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 Teresa ‘T-Bird’ Cooper, who played with Ethan Zohn back in Survivor: Africa almost two decades ago! It was the first-ever tribe swap that brought T-Bird and Ethan together—a swap that allowed T-Bird to make new relationships and enact revenge on her old tribemate Silas Gaither. However, while T-Bird and Ethan had a friendly relationship, the pair never closely worked together post-merge, as the original Samburu’s failed to overthrow the Boran majority, led by Ethan, Tom Buchanan, and Lex van den Berghe. T-Bird made it to the Final 5 as the last Samburu standing, but she eventually found herself sitting on the jury, where she ultimately gave her winning vote to Ethan.
Inside Survivor reached out to T-Bird to get her thoughts on Ethan’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) Hi T-Bird, thanks for doing this! You first met Ethan after the shock tribe swap on Survivor: Africa, what do you remember about your initial opinion of Ethan and how did it change throughout the season?
Ironically, my first impression of Ethan after the “shock” (game-changing for me) tribe swap remained the same throughout the game. He was very nice, likable, laid back, and non-threatening. He never talked gameplay with me, but remember, I was never in or even close to being part of his alliance. As thrilled as I was because of the “shock tribe swap,” Ethan was completely the opposite. His number one alliance with Lex and Big Tom was ripped away from him, and with that, the uncertainty of his game. But, I feel like this was the beginning of Ethan and Mama Kim developing a closeness as his secondary alliance, which was key to him being carried to the Final 2 and eventually winning Sole Survivor.
2) Ethan was praised at the time for his stellar social game. What made Ethan’s social game so impressive?
I believe Ethan’s social game was labeled “stellar” because he never ruffled any feathers. He didn’t have to because he had the perfect, ideal shield—his name was Lex. Ethan was able to play in the background or the shadows and remained non-threatening, likable, even lovable. Lex was highly competitive, passionate, the alpha male that called the shots of the three-man alliance, which included Ethan and Tom. Their loyalty to one another carried all three to the end.
3) Ethan is an old school Survivor winner who played in a time way before hidden idols and advantages. Firstly, do you think an old school approach can still win Survivor? And secondly, what aspect do you think will be the most difficult to adapt from old school to new school?
I am definitely hoping that the Old School approach can produce the Sole Survivor. I would love to see a strong, loyal alliance hang together until the end, but the social game has changed through the seasons with the introduction of idols, advantages, and the Edge of Extinction. But Ethan is a fierce, determined competitor, and he will be using all of these tools to advance his game. He will search for them relentlessly, and because he has a suspicious or a little paranoia to his gameplay, he will keep this important information to himself.
4) When Ethan returned on All-Stars, the winners were immediately targeted, and his previous social game approach didn’t work in a season where there was a lot of backstabbing. Do you think his All-Stars experience will make him play a more cut-throat game on Season 40? Is he capable of that?
Yes, I believe Ethan can play a—let’s just say—very assertive game if necessary. But the big difference from All-Stars to Season 40 is that they are already playing on an even playing field because they are ALL winners. I can see the women players gravitating toward Ethan since he doesn’t give off the alpha male vibe. And I can see the men gravitating toward him for the same reason. His making it to the end and finding anyone that would carry him or let him get there is going to prove his biggest challenge because of his real Survivor story.
5) Going on Survivor, let alone winning it, is one of the biggest life events most contestants experience. Ethan experienced something much greater, much worse, afterward that likely evolved his perspective on Survivor. How do you think Ethan’s life experience will set him and his approach apart from his fellow competitors?
Ethan has survived cancer two times!! There is no way to begin to imagine what he went through and endured getting through that physical, psychological, and emotional time of his life. But, I feel pretty sure that I can say that of all the pain, fears, all the struggles he faced will most definitely put the game of Survivor in perspective. He now knows what is truly important in life. I feel like it will make him not take himself quite so seriously, play more of a relaxed game. That could most definitely play out in his favor.
6) Ethan played with Rob & Amber on All-Stars, and from what I remember, there was a sort of friendly rivalry between Ethan and Rob. With all three returning on this season, how do you see Ethan handling these relationships this time around?
I don’t think the close bond that Ethan has had all these years with Lex will allow him to even forget that Boston Rob’s word is not very “solid” noooo… And since Ethan was linked to a romantic relationship with Amber back before she started dating Boston Rob, I think this could all play a part in these two not solidifying a strong, loyal, true to the end alliance. The only bond I believe that will unite these three is the Old School seasons they have in common.
7) Who on this cast do you see Ethan gravitating towards? Who do you think would make a good ally for him?
I think Ethan could gravitate towards Parvati—I feel like they’ve had some interaction in their pasts that could have put some or a little trust in each other. Also, I could see a possible alliance with Adam, Wendell, and Jeremy. I think these three guys are similar in their gameplay, and this could possibly unite them. And I think these three guys would make a good solid alliance. P.S. I love them!!
8) Who on this cast poses the biggest threat to Ethan? Is there anyone you see him butting heads with?
I can’t see Ethan “butting heads” with anyone!! He’s not a hothead, he’s not a dummy! He knows how important the social game is, so he’ll stand by and watch the others hopefully butt heads, and gladly!
9) What is Ethan’s biggest strength? And his biggest weakness?
Biggest strength: Likeable!
Biggest weakness: Suspicious.
10) Before I let you go, what is new in the world of T-Bird? Let the fans know what you’ve been up!
I just completed 38 years with Delta Air Lines as a flight attendant. Love it!! I am so blessed to spend time with my two kids, Tyler and Ellie. I am still living here in Georgia (south of Atlanta) with my wonderful husband, Glenn, on our farm. Also, I am co-hosting a podcast on Rob Has A Podcast called Talking With T-Bird with Rob Cesternino. We are having so much fun “chatting” with Survivors that the fans are requesting—the players we haven’t heard from in a while!
Thanks again to T-Bird for taking part. Stay tuned to Inside Survivor for more Playing with Champions interviews.
Survivor: Winners At War premieres February 12, 2020, on CBS.
T-Bird raised an interesting point that I didn’t actually think about before. Ethan used Lex as a meat shield to great effect in Africa, but then himself became a meat shield for Lex in All-Stars – one Lex discarded using inexplicable “strategy.” While Lex was the more threatening strategist, Ethan had a million dollars by that point, which was why he’d always be voted out first. Quite an interesting storyline.
Also, we’ve now seen that an old school approach can definitely still win Survivor, as Tommy Sheehan did just that. I wonder how different T-Bird’s answer would’ve been if this interview had happened after IOI…