7:15am PT by Josh Wigler
'Survivor Ghost Island': First Two Eliminated Castaways Share Their Stories
[This story contains spoilers for the season premiere of Survivor: Ghost Island.]
Ghost Island gives, and Ghost Island takes.
In the case of Jacob Derwin, it gave him a temporary stay of execution. In the case of Stephanie Gonzalez? It all but guaranteed the immediate destruction of her dreams. At the first Tribal Council of Survivor: Ghost Island, the men and women of Malolo were open about the fate of their presently exiled tribe mate: If not for Ghost Island, Jacob would have been the first one out of the game, sent home in a unanimous vote.
Hear more from Gonzalez and Jacob in the final episode of First One Out: Ghost Zero, our preseason podcast series:
As we jump into our conversation with Gonzalez, let's start by recalling what her ideal first day in the game would have looked like, based on our preseason conversation:
"Perfectly for me? OK … first day. Jeff goes, 'Alright, Survivors.' He sets us off. We jump off the ship. We're swimming. Of course, I'm leading my whole 10 people. I'm first. Maybe even pulling the raft, very heroic of me. I build our fort, and everyone is looking at me: 'Thank you so much, Stephanie! Wow, you're just amazing!' All of a sudden I find a pizza box lying in the middle of nowhere. It's a fresh mushroom and onion pizza. I take a bite of the pizza and it's delicious. And there's a margarita next to the pizza! This is my perfect day. I eat it all, because I don't want to share. It would be terrible for them, too. Pizza is bad for you. I'm going to sacrifice my body to eat the pizza. And the margaritas, too. So I get back. People are like, 'Stephanie, thank you for eating that pizza. We really appreciate you.' And then Jeff comes out and says, 'Guys, this is all a joke. Stephanie, I'm going to give you that check for the money right now, save everyone some time and heartache.'"
So much for that… but at least pizza is an evergreen concept, Survivor notwithstanding. What's more, Gonzalez still dreams about executive producer and host Jeff Probst handing her the million-dollar check. Read on for my conversation with Gonzalez about becoming the first one out of season 36.
How long was it after you were voted out until your first pizza?
In my mind, I was voted out, so I'm going to go gorge and binge my emotions away on pizza and probably sleep and shower with pizza. So, probably 30 minutes until I downed a whole pizza? (Laughs.) I don't know if anybody knows this — I know Jeff knows this — but I gained 17 pounds to go out to Survivor. Literally, I'm built really thin. I'm pretty strong. I put on extra fluff. I was the only girl out there who made the decision to go out there and put on extra fluff. I put on a little reservoir to keep me going for the whole … three days. (Laughs.) Which was kind of awful! It was my most expensive investment. Forget the trainers, running, spending 12 hours training. No. My most expensive investment was just eating so much to gain the weight.
You had famous last words in our interview before the season: "I don't lose." How did you start to reconcile with what happened?
It's a little wild. I wasn't in great spirits. I understand the editing. There's so much content that has to be brought down to an hourlong show with a hundred commercials going through it, so I understand the editing really boils down to the most important parts. I already knew I was being voted out. I wish they would have put the conversations in screen so people could see it. But to answer your question, I'm still a little butt-hurt about it, but not angry with anybody about anything. I'm more like… maybe I should have just played dumb. Maybe it would have been more beneficial to play like an idiot, until I hit the merge. It's not instilled in me to be an idiot and to fly under the radar. That's not who I am or how I'm built. A lot of it was about building fires and helping with the shelter. I built this stupid crab trap. They didn't show any of that. I would say I'm not 100% OK. I'm probably 93% OK.
But there will always be that 7 percent…
Yeah! There's something lingering. I dream about it every single night.
What happens in the dreams?
Let me tell you, Wigler. It's insane. I have the most vivid dreams of my life. I've had three or four dreams per night. I have dreams with different people from different tribes. Just last weekend, I had a dream with Kellyn in it. She keeps popping up in my dreams! I feel a strong connection with her. I also have dreams with Jeff in them. Nothing crazy or creepy or rated R! Very innocent dreams. I shit you not: I had a dream with him in which he gave me the million-dollar check!
And then you wake up?
And then I wake up, and I'm in my bed, and I'm way too comfortable. Why am I not on bamboo or in the dirt? What is going on?
When did you know you were in trouble? Was it before or after Jacob was sent to Ghost Island?
I actually had a lot of conversations with Brendan and Michael about aligning and how we wanted strong people. Jenna's name and Donathan's name were thrown around a lot. It was Jenna and Donathan. But Brendan has a very empathetic heart. Donathan came up to us and he was in tears. "Is my name being tossed around? I know I'm the weakest." He was petrified. Laurel was also very scared of being the vote. She came up to Brendan: "Are you guys voting me off?" She hadn't really made instant connections. I had conversations with Stephanie [Johnson] about doing an all-girls alliance, previous to Tribal. Donathan kind of threw my name out there. I was actually away, doing some interviews and stuff. That's when the whole tribe turned on me, because I wasn't part of one conversation: the one walk right before lockdown going into Tribal Council. It was very last minute.
When you were voted out, you turned around and said: "Sad." It wasn't aired on the episode, but you also turned to your tribe mates and said: "One lion, seven sheep," referring to Brendan. At that point, you felt Brendan was leading the way?
Hell, yeah. He was orchestrating and manipulating everyone. He was in with Donathan, he was in with Stephanie and Jenna… he didn't want to piss off Stephanie because Jenna and Stephanie were kind of cool, and he was afraid of pissing Stephanie off by getting rid of Jenna. He wanted our tribe to stay kumbaya. I told him: "Donathan, sadly, is a great guy, and we instantly have a connection, but we have to keep our tribe strong in order to not come back to Tribal Council for a little while." Then Donathan shed a couple of tears, and Brendan was a sucker for it. At Tribal, Jeff and I had a conversation with Donathan about how he had been picked on. He's from Kentucky. I turned around and said, "I'm with you." At one point, I like grabbed his leg or touched his knee and said, "Dude, I feel you. I know what you're going through. I've been through that. It really fucked with me. But at the end of it? I was bullied and I went through shit; OK, boo-hoo, but I bounced back and it pushed me to become tougher and learn socially just to be better." I'm bummed they didn't show that. I feel like people would have seen that we connected.
When people go out to Survivor, they put so much of their lives on hold. They make sacrifices and miss out on things. I remember you missed out on a big life event in order to play the game: Your mother was renewing her vows in Puerto Rico. You don't get to leave the Survivor machine until the season wraps up. Were you able to contact her at all? Did you find any way to celebrate the day in your own personal way?
I didn't. I told everyone at Ponderosa: "I don't want to know what day it is. I want to lose track of time." The Hispanic culture is very close. Families are so, so important. My family, especially, is so strict and so tight- knit. I didn't want to know the day. But I felt it. That morning, I woke up and said, "Fuck my life." I woke up, and I could feel it. Sure enough, it was the day. The thing that hurts me the most, aside from missing your family reunion and your mom getting her dream wedding, which she never got when she was married for the first time to my father? I planned that wedding for her, and it was because of me that she had that wedding. My mom's very low-key. I encouraged her. We went online and bought everything together and planned it together, and I really contributed a big part. Without me, she wouldn't have done it. Dreaming about it was good enough. She was satisfied with the most minimal things. The biggest part that hurt me was that when I came back… a couple of months ago, Puerto Rico was [ravaged by Hurricane Maria]. Thinking about the moment I missed to be in my hometown and to be with all of my old friends and family, and knowing that whenever I go back to Puerto Rico? It'll never be the same. I can't go to my hometown right now. I'm almost sure there's no water or electricity. The roads are damaged. They're barely doing flights out there. Everyone's ditching the island, and who can blame them? There are no living conditions out there. That's what really hurts me. Knowing where I grew up… my home and my heart and soul is in Puerto Rico. I'll always be an island girl. And now I know I can't go back. I can never go back and visit my old beach and my old home.
What was it like coming home and seeing your family for the first time?
It was odd. I felt so out of place. They hated me, and they didn't hate me at the same time. They were very supportive, but they were like, "You missed a big event!" In the Hispanic culture, it's like a pride thing, I guess. People are very prideful. And they're like, "So, you won, right? You won? You won!" And I was like, "Well, let's just not say anything." I needed to play dumb. (Laughs.) Maybe I'll play dumb now!
As you said, you've had dreams about Jeff handing you the $1 million check. It's not unprecedented for someone who was voted out first to come back to Survivor. Is it something you're hoping for? Is it something you would want to do? If you knew you would get the same result again, would you do it again?
Oh, fuck yeah. I know [Francesca Hogi] got a double boot. I'm praying to the big god that's up there, and the Survivor Gods, that that would never happen to me again — because I would officially die. (Laughs.) My soul would die and rot.
Enter the second one out: Jacob Derwin, who also happens to be the first one out to Ghost Island, at least according to the official account. A massive fan of the show before playing, Jacob was clear in the preseason that he wouldn't handle an early exit from the game well:
"If it happens after the merge, I'll take it with such dignity. I don't want to go out of this game easily: 'He was in the minority and he wasn't as strong as us, so let's get him out of here.' My nightmare is being at the first Tribal and getting booted because I'm not athletic. If I get booted in the most mundane way, where we're on a tribe that needs strength and I'm not strong enough, even though I have a million other qualities people should look for in their allies? If that happens, it's going to hurt a lot. That's going to be me on the pre-merge trip, scowling the entire time."
One of the most beloved castaways in the preseason, Jacob's swift fall in the game was a huge shock to all parties involved, himself most of all. According to the man himself, he recognized that he was in danger from the moment he hit the beach. With that said, here's how Jacob defends his quick burnout in the game.
How are you dealing with what happened?
I'm handling it as well as you can handle something like this.
We're speaking shortly after the episode has aired. As a lifelong Survivor fan, it must be surreal to experience your exit episode?
It's one of the shittiest sensations I've ever experienced. It's so funny. You watch it all, and you kind of already know what happened. All the cast talks. We have a general idea of what went down. But to see the specifics? It's really something else. To see how it all happened, and the reasons why? It's something else. And I was right about a lot of it!
Watching it back, it felt true to your experience?
I knew very quickly that I was being targeted by pretty much everyone. No one wanted to talk to me. People were going off in big groups and discussing things alone without me. I knew I was dead on day one. So I went balls to the wall. I tried everything possible. You saw me do that. You saw me making a fake immunity idol. You see me coming up with this big stupid lie. You see all of it! Everything I was trying was just to get out of death. I had a death sentence, and I was trying to extend it by any means possible. Unfortunately, I only got so far.
What happened? Reviewing the preseason, you were deeply loved within this cast, and your reads were very sharp as well. What went wrong?
People can see you sitting in a resort, eating your pasta, reading your books and writing in your journal and come up with some very fun first impressions. A lot of them were right about a lot of stuff. I'm goofy! I'm awkward! I'm weird! I'm a big super fan! A lot of people were right. Unfortunately, when you're put in the actual, real situation, with the real person, and you're just hitting it off better with everyone else? No matter how funny you think the guy is, or charismatic — well, not charismatic, because they all thought I was special, apparently. (Laughs.) But the idea of a person might not be the same thing. That's just how it is and how it goes sometimes. I tried everything. Once again, I don't doubt I had friends on my tribe. I've talked to a lot of people since, and they love me. Laurel and James and I are all buds. Stephanie even, who ended up being my downfall. I really do truly consider them friends. But to them, their game was going to be better without me. The pretty people were never going to work with me. Maybe they thought I was funny, but Michael, Libby and Brendan were never going to work with a guy like me, even if I hadn't come up with a crazy lie about an idol.
You watched the premiere with friends and family. How did people react when they watched you pour the rice into your sock?
As it was happening, I literally stepped out onto the balcony to be away from it for a second. (Laughs.) I realize how crazy that looked. You don't see that there's a note on the bottle! You don't see how I was desperate and how I was willing to try anything. Even on day two, I knew I was in trouble and I had to try anything. You don't see the note, which is fine, but you do see me going for the rice. I explained it to many people around me: "When you boil the rice, you're OK. You boil it for safety. There wasn't anything in my sock that transferred to my tribe mates… I hope!"
After the immunity challenge, you talk about Malolo as the greatest tribe ever, and it's built up like a long con. What was going through your head?
The moment I lost the challenge, I was dead in the water. You can see on the show I knew it. There was no way I could talk my way out of this one. I can try! But it's not going to happen. When I realized that Ghost Island is a place you get sent to, that you're exiled and you're safe? I realized that all I have to do is say something ridiculous. I'm already weaker compared to some of the people out there. All I really have to do is put the pressure on me. I have to make Naviti think: "Let's send him, he's an ass. He's talking his mouth off, talking smack. He thinks they're so great." If I put that attention on me, it just might work. They might just think Jacob, instead of Donathan or something like that. And on the show, you even see Sebastian lean in and say, "Jacob was talking that smack!" And I went, "Oh, my god! It actually worked!"
Could you not control that part of it, the reaction of saying, "It worked!"
That was the vibe I was giving off, and it's just how it is for me. But it was more than that. Once it worked, I realized, "Oh! Maybe I can do this next time, too. Maybe I'll go to Ghost Island, and then we'll lose again, and then they're going to remember me being a cocky jerk and they're going to want to send me again, because they won't know what's there." I was also hoping that in giving the Legacy Advantage to Morgan, it would give her incentive to fight for me to go back, but that didn't happen. My thought at that point was they did it once. Maybe if I keep pissing them off, they'll do it again. That was the idea. It only worked so far.
Talk me through your stay on Ghost Island, and your first impressions upon arrival. I certainly remember it in vivid detail.
It's such an odd place, right? There are giant totems, and Easter Island-looking Survivor God things. You don't even see all of the stuff. You see some of it! There are so many sites, with so many idols and immunity necklaces. It's everything! It's so much stuff! So much didn't make the show. It's insane. It's like going through a museum made about your favorite show. When I realized there was a game element, where you can actually win something? All bets were off. I was chewing at the bit to get something out there. That was the hope: Not only would I be safe, but there might actually be some benefit, I might actually earn something and play with something more powerful in my pocket. I got lucky. I sat there thinking about that game for a few minutes, racking my brain. I knew I was dead back at camp. I knew they were going to vote me out, that they were against me. There was no chance here. Even though it's hard to give up your vote, potentially? It might be worth what's in there. But when I got the Legacy Advantage? You see my expression when I see that it says, "It's lost its power." I'm realizing slowly that it has no power, and I would have to give it to someone to restore its power. It enraged me. I think I spent 20 minutes sitting on the beach, screaming at a camera about how Sierra Dawn Thomas [the person who possessed the Legacy Advantage in Survivor: Game Changers] screwed my game. I was so angry that a season that had already aired, and a contestant who wasn't even here, had screwed me! (Laughs.) I needed an idol! I needed something I could use immediately. I needed a one-off. Something that could push me a little further along, something that could actually protect me. Instead? I got something I could gift to someone else. And then you see Domenick getting something that actually completely works. Infuriating! One of the most frustrating moments of my life.
In the preseason, you talked about how it was a nightmare scenario to go home early. The pain on your face when you realize you're the one going home at Tribal Council was palpable. How long did it take for you to reconcile what happened? Are you still reconciling it?
I'm not going to get over it, Josh. I can deal with it. I can deal with it the way someone deals with a persisting health issue, but I don't know that I'm going to get over it. Maybe if I have a chance to go back and get a little redemption? But I don't think it's going to go away.
Would you do it again?
Man… I've talked to so many players from my season, people I never got to meet. So many of them have told me the same thing. And I don't know if it's true, maybe they're getting ready for a returning-player season that could include us, but they've all told me the same thing: "Why weren't you on my tribe? Why didn't I get to play with you? I would've played with you in a heartbeat!" And I'm sitting here wondering if I ended up on a tribe with the wrong people. They said I searched for an idol for three hours, and I don't believe that. It was a few minutes at a time. I'm not saying I was subtle, but I'm saying it wasn't that ridiculous, and other people were looking. It's hard to really articulate how deeply frustrating it is. I'm lucky I have the support I have, and the friends and family I have, and the former Survivors who have been reaching out and have been so kind. I'm lucky I have that. This would be very hard to do by myself.
Have you checked the reaction online?
No, I only turned my phone on for this [interview]. It's really hard. It was really hard in the preseason, watching all of these people pick me as their winner, or as their favorite, or as someone who is some strategic player. There was so much love and so much compassion. Some people were just making fun of the way I look, and that's fine, but there were a lot of people being really, really, really supportive, in a way I don't always see the fan community react. It was such a disappointment. It made that embarrassment a little bit deeper, because I feel like I've let a lot of people down — not just myself, but a lot more than that. I feel like a lot of fans are saying now, "I can't do it. That's me on the show! He's my proxy to be out there and he couldn't pull it off." It feels a little bit bad.
You dreamed about playing Survivor since you were 4 years old. Having lived it, what are your takeaways from the experience?
I didn't watch a lot of season 35. I didn't watch a lot of Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers. I had trouble watching it. It hurt, because this is part of my religion, right? This is my weekly thing! This is my church! I would watch it every week, and it would be so important to me to be in the middle of it every single week… but it was hard to watch last season, because I knew that in the coming months, I was going to deal with something that I couldn't articulate. That's hard. But I'm going to watch this season. I'm going to watch Ghost Island. I have a lot of great friends here in New York and in the country who I have made on the show. I'm going to root them on and I'm going to be excited see it all unfold, because I've heard stories, but I have not seen it actually happen. I'll root them on. After that? We'll see how I'm feeling.
To the people who have dreamed about playing Survivor like you… would you tell them to tread lightly?
If I can somehow get through this casting process, if I can somehow convince people in suits at CBS that I'm worth having on their show, then honestly? You can, too. Just know how to be yourself and know your strengths and go for it. Honestly! But know this, and I knew it going in… I didn't know how badly it would hurt, but I knew it would hurt. Just know that there's a risk. There's a risk that comes with putting it all out there like this. It's quite the gamble. I hope you do so much better than I did.
What do you think of the first two Survivor: Ghost Island eliminations? Sound off in the comments below, and keep following THR.com/Survivor all season long for more coverage.
Catch up on all of our preseason interviews:
• 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