Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Max Dawson says players need better aftercare
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.
Max Dawson did not last all that long in the game of Survivor, being voted out on day 14 of the Worlds Apart season. But he knows all too well from both his own experience and those of his fellow contestants that no matter how long you play the game and appear on the show, the effects of the experience can linger long after the final torches are snuffed and the million-dollar check is handed out. And those effects are not always pleasant.
"Survivor consistently fails to protect us from one another, from ourselves, and from the disruptive effects of temporary reality TV 'fame,'" says Max. "In a sense, we, the contestants, 'work' for the show. But Survivor isn't a safe workplace. It's time that changed."
Max believes Survivor needs to put policies in place for both before filming ("The show needs more rigorous screening standards for cast members. We often joke that the purpose of the psych tests and background checks is to screen in crazy, not screen it out.") during filming ("The show needs to enforce a zero-tolerance policy toward any behavior that endangers the contestants.") and after filming ("The show owes it to us to offer something in the way of aftercare. Put mechanisms in place to help castaways reintegrate back into society.")
In his Quarantine Questionnaire, the member of the Dirty 30 relives the highs and lows of his Worlds Apart journey while also digging deep into how Survivor can better protect its players, even well after the cameras go dark.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you've been up to since appearing on Survivor.
MAX DAWSON: After the show, I quit my job so that I could focus full time on building my brand and making the rounds of the charity circuit. I used my earnings from the show to start an underwear line, ran a Kickstarter for a documentary that never got made, and self-published a book about overcoming adversity. A few years back, I got certified in massage, yoga, and CrossFit, and began offering my services as a life coach. I had a YouTube channel. I did a stint in real estate. I went keto, then vegan, then gluten free. I Thrived for a while. I had my season of CBD. Contrary to what TMZ reported, I didn't bite anyone, punch anyone, or steal anything. I started a 401c3 that was against everything — war, hunger, bullying, seatbelts, you name it. But we don't talk about that anymore. Now, I primarily make my living on Cameo and by selling scraps of my in-game underwear on eBay.
Sorry, couldn't help myself. After the show, I immediately returned to my job as an executive at a market research company. On a lark Corinne Kaplan (Gabon) and I started a podcast, ostensibly to talk about Survivor, but in reality to raise awareness about IBS. In 2019, I retired from public life to focus more on my family, by which I mean my cats, my dog, and my live-in manservant Tyler Fredrickson (Worlds Apart).
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
Beating Blue Collar in the "Houses of the Holey" challenge (the giant vertical ball maze thing) in episode 4. I had no idea at the time, but if we lost, I was going home. It felt like a big deal sending Blue Collar to Tribal Council for the first time, and I was really confident going into the swap. Oops.
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experience?
My biggest regret is that I played so rigidly. I formed my perceptions and plans way too early and held on to them way too tightly. As a result, I often couldn't see what was right in front of me: for example, that Carolyn was a cutthroat, ultra-competitive force of nature, or that Will was feeling isolated and looking for an ally. I had what I considered to be a genius game plan worked out for myself on paper. In hindsight, I wish I spent less time admiring that plan and more time checking in with the people on my beach.
What's something that will blow fans' minds that happened out there in your season but never made it to TV?
You've previously published questionnaires from Tyler, Carolyn, and Shirin so there really aren't that many untold stories left from White Collar beach. How about a casting story instead? The first time I went through casting was for Caramoan in 2012. I spent a week at the Doubletree with nine of the ten members of the Gota (Fans) tribe, plus the aforementioned Tyler Fredrickson (Worlds Apart), Nick Maiorano (Kaoh Rong), and Jeremiah Wood (Cagayan). At that time, I was teaching a class on Survivor and the history of reality TV at Northwestern, and through that class I'd become acquainted with a number of former castaways. A few of those castaways were in the casting pipeline for that season, and two ended up on the Bikal (Favorites) Tribe. Had I not been cut just prior to departure, I would have entered the game with some promising cross-tribe pre-game alliances in my pocket.
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
Nothing is more tedious than listening to a former reality TV contestant complain about his edit. That said, after four more-or-less fun episodes, including one dedicated to my naked butt, I was the recipient of a particularly vicious edit in my boot episode. As a fan of the show, I can appreciate it in the tradition of other great downfall edits. As a human being, that episode hurt my feelings.
What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
My game was so short that I had no difficulty coming back home. At the time I was voted out, I could still "feel my family." In fact, my time out there actually clarified some things for me about life back home. A few more days without sleep or food and I probably would have lost that perspective. I definitely could feel my psyche starting to strain on my last day in the game.
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?
Never. I have many criticisms of the show, the people who make it, and the network that airs it, but I have no regrets about having played. I am incredibly grateful for all that Survivor has given me.
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your season?
My relationships with the members of my cast have been fraught, to put it lightly. We started out as a really tight group with an us-against-the-world mindset. As the years have gone by, I've seen more and more of these people's true colors, and I haven't always liked what I've seen. The people I was initially closest with are no longer in my life. Twice in the last few months I've had to make public statements condemning members of my cast for anti-semitic social media posts. It infuriates me to see members of my cast use the platform that Survivor gave us to spread demonstrably and dangerously false conspiracy theories about COVID-19, vaccines, human trafficking, and election integrity. I call on SEG and Survivor to cut ties with these people and to never, ever put them on television again.
The relationships that have lasted, however, are rock solid. Jenn Brown, my nemesis in the game, somehow became like a surrogate little sister to me. Mike Holloway and I didn't ever play together, but we came out of this experience very close. I know some people have taken issue with Mike's politics, and, at times, I have as well. I've never held back from telling Mike when I have an issue with one of his views, and he's impressed me so much with his willingness to listen, debate, and let his mind be changed. He's also taught me a thing or two, and I'm grateful to call him a brother.
So Kim and I had a rocky start, but we now share a deep bond. We are each the person whom the other calls when life goes sideways. It took years, but Carolyn Rivera and I have developed a great affection for one another, and I just cherish her positivity and relentless energy. Nina Poersch and her husband Dan are truly lovely people. I see Joaquin Souberbielle and Kelly Remington a lot less than I want to, but every time I do, it's just non-stop laughter. And Tyler? I see him a lot more than I want to. Tyler lives with me. Mike took home a million dollars, and I took home Tyler.
Apart from these lasting friendships, I've been fortunate to have made meaningful connections with people from across the show's history. Peih-Gee Law (China, Cambodia) is the Elaine to my Jerry. We tried dating for a minute a few years back only to realize we do much better as friends, though I think she still technically has veto power over who I see now. Corinne and I are and will forever be partners in crime. I mean that literally. I'm fairly certain we could end up in jail for some of the things we did on our podcast. When that time comes, I'll be hiring Chris Hammons (Millennials Vs. Gen X) to represent me, mainly so that we can go out for steaks after the trial.
Jonathan Penner (Cook Islands, Micronesia, Philippines) and his wife, Stacy Title, took me in and showed me the ropes when I first moved to LA. Mind you, this was before I had even been on the show. There is no couple I admire more than them, and I'm deeply saddened by the news of her passing. Franny Hogi (Redemption Island, Caramoan) is my fairy godmother. She is so patient, giving, and kind, and she personally looks after so many former castaways. She really should be on the show's payroll. Brice Izyah (Cagayan) brightens my life and inspires me. His leadership in the campaign to increase the diversity of future Survivor casts is going to have a major impact on our community, and nothing makes me smile more than a FaceTime from Zaddy Brice.
Eliza Orlins (Vanuatu, Micronesia) is going to change the world, and I am so proud to support her candidacy for Manhattan District Attorney. But the Survivor I've known the longest of all is Hannah Shapiro (Millennials Vs. Gen X). Hannah and I initially bonded over Survivor when I was a brand-new professor and she was a freshman in my intro to media class. At the time, I don't think either of us ever would have dreamed that one day we could actually be on the show. It was such a thrill to watch her on TV and see her become one of the biggest breakout characters (and most underrated game players) of the last few years.
Do you still watch Survivor, and, if so, what's your favorite season you were not on and why?
Yes, but I did take a break toward the end of Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers. I was slated to attend that season's reunion as a guest of one of the cast members, but a few weeks before the finale my host was informed by CBS that I was no longer welcome. The explanation given was that I had been "quite critical of production in the media." This was not too long after Game Changers, and I had, in fact, been quite critical of how production handled the hate incident against Zeke Smith.
That said, critique is what they cast me for. My final interview in front of the network executives literally consisted of [Jeff] Probst challenging me, the so-called Survivor professor, to debate him about what was wrong with the show. After that incident, I didn't watch again for a few seasons. I thought it was spineless of production to punish me for standing up for my values.
My favorite season is Philippines. Jonathan Penner is my favorite castaway of all time, and episode 4 ("Create a Little Chaos") is for my money the best-edited episode in the show's history.
Who's one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
Cirie Fields (Exile Island, Micronesia, Heroes vs Villains, Game Changers). The first time I met Cirie was at the Price is Right taping back in 2016. This was right after my season and the Second Chance vote, so I guess it wasn't out of the question that I could come back some day. Cirie took one look at me and said "I like you. You're going to be my new Aras." I was starstruck, completely over the moon. At that moment, I would have done anything to give her a million dollars. Boston Rob was nearby and, ever observant, noticed our chemistry. "I know you. You're smaht," he said. "You're first out if we play together." Cirie immediately put her arm around me and said "Oh no, Robert, not this one. He's with me." Ever since then, I've been the property of Cirie Fields.
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
Ah, the question where former contestants complain about there being too many idols or, worse yet, too much food. The real Survivor scandal isn't dumb twists or calories. It's how the show treats the contestants. Survivor consistently fails to protect us from one another, from ourselves, and from the disruptive effects of temporary reality TV "fame." In a sense, we, the contestants, "work" for the show. But Survivor isn't a safe workplace. It's time that changed.
Before the game: The show needs more rigorous screening standards for cast members. We often joke that the purpose of the psych tests and background checks is to screen in crazy, not screen it out. That's actually not funny. Casting has a responsibility to eliminate candidates who are emotionally unstable; who abuse illegal or performance enhancing drugs; who are prone to antisocial, inappropriate, or violent behavior; or who use hate speech in their social media. Based on my cast alone, I'd say that the current system is inadequate. Or maybe it's designed to fail for maximum entertainment value? Many of the violent outbursts, emotional breakdowns, acts of bullying, and unwanted sexual advances we've seen in recent years were avoidable. For that to happen, however, Survivor first needs to stop casting people who are not equipped to handle the stressors of the game.
During the game: The show needs to enforce a zero-tolerance policy toward any behavior that endangers the contestants. That includes physical danger, emotional danger, and reputational danger. First incident, blam, you're out of the game. No warnings. No pep talks from Probst. Just put you on the boat and see ya never.
I'd also like to see the producers be more proactive about preventing incidents from occurring in the first place. There is almost nothing that a castaway does in the game that he doesn't discuss with a producer beforehand. The producers know what we're going to do before we do it. They've had food, water, and sleep. They're the responsible parties in this equation. When one of us shares that we're about to do something bad, it's on the producers to intervene immediately. Save us from each other, and save us from ourselves. Instead, producers let the bad thing happen, offer the offender a literal or figurative shoulder massage, cut a "very special episode," put out a press release, and maybe have the show psychologist make a few calls before the episode airs. That's not enough. That's not ok.
After the game: We risk a lot to play Survivor. Many of us leave or lose jobs. We get hurt. We get sick. Many of us come back with trauma of one form or another. Others have a delayed reaction and really go off the rails when we see ourselves on TV. In light of these occupational hazards, the show owes it to us to offer something in the way of aftercare. Put mechanisms in place to help castaways reintegrate back into society. Offer coaching on social media dos and don'ts. Help people handle stalkers and online abuse, and make sure every castaway knows how to identify the habitual grifters and scam charities that attach themselves to each new cast.
All I received in the way of aftercare was a quick session with the show psychologist, a circa-2003 handout that warned of the perils of looking on the AOL message boards, and an assurance that I'd be back real soon. Production loves to dangle the prospect of going back on the show over the contestants' heads as a salve for whatever hurt we're feeling from the game. It's funny and sad to watch members of each new cast fall for the lie that Jeff "really wants you back on the show." It's a great way to keep us in line, But it also disincentivizes a lot of people from ever getting on with their lives.
Survivor is a transformative experience for many who play the game. Some of us handle those transformations better than others. But most of us would benefit from a little help. I was one of the lucky ones from my season. I got out before things got really ugly. I had good insurance and I was already in therapy. I was going to be OK, no matter what. But probably around 1/3 of my cast is still not OK. Multiply that over 40 seasons. These people deserve better.
Finally, would you play again if asked?
Based on the fact that I'm not even allowed in the building where they do the live reunion, I don't think we have to worry about that. My responses to this questionnaire should make it crystal clear that even if I weren't on Jeff's naughty list, I would not under any circumstances consider playing again.