Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Spencer Duhm on being the first teen to ever play
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.
Spencer Duhm broke a Survivor record the minute he landed in the Brazilian Highlands for Survivor: Tocantins. At just 19 years old, Spencer was the first teenager to ever play the game when he went hunting for termites on season 18, and he remained the youngest to ever compete until 18-year-old Will Wahl showed up 15 seasons later for Millennials vs. Gen X.
While Spencer’s time in the game was brief, the former Jalapao member says the widely perceived reason for his early exit was actually a ruse. “I wasn’t booted for my challenge performance, nor my sexuality,” he reveals. “The latter storyline was spliced together from separate interviews, and really, Fishbach figured out my alliance and got me booted.”
What else does Spencer have to say about his time in the game at such a young age, and what has he been up to since? He filled out a Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire to answer all that and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you’ve been up to since appearing on Survivor.
SPENCER DUHM: Besides social distancing, washing my hands, voting, and wearing a mask? That’s coming up on 12 years, so I’ll give you the synopsis! I came back from filming to finish my degree, then did what I thought I was supposed to do in my twenties — spend frivolously, save some, buy a house, get engaged, and have travel adventures! Then a couple of years ago, I took a job working for an incredible company in the beer industry and moved to Wilmington, Delaware. Is “30-and-Thriving” the cool-kid phrase? I don’t know — I’m old and happy though!
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
Game: leading the three pairs of blindfolded Jalapao tribemates to victory in the E3 reward challenge, partnered with Stephen Fishbach and called by Joe Dowdle. I had a couple of challenges with major blunders, including the one I was voted out for, so I look back fondly on that small success!
General Survivor: I came into Survivor wanting the full experience — and anyone on my tribe knew I was eager for a “gross food” challenge of Old School Survivor. In the early few days at Jalapao, a few of us went scavenging for protein. Tocantins had these huge termite mounds that we were advised to knock over in search of grub worms. Of all the mounds we tore down that morning, our bounty was a single, two-inch worm. At camp, only Fishbach, Joe and I were game to try it — not even J.T. was in! I took the head, Joe next, and Fishbach the rest. The whole tribe looked on in disgust while refraining from laughing, and while that’s not necessarily me in everyday life, I’m thrilled that I leaned into small moments like that for my experience. How lame?
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experience?
Taking the experience too seriously. I put a lot of undue pressure on myself. I was the alternate. I was told I made the cast 24-hours before filming started. I was 19, the first teenager at the time. I was a superfan and this was my dream. I’d been out for less than a year, and I took a ton of insecurities about my sexuality into the game. I thought every move, conversation, and confessional had to be perfect.
Playing Survivor was extremely serious to me, but I wish I’d let all that go because nobody else cared — that was all in my head. TL:DR — be like Tyson!
What’s something that will blow fans’ minds that happened out there in your season but never made it to TV?
Do you mean my alliance? I was certainly disappointed that, as a superfan, my gameplay wasn’t shown; however, I understand because it was completely irrelevant to the outcome of the season.
I came into the game with a plan to make an alliance of three, positioning myself in the middle not only strategically but also in perception. I approached Joe and Sydney Wheeler on Day 2. My thought was, “If we end up in the majority and get blindsided, they’ll go after Joe first. If we’re getting picked off our own tribe, they’ll go after Sydney first. Either way, worst case scenario I’ll get 3 more days to maneuver.” It was my own parachute, or so I thought. That alliance failed me, in large part, because I didn’t position myself in a way that made them trust me more than each other. Stephen, J.T. and Taj were able to turn them on me (and under the ruse of a poor challenge performance) and thus gained leverage in the tribe that propelled them into the merge. (And the F4 — PAO!)
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
Totally fair, I was boring. I was extremely self-aware and concerned about things like, “What will grandma think when she watches!?” You must ignore the cameras, be yourself, and not give a f---. I look back and completely understand the headspace I was in at 19, so in many ways I’m grateful it’s documented so I fully comprehend how far I’ve come.
But! I wasn’t booted for my challenge performance, nor my sexuality. The latter storyline was spliced together from separate interviews and really, Fishbach figured out my alliance and got me booted. I told him I would have voted for him if I’d been on the jury!
What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
Since I was only in the game for 15 days, I didn’t have the mental toll that the duration of the game takes on you. Plus, we readjust nicely on our pre-jury trip!
Biggest challenge? A college friend of mine called full B.S. on my alibi for an out-of-state internship to finish the semester, recalled I’d flippantly mentioned applying for Survivor over the summer, and sleuthed the Survivor Sucks website to conclude that I was on the show. Oddly enough, my closest friends didn’t believe her until the cast was announced. Too bad I wasn’t that good at lying on the actual show!
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?
Not once. I’ll forever be grateful.
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your season?
The only people I currently keep in touch with from reality TV on a somewhat consistent personal (e.g. phone) level are Courtney Yates and Evel Dick. Courtney and I developed a friendship dating back to when I was on the show, and she’s a gem that I’m grateful to call a friend. Dick lives in Orlando, so we crossed paths during local events over the years and developed our friendship, and he’s invited me to be a guest on his show, Dick @ Nite, many times. Both are incredible people and I’m lucky to call them friends.
Do you still watch Survivor, and if so, what’s your favorite season you were not on and why?
I still watch! I’ll give you a short list of favorites.
- - Marquesas (Coconut Chop Challenge! Period.)
- - Amazon (Rob and Deena — the alliance I’m still bitter didn’t last)
- - China (unique location, incredible cast)
- - Micronesia (the post-merge iconic moments)
- - Heroes vs. Villains (just the Villains — and Sandra winning)
- - Cagayan (Spencer, with Cirie, is one of the best players to never win)
- - Cambodia [‘Second Chance’ concept awesome, deserving winner, Spencer (see above)]
- - Millennials vs. Gen X (first time I enjoyed all the idols; fun cast and deserving and relatable winner)
Who’s one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
Let’s say Brian Corridan. I sought people who might think similarly to me on my season, and I failed in my assessment of them. I think Brian and I approach the game in a similar way, valuing a small alliance, being able to bounce ideas off others, and willing to make a move. Plus, we’d both be eager to get redemption and make the merge on Second Chance 2, the Pre-Merge Edition!
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
Casting. Be diverse. Be better. Vecepia Towery had one of THE BEST winner stories... in the season that pivoted Survivor strategy... and where was she on S40? Why not? It’s not as if the Marquesas cast has been forgotten...
Finally, would you play again if asked?
The Second Chance, Pre-Jury Edition would be LIT — you know it, Dalton. You wouldn’t even need twists.