'Survivor' Player Stephanie Runs Down Her 'Ghost Island' Dream

Survivor: Ghost Island S36E05 Still 1 - Publicity - H 2018
Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment

[This story contains spoilers through the latest episode of Survivor: Ghost Island.]

"No game for you today."

Ghost Island, and the Survivor Gods that lord over the so-called "Spooky Playground," have a cruel sense of humor. Through and through Malolo tribe member Stephanie Johnson arrived on Ghost with an urgent need to change the game — but the island, much like Probst often says, had "nothing for ya." Instead, the second and longest-lasting Stephanie of the season returned to her tribe, promptly joined them in losing their second immunity challenge in a row, and wound up voted out of the game in a slam dunk seven-to-one decision.

Stephanie's Survivor demise played out like a slow-moving train wreck; rather than set up false hope for the three original Malolos at the mercy of the dominating ex-Naviti, the show was edited in a more honest and straightforward way. One of Michael, Jenna and Stephanie would be going home this evening; the only source of tension and surprise was which of the three Malolos would fall.

Ultimately, it was Stephanie, the 34-year-old multihyphenate from Chicago whose professional and personal pursuits involve wellness, health, writing and adventurous travel. Like so many others on the Ghost Island cast, Stephanie was a Survivor super-fan before she was finally cast, having dreamed about the chance to get out there and play for years and years ahead of time.

With her time on the show now firmly in the rearview mirror, Stephanie spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about how her Survivor dream came true in the first place, what it meant for her in the moment, and what it will mean for her moving forward.

What's your first Survivor memory? 

I was in college. I remember exactly where I was when I saw the first episode. I was living in a shitty dorm, and I was laying on my bed, flipping through the TV, when I saw this random show. It looked so pretty — the place where they were filming it — that it caught my eye. Watching this group of random strangers out there having this adventure…it just caught me. I loved the first season, but it was really the second season that emotionally drew me in. It was watching Elisabeth [Hasselbeck, then Filarski] and Rodger [Bingham], the emotional connection they had, that sucked me in. I loved seeing all of the places they went over the years. It was like I was getting to live out an adventure every Wednesday night, beginning in my dorm room, and then in my house, and clear to this day.

When did you start applying for the show, and how many times did you apply?

Season two. I honestly don't even know how many times. When I first applied, you had to send in VHS tapes. So I don't even know! I went to two open casting calls, and I started making up fake e-mail addresses to send in videos online, because they would only take one video from each e-mail address. I was doing all of that, and sending in all of these VHS tapes…so I honestly don't even know. Maybe 15 times? It was a lot.

What was the closest you got before Ghost Island?

I received a phone call once. It never went anywhere.

Set the scene: What do you remember about the day you found out you were finally cast for the show?

I was having lunch in a restaurant with one of my best friends. She knew I had been through the process and what it meant to me. My phone was sitting on the table, then all of the sudden, I see a Survivor name come up. I freeze, and my friend looks at me and goes, "Answer your phone!" So I answered it, and I'm told that I'm going to be on Survivor. I started screaming in the middle of the restaurant, and everybody stops and turns and looks at me. My friend is looking at me, wide-eyed: "Go. Get out of here. Just go! Get out!" I run out of the restaurant and confirm that I'm going to be on. When I go back in after getting off of the phone, there were maybe seven to 10 people who came up to me and said: "I don't know what just happened, but we are so excited for you, because we have never seen anyone so excited about anything. Whatever you're excited about — congratulations."

That's amazing. What are the days and weeks and months like between that phone call and the day you ship out to Fiji? For people who have dreamed about that call, I feel like the next period of waiting is a harder thing to conceptualize.

There was a lot of planning involved. I have two kids, so I had to get childcare figured out for them, first and foremost. I was ready to launch a new business, and I had to put everything else on hold. I was also training for an Ironman competition. You don't really need endurance workouts [for Survivor], so I stopped Ironman training and focused more on short interval training; instead of spending an hour in the pool, I would spend 15 minutes doing sprints and lifting more weights and doing a lot more yoga. My physical activity changed drastically. I started watching old seasons, too. My kids love Survivor, so we rewatched…I don't know, maybe two or three seasons in that time period before I left. And then there was a lot of mental prep. I meditate and do a lot of yoga, but it was more about getting my head in the right place to go out there, knowing I wouldn't be eating, that I would be playing a strategic game. I spent all of that time physically and mentally preparing myself to go out and do this.

What do you remember about your last day home before heading out to Survivor — your final day of freedom?

My mom had flown in. She was here to take care of my kids for their last week of school. I remember saying goodbye to them. We were all crying. My kids didn't know where I was going; they had my made-up story.

They didn't know you were about to play Survivor?

Yeah, they had no idea. They had no idea. They would have gone straight to school and told everyone I was on Survivor. (Laughs.) They're 6 and 8! They didn't even know the outcome until last night. But I remember pulling away, and looking at those three waving to me, and thinking in my head: "I'm going to get to the loved ones visit, so I can see my mom and find out how my kids are doing." Because that's such a long time to be away from your kids. I had it in my head: "I have to get to the loved ones visit, so I can know that my kids are okay." I was driven to the airport by Bob, my 87-year-old mentor and triathlete friend. I remember him telling me to go out there and have a good time, and to win. And he said he would send me a pizza via drone helicopter. 

Sounds like a good friend! It moves into another period of "hurry up and wait" as you get to Fiji and wait for the game to begin. We have the preseason well and covered at this point. When you hit the beach, though, it's game on. What's coursing through your mind when you're standing there with your fellow Malolo, Jeff Probst is standing before you and it's officially go time?

I thought my heart was going to beat out of my chest. It was insane. I was looking at my tribe, and it's crazy how immediately you slip into that strategic mode. I was looking around at who I could bond with. I saw Brendan and thought, "We are the old people. We are totally bonding." I had a very good vibe from Jenna. I started making alliances before we could even talk. This was that first reward challenge, so it's amazing how fast you slip into it — and also how quickly you become a family out there. That shocked me.

The first six days of the game…sure, you go to Tribal Council twice, but you're firmly on the right side of the vote both times — and instrumental in sussing out Jacob's lie about the fake idol, to boot. Did it feel like everything was trending in the right direction?

Oh, absolutely — which should have been my biggest clue that I was about to get completely swap-fucked. (Laughs.) But I felt very in control. I felt very solid with my alliance. And I was right about my alliance. Even when we were down on the numbers initially, we stuck together. We were solid.

If not for the swap, you felt confident in how things were moving?

I really did. But I was excited for a swap. I was excited to get to meet people from the other side. There were a few people I picked out who I thought I could work with. I was very excited to meet Morgan, because I knew she had Jacob's legacy advantage, but that never played out. But the five Naviti [on the new Malolo tribe] were strong, and the other five weren't. They had cracks. Our five? There was no breaking them. It's because Bradley and Kellyn told them all what to do. Kellyn was just as involved as Bradley. They were definitely a power couple out there. They had their three little minions, falling into place.

How quickly apparent was it that there wasn't a lot of — and forgive me — wiggle room in maneuvering these people? 

There was zero, zero, wiggle room. I could see right through it. I called out Kellyn and Bradley; you didn't see that, but I called them out on being a power couple at Brendan's Tribal, just so the others could see that these two are together, and you three are their little minions in their plot to destroy the world — or at least to destroy Brendan and me!

Brendan goes home, and what was already a bad situation suddenly becomes a lot worse. You then are sent to Ghost Island; alas, there's no game for you to play. What do you remember about your night out there?

The hard part for me was that I didn't realize "no game" was an option. From my perspective: Jacob had an advantage, I never talked to Donathan or Chris who couldn't play, but Kellyn had the chance to play and she chose not to. I thought I was guaranteed a chance to win an advantage, so I was excited to go. It broke my heart when I couldn't. I knew at that point that my social game had just been taken away from me, because I wasn't there for 24 hours. I knew at that point that this might be my last sunset in Fiji, so I definitely took advantage of it. But honestly, the thing I remember the most about Ghost Island? I woke up every 45 minutes, and there were spiders as big as my hands crawling all over me and around me. It was like a nightmare. I hate spiders, and every spider on that island came to haunt me that night.

I am so grateful I did not encounter any spiders when I was on Ghost Island.

That's the crazy thing! I swear, nobody else saw these spiders! Maybe they were my omen that I was going home: The spiders were there to send me out.

The spider gods have spoken, you go back to your tribe and proceed to lose immunity. Oftentimes, Survivor will present a vote like this as though Malolo still has some hope, some last minute gamble that could play out…but this time, it was presented very plainly: There is no hope, and it would either be you, Michael or Jenna going home. It ends up being a 7-1 vote against you, which suggests to me that you knew going into Tribal Council that it was all about to end. Was that the case?

I was not informed. I really wish Jenna and Michael could have said something, but I also get it. I understand why they didn't. I knew one hundred percent it was going to be me, but you still want to hold out this hope. I had a hope that maybe, maybe, it would be Michael. I had built these great relationships with Kellyn and Chelsea, and hoped they would want to keep girls around, because there were so many big guys in the game and the would want to harness some girl power. I thought the same with Jenna. I was shocked that Jenna didn't want to flip with me, and she chose Michael. 

Michael and Jenna voting for you was a complete surprise, then?

When I got back from Ghost Island, I had a conversation with them. I pulled them aside. But Jenna wouldn't even look me in the eyes. They were like, "Oh, yeah, I don't know…" and that's not Michael. Michael is there to play, as we're obviously seeing. The second he was indecisive, I was just like, "Man, screw you guys! I'm done!" I didn't talk to them for the rest of the time. I knew my only hope was to search the whole island for an idol, which I didn't find, and then working my relationships with Bradley, Kellyn and Chelsea in hopes they would keep me. I tried to work it: "Let's work as strong women, Kellyn! Let's do it, Chelsea!" But it didn't work out.

What was the experience like, watching the episode with your loved ones last night? Had you prepared them for what was coming?

My kids were with me. We were alone. They didn't know the outcome until last night, because, once again, they're 6 and 8; I can't have them going to school, telling people. I was in shock watching the episode. I think I need to go back and rewatch it. I have to realize how shock I was in at Tribal Council. I didn't realize that Jenna and Kellyn were crying so much. I didn't see that on my way out. I don't remember even turning around and saying goodbye, or whatever I said. I just felt like I had turned around and walked out because I was in shock, even though I knew it was a likely outcome. But it was very hard to watch. There were a lot of tears in my house. A lot of anger and tears. It was really gut-wrenching to have to watch it back and tell my kids that it was going to be okay. My saving grace with it all is that I'm kneeling there, talking with my kids and consoling them, and my big guy came over to me and wrapped his arms around me — and just on his own, he said, "Mom, I'm so proud of you." Of course, I lose it. We're all sitting there, all three of us, bawling our eyes out. Having that moment where he said he was proud of me on his own…and the little one then chimed in and said the same thing…it brought the entire experience to a pinnacle and closed the entire circle right in that moment. I felt very proud of my game. I knew I had done everything I possibly could. I knew my kids were proud. That was my biggest guilt about it all, and then it was alleviated last night. I'm at peace right now. I'm still trying to console my kids! (Laughs.) But I'm okay now. I'm okay. For the first time, I think I can say I'm okay.

Survivor was a huge dream of yours, and it was cut short before you would have wanted. But you're an adventurer. You wrote a book called Wonderlust about your experiences traveling solo through Vietnam, and a few months ago, you were in Patagonia for New Years… 

Yeah, I was. I went backpacking around Patagonia for two weeks, solo.

I'd love to know more about that moment in your life: saying goodbye to 2017, welcoming in a new year, having already gone through the Survivor experience, surrounded by glaciers, alone at the far end of the world…how did that moment fuel what you're dreaming up for your future?

Being out there alone, you learn so much about yourself, because you only have yourself to rely on. If I pass out on the show, they have people who could help me. If I pass out in the wilderness, I'm going to die and bugs will eat me. So you learn to rely on yourself. You learn what you're made of. I remember exactly where I was when the clock struck twelve. It was a huge sense of closure for me. I found a lot of closure out there in Patagonia with the show. I made peace with it all. My adventure on Survivor…it was something I had dreamed about, and it really was cut short. There's not a person who has played, unless you win, who doesn't have some regrets. They go through the coulda-woulda-shoulda. And out there? I let it all go. I no longer have that. I became very at peace. I became completely at peace with the process, the people and everything I had experienced. It was really good to do that out in the wilderness. It was the most raw place I had been since living on a beach in Fiji, watching the stars.

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

Weekly exit interviews:
• 20th place: Stephanie Gonzalez
• 19th place: Jacob Derwin
• 18th place: Morgan Ricke
• 17th place: Brendan Shapiro
16th place: Stephanie Johnson

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