Article Thumbnail

How ‘Survivor’ Grew a Cult Queer Following

The reality TV juggernaut may appeal to a conservative CBS crowd — but it’s secretly the gayest show on TV

Now in its 40th season, Survivor is not the phenomenon it was when it debuted in 2000. But it’s still a cultural force with a thriving fandom: Its current installment, Winners at War, attracted over 6 million viewers per episode. Who is tuning in to this decades-old show, watching smelly castaways competing in nothing but underwear and dirt?

The gays are.

Survivor may charm a conservative CBS audience with its schtick of aggressive men and bombshell women scheming and flirting in the Fiji sun. But beneath all that, it’s secretly the most homoerotic show on TV.

Don’t believe me? Ask Andy Herren. As the first out gay winner in Big Brother history, Herren, 33, knows what it’s like to become a CBS queer icon. After a season of scheming and backstabbing, Herren secured his win with a convincing jury speech inspired by another gay reality TV winner, Todd Herzog from Survivor: China.

“Todd admitted that he betrayed a bunch of them but that he did it in the name of the game and he still loved them as people,” Herren tells me. “Todd Herzog is quite possibly the most underrated player in the history of the game.”

It’s no surprise that reality TV is popular among gay audiences. Real Housewives (of any location), Keeping Up With the Kardashians and The Property Brothers all attract devout followings for aspirational, hunky D-list celebrities. But Survivor isn’t full of campy women in full glam or hunky real-estate brokers.

“Regular people can become these huge characters that people make stan accounts for or who are remembered forever by really passionate fans even if they don’t make it far,” Christine Pallon, a writer for Inside Survivor, tells me.

Surviving the Closet

Before Twitter and Reddit allowed queer people to find each other online, Survivor fostered a community of snarky young gays on message boards like ezboard’s “Survivor Sucks.” “I was 14 and found a whole community of mean, funny people who like watching and dissecting reality TV,” Connor Goldsmith, a literary agent at Fuse Literary, tells MEL.

Today, baby Survivor gays convene on more modern social platforms. Davis, 22, who asked to remain semi-anonymous because he’s not out to his family, runs the Survivor subreddit and Discord channels. He estimates 50 percent of the Survivor Discord is LGBT.

In a post-Queer Eye, –Glee and –The Politician world, Survivor represents a more nuanced, less filtered view of a certain type of gayness. “The authenticity of being gay on these shows shines out. Gay people are presented as not just a token gay with stereotypes, but a real, complex person,” Davis says.

Surviving the Show

Survivor’s first winner, Richard Hatch, competed twice as an openly gay man and classic Survivor villain. He’s become a controversial figure in the show’s history: In his second round, on Survivor: All-Stars, he was voted out after a naked physical altercation with a female contestant, who later said Hatch sexually violated her. Hatch then went to jail for failing to pay taxes on his winnings.

In recent years, gay Survivor superfans have begun competing on the same show they once looked to for representation years earlier. Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X contestant Bret LaBelle tells MEL he originally auditioned for Survivor: Blood vs. Water but pulled out after his boyfriend rejected the idea of appearing on the show as a couple.

Three years later, he appeared solo on Millennials vs. Gen X. In one of the most heartfelt moments in the show’s history, LaBelle came out to fellow gay contestant Zeke Smith during a reward meal.

On the island, LaBelle filmed a couple testimonials about his sexuality, but he wasn’t happy with how he came across. Finally, he asked a producer to let him do it again — this time, with Zeke. “I love that they did it while I was having a beer with someone, shooting the shit,” he tells me.

LaBelle hoped to show another side of the gay community when he joined the show in 2016. As a Boston police sergeant who isn’t overly effeminate, LaBelle had yet to see his version of gayness on the show.

But he never set out to be a “gay Survivor contestant.” LaBelle wasn’t public about his sexuality until he competed on the show, and he waited a few episodes before he was comfortable coming out. “I didn’t go out there thinking my sexuality was going to be having an effect on people, but when I was out there, I kind of knew, ‘I have to do this the right way or it’s going to look stupid,’” he says.

Of the nearly 600 contestants to compete on Survivor, most only have a few episodes to make an impact. Brice Izyah, 32, lasted only two episodes on Survivor: Cagayan, but he’s parlayed his appearance into gigs hosting the Purple Pants Podcast, appearing on Rob Has a Podcast and even launching a music career. “A bitch is genuinely funny, and I am actually a real Survivor fan, unlike people that get cast to be on the show,” Izyah jokes.

Still, Izyah would like to see more queer contestants of different backgrounds on the show. “I’ve never seen a player like myself, an urban young black gay professional,” he says. 

Surviving With Allies

When it comes to female gay icons — beautiful ingenues, femmes fatales, mother figures and effortless women — Survivor has supplied us a whole coven. “When someone on Survivor is a woman, I root for them, relate to them, draw strength from them, am them,” Pat Regan, co-host of the podcast Seek Treatment, tells MEL. “When someone on Survivor is a man, they don’t have a name or face or social security number for me. They are loud wallpaper or bad furniture.”

Over the years, Courtney Yates, Cirie Fields and Lisa Whelchel (Blair on The Facts of Life) have all become gay favorites. The current season features interior designer Kim Spradlin, who represents lanky underdogs everywhere, while travel consultant Michele Fitzgerald recently said “gay rights” and “cute twinks” on Cameo.

Much like the fierce divisions among the show’s tribes, the title of Survivor‘s No. 1 female ally is split between two of the best castaways to ever play the game: winner Parvati Shallow and two-time winner Sandra Diaz-Twine. “You’re either a Sandra stan or a Parvati stan, and I’m fully on the Sandra side,” Herren says. Sandra is a logical, quiet strategist, while Parvati is an energetic, flirting showboat.

Personally, I’m Team Parvati, the black widow of Survivor. Stuck inside during the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve found the only thing that’s given me doses of serotonin is watching a cadre of women on Survivor: Micronesia bait and blindside the buff men who underestimated them.

Surviving for the Hots

Survivor has served as a gay awakening for viewers lusting after shirtless, sweaty men and women on CBS — the old person’s network you can watch with family. Quibi’s Gayme Show host Matt Rogers recently told me Survivor is “the horniest show on TV.”

What constitutes Survivor hot? It’s The Bachelor cookie-cutter attractiveness mixed with the eroticism of a Hanes boxer briefs ad and topped with a dash of Naked and Afraid. The resulting combination helped cement the legacy of divisive contestants J.P. Calderon and Chris Underwood. “A lot of the hot guys, I don’t remember their names, but if you show me a picture of them in boxer briefs from the neck down I could probably ID them,” Regan says.

Pallon, 23, says Survivor helped her discover her sexuality as she found fierce and drool-worthy female competitors to stan — women like Shallow, Amanda Kimmel and Desi Williams. “It was really pivotal in helping me come to terms with my gayness through a crush on Parvati,” she says.

Survivor diehards may quibble with the show’s added gimmicks: hidden idols, idol nullifiers, Redemption Islands and fire tokens often overcomplicate what was once a simpler social experiment. But queer fans return every week and every season for the gossip, the hots and the gameplay. That itself is enough. “As I get older, I love it even more for the storytelling and the big characters,” Pallon says. “It was a big part of my childhood, and it’ll always hold a special place in my heart — especially for how it allowed me to safely explore my crushes on women.”

Read Next