20 Years of Survivor

The 20 Best Pre-Merge Characters

They made an impact.

Photo: CBS

In celebration of Survivor’s 20th anniversary, over the next couple of months, Inside Survivor is publishing a series of articles looking back at the show’s history, best moments, and most memorable characters. 

Getting taken out before the merge is probably not any Survivor fan’s dream. The unfortunate reality is that not everyone is lucky enough to make the merge and thereby earn themselves the title of “dateable.” Some Survivors overplay their hand and get taken out in a blaze of glory, others barely get the opportunity to get their sea legs. 

The best pre-merge characters are able to tell a short story while still being memorable; many of these players are often associated with an iconic line or moment. While these players may not have made it far in the game, they did enough to leave a lasting impression. 

Today, Inside Survivor contributor Garrett Stanley counts down twenty of the best pre-merge characters in Survivor history. This list does not include players who later returned and made the merge. It is strictly players who have only ever been pre-merge boots. 

20. Russell Swan (Samoa, Philippines)

Russell Swan
Photo: CBS

One of the most tragic characters in the history of Survivor, Russell is the type of player who wants to show everyone that he puts 110% into the game. Leaving pre-merge on both of his seasons, Russell has two very different stories. In Samoa, he was the leader of the great Galu tribe, who rarely lost any challenges. His medical evacuation was frightening and ended his game too soon, and we’ll never know if he could’ve helped his group hold strong against the Foa Foa four. 

In the Philippines, Russell was part of the ever-losing Matsing tribe, and his leadership ability was put into question. He was out for redemption, but it just wouldn’t happen for him. There was tragedy and comedy to Russell’s short-arc in season 25, and while he may not have got what he wanted, he made for memorable television. 

19. Angie Jakusz (Palau)

Photo: CBS

Being on the Ulong tribe, the losingest tribe in Survivor history, Angie already felt like she had something to prove. She initially perceived that she was on the outside of the tribe. But by working hard in challenges and making inroads socially, Angie was able to survive the first few votes. And, she was only taken out after the target Ibreheim was given Immunity by Koror. While Stephenie and Bobby-Jon are known as the Ulong tribe’s figureheads, I think Angie truly held the spirit. 

18. Hunter Ellis (Marquesas)

Photo: CBS

Hunter is the poster child for alpha male Survivor players, with a historical elimination to boot. He was big and athletic and full of survival knowledge, which made him a natural tribe leader. At this stage in Survivor‘s history, no one ever thought that someone as physically strong as Hunter would go home so early. Well, except maybe baby Boston Rob, who helped pull off this massive blindside. A legendary moment that birthed a future Survivor legend. Thank you, Hunter, for your sacrifice. 

17. Lyrsa Torres (David vs. Goliath)

Photo: CBS

A fantastic pre-merge character who was just shy of making the merge (where I think she would’ve done very well), Lyrsa was a force to be reckoned with in the confessional department. While she found herself receiving votes at every Tribal she attended, she survived long enough to help set up one of the greatest episodes in modern Survivor. Lyrsa, Natalie, and the debate over the eggs are the perfect appetizer to Angelina’s attempted jacket heist. It’s a scene with a classic Survivor feel and does a great job of showing Lyrsa’s personality and why she is on this list. 

16. Sandy Burgin (Tocantins)

Photo: CBS

Sandy the bus driver started Tocantins off on the wrong foot, or maybe it was her pace that was off? Either way, she was “voted out” before the tribe even walked to camp, and she was PISSED. Luckily for Sandy (and the audience), she was given another shot, which included a clue to the idol. An idol that could only be found by solving the impossible riddle of…. walking ten paces. Sandy didn’t last long, but she brought big laughs every time she was on screen. 

15. Robb Zbacnik (Thailand)

Photo: CBS

The growth arc from Robb was one of the only decent stories in Thailand. Robb transformed from the mouthy skater boy who choked Clay in the Attack Zone challenge and complained about losing to a bunch of rules, to the man who realized just how obnoxious he can be and tried to make amends with his tribe. Sadly, he didn’t have long enough to change his fate. But Robb’s quick turn about-face was hilarious, as was him voting for Shii Ann at every Tribal Council. 

14. Billy Garcia (Cook Islands)

Photo: CBS

Oh Billy, poor Billy. Remembered mostly for his one-sided love with Candice “from Raro tribe,” a miscommunication that has gone down in Survivor infamy. Billy is a really sweet guy who just didn’t seem built for the cutthroat game of Survivor. Ozzy even threw a challenge to get him out. Billy’s Survivor journey was tragically hopeless, to say the least, but highly memorable. There is no doubt that fans still remember Billy all these years later. 

13. Alecia Holden (Kaoh Rong)

Photo: CBS

Looking at her, you might have had some initial doubts as to why Alecia was placed on the Brawn tribe in Kaoh Rong. However, it soon became clear that she was determined not to give up (she even persisted and made fire when no one else on her tribe could). She might not have been the smartest player in the game. Still, I really admired Alecia’s ability to keep positive, even with the massively negative forces of Jason and Scot trying to weigh her down. Alecia’s treatment on the Brawn tribe was horrible, yet she always tried to keep a smile on her face.

12. Ace Gordon (Gabon)

Photo: CBS

When I think of pre-merge villains that got their comeuppance, Ace is certainly someone who comes to mind. Ace thought he was running the game in Gabon, and it was so satisfying to see him get booted much earlier than he was expecting. His character on the show was very smarmy, with his questionable British accent and the condescending way he talked to Sugar. But this pompous villainy is what made it that much sweeter when Sugar flipped on him and voted him out. 

11. Jacob Derwin (Ghost Island)

Photo: CBS

The two-episode arc that Jacob went on in the Ghost Island premiere was absolutely wild. Highlights include dumping the tribe’s rice supply into his dirty sock to look for an idol, losing his shoes to the waves, and declaring Malolo the greatest tribe of all time (spoiler alert: it wasn’t). This superfan had a tragic tailspin that seemed unavoidable from the start when his paranoia immediately put him on the outs with the tribe. His trip to Ghost Island only delayed the inevitable, but Jacob certainly made the most of his short time on Survivor (and still had a higher confessional count by some of the players that made the merge!). 


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10. Francesca Hogi (Redemption Island, Caramoan)

Photo: CBS

The ultimate Survivor tragedy, Francesca is mainly known for getting into fights with Phillip Sheppard and for being the first boot… twice. She is basically the reverse Sandra Diaz-Twine, but Francesca is a much better player than her two outings suggest. She was smart and witty and level-headed. Sadly, both times she had to play with strong returnees and an eccentric personality who had tunnel vision when it came to her. I do wonder if she ever ate that rock.

9. Christine Shields-Markoski (South Pacific)

Photo: CBS

Once Christine’s comment about Coach and Ozzy being “temporary players” was highlighted, I knew she wasn’t going to be sticking around for too long. What I didn’t expect was her amazing journey on Redemption Island and her perseverance to win as many duels as she did. Eventually, Savaii had to hire Ozzy as an assassin to take Christine out before the merge in the last duel. It was a sad ending to her story, as Christine was just one win short of making it back in the game (and avoiding this list!). 

8. Tracy Hughes-Wolf (Micronesia)

Photo: CBS

Tracy was an extremely competent player trapped with incompetent allies. Despite that, she was able to maneuver herself, Chet, and Kathy through several votes by pitching them as numbers for one of the competing sides. Tracy was consistently able to sell players on the idea that, instead of taking out her weak alliance members, people should use them to eliminate bigger competition. And even the vote that eventually eliminated Tracy was an interesting one as it was almost a 3-2-1 to blindside Ozzy. As with many people on this list, it would be great to see what Tracy could do with a second chance.

7. Brice Izyah Johnston (Cagayan)

Photo: CBS

Brice was the most entertaining member of the Beauty tribe in Cagayan, and it’s a real shame that we were robbed of seeing him on the season. Brice really popped on screen and not just because of his fluorescent purple pants. Every sound-bite was high energy and tactful, Brice knew how to be the “talk of the town.” Out of everyone on this list, I think he has the most potential to make a deep run in another season. Will we get the opportunity to see Brice on Second Chances II… hmm? Beyond the show, Brice has become a staple in the Survivor community, especially in the podcast realm. 

6. Zane Knight (Philippines)

Photo: CBS

To this day, I have no idea what was going on in the early days of Matsing. Zane’s position was constantly changing hour by hour, and it was fascinating to watch. His master strategy involved telling his tribemates to vote him out. One of the most interesting things was that Zane was introduced to the audience partly via Denise. Not only did we learn how intelligent Denise is, but we also got the excellent moment of her analyzing Zane’s tattoos. Zane is a one-episode meltdown that is television gold, possibly caused by quitting smoking right before he went on the show. 

5. Cao Boi Bui (Cook Islands)

Cao Boi
Photo: CBS

The inventor of the split vote (then known as Plan Voodoo), Cao Boi is an iconic figure in Survivor history. His kookiness graced our screens, and hilarity ensued. Unfortunately, Cao Boi’s brilliant Plan Voodoo was clocked by the even more brilliant Yul, and that’s why he had to go. I loved listening to Cao Boi describe different scenarios, from the bad wind in Brad’s head to the bird he found with Jonathan. There really is no one else quite like Cao Boi in the entirety of this show’s 20 years. Put him back on Survivor!

4. Reem Daly (Edge of Extinction)

Photo: CBS

One of the few things about the Edge of Extinction twist that worked was seeing the Mayor of Edge, Reem Daly, greet each person as they arrived. Reem was a hilarious, quote-spitting machine, and dude, she knew the Edge wasn’t the Holiday Inn. Reem didn’t take any crap, and the fight between her and Chris was one of the best moments of the season. Even better is that Reem stuck it out all the way until the end of the Edge, despite being first boot, demonstrating her strength and determination. 

3. Natalie Cole (David vs. Goliath)

Natalie Cole
Photo: CBS

Everything about Natalie speaks power, and her five-episode arc in David vs. Goliath was certainly powerful. In the initial days, Natalie butted heads with Jeremy, eventually taking him out with her “napalm.” But her most iconic moment came in the aforementioned episode titled “Jackets and Eggs.” When Angelina stood up and asked for Natalie’s jacket, immediately after voting her out, every Survivor fan lost their minds. And let’s not forget that without Natalie denying Angelina the jacket, this memorable moment never would have happened. 

2. Drew Christy (San Juan del Sur)

Photo: CBS

Drew Christy has the single greatest flameout episode in the history of Survivor. Despite being in a fine position with his alliance, Drew decided to blow up his spot by throwing the immunity challenge in order to aggressively target Kelley Wentworth, all without the go-ahead from his alliance. It all led up to his fantastic blindside, which wiped the smugness clean from his face. He certainly orchestrated a blindside, it was just somehow his own. I guess he basically is a badass and a manipulator of the game. And let’s not forget his awkward flint negotiations with Jeff Probst.

1. J’Tia Hart [Taylor] (Cagayan)

Photo: CBS

Similar to Drew, J’Tia’s time on Survivor is remembered most for her meltdown. But what makes J’Tia’s story so entertaining is that she was able to survive longer than many thought after dumping the rice onto the fire on day 6. She made it to day 11! J’Tia was the source of a lot of drama (and a faulty shelter) that made the early days of the Brain tribe so dynamic. But she could also be perceptive and clearly did something right to survive those early votes. J’Tia has gone on to do great things for the reality-tv community in regards to her spearheading a diversity campaign. She earned her spot on this list for having a hilarious four-episode arc, everything after the show is just gravy. 

Honorable Mentions: Chicken Morris (China), Wendy Diaz (Edge of Extinction), Alan Ball (HvHvH), Jessica “Figgy” Figueroa (Millennials vs. Gen-X), Amy O’Hara (Guatemala).

Stay tuned to Inside Survivor for more 20 Years of Survivor content over the coming weeks.

Written by

Garrett Stanley

Garrett is a Seattle local, hopeful comedian, and journalist for Arizona State University’s State Press Magazine. Besides keeping up with all of his reality TV, Garrett likes to cook, backpack, and act. Garrett is a lifelong Survivor fan from a family of casuals.

6 responses to “The 20 Best Pre-Merge Characters”

  1. I think you missed Michelle from Fiji! She was in a majority alliance with Yau Man and Earl – who both went to the end – and only voted out due to a tribal swap.

    • Technically Michelle was the merge boot, but they just stupidly used the merge as only half the contestants going to tribal. So she wasn’t a pre merge boot, just twisted merge

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