Erik Cardona: “I’m going to be fulfilling a boyhood dream to be a con man out here”

This is the 19th in a series of interviews with Survivor Samoa cast members.

Erik CardonaErik Cardona is smart, articulate, and self-confident, a word I use instead of arrogant because his cockiness comes with self-awareness and a lot of charisma. Like a younger, male version of Betsy Bolan, he’s extraordinarily likable and also very excited about playing, and I couldn’t believe that Erik would be an alternate who could potentially go home while, say, someone so blah like Ben would be cast.

Erik was recruited, “plucked off the street,” because he lost a bet to a woman. “Either she was going to make me dinner in her panties or I was going to go out to dinner wearing panties myself,” and while wearing those panties–under his clothes, so they weren’t visible–in Santa Monica, casting director Lynne Spillman approached him about being on the show. “Had it not been for the women’s panties, I would not be here,” he said.

Erik was one of two alternates who were ultimately included in the final cast, and that really affected his mentality and attitude at Ponderosa. “When they put me down here as alternate, it made me want it that much more,” he said. “I’m not an alternate. Let’s be honest. I’m hear to play. Sizing up the competition–it’s not my decision, it’s not my call, but I’m one of the competitors in this game, if not the best. And if I don’t get the opportunity to showcase that … I came down here knowing I’m an alternate. All that did was make me stronger, all that did was make me more focused, more ready, more amped. I’m playing the game before it’s even started. I feel like I have a psychological edge on every single person in this camp.”

He’d been preparing for the game by keeping a then-80-page journal that recorded details about and analysis of the other contestants, including their “threat level” and his “plan of attack.” Erik said, “I have these people figured out. Maybe it’s not all right, but at least that’s where my head’s at.” As to specifics, he referred to John and said that he was acting like “we owe it to him to be here” and that it “looks like he may have rubbed a scratcher” and won a trip to Samoa. “He has no sense of anything outside his little bubble.” And Erik said Kelly “looks like she hasn’t washed her hair since MC Hammer was cool” but “knows how to use her sexuality without compromising her integrity.” He said he was going to write “trouble” in his journal and then noticed her tattoo, which says “trouble.”

Erik was “a big fan [of Survivor] when it first came out” but he said he was a “victim of the small-town community type of thought process” and thought it was “impossible” to be cast because “so many people that do it, what makes you so special? “I’d kind of given up on the idea of being on Survivor,” he said, but his life prepared him for the game. “My entire adulthood life has been little training methods of wanting to be on the show,” he said, like studying social psychology in college and being someone who is “one of the talkers and listeners in every group that I enter into.”

Erik said he challenges himself regularly, and that has prepared him well for the game. “I try to do something once a year to risk my life” and likes to “be inconvenienced and uncomfortable and miserable. Part of me really enjoys that because it reminds me I’m still alive.” Among other things, he once “lost 54 pounds in 10 weeks,” dropping to 143 by “completely depriving myself of nutrition” and “eating apples and smoke cigarettes–very much Christian Bale in The Machinist,” he said. “I find a way to find comfort in uncomfortable situations, especially when I’m in competition with other people. As they get uncomfortable, I will get stronger.”

“Balance is my strategy,” he said. “I want to use my looks, I want to use my charm with certain people. I want to use my intelligence with certain people, I want to use my listening skills.” If he’s sounding cocky here or otherwise, it’s something he’s very aware of, and I think that’s why he’s totally not obnoxious and actually comes off as incredibly likable.

He’s well-aware of that: “Above all, I want to make sure that I stay humble. I come off very confident, very cocky almost, and that can be appealing and attractive as long as it’s not intrusive. I think that the way you do that is by limiting how seriously you take yourself. Anybody who knows me off the streets knows that I don’t take myself seriously at all. Can I outperform you in several different manners? Yes. If I couldn’t, would I continue to compete until I did? Yes. But am I arrogant? No,” Erik said. “I force myself to be humble because if you can be humble, you can continue to be cocky. If you can’t be humble, then you lose your edge and your ability to be cocky.”

Like some of the other men, he talked about the women in the game as a threat, although he sounded far less obnoxious. “I love women and I love seeing what I can get away with and what I cannot get away with,” he said. “No disrespect to the production crew or the people making the decisions, but without me, you’re really going to lose or spoil a lot of entertainment you’re going to get from these women. A cat needs a mouse to play. I will be that mouse.”

If he makes it to the end, he won’t do what others before him have done. “I’ve seen guys on Survivor who utilize that and kiss ass and kiss ass and kiss ass strategically, telling the people what they want to hear, and then they end up getting their vote. And that’s even more pathetic that you give your vote away to the guy who kissed your ass.”

Still, he won’t treat others coldly. “I am going to care about the people that are here. Even if I have to be malicious or cunning or deceitful, and things like that, that’s part of the game. But aside from the game, we’re all human beings,” he said. Erik will lie–and is excited about that opportunity. “I’m going to be fulfilling a boyhood dream to be a con man out here on this island of Samoa, and I can’t think of anything more special that will drive me, because who gets to live out their dreams?”

Hear Erik discuss confidence and cockiness, and why he wanted to be a con man growing up as a result of watching Opportunity Knocks with Dana Carvey:

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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.