'Survivor' Season 35 Player Profile: Meet Desi Williams

The physical therapist from Virginia enters 'Survivor' with a simple motto: "Kick ass, snuff torches."
Courtesy of CBS

Welcome to the Survivor: Heroes vs Healers vs Hustlers preseason! THR's Josh Wigler reports from his exclusive visit to the show's shooting location in Fiji, where he interviewed host Jeff Probst, as well as the 18 new castaways battling it out for the million-dollar prize.

Click here to make sure you're all caught up on our stories from the island, including our weekly podcast series "First One Out," an in-depth look at all of the new players, culminating in an interview with the first person voted out of the season.

Desi Williams didn't go looking for Survivor. Survivor came looking for Desi Williams. 

By her own admission, the multihyphenate from Newport News, Virginia, has not been dreaming about competing on the Jeff Probst-hosted series for years and years. Really, Survivor only blipped on her radar fairly recently — and it's all thinks to the strange world known as social media.

"Somebody slid into my DMs," Desi tells me when I ask her how she found herself sucked into the Survivor vortex. "Seriously. You know how you have an 'other' inbox on Facebook, where people who aren't your friends can send messages, but it doesn't show up? Every once in a while, I'll go through that just to see what creeps have sent me messages, because it's entertaining. There happened to be a creep who was casting for Survivor! I sent it to my mom and asked if she thought it was legit or if it was just another creep trying to get my info. I responded, and that process probably started I want to say October of last year ... and here I am."

Here she is: Desi, someone without much background in Survivor, at least at the time of the legendary Facebook message. But she's someone who has existed in a number of different worlds. For instance, there's academia. "Full time, I work as a professor. I teach leadership and also studies in physical therapy," she says, adding that she works as a physical therapist in a clinic with patients once a week as well. (Hence her role alongside the Healers.) What's more, over the past five years, Desi thrived in the world of pageantry, competing in Miss USA and Miss America, among others.

"I'm done with that," she says. "I'm ready for a new adventure."

Really, for Desi, Survivor presents the opportunity to reinvent the wheel once again: "I'm certainly ready for a change. I enjoy what I do. I don't know if it's my passion. It's something that I've sort of stumbled into. A lot of what I've done, pageants included, I've stumbled into it. I've been good at it and successful in this line of work, but I'm not sure if I'm going to do it for the rest of my life. This is a good time for some self-reflection, where there are no distractions except for the other castmates."

Listen to the podcast below to hear Desi and the rest of the Healers in the third episode of our preseason series, "First One Out."

When it comes to those other castmates, Desi feels more than prepared to take them on. She's studied up on Survivor in the months since she was first contacted for the show. Her process includes going back through old tape, as well as listening to podcasts about Survivor strategy. Beyond becoming increasingly familiar with the game, Desi feels her previous life experiences have already left her with the right set of skills to thrive on the island.

"Most pageant experts say the pageant is won in the interview room," she explains. "You go into the room full of strangers, and the public never sees this, but you have to convince those strangers that you're the best contestant to win the pageant. You really have to read them and figure out if they're buying what you're selling. I've done that for years in pageants, and I've been fairly successful in that world. I hope to bring some of that gameplay into Survivor to win over some of the other castmates."

Desi also feels ready to lie and deceive in order to make her way toward Final Tribal Council: "Obviously, you have to scheme and plot in this game, which is a lot different from what I normally do in my daily life. Actually, maybe not so much. I tend to manipulate my students more than they think, as well as the people I work with. I can get them to do what I want them to do. But initially, I want to go in laying low, trying not to be the boss. It's sort of my temperament to take charge."

On that front, Desi says she's going to have to rein in her desire to take control over situations as soon as she hits the beach: "Nobody likes taking orders when you first get to camp. After the merge, it helps, because you have to start building your résumé. But initially, I'm going to try not to piss anybody off and try not to let anyone know that they're pissing me off. I'm just going to try to be a good competitor, but I don't think I'm as threatening compared to all of these humongous, amazon looking men and women here." 

"It's been a crazy whirlwind experience, but I'm excited," the cool, calm and collective competitor says about her mindset going into the season. "I'm a competitor. Through and through. I love to compete. I love to win. [Survivor] seemed like a new challenge, probably the biggest challenge I've had to come against in my life. If you never try, you never know. I'm out here just to win shit, basically."

Those aren't her only fighting words, either. Desi has another quotable motto to describe how she plans to play the game: "Kick ass, and snuff torches."

Watch the video below for more from Desi on why she's going to win Survivor.

That's Desi in her own words. But what does everyone else think? Over the course of these interviews, I showed the castaways pictures of each other from casting, to get their pregame impressions of their future competitors. Read on for their takes on Desi.

Note: comments from the castaways have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mike Zahalsky (Urologist, Healers Tribe): Besides the guy with all the tattoos, I think she is the biggest threat. I want her to be my partner. She's awesome. You can just tell she's awesome. She exudes awesomeness. 

Ryan Ulrich (Bellhop, Hustlers Tribe): OK, she's the biggest threat here. Triple threat. She is the three components of Survivor — social, physical, strategic — I think she could fulfill every one of those things. And the people who fulfill those the best I think are set up really well.

Chrissy Hofbeck (Actuary, Heroes Tribe): Oh my gosh. She is the one I am the most intrigued by, of all these people. I can't figure out if she is an Olympic athlete or a gymnast.

Cole Medders (Wilderness Therapy Guide, Healers Tribe): She's super in shape. She's been really friendly. She likes to smile a lot at everyone.

Alan Ball (NFL Player, Heroes Tribe): The bodybuilder. OK, she's built. She's in shape. She's in shape. She's another one who's ... she's subtle, but I think she has a lot more personality than she's showing. She's fiery, and I can tell she's fiery. She has a look on her face that says "fire."

Katrina Radke (Olympian, Heroes Tribe): She's got to be an athlete. She's got strong legs, too. I don't know what sport she does. She seems clean. Really clean.

Devon Pinto (Surf Instructor, Hustlers Tribe): She's ... wow, yeah. She is one good-looking girl, and seems very fit. Seems like she might be able to kick my ass. Her legs are the size of my whole body.

JP Hilsabeck (Firefighter, Heroes Tribe): She looks like she could knock me out. She's in very good shape. I'm interested to find out what she does. 

Jessica Johnston (Nurse Practitioner, Healers Tribe): She's scary. I'm scared of her glutes and her quads and her hamstrings. I didn't know those could get so big! I'm in awe.

Mike Zahalsky (Urologist, Healers Tribe): She looks like she has a dancer's legs, and my wife was a ballet dancer. She has the same calves that my wife has. Besides that, she always has a smile on her face. She's very well put together. When you've heard bits and pieces of things she's said, she's very well spoken. I would love to work with her.

Ben Driebergen (Marine, Heroes Tribe):  She's a gymnast. She's had surgery on her right knee. I can tell from the scars. She's personable as hell. Real pretty smile. Real pretty face. She's gonna be strong, probably good on the balance beam, since I think she's a gymnast. She's gonna be fun to work with. I want to work with her.

Watch the video below for an early look at what Desi's victory speech might look like.

Ashley Nolan (Lifeguard, Heroes Tribe): I'm never intimidated by another female physically because I am so sure of myself in every way physically that, especially with this game, this environment, that there's no one that's going to be able to touch me. So, she looks incredibly strong, but I don't know how useful it's going to be out here. She looks like she might be some kind of bodybuilder or something like that, but that's just dead weight, honestly. So, I don't know. I don't know about her.

Lauren Rimmer (Fisherman, Hustlers Tribe): She's going to be really hard to persuade. She's very ... you can look at her and tell she's very strong-minded.

Simone Nguyen (Diversity Advocate, Hustlers Tribe): I'm going to stay on her good side, and if I ever have to wrong her, it's got to be a blindside, because she's going to blow up on me if I say anything bad.

Joe Mena (Probation Officer, Healers Tribe): She's almost like my public enemy number one right there. I got my eyes on her, so I'm going to try and keep her real close to my pocket, because I think she's dangerous. Definitely.

Ryan Ulrich (Bellhop, Hustlers Tribe): She's just got this really vivacious smile and really welcoming personality. I just think she's a huge threat and another person I would want to align with.

Roark Luskin (Social Worker, Healers Tribe): I really want to befriend her, so badly. She seems great. I get a really good energy from her. If she's cool, once we start talking, I would love for her to be like a ride-or-die, let's do this type person.

Jessica Johnston (Nurse Practitioner, Healers Tribe): When I think about who I want to align myself with, it would be someone like her for sure. I think that she kind of has a dark side to her. I think that she's strategic. She observes people like I do. I know that because we made eye contact a couple times looking at each other. These are people who you're going to be on a tribe with. You're either going to be competing with them, or against them, and I hope I'm with this girl — or she'll eat me alive.

Josh Wigler (Reporter, THR): What do you think of the field of players you're going to be playing Survivor against?

Desi Williams (Physical Therapist, Healers Tribe): They are a tough field. It seems like they all came out of bodybuilder magazines. I don't know if they live like that in their every day life, or if that was just part of their Survivor prep, getting as big and jacked as possible. But these guys are huge. They are humongous, these guys. And the women are pretty fit too. That shocked me. Usually you have a mix of people. Some people are super fit, and others? We have a few who look like they've never set foot in a gym. But it's a tough group. A highly competitive group, I presume.

Click through the gallery below for photos of Desi and the rest of the Season 35 castaways.

Keep checking THR.com/Survivor for more coverage of the Heroes vs Healers vs Hustlers preseason.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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