Eight days before Desi Williams watches her latest adventure begin to unfold on national television, the former yoga instructor is trying to stay cool, calm and collected when she thinks about how the upcoming season of ‘Survivor’ will play out on screen.
Williams, a 28-year-old physical therapist and college professor from Newport News, Virginia, wasn’t crazy about the thought of sleeping outdoors. Surely, the Peachtree City native and McIntosh High School alumna isn’t the only Survivor contestant who’s been marooned with a fear of living among the animals and insects. After all, it’s not realistic to expect every Survivor contestant to be a rock climber who lives out of a car and camps in the wilderness on a regular basis.
We don’t know how Williams fared in the elements of Fiji, whether the harsh weather or pesky bug bites took too much of a toll on the former pageant queen. However, since filming wrapped up in May, a new fear has emerged for Williams: her edit.
“If you film me for 24 hours,” Williams said last week in a phone interview with Fayette Newspapers, “obviously I’m not going to be shown 24 hours per episode, so what 30-minute snip-its of what I said or what I did is going to be shown? And is the world going to hate me after the show or are they going to love me?”
Williams will soon find out her story when she relives Day 1 as a member of the Healers tribe on “Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers”, premiering Wednesday, Sept. 27 at 8 p.m. on CBS. The inaugural episode will mark the beginning of the 35th season of a show that pits strangers from all walks of life against each other, forcing them to build a society on an island and vote each other out one by one at Tribal Council until there is a Sole Survivor, winner of not only the title and glory, but also the million dollar prize. When the first season debuted in 2000, the show was billed as a test of survival. But, in the 17 years since, the show has evolved, shifting a focus to strategy that is aided by twists in the form of hidden immunity idols and advantages.
Williams said she watched Survivor when its first season aired, but wasn’t able to keep up with it past the first couple seasons. Almost a year ago, everything changed.
In October 2016, Williams was scrolling through her “Other Messages” inbox on Facebook when she stumbled upon a message from a Survivor casting director, telling her she’d be a great fit for the show. “I’m all in,” Williams feverishly responded to Survivor casting. “Just tell me what I have to do to get involved.”
The Hampton University college professor prepared for Survivor as if she was studying for the most important exam she’s ever taken. Williams approached her personal trainer and said, “I can’t tell you why, but I need to be in the best shape of my life.” She added swimming to her workouts and started putting together puzzles every day, readying herself for the physical and mental road blocks in the show’s regular reward and immunity challenges.
Williams binged a season and a half of Survivor the following Monday, beginning with Season 27 (Blood vs. Water) and working her way towards the most recent season, Survivor: Game Changers. As Williams watched the seasons in bulk, she became an obsessive fan of the show (one might even have mistaken her for a super duper fan at the time), not only viewing the episodes in succession, but also reading and listening to post-game analysis in between. She tuned into a popular Survivor podcast called Rob Has A Podcast, in which former Survivor contestant Rob Cesternino spends many hours each week breaking down the strategy of the game with various guests.
“He’s so detailed in his dissection of each episode that it made me think about components of the game and strategy that might be happening behind the scenes that, as a casual watcher, I might not have picked out,” Williams said. “I actually do think, and he’ll love to hear this I’m sure, that listening to Rob Has A Podcast was super helpful in mentally preparing me to play the game.”
Williams said the podcast she gained the most from was RHAP’s “Why ____ Lost” with reality television guru David Bloomberg, in which Bloomberg details in a step-by-step process, what the latest Survivor voted out of the game did wrong.
In addition to the endless hours devoted to pre-gaming, the former Miss Virginia said she felt her life experiences had already set her up for success in a game that is based upon social skills and getting others to like you.
“A huge part of pageants is impressing a panel of judges, which is essentially a panel of complete strangers, but you have to prove that through your body language and your reactions to how they’re reacting to you,” Williams said. “So it takes a lot of reading people and I would say the same is true for working as a physical therapist. I have patients as young as eight years old or as old as 98 years old, and so I’ve developed that skill to be able to effectively interact with people of all ages and get them all to buy into essentially what I’m selling in terms of their plan of care.”
This season consists of 18 contestants: six Heroes, six Healers and six Hustlers, separated into tribes based primarily on their occupation and how they conduct themselves in their daily lives. Williams began her adventure stranded on an island with five other Healers: 29-year-old Jessica Johnston, a nurse practitioner; 24-year-old Cole Medders, a wilderness therapy guide; 34-year-old Joe Mena, a probation officer; 27-year-old Roark Luskin, a social worker; and 43-year-old Mike Zahalsky, a urologist.
The Hollywood Reporter’s Josh Wigler sat down with each of the 18 contestants in Fiji days before the start of the game. While there, he asked each one what their first impressions were of the rest of the cast before they were allowed to speak to each other. Former NFL player and member of the Heroes tribe Alan Ball said of Williams, “She’s in shape. She’s in shape.” Ball also added, “She’s fiery, and I can tell she’s fiery.”
Zahalsky said he thought Williams would be the biggest threat in the game, and he wasn’t alone in that sentiment. Ryan Ulrich of the Hustlers tribe said Williams looked like a triple threat: “social, physical, strategic.” Wigler said in a podcast that, after he sat down with Williams, he was so impressed he almost made her his winner pick.
Some pegged Williams as an Olympic athlete, a gymnast or a bodybuilder in Wigler’s Hollywood Reporter profile of her. Williams said she was surprised to see others’ first impressions of her.
“It’s an extremely physically strong cast, and I knew coming in that physically I was strong without a doubt,” Williams said. “But I didn’t think—now I’m listening to podcasts and reading things about what people thought about me pregame—I didn’t think they would perceive me to be quite as intimidating as they did. Just looking around and seeing the 6-foot-4 men and the lifeguards of the group, I didn’t perceive myself to be a physical threat and now that I’m reading interviews, the opposite is true. They immediately pegged me as a physical threat and that shocked me.”
Before host and executive producer Jeff Probst announced the season’s theme, Williams spent much of her time in Ponderosa—a spot in Fiji where the cast is not allowed to talk with one another before the game—trying to discern how she and her castmates would be split.
“That’s all you speculate about for days and days as you look around and see the other players is like how are they going to divide us,” Williams said. “What is this all about?”
Williams’ best guess was a third iteration of Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty, the theme of Seasons 28 and 32. In her bio on CBS.com, Williams compares herself to Tasha Fox, a member of the Brains tribe in the 28th season, Survivor: Cagayan. She found herself to be like Tasha for a similar reason Ulrich pegged Williams to be the “biggest threat.”
Williams said she hoped to emulate her game after Season 29 winner Natalie Anderson. One of eight winners to never have a vote cast against her, Anderson was known for successfully pulling off several blindsides—the fancy word for voting a player out of the game when they least expect it—en route to the million dollars.
When she arrived in Fiji, Williams was ready to dive head first into the game—especially since she spent a ton of time working on her swimming before she flew out to Fiji—but she admitted the initial decision to go on Survivor was a difficult one.
“You’re probably insane if you have no hesitation,” Williams said.
In times of doubt, both before the game and once she started playing on the island, Williams thought of the woman who is the biggest inspiration in her life.
“I can remember one of the last conversations I had with her,” Williams said of her grandmother, who passed away a few years ago. “She just reminded me that day in and day out, all of my successes are not mine and mine alone and there’s always a higher power and a higher being with me. And that was important for me to remind myself of on the island.
“It’s very easy to get caught up in Survivor and forget that there’s still real life beyond the game of Survivor. But knowing that my story’s already written and that I’ve got a higher power looking out for my well-being, and ultimately the outcome of my life, was the biggest reminder that I had of my grandmother out there.”
For more pregame coverage of Desi Williams and the other 17 contestants, check out Josh Wigler’s writing and podcasting at The Hollywood Reporter.