Can you believe that Survivor has been on the air since 2000 (based on the Swedish show Expedition Robinson, which debuted in 1997)? The long-running reality competition series throws competitors from across America into the wild, in remote islands in places like Malaysia, Brazil, Panama, and Fiji, leaving them to fend for themselves. They must build shelter, catch their own food (limited quantities of rice are provided), start fires, and, well, survive.
All the while, they’re being filmed 24/7, and must compete in physically and mentally grueling challenges for safety from being voted out, and rewards (never will you see someone salivate so much over a PB&J or pizza than on this show). Naturally, scheming, forging alliances, and finding mystery “idols” that award instant safety is par for the course.
Over the years, the game has changed dramatically. It has spawned strategies like the “blindside” eviction, swing votes, and “flipping” sides. We can think the original winner Richard Hatch for coining the term “alliance” in the first place.
Every player has his own strategy, like the vocal leader calling the shots, the secret ninja playing both sides, the amazing social player, or the competition beast. Each of the past 37 winners has won for different reasons. In some cases, they totally deserved to win. In others, well, not so much. Just as Survivor has crowned its 38th winner (spoiler alert: it was Chris Underwood), here are five of the most and least deserving winners thus far.
10 “Boston” Rob Mariano: Most Deserving
Playing four times, “Boston” Rob Mariano not only won Survivor: Redemption Island, but he also married Amber, a fellow castmate and former winner (she beat him in the final two on Survivor: All-Stars). So technically, he won twice. Forget the fact that he had to try four (!) times before winning.
Boston Rob totally deserved to win (eventually) for his smart and devious gameplay, while still remaining likable to others. A true leader, one could say that the fact that he played four times before winning, and thus everyone already knew his M.O., makes it all the more impressive that he still managed to outwit, outplay, and outlast everyone to take home the grand prize. Rob will returning to Survivor for its upcoming 39th season in a new mentorship role.
9 John Cochran: Most Deserving
Known simply as “Cochran,” this Survivor superfan played on two seasons, Survivor: South Pacific and Survivor: Caramoan, and was the sole survivor for the latter. Considered an underdog the first time around, Cochran switched the script when he returned and took on a more dominant, leadership role.
From secret alliances to blindsides and savvy political moves, he weaved his way around every eviction, and won competitions, too. In the end, John won by a unanimous vote, being one of only two people to achieve this “perfect game” status.
8 Parvati Shallow: Most Deserving
Winning Survivor: Micronesia after first playing on Survivor: Cook Islands (she also later appeared on Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains), Parvati flirted her way around camp.
It didn’t work the first time around, but when she returned, she used her ability to gain the attention of the men against them and created a secret all-female alliance called the Black Widow Brigade. She’s made it to the finals twice, proving her cunning, manipulative, and strategic gameplay paid off.
7 Tony Vlachos: Most Deserving
He was constantly paranoid, running around like a chicken with his head cut off half the time, trying too hard to make deals and secure his safety. But even though he might have played too hard, Tony was a great leader who set himself up for success.
He made his own “spy shacks” to listen in on tribemates, searched for and found several hidden Immunity Idols, turned on his own alliance when he needed to, and even convinced Woo to take him to the final two in Survivor: Cagayan instead of Kass, who Woo likely would have won against. With an 8-1 vote, it’s clear the players respected Tony’s game. He returned to play on Survivor: Game Changers.
6 Sarah Lacina: Most Deserving
We have to give the girl props for keeping her occupation as a police officer a secret from everyone when she first appeared on the series in Survivor: Cagayan. But she was blindsided anyway, and used her knowledge of the game to adjust her strategy for Survivor: Game Changers, on which she emerged victorious.
Playing much more aggressively this time, she acquired a few advantages in the game, had a great social game, and played a role in her own share of blindsides. With the vote split by three that season, she won 7-3-0.
5 Sandra Diaz-Twine: Least Deserving
Hear us out: we love Sandra. She’s awesome. But the game is called “survivor” and the only surviving she did was run her mouth from the sidelines. Sure, this was a strategy in and of itself – sit back, relax, don’t win any competitions, ruffle a few feathers, and cause chaos when needed. It makes sense, and clearly worked for Sandra who won not once, but twice, in Survivor: Pearl Islands and Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains.
Sure, many call her one of the best players ever, and a master of the low-profile gameplay. But it is Survivor, after all, not Big Brother. So we can’t give her that distinction. Clearly, though, the franchise believes she has some valuable insight to offer, as Sandra will be appearing alongside Rob Mariano in the upcoming 39th season of the series, where the pair will be mentoring a new cast of players.
4 Jud “Fabio” Birza: Least Deserving
Referred to as “Fabio” given his chiseled body, classic good looks, and flowing blonde locks, Jud was a fun player. But a deserving winner? No. Most of us let out a big WTF when he took home the prize in Survivor: Nicaragua. He often had nothing to do with votes and found himself voting on his own.
Maybe he did secretly know what was going on, and claims his strategy was to “lay low.” But being likable and winning competitions simply isn’t enough to be considered a deserving winner. Still, he pulled it out, winning by just one vote over Chase Rice.
3 Tina Wesson: Least Deserving
Going way back to the early days, Tina won Survivor: The Australian Outback, and she returned to compete on Survivor: All Stars and Survivor: Blood vs. Water. Considered the camp mom, she’s yet another to claim she played a low-key game. But she really didn’t do much to justify the win, and only won by a single vote against Colby Donaldson.
As the first female Sole Survivor, it’s a shame that Tina didn’t get a bit more blood on her hands and make some savvy moves to truly make female players that came after her proud of the trail she blazed.
2 Natalie White: Least Deserving
Winning Survivor: Samoa, this southern belle played the same game that most others on the least deserving list played – the “under-the-radar” game.
Latching herself on to notorious Survivor villain Russell Hantz, she used him as her shield while she remained likable. Anyone, after all, would look like a saint beside Russell. So a gorgeous, sweet, and totally likable woman? It’s no surprise she outlasted them all. But outwit? Not so much.
1 Vecepia Towery: Least Deserving
Considered to be the season with the most underwhelming final two, Vecepia won Survivor: Marquesas and fans engaged in a collective, unenthusiastic slow cap. Sure, she flip-flopped from one alliance to another, but she played the quiet, unassuming game that is so not what Survivor should be about.
It’s one thing to play an under-the-radar yet still very strategic game while letting the big mouths ruin their own games. Parvati and John are perfect examples that it can be done. But it’s a complete other non-strategy to follow the lead of others and claim yourself a deserving winner.