'Survivor' Player Chelsea Tells Her Side of the 'Ghost Island' Story

The original Naviti tribe member speaks with THR about her portrayal on the show, the moves we didn't see and letting "the frustration go."
CBS Entertainment

There are a lot of questions surrounding the latest episode of Survivor Ghost Island, many of which swirl around the latest castaway voted out of the game. The snarkiest and shortest version of the top question on the board boils down to a single word: "Who?" In the conversation ahead, some serious and significantly longer versions of an answer will manifest, as we dig into the Ghost Island enigma known as Chelsea Townsend.

Some numbers when it comes to Chelsea: the EMT and professional cheerleader earned two individual immunities this season, voted correctly at every single Tribal Council she attended save for two (including her own elimination, of course), and received only four confessionals during her time on the season. For his part, executive producer Jeff Probst spoke with THR about Chelsea's staggering lack of screen time, providing the following explanation:

"As for why we haven't seen more from Chelsea, it's really just an unfortunate situation where there are only so many minutes in an episode and the story was being driven more by others," says Probst. "That is not to say in any way that Chelsea was not involved in strategy. I know enough to know that every player on some level is controlling their destiny, especially in their perception of the moves they are making and how those moves are impacting the game. One of the caveats of starting a season with 20 players is you will not have enough time for everybody's story to be told and that is what is happening this season. There are a few players who were really taking charge and so those players tend to be featured more in the interviews. We say this to every player before the game starts. Your best bet is to play your first time as though you are playing your second time. The most common post-game complaints center around, 'I wish I had played harder and made my moves sooner.' I feel for Chelsea and any player who gives their heart to this game but doesn't feel adequately represented. If there is anything to be taken from a situation like this, I think it falls in the world of 'make it impossible for us to not notice.'"

There's no turning back the clock on the way Ghost Island has played out onscreen, but for now, Chelsea has the floor. Here's what she tells The Hollywood Reporter about her experience on the island, her experience watching the show and more.

How was it watching the episode air last night? Who were you with?

I actually flew back to Utah to watch it with my family — most importantly, my little sister. It was so much fun getting to watch it back with her and the whole family. It was really cool. We had kept it under wraps, who came out [for the loved ones visit]. Everyone was wondering, "Oh, my gosh, who's it going to be?" When my sister ran out, everyone started screaming. It was really funny. It was a really cool moment. I was fighting out there to get her to that loved-ones visit. It was very rewarding to watch that back and realize, "Yes! I made it! I got her there and she got to experience Survivor."

Your exit from the game came down to Donathan and Laurel deciding to stick with Domenick and Wendell, their secret alliance. Did you have any sense of where they were planning to vote, heading into Tribal?

I wasn't 100 percent. I did everything in my power to convince Laurel that I definitely wasn't the biggest threat in the game, and that this was the perfect opportunity for her to blindside them, simply because they trusted her completely and it was our only chance for them to trust her, not play an idol, and get sent home. But it was hard, because I knew at that point they were very tight with [Dom and Wendell]. I knew Donathan would flip; he told me that he would. Laurel, on the other hand … Donathan would tell me, "I'm having a hard time convincing her." I knew throughout the day that she was on the edge. Going into Tribal, I was very hopeful that I was about to pull off something epic, but skeptical that Laurel was going to pull the trigger and make it happen.

Is there a key moment from Tribal Council that we missed, in terms of Donathan's outburst and the fallout from that?

Not really, but Donathan would frequently air out information at Tribal that people maybe didn't want him to throw out. (Laughs.) I was definitely freaking out with Donathan. My saving grace in the game was going to be making sure Wendell wasn't spooked enough to play his idol. That was the only way I wasn't going to get voted out. Unfortunately, even though I was searching through the jungle for hours on end for hidden immunity idols, I never found one. That was my only saving grace: he wouldn't play the idol, and somehow Laurel had figured out that Wendell was a way bigger threat than me. When Donathan started talking about all of that stuff — "Oh yeah! There's a crack! Things are going to get crazy and someone's going to get blindsided!" — I could see Wendell's face, and I felt like he was spooked. I was definitely on edge after that.

It's pretty amazing that he didn't play the idol after all of that.

I know. I was sitting there thinking, "There's no way he's not going to play it." When he didn't, I think I let too much hope come into my body. "Oh, my gosh, it's going to happen! This is going to happen!" And then it didn't. (Laughs.)

So, that's watching the episode back last night. But how has it been watching this season, and seeing so little of your journey represented onscreen? 

It's been very frustrating. I played really hard. A lot of the way I wanted to play the game, I did. I was able to pull off a lot of the moves I wanted to pull off. Winning individual immunities and not getting to talk about it [on the show] was all very hard. A lot of the moves and things I accomplished, I felt like I didn't really get any credit for them. It was hard watching it back. At a certain point, I had to realize that even if it's not shown in the edit, I know the game I played and the experience I had out there. It got to a point where I had to let the frustration go. I played the best game I could have played and I worked really hard out there. I'm proud of my game.

I would love to know more about your overall view of and approach to the game. Reading between the lines, it felt like you wanted to be a silent mover and shaker. Is that accurate to how you wanted to play?

My entire strategy going into the game was, pre-merge, I wanted to be under the radar. I wanted to control what was happening without anyone knowing I was the one calling the shots. I feel like I did pretty well on that level. I was whispering in people's ears, and we would move from there, and it would seem like a group decision where I got the ball rolling. It worked really well. Nobody thought I was playing that hard. It only worked to my advantage, because I knew in the merge I would come out swinging. I needed to stay pretty inconspicuous at the start, and then come out strong so my name wouldn't be thrown out prior to me starting to make some big moves. I knew once the merge hit, I wanted to start doing well in individual challenges and making big moves. Obviously anyone who watches Survivor knows it's all about timing. As we saw with Des, if you try to pull off a big move and it's not the right time, it doesn't work out for you. It was all about judging timing and figuring out when this big move was going to pay off. It was set up perfectly on the tee, and it just didn't happen. 

What's an early example of you whispering in someone's ear and controlling a vote, perhaps one that we didn't get to see?

Luckily, you did get to see one of my prouder moments: the Brendan vote with the idol play by Michael. I was the one who put it out there. People were saying it should be Jenna, it should be a girl, and I said, "You know, if they have an idol, it's pretty common that they take out the girls. So why don't we change it up? They'll suspect a girl, and we'll take out a guy. It'll make us weaker, but if we want to keep the numbers, that's the only way we're going to do it." People were like, "Oh, yeah, that made sense." At least you got to see that moment. For me, that's one of the more rewarding parts, and I was so happy I got a confessional in that moment to show I was the one who was putting it out there as the right move. It panned out exactly as I thought it would, which was awesome.

How about the vote right before the merge, where Bradley went home? At the time, it was hard to see the logic, since you and he spent the entire game together up until that point. In his exit interview, Bradley made it clear you two weren't as close in the game as one might have expected. Can you walk me through his blindside?

Bradley and I were really playing for mutual benefit. I knew he wasn't somebody I could trust. I just didn't mesh well with him. I played nice, but I knew I had to get this kid out of here. He was really close with Kellyn, who I thought was a good person to be aligned with. I felt like if I could get rid of Bradley, Kellyn would just come and hang out with me. That's what I wanted: her on my side. Bradley's boot is something I wish they had shown more of the strategy behind on my end, because Dom and I actually threw that challenge to get Bradley voted out before the merge. We knew we couldn't trust him; he's been really rude around camp, and we needed this guy gone. I told Dom, "We can throw the challenge, but here's the problem: I physically cannot throw a challenge. It's not in my nature. If you want this to happen, you have to throw the challenge, I'll sit on the sit-out bench because it will be less suspicious." In the background, I'm thinking in my head, "If this ever comes back to bite us in the ass, I can just say, 'I didn't throw the challenge. I was just sitting on the bench! That's all Domenick!'" So he would have taken all the heat. They never really showed all of that strategy and all of my thinking toward what went into that vote and getting him out, because I knew he would gun for me as soon as the merge happened.

How did you smooth things over with Kellyn and anyone else from Naviti who must have wanted an explanation for why Bradley was voted out?

Luckily, Bradley rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, so not a ton of people were that upset he left. (Laughs.) People wanted to know what happened and if I could still be trusted. Kellyn was the one who required a more delicate conversation. I pulled her aside once we reunited and said, "I'm sorry, I know you had a close bond with him, but he was gunning for me and things got suspicious. I had to take him out." She was fine with it. She said, "That's OK, everyone was starting to feel like we were a threat as a power duo, so it probably helps my game in the long run." And I was like, "Yep! Exactly!"

Fast-forwarding to your final Tribal Council in the game. Let's assume it breaks your way. What was your path to the win, if Wendell went home in your place?

If the Wendell vote had been executed correctly, my plan was to take out Dom next. He was the next in line in terms of people I knew I could not beat in the end. I knew he had an idol in his pocket. I knew it would take a couple of votes to get him out of the game. It would have revolved around making sure he didn't win individual immunities, and keeping him from that. That was my goal. I wanted him to play his idol, and I wanted to take out people who were also threats that would help me in the game. I knew I would eventually have to take out Kellyn, because she was really good at playing the game, leaving people in the end who I could feel comfortable with and have a better chance with. I think a final three in my mind would have been myself, Laurel and Angela. I felt like game-wise, I did better on all ends. I performed better in the individual immunity challenges, and as far as strategy goes, I was the one making the big moves, whereas maybe their gameplay was a bit more passive.

Speaking of challenges, you won two individual immunities in a row. Can you describe that feeling for people who have dreamed of achieving that same accomplishment?

It was seriously a dream come true. It was the best moment. The first one was the best moment, and when the second one happened, it was just icing on the cake. You go out and you play Survivor, and as a fan, you watch this show and you think about making it to the merge and winning individual immunity as the ultimate Survivor feat, aside from winning. When it actually happens and you're sitting there getting the necklace, if you will? It's just the best experience and the most amazing moment.

And then the obvious counterpart of that feeling: having experienced so much on Survivor, and seeing so little of that experience translate to the screen. Does it leave you feeling any regrets about your time out there?

I really don't regret anything. I think the biggest regret is that day in and day out, I was looking for hidden immunity idols, non-stop. I wanted to find one so badly. I told my dad before I got out there: "I'm going to find one." I used to go golf-ball hunting with him when I was a little kid. I knew I could find one. I looked non-stop. That would have been a game-changer for me, because last night, instead of my fate being in someone else's hands, I could have taken charge and put it in my hands. I would have told nobody about the idol, and no one would have known it was going to come out. That's my biggest regret. But in the end, I'm so proud of the way I played that game. I played really hard. Even though it wasn't shown, I really worked hard out there. I can't help but be proud, regardless of how it's shown.

What has it been like, seeing Survivor fans online react to you and your edit? There are some people who are very passionately in your corner, and others, not so much.

It's been great. I knew with the way I was being shown, there would be the classic [take] of, "Oh, she must be boring." Yeah, yeah, yeah. So boring. (Laughs.) But the fans who have supported me, they've pointed out the things I did in the game that maybe people didn't catch onto. It's been really nice and rewarding to have people who are such fans of the show that they could see the strategy I played even when it wasn't shown, and bring it to attention. Everybody has been so unbelievably supportive about my journey and my edit. It really helped me, watching it all back.

Weekly Probst-mortems:

• Week 1: Gonzalez and Jacob's exits, explained
• Week 2: The return of James Clement's idol
• Week 3: Michael's "double idol" gamble
• Week 4: Ending Stephanie's dreams
• Week 5: Probst on James' elimination
• Week 6: The return of three iconic artifacts
• Week 7: The Noble One's bogus journey
• Week 8: Probst on Libby's elimination
• Week 9: The anatomy of a brazen and risky move
• Week 10: The double elimination twist, explained
• Week 11: Big moves and small edits

Weekly exit interviews:
• 20th place: Stephanie Gonzalez
• 19th place: Jacob Derwin
• 18th place: Morgan Ricke
• 17th place: Brendan Shapiro
• 16th place: Stephanie Johnson
• 15th place: James Lim
• 14th place: Bradley Kleihege
• 13th place: Chris Noble
• 12th place: Libby Vincek
• 11th place: Desiree Afuye
• 10th place: Jenna Bowman
• 9th place: Michael Yerger
8th place: Chelsea Townsend

Preseason player profiles:

• Angela Perkins
• Bradley Kleihege
• Brendan Shapiro
• Chelsea Townsend
• Chris Noble
• Desiree Afuye
• Domenick Abbate
• Donathan Hurley
• Jacob Derwin
• James Lim
• Jenna Bowman
• Kellyn Bechtold
• Laurel Johnson
• Libby Vincek
• Michael Yerger
• Morgan Ricke
• Sebastian Noel
• Stephanie Gonzalez
• Stephanie Johnson
• Wendell Holland