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Before the season even started, Natalie Cole sensed danger in the air. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter on location in Fiji two days before production began on Survivor: David vs. Goliath, the Our Weekly publisher and CEO listed out the reasons why she was entering the game with a target on her back.
“I got a lot of shit that’s working against me,” said Natalie, 57, speaking in the middle of a lush jungle on the edge of a rainstorm, her voice quiet but deliberate. “I have more work cut out for me at the beginning of this game than anybody else. I’m black, I’m a woman, I’m older, slightly overweight, I have blonde highlights… anything to vote you out first, right? I’m a first boot order in the minds of some folks.”
Consider the order canceled. Not only did Natalie escape the fate of becoming the first one out of the season, she wasn’t even the first one out of her tribe. That distinction belongs to Jeremy Crawford, the New York City attorney who was voted out of the Goliath tribe in a unanimous 9-1 decision. Despite her name coming up countless times in the days leading up to and during Tribal Council, Natalie walked away from the evening with her head held high.
“Mentally, you can’t beat me,” Natalie told THR in the preseason. “Because if you’re going to beat me? You have to beat me.”
Here’s what it takes to beat Natalie, if only on Survivor: three votes, a dozen eggs and one person’s jacket lust.
In her second Tribal Council of the season, Natalie and her signature brand of napalm were extinguished, thanks to the combined powers of Nick Wilson, Lyrsa Torres, and Mike White. The sixth player eliminated from the season, Natalie exited the game with some egg on her face and her jacket firmly in place, despite protests from a shivering Angelina Keeley — a co-conspirator in the plot against Natalie, despite casting a vote for Lyrsa.
How did Natalie’s exit come about? What’s her view of the Goliath tribe’s dynamics from the first nine days of the game, as well as how the season played out for her in the post-swap era? Here’s what Natalie had to say about all of that and more, speaking with THR months after her elimination from the game.
Walk us through the first couple of days of your game.
Well, the first couple of days were not so good, because the totality of my situation was unfavorable. It was very bleak. Jeremy’s behavior, for instance, for the course of his short game was, in my thinking, beyond the pale. I felt bullied, berated, battered, literally for the first 10 days or so of the game. He was so fearful of being the first one out, that he went into, as he called it, “turbocharge drive” to get me out first.
Day one, I got John and Dan to agree to back me and be my allies, because I told them, “I need you to get me through the first half and I’m going to have your back in the second half.” Independent conversations. They both agreed. I talked to Jeremy that afternoon, and before I could even tell him my strategy or what my thinking was, he said, “I’m not doing that!” I said, “Why?” [He said,] “Well, because you’re black and I’m black and we’re both older and we’re going to be the first two out and I’m not going to be the first out.” That brash. He cut me off. I couldn’t even really tell him what I thought. He never knew that John and Dan would have my back.
Within that 24 hours, Natalia got upset about a suggestion. I said, “Can I make a suggestion?” Now, I do believe my direct communication got in the way there. I simply made a suggestion. It wasn’t rude or nasty or anything, but she overreacted to it. But that was all Jeremy needed to take up the charge. For the next 10 or so days, while Jeremy was there, I just thought he showed really poor behavior, because he was belittling me, badgering me. It was just terrible. People were saying that I was argumentative and confrontational, but actually I was defending myself, because I felt like I was an abused woman out there. He was like a fly on a picnic table on the Fourth of July.
Goliath wins the first two immunity challenges. Not so lucky on the third one. We know how the vote played out on television and how it played out according to Jeremy’s exit press. How did it play out from your perspective?
John came and sat next to me by the firepit and said, “I’ve got a bit of a problem.” I said, “What?” He said, “Jeremy made this comment about a showmance with Angelina and I.” And I said, “That is a problem. Was he on camera?” And he said, “Yeah, I think so.” And I said, “Well, what are you going to do?” “Well, what can I do right now?” I said, “What you can do right now, John… first of all, didn’t you tell me you’re getting married in a month or two? You need to see that he is unanimously voted out.” We talked about it for a while and John said, “You know what? I think you’re right. I can get this one, I can get that one.”
John went off, and I sat there and I thought, “Hmm. I love John, but he’s not going to move this the way I need it to move.” And so I went to Angelina and I said, “Your husband is a marine. He’s fighting, he’s protecting our country. We cannot let this stand. Oh my god, Angelina.” She dropped a tear. Now, it definitely worked for me, but it also was going to work for both of them. I watch for the next two hours, Angelina and John going out, rallying everybody for this vote. What Jeremy never knew, even in his exit press, he thought, “Natalie thought she was going home. She never knew.” He never knew I planted those seeds. I was able to confirm that it was working and that I had the numbers through Alison and Alec, and through the body language. I even knew when they got to Natalia, because she was not having it.
When we get to Tribal, Jeremy should have figured it out when he was the only one speaking. I mean, it wasn’t Tribal. It was a filibuster session, and I just let him run with it because he really showed who he was. When it went down, I’m thinking, how can you be so evil? If you really thought it was me, and he did; he even went through my bag before we went to Tribal. What was equally shocking is that he came to me about a half hour before Tribal and said, “Well, if you get voted out tonight, and I’m not saying it’s you, but if it is, can you will me your jacket?” I thought, this guy is the most clueless guy. Can you not see that I see that you can’t see me? You’re transparent. I see right through you.
I had him read day one. He’d never change my mind about any of my first impressions. When I listened to First One Out, guess what Jeremy said? Everybody else said they’re willing to work with me: “She seems like this. She’s a mom type.” Blah blah blah. How catty was Jeremy? He said, “She looked like a lunch counter lady to me that gave me some free food.” He misread me from day one. He treated me like his lunch counter lady, and guess what? I’ve never served lunch to anybody but my kids. I couldn’t win that guy [over] if I wanted to. And it’s sad. It was like he had an iron mask draped over his face that only allowed him to gaze in one direction at a time.
Let’s fast forward to “Jacketgate,” and how that all played out from your perspective, once Angelina tasked you with snatching Nick and/or Lyrsa’s jackets…
Angelina was being an idiot. She thought that I wouldn’t see the crafty behavior that it was her behind the vote, because she wanted my jacket. Mike didn’t lead anything the entire time we were out there. So I knew Angelina had to lead the charge against me. I also knew I couldn’t trust Angelina, because she lied throughout the game. There were things that she told me that was the truth and then she would turn around and tell me a lie. I was able to verify both. I always had to work to understand what Angelina was feeding me, if it was useful or not. It was mental gymnastics with that girl all the time. She was out there talking to me and she was helpful in some regards, but she was also hurtful, because she would feed me bad information as well.
When it came down to Tribal and her wanting my jacket, I thought very briefly about… who was it? [Fan-favorite] Sierra [Dawn Thomas from Survivor: Game Changers] made a comment about willing [Game Changers champion Sarah Lacina] something if she left the game. I remember thinking, you’re an idiot, because she’s going to take you out. So Angelina trying to play that game on me, this girl who may have went to Stanford or Yale, but guess what? I went to South Central L.A. I’m not trying to be anybody’s mark. I mean, come on now. It was just so blatantly obvious. It was like Jeremy asking for my jacket. I know that you hate me. You’ve been trailing me all game. How can you come to me and ask me to will you my jacket, you idiot? Get out of my space.
They are playing the game so hard that they can’t even see the impression or the perception that they’re giving to other players. Was I as clueless as they seemed to think, that I didn’t have any self-awareness? I had great self-awareness, particularly with Jeremy. I just didn’t give a damn at that point, because I was defending myself against him. The self-awareness that how I was treating others and rubbing others wrong? That became a groupthink. One person said it, so it became your reality. Did you really do anything to justify that? No. Do I speak very directly and candidly and you walk away knowing what I really thought about something? Yes. And so the big takeaway for me is, is that too powerful where I really need to rethink that? Because I know that that’s what it is. That’s followed me all of my life, being very direct. I try not to be rude to people though. So, when Jeremy was saying, “You’re talking down to people.” I never talk down to anybody, but I did put him in his place a couple of times because, like I said, he was a fly over the table.
If Angelina had come up to you before Tribal Council and said, “Natalie, here’s the deal. Nick, Mike and Lyrsa are voting for you. I have to vote with them. You’re going home tonight. Is there any chance I could have your jacket?” Does Angelina get your jacket?
Absolutely not. Because Angelina never showed that I had her support. She never showed me that. I specifically asked her to align with me, probably night five or six. She wouldn’t. Then I speak to John, and John is my ally, and I know that Angelina is really hooked in with Natalia and Kara. So I knew I never fully had Angelina, though she thought that I thought that she did have me. No. I’m very clear on what position I had with her. But she did ask me at one point. She said, “Well, would you leave me your jacket?” And I did say, “I would probably consider leaving you my jacket.” She did ask me that at one point. Stupid. You don’t ask anybody that.
You were a fan of Survivor from the very first season. What’s your takeaway from the whole experience, not just playing the game, but also watching the game and interacting with the fans?
My biggest takeaway from the experience is realizing that I have too much stuff. I don’t need all this stuff to live a really great life. You can get by on so much less. My other big takeaway is being out in that space was such a spiritual space for me. Literally one night, looking at the sky, I kid you not, I was laying on the beach, a couple of sand crabs crawling across me. I didn’t even care. I swatted them off of me. Normally that would have bothered me greatly. But laying on that beach and looking up and seeing the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, and the Northern Star and the diamonds that were just … the diamonds. I keep saying the stars looked like literally God had sprinkled diamonds in the sky. I remember yelling out, “Way to go, God!” Because it was so beautiful. I realized that life is going by so fast and we’re not taking enough time to pause on the journey and soak it all in. That afforded me an opportunity to be inaccessible. Not having that whole digital connection was a beautiful thing. It afforded me the opportunity to really focus on what’s real and what’s meaningful and to have that quiet space. Because see, my life is very noisy and it’s been noisy for years.
The whole takeaway from the narrative and the way it’s really done and how it comes out [on television] at the end of the day… I was surprised by that, and I learned from that. But I’m not an under-the-radar type person. You’re never going to see me fly under the radar. So, it is what it is. They took the smallest part of who I really believe that I am and who I represent daily and that got blown out of proportion and that’s who the character Natalie became. After the fact, I went with it. The whole “Natalie Napalm” and “everything about me speaks power” and all of that? I said, well, my fans are embracing that. That’s what I’ll embrace. I’ll continue on that path. And so here we are.
Would you play again?
Well, I’ve been asked that. I would certainly consider it because again, I’m in sales. The first thing I want to say from a sales perspective is yes I can and yes I will. I have to evaluate it and it really depends. Do they want me to come back? Well, we’ll see. That remains to be seen.
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