The Mt. Rushmore of Survivor Confessional Givers

Over 46 seasons of Survivor, who are the most impactful top 4 confessional givers?

Mt. Buffmore

It’s been almost 25 years since the debut of SURVIVOR changed television and the world. So many aspects of SURVIVOR revolutionized television but often overlooked is the impact of the confessional interview. While Survivor fans often cite the cast as being one of the reasons they fell in love with the show - it is the confessional interview that is the device that allows us that access.

I would assume that most people reading this specific post written by me would know what a confessional interview is… but just in case, the confessional interviews are the moments when reality show participants are talking to a producer, away from the rest of the cast, to give us their thoughts about what’s happening. 

The confessional interviews were not invented by Survivor. The confessional interviews had been used for almost a decade earlier on the Real World and for even longer in documentaries. However, the success of Survivor made the use of the confessional as a story-telling device commonplace. Since 2000, confessional interviews are everywhere we look from the entirety of the reality TV landscape, many scripted TV comedies, news and documentaries and even social media.

Getting to hear the private thoughts of our reality TV characters allowed us to understand and connect with the people we were watching in ways that were brand new to audiences. That’s what this newsletter aims to do - to allow your favorite reality TV players to have a space to let you know what they’re thinking in a brand new way.

As we discuss the art of the confessional, I have put a lot of thought about who were the most important confessional givers in the 24-year history of US Survivor. After weeks of careful consideration, I have narrowed this list down to my Mt. Rushmore of Survivor Confessional givers.

“Boston” Rob Mariano

Rob on Rotu

There were so many great confessional givers from the early days of Survivor. The Survivor Borneo cast was stacked with incredible, colorful characters. Richard Hatch was the uber-confident narrator convinced he would win from the start. Rudy was a phenom that had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. Sue, Greg, Colleen… they were all real and compelling. The Australian Outback gave us Colby who gave us every Texas one-liner in the book and became a superstar.

All of these aforementioned personalities are worthy of consideration but I think there was one early Survivor player that truly elevated the medium. In Survivor Marquesas, Survivor audiences were first introduced to a 25-year construction worker named Rob Mariano.  

In my opinion, Boston Rob was the first Survivor player to create a true connection with the people at home watching the show. Prior to Rob, we watched our heroes be interviewed about their role in the game but to me, Boston Rob looked through the camera and spoke TO the audience. He always would tell it tell it you “like it is” even if he said something different to the other players.

The viewer was his confidant that he would share his most cutting assessments of the other players. There was a connection with the viewer that came easy for Rob in a way that no other player had been able to establish prior to him.

His game was wildly aggressive. He quoted The Godfather and told us how he was going to control the tribe through fear. We watched in disbelief as he took out Hunter, who seemed like the epitome of what a tribe leader should be on Survivor.

Eventually, he wound up on the other tribe and he was the perfect foil to go up against the over-confident Rotu. While it was not a deep run in Survivor: Marquesas, Boston Rob was cast on Survivor: All-Stars despite not even making the jury due to the popularity fostered by his ability to connect with the audience.

Boston Rob would make the most of his second chance on Survivor: All-Stars. He teamed up with Amber, took us all out of the running and has been a staple of our reality TV screens across 6 seasons of Survivor, 2 seasons of THE AMAZING RACE and now DEAL OR NO DEAL ISLAND.

Boston Rob was a huge influence on a young impressionable person like me watching these shows and dreaming of Survivor. While I didn’t imagine myself playing a game like Boston Rob, I was amazed by the way he connected with the audience through talking to the camera. Rob Mariano and Dr. Will Kirby from BIG BROTHER 2 were my own two biggest personal inspirations for how I told myself I would want to be on Reality TV. 

While there are many others who would follow and do different versions of what Boston Rob was able to do, he got here first and that’s why he gets my first spot on my Mt. Rushmore.

Cirie Fields

Cirie in Panama

If Boston Rob was the first person to connect directly with the viewer, Cirie Fields WAS the viewer. 

I’ve always said that it was a disservice to Cirie Fields that Survivor presented her as an “every woman” and the role model for why ANYONE can come out on Survivor when Cirie was one of the most gifted players that the show has ever seen. However, the idea that Cirie IS the person sitting watching the show is a huge part of the appeal that Cirie had on the audiences of Survivor: Panama.

Cirie, famously, was the woman who got up off the couch - but her superpowers to connect with the players on the island was only matched by her ability to connect with those still back in the living room. Cirie did not fit the traditional bill of what we expected in a Survivor player. She hadn’t had any previous experiences outdoors and revealed she was afraid of leaves.

When we met her, she was in disbelief that she was part of the “older women” tribe despite being only 35 at the time. It was a birth by fire into the game for Cirie as she was headed to her season’s first tribal council in a group of only four women. She aligned with the other women to turn things around on Timber Tina, a woman who had all of the outdoors experience that Cirie was lacking.

In Survivor: Panama, Cirie was the perfect narrator to describe the lunacy of the Casaya tribe. While largely discounted as a serious player by the tribe, we were able to see how well she understood what was happening better than any other player.

Her master stroke in Survivor: Panama was how she engineered the 3-2-1 vote split to take out Courtney. It was a move that left Survivor fans in awe and caused Shane Powers to describe her at the reunion as a “Gangster in an Oprah suit”. While she didn’t win that season, she won a truck for being Fan Favorite and would soon be back on Survivor. 

When she returned for Fans vs. Favorites, she was our narrator describing all of the wild showmances and eccentric personalities that she played with. Cirie is also responsible for giving us one of the all-time Survivor highlights in the vote out of Erik Reichenbach when he gives up his necklace. That sequence played out so memorably because it's Cirie who outlines exactly how it's going to go down before we watch Erik’s downfall play out in slow motion. 

There’s also one other moment in Cirie’s career that I believe truly changed the show. Cirie's most recent Survivor appearance (I don’t dare say final these days) came in Survivor: Game Changers. There was a reward challenge where the contestants had to cross a balance beam on the water and Cirie repeatedly could not get across. After the challenge had ended, Jeff Probst encouraged Cirie to keep trying and she finally walked across the balance beam. 

The players that were there all recognized Cirie walking across the balance beam as a moment that transcended the game for them. Many viewers have also cited this as being a particularly moving moment as a viewer of the show. I believe that this moment actually was the backdoor pilot for what Survivor has become in the new era. Only one person will win the show but for the rest of the players, we are seeing their journey and how the triumphs of these players are proof that we too can overcome adversity.  

Cirie walking across the balance beam was clearly an important moment for the show and I understand why Survivor would want to recreate the emotion of that moment. However, in practice it’s important to remember that the reason that sequence was so powerful was the decade plus mythology built around the woman who became an avatar for the audience. The triumph wasn’t because she crossed the balance beam, the triumph was because it was important to Cirie.

Courtney Yates

Courtney Yates

The first two people I put up on the Mt. Rushmore are here because they changed the way that the audience connected with the players. Many others followed Boston Rob and Cirie and gave us confessionals in a similar vain. The next person that I am putting up on Mt. Rushmore is here because they were a complete original and one of the best to ever do it. That person is Courtney Yates from Survivor: China and Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains

Both Boston Rob and Cirie Fields are two of the greatest Survivor players to ever play the game. Survivor history has given us numerous players who ran the game and served as the narrator for their season. Courtney Yates’ unique persona is one that of a person that is NOT talking about running the game. Courtney's persona seems to be that of a person who does not even want to be on Survivor. 

Courtney used the confessional as her primary outlet to keep her sanity in Survivor: China. We first meet her expressing her frustration with visiting the Buddhist temple to start the season. She would tell us that her tribe was not the type of people she likes being around and how they’re nothing like the people she spends time with in New York.

Courtney was forced to endure Jean-Robert throughout the season. When the other players wanted to keep him around, she turned to us in her confessionals to express her frustration.

Courtney treated us like her co-worker who would gripe about everything that was on her mind. She's our best friend that we meet for coffee and listen to her complain about everything that’s happened and leave us laughing the entire time.

While Courtney was never the strongest member of the tribe (though she won more individual immunities than James Clement), her super power was always her realness. While many of the Survivor greats can smile to your face before they stick a knife in your back - Courtney seems incapable of being phony with the other contestants or with us at home. 

Courtney endured numerous offenses and slights from the other players, and occasionally Jeffrey Probst, but never backed down. She was a perennial underdog during both of her Survivor stints which made her easy to root for.

Despite not having appeared on Survivor screens since “Heroes vs. Villains” in 2010, she’s always mentioned as a fan-favorite and a person that both new players and viewers aspire to be like. Courtney Yates is the epitome of the snarky Reality Show contestant.  

Carolyn Wiger

Carolyn Wiger

The final person for the Mt. Rushmore of Survivor confessionals was the most difficult for me to nail down. In the era of following Heroes vs Villains, Survivor started to get extremely meta. As more and more super fans entered the arena, they recognized more and more what the TV show was going to look and sound like as they were filming it. 

John Cochran really started the meta Survivor movement with his game in Survivor: South Pacific and cemented it in Survivor: Caramoan. Post Cochran, came other gifted confessional givers like Aubrey, David Wright, Zeke, Ryan Ulrich and Christian Hubicki. Any of those people would be worthy additions to this list.

In putting together this list at this moment, I thought it would be appropriate to recognize somebody from the New Era. To me, nobody redefined what the confessional could be more than Carolyn Wiger. Survivor 44 opens on a confessional from Carolyn. She does not even seem to understand the exercise that she is about to give a confessional to the audience. 

When Survivor 44 aired, it had been 10 years since Cochran played on South Pacific and all the meta-confessionalists that followed - Carolyn was the antithesis of that. Carolyn marked a return to the authenticity of a Survivor contestant that wasn’t thinking about these interviews as part of a TV show.  

We actually hear a producer, Clark, asking Carolyn to talk about herself and she is struggling to answer the prompt. It’s jarring because Survivor hasn’t traditionally let us hear the questions the producers are asking the players - even though we understand that happens. More importantly, the fact that Carolyn doesn’t have a neatly honed soundbite at the ready is what makes her so refreshing. In a role reversal, it’s now us in the audience who are armed with all the meta knowledge about Survivor watching an authentic person be subjected to a process we know and understand fully.

Throughout the course of the season, we saw Carolyn experience the game of Survivor first hand. She found a real idol in a bird cage and planted a fake one. She made close allies and then feuded with them at times. She felt discounted at times by the other players and shared those feelings with us as genuinely as possible.

At the end of the season, we get a confessional from Carolyn that bookends the season. We see Carolyn on Day 26 asking the same producer if he remembered that first interview she gave. She admits that she herself didn’t think she would make the merge, let alone make it to the game’s final tribal council. 

Many viewers were surprised that Carolyn didn’t get more votes at the final tribal council, even sitting next to an extremely worthy winner in Yam Yam. That disconnect between how the jury saw Carolyn and how the viewers at home saw Carolyn was a testament to how powerful Carolyn was as the narrator of her own story. 

In the past, a person like Carolyn would not have been depicted from her own perspective. Carolyn would have most likely been seen through the eyes of other players in their confessionals and played only for comic relief. The choice and direction to depict Carolyn as a three-dimensional figure was one of the most positive outcomes of Survivor in the New Era and it’s largely due to her skills in the confessional.

There’s no doubt that the list of snubs for this list is endless. Did I leave out somebody obvious? I’d love to hear your own list of who is on YOUR Mt. Rushmore. If you’re subscribed, you can leave your own top 4 in the comments on this post.

Looking forward to having a lot more fun with you here every week on The Confessional

-Rob Cesternino

PS Want more reality TV content? Become a Rob Has a Podcast patron


or to participate.