Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Lisa Stanger on differences between U.S. and New Zealand Survivor
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.
After 40 seasons on the air, Survivor has established itself as a mainstay in American pop-culture. But the show is a huge cultural institution in other countries as well. Not only does the original incarnation air all over the world (I once watched Survivor: Samoa while in Samoa for filming on the Survivor: South Pacific season), but several international productions have popped up as well.
We started the Survivor Quarantine Questionnaires as a way to catch up with former players from the franchise, and now, with over 100 SQQs under our belt, we thought it would be fun to check in with a few players from international editions of the show. What were their experiences like? And how is the show different there as opposed to the one we know here?
EW has assembled our own international all-star squad to partake in our first International Week of Survivor Quarantine Questionnaires. Up today, we have the champion of Survivor NZ: Thailand, Lisa Stanger.
New Zealand aired its first season of Survivor in 2017 with Survivor NZ: Nicaragua. A rabid fan of the U.S. version, Lisa (who has since gone back to her maiden name of Holmes) auditioned for the second (and, sadly, final) season of the show, which aired in 2018. Not only did she fulfill a dream by making the cast, but Lisa then tore through the season with aggressive play and cunning moves — even somehow convincing a player to vote out a friend of his from outside the game.
In the end, she was rewarded for her efforts as the jury bestowed upon her the title of Sole Survivor and the $250,000 check that went along with it. While Lisa matched or exceeded every expectation she set for herself by winning her favorite game, she says she has evolved so much in the two years since then that she would never be able to lie and deceive like that again. Read on as Lisa talks about her Survivor journey, the ways in which the New Zealand show is different from the U.S. version, and how she has changed since.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you’ve been up to since appearing on Survivor.
LISA HOLMES: Since I was on Survivor NZ: Thailand in 2018, I’ve been buzzing out about winning Survivor! It’s been a dream come true. I wanted something, I prepared for it, I backed myself to do it and I did! There was so much power in that for me. I was a school librarian when I went on Survivor, and for the last year I’ve been working with a charity based in Christchurch, NZ that helps people with disabilities and people aged over 65 to stay living independently in their communities.
I’ve also travelled, which is something I hadn’t really done before Survivor and hope to do so much more. Before Survivor (and some personal development and exploration) I always thought, on some level, that travel, physical fitness, and achieving things was something other people could do but not me. Now I know the richness of life is for everyone!
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
My proudest moment was when I was sitting on the stage (in my RHAP t-shirt) and that final vote was read naming me as the winner. I had done it, it was over, and it had worked! There were some qualifying factors to my win (Matt and Dave’s existing friendship) but although it helped me at the end, it torpedoed a lot of other plans I had during the game. There were a hundred small things I did throughout the game that helped me to win, and I did them when I was starving, weak and exhausted. I feel very proud about the depth of the game I played.
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experience?
I get a lot of praise for voting out Matt. It’s something that often gets messaged to me or comes up on my feed, but when I watch the video of that now, what really sticks out to me is how upset Adam was about voting out Tess. When I watch it now, I don’t think “Go Lisa, you are such a strategist!” I think “Look how much Adam is suffering, you could have prevented that.”
I’ve grown a lot since Survivor, and I hope now I would be more aware of the personal toll some of my game decisions have on the other people in the game, and act to minimize that. I think as a superfan and game player (I play board games with my group every week and own over 200), it was easy for me to say “It’s just a game” but for other people, it went much deeper.
No game is worth having real life consequences over. There is a world and a life outside the game, and it is so easy to lose track of that when it seems all there is in the universe is the mud and the lying and the hunger and the heat and the jungle and at times, it seemed like I would be out there forever, like I was in a deep well and everything outside the island was getting dimmer and smaller and I would never get back to it again. I regret that I let that isolation and alienation from everything I normally knew divorce me from my humanity, even a little bit.
What’s something that will blow fans minds that happened out there in your season but never made it to TV?
Near the end of the game, we took one of the longtail boats to Chani Island to do some confessionals. Side note: the boat drivers were so friendly. They couldn’t speak English, but you could see how concerned they were about us as we got thinner and weaker. We got out of the boat, and then we heard a lot of shouting and thunderous noise. I looked up and there was a stampede of guars heading towards us along with a frantic farmer shouting and waving in Thai.
“Guar-stampede” had actually been one of the scenarios the survival expert had discussed with us as part of the briefing before the game took place, but I still felt terrified as Tess and I first huddled behind a tiny stump and then ran to the boat to get out of the way. Dave and the crew were stuck on the island, and I felt so worried seeing them avoid the guar. Eventually the farmers shepherded them to the other side of the island, and everyone was safe.
The most mind-blowing thing from a game-play perspective was when Matt got back from Chani, and he told me that he and Dave were better friends than they had been letting on to everyone else. I was so wiped by that stage though I completely forgot about it until after the game, which was possibly a good thing because I might have been a lot more hesitant to try to flip Dave had I known what I was really taking on.
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
I was fortunate to go on Survivor with a knowledge of how things could be edited and how production could ask questions to craft the narrative based on what archetype they think you fit into, so hopefully I avoided a lot of those pitfalls. I was very careful not to just parrot what production wanted me to say. If they asked me “Why do you think Dalton is such a jerk?” I wouldn’t say “Dalton is a jerk because…” I would take a moment to think about what I really wanted to express and then say that. I really care about people and wanted to try to hold everyone’s needs for respect and visibility with care, rather than falling into the ruts production wanted me to.
My edit was unusual in that I think to simplify the narrative, the edit tried to make me look craftier than I actually was (i.e. showed me connecting with Liam as some Machiavellian thing) or credited me with moves I didn’t come up with (i.e. Tara wanted to get rid of Brad, and I was against it).
What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
My first few nights home, I felt very confused. I had been desperate to get home, but then once I was there, I felt out of place, like a tiger pacing in a zoo cage. I kept on going outside, feeling the pull of nature. Being in the wind and seeing the sky felt normal, and being inside felt so abnormal, even though it was what I had craved for so long.
Soon after I got back, I got into a fight with my partner about the uselessness of bridges and how it showed what was wrong with society that people didn’t just ford rivers anymore! Some things stayed with me for a very long time: feeling panicked when it rained, eating a lot of food when it was available and always carrying some with me, picking up pieces of string or paper that “might be handy” and always walking around, looking at the ground for promising firewood. Fire really does represent your life out there. I learned that once you flick on the “survival mode” switch in your body, it takes your nervous system a really long time to deregulate.
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your season?
In my final Tribal speech (pause for me to buzz out that I get to say I have a final Tribal speech) I said Survivor was all about “He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata.” That’s the end of a Māori proverb that asks “He aha te mea nui o te ao, what is the most important thing in the world?” He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata, the people, the people, the people.”
Spending that time on the island/top of a mountain in a hydro lake (Yes, that’s where our season was filmed) made it so clear to me that connection to ourselves and other people is all we really have, all that endures. Since coming back, I’ve made connecting with people a priority and focus of my life in a way I never have before. I still feel such a connection to everyone I played with, they literally proved I could trust them with my life, and I did. Sometimes I dream about sucking everyone back to the island, Lost-style but with more food and warm clothes!
At the moment, Dylan is probably the person I communicate the most with as we are both involved in online strategy games like Sequester and Equilibrium, but I exchange messages with a bunch of others, especially when Survivor is on or I’m in their neck of the country.
Who is one player from a season of your own country’s version of Survivor that you never got to play with that you would love to share a season with and why?
When I watched the first season of Survivor NZ, I was totally Team Tom. I even flew up to the finale with a Team Tom sign in my luggage. I was surprised and disappointed when Avi ended up winning as I saw Tom as having a much better grasp on the strategy of the game and Avi’s victory being one for “mateship.” When I met Avi before my season though (he was doing the pre-season interviews) I really enjoyed talking to him and we clicked on a lot of ideas. I have so much time for him. I read his novella Swim and felt grateful for how he depicted the insular nature of families. I would love to spend more time with him, even if it was starving on an island somewhere.
Do you watch the original American version of Survivor, and, if so, what’s your favorite season of that and why?
I have watched every season since the start and loved it. My answer as to what season is my favorite isn’t static, Heroes vs. Villains, Borneo, All-Stars, Pearl Islands, Palau, Panama, this list could go on and on. In terms of how excited I felt when it aired, All-Stars is top, seeing all the players arrive on the beach like that, I felt so psyched. I am a fan of returning players seasons in any franchise so All-Stars, Heroes vs, Villains, Micronesia... honestly, I can see this answer is just going to devolve into a spreadsheet of me listing every season and why it is impossible for me to choose.
If you have watched the American version of Survivor, what would you say is the biggest difference between the original incarnation and yours?
Budget. All of the main differences and the surprises I experienced as a fan who thought they knew what they were getting, came down to budget — the abbreviated casting process, the flexibility in what I was allowed to bring, the communication between players pre-game, the time without the camera crew and the scale of the challenges, it all came down to budget. The people who make Survivor NZ know all about the show, they love the show, and they made the most authentic version they could within the limits they had.
If you could make one change to any aspect of your country’s version of Survivor, what would it be and why?
Better pre-screening of the contestants to ensure no future players are unknowingly on a Blood vs. Water season!
Who is one player from the U.S. version of Survivor you would love to play with or against and why?
Only one! That is tough, but I am going to go with my type here and say Cirie! Of course, it’s Cirie. It’s always been Cirie. I would play with Cirie, and I would either die from the fan-ness of it or she would beat me and I would love it either way.
Finally, would you play again if asked?
I was so good at Survivor because growing up in my family taught me to be a great liar, a superb liar, a liar who could lie for every second of the day about what I was feeling and needing and keep every thought and dream and fear I had to myself for years. I’ve grown so much since Survivor, I couldn’t do that anymore.
If I play again, it won’t be the same way and I will go into it knowing the mental and physical toll it can take. I definitely feel intrigued thinking about the possibilities for playing differently, knowing what I know about myself now.