The year was 2006. Smartphones weren’t a thing; neither was Twitter or Instagram. Facebook had not yet expanded past college campuses. But when CBS announced the twist for the 13th season of “Survivor” in August, the blogosphere went berserk.
To take the social experiment to a different level ― and admittedly fix the lack of diversity on the show ― executive producers Mark Burnett and Jeff Probst decided to turn the quest for $1 million into a war of the races for “Cook Islands,” dividing 20 castaways into four tribes by race and ethnicity: Asian-American, Black, Latino and white.
As compelling as the idea sounded to the production team, it was immediately criticized by the media and loyal viewers. A group of New York City officials and civil rights groups blasted the “segregation island” concept, saying it would only promote divisiveness. The show’s network news side even deemed it controversial, with CBS News’ “Early Show” host Harry Smith questioning Probst about the season.
Although the ratings were lower than usual, 17.7 million people still tuned in to watch “race wars” play out during the season premiere. In the first few moments of “Cook Islands,” Probst alerted the unknowing group of castaways to the theme and split them into their respective tribes. But, by Episode 3, the four groups integrated into two tribes and the game played out as usual. That was, until halfway through the 39-day journey when two white contestants decided to leave to rejoin their original white allies in the other tribe, leaving four contestants of color ― Yul Kwon, Becky Lee, Oscar “Ozzy” Lusth and Sundra Oakley ― to battle it out, David vs. Goliath style, until the merge.
In a memorable finish, Kwon, Lee, Lusth and Oakley made it to the final four, with Kwon narrowly beating Lusth for the title of Sole Survivor and the cash prize.
Nearly 14 years later, one can’t help but imagine what the discourse would be if “Cook Islands” were to air today. Race relations are once again front and center in the national debate as many people examine unforgivable instances of racial profiling and police brutality against the Black community.
HuffPost spoke to “Cook Islands” cast members Lusth, Jenny Guzon-Bae and Nate Gonzalez about that and much more of their experiences on Season 13 of “Survivor.”
Initial Thoughts On Tribal Divides
As they arrived in the South Pacific, cast members had no idea what the theme of the season would be. After they acclimated to the environment and passed medical examinations, the 20 contestants were separated into four tribes by race: Asian (Puka Puka), Black (Manihiki), Latino (Aitutaki) and white (Rarotonga). First, a member of Manihiki went home (Sekou Bunch). Then, Billy Garcia from Aitutaki was voted off after his tribe threw the immunity challenge because he wasn’t carrying his weight around camp.
Oscar “Ozzy” Lusth (Aitutaki): When Jeff [Probst] did finally say this is what’s happening, it was kind of a shock. I had a little bit of an inkling because the reason why I was cast was they were looking for people that sort of broke the mold of what typically you’re thought to be in whatever ethnicity. I definitely, for the most part, wouldn’t really fit into what most people would think about when they think of a Mexican or Mexican American.
Jenny Guzon-Bae (Puka Puka): I literally just saw a bunch of people, but it didn’t occur to me to count out by color or race. So when we were told the theme of that particular season, it was a bit jaw-dropping. Obviously, we had to get going and start the game, but when we had time to kind of settle into that theme and we were separated into our own tribes right then and there, we agreed that it was like, “Wow, this is going to really be controversial. This is not going to look good.”
Nate Gonzalez (Manihiki): I didn’t try to play it serious. At that point my life, I was very hippie-spirited so to speak, on a “one love,” Marley train. I’ve experienced racism and been racially profiled and have many wounds and scars on that, but I never internalized that stuff. I always used positivity and love because if you put that out, that’s what you attract. If you allow stuff to come into your little realm, then it’ll eat you. I always focused on, “I put out love, I get back love.” So when they hit me with the theme, I was like, “Cool. We go out and we play the game.”
Guzon-Bae: I remember that when it got public people were angry; they were mad. Those who were really close to me weren’t mad at me ― I think they were just more excited that I was on “Survivor.” But those who did not know me would criticize. People in the blogs would just bark at you and say, “How could you participate in something like this? We’ve worked so hard for racial equality.”
Lusth: There was a little bit of a sensation when the cast was announced and it made headlines ― definitely kind of a clickbait situation before there was even clickbait. Then, of course, after the first couple days they mixed us up and the theme of race kind of blended into the rest of the season.
The Pressure to “Represent”
When “Survivor” first debuted in 2000, only two Black contestants (Gervase Peterson and Ramona Gray) were chosen to be a part of the 16-person cast. Not one person was from the Asian or Latinx communities. By Season 13, the show had a lot to answer for in terms of its lack of diversity, which is why the racially divided tribes came off as a forced response to criticism rather than a genuine decision. In turn, although a lot of the “Cook Islands” castaways were glad to see more people of color on “Survivor,” they felt enormous pressure to represent their communities.
Gonzalez: Every tribe said, “Let’s represent for our race.” The Black tribe talked and had that conversation. It was very hard to lose [challenges] when you’re representing a race on a show like “Survivor.”
Guzon-Bae: There is that pressure, like, now I have to represent. Not just who you are as a person, which you probably were already going into it saying, “I want to make my family and friends proud.” But now all of a sudden you’ve got this heavy burden of making your culture proud. How is one particular person in a game of “Survivor” supposed to really represent that culture well?
Lusth: I always, in the back of my mind, wanted to represent Mexico because Mexico is an incredibly diverse place in and of itself. Mexico has a long storied history ― it’s been colonized by the Spanish, German, French, you’ve got African slaves that were brought there; you’ve got an incredible indigenous population. So, more than anything I just wanted to sort of show that Mexico is this really diverse place and a lot of different types of people can come out of it.
Gonzalez: It would be a lot of pressure to be the only Black person on a season, which was the norm before “Cook Islands.” That social battle for one Black person to be with a bunch of others and look and talk differently is a whole game outside of “Survivor.” You have the elements of survival and then you’re like, “Oh, I’m the only Black person out here.” I luckily and fortunately didn’t have that. I had Black people around me. We went through that stuff together.
The Dynamics Within The Tribes
Once the initial tribes of five were on their separate beaches, it became clear that there were further divisions within each grouping. For instance, on Puka Puka, castaway Cao Boi Bui, a Vietnam War refugee, was carefree about poking fun at his own race with jokes about an “Asian invasion” or how “little people with slanted eyes” fly under the radar. On Manihiki, the tribe of city dwellers was more concerned about surviving in the jungle and proving that Black people can swim. With Aitutaki, Lusth was worried that people with the same ethnicity would “clash on things.” Rarotonga’s Jessica “Flicka” Smith deemed her tribe “the Whiteys” with a coconut toast.
Guzon-Bae: The first thing I thought was like, “Well, this is dumb.” Because we’re from different cultures and you pull us in under Asian American, which is fine, we get that, we do that. But if you put us on the same tribe saying that we’re one, we’re really not one. So I knew right away that Yul [Kwon] and Becky [Lee] would just team up because they’re Korean. Then you have somebody like Cao Boi [Bui], who is very proud to be Vietnamese. Then Brad [Virata] is Filipino-Hawaiian and I’m Filipino, middle aged. So even then, beyond race, we didn’t find much in common.
Gonzalez: We had South and then East Coast. Sundra [Oakley], Rebecca [Borman] and I had city vibes, so that’s how we bonded. Stephannie [Favor] was from the South, and Sekou and I just bonded off of being Black men. It was just, “I got you, you got me. Done.” For us, there really was no division other than just different methods or ways of living, as opposed to Cao Boi saying stuff that was offensive.
Lusth: Cao Boi was a refugee from the Vietnam War, and he was beat up and kind of downtrodden his whole entire life. He was a little bit offensive in the way that he viewed life, but I found it incredibly refreshing. He was raised and brought up very differently than the other Asian cast members. They didn’t want to be viewed in a stereotypical way and Cao Boi, on the other hand, was just like, “What a crazy life I’ve had, my life has been great, and if I want to make fun of myself, then I should be able to.”
Guzon-Bae: If we were not divided by race, I bet Cao Boi wouldn’t have even said any of those jokes. He would have just been quirky in his own way and probably had different things to make people laugh, but I honestly don’t think that he would have said so many Asian jokes.
A Heightened Version Of The “Social Experiment”
In Episode 3, the groups integrated into two diverse tribes, Aitutaki and Rarotonga, after team captains were tasked with selecting players from different races to join their tribes. Then, on Day 20, contestants from both tribes were given the option to immediately join the rival tribe in a Mutiny twist. For the first time in “Survivor” history, two contestants from Aitutaki ― Candice Woodcock Cody and Jonathan Penner ― actually accepted Jeff Probst’s offer and decided to rejoin their original white alliance on Rarotonga, leaving Lusth, Kwon, Lee and Oakley to compete as a foursome. Surprisingly, their small but mighty group dominated and Rarotonga was sent to tribal council two times prior to the merge. In another twist, they had to vote out two tribe mates in one night, sending Rebecca Borman and Guzon-Bae home in blindsides.
At that point, Rarotonga was reduced to five members, four of whom were members of the original, all-white tribe and one former Manihiki, Gonzalez. The game began to feel like typical “Survivor” ― but with the complicated element of race betrayal.
Guzon-Bae: It was nice to actually commingle. But ironically, it still held on to those divisions, those racial divides and the ties there. When they held the mutiny, and both Candice and Jonathan jumped over to join the rest of their white tribe, I knew that was trouble. It made it even more, “Oh, the white tribe is together and they’re going to be after you.”
Gonzalez: Color was there, but [most of the cast] chose, really, not to associate with it. Many went off personalities or which person they were attracted to. Like everyone called me a sellout or fake because I liked Parvati [Shallow], but she was my best friend out there. The comments I got online for voting out Stephannie and Rebecca — people called me a fucking “race traitor” because I came out in the beginning with the Black tribe.
Guzon-Bae: Funny enough, in the time when I was voted out, I didn’t realize that all the white people had voted me out. It wasn’t pointed out to me until it aired and the blogs were saying it. They really stuck together, but did they stick together because they’re white or because they started together on their original tribe? That’s the problem. If they were tribes of the same people called Green, Blue, Yellow and Red, it wouldn’t have been pointed out.
Gonzalez: Jenny and Parv were my ones and once they took out Jenny I was fucking done. The double vote out was my death because I knew Parvati didn’t have the wits to keep Jenny because of who she was playing with. I was hoping Jenny could even stay to the merge and rekindle something with Yul and Becky. At that point in the game, everyone was more focused on “who I trust, who I like here,” regardless of what your skin color was.
Lusth: Gameplay aside, I was super young and didn’t really know what I was doing when it came to “Survivor,” so I think that I probably contributed to the fact that most of my [Latino] tribe mates were voted out so early.
Guzon-Bae: When the four underdogs were winning, they were, in a way, able to break the racial divide because they were so diverse in their little group.
Gonzalez: Ozzy, Yul, Sundra and Becky were these beautiful minorities coming together. The Hispanic dude, the pretty Black girl and the smart Asians took out Team Whitey with the fake brother who sold out his own people! Because of the start, that’s the narrative that was spun.
Lusth: Making it to the end was definitely surprising, but you can’t really predict what is going to happen once “Survivor” starts. On the surface, people are divided and people categorize themselves and people stick with what they know, because that’s been a survival mechanism. But at the end of the day, when you sort of like look past the surface, we’re all just a bunch of people trying to survive and trying to figure out the complexities of what drives us and what motivates us.
From Controversy To Acclaim
Despite a controversial start, “Cook Islands” is now seen by many critics as one of the best seasons of “Survivor” due to the gameplay and the resilience of Aitutaki underdogs. It also featured one of the best winner/runner-up showdowns in Kwon and Lusth, who lost by only one vote. Several legends played for their first time in Season 13, as well, including Kwon, Lusth, Shallow, Candice Woodcock Cody and Penner.
Lusth: I think this “Survivor” will go down in history as incredibly poignant ― as poignant as reality TV can get.
Gonzalez: I really think they knew what they were doing by casting us ― that we were going to show something positive about people going for character rather than color. “Survivor” tries to be very positive for the family aspect.
Guzon-Bae: As much as there was a lot of controversy at the very beginning and all the talk about it, when you watched it unfold and you saw how the story ended, it was actually a good lesson and something to absorb. It was still people playing a game, but having the elements of race kind of peek in every once in a while was good to see because it does happen in our everyday world, too.
Gonzalez: As far as the race thing, I truly don’t know. People have that pressure to represent a race, you know what I mean? It could have been messed up, but it’s a production so they know what they’re doing.
Guzon-Bae: I give a lot of credit to it the underdogs, who were such a diverse group. When Candice and Jonathan jumped over to join my tribe, the white tribe, I remember at that moment thinking our team looked stacked. We’re gonna win because we’ve got these big guys. And what did we do? We lost miserably, not just once but many times to this small little team that had strength in their hope to win. It wasn’t only physically what you’d see in them, but just their heart. They became so close with each other ― close to this day ― and it didn’t have to do with are you white, Black, Asian or Hispanic? It just had to do with being a good person. It’s a great season to be a part of and to reflect back on, especially during these times. This game is a way for people to see what it’s like when you are pulled in different directions yet you still have the ability to come together and work together.
Lusth: They’ve done a really good job of highlighting issues that are current within our society. I’ve played from the race season of “Cook Islands” to Season 34′s “Game Changers,” during which one cast member, Zeke Smith, was outed as transgender by a gay man. These are hard conversations. But “Survivor” kind of puts a mirror up to the United States. I think they could always do a better job ― everything from Me Too moments to the plight of trans people to the realm of diversity.
Diversity And “Survivor”
Over 20 years, “Survivor” has produced 40 compelling seasons by highlighting the human experience within the context of a survival game of social strategy and physicality. Representation does, and should, matter. Although CBS has attempted to cast a more diverse group of individuals, especially in the years since “Cook Islands,” they still have work to do in terms of getting more people of color in front of and behind the camera.
Just last week, alumni launched a petition urging executive producers Probst, Matt VanWagenen, Burnett, ViacomCBS, MGM Television, Survivor Production LLC and Castaway Television Productions LLC to hire more people of color. Guzon-Bae and Gonzalez have both signed.
Despite the show’s recent efforts to highlight the stories of people from queer or underprivileged communities, within this moment of reckoning, many former contestants are considering entertainment’s role in amplifying the voices of the underrepresented. For Gonzalez, Guzon-Bae and Lusth, “Survivor” needs to further examine its hiring habits, enact change and speak out on the part they play as one of the longest-running reality shows on television.
Lusth: Using entertainment as a vehicle for change can be really powerful. And I hope that “Survivor” does take into account that they have not been representing the true demographics of the United States. They could do a much, much better job of making sure the casts are reflective of the country.
Guzon-Bae: What I’ve read is that most of the people who apply for this show are Caucasian. So if you’re pulling out of a pool of, say, 80% Caucasian candidates, without being so blatantly obvious like on our season, they just have to be more particular about who they recruit. They get thousands of
applications every season. And even if you do get a predominantly Caucasian base, they can really dig in deep and say, “OK, what about this Chinese guy from Michigan?” They just need to do more work like we’re trying to do right now as a world, as a country. To unlearn what we’ve been doing and then relearn.
Gonzalez: It’s gotten better. But if you just look at where they started in 2000, the first cast, the first couple of casts, had like one Black person. One. And he couldn’t swim. I get that they’re making a show, but when you look at those first few seasons, they were taking into account certain things. And now, they’re silent. I can’t help but scratch my head like, “Come on guys, what is this about?” CBS came up with a little Black Tuesday post. Cool. They have to. CBS has to. But CBS “Survivor”? You go on their Instagram right now, you don’t see anything about anything. You have nothing to say? Their silence this last month, I’m having a hard time with it.
Lusth: Even in the last “Survivor” I was on, during the live reunion show, it was right after Trump got elected and I tried to use my small voice that I have to just make it very well known that I don’t agree with where the country is going and the divisiveness and the scapegoating and the racism and the hate. As somebody who has come from a different country and been raised here with a multi-ethnic family, I’ve seen the foundations of the United States ever since I was a little kid. I knew that this country has been built on slavery and genocide and it’s just always been so embarrassing ― embarrassing is not even strong enough a word.
But when I was a kid, I didn’t want to stand up for the Pledge of Allegiance because you learn about the history of what happened to the Native Americans and what happened with slavery and it’s always been just so astounding to me that we have this country that’s had blinders on for hundreds of years. With everything that’s happening now, it’s painful and there’s a lot that needs to be addressed, but I think that we’re taking the first steps of trying to heal the wounds that created this country.
Guzon-Bae: I just remember what was going on back then in 2006 and what people were saying and now, 14 years later, it’s still the same story. No one can say we worked hard for racial equality because it’s obvious there is none.
Gonzalez: “Survivor” has always been about pushing the envelope as far as how they break stuff up in the beginning. They’ve done race, they’ve done Millennials vs. Generation X, they’ve done old and young, men and women, privileged and unprivileged. They’ve done it all. They love the social aspect of it. So for them to push the envelope and be on that forefront of conversation and to see them silent right now? Literally crushes me, but it’s those dark truths. They’ve got a big platform and people look up to someone like Probst. And there are probably a lot of “Survivor” folks and fans who don’t agree with Black Lives Matter. And I don’t know, maybe they’re worried about that audience more than us. I have no ill will toward anyone, I just felt like, from what they want to represent, this would be something they’d be supportive of.
CBS did not return HuffPost’s request for comment, but in an earlier statement to NPR, the network said it condemns racism in all its forms and is committed to inclusive and safe production environments.
“In the spirit of partnership with former contestants, we have responded to the request from the Black Survivor Alliance to meet with representatives from the show and CBS, and we’re working together to set a time for this discussion,” the statement read.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
“Survivor: Cook Islands” is now streaming on Hulu.