'Survivor' Season 35 Player Profile: Meet Jessica Johnston

Find out why the nurse practitioner can't stop "grinning like a freak" as she prepares to play 'Survivor.'
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.

It's hard, if not outright impossible, not to smile when sitting across from Jessica Johnston. The third person on the board from the Healers tribe is grinning ear to ear from the moment she sits down for our interview, bursting with an energy that must be agonizing to repress during the locked-down pre-game conditions at Ponderosa.

"I'm so excited. This is unbelievable," Jessica says about how she's feeling, waiting for the Survivor adventure to start in earnest. "I keep telling people so often that it sounds redundant, but I can't help it: I think about the thousands upon thousands of people who try to get on this show and continually apply and are trying to make it, and I am one of a handful. I would love to be a fly on the wall and figure out, what did they see in me that made them pick me?" 

Jessica laughs as she recognizes the double-edged nature of that very question: "It's scary: what did they see in me? Do I even know what they saw in me? I hope I live up to their expectations! They're already playing with us. Why did you pick me? Do I even know?"

Speaking with Jessica, it's pretty clear why she was picked for the show. For one thing, the Kentucky native is a perfect fit with the season's theme of Heroes vs Healers vs Hustlers, given her work as a nurse practitioner — which was not her first choice of profession, but it's one that suits her nicely.

"I fell into nursing," she says. "The first girl I met [in school] was a nursing major, and I hadn't declared yet. I was going to be a psychology major, then I realized that I don't like the whole head game thing. I picked nursing, and it suits me perfectly. Naturally, I'm a nurturer. I'm a lover at heart. I love people. I love helping. I feel like I sense emotion more than other people do. As a nurse practitioner, I get to feed all of those natural instincts. And I get to tell people what to do, which is fun at times! I like the leadership part and having a say that counts."

A potentially 39-day voyage aboard the good ship Survivor doesn't necessarily feel like a fit for someone who doesn't love "head games," but Jessica has an answer to that: "In the long season of my twenties, I've learned that life is a head game, and you have to play it, and you have to do it well. I feel like I've learned that. Going through graduate school and getting my doctorate in nursing, I know how to play head games. I know how to be assertive and I know how to get what I need and what I want. You have to be able to fight for what you want."

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

Jessica says she's prepared to do just that: fight tooth and nail for the million dollar prize and the bragging rights that come along with it. Hence the irrepressible grin on her face.

"I'm a fan of the show," she says through her big smile. "I'm a fan of a thrill and adventure. I'm a fan of putting myself through hard things and pain. I don't think there's anything harder than Survivor, a game that literally takes the necessities of life — clean clothes, food, a shower — things that make us feel good and human. You take that away, and we're still expected to function, thrive and excel in athletics, and you have to maintain mental stability? It's crazy! I'm drawn to craziness, I guess. I want to win a million dollars, and I want the title of Sole Survivor. I think it fits my life perfectly."

In terms of the road ahead, Jessica feels she fits within this cast perfectly. She looks out at the other Heroes, Healers and Hustlers and acknowledges the obvious: with some exceptions, these people are very obviously physically fit — and she's thrilled about it.

"In my daily life, I'm a huge gym rat. I love fitness. I love health. I thought I was coming into this game as a physical threat, and now I don't think that I am," she says. "There's a lot of muscle out here. Quads popping out of pants, deltoids popping out of shirts... and I feel like a weakling, honestly. But I'm definitely not the weakest. Just going from physical appearance, I see super strong, I see super weak, and I don't think I could be in a better place. I don't think people look at me and think that I'm in either direction. As far as physical appearance, I'm on point."

Of course, success on Survivor requires much more than physical ability. Mental toughness is a key component as well, and in that regard, Jessica feels readier than ever, giving full credit to her sense of spirituality.

"I can't speak for everyone's mental stability, but I have never been stronger," she says. "I'm a Christian. I get a lot of my peace and strength from the Lord. We all go through hard times. Life is hard in general. If you don't have that peace you can tap into, knowing that your strength is coming from a different source? I know where my strength is coming from. I feel like I'm starting out on a higher platform than the other people."

With that said, to paraphrase the great Gervase Peterson, don't let Jessica's faith fool you. She very much plans to roll up her sleeves and play a cutthroat game, with the goal of harnessing her positivity to build as many genuine bonds as possible — until she needs to break them. Indeed, her comments on the Heroes tribe's Ben Driebergen provide the greatest insight into how she plans on carving her way forward on Survivor.

"I'm playing on the light, and I would hope to align myself with someone who is going to be a little rough," she explains. "I think every demon needs an angel."

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

That's Jessica 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 pre-game impressions of their future competitors. Read on for their takes on Jessica.

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

Mike Zahalsky (Urologist, Healers Tribe): I mean, if you told me she was Miss Kentucky, I would believe you. She's beautiful, she's charming, she's flirtatious. She's everything you would expect her to be on Survivor. 

Patrick Bolton (Small Business Owner, Hustlers Tribe): She seems like a nice girl. We've definitely made eye connections. We smile back and forth at each other. Obviously, that's all we can do. We can't communicate yet. 

Cole Medders (Wilderness Therapy Guide, Healers Tribe): She's been kind of closed off. Every now and then, if I try hard enough, I can get her to smile or laugh at something. I think she's extremely cute and might be another showmance contender, if it goes my way.

JP Hilsabeck (Firefighter, Heroes Tribe): Another great looking girl. Don't know too much about her. It'll be great to get to know her. We'll see where it goes, and things like that.

Josh Wigler (Reporter, THR): Are you single? Will anyone be mad if you're flirting out here?

JP Hilsabeck (Firefighter, Heroes Tribe): I'm single. Nothing back home. Single. It's all part of the game. Use it to your advantage, and whatnot. Every once in a while, who knows? You might meet somebody, or something like that, and it'll work out in the end.

Chrissy Hofbeck (Actuary, Heroes Tribe): She is so sweet. I feel like she could be my daughter. I look at her and I feel like she could be my daughter. I'm not gonna tell her that in the game, because I'm only 39 in the game. 

Ryan Ulrich (Bellhop, Hustlers Tribe): She's like Sunday brunch, right? You invite her over to Sunday brunch and she laughs with your parents, fits in, everything. You want Sunday brunch, but you don't want Sunday brunch at the end of Survivor with you. You don't want to sit next to Sunday brunch. She's a big threat.

Simone Nguyen (Diversity Advocate, Hustlers Tribe): She's obviously super hot, but I also have a feeling that she's probably a math teacher or a physicist because she is counting constantly. There's never a time when you see her where she's not inspecting other people, and she's trying to lay low, but it's really hard when you're that good looking.

Ashley Nolan (Lifeguard, Heroes Tribe): I get the cheerleader vibe from her. Strong, but still very kind of prissy. I don't know what to take from that. You know, cheerleaders can be strong, I guess. But I don't know how she's going to do on an island. I've seen her check her makeup already five times today, and it's like... it's going to be washed away pretty quickly. What do you got under there?

Desi Williams (Physical Therapist, Healers Tribe): I don't have a real good read on her. She seems ... I almost want to call it, like, self-conscious. Her movements are a little guarded, and maybe that's just her not wanting to show any of her strengths, but I think it's a little bit deeper than that.

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

Roark Luskin (Social Worker, Healers Tribe): First of all, there are also like three of us that look exactly alike. I'm just going to put that out there. She's one of our triplets. She seems perfectly sweet. She's really followed the rule about no communication. Where some of us are kind of smiling, trying to get away, like "Hi."

Josh Wigler (Reporter, THR): What's your policy with it?

Roark Luskin (Social Worker, Healers Tribe): I'm trying to be constant. I want a smile plastered to my face. And then when I'm not smiling, I'm going for a placidly content look. 

Josh Wigler (Reporter, THR):  Just always happy?

Roark Luskin (Social Worker, Healers Tribe): Always happy.

Joe Mena (Probation Officer, Healers Tribe): I like her. She's fit, she's built like a tank. She's religious, always reading the Bible and stuff like that. She's cool. She hasn't really done anything.

Lauren Rimmer (Fisherman, Hustlers Tribe): I think that she's going to also be very strong in challenges and she acts like she's going to be willing to help around camp and stuff, which makes a big difference, you know. You don't really want lazy people in your tribe.

Alan Ball (NFL Player, Heroes Tribe): She's quiet. She doesn't say much. She's another one who just tries to blend into the background and observe. I'm not really sure if that's her game or whether she's just taking in a lot more than I give her credit for. She's definitely an observer, and she's definitely the quiet one. Definitely has the innocent look, which I don't trust.

Josh Wigler (Reporter, THR): What do you think about this person?

Jessica Johnston (Nurse Practitioner, Healers Tribe): Oh my gosh. Is that my picture? That's me! That would be me.

Josh Wigler (Reporter, THR): You're a fan.

Jessica Johnston (Nurse Practitioner, Healers Tribe): I'm a fan of the show. Can I be honest? I am so joyful in my nature. I'm about to explode. Everyone else is like... I know they're all excited, but sometimes I just find myself grinning like a freak and I'm like, "Oh man. I gotta put my headphones in so they're at least thinking that I'm listening to a podcast," because I'm not. I'm just grinning at the fact that I made freaking Survivor. It's priceless. If my life ended after Survivor, I think I could go to heaven and be like, "Jesus, you did it. God, you turned everything good like you promised."

Josh Wigler (Reporter, THR): That's awesome. He'd be like, "I saw your season. It was pretty good!"

Jessica Johnston (Nurse Practitioner, Healers Tribe): He'd be like, "That's why I just brought you up here! I couldn't hold back anymore!"

Click through the gallery below for photos of Jessica 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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