Way back in 2000, a strange yet highly addictive show called Survivor debuted on CBS. Based off the Swedish series Exhibition: Robinson, cameras followed contestants — who were dropped on the island of Borneo with no shelter and minimal food — battle it out for the title of « Sole Survivor » (via The New Yorker). The media outlet noted that although it was not the first reality TV show to air, Survivor helped launch a new format of mostly unscripted programming, proving that « television could provide action without actors. » In 2020, the 40th season of Survivor (yes, you read that right) would air, featuring 20 winners from previous seasons competing for $2 million — a.k.a. the biggest prize ever on reality TV.
Survivor has produced many memorable heroes and villains among its hundreds of participants. Some wound up in legal trouble, others tried to lie, cheat, and steal their way to the top, and many simply cracked under the pressure of the game. But who’s your favorite player? What about the absolute worst contestant?
No matter your answer, there’s no worry about being voted off the island here. So, hold onto your tribal Buff and take a look at the shadiest contestants on Survivor.
Dan Spilo made horrible Survivor history
In the 39th season of Survivor, talent manager Dan Spilo lasted 36 days before leaving the island. No, his tribe didn’t vote him out — rather, for the first time ever, producers removed a contestant from the competition, USA Today summarized. The trouble started on the first day of filming, when contestant Kellee Kim accused Spilo of « inappropriate touching. » Complaints continued weeks later, and eventually, enough was enough and a simple message appeared on screen: « Dan was removed from the game after a report of another incident, which happened off-camera and did not involve a player. »
After the episode aired, Kim took to Twitter, writing, « As Survivor fans know, shortly after I spoke up on camera, I was voted off the show … While I wish many things had gone differently, I’m glad that my decision to speak up made a difference. » Entertainment Weekly reported that during a reunion episode, host Jeff Probst apologized to Kim, saying, « You were right. »
According to People, Spilo reportedly intended to discuss his actions at said reunion show, but wasn’t invited. Instead, Spilo issued an apology to the publication: « I am deeply sorry for how my actions affected Kellee during the taping of this season of Survivor … I truly regret that anyone was made to feel uncomfortable by my behavior. »
The many controversies of Richard Hatch
In light of the Dan Spilo controversy of 2019, fans were quick to remember a similar issue from years earlier involving Survivor‘s first-ever winner, Richard Hatch. During Survivor: All-Stars — the first season with returning players — fellow season one star Sue Hawk (known for her epic freakout) claimed Hatch « sexually violated » her. During a challenge, the notoriously naked Hatch appeared to brush up against Hawk, who later alleged to host Jeff Probst, « I was sexually violated, humiliated, dehumanized and totally spent » (via CBS News). The situation distressed Hawk so much that she voluntarily left the game. However, she later told the news outlet that the two had « come to terms with it and agreed to move forward and past it. »
In contrast with Spilo, Hatch was not kicked off the show due to his behavior, and later denied Hawk’s claims while tweeting out in 2019 that he still had no regrets for having played so much of the game nude.
Hatch also made news when he was arrested not once but twice for tax evasion. As reported by Forbes, Hatch served time behind bars for failing to pay taxes on his $1 million earned for winning Survivor. After his first stint in jail, Hatch was then « arrested for violating prison media-access rules. » All in all, he spent a total of 51 months in federal prison. It seems he couldn’t outwit, outplay, and outlast the IRS.
Jeff Varner stepped way out of bounds on Survivor: Game Changers
When Jeff Varner, a contestant on Survivor: Game Changers, faced elimination at tribal, he attempted what so many had done before and desperately tried to stay in the game. After competing twice before, Varner’s third attempt marked what went down as a notorious Survivor moment. As recapped by The Hollywood Reporter, Varner openly asked why his fellow contestant, Zeke Smith, hadn’t told the rest of the players that he’s transgender. In addition to outing Smith, Varner insinuated that Smith had withheld his gender identity to deceive the others. Everyone at that tribal council was understandably shocked and appalled, leading host Jeff Probst to ask, « There’s no question who’s going home tonight, right? » After an immediate consensus, Probst told Varner, « We don’t need to vote, just grab your torch. »
After the dust settled, Smith opened up about the scene in a guest column written for The Hollywood Reporter. « Forgiveness does not require friendship, » he wrote of Varner. « Forgiveness does not require forgetting or excusing his actions. » For his part, Varner apologized via Instagram, but was fired from his job amid the backlash.
Colby Donaldson and his controversial keepsake
One of the best parts of Survivor is the chance for contestants (and audiences) to see amazing tropical destinations around the world. In the second season of the series, Survivor: The Australian Outback, the cast and crew made its first trip to the beautiful continent. However, one contestant in particular, Colby Donaldson, had a little too much fun that got him into some hot water. According to the New York Post, Donaldson and fellow player Jerri Manthey « won a reward challenge and were flown via helicopter to Russell Island on the Great Barrier Reef for lunch. » Then Donaldson brought back a few pieces of coral for those back at camp.
What he thought was a harmless souvenir turned out to upset quite a lot of people — and for good environmental reason. A spokeswoman for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority listed the infractions: « One is they flew a helicopter around sea-bird rookeries … it is classified as a particularly sensitive area. And the second is the collecting of coral. The general rule is that you cannot collect coral from any site in the Great Barrier Reef. » Oops. Even executive producer Mark Burnett had to step in and apologize, claiming in part, « This was an honest mistake, which we deeply regret. »
Luckily for Donaldson, the incident didn’t necessarily hurt his post-Survivor career, as the reality star went on to host five seasons of the History Channel’s Top Shot.
Colton Cumbie caused Survivor’s host to lose his cool
Two-time competitor Colton Cumbie first participated in Survivor: One World, but was soon perceived as an entitled racist over his comments toward fellow player player Bill Posley (via Vulture). In that season, the medical staff pulled Cumbie from the game over what he originally called appendicitis, but later admitted, according to E! News, was actually a « severe bacterial infection. »
Despite the early exit, his controversial reputation stayed. In Cumbie’s words, « When you watch the show you think I’m evil … But in my personal life, there haven’t been any people who have attacked me … They all say, ‘You’re really not like you are in television!' » Prior to his second appearance on Survivor: Blood vs. Water, Cumbie told Entertainment Weekly, « Last time I was completely erratic and filled with hate and anger and I had kind of adapted this mentality of bite before bitten. »
Perhaps he had a change of heart. However, Cumbie abruptly decided to quit for a second time mid-season, which sent host Jeff Probst over the edge. As summarized by Today, Probst said, « Lots of people like to watch adventure. It doesn’t necessarily mean they should get up off the couch. And I’m now convinced that Colton is the guy who never should have got up off the couch. » Probst then told Colton to keep his Buff: « I won’t give you the honor of throwing that in the urn. We’ll keep that reserved for people who compete. »
J’Tia Taylor tried to sabotage the island
In Survivor: Cagayan, J’Tia Taylor built a reputation for being « bossy » and « mean, » as she herself admitted during an interview with TV Guide. However, she had no regrets for her style of play. But in a moment of frustration, she targeted one of her tribemates, Garrett Adelstein, and created an unprecedented moment in Survivor history.
« I really wanted to hurt Garrett, » Taylor told the media outlet. « Garrett was always talking about how he wanted to eat. And, everybody else I didn’t really care about because they all just said that they’d vote me out. So, I threw the rice in the fire. » Yes, almost the entire supply of rice given to the entire tribe, which was its main source of food on the island. If you competed on the island with her, how would you react? Amazingly, Taylor was not immediately voted off, but failed to make it past the next tribal council.
After the fact, Taylor completely understood why her peers voted her off the island, but justified her infamous rice-throwing to People: « Let me clear something up: rice was not all we were eating. We had coconuts and bananas. We were boiling crabs. We weren’t starving. » Still, she ultimately conceded, « Probably not the best move ever. »
Russell Hantz, the Survivor player people love to hate
According to his his CBS bio, Russell Hantz was « one of the most notorious villains to every play Survivor. » This « self-made millionaire » used all means necessary to advance in the game, tactics that brought him oh-so-close to winning the grand prize. Hantz made the finals in his first two seasons, Survivor: Samoa and Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, but his third attempt on Survivor: Redemption Island saw him as the first of his tribe to be voted out of the game.
Throughout his three appearances, Hantz earned quite a villainous reputation. As Entertainment Weekly hypothesized, « That might be due to the fact that he secretly emptied his tribemates’ canteens and burned their socks. Or it could be due to the fact that he lied about being a Hurricane Katrina survivor to garner some extra sympathy from his tribe. » Those seem like pretty good reasons to fear playing against the man. But it’s not always bad being the contestant people love to hate. In a poll conducted by CBS, fans voted Hantz as one of the ten all-time greatest players of Survivor.
« Nobody that’s ever played this game has the passion that I have for that game, » Hantz himself told Entertainment Weekly. « I am the ultimate villain, but I’m also the one that loves it the most. »
Brandon Hantz let his temper flare on the island
As the nephew of the Survivor superstar Russell Hantz, Brandon Hantz had big shoes to fill when he first appeared on Survivor: South Pacific. According to Entertainment Weekly, the younger Hantz « was portrayed as a leering pervert who could not handle his sexual attraction to another contestant, an unstable entity that would pop off at Tribal Council for no reason, and, finally, a rube who could get suckered into giving away his immunity only to be immediately voted off after doing so. » Alright, so not a great start. In spite of this, Hantz returned for a second time on Survivor: Caramoan.
In his next attempt for the million-dollar prize, Hantz appeared to completely snap. As People summarized, Hantz argued with his tribe at camp and dumped the rice and bean supply. Naturally, his competitors were angry, and at the next immunity challenge, his tribe refused to compete and just wanted to vote Hantz out, per The Hollywood Reporter. Sure enough, « Hantz exploded and turned hostile, » prompting Jeff Probst to hold a verbal tribal council right then, which sent Hantz home. Did Hantz regret how the show played out? « I’m the first Survivor to ever turn from hero to max-hero, » he told THR.
Even before this incident, some fans questioned Hantz’s mental and emotional stability, but in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Probst said, « We never let anybody on the show who can’t pass the psych test. Brandon passed. »
Survivor’s Jonny Fairplay was more actor than reality star
Ever since Survivor premiered, a standard strategy to further one’s gameplay has been lying. But in the seventh season, Survivor: Pearl Islands, Jon Dalton (who’s better known as Jonny Fairplay) fabricated what may be the most sinister lie ever on the show.
As recounted by Men’s Health, Fairplay and his friend, Dan, concocted a scheme prior to filming. During the « loved ones » episode when visitors reunite with contestants, Dan would break the news that Fairplay’s grandmother passed away. When the episode premiered, viewers (and the tribe) empathized with the visibly distraught Fairplay. Then back at camp, the two friends laughed and Dan said, « That was a brilliant performance, sir. » Afterwards, Fairplay revealed in a confessional, « My grandmother’s sitting home watching Jerry Springer right now. »
In an article penned by Jeff Probst for Watch! magazine, he named Fairplay’s « Dead Grandma Lie » in his top ten favorite moments in Survivor, writing, « Everybody believed him, including me. And what made it so delicious was that he was the most disliked person on the beach. » Delicious indeed, as the waterworks likely bought Fairplay extra time on the series.
Fairplay’s knack for theatrics translated outside of life on the island. According to his CBS profile, Fairplay became a pro wrestler — but it’s doubtful he could use the « Dead Grandma Lie » again to hide from a body slam.
Peih-Gee Law’s handmade Survivor advantages
Over a decade into the Survivor franchise, contestants still tried their best to earn any advantage possible. One of the best examples was Peih-Gee Law, who first competed in Survivor: China and made it to fifth place. Gone but not forgotten, fans voted her back for a « second chance » on the 31st season, Survivor: Cambodia. This time around, Law had experience and decided to turn her hobby into an advantage.
As she explained in an interview with She Knows, producers allowed « luxury items » to contestants during her first season. For Law, this was a jewelry-making kit. Though she couldn’t bring the kit along during her second appearance, Law already had a another idea: « I had taken fishhooks that I gold-plated and made them with gemstones and stuff like that. I had fishhook earrings. » Pretty sneaky stuff. She even attempted to turn her clothing into functional pieces, admitting, « I had a piece of flint that I had sewed onto my cardigan as a button. »
Did Law’s knitting skills help her gain an advantage in Survivor? Well, not exactly. « That one got taken away by production, unfortunately, » she added. Maybe it would have helped, but Law sadly became the third person voted off in Cambodia.
Denise Martin’s adventures in lunch lady land
Survivor live reunion shows offer contestants a chance at a « last word » — to justify their gameplay, apologize, or discuss assimilating back into the real world. During the Survivor: China reunion, fan favorite Denise Martin shared some surprising news. But let’s refresh a bit. According to The Boston Globe, Martin was « a 40-year-old, blue-collar, mullet-wearing mother of three » who competed alongside « younger, sleeker, and yuppier contestants on her way to an eventual fourth-place finish. » During this time, audiences learned she worked in a school cafeteria, earning her the nickname « Lunch Lady. »
During the reunion episode, Martin implied that she’d been demoted to janitor when she returned from filming Survivor, saying the school « didn’t give me my job back. » Of course, fans were horrified by the news. Before the live episode even ended, executive producer Mark Burnett promised Martin $50,000 to hopefully « get her life back. » It was a heartwarming moment, except for anyone at her school district.
In reality, Martin previously « transferred, at her own request, from the $7.35 an hour cafeteria job to a $17 an hour custodial position » before leaving to film Survivor, and asked to transfer back to the cafeteria upon her return, where no positions were open at the time. « I should have said, ‘I tried to get my old job back,' » she admitted. « And people started freaking out. » To her credit, Martin immediately asked CBS to donate that $50,000 promise to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.
Survivor villain Shane Powers went through public withdrawal
Shane Powers earned his grumpy but lovable reputation during his appearance on Survivor: Panama. According to the New York Post, his mood swings, wild behavior, and villainous tendencies may have stemmed from nicotine withdrawal. After « quitting smoking, cold turkey, just to be on the show, » the outlet noted, « In a matter of hours he went from 3 packs a day to none. » It sounds like an accidental ad against cigarettes.
After Powers’ run came to an end through a dreaded « blindside » — feeling certain you’re safe only to be voted out — Powers claimed, like many other Survivor players, that editors had altered his actual personality during an interview on The Early Show: « I think you gain an amazing amount of perspective from being on the show. It’s, like, you’re civilized and then they turn you into a caveman. »
While you contemplate whether Powers was a hero or a villain, let’s catch up with the man himself. A Los Angeles-based radio host off the island, Powers was later photographed nude (like much of his time on Survivor) in an odd photoshoot at the « lowest point in his life » — his father had died, his girlfriend had dumped him, and he’d relapsed. Thankfully doing better these days, he’s since collaborated with rapper Tyler, The Creator (via Surviving Tribal), appearing as an « angry golfer » in his « Tamale » music video and even providing backing vocals on a few songs on the Grammy-nominated album, Flower Boy.