Charlie Herschel: “I want to be the gay, white, athletic, male Cirie”

Like Dan Kay, Survivor Gabon cast member Charlie Herschel is a lawyer from the northeast. Unlike Dan, however, Charlie is a student of the game who’s watched it since the first season. Because of that and for many other reasons, he actually resembles Survivor China winner Todd Herzog. (I even accidentally typed “Todd” a few times while writing this.)

Charlie’s biggest obstacle both in the game and even in getting cast for it seems to involve other people’s perception of him, and that includes comparisons to season 15’s winner. During our conversation, Charlie asked, “Do you think I look like Todd? That was the casting people’s biggest concern. They were like, ‘We can’t have you, you’re Todd.’ That was the only question I ever had to answer: Why aren’t you Todd?” He said casting even had him put on a vest to see if he looked like Todd, even though Charlie wouldn’t ever wear “skinny jeans and a vest.”

He pointed out that he’s really “a totally different person”: “Todd’s a Mormon, I don’t believe in religion”; Todd is more confident whereas Charlie is more “under the radar”; Charlie is older, a lawyer and not a “stewardess”; and is tall and athletic, whereas “Todd is kind of like a puny midget with a mullet.” (That description still cracks me up.)

Still, Charlie acknowledged looking somewhat like Todd, and said, “At the end of the day, I do think Todd and I are very similar. I think he could have gone to Penn, become a lawyer, done everything I’ve done. So it was really hard trying to convince them that I wasn’t Todd when I did think that I was a little bit like him, and only now am I allowed to say that I do like Todd.”

Charlie talks ridiculously fast and was full of energy. He didn’t conceal his extreme enthusiasm, nor do I think he really could. While he’s very friendly and engaging to talk to, it’s not hard to imagine that some of his tribemates might find his liveliness and non-stop talking to be insufferable rather than charming. He seemed to recognize that: “My biggest concern is that these people are going to eat me up. I’m so nervous. They walk around with these dagger eyes. No one’s smiled at anyone,” he said.

Charlie was recruited, and although he’s never applied to the show, it’s not because he doesn’t watch. In fact, he’s watched since the first season, and said that “everyone in my life knows that I’m a super, super-duper fan.” He just equates applying to the show to playing the lottery, an essentially pointless task, and thus never applied. However, Micronesia and Vanuatu cast member Eliza Orlins was casting at his law school, and people told her to find Charlie.

As a result of being a fan, he clearly gets the fundamentals of Survivor. “I’m not sure if there is a golden rule book for how you should play this game. People who do well go in flexible,” he said. “The thing I’ll need to do is tone it down and be less paranoid, be less aaah!, and make people perceive that I’m comfortable–but I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable in this game.” Discussing authenticity, he said, “trust is the only thing you can have in this game, and I think that, it’s really important to be yourself to the extent that you can.”

However, some of the discussions of strategy were contradictory. “I want to be like the gay, white, athletic, male Cirie,” he said, but later he said, “I’m a follower; I’m the furthest thing from a leader.” Cirie, of course, was a pretty strong leader. And at various points, he described his strategy as involving possibly disparate things like being “the social butterfly” and “flying under the radar.”

Similarly, he told me he was “a whole ball of nerves,” in part because production asked the cast members to bring and wear their work clothes, thus upending his strategy of lying about his profession and pretending to be a math teacher instead of a lawyer–even though he also said that “being authentic and being yourself” is important, a contradiction he later acknowledged.

The challenges he identified involve the social game and, again, how other people perceive him. Although he’s run seven marathons, becoming a runner as a senior in college when he was “obese,” he doesn’t appear to be athletic. “I don’t know how many guys you’ve talked to here, but, like, their muscles are gigantic,” Charlie said. “In order to compete with that, I think I need to step it up and say, hey, I have endurance, I can compete as well.”

Charlie’s also worried about how fellow cast members will react to him and others. “I’m not used to being around people who aren’t used to being around diversity. So I think that’s going to be a big challenge for me,” he said. “I might be the first gay person that a lot of people meet … and I’m really concerned how I’m going to handle that, because I take acceptance for granted.”

Listen to him talk about those kinds of challenges, his athleticism, Todd, and his strategy:

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.