeper into the game.
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experience?
Two main regrets come to mind. The main one is, to not have gone farther with my key ally Dr Jill. I truly made some great friendships during the game, and I knew as early as casting that Dr Jill and I would play together. My assessment (without speaking a word or interacting in any way, other than just observing during casting) was that this chick was hardcore, a fighter, and just someone I would want on my side.
Within 3 minutes of the game beginning, we instantly had that very conversation and entered into an alliance together with Yve. Quickly after that, we had Danny on board and Tyrone voting with us as well. Once Jill and I were swapped to the young tribe, it was the beginning of the end. We knew one of us was going home, and I had the idol, so that last evening, sitting on the beach, just the two of us looking out at the ocean at sunset knowing she was going home was heartbreaking. Of course, I could have given her the idol and saved her… but it is Survivor after all. But honestly, having her go was the lowest point in the game for me.
I know I've been so super clear on this in just about every interview I have ever done, but let's give it one more go: Jill was in no way my "minion," my "lackey," or any other such thing. Jill was strategic, a real game player, she's a student of the game, and expert, and we discussed everything before we made moves. We were a pair and I have nothing but utmost respect for her. The edit was not fair in that respect, so for the record, let me reiterate that Jill was the real deal, and kept me on my toes and also tempered my more volatile intuitions. While she may have smoothed things out, I don't think I was generally hated — otherwise I would have been voted out early — but together we navigated that tribe early on until the swap. She's an amazing person, in and out of the game.
My second biggest regret was Holly. We are close friends today, let me start with that. However, Holly was not part of our core alliance at the outset, and I regret lacking the strategic foresight to at least be inclusive of her and keep her close. I was shortsighted, and as we had the numbers, and Holly was a little unpredictable at that time, I just more or less sidelined her — a big mistake, one that could have changed the trajectory of my game post-merge.
So there's that, but the real regret is as follows: When Holly was finally voted off, we were all eating at Ponderosa, and Danny and others were not happy about their exit from the game (in part due to how Holly voted in ousting them), so it was suggested that we ignore Holly when she walked in after her final Tribal. To this day, I can't believe we actually gave Holly the total cold shoulder — usually a time when people come off a totally exhausting, emotionally draining, mentally warping experience!! We should have all stood up and hugged her and welcomed her in. Instead, I can speak for myself — I/we were assholes. I regret that, almost more than anything in my Survivor experience — even though this was not "in-game."
Holly and I have spoken about it many times, and I've been forgiven…because that's who she is. But I still carry that with me.
What's something that will blow fans' minds that happened out there in your season but never made it to TV?
I don't know how crazy this might be, so not sure it will "blow fans minds," however, much was said about how cocky I was to flaunt the idol with the whole tribe after I found it. Who tells their whole tribe they have an idol???!! No one! At least not folks that know better. We know all too well what happens when people just can't help themselves and end up telling someone they have an idol. In any event, after I found the idol, production took me across the lagoon and we set up for a confessional, obviously focused on the idol discovery.
I wasn't convinced we were far enough from the camp, and we know how sound travels across water. So, sure enough, towards the end of the confessional I notice Jimmy Johnson across the way, and his talking, even across the way, was interfering with our audio. I was mortified, because if we could hear him, I had no doubt, he could hear US! Sure enough, once I made my way back, Jimmy called me over, and says that he knows I have the idol and that if I don't tell the tribe, he would. I was so bummed… no way to unwind that.
I appealed to production, and asked for Probst. That went nowhere. I get it, you're just not going to win something like that, and that's just the reality of the game. S--- happens. However, it forced me to disclose the idol, which meant Jane knew, and as soon as we were swapped, she told the young tribe, which, again, forced me to stupidly disclose it, because everyone knew anyway. Just a little behind the scenes reality check.
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
I am totally FINE with my edit. I got no problem with it. This is a game. If you just think about the enormous amount of legal rights you give away in order to participate in this absolutely incredible, amazing experience then you just can't be surprised or upset about your edit. I believe players make their edits. There needs to be some accountability.
Now, to be fair, it's not just a game, it's a story, a season, with a narrative, and production has a job to do. Do things get twisted sometimes? Yes, they do. In my case, I take full ownership of my edit, and I'm happy with it. My family loved it, people that know me loved it… and for folks that didn't, or wanted to hate, I totally get that too, and have no qualms. It's a small price to pay, for me anyway, in exchange for an opportunity to play the greatest game ever.
To me, having read Robinson Crusoe as a kid, I was fascinated with the story! Could someone actually make a go of it, and survive on island with little or nothing to help you make it? When Survivor debuted, I was glued to the TV, and never missed an episode. Here it was, like Crusoe, except with physical and social challenges where you need to work together but also eliminate your tribemates one at a time. I found it utterly fascinating.
You can't pay to play Survivor, no matter how much $$$ you have. You just either get a shot at it or not, and for those of us that got the opportunity, it's the experience of a lifetime. It did not transform my life, it was not "life changing" — it was simply the thrill of a lifetime, an unparalleled experience, and, by the way, one of the hardest things I've ever done.
What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
It was very odd coming back to reality. Here's one thing about it, you have to understand that while you are playing this game, 100 percent of your focus, 100 percent of what you think, 100 percent of what you do, of what you say is singularly and maniacally focused on the game and every aspect of it. The setting and how the game is set up allows the player to be focused like this. You don't have bills to pay, you don't have a job to go to, you don't have a wife, kids, colleagues — you got NOTHING but the game.
So, for a pretty long period of time, your head is wired to focus on just this one thing —on a single track. It can be and was maddening at times, at night, trying to sleep with this endless set of options and counter options, and plays, and moves that you just continually play out like a series of chess moves (sounds cliche), that is like homework, or preparation for the next day. What are you going to say? How will you say it? Who will you say it to? Then what? And after that what? And so on and so forth in an endless loop!
Then, BOOM, hello, you're back home and sleeping in your bed, and all that's gone. You're at a Starbucks looking around thinking WTF??!! Then your brain slowly begins to adjust to normal life — at least for me, that was my experience. We will rarely ever be put into a framework, or position such as Survivor, where you are 24/7 fixated on what you have right in front of you, without a single distraction. You are disconnected from life as we know it. For some, that can be a good thing, or a bad thing.
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?
Our first day, we spent every moment building the shelter, trying to get ready before nightfall. There was no moonlight then, and we had barely built out the bottom framework of the shelter, to, at least, get us off the ground from rats/insects/snakes. We were high on the adrenaline of our first day and the game beginning. We were all huddled together on the bamboo frame. Then the rain began. Rain like I'd never experienced before — torrential did not do it justice. (It rained like this for days without ever stopping — one of the worst seasons on record).
At some point in the middle of the night (2 a.m.? 3 a.m.?) as we huddled together to warm ourselves, the entire bamboo frame exploded into pieces and gave way, sending us all into massive puddles of water. You couldn't see your hand in front of you it was so dark, we were soaked, freezing and unable to really repair anything. In those few moments, for just a brief time, I wondered WTF did I get myself into, and can I do this? It was brief, and you take any doubt like that and stuff it somewhere very deep where it never surfaces again — but I do recall a moment of anxiety, thinking: This is beyond awful. Beyond that one brief moment, there is absolutely nothing that I regret about my experience.
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your season?
I'm very close with Jill. I talk to Holly often and we've stayed in touch and have shared some really special moments together. I check in with Yve. We lost track of Danny, but not for lack of trying. I text or FB Purple Kelly once in a while. I used to chat with Brenda a lot, and we still stay in touch, but less so than years ago. I've had Fabio to my house for dinners, and I celebrated Sash's engagement years ago at our house.
I definitely am in contact with Tyrone and he's been real cool, sends my kids LAFD T-shirts ;). I touch base with Benry every so often. I remain in touch via FB with Jimmy T. Wendy-Jo sends out an amazing yearly update with her Holiday greeting card that I love, and I recently got back in touch with Kelly Bruno — someone I felt I never got to know well, but was an extraordinary competitor I wished I could have played with more. Finally, Jimmy Johnson, he remains a gentleman, and occasionally when I text him on NFL stuff or otherwise, he's always kind enough to get back right away!
Did I mentioned Jane? No, I didn't.
I find that the community of Survivor players is, well, let me say, "unique." Meaning; I think we're all a little "touched" — that's my opinion! I feel incredibly lucky to have met some people that have played that I either really admired, or just felt like I wanted to get to know them as people.: Dragonslayer, Terry Deitz, Earl Cole, Bobby Mason, Savage, Ethan, Fishbach, John Fincher, Cesternino, etc.... It's a benefit of playing, meeting some really interesting folks. I feel lucky and grateful.
Do you still watch Survivor, and if so, what's your favorite season you were not on and why?
I have never missed a single episode. Cagayan was incredible......watching Vlachos was mesmerizing.
Who's one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
I would have loved to play with the Dragonslayer or Bobby Mason. I just know that building an alliance and working together with either of them would have been memorable. I've met both and have a lot of respect. Ben gave me some of the most enjoyable Survivor moments of all time, and yet you know he's also a vulnerable guy, like all of us. Building bonds with him and riding that wave together would have been great. Bobby is a brilliant, strong dude, and someone that puts a lot of weight on friendships and fighting together as a brother to the end. I would've enjoyed to play the game with him.
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
I understand that the game has had to evolve, but I think it would be nice to see one season where we go back to either no immunity idol, or just one — remove everything and take the game back to absolute basics, and develop a cast of just applicants and no recruits. Try it one season and see what happens.
My biggest mistake out of the gates playing the game was around pacing. By that, I mean as a fan when you watch the game unfold on TV, it appears so fast paced, when, in reality, it's really slow. I mean really slow. So, I was looking around every day, thinking: "Why aren't people playing?" "What's going on here?" There were so many people that had never seen a single episode of Survivor. They were literally just getting up to speed, whereas my personality and wish was to get right into it. In retrospect, I should've slowed it down and understood what was happening. I think with Survivor fans, you get faster action earlier in the season — even if it is clueless or chaotic.
Finally, would you play again if asked?