Interview with “Survivor”‘s Todd Herzog

Move over Richard Hatch, Survivor has a new gay winner. He may only be twenty-two, but Todd Herzog has been watching the show since he was fifteen.

The diminutive flight attendant dominated Survivor: China from day one when he cleverly manipulated another player into taking the leadership role for their tribe. He stayed a major power player for the next thirty nine days, yet somehow managed to keep the bull’s-eye off his own back.
In fact, he played so well, the jury voted 4 to 2 to award him the million dollar prize, thereby becoming the first openly gay man to win since Richard Hatch took home the big prize in the very first season.

So how did Todd do it? We chatted with him about the show, his strategy, and being a gay Mormon. Congratulations on winning the million dollars.
Todd Herzog:
Thank you so much.

AE: Are you surprised to
have actually won?
A little, yeah. I kind of thought Courtney had it or it would be a tie
between the two of us. It’s still overwhelming, you know? I’m kind of freaked

AE: I imagine. Just don’t forget to pay your taxes!
Right! I don’t want to end up like Richard Hatch.

AE: You’ve said you’ve been watching Survivor since you were fifteen. What drew you to the show?
I think it was just so different at the time. I
remember thinking, "Wait! Is this like a home video camera taken to an
island?" And I started watching, the seasons went by, and I kept thinking how
amazing the challenges looked. I had a huge desire to go for it. I knew as soon
as I was twenty-one, I would audition.

AE: As most folks know, Richard Hatch won that first Survivor. Did his being an out gay man
impact your fifteen-year-old self at all?
Richard Hatch, I honestly thought, was a dirt bag. It kind of bothered
me that he was so cocky. The thing I find so funny is that they are comparing
me a lot to him. I’m the "young" Richard Hatch.

But the fact that he was out, I remember thinking — I was so young at the time — but when he was on
there, I thought, "That’s weird. He’s like old and gay." I thought
only twenty-somethings were allowed to be gay. [laughs]

AE: Survivor has a history of
gay-inclusiveness going back to Hatch. As a gay man, did you feel any
pressure to represent the gay community?
I absolutely did. It was my goal to show that we can be represented in
all lights. You see gay men on TV now ranging from clichéd ways to very different
ways, and I wanted to say, "Look, I am who I am and I’m proud of it."
I especially wanted young guys to know it’s okay to be who you are.

AE: We never saw if you were out to your fellow tribe members, so I’m
curious if you were?
Yeah, the very first night actually, Leslie asked me something to the
extent of, "So tell me, what obstacles have you overcome in your life,
Todd, to become the man you are today?" It was her way of saying,
"Are you gay?" [laughs] I was just like, "Yeah, I’ve overcome a
lot. I am gay." It was no secret, but at first everyone thought Aaron [pictured left] was
the gay guy. Then they realized it was me.

AE: How did Leslie react? You guys seemed close, despite her being a
Christian radio host.

TH: You know, Leslie respects everybody. She’s amazing, this lady. She has
respect for everyone no matter what color they are, what they’ve seen, if they
do drugs or they drink, she loves everybody. She says they’re all God’s
children. She respects that. She’s one amazing woman.

AE: Was coming out a strategic decision? Everything you did seemed
calculated to win. It’s not hard to imagine someone like Jean-Robert [pictured right] having a
problem with gay people.
Jean-Robert was really, really, really homophobic. But I knew that by
letting the girls know [I’m gay] they could feel comfortable around me and that I
could make a tighter alliance with them. With Amanda,
Courtney, Peih-Gee, and Denise being in the finals with me, I knew I needed to
take the girls because the girls feel more comfortable around the gay guy.

AE: So Jean-Robert was homophobic? I kind of got that impression.
He was extremely homophobic. He had a lot of opinions on it, saying,
"It’s wrong. It’s a choice," things like that. But I think getting to
know me really changed his mind quite a bit, because he told me that out of a
lot of gay guys he’s met, I surprised him. He’d always thought that the gay
culture was to sleep around and drink and party and do drugs, and he was
shocked that that’s just not me.

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