Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Kimberly Mullen says 'on Palau, I was weak. Weak!'
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.
“I was weak. Weak!” That’s Kimberly Mullen’s refreshingly honest assessment of her performance on Survivor: Palau. Kim has a long list of things she wishes she had done differently in the game. She wishes she had been more vocal with her tribe (the ill-fated Ulong). She wishes she hadn’t shied away from water challenges due to her contact lenses she was afraid of losing. She wishes she had been more confident.
And then there is the work ethic, or perceived lack of it. That is ultimately what caused Kim to be voted out fourth from the game. “I regret not getting off my backside more often and, at least, appearing to do more,” she says now. “I should have done that and hid how I was feeling from my tribe. Perception can be powerful.” And that perception extended even into her life outside the game. “Once in a job interview, it came up that I was lazy on the show,” says Kim. “So they were worried I’d be that way at work.”
In fact, Kim is far from lazy at work, as her résumé since the show can attest. We had the former beauty queen (Miss Ohio 2002 USA) look back at her time in the game and update us on what she’s been up to since (NOTE: It’s a lot!) She also has some pretty interesting ideas for how Survivor can really change the game moving forward. Read on!
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you’ve been up to since appearing on Survivor.
KIMBERLY MULLEN: Wow, at times I can’t believe it’s been 16 years since Jeff Probst zoomed up in his motorboat alongside 20 of us paddling in our rickety rowboat off the picturesque coast of Palau and told us it was game time! For an unprecedented start, we raced to the same beach and two immunity idols, one for a man and one for a woman. What a whirlwind. (Palau was one of the best locations and, despite me not doing well, is still one of my favorite seasons. There’s a reason it received a Primetime Emmy Award nomination in 2005!)
Similar to how Survivor has developed since that time, I’d like to think I have, too. It’s probably easier to say what I haven’t done. I haven’t traveled to South America, Antarctica, climbed Mt. Everest, or ventured to Space yet (NASA, I’m coming for you in the next astronaut application round!), but I’m still aiming for the Nobel Peace Prize…
All joking aside, I’m a mother to a wonderful four-year-old boy, and life partner to a great man, Brian. We met and had our son while living in New York City then moved to beautiful New England and settled into the idyllic, rustic woods not too far from the beach in Connecticut. I still love NYC and spend time there when possible, or did prior to hunkering down during the pandemic. Of all my life experiences and achievements thus far, having my son is my most cherished. Meeting Brian and becoming a mom were game changers for me; it made me reflect on who I was, am, and want to be.
Big picture, I’m on a quest to make the world a better place, and to enjoy life by traveling and spending time with my family and friends. As most of us know, our world is in no shape to hand off to our children for numerous reasons, and I want to be part of the solution. Currently, in addition to being a busy mom, I’m writing a novel and series of short stories, the Founder and CEO of a small business Nellum & Co Global LLC, and involved in various non-profit endeavors.
Writing is quite a process, as most writers can attest, but I enjoy world-building and devising creative ways to tell real-world events and situations, or scenarios that haven’t yet happened. Some of my fiction could be classified within the emerging trend of FICINT, or Fiction Intelligence, which essentially blends fiction and intelligence to work through scenarios or possibilities. Other works of mine are literary fiction with elements of satire and sci-fi, as well as narrative essays. In the past couple of years, I’ve had the privilege of working with writers and novelists from Westport Writers’ Workshop as well as at Yale’s annual writers’ workshop, including Chris Belden (his book Shriver is currently being made into a movie), and New York Times bestselling author Jacquelyn Mitchard.
As far as my business venture, Nellum & Co Global LLC is a boutique firm with a global reach and a mission of mobilizing my knowledge, experiences, and passion to develop and/or use innovative means, particularly with emerging technologies, and different perspectives to target the nexus of transnational issues, relationships with geopolitical activities, connect the dots, and better understand them. I also want to help other entities and people make sense of these issues. One specific issue that I’m particularly interested in is combating trafficking in persons, which includes its related drivers, and correlated issues around economics, migration, vulnerable and marginalized populations, and so forth.
With that, philanthropically, it’s obvious I’m passionate about combating trafficking in persons, a nonpartisan issue affecting millions worldwide. We can get into the issue's complexities, but at the end of the day, trafficking in persons is about exploitation of people through various acts and means to achieve financial gain. At an already difficult time, we’re in dire need of new ways to look at this old and thriving issue. Unless we get at the core of it, it will continue to flourish. Unfortunately, COVID-19 is helping to create an environment ripe for an uptick with human trafficking with devastated lives, economies, crippled education systems, and, for some, the need to migrate for better opportunities, although movement is not always an aspect of human trafficking.
To put it into perspective, the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that a staggering 2.7 billion workers worldwide have been affected by the pandemic. Throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, Caribbean, I’ve explored red-light districts, brothels, adult establishments, cyberspace, impoverished communities and thriving metropolises, safe houses, international-national-local organizations, and conducted or attended a meeting with officials, practitioners, scholars, as well as victims and survivors who endured modern slavery. Currently, with the pandemic, most of my engagements, in the form of discussions, are online. I can almost hear readers thinking, “Lighten up, Kimberly, this is Entertainment Weekly and about Survivor!” I know trafficking in persons isn’t the easiest topic, but there are 25-40 million victims — men, women, and children — of a grave crime against humanity who need our attention so I’ll happily use whatever opportunity I can to raise awareness.
For the above reasons, I also strive to help vulnerable and marginalized persons, particularly women and children. (Did you know that the vast majority of human trafficking victims worldwide are women and children? According to the UNODC, approximately 71 percent are women and girls, and one third are children.) One of my most rewarding volunteer experiences was when I became a New York State certified volunteer crisis counselor connecting with and advocating for victims of rape, sexual assault and intimate partner/domestic violence brought into a NYC hospital’s emergency department. Assaults happen to both men and women from all backgrounds, but, statistically speaking, the cases I handled with victims were those who identified as women.
One survivor I worked with had been living in a homeless shelter with her small child when she was sexually assaulted, then came into the hospital. After getting the help she needed and preparing to leave, she hugged and thanked me. I couldn’t help but to thank her as well. In moments like that, with each survivor I met, they taught me the power, resiliency and love of humans. Whether it’s competing on Survivor and needing to work together yet compete against each other, or in our day-to-day lives in our homes, jobs, communities, states, countries, or the overarching global community, we’re all in this together. In 2020, with heightened polarization within the US, and geopolitical tensions around the world, I believe we need more bridge-building and working together towards solutions.
As mentioned, I was privileged to take sabbaticals, and one of which was to spend a couple months volunteering and doing marine conservation work with Blue Ventures in the incredible and remote village of Andavadoaka, Madagascar. While scuba diving to monitor the reefs we were restoring in tandem with the wonderful local villagers, I earned my PADI Advanced Open Water then Rescue Scuba Diver certifications. After my time in Madagascar and returning to NYC, I traveled to Indonesia and earned my Deep Diver certification and worked towards my Divemaster before embarking on other adventures. Scuba diving and my time spent doing marine conservation work made me much more passionate about Mother Earth and our climate crisis. When you see the destruction, you start to rethink your actions and push for changes in how we treat our planet. (I owe a tremendous thank you to CBS and Survivor because they funded my Open Water Certification at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia during my pre-jury travels, and it was there that I fell in love with it.)
Finally, I’m a Term Member in the Stephen M. Kellen Term Member Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher. The program allows young professionals the opportunity to participate in a sustained conversation on international affairs and U.S. foreign policy through events, discussions and travels. Earlier this summer, I was honored to create and moderate my own discussion at CFR, which I did on leadership in challenging times by interviewing my mentor and friend, U.S. Navy Vice Admiral (Ret.) and now CEO of Concentric Advisors, Mike LeFever.
Many people know of CFR from members like Angelina Jolie or George Clooney, but there are a plethora of impressive leaders, diplomats, journalists, and business people within its ranks including Colin Powell, Madeline Albright, Judy Woodruff, Admiral (Ret.) William McRaven, Stacey Abrams, and, of course, the Council’s current President, Richard Haass. It’s a top-notch program at an exceptional organization that continues to improve.
Now, if you want to go back 15 or 16 years after filming, I moved to California and eventually spent a year in Los Angeles behind the scenes in the entertainment industry. On a business-related trip, someone tried to buy me while on a yacht off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. (The man told me to not bring my passport, and leave my suitcases and clothes behind. He told me I wouldn’t need them and he’d buy me everything new. I declined.) I had seen potential trafficking in persons and exploitation when I was a model in Europe and U.S. in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and possibly other cases later, but nothing as direct as this. The experience stayed with me.
After a year on the west coast, I moved to New York City where I lived for well over a decade. I loved it. I worked in commercial real estate, then onward to the world of finance and hedge funds, in which time I earned my master’s degree, volunteered, traveled, and lived it up (and occasionally fell down) in the city. Before landing where I am today, I worked for the world’s largest hedge fund, starting in the General Counsel’s office under Core Management, moving into the Security Department and working with the Chief Security Officer, then, after returning from having my son and needing to find a new role at the firm, moving to lead the Security Policy program. There, I successfully redesigned and oversaw the revamping of the firm’s security policy and standards program. With the firm’s unique culture and structure, to say I grew mentally while there would be an understatement. The firm’s founder likes to call it the intellectual Navy SEALs, and while there are other descriptions available, he’s not wrong with his.
Fans might remember that I was a graduate student when I competed on Survivor: Palau. At that time, I was the first woman in my immediate family to go to college and earn a bachelor’s degree, and, afterwards, I went on to become the first woman (but not the last!) in my extended family to earn a graduate degree. I realize degrees aren’t everything, and in the U.S. we need to address the issue of access and funding higher education as student loan debt have soared to an all-time high of over $1.6 trillion in 2020, but coming from a long line of caretakers, farmers, coal miners, military servicemen and dependents, workers, and small business owners, earning my degree was quite the achievement not only for me but my family.
I graduated with a Master of Science with a concentration in transnational security from New York University. During that time, I carried out self-designed research on the nexus of trafficking in persons with other transnational activities for a research fellowship with a regional security-oriented intergovernmental organization, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, based in Prague, Czech Republic. Living in Prague with the wonderful Czech people was a great experience. (Survivor related: my season of Survivor aired in the region and I was able to do some fun interviews. There are incredible Survivor fans in the Czech Republic and Central Europe!) I also traveled throughout Europe, South Asia, East and North Africa, Caribbean, and the United States. An interesting tidbit about that time: I performed a monologue from Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues on stage in NYC to raise money for an organization providing legal help to low-income women who were victims of domestic violence, as well as a shelter. Incredibly fun!
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
My proudest moment from Survivor was definitely the opportunity to play! I met Clarence Black from Survivor: Africa while we were both judging Miss Michigan USA in 2004 (I had been Miss Ohio USA 2002). As he told us about his experience on Survivor, I was so intrigued that I said I wanted to do it, to compete on Survivor. Unbeknownst to me, someone from casting was there and seemingly appeared out of nowhere. She ushered me aside to make a video. A few days later, I received a call and the rest is history. I’ll always be grateful.
My proudest moment on-air was the second reward challenge. I know Angie received credit for doing well, which she did, and I also crushed it, made great time, and had no issues in coming home with the win. Considering I didn’t last long out there, I’ll take it. A close second place for proudest moment playing Survivor was when I attempted to pull together an all-female alliance to save Ulong and myself, which I failed at and was sent home, but hey, at least I tried!
(Yes, I should have got off my backside and better communicated my views, but this is the proudest moment, not regrets…stay tuned!)
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experience?
I wish I had won, or at least made it to the jury and family-related rewards. It took years before I even read the letters from my family and friends because I was so disappointed in my performance, plus something else that happened after being voted off.
With that said, when you explore the root causes of my suboptimal performance and why I think I didn’t last longer, my biggest regrets are the weakness I exhibited out there — I was so dehydrated and felt like I was dying — and I wish I had been more confident in my assessments and spoke up more.
Someone doesn’t have to be super in-shape out there since there are numerous facets to the game, but I was much too weak. Nevertheless, I regret not getting off my backside more often and, at least, appearing to do more. I should have done that and hid how I was feeling from my tribe. Perception can be powerful. I mean, no one was feeling great out there. I wasn’t going to quit, however, and wasn’t going to be talked into doing it, including when Ashlee wasn't feeling well or Jeff Wilson hurt his ankle. No way! I kept hoping I could ride it out and feel better, or change it up (e.g., all-women alliance) until I felt better. Despite what viewers may have thought about me, I wanted to be there!
As far as being more vocal, I regret not doing so. Recently when I re-watched my season, I shouted at myself on my screen to be my own person out there, and do and say more. My assessment of my tribe, Ulong, wasn’t necessarily wrong. We kept losing to Koror despite the appearance of physical strength on our tribe which continued after my departure, which logically, one would deduce means physical strength wasn’t the (only) issue. But, I failed at getting others on Ulong to understand our goal of winning, agree to how we weren’t achieving this, and coming together as a tribe to see the connection to how our daily actions were interfering with achieving our goal, then altering our actions and guiding ourselves towards achieving the objective of winning.
If I had earned the respect of my tribe by doing more at camp and challenges, maybe I could have achieved that or carried out more strategic moves (e.g., all-women alliance). As I mentioned, I also regret not making better use of opportunities to speak up, particularly in confessional interviews with producers and at Tribal Council with Jeff Probst to better explain my perception on what was transpiring, and what was running through my analytical mind and intuition. In re-watching it, I also found I was unnecessarily defensive at times, particularly with Jeff Probst at Tribal Council which, upon reflecting, was probably an underlying insecurity shining through. (Hey, Jeff Probst and producers, thank you for your patience!) I was on Survivor…a game, I wanted to be there and I needed to play, yet wasn’t.
Finally, I hate that I didn’t participate in the water-related challenges. I wore contact lenses and avoided going underwater per my risk calculation being set to too adverse and fear of losing my contacts and not being able to see. I should have tossed them aside and gone for it…nearly blind, but so what, at least I would have tried! Since then, I had laser eye surgery, which I highly recommend for those able to do so. The ROI has been tremendous with international travels and scuba diving journeys.
What’s something that will blow fans’ minds that happened out there in your season but never made it to TV?
We filmed our season on a lot in Hollywood. Crazy, right? I’m joking. I was only there for 11 days so I don’t have anything truly mind-blowing. I remember realizing our bodies were starting to shut down out there. I remember competing in grueling challenges in sweltering heat but not sweating, then looking at the crew and seeing sweat dripping from them. We also had times when we’d obsess about food, any food, and have very long and very vivid conversations about it! It’s mind-blowing seeing what the human body can endure, both physically and mentally, and the ways in which it naturally compensates and pushes for its survival.
Also, there are genuine relationships developed out there and afterwards, particularly with players you might not have interacted with while playing, which in my case would be on Koror, and also players from other seasons. It’s a unique bond.
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
Most everyone wishes they looked like champions out there at all times, but that’s simply not possible. What I did, or I guess I should say what I didn’t do out there, was accurate. On Palau, I was weak. Weak! I was asked beforehand if I would be okay with not being liked, and I had agreed to it. I also let it be known I was open to having a showmance. I was in my early twenties so I thought, why not?! I was single and young. In the case of Survivor, you give a significant amount of trust over to the production and editing team knowing that footage will need to be edited for story and character arc and context might change some. (By the way, what an intense job editing all of that footage and weaving together the various storylines. Kudos to the team!) As I always say whether it’s Survivor, regular day-to-day life, our workplace, or on the news, what happened, happened, and, on the flip side, it’s essential to ensure accuracy and integrity.
What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
After filming wrapped, I touched down in Ohio and stayed with my parents… then a blizzard hit and we were snowed in together for a few days. I went from competing and living it up in tropical paradises to being snowed in with my parents in Ohio. (Survivor: Midwest Blizzard Edition!) I love my parents dearly, and they love me, but being snowed in with anyone can be an adventure! And you know what? I’d do it all over again, especially now when I miss spending time with them but can’t because of the pandemic.
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?
No, it’s such a unique experience to be able to play Survivor!
Throughout my life, I’ve had to deal with stereotypes, and I believe we define ourselves and should not let stereotypes define our actions. Yes, in being on the show and appearing lazy, there were second and third order consequences. For instance, I had people in my professional life try to use things from Survivor against me. Crazy, but true! Once in a job interview, it came up that I was lazy on the show, so they were worried I’d be that way at work. As someone who likes to try and build bridges when possible, and help people understand varying perspectives, when such issues arose, I did my best to use these opportunities to help others understand. Make lemonade from lemons, like using it as an example to show I can fail in front of millions of people, and bounce back from it.
Nowadays, I’m a dedicated hard worker, thinker, mother and partner known for my resiliency, compassion, and commitment. I’m the person mentally editing my latest chapter of my novel, thinking through multiple geopolitical scenarios, listening to a podcast, and planning fun activities and meals for my son for the week all while completing my daily run, which I do outdoors in the sun, rain or snow.
As I mentioned, I recently re-watched my season. My son loved it, and it made me wish he could see me play today: no showmance, no laziness, just solid gameplay.
Who do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your season?
From my season, I still keep in touch with Coby Archa. He’s hilarious, and I admire anyone who is authentic and acts with the sense of candor that he does. I have so much respect for him for that reason.
Ibrehem Rahman and I also keep in touch, and used to hang out in NYC pre-adulting/parenting. Ibe is a great person. Interesting tidbit, Ibe and I were out together in NYC the night he met the lovely woman who would become his wife, a meeting which I helped orchestrate!
On social media and some texting, I keep in touch with Gregg (I keep trying to get our children and wife/partner to meet once we return to some sense of normalcy, plus I want to see if there are any synergies on some of my tech ideas), Katie (she’s funny!), Ian, Janu, Stephenie, and Jolanda.
Jeff Wilson and I keep in touch from time-to-time. We bonded and had a lot of fun as pre-juror players on our travels in Guam and Australia. I had something awful happen during that time, and thankfully Jeff was there to stop it. I’ll always be grateful to him for that reason.
Although I’ve not heard or seen Ashlee or Willard, I did hear from Wanda years ago, and I contributed to a fund to help Angie. I spoke to James years ago, but nothing in years. I don’t think I had spoken with or seen Tom, Caryn, or Bobby Jon in 15 years until we recently participated in a couple online reunion fundraisers, including one for Hearts of Reality/Give Kids the World. It was good to see most everyone!
Finally, I think a lot about Jenn Lyon. I don’t truly know what to say except one of my biggest regrets was not connecting more during her battle with breast cancer. Jenn was a bright light who will always be loved and remembered.
Do you still watch Survivor, and if so, what’s your favorite season you were not on and why?
I do! My parents are fans, Brian is a fan, and, now, my son is, too. I had to miss some seasons when I was traveling abroad. Then, when I was at my last firm, I worked and commuted a total of approximately 13-17 hours Monday through Friday, worked some weekends, and was pregnant or breastfeeding my son for a large percentage of that time, so, sadly, I missed some fun Survivor watch parties and events in NYC like the ones Eliza Orlins orchestrated. (Instead, I watched via my DVR, and often times with my son latched on to me.)
As far as my favorite season, this last season Winners at War was one of my favorites in a long time. There was a captivating cast, Jeff Probst’s connection with the players really shined through, true gameplay that encompassed the complexities of the game, and, of course, the incorporation of Old School players and the interesting dynamic that came with it. I liked the concept of the introduction of Fire Tokens, and would like to see this developed more in future season (see my recommendations).
Who’s one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
Instead of past tense, I’ll say who I’d like to play with now. There are so many players and friends from other seasons that I’d love to play with or against, but here are a few:
- Parvati Shallow from Survivor: Cook Islands and Survivor: Micronesia — Fans vs. Favorites, and Winners at War (even though she just played again). We hung out some pre-motherhood, including doing the NYC’s five-borough bike race to benefit Ethan Zohn’s Grassroots Soccer charity, and now as mommas, I think it would be great to play together, especially if on our downtime if she can lead yoga and help aid in our centeredness while strategizing.
- John Cochran from Survivor: South Pacific and Survivor: Caramoan. I appreciate his thinking and game play, plus anyone more analytical than me would be fun to play with.
- Clarence Black from Survivor: Africa. I’d love to see him have another chance. Plus, he’s technically the reason I ended up on Palau.
- Francesca (Franny) Hogi from Survivor: Redemption Island and Survivor: Caramoan. Third time’s a charm!
Side note: If I’m going to be out there 39 days, I’d love to play with an interior designer and a landscaper for some advice on fixing up my older home! Help a sister out!
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
Survivor is a remarkable game and experience. There’s a reason why Survivor continues 20 years later! Based on how much my four-year-old son enjoys it, there are many more years to go.
I believe exceptional organizations and people are always looking to improve. I know I strive to do so. As most people probably know, there’s discussion and petition for improving diversity regarding BIPOC on Survivor. With situations like this, I ask myself is it accurate, does it make sense, and is it the right thing to do? Yes. It could help Survivor, players, devoted fans and viewers, sponsors, and our society. Improved diversity in front of and behind the camera, and in leadership would only enhance the game and perspectives. Survivor can be a beacon, a role model.
It’s also essential that people become cognizant of overt and subconscious biases, those of others, and groupthink. These tend to manifest in different ways and situations, and, we should do our part to be aware of and guardrail against it when possible. As we develop technologies that incorporate our day-to-day existence into them, these biases go in so we must improve it everywhere. What goes in comes out.
I know you asked for one, but I think adding a type of scoring or points system (of the players) could be interesting, and maybe this is something that could be developed from the Fire Tokens currency we saw on Winners at War. Here’s a high-level visualization: Players would earn points or currency for achievements such as winning a challenging or coming in second or third, and have them deducted for losses such as earning votes at Tribal Council (if they aren’t voted off), or being the first to drop out of a challenge. Players could accumulate them to strategize and use towards various options like, to give a few ideas, hints regarding a hidden immunity idol, an extra vote, longer family visits, food or drinks, and/or information from other players about other players.
If there’s transparency pertaining to players’ balances throughout the game, it could add another variable with which to play, including providing leverage, or data to back up the vote making process and possibly helping to combat groupthink, etc. There could be twists with this as well. For instance, a player with the least amount gets to start a challenge a few seconds early, whereas the players would assume the opposite, or there could be the introduction of a tax to use camp resources. It might be interesting for a season or so, especially to see what players do with it.
I’m also going to throw in an idea for a challenge, because why not?! When working on my Divemaster, we had to tread water nonstop in the ocean for fifteen minutes, which included holding our hands above water for the last two minutes. I keep thinking that with some creative spins and additions via the talented Survivor Crew, it could make for an interesting water challenge. I could see players holding one ball above the water, two balls then three and juggling while treading water…Isn’t Andrea Boehlke quite the juggler?
Finally, would you play again if asked?
Yes, call me! My four-year-old might answer, accidentally hang up, then try to Facetime you two or three times before we can connect, but let’s do this.
With an altered strategy, a very particular set of skills, and different gameplay, hopefully, there could be a better outcome for me, one in which I could take pride. I think it would be a phenomenal opportunity, and for Brian, my son, and others to see me play as the person I am today versus 16 years ago would be the proverbial cherry on top.
I was re-watching my season earlier this summer, and during the episode “We’ll Make You Pay” when Gregg won the reward challenge and took Jen and Katie to the yacht, my son asked me if I was going to be there when they arrived. I told him no. He asked why. I reminded him I had been voted off. Again, he asked why, because what young child doesn’t ask why over and over and over? I told him momma was weak out there and seemed lazy so my tribe voted me off. He paused then said, “You can go back on, momma, but then you have to come back home to me.”