Sandy Burgin: “They have contestants and they have characters, and I think I’m a character”

“They have contestants and they have characters, and I think I’m a character,” Survivor Tocantins cast member Sandy Burgin told me during our conversation in Brazil, so I asked her how she would describe herself as a character. “As a character, uh huh,” she replied. “Fearless. I’m a fearless woman. I’m like Steve Irwin. I will confront anything. I love it. Spiders and snakes and crocigators, I love every living creature. Even man.”

That’s pretty much how our conversation went, and had I not met her in person, I would have thought she was a brilliant comedic actress working a bit (“I don’t drink but I have me a cocktail. I have two or three cocktails a year”). But no, Sandy is the genuine, real thing, and is so quotable and hysterical that I hope she stays on the show for at least a few weeks, however unlikely that may be. She’s one of those contestants who absolutely no one in production could have thought will have a chance, but they cast her anyway because she’ll be good television. And she will be, if the editors don’t overdose on Sandy.

Sandy was impossibly excited, her language is colorful (“you shitheads,” she called the casting producers), and besides referring to me often as “little mister” and “buddy” and “sweetheart,” she’d frequently pepper her non-stop sentences with “and everything,” or “shit” and “fuck,” delivered in her deep Kentucky accent. There’s no denying that a 53-year-old mother who wears a dehydrated raccoon penis around her neck and won the state bus driving rodeo is fascinating.

But it wasn’t an infectious enthusiasm; it quickly became kind of annoying, hence her low rank. But to her credit, she acknowledges that. “I’ve got it take me and my persona down three or four notches. Bottom line, I’m a hyper-in-my-diaper, unmedicated ADHD adult,” she said, although she’s completely self-diagnosed. “I make my own self crazy at times,” Sandy told me, so she knows that she has to calm down “so that they don’t get upset with my demeanor or my being boisterous. I’ve got to be really middle of the road.”

At 53, she knows her age might be a problem. “These kids out here? Shit,” she said. “Fuck, I’ve got wrinkles and shit.” She hopes the younger contestants will go to her for security and think, “She fulfills that need that I’ve gotta have,” and Sandy said, “I don’t want to be casted out just because I’m 53.” (Remember that sentence, as it will make a moment in the first episode even more meaningful.)

She thinks she has an advantage, though, because, as Sandy told me, “I’m older and I’m more wiser. … Determination and my willpower on a scale from one to 10 is a 12. I’ll wear them out mentally. Because there ain’t fuckin’ nothing–I can stand on a pole for 100 hours if I need to.” However, she won’t take unnecessary risks. “I promised my family I would not confront anything while I was here because of the danger of dying and everything,” she said.

Her strategy and “goal” is to be on a winning team. “I’ve got to get a strong team together,” she said, thinking they might have another pick-‘em rather than pre-assigned tribes. While that’s a weak strategy, to say the least, she does seem to have a good handle on one fundamental part of the game. “The majority of it is mental more than physical. Whatever physical I’ll have to endure, I think I can withstand,” she said.

She’s non-judgmental and apparently sees the bright side of everything (“I love everything, it doesn’t matter. Good, bad, or indifferent, it doesn’t matter; I just like to do shit”). For example, after flying to Seattle for an open Survivor casting call–she wanted to be the first in line at the first audition–she stayed for six hours at a “nasty,” seedy motel, where she got a “bad infection” that resulted in “three surgeries [that] just about killed me,” Sandy told me. She was sick for seven weeks, but said, “that was then, this is now, and that’s okay, and I’m well.”

That hotel also hosted hookers–who Sandy hung out with. “Let me tell you, little mister. I’m running around with people like hookers and prostitutes. I didn’t know that, swear to god; I just thought that’s the way they dressed. And I’m traipsing around with these women who have wild-looking shit on it. … I was naive.”

When someone at the casino told Sandy about her new friends, “I said, no. I said, ‘Oh that’s great, come on, girls.’ And I just kept on having fun with them. I thought, fuck it, what can I do? I can’t hang with you because you sell yourself or something? It was hilarious.”

It sure is. Seriously, you can’t help but not love Sandy, at least for a few minutes, as that enthusiasm gets tiring and quickly drained me. She never seems to take a breath and her stories run into one another, and she cycles back over the same material sometimes and just keeps talking, which I’m guessing will drive her tribe batshit crazy in about 41 seconds.

But perhaps she will be able to tone it down and her obvious concern for and ability to help others will help Sandy in the game. She quit her job for a year to care for a relative with esophageal cancer, which included feeding that person through their stomach and obviously required patience and other positive attributes.

And Sandy wants to use the prize money to help St. Jude’s build a house for cancer survivors to use when they return for tests, and told me she envisions herself collaborating with Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. “I’ll end up probably hooking up with Ty somehow with my financial aid of building the surivvor home and everything. That’s my goal. If I don’t do anything else in life but that for them, I would have done at least something and everything, so that’s what I would really like to do,” Sandy said.

Hear Sandy talk about her doctors’ names and the school bus rodeo (highlight: “you couldn’t put a piece of spaghetti up your anus”):

Surprisingly, man not eaten alive on Eaten Alive

Eaten Alive

Discovery Channel’s happy family holiday special Eaten Alive aired Sunday, rewarding viewers for their two full hours of viewing by ensuring that they spent quality time in the company of others instead of wasting that time doing something else that might not have been as satisfying, such as buying things that have labels which accurately reflect their contents.


Winter 2015 reality TV debut schedule

winter 2015 reality TV schedule

Mark your calendars with all these upcoming reality TV show debuts, including Celebrity Apprentice, The Bachelor, and another season of MasterChef Junior, all of which kick off in early January.

There are also 20+ shows debuting in December--including the one-off return of The Sing Off. No winter break for reality TV.

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.