Carolyn Wiger Explains ‘Survivor’ 44 Strategy

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By Sohaib

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo: CBS

Survivor loves a kooky lady. From the ukulele-playing Sonja, the very first person ever voted out of the game, to Noura with her inability to tell a lie on Island of the Idols, to Kaôh Rōng and Game Changers’ Debbie (and her never-ending list of previously held job titles), the archetype is a hallmark of Survivor casting. Just as contestants suss out the “golden boy” or “Survivor nerd” in real time, they often slot a woman they play with into “mom” or “weirdo.” Usually played for comic relief, the “kooky lady” presents as a woman in her 30s or beyond who can’t quite figure out the social norms of her (typically younger) tribe and perhaps doesn’t care. Meanwhile, the audience is not expected to take this woman seriously. But on Survivor season 44, one contestant blew that idea wide open. Carolyn Wiger, a drug counselor from Minnesota, was an original from the start: The season opened with a confessional in which she talks to a producer off-screen about how to do a confessional. From there, she was never, even for a moment, not herself. She pranced around with a lobster claw, she talked openly about her history with addiction, she cried when she was left out of the vote. It was the kind of raw, unfiltered personality one rarely sees on reality TV anymore.

But the fun of watching Wiger wasn’t just that she was a big character — she was a big character who was actually playing the game, even as her castmates underestimated her in real time. Wiger knew that would happen and used it to her advantage; she was, alongside her original tribemates Carson and Yam Yam, a member of the Tika Three, also known as the Three Stooges — a motley crew who walked into the merge with few members but tons of personality and managed through savvy play to wrest control of the entire game. Did anyone expect a smiley bear, a nerdy twink, and a kooky lady to whoop their asses? Ultimately, it seemed like Wiger’s unfiltered personality was her biggest boon and her downfall. She made it to the Final Tribal Council, but the jury didn’t respect her, and she ultimately lost the game to Yam Yam with zero votes — a harrowing experience that could’ve defined her Survivor journey but ultimately helped lead to a new career. “I’m so grateful to have been given the platform of Survivor,” Wiger tells Vulture in a recent interview. “I didn’t go on the show to quit my job. I just thought I’d be the New Era Debbie.”

What was your relationship to Survivor prior to being on it?
If you were alive and remember the first season, it was huge! At that time, I was in elementary school. It was like, I can’t believe this is happening! Oh my gosh, there’s a gay person! Everybody was talking about it. As I grew up, I fell out of watching the show. But I’d go home and catch up with my family. I loved Survivor: Philippines. There was so much heart. Then 39 happened, and I’m like, “Who are these monsters?” They were gamebots. That’s when I applied. I think of Abi-Maria feeling left out and crying on the beach alone — people don’t share enough about themselves these days to have those connections. I don’t watch this show like it’s football. I watch it for the human moments.

Casting asked me, “Who are you gonna play like?” I’m like, “Kelley Wentworth? Debbie?” I couldn’t relate to anyone. I said I wanted to go out there and above all else be human. I was gonna share myself. There was not a time out there when I thought, Should I not say this? What’s it gonna look like? I didn’t give a shit. I did not perform, my voice didn’t change. I pretended the cameras weren’t there.

If that was your goal for Survivor, was there a goal just for you?
Not even just the show! Girl — sorry.

Please, call me girl.
I needed to do this. As a mom, we don’t take those opportunities. You get so used to the routine. Before I went out there, my son went, “Don’t be too silly!” I was like, “No. We can be ourselves and be respected!” Well, I wasn’t respected, but I can play this game as myself.

I wanted the full freaking experience. I wanted more off days! I wanted to explore. I was asking, “Can I go climb that mountain if it’s a mountain?” But then you get so tired. There were so many people just sitting back at camp. I get it, you’ve gotta play the game, but no. I was climbing those rocks, which was really stupid.

After Matthew?
Yeah, we did that right after him. And I did slide down it, and I didn’t break anything but I was all scraped. It felt empowering. I touched every leaf. I was always that person 20 feet behind everyone else, looking backward. People were like, “Carolyn, hurry up!” And I was soaking it in. I was so grateful to be there.

But you didn’t feel respected on the island.
Oh hell no. Hell no.

Did you know that while you were out there? Or did you learn from TV?
I knew it when I was there — I’m not that dumb! You feel that shit. I felt it right away. It was not like, Oh, I think they’re all my friends. No. I cried my eyes out. Even meeting my tribe for the first time. When I can actually have a one-on-one with somebody, they get to know me and they like me. That didn’t happen out there. Obviously it happened with Carson and Frannie and Yam. I connected with Yam Yam day one. We were opening up about everything. But the others were like, “Yep, she’s crazy.” Or, “We’re all fans of the show, she’s definitely cast as ‘the Debbie,’ so we’re not going to take her seriously.”

After Sarah went home, we got to the mats and Danny’s like, Whoa, I’m surprised. I remember saying something at the Sanctuary. “I heard you say you’re surprised. Why? Because I keep sucking at challenges?” When you have people like Danny and Brandon who value challenge performance, they look at me like I am a flick of shit. They did not respect me simply because I’m loud, crazy, and I wasn’t good at challenges. That followed throughout the game, and it started to get to me. I entered so strong, confident, and fucking proud of myself. I entered with, I’ve done so much work on myself to be okay with me. And then I got out there and I saw the looks. It didn’t feel good. Yam and I always gave each other shit. He could. I didn’t mind. He got me. But to the other ones, it was like I was nothing.

I let them get in my head. I cried my eyes out after the Sanctuary. I’d watched these rewards where they’re all stuffing their faces and it’s all so beautiful. I’d dreamed of this. And then I’m with these two who completely disregard me. You’re not even good at the game if you’re acting like I don’t exist. I was crying with them at the Sanctuary, and they didn’t notice because they didn’t notice me. Then I cried my eyes out watching it.

Did watching those moments back on TV change anything for you?
It brought back how bad it felt, but I liked how I responded. It was funny. I wish I would’ve been even more ridiculous and called them out even more. I was proud of myself for saying something.

Your last moment was that Final Tribal Council, which is a tough thing to go out on.
It was awful. Hours and hours and I couldn’t handle it. And getting no votes — I believed in myself. I thought I was great. Not getting any votes was like, “Oh, okay. That’s the truth. I sucked. They think I’m some crazy goat.” Watching it back, you don’t know what’s going to be shown. And I remember telling Carson, “Your confessionals are going to be way better than mine because you talk so great!” But dang, I did a good job.

You opened the season!
Yes! It took a lot of work to build myself back up, and watching it back was a good experience. Carson and I would watch it live separately, then we’d go call together or call with Yam, and we’d all watch it over FaceTime together. The only one I haven’t watched again was the finale because it’s still hard.

I saw Carson say on TikTok that he regrets not voting for you. Did that mean something to you? 
[Whispers.] Yam got so pissed. I don’t want to say … Does he regret not? Yeah, I think he actually does.

Does that feel good?
Yeah. I think I at least deserved a fricking vote! And I said that to Frannie. Carson explained it all to me, and I’m like, “Carson, it’s fine. I’m not mad.” But yes, I do think somebody should have given me at least one. Or actually two, and then give Heidi none. It sucked. I thought Frannie would vote for me. I thought Carson would.

Before the final-four Tribal, Carson was crying practicing making fire in the bushes. I was a nut that day. Yam and I are coming at each other and fighting, and Carson said, “My flint broke. Can I borrow yours?” I was so paranoid at that point, I thought he was lying to me. I was like, “No, I’m not giving it to you.” Then Yam Yam later tells me, “No, Carolyn, I was holding him like a baby, helping him make fire.” I thought the whole thing was a lie. So I went over to him. We’re talking, he’s crying, and he says, “Carolyn, I think I’m going to go home tonight.” And I’m bawling. And he’s like, “I just want you to know you’ve played a great game and I’m proud of you, but I am worried that you are not going to defend yourself.” He was coaching me.

Did you learn anything about yourself from watching your experience?
Because I do put so much of myself out there, I get hurt more. I felt so defeated by the end. The first thing I said after the show was, “I am going to need a lot of therapy to be okay with me again.” When I did my On Fire episode with Jeff Probst, I was bawling. And he said, “Carolyn, you did a great job.” I was like, “No, Jeff, I’m proud of myself. But that shit hurt.” Watching it back, I was way too hard on myself out there. Yam was like, “Carolyn, I thought you would win. I thought you did a good job.”

I’ve learned I’m stronger than I thought. It reaffirmed the fact that I don’t give a fuck. The Survivor people give a lot of support with mental health. I was able to fully process things after the show and reflect on it. Even my casting person did a lot of prep work with me. “People are going to say mean things, Carolyn.” I’m like, “Girl, I know.” Throughout the season, I never searched my name. I know what a lot of people think of me. You either like me or you’re like, She’s on drugs. Do I care what people think? Yes, to an extent, but not enough to change what I’m doing. When I had that fucking lobster claw on my finger, and I’m pointing everywhere with it, there was a split second where the outside world came in and I’m like, How’s this going to look? And then I’m like, I don’t give a fuck. I wore it to Tribal in my hair. It made me happy. Did I let those assholes get in my head? Yes, I did. But I’m proud of myself regardless.

The tension between being yourself all the time and strategizing on Survivor seems difficult. How did you contend with that?
I get it blurred. I was trying to play the game as myself but also be that “I don’t know what’s going on” type of person. Being myself ended up making me feel like crap sometimes. With the “Bye, Felicia” fight, I had it all planned with Yam Yam. We’d be like, “We’re going to fake fight.” But my emotions would start to get to me, and then I couldn’t fake fight anymore. I would be pissed at him! I just couldn’t separate it.

Game-wise, Yam Yam and Carson hurt me by voting for Frannie. That’s the game, but they left me out and it hurt. I needed to process that so I could separate it. Yam Yam was the only fricking person who understood me. He understood I wasn’t playing it up. After they found out I had the idol and they’re like, “Oh my gosh, we can’t believe it” — for the first time, it was like, “Yeah, I am playing this game.” And then I’m like, “What the fuck, Carolyn? You want them to think that you’re not.” I would get it confused.

That’s why a lot of people don’t have the bravery to be themselves the whole time, right?
Absolutely. It’s hard, especially on TV. People are going to be watching and judging. Even the people out there are!

Moving out of this year when your life has changed so much, what do you want to take from this experience emotionally?
Before I took off I told myself, “This is going to be a small piece of your life, and then you’re going to go back to your life and move on.” It didn’t happen like that. It just didn’t … I’ve got to ask Carson how to word this so I don’t sound obsessed with myself.

Be obsessed with yourself a little!
I did not think I would get this response from people. I just got an email from somebody saying, “Watching you eventually opened me up to getting help for addiction.” This person wanted to end their life and watching me was so inspiring. He was like, “It’s not just you being you, but you being you and being okay with it.” I can’t ignore the impact that I had on other people.

After the season, I was getting so many fricking Cameo requests. And I still do. I have never gone a day where I don’t get at least three. I took a leave from my job for two and a half weeks to get them all done but it just didn’t stop. I ended up quitting my job and I am doing one-on-one Zoom calls with people. I’m a licensed drug counselor. I get a lot of people who come to me about addiction and we work through that. I do life coaching and people come to me about authenticity. My whole life changed because of this, and now I get to do whatever I want. I never expected this in a million years. Everyone who meets with me says, “I am meeting with you because you put yourself out there. You’re not some perfect person I can’t relate to.”

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Since season 35, when the game reaches the top-four Tribal Council, the immunity-challenge winner takes one of their tribemates to the top three. This third member is chosen via a fire-making competition between the two players left.

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