Spencer Duhm: “I want to be a follower, because that way they just overlook me”

Rounding out the Survivor Tocantins cast is 19-year-old Spencer Duhm, who by now everyone knows is the youngest-ever contestant to be on the show, the first person to benefit from the reduced age limit. He also came close to not having that record, because he was an alternate who thought he was flying home two days after we talked.

The press contingent came back the day after we interviewed everyone else, and the day before the game began, to interview Spencer and the female alternate, both of whom had been pulled out of the holding area all day the previous day–only to sit somewhere alone, not actually talking me, or to TV Guide magazine and channel’s reporters, or even getting their publicity photos taken. Such is the life of an alternate. Because he wasn’t interviewed all day and then we suddenly reappeared, he must have had some idea that things were looking good (we basically knew at that point), except during our whole conversation Spencer still seemed resigned to going home, saying things like, “I’m leaving on Sunday.”

Because Spencer’s sub-in was so last-minute, I knew literally nothing about him, which made for an interesting conversation. We talked largely about Survivor, because he’s a “huge, obsessed fan,” and has encyclopedic knowledge that’s impressive, especially considering all the recruits basically only cite examples from the past few seasons that they were force-fed by casting. He’s drawn to the game because “the physical aspect of it is obviously appealing,” and as a fan of history, likes “the idea of two tribes battling,” never mind the “social aspect: manipulating, and doing what you can to get the better of other people mentally, whether they break down themselves or testing yourself to see if you can outmaneuver them–it’s all very interesting to me. The starving part, not so much. I like to eat.”

Spencer’s enthusiasm for the show was obvious. “I’m great. I’m fan-fucking-tastic,” he told me. “I’m praying for somebody to have some sort of psychological breakdown or a freak injury. Like, I’m thinking about pushing somebody off the edge. Oops, I don’t know what happened,” he said. “I’m not afraid to tell on somebody already” because “I can’t wait to get in this damn game.” The journey had clearly been exciting, as he said that, during casting, he was “shaking” after meeting with Mark Burnett and when he saw Probst for the first time, thought, “holy fucking shit, Jeff’s sitting right there.”

The University of Florida sophomore is studying telecommunications and may pursue news or sports reporting, and being on the show had already complicated his semester, as he’d disappeared for a week to do final casting in L.A., and had to bail on his crew team during an important meet. Spencer left for Brazil with four days notice, and had paperwork notarized that would allow his parents to withdraw him from school if they received a call from the production.

While he said being at Ponderosa was “borderline frustrating at times,” Spencer called it “a dream trip” and said, “I came for the experience, for the chance, the off-chance. … I’ll apply next season.” It was an incredibly positive attitude for someone so close to something they crave so much. He said casting was encouraging during the process and said he had a 90 percent chance, but that when they told him he was just an alternate, “I was devastated; nothing I could do about it, though. They say it fits like a puzzle; you fit with whatever people, and if you don’t fit, then…obviously, I was disappointed,” Spencer said. “They have to have diversity, they have to people who are going to be apathetic, they have to have people who are sheltered, racial diversity. So I understand. It’s hard, yes, very hard. I just don’t see why I can’t have my spot, why I’m missing from the puzzle.”

In the game, Spencer’s strategy is to use his age to his advantage. “I want to be a follower, because that way they just overlook me and think I’m not a threat–19 years old, this kid. They call me a kid they’re not going to think of me as a threat,” he said. However, he also realizes the opposite could happen: “If there’s nobody else to vote out, just vote out the immature kid.”

Spencer had a lot of nervous energy during our time together, doing things like slapping his knees, and told me that he doesn’t want to be like “anybody who just comes into the game and shoots off their mouth and takes control like a bat out of hell, just doesn’t have any sense of the people around them.” But Spencer said, “If I don’t like you, it’s pretty hard for me to hide it,” and while he won’t “cuss you out” or “seek you out .. you can just tell I don’t want to talk to you, I don’t want to be around you.” He added later, “I fear that when we have nothing to do all day … that I’m going to be cranky and opinionated–I am very opinionated in my regular life. I feel like I’m going to have a few confessionals that I’ll probably regret.”

Thus, he hopes that, “If I started letting my mouth get the better of me, or something like that, I would hope that somehow something in my head would trigger, ‘Hey, Shut the fuck up. Stop talking right now. Make amends. Start being quiet and working hard.'”

When discussing his strategy, he talked about how Brian on Survivor Thailand “was able to manipulate” those around him, but said that’s not always possible. “You get a season like last season [Micronesia], where everybody seems to think they’re a target, they’ll flip left and right. It really depends upon the people you’re with; it’s really luck of the draw that way, but it also probably depends upon how well you can manipulate people. I don’t know. I’ve never been in a situation where I had to manipulate people,” he said. “I could be screwed in Survivor.”

As a superfan, Spencer has strong feelings on a number of contestants. He admires Rob Cesternino, but said Rob’s “one person I know I won’t be like but it would be incredible if I was like him” because Rob “was very witty, he had great one-liners, and he had the ability to convince anybody that he was suddenly on their side after betraying them the rest of the season. I don’t know if i could do that, but I would be honored to be compared to him.” He also respects Todd’s game play, and Spencer told me that he would like to have “one person you can trust, loosely. … You can’t ever completely trust somebody, but you want to have somebody that you can work with to kind of watch their back, you watch theirs.”

He wanted Cirie to win Survivor Micronesia and said Johnny Fairplay was on for “one episode too many.” As to its winner, Parvati, he said, “It’s not that I don’t like her … I just feel like, after seeing how she played the first season, it was hard to get that out of my head. I appreciate what she did the second season, but it seemed like she was sort of reckless.” Spencer also said “Chet was just pathetic,” and “I think Eliza’s hilarious. I love when she rolls her eyes; I love her big reactions. I hope I wouldn’t do that, but I love to watch that, and I agree with everything she did. And I hate Ozzy. I don’t like Ozzy. My mom loved him. He feels entitled to things, especially last season.”

While talking about Brian, Spencer said, “He got the numbers late in the season because they had the stupid late merge and Shi-Ann was a dumb bitch–that’s going to be on tape, isn’t it? I need to stop saying that because if I get on the show that’d be really bad. That’s not going in the article is it? Hopefully not? Dammit.” I include that not to embarrass him or because I’m an asshole, but because I think it’s a good example of his obvious passion and the way his opinions could bite him in the ass during the game.

Spencer also had thoughts about other reality shows, calling Big Brother “pathetic; it’s absolutely pathetic. It just disgusts me. … Their challenges are dumb, too,” and admitting that he watches “trashy shows” like I Love New York “not [because] I like it” but because “people being stupid is just entertaining.”

Of course, Spencer’s about to become someone who other people find entertaining, or hilarious, or boring, or pathetic. I found it interesting to watch him process that, becoming one of the people he’s watched on TV since he was 11. “I really hope I’m not bitter; I wouldn’t want to be that person who goes off on national television–I find it entertaining, I don’t want to be that person. I hope I would be rational,” he said at one point, and also talked about becoming an edited character. “I don’t know if they’re going to hide me or not, depends upon how far I make it and what my storyline is. But I think I’ll definitely be one of those people that you’ll either probably like or dislike, maybe not so strongly because I’ll try to temper it a bit knowing it’s going to be on a national television,” he told me.

Because I didn’t have a bio for him (they literally hadn’t been written), during the last five of our 35 minutes (our conversation was cut short because the producers needed to meet with the contestants), I asked him to describe what his bio might say. He mentioned his athleticism (besides crew, he’s run track and played soccer, among other sports), and said he’ll probably be considered “the Survivor fan, the student, the 19-year-old, the youngest Survivor ever–I’ll be the answer to a trivia question if I get on the show.”

Spencer then said, “I don’t like come across like most of the gay guys but I am, so I’ll probably be like–but then again, JP was gay and nobody knew that on the show; he was about the straightest I’ve ever seen. … But I won’t be Todd, I surely won’t be Coby. I won’t be Charlie. Holy shit. I talked to my parents and I was like, ‘Mom, do I sound like that?’ she was like, ‘Sweetheart, no, I would never let you go out in public if you sounded like that.’ Thank God.” (He talks more about being “embarrassed for” Charlie below.)

Spencer insisted that his sexual orientation is “not going to be the character I am,” and said that he hasn’t decided whether to share that with his tribemates. “It’ll probably be based on the people around me, if they’re homophobes, if they’re one of those people, if I tell them, they’re going to want to vote me out. Then again, girls feel non-threatened” by gay men, he said. If he does encounter a tribe of people are homophobic, he joked, “I might be bashing some homos myself.”

It’s not an issue in his daily life. “In my life experience, about half the people kind of suspect, and the other half are like, I never would have guessed. … Society in general is seemingly coming around more to accepting people; especially guys don’t think you’re checking them out, and my teammates, they don’t give a shit. We walk around in spandex bottoms–shirtless, spandex, nobody cares. We have ripped guys on my team, but I’m not like *boing* all day long.” His sound effect was accompanied by a hysterical crotch-area hand gesture.

Hear Spencer talk about being an alternate, his thoughts on Survivor Micronesia, and past gay contestants:

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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.