Survivor: From Obsession to Reality

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Class of ’01 | Charlie Herschel C’01 is the first to admit that his love affair with Survivor has at times bordered on pathological. Dating back to his senior year at Penn, when the show’s second season aired, his house at 41st and Pine sported an elaborate, Herschel-designed “Survivor Wall” with cutouts of the season’s characters and a countdown clock to the finale.

“I used to throw Survivor parties,” Herschel recounts. “Everyone knew I was obsessed. I have never missed an episode.”

Such an obsession might be considered a waste of time … unless you actually become a contestant on the show, participating in a survival-of-the-fittest competition to win $1 million in an exotic location. And that is exactly what Herschel did.

Survivor is part physical challenge and part strategy—contestants simultaneously work with one another and plot against each other, voting one of their cohort out of the competition at the end of each episode. The contestants are generally a diverse, fractious bunch.

“I love crazy people with wildly different pasts,” Herschel says. After all, “the casting mission is very similar to admissions at Penn—to create a community of diverse, colorful people that you would never meet if you stayed where you are from.”

Despite his love for the show, Herschel hadn’t allowed himself to imagine that he’d be on it one day.

“Getting cast on Survivor is like winning the lottery,” he says, noting that a similar amount of luck is required. The show receives tens of thousands of applications, and only selects 16 to 20 contestants per season.

“I decided to apply this year and pursue my dream, because I knew I would definitely never have the experience if I never tried,” recalls Herschel, who sent in his video and written application in February. After multiple interviews and what Herschel characterizes as “a roller coaster of a casting process, where I was in, and then out, and then in, and then out,” he was finally cast in mid-May. But he still couldn’t believe that he was truly on the show.

“I never trusted that I would actually be on Survivor, literally until the day that [host] Jeff Probst said, ‘Come on in, guys.’” Herschel says. “I was convinced I was an alternate, or that they would change their mind. It was a very drawn-out experience, and I had to be willing to drop everything in a split second if they wanted me in a certain place at a certain time.” 

But the minds didn’t change, and Herschel found himself flying to Gabon, Africa, to tape the show from mid-June through early August of this year, taking time off from his job as a lawyer in the Manhattan office of Weil, Gotshal, and Manges.

Arguably, life as a lawyer may have supplemented his self-taught Survivor studies. “Sometimes, I feel like practicing law is like solving a puzzle,” Herschel says. “Survivor is one big giant puzzle with a zillion moving pieces.”  

And while the scenery and wildlife in that remote part of Africa were breathtaking, Herschel says, the location was secondary to the fact that he was finally able to be a part of the game that had enthralled him for years.

“Everything about being on the show was so surreal,” says Herschel, who can only talk about his experience in thickly veiled terms until the final results are aired in December. “It’s like being the biggest football fan in the world, and then all of a sudden go from having never held a football in your hands one day to playing in the Super Bowl the next. The reality that I got to play the game never sunk in.”

His strategy was “to be friends with everyone and to be a good all-around balanced player—but not too good,” says Herschel. “My goal was to contribute enough to the tribe to be kept around, but never to be perceived as a threat.”

Having to keep the results of the show secret until the as-yet-undisclosed December airing date doesn’t bother Herschel, who is clearly enjoying this stage of the game. 

“It’s not so hard to keep things a secret because I want everyone to experience everything fresh,” he says. What was hard was keeping the secret that he was going to be on Survivor before he left for Africa.

“I wanted to explode whenever people discussed their summer plans and I couldn’t say that I was about to go on a dream experience,” he says. “At least now, I get to tell people that I am on Survivor!” 

Jordana Horn C’95 L’99

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