Survivor’s runners-up: Erinn’s changed life, Taj’s hurt feelings, and Stephen’s effective losing strategy
To wrap up this season of Survivor Tocantins—which I think was a strong but not great season overall, in part due to the sort of inevitability of the game play the last few weeks—here are the final three’s final thoughts and impressions. Below, they talk about everything from betrayal (Taj and Stephen both still have strong feelings about her elimination) to renewal (Erinn’s life was significantly impacted by the game), TV appearances (Taj) to lingering friendships (Stephen).
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First, to answer an apparently burning question about what JT whispered in his friend Stephen’s ear during the live reunion, it had nothing to do with Stephen getting $100,000 or anything from JT. “I wouldn’t accept that from him, either,” Stephen said, adding it’s up to JT to reveal what was whispered.
During our initial conversation, Stephen said his “goofy, benign demeanor” is “going to serve me very well.” It absolutely did, taking him to the final two—but it also prevented him from winning. “My strategy was to go out there to be the guy next to the guy and not be the target,” Stephen told me late Tuesday, and “I thought that I was very clearly a strategic force, and nobody realized that I’m responsible for all those moves.” He eventually realized, “I played this role, and if anything, I played it too well,” as the jury thought, “we had no idea you were so strategic; we just thought you were this goofy kid.”
As to his final Tribal Council appearance and approach, Stephen said the jury “applauded him when [JT took me to] the final two, so I thought showing ingratitude” wouldn’t be effective, hence his strategy of arguing about growth. Stephen eventually went on the offensive, but that was at the end of “three hours of these people insulting me.” After JT “slammed me a lot: how weak I was in challenges, how I was in the shadows.” Stephen thought, “I’m getting hammered here by JT and I’m not fighting back,” and “I just started fighting back. I have to come after him.”
Instead, Stephen hurt himself even more, since he totally thought JT’s “hamming it up” response was genuine. “I was devastated, actually,” Stephen said. “I thought I had really broken his heart, that I had ended the friendship.” He realized there’s “no way I can win; the best I can do is preserve this friendship.” The friendship was never in any danger, and Stephen lost the unanimous vote. Ultimately, though, once he was in the final two with JT, “I never counted about winning. My strategy only worked if I was up against Taj or Erinn.” He said he “wasn’t horribly surprised that I was shut out,” and that’s better than losing by one vote, because he wouldn’t have been able to stop thinking about what he could have done to change that (here, he cited Susie and the cookie incident last season).
Stephen suggests that future players “have to let people you know you’re making moves while they’re happening” and “telegraph your strength.” He also suggests people “be nice to everybody and have relationships with everybody,” as “there’s no reason to not talk to everyone.” He did that with Taj, forming a bond that impacted him once he voted her out. “I still feel guilty about that vote, as stupid as it sounds,” Stephen said. “My strategy was to target the outliers,” and that was an “extremely effective strategy, one that work well for me.” On “day four or five, Taj had zero alliances,” and “she was infuriated no one had bothered to ally with her,” which made her the perfect ally.
Stephen said he also had a close bond with Erinn and with Coach, who is “this incredibly sweet guy. … He immediately latched on to me, and I latched on to him,” in part because Coach was “very encouraging and supportive of everybody” and “wasn’t a jerk to anybody, he wasn’t mean to anyone.” Stephen also said Coach’s keep the strong mantra “did color the entire final Tribal Council.” Stephen said he leaves the game with “close friendships, as corny as that sounds,” although beyond that, he said, “it’s hard to take these you learned living in the wild and apply it in the city. It’s so completely different that to translate it into something that’s real, I’m still trying to figure out how to do that.”
Erinn went into Survivor following a devastating break-up that left her with little confidence. “I floundered for a while,” and the game “messed me up and it messed me up more,” she told me. “The structure of the game really was tough for me coming off of that break-up. I was not myself when I went into that game. I am a very, very confident person … I have great relationships with everybody in my life,” she said. “I thought, social game, wrapped up, not a problem.” But instead, the opposite happened.
But now, she’s back together with her former boyfriend, and said, “I couldn’t be happier now and it was because of all that my life is exactly where I want to be.” Part of the transformation happened at her brutal Exile experience, when Erinn said, “it came up over and over again that my happy place was with that guy.” She said those memories were “keeping me sane” and as a result, she realized “I want to go home and work stuff out.” It also helped her on the show, as her “game started to shift” following that revelation.
“If I can take that out of this experience that this most important relationship, which was beaten down and broken, was fixed, that’s the best thing that could have happened,” Erinn said. “I’m so happy with my life; it really took going through this experience to figure that up.” She couldn’t have sounded more genuinely happy.
While Erinn was an early target on her tribe in part due to her breakup-induced social awkwardness, she survived. “I was able to outlast each and every one of them,” in part by “letting my tribe implode,” she told me. They “wrote me off from the beginning” and even “went into the merge knowing I was going to flip,” but thought, “who cares if she does” because Timbira still had strength in numbers.
Despite being an outsider, Erinn said she remains close to several people, including Debbie (who will be “in my life ‘til the end of time”) and Sierra—and also Coach. How can she be friends with Coach even after the way they clashed? (Her “Who is this jackass?” remains one of my favorite lines from the whole season.) “I wish we have seen Ben, beause Ben’s fucking awesome. He’s a really cool guy. There’s a really huge part of him that’s Coach,” Erinn said, and “he’s pretty cool and sometimes sort of annoying. He’s a good guy wrapped up in a giant ego, and this game, that ego got bigger than he was. It turned into a monster.”
As to her game play, Erinn said, “I really do think that I did do everything I really could.” She wasn’t able to target JT or Stephen with Taj because “Taj and I didn’t have any sort of relationship where we trusted each other not to run to the guys,” she said. “In the game, that couldn’t have worked.” She said she worked with JT and Stephen and they “talked about everything we did,” and she takes credit for saying, “we need to get rid of Tyson and we need to get rid of him now.” As to a video clip on CBS.com that makes it seem like Erinn is taking credit for the overall strategy, she said she simply wanted to explain to her fellow Timbira tribe members, “this is why I am here and you are not.”
Taj was, as always, in a good mood, from saying JT “looks like a little peanut” despite being a “physical monster” to the way she joked that she was “the chunky girl” on her tribe, and said that was one of her motivations for doing the show was weight loss by starvation.
She was in a good mood despite saying that Stephen and JT’s betrayal “really hurt my feelings,” because it was “completely unnecessary.” She said “I didn’t think I was a threat in any way. … The person that really hurt me the most was Stephen,” Taj said, since together they “pulled JT in and we became a trio,” but “when it mattered the most, he turned his back on me.” When she watched the episode, she said it was “refreshing to see last night how they felt bad” and “I hope it hurts good”; “what really pissed me off was they ruined my whole goodbye speech,” saying she’d planned a dramatic exit for her third-place finish. Instead, they “blindsided me and ruined my moment,” she laughed.
Taj was the apparent master strategist the first half of the game, crafting an alliance on Exile with members of Timbira. She said that happened because “I had to come up with a plan” since Joe and Spencer, who were “completely smitten by Sydney,” wanted to keep Sydney “because they thought she was prettier.” Taj joked that she was just “the chunky girl.” Once the tribes merged, though, it essentially fell apart because, as Taj told me, it was “hard to get Sierra and Brendan to go along with the plan because they didn’t need us at the point.”
Taj said that after performing this summer with SWV and continuing to promote her book Player HateHer, she’s heading to L.A. to pursue “some offers” she’s received, including “a couple of reality proposals” and hosting gigs, and guest appearances on sit-coms such as The CW’s The Game. “It’s just something to do; I’m having fun with it,” she said.