Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Shirin Oskooi on the 'devastating bullying' she experienced
It would have been impossible for Shirin Oskooi to be any more excited when she showed up to play Survivor: Worlds Apart. A massive superfan who auditioned every year for over a decade, Shirin's dream finally came true when she was selected to play on season 30. And, as she tells us in her Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire, much of it played out like the dream she envisioned in her head as she got to take part in many of the trademark franchise rituals fans have come to know and love.
But it wasn't all host dimples and fancy rewards. Shirin was also on the receiving end of ugly personal attacks by tribemates like Dan Foley and Will Sims II, the later of whom told her that nobody missed her back at home while she was out playing. It understandably left Shirin shaken, which is why she now regrets her decision to return in the very next season of Survivor: Cambodia — Second Chance, wishing she had instead taken more time to process everything that had happened during her first appearance.
Shirin gets into both the good and bad of her Survivor journey, and along the way reveals a hilarious food auction tidbit that never made it to screen. Dig in!
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you've been up to since appearing on Survivor.
SHIRIN OSKOOI: After I went on Survivor, I went on Survivor again (briefly). I had been taking a break from my career in tech a couple years ago when Rob Cesternino inadvertently got me into poker. I ended up playing and studying it full time, ultimately leading to what I'm doing now. I've recently started a company making software that helps poker players play optimally…perhaps I was always a gamebot at heart.
I also recently filmed a YouTube reality show called Sequester, created by Big Brother alum Audrey Middleton. It premieres in a couple weeks on Sunday, Nov. 29. Here's the trailer.
What's something that will blow fans' minds that happened out there in one of your seasons but never made it to TV?
In what ended up being the last Survivor auction (RIP), I was shown breaking the auction by getting everyone their loved ones' letters. Well, there was more to it than what made the air. We are forbidden from sharing food at the auction, but I figured out a couple of ways to break this rule. I shared maple syrup (from my chicken and waffles) with Jenn Brown by baby-birding it into her mouth. I also painted my arms with all my leftover peanut butter, pasted all my leftover chicken onto that, and once exiting the auction, people could eat off of my body.
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experiences?
My biggest regret is sharing food with those people.
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
The first season of Survivor premiered in 2000 when I was 17 years old, and it became my life dream to play this game. I used to sing the theme song as a battle cry. I would discuss the show to death with my friends, whether or not they watched it. I made secret alliances to excel at arbitrary activities in everyday life. My obsession with the show, and getting on it, became an intrinsic part of my identity. I sent in a new video application every year I was eligible for over a decade. After 15 years of the show being on air, I finally landed a spot on season 30 as the first Middle Eastern contestant ever.
I didn't win, but I achieved nearly all of my goals. I lasted a long time (29 out of 39 days), long enough to have felt "low lows" and "high highs," and I made the jury. I won many reward challenges, enabling me to sightsee San Juan del Sur. I went cliff rappelling, ziplining, and speed boating along the coast. I saw a full mating ritual between howler monkeys in the jungle. I watched giant sea turtles lay eggs on the beach and later witnessed hatchlings run for their lives from sand to water. I voted out a bunch of people, and when I was voted out, I giddily exclaimed, "I'm so excited for this," as my idol Jeff Probst snuffed my torch.
Much though I loved the entire experience, I endured a lot of discrimination and bullying from my castmates. This was not only devastating, but it also became the crux of my character arc on TV and has dominated the lasting impression of me as a player. I did, at least, have the last word against my tormentors, standing up to them in a few headline-making ways.
At my finale, I was selected to return immediately as an All Star on the first-ever season cast by fan vote, thus achieving my implausible dream for a second time. Then, I was voted out second, squandering my second shot. One of the closest friends I made from that season went on to do one of the cruelest things ever done to another contestant in the show's now multi-decade history. I've ended more friendships from this show than I've maintained. The handful I've held onto, though, are precious and inimitable.
Thinking back on it all, there's a lot of joy tinged with a lot of pain. I'm proudest that I came out of it all whole, stronger, and happier.
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
The edit depicted me as a superfan with unbridled enthusiasm about the entire experience despite being treated so poorly throughout. I'm really glad that came through.
What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
I spent a lot of time focusing on my mental health after my second season in order to heal from the negativity I encountered on my first season. It took about a year to become an exuberant weirdo again.
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?
I have never regretted going on the show. I do, however, wish I had said "no" to returning so soon. I should have focused on healing from my first season, but I didn't know if I'd ever be offered the opportunity again.
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your seasons?
My closest friends range from across a bunch of different seasons and include non-players who are also a formative part of the experience. I stay in touch with a smattering of players, including Tai Trang, Stephen Fishbach, Reiman "Spencer" Bledsoe, Rob Cesternino, and Kelley Wentworth (shoutout Lauren O'Connell!). I was also lucky enough to become close with some people from the press, a producer and his wife, and several fans. I don't see or talk to most of these people nearly often enough, but they all have my heart.
Do you still watch Survivor, and if so, what's your favorite season you were not on and why?
I do still watch Survivor, and season 7, Pearl Islands, is still my favorite season. It has the best premiere of all time, iconic characters, and fluid, strategic gameplay. Plus, quintessential Sandra; she can get loud, too.
I'm also in love with the international Survivor series. Survivor South Africa: Philippines (season 6) has the best pre-merge of all time of any Survivor series. The entire Australian Survivor series is also epic (shout-out Nick and Haz!).
I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention college Survivors here. The creator of Survivor Maryland, Austin Trupp, redesigned the format to span a college semester, embracing elements of university life that culminated into a compelling series. Season 5 "All Stars" is rife with exciting gameplay and is easily in my top 10 ranking across all versions of Survivor. There are several contestants from it who'd make for dynamic, fascinating TV on the CBS version (shout-out Foluké!).
Who's one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
Tai Trang. Food-wise, he knows all the native plants that are safe to eat, and he's an incredible cook. Game-wise, he shows deep loyalty to good people, finds all the idols, and is willing to play them for his allies. Humanity-wise, Tai follows his heart above all, and holds people accountable for their behavior towards others regardless of the impact to his game.
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
Casting. Survivor needs more risk-takers and unpredictability. Branch out from the same old archetypes and cast some fresh takes. Get daring with it: make them multi-dimensional. The Korean game show The Genius only cast people with a proven track record of success at something, regardless of what that "something" was, resulting in more novel strategies and, pound for pound, better game play. One of the main reasons I participated in Sequester season 4 is because I knew from Audrey's reputation that she'd select a colorful cast of people who would celebrate individuality and who wouldn't need basic lessons in humanity.
Finally, would you play again if asked?
Yes, very likely. I wish I had the strength to say "no" if I were asked, but I don't think I could turn my back on my childhood dream.
Strangers starve themselves on an island for our amusement in the hopes of winning a million dollars, as host Jeff Probst implores them to "DIG DEEP!"