Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire : Stephen Fishbach feels 'shame' about his portrayal on 'Cambodia'
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.
Stephen Fishbach clearly loves Survivor. One of the most eloquent voices (and underrated narrators in franchise history) when it comes to the game, Fishbach made it all the way to the end of Survivor: Tocanatins (eventually losing to BFF J.T. Thomas), and has either blogged or podcasted about the show ever since. But, like many other players, Stephen has also struggled with his Survivor legacy, specifically the way he was presented in his return appearance of Survivor: Cambodia — Second Chance.
Whether he was shown struggling to chop a small branch, hitting the other team's target in a challenge, creating the severe gastrointestinal distress hashtag, or at one point literally being edited with goofy circus music playing underneath him, Fishbach was portrayed as the class clown for much of his second outing, and it is an edit that haunted him once he got back to the States.
"During its airing, I felt a lot of shame every week wondering which of my moments would be edited for maximum comic effect," says Fishbach. "Maybe that sounds overblown, and I know all of us who go on reality TV are supposed to have thick skins and laugh it off, but seeing your lowest human moments played for comedy isn't the best feeling."
Years later, the edit still stings. "I still feel a lot of shame about Cambodia," Fishbach reveals, "Whenever I meet new colleagues or people I respect who express an interest in watching me on Survivor, I get embarrassed in advance. I've had a lot of people tell me that seeing my vulnerability was actually very moving. But I've got other people in my DMs telling me that I'm repulsive and a disgrace to Survivor, and if you can't believe random teenagers on Instagram, who CAN you trust?"
Fishbach speaks from personal experience when he talks about his hopes that in the future Survivor does not need to demean to entertain. "I think the storytelling on the show has really evolved in the past few years in a wonderful way," he notes, "But I'd love to see a continued focus on every contestant's inherent dignity. It's possible to present a person's messy complexity without making them look ridiculous."
In his Quarantine Questionnaire, Fishbach digs DEEP into his Survivor journey, including an epic Exile Island moment, how his best Tocantins move occurred after the game was over, and why he may have lost Cambodia due to his choice in footwear. If you want an interview that is equal parts enlightening and entertaining, you have come to the right place.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you've been up to since appearing on Survivor.
STEPHEN FISHBACH: Since Survivor, I have co-hosted the Survivor Know It Alls podcast and blogged for over a decade about Survivor for PEOPLE magazine. Recently, I had a short story published about a has-been reality TV contestant in the literary journal One Story. By which I mean to say, I have definitively moved on.
My wife and I also just had our first child, a baby girl, whom we've named Probstina.
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
Unquestionably, making fire on Exile Island in Tocantins. I sat on a tiny dune as a rainstorm was kicking up trying to get driftwood to catch flame. I'd heard rumors that if things got dire, producers might pass you a lighter, so I kept kind of hinting like, Hey, wouldn't it be great if a magic fire appeared? Nope. Not this show. Nothing. I was there for literally hours, banging on my flint with a dull machete. And then, just as this brutal night was descending — a spark. I went on Survivor looking for an extreme adventure, and that moment was the first time I truly felt like I was… surviving. I'll always be grateful that nobody gave me a lighter.
The other proudest moment wasn't playing Survivor per se, but getting voted back into the show by fans for Second Chance was a tremendous honor. I left Tocantins basically feeling like the fandom considered me J.T.'s weasely pal. During that season's live finale, the audience booed every time my face came on screen. Thus began my 10-year reputation burnishing tour! Across every forum and every social network, I explained and argued how brilliant all my decisions were! Actually, one of the smartest Survivor moves I made was during the airing of Tocantins. I'd call every single person the night they were voted off the show just to "check in on them" and "see how they were feeling" to "commiserate over their pain." Then when they gave their exit interviews the next day, they would always talk about what a great guy I was!
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experiences?
I know I'm supposed to say, like, not appreciating the gorgeous Brazilian vistas, or the nasty things I said about other contestants in my confessionals. But actually my biggest regret is the shoes I wore on Survivor: Cambodia. They were terrible in water, and ended up getting choked with sand, which irritated my poor feet until they swelled up into something prehistoric. This wasn't just an aesthetic problem. I could barely walk around camp, which made it hard to run up and down the beach strategizing. Even more saliently, I ended up not taking my steal-a-vote advantage to the Tribal Council where Ciera went home, because I worried that if I hobbled off on my misshapen feet to dig up the advantage right before Tribal Council, by the time I got back the vote would have flipped, and probably onto me.
I think if I'd played my advantage that night, I'd have eliminated Ciera, Jeremy would still have his idol, and I'd have massively decreased my threat level — leading inevitably to my rousing victory! (Or at least not my embarrassing ouster the next episode.). Just a reminder that every tiny decision you make on Survivor has enormous ramifications!
What's something that will blow fans minds that happened out there in one of your seasons but never made it to TV?
"Blow fans' minds" is a pretty high bar. In Tocantins, Tyson and Brendan snuck chocolate and peanut butter into Tribal Council and theatrically ate it while those of us still in the game were salivating. IS YOUR MIND BLOWN?
Oh! Also there were crazy amounts of dangerous beasties in Tocantins. On Exile, Brendan and I saw a full contingent of crew members wrestling with an anaconda. To this day I'm not sure if they were trying to keep us safe or just trying to capture some amazing nature footage. Also, one of the nights I was alone on Exile, I heard from the producer that a jararaca snake, one of Brazil's deadliest, had been seen slithering around. I was like — Hey, just brainstorming here, maybe I don't spend the night alone on a sand dune with a deadly pit viper? That was obviously a non-starter. Keep in mind that on Exile, I was completely alone. I couldn't even see the producer's tent, though he assured me that if I screamed he would be able to hear.
When my brother came for the family visit, we were filming an interview and one of the camera guys leaned down and brushed a tiny spider off him. This was very unusual, as the crew never touches you. My brother sort of joked, "Oh, was that a bad one?" And the guy said, "Yes, very deadly." I still get chills thinking about it.
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
I felt great about Tocantins, which portrayed me as more heroic than I am, and not so great about Cambodia, which… did the opposite? During its airing, I felt a lot of shame every week wondering which of my moments would be edited for maximum comic effect. Maybe that sounds overblown, and I know all of us who go on reality TV are supposed to have thick skins and laugh it off, but seeing your lowest human moments played for comedy isn't the best feeling. I still feel a lot of shame about Cambodia, and whenever I meet new colleagues or people I respect who express an interest in watching me on Survivor, I get embarrassed in advance. I've had a lot of people tell me that seeing my vulnerability was actually very moving. But I've got other people in my DMs telling me that I'm repulsive and a disgrace to Survivor, and if you can't believe random teenagers on Instagram, who CAN you trust?
I'll sometimes hear from new fans making their way through the seasons who are watching Tocantins and enjoying my game. And I'm like — great, glad you're liking the show, too bad it went off the air after season 30. There is no more Survivor after that point.
What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
My first season, like everyone, I went through the hoarding food/eating rice with my hands phase. I resolved in Brazil that I wasn't going to use my cell phone ever again. That lasted until the car ride back from the airport. I made the horrific mistake, on my first night back from Brazil, going into the Virgin Megastore in Times Square, which was essentially the physical manifestation of global capitalism. It basically blew out my senses. Also, the next morning I went into the fanciest hotel in New York and ordered 10 different breakfast items and had a single bite of each, because that was all my shriveled stomach could handle.
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?
Tocantins was the most incredible adventure of my life, which I've never regretted for an instant. But during the airing of Cambodia, I absolutely regretted going back onto the show. To be honest, I almost declined my spot on the Second Chance ballot. It had taken me a long time to recover from Tocantins — spending seven weeks lying to and backstabbing strangers while you freeze and starve can weirdly mess with your head — and I wasn't sure I wanted to subject myself to that again, especially because I thought I had a very low probability of winning. Ultimately, one of the producers told me, "This is your last shot." And nobody wants to give up their last shot.
That said, now with some distance, I can definitively say I'm glad I went back. I made a lifelong friend in Jeremy. I got to see "new school" Survivor firsthand. And most importantly, I got a huge bump in my Twitter follower count.
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your seasons?
J.T. and I are still very close. We talk and text regularly. I lived in Alabama near him for a short while. He's basically family. I actually officiated his wedding!
Tyson's one of my closest friends. I also officiated his wedding! Tyson's the kind of friend who out of the blue will text you, "I think these pants would be good for you." And he was right. The pants fit perfectly! I'm wearing them now!
Taj George and Jeremy Collins were at my wedding, but neither of them officiated.
Spencer Bledsoe recently led me on some guided meditations. I'm actually the only Survivor contestant to have played on two seasons with different players named Spencer, and I keep in irregular touch with both of them.
Peih-Gee Law and I share a love of nerd culture, board games, and RPGs, and so we've done some podcasting and roleplaying together. Roleplaying in the nerdy, imagining-a-universe in your mind way.
It would be incredibly tedious for me to mention every person from previous seasons I'm in touch with. The biggest thing I've taken from the show is the community of players and fans, and especially in my first years off the show, I tried to learn as much about as many of them as I could. But I have to give a shout-out to John Cochran, who I communicate with nearly daily. To my "Wine & Cheese" alliance — Courtney, Eliza, Sophie, Charlie, Francesca, and Brian Corridan. And, of course, Rob Cesternino, who has sort of fallen off the grid, but superfans may remember as the fourth boot from Survivor: All Stars. He and I have a relationship advice podcast, The Love Know It Alls.
Oh, and there's a certain EW eminence who I've also become great friends with. You, Dalton. It was you all along.
Do you still watch Survivor, and if so, what's your favorite season you were not on and why?
Yes, of course. Cagayan was my favorite season. It was the extremely rare season that felt like almost every single person out there was actually playing to win. People like Brice Izyah, David Samson, Garrett Adelstein, J'Tia Taylor, and Alexis Maxwell were voted off pre-merge, but on a different season, you could easily see them being in the final five. You could run that same cast, again and again, twice a year and get a different outcome each time.
Also, it would be amazing to see what kind of spy orbital satellite Tony would make on his fiftieth time playing.
Who's one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
Christian, because as fun as my two seasons of Survivor were, nobody would play in the sand with me.
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
The biggest changes Survivor needed are already on their way, thanks to the incredible work from the Soul Survivors Organization and the Black Survivor Alliance. Having a more diverse cast is going to create new pathways and opportunities for every contestant out there, and I think it also is going to shake the show out of some of its patterns. I think as a viewer and a fan it's going to be amazing. MTV's The Challenge (my other favorite reality show) got infinitely better when they started casting more diverse contestants. Hopefully, CBS matches its commitment to diversity among the contestants with equally diverse staff behind the camera and in the editing bay.
I also think the show needs to provide more robust counseling to contestants after their experience is over. Survivor is traumatic in numerous ways — the very fact of being forced to deceive people who you're also relying on for body heat and food is challenging enough, and then there's also the whiplash of micro-fame from being on CBS primetime. I don't know a single person who was on Survivor who wasn't deeply emotionally rattled by it. The show needs to provide sustained counseling with expert counselors.
Having read a few of these pieces, one thing I've noticed is that a lot of people feel a tremendous amount of shame once they see their edit, and that a negative edit can have serious personal and professional ramifications. One of the many things I've always respected about Jeff is how seriously he takes the experience of Survivor — how much empathy he has for the contestants' extreme human struggles. But sometimes over the years, the show has presented those same struggles in a cartoonish and mocking fashion. I think the storytelling on the show has really evolved in the past few years in a wonderful way, but I'd love to see a continued focus on every contestant's inherent dignity. It's possible to present a person's messy complexity without making them look ridiculous.
In terms of game structure — this is not a realistic change, but sequestering the jury from each other would have an enormous impact on the game. People are incredibly wounded when they're voted off the show, and so the jury forms a kind of mutual healing society — which is probably psychologically very beneficial, but ultimately leads to consensus thinking about who should win. Honestly, I think you could probably approximate this by having the jury handlers explicitly forbid talking about the vote. Nobody wants to disobey the handlers, because everyone's worried about their spot on the next all-stars.
And yes, of course, I'd love there to be less of a fixation on advantages and twists and big moves, and more emphasis on relationships and the social politics.
Finally, I dream of one day seeing Sang-min play Survivor.
Finally, would you play again if asked?
I've pretty definitively hung up my buff, but I guess if I had something to promote and Survivor let me wear a T-shirt with a web address, I would do it.
Unrelatedly, check out my short story, To Sharks, in One Story magazine! As I mentioned above, it's about has-been reality TV contestants, and if you've made it this far in this interview, clearly that's an interest of yours!
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