Back in June last year, while the Survivor: Winners At War cast were battling it out on the islands of Fiji, I reached out to a selection of former Survivor players to get their thoughts and predictions on the returning castaways. Over the next few weeks, I will be posting those interviews here on Inside Survivor.
Today, we’re talking to two-time player Tai Trang, who in Survivor: Kaoh Rong finished as second runner-up to Michele Fitzgerald. Starting on the Beauty tribe, Tai and Michele spent the majority of the season together, though they never had a strong connection. Michele distrusted Tai from his early idol searching days, and while they did work within the same alliance at the merge, Tai never felt like Michele was a real member of the alliance and even tried voting her out with his extra vote advantage. As the numbers dwindled, Tai and Michele had a heart-to-heart, and Michele even tried to persuade Tai to join her in targeting Aubry. However, Tai stuck by Aubry, and together with Michele, the three of them made Final Tribal Council where Michele was awarded the victory in a 5-2-0 vote.
Inside Survivor reached out to Tai to get his thoughts on Michele’s return to Survivor: Winners At War.
Disclaimer: This interview was conducted in June 2019 while Survivor: Winners At War was still filming in Fiji.
1) Hey Tai, thanks for doing this! You and Michele spent a lot of time together on Kaoh Rong, from starting on the Beauty tribe to making it to Final Tribal Council. What was your initial opinion of Michele, and how did it change over the course of the season?
My first impression of Michele was during casting. I saw this very beautiful girl sitting at dinner and then she ordered a bottle of wine. I was shocked. I didn’t think we were supposed to have alcohol at all, and I was dying for a whiskey. I thought, ‘Wow, this girl’s got some big balls!’ When we first arrived on the Beauty tribe, Michele was easy-going, uncomplicated, and fun. She just seemed young and talked lots about food, music, parties, millennial things. She did not appear to me to be the scheming or strategizing type. We were friendly, but we just never meshed or were drawn to one another. We had a polite, courteous relationship but we were always at a distance. I liked her a lot but we were never close, not until after the game.
In life, we tend to be drawn to people more like ourselves. I am more likely to hang out with the fringe and dorky types. We didn’t have a bond or trust enough to entertain the idea of working together. We had a good talk about it when I gave her the “Tai massage.” She was a quiet player and never seemed to pose a threat until the later part when she seemed to energize and began winning challenges. Many of the jurors were her friends, too, and I began to fear that she could win if she made it to the final.
2) It was mentioned in some post-game interviews that if the Beauty tribe had attended Tribal Council in those first few days, Michele would have been a target. What is your memory of those early days on the Beauty beach and Michele’s position on the tribe?
Oh really? I would’ve thought I’d be the first to go. I was the oldest and strangest looking person, and with my accent, I was like an alien amongst all the young beauties. Michele and Nick were a pair and totally working together. She, Julia and Anna had this tight young woman bond. Anna and I were close, with a love for animals, and Caleb and I were just having fun, but I was still the outcast. Michele had much more in common with everyone; she played it cool with no drama and got along well with everyone. So even though I was cooking and fishing and being a tribe provider, I’m pretty sure they would have voted me out first with Michele, Julia, and Nick, probably leading the charge!
3) We saw a lot of Michele’s confessionals in the edit, but we didn’t see a lot of her gameplay or relationships. What was she like day-to-day around camp? What was her approach to the game? Who did she get along (or not get along) with?
Michele was the fun girl at camp, always laughing and telling stories. She did her fair share of collecting firewood, getting coconuts and fallen mangoes. She’s smart and always presented as calm and positive. I never saw her get upset, angry, or confrontational. Confessional is a good way to let off steam without getting yourself in trouble in front of others. I think her approach to the game was to stay low, follow the vote, not rock the boat or piss off anyone and make it to the final with the jury on her side. Her strategy was to appear non-threatening, she even sat out challenges to eat, and I am not sure if she ever went to look for idols.
Michele is good in the group dynamic, but she’s not a follower. I remember how well she rallied her group in opposition to Jason and Scot when they put out the fire at the Kaoh Rong camp. She got along well with everyone but was closest to Julia and Cydney. I don’t think she connected with Debbie or Neal and took out his jury vote when she won the advantage in the last challenge.
4) You were the one leading the charge to vote Michele out towards the end of the game, but nobody would go along with it (for example, at the Jason vote). Why did you want to vote her out? And why do you think others (Aubry & Joe in particular) wouldn’t go along with it?
I was just never comfortable with Michele. Toward the later part of the game, Michele gained momentum and became stronger, winning challenges and a real threat to make it to the final and win. Since we were not in the same alliance, never having worked together, voting her out was the most obvious choice for me. I even used my extra vote advantage to get her out. When I told Aubry and Joe, they both seemed to agree. But there were other conversations going on with Cydney and Michele to vote Jason out and to blindside me. I suppose Aubry was my Achilles heel, I was blindly loyal to her to the end, but she had other plays that didn’t include me. Michele was able to convince them to steer the vote away from her, alienate me, and flush out my advantage.
5) Michele’s win was controversial, with some fans claiming she was “undeserving” or that the jury was “bitter.” As a member of the Final 3, how did you feel about Michele’s victory?
That was just crazy and unfortunate. I know that it was very upsetting for her to get all the crap from social media and elsewhere too. I felt badly for her. Each winner, including Michele, should be congratulated and celebrated. Survivor is a game of outwit, outplay, outlast and winning the jury vote. It’s an extremely physical, mental, and most importantly, a social game. Michele played an understated quiet game. She was low key, didn’t find any idols, which is not flashy or fun for some fans, but it worked for her. She was able to survive the 39 days without much of a target on her back! She did not pull any big moves, upsetting and making enemies of the jury. She became more visible and came on strong toward the end by winning many challenges.
This jury had a short term memory, loved the underdog story and ended up voting for her to win the season. Each jury define their own criteria of what makes a winner. Some jurors took betrayals as a personal attack instead of gameplay. Look at me, I had a difficult time convincing this jury of my game not winning even one vote. But it’s the nature of Survivor. The jury gets the final say even if or when we think they are wrong or bitter.
6) What do you think Michele’s mindset will be coming into Season 40? Do you think the reaction to her win will make her want to play more aggressively?
We didn’t talk before she left, so I don’t know her mindset, but knowing her, she has a fire in her to prove to the world that she’s a badass player and a legitimate winner. She will want to play hard, but I think she’s smart enough not to come on too aggressively and make big moves just to prove a point. Wow, such a huge season, I think Michele and other winners must be anxious and have been ready to play again to prove they still have the chops. I—and I’m sure many past players—still wake up in the night thinking about the mistakes and all the “what ifs.” We all want to get back into this crazy Survivor jungle for a redo. This game evolves each season, and it’s gonna be so much fun to see how the earlier season winners adapt and mesh with the later kids. I’m nervous for them all. I am excited and can’t wait. Season 40 is gonna be HUGE!
7) Is Michele at an advantage or a disadvantage being a more low-key winner?
Michele has a huge advantage coming into the game as a low key winner. Some of this cast might not respect her win or see her as a threat and won’t be targeting her. Some will want her in their alliance thinking they can control her vote. But Michele is clever and game smart, and she will use this to go further. She’s confident, has the ability to downplay her game, and can make those around her feel at ease. There are bigger personalities that she will align with and use as a meat shield to protect herself. I have total faith that she will do well and go deep into the game. I’m totally rooting for her.
8) There are a lot of big personalities on this Season 40 cast. How do you think Michele will navigate these huge personalities? Is there anyone you see her gravitating towards? Anyone you see posing a threat?
Michele stays in touch with the Survivor family. She participates in charity functions and probably has met a lot of the Season 40 cast members. Michele is sweet, fun, no-nonsense, and not high drama and should get along well with everyone. I am not sure who she is close with, but she’s young and will probably hang with later season winners like Adam, Wendell, Natalie, and maybe Sarah? I can see her making a bond with Rob and Amber. With her independent spirit and self-reliance, she won’t need any man to rescue her, but the men will be attracted to her beauty and charms and by her laughter. In the past, she formed strong bonds with women, but I think she will probably align more easily with this season’s men. This season’s women might be more challenging for her to make a connection. But who knows, it all comes down to chemistry to whom we gravitate toward and the circumstance that put us together.
9) What is Michele’s biggest strength? And what is her biggest weakness?
Michele has an amazing memory and is good with puzzles. She’s also physically fit to win group and individual immunities. Her strength will be her social game. She has a calm and collected demeanor making those around her feel relaxed and not threatened. Even when in doubt or trouble, she’s not likely to express it outwardly and make those around her feel nervous, which is a good trait in the game where paranoia is often rampant. Michele has a great understanding of men and their egos; she is very disarming and downplays her beauty and intellect. She is warm and engaging which she uses with precision and subtlety. Michele is loyal and would stay with her alliance deep into the game, but she’s able to change and cut ties when needed. She voted out Julia, her closest friend and ally, when we played together in Kaoh Rong.
A weakness is that she might not appear strategic or game smart for others to include her in their plans. This is an all winners season, and the jury may want to see blood and reward big moves, and that may pose a challenge for her. I think she’s most comfortable lying low in the middle of the pack. It’ll be interesting to see if she can orchestrate some big moves.
10) You also played with Sarah Lacina in Game Changers. Can you talk a little about the strength of her game? It seemed like she was able to form really strong relationships with multiple people. Do you think she’ll be able to emulate that again this season?
Sarah won Game Changers with great strategic and social gameplay. She’s a cop and is able to read people well and separate her personal emotions from the game. She formed relationships by gaining trust on a very personal level and then betrayed them, making personal promises which many people felt crossed moral and ethical lines. I believe anything goes, nothing should be viewed as a personal attack or “off limits” in the context of the game. She is sincere, loyal, and trustworthy, but she’s adaptable, and winning is always in her sights. She always joked that her facial expression makes her look mad, but this self-deprecation helped to endear and disarm others. Sarah is self assured and commanding without being overbearing. Men are comfortable with her because she can hang out like one of the boys. The women will want to be in her alliance for her strength and gameplay. I am sure she will form many strong bonds again and will go deep into the game. Yes, I’m also rooting for her.
11) Before I let you go, what is new in the world of Tai? How has life been since we last saw you on Game Changers?
Life goes back to normalcy very quickly after Survivor. I’m still working as a gardener for the Port of San Francisco. Many Survivor fans often run into me, and it’s a big fun surprise when they see me mowing the grass, picking up garbage and dog poo. It’s hard manual labor, but I feel lucky working outdoors and with plants. One small change in my life is that Mark (not the chicken ) and I got married last year (2018). Yep, after 14 years of living together with our cats, we figured we’re stuck and will blissfully grow old together. We signed some paper at city hall and then had our friends perform the ceremony with us sitting barefoot in a big old tree. It was sweet and simple. My next wishful adventure is to find a gentlemen’s farm so I can grow fruit trees, with lots of open land to house the many strays and hoofed animals. But of course, we will have lots of happy free-running chickens plus sweet honey bees too. And I’m still waiting for “THE CALL.”
Thanks again to Tai for taking part. Stay tuned to Inside Survivor for more Playing with Champions interviews.
Survivor: Winners At War premieres February 12, 2020, on CBS.