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On Dec. 15, Jeff Probst declared a winner of “Survivor” for the 41st time, crowning Erika Casupanan the sole Survivor in an epic season stacked with impressive new players.
Evvie Jagoda, a Westchester, N.Y. native and current Arlington, Mass. resident, defended their dissertation in Harvard’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology in September and now works as a genetic researcher at the Broad Institute in Kendall Square. Prior to the season, Entertainment Weekly writer and preeminent “Survivor” reporter Dalton Ross made his traditional prediction of who would win the game and selected Jagoda.
Ross’ pick did not come to pass. Jagoda’s torch was snuffed on a surprise split-tribe double elimination night in the ninth episode and they became the third member of the jury. In the episode, Deshawn Radden, despite a bond with Jagoda that dated back to Day Five, ultimately sided with his alliance members Danny McCray and Liana Wallace to send Jagoda home.
But for the out-and-proud Jagoda, who identifies as queer and nonbinary and rocked rainbow-print boxers on the show, the “Survivor” adventure was about more than the million.
In their exit interview, Jagoda gave the customary reflection on their “Survivor” experience, then added, “Any queer kids out there: Be yourself. You’re amazing. Love yourself.” Getting those simple, powerful words on air, Jagoda said to the Harvard Crimson — “that’s everything.”
The Crimson caught up with Jagoda last month after their elimination and discussed gameplay, the history of queer representation on the show, going from Harvard to “Survivor,” turtle migrations, and more.
The Harvard Crimson: You've had a few months to process your elimination at tribal. What was it like watching the episode back? Did you have any screaming-at-the-TV moments?
Evvie Jagoda: It's interesting because you think, you know, it happened months ago, so it won't be emotional when you do watch it back. But yeah, definitely, I got a little sad. It just brings up a lot of emotions, obviously. But I was honestly happy because part of me wondered, “was Deshawn ever planning on actually working with me?” And I think it was clear from the episode that he was, so that made me happy to see. I was screaming at the TV a little bit when I saw the conversation between Danny and Xander [Hastings], where Danny just made it very obvious that he was not going to vote with me and Xander against Liana. I didn't know about that conversation at the time. I really wish I did. But there's also not too much I could have done differently. So it is what it is.
THC: What was your relationship like with Danny? I'm not sure we ever saw the two of you talk in that episode.
EJ: I'm so glad you asked that question. Danny's one of those people where our strategies were just so antithetical — like, he is a big, strong physical guy, and he's always going to be wanting to keep those [kinds of] threats in the game as shields for him and get rid of the schemer-y puzzle people like myself, whereas I have the opposite strategy. But even though our games were really opposite to each other, we actually had a really great personal relationship… We had a really funny bit going on where, at the tribal council where I did go home, Jeff asked Danny a question and he answered with an extended sports metaphor. And I know literally nothing about sports. So then Jeff asked me, “Evvie, what do you think about what Danny said?” And I was like, “Oh, I would have said exactly the same thing.” It was kind of a running joke about how I don't know anything about football.
THC: Your last words in the exit interview to queer kids would have meant a lot to me, growing up watching the show with my family, to catch at the end of an episode. Coming into the show, did you commit to being yourself and queerness was part of being yourself? Or was there a moment where you consciously decided to represent?
EJ: Being loud and proud and joyful about my queerness is just 100% integral to who I am. I literally have a tattoo that says “yay” with a rainbow flag on it. Because that is what queerness is to me. Like, it's not just okay, it's not something I tolerate. It's something amazing about me, that I love about myself and that brings me so much joy. Part of the reason I wanted to do the show was to be able to put that message out there and be someone that people do get along with and wanna play “Survivor” with, and be my full queer self, wearing rainbow boxers and a bow tie. So that was never in question about whether I was gonna do that… I think that the only way that you can play “Survivor” is to go in with as authentic of yourself as possible, because that is how you connect with people and build relationships. And I think that's part of why I was able to have such a good social game. And because I am just like, this is me, I want to hear about you. I'm just so happy they aired that final word segment. Because I've heard from a lot of people that it has meant a lot to them. And that's why I wanted to do the show, you know. That's everything.
THC: There's certainly a history of queer representation on Survivor that's had its ups and downs, I'd say. To what extent were you conscious of playing in a sort of queer survivor lineage?
EJ: That's a good question. LGBTQ contestants on Survivor go all the way back to the very first season with Richard Hatch, the first winner, who was a gay man. And I was very conscious of being in that history. Especially, the representation of non-men queer players is just a lot less. I mean, there's not that many queer players in general, and especially non-men. I think about people going back to, like, “Survivor: Vanuatu,” where you have Ami Cusack and Scout [Cloud Lee] and more recently, Elaine Stott and Lyrsa [Torres] on recent seasons, so there's some great queer non-men players that I just really wanted to emulate and hopefully — especially compared to the players who played long ago — be like an updated version to some degree. I feel like a lot of people around my age or younger, like in Gen Z, present closer to how I present, or there's a lot of people that do use the word queer, are a lot more gender-fluid, and things like that. And that's kind of who I am. So it's cool to be able to present that version of a queer player and LGBTQ player on this season, especially with it being the most diverse season of “Survivor” ever. It was really, really special to be a part of that.
THC: You were a PhD student here [at Harvard]. You mentioned your “anthropologist brain” in a brief moment on the show, but I'm curious what parts of your experience in grad school came in handy on the show.
EJ: One of the main things that we talked about in my department is energy conservation and resources and distribution of energy and how that affects evolutionary strategies and things like that. So for example, there was a moment when either we could have fishing gear or we could have a big plate of fruit. And even though it might seem like the fishing gear was the way to go, we had so little energy and it's gonna cost so much energy to get back a small return of fish… that in that moment I was saying, I think we need to get the fruit because we just don't have the energy to spare to gain back what energy we could get from the fishing gear. Also just with the grad school experience in general, you interact with other grad students, with undergrads working in the lab, with professors, journal editors, so that also prepared me for a game where you're going to be interacting with people across the age spectrum, with different perspectives, and have to work together.
THC: Has anything you experienced on “Survivor” entered into your research brain? Has it informed any of your questions at all?
EJ: Not so much, just because I'm focused a little less on evolutionary questions and more doing primary genetics research. But it's just really eye-opening, to see what it is like to kind of survive in that way. And another thing is one of the chairs of the HEB department, Joe Henrich, studies cultural evolution. The idea is that a primary human adaptation is not just our intelligence, it's the fact that we're able to develop cumulative culture. That's the thing that actually allows us to survive and thrive throughout the world. And I think you can kind of see that in my season. Like, yeah, we're a bunch of homo sapiens, we should be able to survive in any environment. But the only person who was actually able to thrive out there was Naseer [Muttalif], one of my castmates who grew up in an island environment much more similar to Fiji than any of us. He had those culturally accumulated skills of how to live out there. So it just really was a perfect illustration of that idea.
THC: Can I ask you quickly about the turtle metaphor? Did that genuinely happen the way we saw on TV, like Tiffany [Seely] spotted the turtles, and then you all went to the beach? Or were the producers sort of pushing you there, saying there's a migration happening?
EJ: That happened exactly as you saw it on TV. I was actually kind of frustrated with [Tiffany] at that moment, because it was like, we're all so tired. And she's running around looking because she thinks she saw a sweet potato plant at one point. We’re like, Tiff, there’s no sweet potato plant. Then she's like, everyone has to come quick, I saw something crazy. And there were hundreds of baby turtles. You couldn't capture the magnitude in the TV shot, because they just had no idea that was coming. It was truly a magical moment, like being in a David Attenborough documentary or something. But it just was so obvious to me that that was the Yase tribe. We were this small group that was doing horribly in the game. And yet, we were starting to persevere. Even though we were a little small, we were able to overcome a lot of challenges. So to me, it just made sense that we were the turtles and they were us. I'm thinking my next tattoo might be a sea turtle, we'll see.
THC: The cinematography was really beautiful in that moment.
EJ: Yeah, the “Survivor” crew is incredible. And that's a moment that they obviously had no idea was coming. They rock.
THC: As a superfan, what was the craziest moment of “Oh, I'm actually here” that you experienced on the show?
EJ: I mean, like literally all of it. It's just crazy. You're in “Survivor,” you know. Probably the very first moment getting on the marooning and seeing Jeff Probst talking to you. You can see when you watch the show back that every time we come in, I'm always like, “Hi Jeff!” It's so cool. Like, he's just right there. You just get to talk to him. And probably the first tribal council, when you walk out there and you're like, I am in my TV right now. This is tribal council on “Survivor,” and I'm part of it. It's really really cool.
— Staff writer Amelia Roth-Dishy can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @scallionshmear.
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