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Stephen Fishbach: my “goofy, benign demeanor” is “going to serve me very well”

Stephen Fishbach: my “goofy, benign demeanor” is “going to serve me very well”
Survivor Tocantins contestant Stephen Fishbach (Photo by CBS)

Stephen Fishbach is a Yale graduate and corporate consultant who once traveled on foot from Brooklyn to Manhattan tied to a shopping cart while in costume as a “golden shower girl.” In a season of people I liked pretty well, he was easily my favorite for that combination of intelligence and quirky characteristics, never mind his easygoing personality, and I suspect he’ll be an intriguing character on the show and probably go very far.

Stephen worried that he may have been “coming off as too geeky” in front of the other contestants, and the Yale-educated corporate speechwriter and marketing consultant also fears he might run up against the other contestants’ “anti-Ivy bias” and “anti-elitist” sentiments, although Stephen said his job “seems like such an unimpressive job that I’m definitely going to mention it.”

He does sound somewhat academic and is obviously smart, but there’s no arrogance or elitism at all, and that’s part of what makes him so engaging.

He’s also straightforward and seems incapable of being fake, and honesty is part of that. “I’ve always thought that people who went on reality shows were idiots, because you have no control over your own image,” Stephen said. “And I’m obviously afraid of that; I’m sure everyone’s afraid of that.” He cited the part of the contract that “even explicitly says they can make you look stupid if they want, which is kind of incredible that they include that line.”

So why did he sign such a contract? Stephen was “recruited a week before the final round” when someone who worked in casting (who knew him when they were kids) saw his picture on Facebook and said “we need his type,” Stephen said. Although he initially thought “absolutely not” and simply “went through with it on a lark,” the “opportunity it presented” was something he “couldn’t possibly turn down.”

Besides buying a magnesium fire starter and “[working] out too much to the point of injury,” Stephen practiced tying knots and read “useless” survival books to prepare; he also watched seasons 16, 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, and 6.

From that last season, Survivor Amazon, he found a role model in Rob Cesternino—”except I would win,” Stephen said. He admired and plans to emulate the way Rob “targeted the outliers, the loners who weren’t friends with anyone” and “built up these relationships” with “allies that didn’t have any other outlet.” But Stephen also noted that there was a “fundamental flaw in his strategy; it wasn’t incidental” that Rob lost.

However, studying Rob’s game and all of that Survivor-watching might work against him. “Since being cast, I’ve watched it obsessively, maybe too much: I feel like my head is so full of other people’s strategies, it might harm my own,” he said, citing Yul and Todd as people whose game he respected. He also said Amanda “was a really strong player and I think it’s some kind of sexist bias” that prevented her from winning.

Stephen likes the way Rob “seemed so benign in every way,” and hopes that’s true for him, too, telling me that, because of his self-identified resemblance to a muppet, “I don’t think anybody’s going to worry about me as a threat because I look like a goofball.”

Later, Stephen said, “I think of myself as having a goofy, benign demeanor, and I think that’s going to serve me very well, because I do think very strategically.”

What may not serve him well is his physical prowess. “I’m a little bit physically awkward,” he said. “I’m sort of terrified of tripping in a challenge and immediately being voted out as punishment; I think there’s about a 60 percent chance that would happen.” He later returned to that and told me, “I’m seriously terrified about it.”

Another fear is that he might just have too much fun with the game, and because he’s “not here to make friends,” he intends to play intensely. “I actually think one of my downfalls might be, I love backstabbing people,” Stephen told me. “I might backstab someone just for the fun of it, rather than for the logic of it.”

He wasn’t really joking there, but he also said he doesn’t expect to be reviled. “I don’t mind looking scheming and conniving, and I don’t think I’ll look like a jerk. Hopefully there won’t be too much material for them to make me look like an asshole.”

Besides his physical awkwardness, Stephen is worried about “the alliance getting formed and being left out. … I think there’s incredible pressure to get in on the ground floor, and so I am nervous about that,” he said. His fellow competitors seemed like “an interesting group,” he told me, although he kind of dismissed the “very large dudes” who are “the ones who get eliminated right at the halfway point.”

He said some women “look quite sly,” including the “shorter girl who’s a little bit punky seeming, with shoulder-length black hair; she’s got a devious look about her. I’d like to make an alliance with her but I feel like she might betray me before I get the chance to betray her.”

He also talked about Brendan (“his initials are B.S., which is unfortunate for this game,” Stephen said, and he knew that because, at Ponderosa, casting verbally identifies contestants using their initials–but he was the only contestant in two seasons to actually cite another’s initials to me). Anyway, Stephen described Brendan as being “very expressive” and also “very engaged with the group,” and added, “I think working with him would be great.”

Overall, Stephen said he’s “analyzed and reanalyzed everybody,” but told me, “I don’t want to start out disappointed on day one and then be withdrawn because I don’t like the people I’m with. I really want to be engaged with the experience as it happens.”

Throughout our conversation, Stephen showed flashes of humor, such as when he suggested he might “come up with some folksy metaphors to use” around the other contestants to convince them he’s not what they expect. He was also pretty humble, saying at one point that he might use the money to live as a writer; he wants to write “ideally fiction,” Stephen said, “but I don’t go around broadcasting that because I feel like everyone’s a struggling fiction writer. I feel like there’s 10 in this group.”

He also has a really unexpected side, from his boxing (“mostly I box against things that don’t hit back … that’s an exaggeration,” he said of his bio) to his participation in the Idiotarod, for which his team dressed up as the “golden shower girls” and has repeatedly won the prize for most disruptive team as they “tie themselves to a shopping cart and pull it from Brooklyn to Manhattan” while interacting and interfering with other teams. Clearly, he’s bringing a lot to Survivor Tocantins.

Hear Stephen discuss being physically awkward, give an example of backstabbing for fun, and talk about anti-intellectual bias:

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