On May 31, 2000, Americans tuned in to CBS for a brand new concept in television. Sixteen Americans were marooned on an island in the South China Sea. For 39 days they foraged for food, competed in challenges – and voted each other out of the game. The 16 contestants became household names: Rudy, Gervase, Colleen, Gretchen. The show changed television forever, introducing reality television to the masses. Its effects on popular culture continue: it even inspired writer Suzanne Collins to pen The Hunger Games.
Fifteen years later, everyone still remembers truck driver Sue Hawk’s blistering speech during the final Tribal Council that was watched by 51 million Americans. Surprisingly eloquent, Hawk compared finalists Richard Hatch and Kelly Wiglesworth to snakes and rats, respectively. And then things got personal: “If I were to ever pass you in life and you were laying there, dying of thirst, I would not give you a drink of water,” she told Wiglesworth. “I would let the vultures take you.” Watching the speech unfold, host Jeff Probst could hardly contain himself. “It was money,” he said. “I knew we had just filmed a hit.”
Survivor: Australia boasted flash floods, grueling challenges, and a pre-View Elisabeth Hasselbeck. But the most horrifying moment was when Michael Skupin fell into the campfire, severely burning his hands and reminding viewers that playing Survivor could result in serious injury. By the time charming schemer Tina Wesson beat out nice guy Colby Donaldson for the million, it was clear that Survivor was not for the faint of heart.
Set in Kenya’s Shaba National Reserve, Survivor: Africa was the harshest locale yet: contestants drank stagnant water filled with elephant dung and cowered as lions roamed next to their camp’s fence. There was controversy: a disputed question during a quiz-based immunity challenge may have cost farmer Tom Buchanan the game. But once likable soccer coach Ethan Zohn walked away with the million, all was forgiven.
The sixth season in the Amazon was a battle of the sexes, with women and men on opposite tribes. Cliques soon began to form. “The cuter girls kinda went off from the older women because we’re younger, and we’re cuter, and we’ve got better bodies,” said Heidi Strobel (center), “and for some reason, that’s, like, a huge issue with older people.” Later, Strobel and eventual winner Jenna Morasca (left) stripped naked during a challenge in exchange for some chocolate and peanut butter.
Survivor: Pearl Islands boasted some of the most memorable contestants in the game’s history. Rupert Boneham (left) made a splash in the first episode when he stole the opposing tribe’s shoes and sold them in a Panamanian market. Johnny Fairplay (second from right) made up a lie about his grandmother’s death. Neither tactic completely worked: it was sassy mom Sandra Diaz-Twine who cussed her way to the prize.
Survivor became a twice-in-a-lifetime experience for 18 contestants during its first all-star season. It soon got ugly: Sue Hawk accused a naked Richard Hatch of rubbing up against her during a challenge. “I was violated, humiliated, dehumanized and totally spent, Jeff,” she screamed at the host as she quit the game. Later, ‘Boston Rob’ Mariano adopted a Godfather role, voting off allies – and losing longtime friends in the process.
Was it Survivor or The Bachelor? Rob Mariano fell in love with fellow contestant Amber Brkich and proposed to her during the 2004 finale. What seemed like a showmance turned out to be true love: they’ve been married for more than 10 years and have four daughters.
During the show’s 10th season in Palau, the Ulong tribe was decimated, losing every immunity challenge and dwindling down to one contestant: Stephenie LaGrossa. Watching a young woman brave the elements alone was riveting – and led to the future concept of Exile Island. But despite her self-proclaimed determination and “heart,” LaGrossa was eventually bested by dominant firefighter Tom Westman.
Survivor: Cook Islands courted controversy, splitting four tribes along racial lines: Caucasian, African American, Hispanic and Asian. (Fearing reprisals, several corporate sponsors backed out of the season.) After several twists, the tight foursome of Yul, Ozzy, Becky and Sundra found themselves pitted against a tribe of eight – and beat them all. The controversy was forgotten when cerebral Yul Kwon won the game.
Ten Survivor superfans squared off against 10 returning favorites in Micronesia, but in the end it turned into a battle of the sexes. After Natalie, Parvati, Cirie and Amanda convinced Erik Reichenbach to give up his immunity, they promptly voted him off. It seemed like master strategist Cirie Fields would walk away with the game, but a last-minute twist caused her to leave in third place, paving the way for man-eater Parvati Shallow to emerge victorious.
There are Survivor villains, and there is Russell Hantz. The Texas oilman burned his castmates’ socks, dumped out their water and lied about losing his dog in Hurricane Katrina. But Hantz displayed a strategic mind and a knack for finding hidden immunity idols. “Russell was great TV,” says host Jeff Probst. “You want him with you, not against you.” By the time he made it to the end, Hantz had angered too many other contestants, and they awarded the prize to sweet, pretty pharmaceutical rep Natalie White.
Colby. Jerri. Rupert. JT. Parvati. The A-list returned in Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains. These 20 people knew how to play the game: 17 of them have made the final four in other seasons, and six of the have won. Each week brought new fireworks: blindsides, immunity idols, vicious arguments. But in the end, Sandra Diaz-Twine reprised her “as long as it ain’t me” strategy and walked away with another million dollars, becoming the show’s only two-time victor.
Other notables had played Survivor: NFL quarterback Gary Hogeboom in Guatemala and two-time Super Bowl winning coach Jimmy Johnson in Nicaragua. Survivor: Philippines had former MLB player Jeff Kent, but also boasted a new type of celebrity: ’80s icon Lisa Whelchel. The former Facts of Life star – and committed Christian – struggled with the game’s deceit, yet managed a second-place finish. (Sex therapist Denise Stapley easily won the season.) During a family visit, Whelchel and her brother’s tight bond inspired Probst to consider a season where family members would compete against each other.
During Survivor: Blood vs. Water, returning contestants were pitted against family. The challenges were often physical – a high point was watching brothers Aras and Vytas Baskauskas to square off in hand-to-hand combat. But the emotional toll of the game showed when newcomer Ciera Eastin voted off her own mother, Laura Morrett.
His lies were blatant. His backstabbing was epic. He built a “spy shack” so he could eavesdrop on other contestants. But improbably – shockingly – Tony Vlachos got away with it all and decisively won Survivor: Cagayan. “He was so far ahead of everyone else in strategy that no one could touch him,” says host Jeff Probst, “He was a fantastic contestant.”
For the show’s 30th season, host Jeff Probst briefly considered casting all-stars before settling on a season of new contestants. The tribes were divided by their white collar, blue collar and “no collar” professions. Probst was giddy about how it turned out. “Pound for pound, this is the best cast we ever assembled,” he says. “Every single one of them has come to play hard.” Blue Collar Mike Holloway walked away with the prize after an impressive run of 5 immunity wins
For the show’s 31st season, Survivor tried something new. Before the season began, America was presented with a list of potential players, and chose 20 of them to play the game. The criteria: each of them had only played once before, and none of them had won. The result: an eclectic cast — including PEOPLE’s Stephen Fishbach — who played an exceptionally hard game.
Survivor made international news in its 34th season, largely due to an unfortunate incident that sparked a larger conversation. When contestant Jeff Varner found his back against the wall in Survivor: Game Changers, he outed fellow contestant Zeke Smith as being transgender. The fallout was instant, and Varner found himself out of the game. When the episode aired, Varner lost his day job as a realtor and found himself the recipient of death threats. He has since apologized for the incident.
Survivor changed things up for its 38th season, entitled Survivor: Edge of Extinction. This season allowed ousted contestants to live on a desolate island with a chance of returning to the game. On Day 36, Chris Underwood won his way back, despite being the third boot. He won the million after spending just 11 days playing the game, sparking howls of protest across the internet. It’s unclear whether host Jeff Probst was happy with the win, but the Edge of Extinction won’t return in following seasons.
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