Brendan Synnott: “I want to win; when I play games, I love to win”

Brendan Synnott is one of the three already well-known/famous contestants on Survivor Tocantins. He is well-known for co-founding Bear Naked granola and selling it for millions to Kellogg’s, but is also known by obsessive fans who discovered his casting video on YouTube back in September.

Brendan was one of the most enthusiastic contestants I talked to, but in a good way. “I can’t wait to do all that stuff,” he said of daily camp life and the challenges. “This is so fun. What an awesome, unique experience to have and to go through.” He’s also ready to play the game: “I want to win; when I play games, I love to win. I didn’t come here just to come on vacation; I could have done that somewhere else with a lot more freedom,” he said.

As a recruit, Brendan at first had “no reason to do it” but then thought Survivor would be “fun. I love to compete, I love outdoor adventure, I love to play games; I’m kind of in-between jobs so why not?” Like all recruits, he was asked to make a video, which he posted to YouTube, baffling fans online who discovered it. I asked casting director Lynne Spillman about that incident, and she said that “a lot of times, when we do last-minute recruiting” casting has contestants “upload to web sites [like YouTube] all the time, to private, and then we have them take it right down.” Brendan’s was public for four hours one day last September, and Spillman told me, “he’s perplexed, we have no idea. It was posted to private.”

When I asked him about it in Brazil, Brendan said he “assume[s] everybody knows” about that video (Ben/Coach definitely does) and said, “maybe it’ll put me at a disadvantage, I don’t know.” He contradicted Spillman’s account indirectly, as he never said anything about it being private, instead pointing out that he knew it was public. “They just wanted to see a video and so the best way to do that was via YouTube,” he told me. “I was just doing as I was told and as soon as I saw the reaction, I fixed it the best way I could.” When I asked the obvious–why send them a video publicly?–he said, “I was just doing what I was kind of told. I understand YouTube is public, which didn’t make a lot of sense to me. … I was completely surprised, like, what the fuck?”

Besides the notoriety (as to any criticism of the contents of that video or his posting of it, he says he “take[s] it with a smile”), I bring this example up first because it illustrated something about Brendan: When I started asking about it, he looked at me with a skeptical expression, and only eventually revealed what he really thought (“what the fuck”?). In other words, he’s extremely cautious, and I’m not sure how that and his lack of a poker face will play in the game. Over our 25 minutes, though, which ended as rainfall started (hear it below), he opened up, ending with him engaging me in conversation about my job and reality TV in general, so I’d assume that’ll happen in his tribe, too. Plus, successful business people tend to know how to schmooze.

Brendan’s cautiousness came into play as he answered a few questions When I asked him about impressions of others, he said he has a “pretty good sense of how pecking orders work and how personalities are,” but although I asked multiple times, he wouldn’t identify those people, and eventually cited the rules about not communicating with others (“I don’t think we’re supposed to do that”).

However, he went on to say that pre-judging others would be a bad idea, as would having “too much of a game plan, because ultimately if you stick to that, and you’re blind to what you should be doing, then I don’t think you’re going to get the right outcome.” He said that “so much of it’s just reading people, and how you play the game’s going to depend upon the dynamic you enter into depending upon what your tribe looks like.”

While he said “I like to take leadership roles,” whether or not he steps up as a leader “depends upon the dynamic of the tribe.” Still, Brendan insisted, “if I need to be [a leader], I will; I don’t have a problem with it.” Brendan also told me, “I think the best strategy is to make your tribe as comfortable as possible and provide leadership where they need it, and to ultimately win the immunity challenges where you can.” He’s not worried about the physical challenges (“I’m pretty confident in that part of my game”), but “[doesn't] want to seem threatening, I guess.”

Brendan is extremely articulate and passionate, and talked with great enthusiasm and animation about his current projects, including working with First Descents, which he’s making a documentary about, and working on his project ONUS, which Facebook page describes as “Social Capitalism With Commercial Teeth.”

Since selling Bear Naked in late 2007, he’s done various work, but said, “ultimately I love the idea of venture philanthropy. … I would like to work with organizations” and “help them productize what they’re doing and actually create a business out of it, so that way they’re not dependent upon economic times that determines their budgets,” Brendan told me. “I like the idea of bringing in for-profit mentalities and efficiencies into the non-profit world.”

As to the business world, Brendan said, “business to me is a big game,” and considers Survivor to be a similar “big game.” In that televised game, he wouldn’t really define his parameters for how he’ll behave, even though some behavior is off-limits in real life.

“I don’t lie in my daily life; I’m not going to like on a game show; it’s not worth it,” Brendan told me, although he qualified that by saying, “I don’t know what it’s like to be in this game, so I can’t say exactly what I will or won’t do. My hope and my intention is to stay as true to myself as possible, and I value honest relationships in my life. I don’t know if it’s going to be like real life out there or not; we’ll see.”

Get a preview of Brazil’s awesome rainy season (and this wasn’t even the heavy rain, really) as you hear Brendan talk about observing the others at Ponderosa; the financial crisis and his project ONUS; and being broken down mentally, physically, and emotionally on TV:

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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.