Russell: “I would not change a thing”; Natalie: “We made group decisions”; “it’s okay to pray about anything”

Earlier today, I spoke with Natalie and Russell just before they were going on The Early Show, and around 4:30 a.m. PT. Natalie said she had not yet been to sleep. Our conversations were short and they were tired, but it’s very clear that they do not agree about why Natalie won and Russell lost.

Natalie White

Natalie said that, although “the jury’s not supposed to talk, you kind of hear things here and there,” but she didn’t know for sure if she’d won or not going into the live finale. She suspected that hearing about her win meant “people were still playing the game after the game: man, they’re going to try to blindside someone.” So she said, “I was surprised.”

“Russell and I will always be friends,” Natalie told me. “Russell’s Russell, a lot of what you see is a character.” His comments about the “dumb-ass girl alliance” and the like didn’t bother her. “I think I kind of just laughed it off a little bit,” she said. “I must give off a horrible first impression, which clearly I do.”

Natalie said that “the game everybody else watches is totally different than the game we played,” because the producers are “trying to create a story so that viewers can follow it.” More specifically, Natalie said, “not only did I give Russell my word the very first day, but I felt like I got to know the jury really, really well. I honestly thought, especially toward the end, when we did have an opportunity to blindside him, no. Why in the world would I not take him to the end?”

In other words, she knew he’d lose, and that’s because he “taunted people” who “felt like he was being malicious.” In their alliance, Natalie echoed Jaison and said, “We made group decisions, essentially. It was a group effort. They were always group efforts even from the start. Jaison and I had this checks and balanced system to make sure Russ wasn’t going behind my back and Mick wasn’t going behind his.” Still, Natalie admits that “Russ is an amazing, phenomenal strategic player.”

I also asked her about the prayer warriors incident, and asked if that was as out of the blue as it seemed. She said, “it was definitely the editing. From the very first day, I didn’t just pray about a challenge, I was praying about all sorts of things. It literally did it come out of nowhere” on the show, she told me.

“I don’t feel like I shove it down it people’s throats,” Natalie said. “I just hope it didn’t turn people off; that’s what I don’t want.” But she also said, “God does come into play out there. Over half the people out there, we were praying.” I asked her then about why she thinks God would care about a reality show contest but not about the lives of people who lived there and were killed in the tsunami. Referencing Philippians 4:6, she said, “For me, I just think that it’s okay to pray about anything. It doesn’t mean your prayers are going to be answered, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking.”

Russell Hantz

Russell was still as upset this morning as he was last night, if not more so. “I’m pissed off. I can’t sleep I’m so mad,” he said. But even now, there’s “not a thing” he’d change about his game. “My social game was pretty damn good, I think.” He said he was able to get everyone “to do anything I wanted them to do.”

Russell told me, “People like you, you don’t get it. You have to understand, I controlled them like puppets. How did I do it? Because my social game was so good.”

Of course, that’s the problem: He may have controlled them but he was condescending and arrogant about it. Russell said, “I had to very aggressive,” particularly after the merge, because “they were too weak. I had to work my butt off, put the target on my back, mess up my social game, to help people like Natalie, and that’s what I did, I brought them to the top.” Natalie made friends, Russell said, but “I didn’t have the opportunity, because I was too busy protecting people like Natalie, and Mick, and Shambo, while they were standing back.”

He insisted Natalie “didn’t have a strategic game. Everything she did, I told her to do. All she did out there was be the nice girl; that’s it. Let’s go ahead and change the name of the game to the social game. Are you kidding me? I outwitted her, I outplayed her. If that’s all you had to do, if we had people like Natalie winning,” Russell said, the show would not have survived 19 seasons.

He doesn’t even think she road his coattails. “Her strategic game was to jump on my back? I told her to jump on my back.”

I asked about his argument to the jury, and pointed out how other people who’ve won have told the jury what they wanted to hear, but Russell said, “I respect the game way too much to kiss ass at the end to win the money. … That is crazy. That game is so serious. It is pitiful.”

One of Russell’s major achievements was finding three hidden immunity idols, and I asked him if he had any help from producers, which conspiracy theorists have alleged. “They didn’t tell me nothing. They’re not even allowed to talk to us. I looked for days for the idol. I looked in one spot for five hours one time, I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t there,” Russell said. He said accusations “that it’s fixed and I’m an actor” are ridiculous, because “when the cameras aren’t rolling, this is me.”

He said Jeff Probst was right about the impact the game had, that “I am a monster now,” but a monster who “can’t get over the fact that this girl that didn’t find me, won.” But he also said, “I played the game all the way. I would not change a thing.”

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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.