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.
By stepping into the elements, Simone Nguyen has stepped out of her element.
As the final Hustler tribe member on the board (not to mention the final castaway in our player profile series) sits across from me in Fiji, she's processing the experience of traveling away from the United States for the very first time, while simultaneously coming closer to her roots than ever before.
"This is my first time leaving our great United States. It feels insane," says Simone. "We had to do a graduate thesis [at Columbia University], where I majored in East Asian Studies. I studied my parents' experiences being refugees and their perspectives on the war. I've never left the country. We grew up pretty poor. I was never fortunate enough to reconcile all of my parents' experiences with my own. That means I've had a very divorced experience from the South Pacific. Now here I am, in Fiji, swimming in the water where my parents' boat fled from the Vietnam War."
Simone tells the story of her parents, who fled Vietnam when Saigon fell in 1975: "They got in a boat to escape to somewhere — anywhere but Vietnam. Their boat was stopped in the South China Sea by pirates. They basically floated on the water for a few days and they were so thirsty and so hungry. They basically prayed until they got to shore, and they did, in Thailand, where they spent a couple of years in a refugee camp. My parents are pretty devout. My mom is Catholic and my father is Buddhist. Made for a pretty interesting marriage — which is probably why they're divorced!"
Eleven years after her parents arrived in the United States, Simone was born. Not quite three decades later, Simone's journey toward the South Pacific began, thanks to another seismic historical moment: the events of November 8, 2016.
"It depressed me greatly," Simone says of President Donald Trump's election. "I was mortified and I was terrified that a reality star became president. I dealt with it the way so many people do, which is by binge-watching television. In my case, it was Survivor. I thought to myself: 'I guess you can become a reality star and be president, so there's no reason why this shouldn't be me! And if anyone calls me frivolous after this, then clearly they don't know what country they're living in!' So I said, 'Why not me?'"
Is this the beginning of the story for future President Nguyen? For now, Simone is focusing on one challenge at a time: conquering Survivor. She's a recently indoctrinated fan, clearly, given the time table, and she gives credit to her boyfriend Steve, as well as a certain castmember from season 32, for her newfound relationship with the show.
"My boyfriend is a diehard fan," she says. "The season that got me to fall in love with the show was Kaoh Rong, with Tai, who looks exactly like my dad — but my dad is smaller, and his English isn't as good. Like Tai, he's not really built for this game. He doesn't like to lie to people. He hates deceiving people. When I thought about Tai, who's like my dad out there, I thought to myself, I could just as easily go out there and have a good time and do everything Tai was doing — except I wouldn't feel bad about it."
Indeed, Simone says she has what it takes to compete on Survivor thanks to a few factors, including the "strong sense of civic duty" that fuels her work as a diversity advocate.
"We deal with a lot of the external pressures of being a diverse minority in a law firm environment or in the government or whatever you want to do, and we deal with the psychological leadership aspects of getting Asian-American attorneys to look at the stereotypes around them and ask themselves, 'Do these stereotypes apply to me, and what can I do so these stereotypes don't define me?'" she says of her line of work. "For every person who wants to advance or become a judge or a partner at a big law firm, there are always obstacles within a person's self that they have to overcome. But working in diversity and helping them become leaders and game-changers is a big part of why I feel empowered every day."
Listen to the podcast below to hear from Simone and the rest of the Hustlers in the fourth episode of our preseason series, "First One Out."
One thing Simone isn't good about, by her own admission: the outdoors aspect of Survivor.
"I've never gone camping," she says, repeatedly emphasizing "shitting in the woods" as her single greatest fear as she embarks on Survivor. "I'm very panicked. I'm not afraid of these other people. I'm not afraid of dying. Nobody's going to let me die. I'm very afraid of my body and what my body is capable of. I don't want to fall and die and be drowning in my own shit! I don't know! It's terrifying!"
Certainly, Simone could have taken a cleaner path toward her first excursion in the great outdoors, not to mention her first true travel abroad. But as she puts it: "You gotta go hard. Grab life by the balls!"
"Sometimes, you just have to do it," she says. "Look, it's only 39 days. Obviously I'm going to feel the homesickness. I'm not a monster. But I think back to my parents' experiences as refugees. There's nothing here that's going to compare to their experiences. Yeah, I'm going to be shitting in the ocean. Yeah, I'm going to be really, really hungry. People are going to be judging me. But if [my parents] could not die on the ocean, and if they could persist and keep living and keep trying to be happy? The least I can do is just go one more day."
Watch the video below for more from Simone on why she's going to win Survivor.
That's Simone 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 Simone.
Note: comments from the castaways have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Katrina Radke (Olympian, Heroes Tribe): She's a sweet, sweet lady. A very sweet lady. Very pretty. Very pretty.
Ali Elliott (Celebrity Assistant, Hustlers Tribe): She seems sweet. She definitely seems like she has a little bit of something different to her. I don't really know if I would get along with her or not.
Alan Ball (NFL Player, Heroes Tribe): That's superfan number three. She's a studier, she's quiet, doesn't say much, but she smiles a lot as well. I think it's part of her game. I think with Red, it might be a part of his game, too.
Patrick Bolton (Small Business Owner, Hustlers Tribe): She seems like she could have everything kind of hidden up her sleeves. You know, one day she was smiling at me, and then one day it looked like she was talking about me, kind of under her breath. And I was like, I don't like that. And then the next morning she was smiling at me again. So, I'll be watching my back for her. I think we could work together. Challenges, I don't see her really excelling.
Cole Medders (Wilderness Therapy Guide, Healers Tribe): She's probably smiled at me more on her own without me having to like pull it out of her. She seems super into getting to know me once we're on the island. And I'd be down with that, too. It's not something that I think people would see coming either, like me and her having an alliance. So I'd be really into getting to know her more too.
Devon Pinto (Surf Instructor, Hustlers Tribe): She probably seems like she's going to be the most quiet out of all the contestants, but she seems smart, and I could see her knowing the strategy of the game really well. So, I don't think I want to get on her bad side. I think I'd rather have her on my alliance, because I could see her just pulling some stunts for sure.
Ryan Ulrich (Bellhop, Hustlers Tribe): She's playing hard, man. She is really playing hard. Too hard, I think, at pregame. She's smiling at everybody, just so hard until you look back. Like, you cannot look away. She's smiling at logs, she's smiling at trees, just in hopes that they might be in the game, you know? And I just think it's too much. You have to cool it down a little bit. She likes to sit right on top of people... I don't know. I don't have a very good feeling about her. I hope she's on my tribe so she can annoy some other people.
Roark Luskin (Social Worker, Healers Tribe): I could see it going where she and the David [Samson] lookalike on day one are like, "We're together! Let's hit the ground running! Let's be so aggressive!" Like pulling a Liz and Peter [from Kaoh Rong], or Shirin and Spencer [from Second Chance]. Just a duo that really wants to get it going. I could see the four other people being like, "Stop it! Just stop!" She is very, very amped.
Mike Zahalsky (Urologist, Healers Tribe): She's very smart. She went to Columbia, I would bet, and I say that because during finals she wore a Columbia T-shirt at one point. I haven't seen it again, because I think she realized how that's an error. Right? You don't want to be known as the Ivy League kid. That's why I don't tell anybody! But that being said, she's vocal, and she's confident. She's not afraid to tell people what's going on. We were taking our [cast] photo yesterday, and [they told us to do] a crazy funny picture. And tattoo guy turns to Miss Kentucky and says, "You can pinch my ass if you want. You can squeeze my ass if you want." In the first interaction with these people, he's said something slightly odd to a beautiful girl that's sitting next to him that's never heard anything out of his mouth before. And she was like, "What?" But then, like you would expect, she was like, "I might just have to lean on you." And he was like, "Okay!" And [Simone] called her out on it. This girl was like, "Oh, are we gonna just start flirting with everybody now? I can start flirting, too!"
Watch the video below for an early look at what Simone's victory speech might look like.
Ben Driebergen (Marine, Heroes Tribe): I think she's smart. I think she might have a hard time with the social game and keeping her cool about her. But I think she's a smart girl. She's a proper girl, maybe coming from a wealthier kind of family or a better upbringing kinda deal, you know? Sits up straight, drinks her tea proper, stuff like that.
Jessica Johnston (Nurse Practitioner, Healers Tribe): I like her. I do. I think she is going to be a good player. I haven't had a whole lot of interaction with her. I haven't really gotten to see if she's observing the way I am [at Ponderosa]. She reads a lot. I think people who read are smart. I immediately peg them as knowledgeable people. That's awesome. I can't wait to see how she plays.
Lauren Rimmer (Fisherman, Hustlers Tribe): I think that she is also going to be kind of a follower. She reminds me of Hannah [from Millennials vs Gen X] or Aubry [from Kaoh Rong], someone that kind of sits in the shallows a little bit and waits for you to tell her who to vote for. You know, people get really far playing like that, but at the end, Hannah never won. And, you know, you got to be able to make some moves and you have to try to upset people, without hurting their feelings for it at the same time. And I think she's going to mainly just be a follower.
Chrissy Hofbeck (Actuary, Heroes Tribe): She is the Energizer Bunny, but she could be a little bit ditzy. I have nothing to base it on other than she just seems to be a little bit sort of joyful and kind of out there. A little bit of a Janet from Another Planet.
Desi Williams (Physical Therapist, Healers Tribe): I'm not sure why she's here. She doesn't look very athletic. She'll show up with her designer bag and it just doesn't seem like her. I mean, just because you have a designer bag, doesn't mean that you can't live in the wilderness. I shouldn't make that assumption... but I sort of have! So, it'll be interesting to see how she lives out in the wild. She probably comes from some money, or has a great job where she's making enough money to pay for nice things.
Ashley Nolan (Lifeguard, Heroes Tribe): I forgot she was here, honestly. I feel like she's the type of person that, unless she annoys the crap out of me, from only the few things I've heard her say, and just kind of like the look on her face, she might be a little bit annoying. But otherwise, forgettable. Pretty girl, probably very nice, but I think she might be nice just because she doesn't really know what else to do. So we'll see. She doesn't strike me as a threat by any means. She just reminds me of one of the people [where] somebody has to go, and maybe nothing huge is developed yet — somebody has to go, and she might just be kind of forgettable, and she might be that vote.
Joe Mena (Probation Officer, Healers Tribe): I just think she's going to be voted out first for some reason. I don't know why. I don't think she gets it. I don't think she gets it. She's very nice, very pleasant. I just think she's going to be an easy target for whatever reason. Just the way she carries herself, almost kind of clueless, ditzy, whatever you want to call it. But very, very nice.
Mike Zahalsky (Urologist, Healers Tribe): I want to play with her. I'm happy to stack the smart people on my side.
JP Hilsabeck (Firefighter, Heroes Tribe): Just another girl. We'll see what happens with it all.
Simone Nguyen (Diversity Advocate, Hustlers Tribe): I hope when they're [reading] this afterwards, they're going to forgive me for being a little mean. I hate everybody when I first meet them.
Josh Wigler (Reporter, THR): What are you doing at Ponderosa right now?
Simone Nguyen (Diversity Advocate, Hustlers Tribe): What I'm doing... I'm writing every day in a Walt Disney journal with a Mickey Mouse pen. When I write in that journal, I'm leaving it wide open for anybody to see. Hopefully I'm giving off the impression of this cute, gullible, open, innocuous kind of girl. If I can just lean into that image and if I can just look into it and not be afraid of people not being threatened by me, then I could go far.
Click through the gallery below for photos of Simone and the rest of the Season 35 castaways.
Keep checking THR.com/Survivor for more coverage of the Heroes vs Healers vs Hustlers preseason.