Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Phillip Sheppard on being 'traumatized' by his experience
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.
The Survivor Quarantine Questionnaires started as a forum for former players of the reality franchise to share their feelings about their experience appearing on the long-running reality hit. They consist of the same 12 questions sent to players, who write out and then send back their answers. But even though there is a structure and a format, it is really up to the former contestants to answer however they see fit. Some have been so short they are almost like lightening rounds, others have been mini-novels.
Today's entry is a bit different in terms of format in that the subject, two-time player (and author) Phillip Sheppard, has rearranged and combined some of the questions to provide a more cohesive look at his tumultuous time both inside and outside of the game.
A member of the Black Survivor Alliance (BSA) group that met with CBS to successfully push through more diversity both in front of and behind the camera on the network's reality competition shows, Phillip looks back at his time on Survivor: Redemption Island and Survivor: Caramoan and chronicles the physical, mental, and emotional damage that resulted because of it.
While Phillip is happy with the new changes that are being put in place for future iterations of Survivor, the scars remain from his topsy-turvy reality TV tenure. Says Phillip now about when he was first approached to be on the show: "If I had known in 2010 that my life would be impacted, how I would be depicted, how it would impact my mental health, my professional and personal opportunities, my relationships, and my own self worth, I would have run as far away as possible."
Before getting into his story, Phillip — who has a new book out titled The Russian Job (see cover art at end of article) — wanted to share the following quote, which comes from Bill Duke in his forward for Shades of Memnon."What is history? What is the context of reality within which we all live? All of the moments before this moment. Why is it important to record it in a way that it reflects? Because history is a way of saying that, 'I was there too.' I mattered. I contributed. I am somebody. And the degree of that contribution gives validity to how I walk, how I talk, my sense of aesthetics, how I wear my hair, my ornamentation, the way I dress, the way I dance my religion."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you've been up to since appearing on Survivor.
PHILLIP SHEPPARD: Despite numerous setbacks that arose from my Survivor experiences (see answers to other questions), I realized that I am really a survivor, and despite all of the issues that beset me, I have tried to use my several appearances and small amount of celebrity that I garnered from being on Survivor to serve those who are underserved.
Specifically, I have utilized my time and platform to raise awareness for charity events supporting cancer care centers in particular Michelle's Place with Reality Ralley, Give Kids The World, and Santa Monica Community Veterans Love Gardens. Additionally, I assist those in need of assistance with Veterans Programs. I also volunteer at my local Peets Coffee by providing potted plant care, and they donate monthly to one of my charities directly.
I have been pursuing creative pursuits as an executive producer with other creators on a reality awards show called the Betty Awards with Karlos Ray Productions, which will reward people in every aspect of production. In addition I will be working to drive membership in a new Reality Star Guild Union that will launch in 2021 to represent those in reality TV as there is no such organization to represent us.
I have published two books The Legends Of Things Past (2015) and my most recent work, a five year effort titled The Russian Job (2021). I am currently writing the screenplay for The Russian Job and producing audio books of my authored works. I also wrote two columns ("A Man About Town" and "A Conversation") for Neword Review Online Magazine in 2015.
My greatest joy has been working with my son, who I raised as a single parent, this past year helping him to prepare to join the Army which, I am proud to say he successfully did on Jan. 4, 2021.
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experiences?
My biggest regret from appearing on Survivor is that I could not control how I was portrayed on the show and this had a significant impact on my life in ways that I could not even imagine. You asked in several questions about "What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?" And "How do you feel about the edit you got on the show? Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?"
All 4 of the questions deserve one answer that I wanted to share here as they are all interconnected and it's important to share the full complexity of the response.
If I had known in 2010 that my life would be impacted, how I would be depicted, how it would impact my mental health, my professional and personal opportunities, my relationships, and my own self worth, I would have run as far away as possible. In order for me to fully answer this question, forgive me for a longer and broader view to the past, but it's critical to understand who I was to be able to understand how I was affected. This is not just a story of my background, but also a deeper peek into what I see as systemic and systematic racism, perhaps even a caste system, that pervades reality programming and impacted my experiences and perceptions both during the post show. But I digress for this moment.
ME BEFORE SURVIVOR…
I left home before even graduating from high school and I had been allowed to move to California in 1975 when I was 16. My mother had been diagnosed with cancer and would pass away from it in 1978. I enrolled in a program for adult high school diplomas and subsequently obtained my degree. I worked my way through that program by doing many odd jobs including working as a file clerk from 4 p.m. to midnight, so I could attend the 8:30 a.m. class.
In 1982, I joined the Army and was promoted to Specialist and received an Honorable Discharge. I subsequently decided to apply to be a Federal Agent with Defense Investigative Service after researching everything I could about this particular agency at the public library. I then used my grit, perseverance, and determination and persuaded my way into being an agent for other federal agencies, something unheard of for someone with my background.
After my experience as a Federal Agent, I became a software salesman and was promoted to Senior Executive positions for over 20 years. My ability to connect with people and build relationships and close deals was the key to my success and provided me with significant financial success, earning a solid six-figure salary. I got married and had a family. After a divorce, I moved to Santa Monica with my son in 2004. Life was good. I was enjoying my life as a successful, healthy, active and outgoing man in Los Angeles.
It was here, at the pinnacle of my life that one day while I was roller skating that I was stopped by the former longtime Survivor casting director, Lynns Spillman, telling me that they were looking for someone 42 years old (I was 52) who was "like me" and that she could pretty much guarantee me a spot on the series. Little did I know what that meant, as I was flattered and excited to be offered what seemed to be an amazing opportunity. Prior to being recruited to join the cast of Survivor, I was certainly aware of the series, but I had never watched the show and did not understand fully what I was truly saying yes to. At this point, everything started to change. If I had only known that being a Survivor wasn't just the game, but would become the metaphor for my life, I would not have participated. How could I survive the hardships of my experience afterwards, given my negative edit.
ENTRY INTO THE WORLD OF SURVIVOR…
Shortly after I agreed to be considered as a cast member, I learned that I was going to be subject to extensive and intrusive investigations, which included a private detective, who would try to learn as much as they could about me before I went on the show; evaluations by psychologists, and was required to take multiple personality tests for each series. I was told this process was important to understand who I was as millions of dollars are spent to produce Survivor and insure the safety of other participants. The show psychologist determined I was "super normal."
SURVIVOR: REDEMPTION ISLAND (SEASON 21): MY FIRST TIME…
I arrived on the island, and within a short time, I sensed the show was stacked against me. Boston Rob, who ultimately won the show, was a multi-season player had an unfair advantage because everyone in our tribe and on the production were already enamored with him and the season was set up for him to win. On day 3, I confronted production about this fact. Right then and there I realized that if I couldn't beat Boston Rob, I now had to play a different game: How can I get him to keep ME in the game?
The night after we lost a challenge, I went to him and shared with him something my mother had taught me: "20 percent of something is better that a whole lot of nothing." With that, I proffered a plan and strategy that would help him and also protect me. I told him that clearly a bunch of these contestants are going to go home with nothing and I could help him win by redirecting the focus from him to me. This would entice the tribes to vote to cast me out and he could orchestrate one of them out with a blindside and keep me in the game.
This strategy ended up working brilliantly and handed Rob the win and me, second place and still-standing record holder for being the oldest African-American male to play and also be a finalist!
After the show, returning to my prior life and Los Angeles, was extremely difficult. CBS' storytelling started portraying me as crazy and delusional, and completely ignored the fact that I had crafted a brilliant strategy to outlast, outwit, and outplay the other contestants to become a finalist. In retrospect, this was the first overt sign that CBS was creating a racist caricature out of me.
They did this for ratings and sensationalism, often partnering with various media partners with the caption "Is Phillip crazy?" There were commercials and promos with me embedded into other television advertisements (without any payment or permission) which had nothing to do with Survivor. I was described as crazy or suggested the person in the game was "crazy like Phillip Sheppard." The negative press was global, all one had to do was turn on the TV or read a celebrity magazine — negative depictions were seen on The Soup, E!, Ellen, The View, TV Guide, People, and newspapers. I could not defend or protect myself or my son from this defamation.
As time wore on , this pervasive negative portrayal caused a lot of personal and professional trauma. As much as I tried to shift this public perspective, I acted happy, but deep down I was sinking in despair and depression. I wrote to CBS and the show's psychologist about what was happening with me. I wrote to the CBS lawyers asking they remove the promos and it would happen over and over again. I was singled out for this malicious,and humiliating depiction which had a tremendous impact on me and my personal and professional life.
All of this negative press was really hard to process. It was particularly challenging because CBS denied me from appearing on any other platform — be it talk shows, radio, red carpet appearances. or other TV shows to counter these comments, or show a different side, or have a voice. Jeff Probst had a talk show that would have been the perfect opportunity to present the real me, as he did for white contestants, even those who not advance as far in the game.
Shortly after episode 1 of season 22 aired, I was abruptly terminated from my job due to how I was depicted on Survivor. I was asked to return for another season which I only agreed to so I could correct CBS' false and derogatory narrative of me. Imagine how it felt to then see CBS promote me with the tag line "the craziest Survivor is returning" in pre-season promotions. I was again stereotyped as being "delusional and polarizing", and as a crazy, lazy Black man who had to be dragged to the end by Boston Rob. I was traumatized yet again.
It was clear that my portrayal on the show was part of a systemic pattern of making the Black man seem like the weak, dumb, and crazy guy who can only rely on his physical strength, not his mind. I think that the editing intentionally made efforts to choose shots that were humiliating or out of context to make me appear crazy – they even took my suitcase and replaced my clothing with a pair of pink underwear. Why? Only to humiliate me. Did they do this to anyone else? No.
SURVIVOR: CARAMOAN — FANS VS. FAVORITES (SEASON 26): MY SECOND TIME…
Even before the start of Survivor season 26, CBS started running stories saying "the craziest Survivor was returning." As the oldest person playing again in that season, I was physically tired and it turns out, quite ill, but the edits made it appear instead that I was weak and out of shape. And yet, I was still the catalyst in season 26, often winning the challenge for our team. But on screen, it appeared that I was a quitter, lazy and weak, parroting the narrative created by the editor and producers.
I returned home extremely ill and exhausted from season 26. CBS doctors insisted nothing was wrong with me.After 6 months of negligent medical misdiagnosis by CBS' doctors, I finally went to UCLA, where they diagnosed me with parasites specifically from the Philippines. Coupled with the stress and anxiety from my depiction, I was allowed to be retired early for disability injuries and impairments, PTSD, Severe Anxiety Stress Disorder, and osteoarthritis.
HOW I AM NOW AND MY REGRETS…
In the past 10 years since my 2 seasons of Survivor, I have had a very challenging road between the long term physical illnesses, I suffered clinical depression and emotional trauma so profound from CBS's treatment of me and their racist and dehumanizing portrayal of me. But above all, Survivor caused me to experience racism in such a public way that was so overwhelming and traumatic. I am not asserting that every person of color on the show had my experience, as I am only speaking about my own on and off the show. I was harmed by my appearances.
I am not the first to experience the distortion of their game through editing and storytelling; but was really shocking to hear was from Kelly Kahl (president of CBS Entertainment), Jeff Probst (executive producer and host) and other senior executives claimed that they were not fully aware of our pain, hurt, and injuries and how their actions impacted us. Fellow past contestant Sean Rector organized Black contestants and members of the Black Survivor Alliance (BSA) to speak about their edits and the online media and commercials that stereotype us. I participated and have begun the healing process.
My biggest regret was that my young son who had previously looked up to me would see his father depicted in some horrible way, and would have his friends tease him about it. This was devastating to me. It was further humiliating to have men in a social setting see me speaking with a woman and pull out their phone and show me in pink underwear (which I was asked to wear because they like to show all of us in different colors).
I regret that my older brothers and sisters, though they loved me, were heartbroken to see me being shown in such a derogatory way, knowing me to be someone with tremendous resiliency, overcoming many adversities in life.
I regret believing that I was entering a fair competition that believing that a game cast, produce, marketed, hosted by all white people was somehow going to give me a fair chance and create me with the dignity that had let me to the point of being recruited, as Survivor says they want people to come on who want to win a million dollars. I think they want some people who look more like them to win a million dollars.
As a Black contestant, I helped form BSA to bring attention to what was happening to Black contestants on reality TV, specifically Survivor, and CBS has changed that to be all people of color. However, as a people who were brought here in chains and to this day treated poorly because of our color I speak from my experience and ours as Black people that which I know. If you are Black and you speak to another Black person, that's an alliance, because your color is obvious. But if you are white, you are maybe not perceived as being in an alliance at first glance when together. It's a burden we bare while playing.
When a CEO is brought in in 2017 to replace one who leaves in disgrace and makes a statement like this after George Floyd and BSA and others pressure the network to end systemic, super micro-aggressive collectively systematic racism towards Black people: "The reality TV genre is an area that's especially underrepresented, and needs to be more inclusive across development, casting, production and all phases of storytelling," said George Cheeks, president and CEO of the CBS Entertainment Group. "As we strive to improve all of these creative aspects, the commitments announced today are important first steps in sourcing new voices to create content and further expanding the diversity in our unscripted programming, as well as on our Network."
I was determined to fight back and I wrote many emails over the years to the show's psychologist and ultimately joining others to form the BSA to help those who went through what I did and make sure it would not happen to others. I am seeking financial repair and a public apology — the one to date was in private. There has been no mention of my ten year effort for change. This is a civil rights fight and for equity and justice.
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?
In the past, when I would be asked a question like this, I felt the need to present a rosy picture to protect Survivor and also out of fear if I told the truth the network would retaliate in some way given the nature of the contracts they demand you sign to appear. However, given that I have had meetings as a founding member of the BSA and personally met with Jeff Probst and Kelly Kahl, after contributing to a Juneteenth Letter 2020 demanding change in the treatment of Black contestants on the show, I will speak my truth here. I was personally addressed by both and extended apologies on behalf of CBS and themselves.
Knowing what I know today about the systemic nature of having a show stating it was representing reality and yet having no one Black people in a production of 600 people involved in most of it and certainly no senior executives to influence how we were depicted during before and after was a mistake, and I regret that I thought by going back the second time I could influence what storyboard and edit was going to be to improve my circumstances in the world outside the game and in my perceptions of my family and associates.
What I regret a lot is how the way I was depicted impacted a relationship I had with a beautiful smart talented educator who has two master's degrees in education and speech psychology. We had been together for four years before I played, but it ended, and we tried again but the damage was done. I was not the same, and the public interaction with me in front of her was not pleasant at times or fun for her to see me put in a position trying to defend or explain that "this is the real me."
When I got parasites the second time and returned home, the show's doctors denied I had them. It was not until went to the ER and to Infectious Clinic at UCLA that they determined I had them and treated me properly. I regret that it would take years after I played Survivor for me to be heard about the pain, injury, and trauma before CBS Survivor would make all these changes to be more inclusive. I regret that it will more than likely take legal action before they compensate those for the harm that was done by the choices they made when they put the show on the air the last 20 years and 40 seasons. There is no reality union like scripted, which has AFTRA, SAG, and yet 60 percent of network television today is made from Reality TV.
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your seasons?
I am a loner for the most part. However, this past year with the BSA I have met new faces from Survivor and at charity events I meet people and tried to meet some of the other Survivors over the years.
However, many people who are now rewatching during the pandemic have direct messaged or commented on their perception as racist editing and treatment of me and other Black people of color who were on to stigmatize and minstrel our true ability to survive when the deck has been stacked against us by the designers of the show.
Do you still watch Survivor, and if so, what's your favorite season you were not on and why?
I watched the first season, Heroes vs. Villains, and All-Stars before season 22, as well as YouTube clips, and read media stories in EW, People, and newspapers.
Who's one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
I would have like to have played with Bobby Mason, as I think he and I would have dominated Survivor and supported each other in the game. I would like to have played with Davie Rickenbacker, Tasha Fox, and Candace Smith. I think all of the above would have gone on to the end with me.
I would have like to have played against Tony Vlachos, and Wendell Holland as they both would have gone home before the merge. I say that with respect to their game play — eliminate the strongest competition before the merge if you can.
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
I would change the host and have a Black man or Black woman as the host, and bring in a new host every season and one episode would be hosted by a celebrity host with no one knowing, even in production. I make these changes because the host being one person forms relationships with Survivors that are repeat players, and, if they like them, have the power to influence the game to favor that person in every aspect of the game including game play, the storyboard designed and the edit, post-productions and marketing and media events, red carpet, as well as who gets on who does not. If you are the host and executive producer that allows you to control too much of what's happening in a game show, particularly if you have implicit bias and don't know you have them against Black people or other people of color.
CBS executives have made the first set of changes to improve how the show is produced going forward and after hearing from BSA members and others that they were harmed by what has happened in the past then compensation must happen for those harmed or injured.
If a party is injured for negligence by past practices (as water was left standing in a store) and the injured party seeks treatment and informs the establishment, then repair should be made; the establishment does not get to ignore the injury and declare sorry about that not going make restitution of harm done.
Finally, would you play again if asked?
NO. I would not ever subject myself to another reality TV competition again regardless of how many press releases they put out about being inclusive and diverse. I think the format of Survivor, the theme, the game, and many of the staff are well intentioned. However, what was allowed to happen to Black contestants was devastating in our lives and our stories have not been told. I appreciate Dalton Ross giving me the opportunity to tell my story without edit. It's not my whole story, as I am responding to his questions.
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