Sydney Wheeler: Survivor may lead to fame but “I just don’t know if that’s what I want”

Sydney Wheeler is a model who was, unsurprisingly, recruited at a bar to be a part of the Survivor Tocantins cast. Sydney is nice and pleasant, but after our 18-minute conversation, I was left surprised she was cast for the show. She’s not exactly boring, and hasn’t had the easiest life, but as a television character, I can’t imagine she’ll be interesting at all. Perhaps I’ll be surprised.

After meeting Sydney in a bar, casting producer Erica “called … a couple times” for previous seasons, Sydney said, and “she finally called me again and I had nothing going on, done with school, so yeah, I’m here.” Why do the show? “With school, I was done. Now I’m doing modeling full-time. In a way, I want to be successful in modeling, and in a way, this is putting my face out in public. In a way, for me, that’s good, because hopefully something will come from it,” Sydney told me. That apparent ambivalence was present during a large part of our conversation.

She models for Jet Set Models, “nothing exotic or crazy, but it’s mostly the Southern California, blonde-haired girl stuff, you know, beachy,” she said, and among other work, has been in a Carl’s Jr. commercial for the teriyaki burger. Sydney also said, “I fell into modeling; I didn’t pursue it. For me, it wasn’t my first priority, school was. And interior design, that’s what I went to school for, and that’s my passion.” But modeling has “become my passion and the thing I want to put 100 percent effort into. That fame that comes from it kind of scares me, in a way, and it’s something that I don’t know if I want. It’s a hard thing to say and to pursue. But with this, it will definitely put me in the public eye, put that fame in there. I just don’t know if that’s what I want. But I guess I’ll have to take it if that’s what comes,” she said.

There’s that sort of blah, lethargic reluctance again, which I ultimately decided was more introversion than anything else. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s kind of frustrating because it doesn’t quite work on TV–and because there’s more to her than that exterior.

She briefly discussed the impact of her sister’s death (audio of that is below) and also talked about how, while growing up, “I was expected to do everything; even at the age of seven, I was expected to call the doctor and make my own appointment.” That came from her father, while her mother “gave me everything on a silver palette.” While she’s religious “but not super-religious,” she said her mother’s religiosity is “ingrained in me, it’s something I will always have in my heart, a relationship with the Lord.” But, she added, “if I’m going to backstab someone, I’m not going to feel bad about it because God’s going to be mad at me.”

So how will she play the game, having never watched it before being cast? As with all recruits, she was given and watched DVDs (Micronesia, All-Stars, Australia, and China) and has found Survivor to be “an amazing show. I fell in love with it.” Amanda (“pretty easy-going” and “strategically started playing both sides”) is her role model in the game, and thus Sydney wants to “make that first alliance and kind of go through it to the end” with “one, two, three’s a charm,” although she said there “might not be anybody I can really trust.”

She kept returning to trust as we talked about game play. “I don’t trust anyone, but I want to, I want to be able to; I guess it’s going to be a give-and-take kind of thing,” Sydney told me, and said that while watching the show on DVD, she began “realizing that you can’t trust anyone. There’s always someone that’s going to be talking shit behind your back.”

As to her fellow players, she said she can’t trust Candace, who is “beautiful but she just doesn’t come across as a very nice person” and “seems very snippy,” and also said that the guy who wears cowboy boots (JT?) is “just going to be the annoying guy who does everything” because “he’s always trying to help the crew.” She said that a “taller guy who seems very athletic … just seems like a genuine, all-American guy who has some kind of trust in him,” and I have no idea who she was talking about, because, as she acknowledged, “there’s a couple of those.”

Sydney told me that she expects her tribemates, the “freakin’ people,” will be “the hardest part about the game,” and she also expects them to judge her. “I know that based on my looks, I can come off as the blonde-haired, blue-eyed ditsy girl, so I’m assuming that’s what people think of me based on looks.” She also anticipates finding it difficult to keep her mouth shut if she gets irritated. “I’m pretty easy-going and I’ll take some shit if I need to, but once I get annoyed, I will definitely say something. So that’s going to be the hardest thing, holding my breath, so we’ll see,” Sydney said.

Hear Sydney talk about how her sister’s death affected her, and her thoughts about her religiosity:

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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.