Why Michele Didn’t Have A Winner’s Story (Even Though She Won)

So, I’m sitting on my couch on Wednesday, May 18, watching Jeff ascend to the stage of the live finale with the urn in hand, about to announce whether Aubry, Tai or Michele was about to become the new Survivor champion. Like every season at this point, I wait with breathless anticipation for those votes to be revealed. After witnessing the final tribal council, I’m confident where the votes are going to go. The person who I thought had played the best game, the person who I had deemed the focus of the narrative the entire season, the person who I perceived to be getting the mythical “Winner’s Edit” was going to be declared the winner of Survivor: Kaôh Rōng.

Then the votes were read, Michele won the game, and I was dumbfounded.

Throughout the entire season, I had been an Aubry person. From early on in the season, I latched onto her, and as the season went along and her story gained more traction as she emerged as a real power player, I became pretty convinced that she would be the eventual winner. But how could you ignore the “Michele truthers”, you ask? I was certainly aware of them and did think that their argument held a lot of merits. But I never fully committed to the idea for one simple reason: Michele wasn’t the focus of the overall arc of the season and, therefore, I believed, didn’t have the narrative support like Aubry did.

My belief in Aubry’s story over Michele’s was rooted in the deep-seated knowledge I have after watching Survivor for so many years. The winners are often the focus of the narrative because they’re often the players driving the action in the game, but this is an instance where that keyword “often” comes into play. A player who was on the fringes of the narrative ended up being the winner this season, and it surprised me, despite all of the evidence that was staring me right in the face.


Now that the season is all said and done, and the ending to the story has been told, I’ll gladly admit to a mea culpa. But I’ll also say I was justified in believing in Aubry the entire way because the ending kind of proved me correct as well. You see, over the course of the season, I was reminded of something crucial that all Survivor fans should remember going forward. The story of the season isn’t created in the edit, but as it happens out on the island, and that the producers are ultimately beholden to the story that happens while the castaways are playing the game.

That’s not to say that the producers don’t create things through the edit – they absolutely do. The entire language of Edgic, between rating, tone, and visibility, is based on all of the creative storytelling decisions the editors make in post-production, but those decisions are rooted in the decisions and actions the players make in the game. It’s a simple idea, but one I think people sometimes forget. I often see chatter online making statements like “why couldn’t player x have gotten a bigger edit” or “if player x had a different outcome, they would have had a different outcome.” Yes, it’s fun to think about those hypotheticals, but it’s also rather fruitless. The narrative happened exactly one way, with defined groups of main, supporting and bit characters, and that’s what the editors have to translate into a TV show for us at home. To quote a certain Survivor Know-It-All, each Survivor player is the hero of their own narrative, but it’s the editors’ job to coalesce all of those stories together into one cohesive story that tries to stay true to what happened on the island to the best of their ability.

(Side Rant: Can we please as a community stop saying what “content” any given player has during any given episode? The players are not collections of data on an Excel spreadsheet, they’re real, living people, who each have their own story, so let’s stop describing them as such please?)


The reason why I flag this idea up as being important is that this season, more so than any other season in a long time, really highlighted the difference between the “edit” of the season and the “story” of the season, especially in the context of the winner. Looking at the individual stories of Aubry and Michele, now knowing the ending to the entire season arc, it’s easy to see the discrepancy between the Aubry truthers and the Michele truthers. This result is being compared to several jury decisions from the past, most notably Natalie White besting Russell Hantz in Survivor: Samoa. The standard interpretation of that season’s narrative is not “Why Natalie won”, but rather, “Why Russell lost”, after playing one of the most aggressively strategic games in history, but one that diminished and put off a lot of the jury members. Using that same logic, it’s easy to say that the story of this season could be interpreted in similar terms, but I don’t think that’s the case.

Rather than “Why Aubry lost”, the story was “Why Aubry could have won but she didn’t.” Sure, that’s a reductive statement that could be true in any Survivor season, but the reason I believe it rings truer this time is that Aubry was the driving force behind the strategy of the game, which is what dictates the narrative of the show.

It certainly helps that Aubry was a superb confessional-giver, providing narration that was thoughtful and articulate, giving the audience a great window into what was happening on the island. Plus, she had a great growth narrative, going from somebody freaking out over the harsh conditions, to someone making huge moves in the game and proving her mettle in the challenges; making a transformation from “neurotic nerd to a geek warrior.” She overcame enormous obstacles along the way, from medivaced allies to super idols, culminating in a triumphant fire-making challenge victory that sealed her spot at the final tribal council. A moment like that would have been the perfect capper to a great winner’s story. But alas, it didn’t happen.


Contrast that with Michele. While Aubry was doing things on the island to create a winner’s story, Michele was saying things in the confessionals to create a winner’s edit. From what I saw, a lot of the Michele winner’s edit argument centered around Michele being inserted where she didn’t need to be to increase her visibility while saying things that are textbook winner’s edit quotes. All of those Michele confessionals feel out of place because they weren’t relevant to the main action of the story because Michele was never a leading player on the island. The first time she really had to make a decision that impacted her game was the Julia vote at the Final 7, her most visible episode up to that point. All of the Michele moments before that stuck out so noticeably because they were irrelevant to the story being told up to that point.

All of this may seem obvious in hindsight, but I think it’s important to highlight just how unusual Michele’s story was for a winner, and how the editors had to present that to the audience at home. To compare this to a previous season, look at Mike Holloway during Survivor: Worlds Apart. While this season was going on, I heard chatter comparing Michele’s edit to Mike’s, but I think they couldn’t be farther apart (worlds apart, even). Mike was a main character for the entire season and, after his auction blow-up, was THE character the story revolved around, as his immunity streak allowed him to be a driving force of the action for the last chunk of the game.

Michele was almost the opposite, somebody who was on the fringes for a majority of the story and only graduated from supporting player to leading player very late in the season. What they had in common was the overbearing presence of their edit, with them getting a lot of screentime saying stereotypical winner things. They were two completely different stories packaged in a similar way, which is why I was so skeptical of the Michele truthers along the way. Michele may have had the winner’s edit, but she didn’t have the story of a winner.

From a game point of view, while I was rooting for Aubry, I think Michele is a very worthy winner. She made strong relationships with the jury members while being a genial, warm, steady person in the game, and won a couple of key challenges to boot. All great ingredients in winning Survivor. I’ll admit that it took me awhile to see the reasons why Michele’s game would trump Aubry’s, but now thinking back, I realize that the signs in the story were there. She was nervous at times, lacked conviction at tribal council, and didn’t announce her big moves to the jury. All these things could have hurt her in the end, but they were all coupled with, what I perceived to be, a great game that served as the basis for a strong season-long narrative. It just didn’t happen. Instead, the majority of the votes went to Michele, somebody whose game isn’t as TV-friendly, as it ultimately didn’t create as many plot points that the season could rely on.

From a storytelling perspective, Michele’s win is an historical anomaly. She might be the least relevant person, respective to their season’s overall arc, to ever win Survivor – but I think that’s wonderful in its own way. It shows that, just like there’s no one right way to win Survivor, there’s no one right way to tell the story of how someone won Survivor. For those hoping that Kaôh Rōng will inform how future seasons are edited, I say don’t hold your breath. This one was just a really weird story, an outlier compared to a lot of the seasons that came before, and (hopefully) the many seasons that come after. An exciting and suspenseful outlier nonetheless, filled with great characters, big moments, and a truly memorable ending that will live on in Survivor lore for years to come.

Photo Credit: Happytimeblog via Compfight cc

Ian, from Chicago, Illinois, graduated with a Communications major and an English minor and is now navigating adult life the best he can. He has been a fan of Survivor since Pearl Islands aired when he was 11 years old, back when liking Rupert was actually cool.

  • ShihoMT

    it’s a well deserved win. I won’t expect again based on edits next season, because its bull. but she did pulled a good game, only she was overshadowed by Aubry’s more aggressive game, and Tai’s over the top antics.

  • Zeli

    To bring it to Russell Hantz – there was a actually similar story to his and that was “Why Tai lost?” – somebody who started SO likeable and even towards the end was perceived as a big threat.

  • Oowatanite

    The main problem I had with the editing was the many WTF votes from the jurors. Joe and Julia’s votes were straight forward. Nick’s vote had some foreshadowing with his comments about Aubry the few days they spent together.

    Cyd’s vote was surprising because the Cyd/Aub relationship was explored and the Cyd/Mich (close) relationship was ignored. This I feel was a major editing error, especially when the editors were scrambling to find stuff to show why Mich won other than repetitive winner like confessionals, most of which didn’t come to fruition.

    The votes of Debbie, Scot and Jason were completely out of left field. Debbie praises Aub at the FTC and then bitterly votes against her ? Scot and Jason are shown to praise Aub at several points in the post-merge episodes and then they both bitterly vote against her ?

    I venture to guess that Probst was pissed off at the final vote tally and that was reflected in the awesome edit Aubry got versus the terrible edit Michele got. Maybe he wanted the viewers to be as pissed off as he was with the result.

  • Red

    I think that some other winners were also not the main focus of the season
    Tina – Was Overshadowed by just about everyone else
    Ethan – Lex was the bigger Focus
    Vescepia – She was never the main narrator
    Jenna – Rob owned it
    Amber – Arguable
    Danni – Case of why Steph lost
    Aras – It was the Terry story
    Bob- I don’t think there was a main story
    Natalie – As mentioned
    Sandra – Parv and Russell owned it
    Sophie – Coach was the Focus
    Natalie – I never saw her as the focus

    • Greg

      Aras = it was the story of CIRIE
      Bob = Why Sugar lost
      Amber = Why Rob lost

      Natalie Anderson was the focus of the second half of SJDS

  • Jonjon

    I think Tina from Australian Outback is the only winner I can think of that had a similar path than Michele.

    • José Zepeda

      Really? What about VESCEPCIA from S4, Marquesas?

      Her game story is pretty much same as Michelles.
      Only notable at the end-

  • Mat

    I think people are trying to over-analyze Michele’s win and it’s starting to make me really uncomfortable. She won. Period.

    Aubry played a great game, really entertaining. But she lost. She wasn’t visbile eough. She doubted too much. Anyways. She lost because Michele was a better player for that season.

    That being said, I think Kaoh Rong is my favorite season of Survivor (and I started to watch Survivor from One World) and it has the potential to stay that way. I liked the fact that every character even the ones who where not “winner’s edit” were well-rounded. I hope the future season will be more KR than WA…

  • Dutch

    This is a great article! This was so well explained. I was a Michele truther from episode 2 onwards, but il admit I was doubtful at times too. Aubrey had such a massive edit and was put down as the center of the story I was confused. Michele though just had too much screen time to not give off winner vibes. Aubrey was a great player, but Michele deserved it too. Her game was well played and it really proves you don’t have to be the modern day big moves, idol finding, winner.

    • José Zepeda

      Yeah, sadly, answering to your last sentence:
      “Her game was well played and it really proves you don’t have to be the modern day big moves, idol finding, winner.”

      Nowadays, that’s all what people care about.

  • Angus J.

    You seem to be under the premise that there is such a thing as a “winner’s story”. If we’re talking about Edgic here, I never really recalled anyone talking about a winner’s story, because the story is more dictated on the events that are happening in the game. And if we’re using the word “story” here, well, I’m not sure if winner and story go hand in hand. In a story, there are protagonists, yes, in this case Aubry, but no one said that the protagonist wins in the end. In a story, the protagonist is faced with conflict and must reach a resolution, however it may be. In Aubry’s case, the story we were told was that she overcame the odds and did everything she could, but to no avail. You can call it a protagonist’s story or even a hero’s story, but I don’t think it’s fair to associate winners with stories / protagonists, because the two are used in different contexts. Each character has their own story. And in reality TV, these stories will pan out, and the driving force behind the narrative doesn’t always win, which remains true for fictional stories as well. It’s unfair to say these stories can be winning when these stories will happen regardless of the result, since the resolution is only a small fraction of the story. The result does affect the edit, however, which is why Edgic exists.

    TL:DR – The result of a player will hardly affect a person’s story, since the story is mostly about the conflict and climax, but will affect their edits. It’s unfair to associate winners with protagonists, since in stories, the protagonist doesn’t have to win for a story to be complete.

  • Jeff

    Interesting article but I think a lot of winners have had similar edits to Michele. The most notable example is Tina in the Outback losing to All-American hero Colby. The edit didn’t spend time explaining why Colby lost and yet he did lose. Danni is another key example, losing to Stephenie. Although the edit did explain why Stephenie lost. Same with Rob losing to Amber.

    However, plenty of seasons had the winner out of focus:

    – AO: Tina
    – Africa: Ethan (…Lex had more focus)
    – Marquesas: Vecepia (…Kathy had more focus)
    – Amazon: Jenna (…Rob had more focus)
    – All-Stars: Amber (…Boston Rob had more focus)
    – Guatemala: Danni (…Steph had more focus)
    – Panama: Aras (…Cirie had more focus)
    – Gabon: Bob (…Sugar had more focus, so did Ken)
    – Samoa: Natalie W. (…Russell had more focus)
    – HvV: Sandra (… Russell and Parvati both had more focus)
    – Nicaragua: Fabio (…Holly had more focus)
    – SP: Sophie (…Coach had more focus)

    The only thing is we haven’t seen a winner like Michele in a while. But history is FULL of winners like her.

  • Ota

    I’m glad to see another “Aubry person”. I think I will have to watch the season again to really appreciate her gameplay because for me she was the “normal, boring person” in a after-merge game full of characters. She is really easily forgetable… Plus – what I didnt like – it was Amazon all over again: “My beauty was a handicap” 😀 😀 Oh please, girl, stop kidding yourself…