Q&A: How drama cut Chelsea Walker’s time on “Survivor” short.
When “Survivor” is a dream – and a let down for one South Jersey native
By Jayne Jacova Feld

Photo: CBS Broadcasting

Chelsea Walker was just a kid growing up in Marlton when “Survivor” became a hit TV series 21 years ago. Despite her young age – she was in second grade – the 8-year-old was hooked and vowed to someday become a contestant on the CBS reality show.

She made her first audition tape while in college and auditioned 5 more times before finally making it onto Season 39, “Survivor: Island of the Idols.” Hers was the last group of new cast members brought to Fiji before Covid shut down production in 2020. A digital content editor now living in Los Angeles, Walker says it was a dream come true – even though it didn’t exactly live up to her expectations. She was the 4th in her group of 20 voted off the island. Only, she didn’t find out why until months later, when everything was wrapped up and the show finally aired on TV.

Q: Why did you become such a “Survivor” superfan?

As a kid, my mom, dad and 2 older brothers would gather around the TV on Thursday nights to watch new episodes. I love the competitive aspect – playing for money, the lying and deceiving, the fact that regular people compete. I was the only one in my friend group to watch it, but I’ve always thought it was the best reality show of all time.

Q: How did you finally get cast?

I started applying when I was 21. That first audition tape is still on YouTube, and has over 100,000 views. But I always tell people not to do what I did on that video. It was very gimmicky and funny, but I never got a call back from it. I did get phone calls from casting multiple times, and 3 times I made it to the final stage. Most people will do that once and either get on the show or stop applying.

They knew me, but for some reason or another, I didn’t fit the theme or they went with someone else. But I never gave up. That 6th and final year, I found a way to get my tape to [host/producer] Jeff Probst directly. I wrote him a whole letter pitching myself, and the rest is history.

Q: How did you prepare?

I put my life on hold, joined 3 gyms and put on 10 pounds of muscle. I cut out coffee and was being super healthy. I pretty much was only going to work and to the gym twice a day. I spent a lot of time studying puzzles and watching old episodes because a lot of times they’ll bring back old challenges. I wish I didn’t put my life on pause as much, then again if I had done really well on the show, I’d be speaking about this totally differently.

Q: So what happened?

I had no idea at the time – I was completely blindsided and so devastated. It wasn’t until we all were back in the United States and I got to connect with the rest of the cast that I finally got to ask what happened. At this point the game is over, but no one had a good explanation for me, so I really didn’t get any peace of mind. I was told it was a very last-minute decision that someone threw my name out there, and it was just the last name thrown out. But that didn’t make sense. It wasn’t until the show was being aired and I saw a preview for that episode showing footage of me and [contestant] Dean [Kowalski] cuddling that I realized they were going to portray it as a show-mance.

Q: What do you think about how your vote off the island was explained?

I get it from a production standpoint, you need to have some sort of narrative and I was voted out so early. Dean and I were very good allies and friends, but that’s it. Everyone cuddles out there on the island – you have no blankets, you’re freezing in the dirt, and you’re moving to new locations every night. Did anything change when you returned? After the show, when I was working as a video content producer at IMDB, a couple cool opportunities popped up that helped me get better at my job. I got to do a sitdown interview with Jeff Probst and cover the “Survivor” Season 40 red carpet for IMDB’s web coverage. I pitched and created a life after “Survivor” series. But when the pandemic hit, IMDB laid off most of its video department and now my life is pretty much back to normal.

Q: What advice do you have for getting on the show?

Turn on your camera and just talk. At the end of the day, “Survivor” wants to cast people who are good storytellers, and not someone who is super edited and produced. They will quickly catch on that that is fake because you do multiple interviews throughout the casting process.

Q: Are reality TV shows out of your system now?

I’m not actively seeking out shows but I was recently cast with one of my friends on the “Legends of the Hidden Temple” reboot on the CW Network. It was one of my favorite shows on Nickelodeon. It was a one-and-done thing and really fun to do in the moment. But seeing the final product I thought, “Oh, this is not great.”

Despite the “Survivor” experience not being what I hoped, I’m glad I did it – I got to live out a childhood dream. I wanted to get much further in the game, but at least I got on. And if they reached back out to me to return, it would be “yes” – in a heartbeat. But I’m not sitting around waiting for that phone call, because I don’t expect it.

December 2021
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