Exclusive: Courtney Yates dishes on 'Survivor: China' runner-up ride
By Christopher Rocchio, 12/20/2007
Courtney Yates might claim she was "never a strategic person" when it came to playing Survivor, but don't let that fool you.
The 26-year-old waitress from New York, NY latched herself onto Todd Herzog and the two rode all the way to Survivor: China's final Tribal Council -- which she says she knew she had no chance of winning -- but was able to finish second and repay Todd for helping her not be the first castaway booted.
On Monday, Courtney talked to Reality TV World about how having no strategy worked better than it would seem; how her sarcastic sense of humor and tell-it-like-it-is attitude actually helped her overtake Amanda Kimmel for second; why she planned all along to take "Toddmanda" to the Final 3; and why her small frame made her worry about competing in the physical challenges.
Reality TV World: How did you end up being cast for Survivor: China?
Courtney: Well, I was working as a waitress and I ended up just being myself, and happened to have someone from CBS there. They asked me... they were like, "You! You over there! You need to be on Survivor!" I was like, "You're crazy! Get away from me!"
Reality TV World: You made it known you weren't really a huge fan of the show before going on it. What made you want to go on Survivor? Did you watch a lot of the show before leaving for China?
Courtney: I had never seen it before, so when I was approached, I was like, "You're insane. I don't know what it is. I've never seen it. I understand it's really hard and I am small... I'm going to die!" So then they sent me some DVDs, I watched it. I was like, "I'm going to DIE on this show!" (laughing)
But lucky for me, I had people who gave me a pep talk. They were like, "We really think that you can do this, but we believe in you even if you don't." So I ended up doing it for the hell of it. I was completely resigned to sixteenth place. I was like, "Alright, go make a fool of yourself for three days and get a month-long trip in China and that's pretty sweet. Waitressing all summer sucks! Go do something cool, swallow your pride and go be an idiot in the jungle for three days."
So 39 days later...
Reality TV World: You seemed to have problems from Day 1 and subsequently made comments that you felt like an outsider at the beginning of the game, describing Fei Long as a "cliquey tribe." Why do you think that was the case? Do you think there was a turning point for you in the competition, and if so, when was it?
Courtney: I think just in the beginning everyone was tense. It just seemed so contrived to me, I couldn't wrap my head around it. Everyone was walking around with this fake voice, being all like, "I'm putting on a good personality because I want people to like me! Don't think I'm threatening! I like doing stuff!" I'm like, "What is wrong with you pod people? Act normal for one second!"
So I think after a while... I mean, I kept my mouth shut -- believe it or not -- in-front of people for the first part of the game. They had me ranting in confessionals, but nobody sees that. I was just kind of quiet, and after [Fei Long] swapped [James Clement and Aaron Reisberger for Sherea Lloyd and Michael "Frosti" Zernow] it changed things up. All of a sudden, the two dominant alpha males were out of the picture and it was us little people sort of running the show. That's when Todd and Amanda and [Denise Martin] and I all really got together, and we were all sort of like, "Okay..."
Reality Tv World: What was your deal with Jean-Robert? You seemed to butt heads almost immediately...
Courtney: You're kidding! That's how it seemed!
Reality TV World: Where did all that hostility towards each other come from?
Courtney: The beginning part of the game was so hyper-physical -- it was hard -- and he just lacks some sort of a thing where he just talked down and talked over Todd and I as if we weren't people because we were small. He was like, "Me and James, we're big people! I am big! I have power! You! Fetch me things!" It just... I'm small, but I'm not going to be ordered around. It just got on my nerves after a while. Then we just ended up butting heads. I just didn't like him and the way he spoke to me.
Reality TV World: You just said you were quiet at the beginning -- which I remember you were -- did you think vocally expressing your displeasure for Jean-Robert would put a target on your back?
Courtney: Jean-Robert was a very popular icon of dislike. Aaron didn't like him. [Leslie Nease] didn't like him. Amanda didn't like him in the beginning -- [but] I think they ended up being buddy/buddy by the end. Todd didn't like him. Then sort of as it went on and it became such a physical game -- it was true -- we needed to keep the giant man there because when the challenge is to roll around in the mud and squash a face in it, you need a big fat guy! Like you got to have him!
He was sort of resting on his laurels that, "I'm the biggest person here." He had every right to because that's the way the game was at that point.
Reality TV World: You touched upon this a little already, but when would you say your alliance with Amanda and Todd start to take shape?
Courtney: Well Todd and I... It was funny because we sort of were kind of buddy/buddy like in the beginning. He was like, "Listen, we can't be seen being friends because then they're going to separate us. So just play it cool." So I kind of knew this kid was so on the money with everything (laughing). Like, "Who is this Survivor nerd who was sent here to ruin lives on this show." It was amazing. (laughing)
Then when we lost [the third Immunity Challenge] and they ended up voting out Leslie instead of me -- I was like, "Well, I'm leaving. Bye guys, it's been real." -- and then when it was Leslie instead I was like, "What happened? I know it's that little flight attendant. He did something, and he needs me for something."
So I was like, "Okay," but it wasn't anything that was ever necessarily spoken between me and Todd. I understood on Day 9 that I was useful to him for some reason, and that's not necessarily a bad spot for me to be.
Reality TV World: Did Amanda sort of just come with the Todd package?
Courtney: Amanda definitely just came with the package on my end of it because she and I didn't really get along in the beginning. By the end we did get along... It wasn't we didn't get along, we just had nothing in common. It actually ended up working out to our benefit because even when it was the three of us [in an alliance], Amanda and I were never associated as friends or any sort of a bond at all. So people would sort of talk trash about Amanda in-front of me -- and do the same thing [about me] in-front of her -- without realizing we were constantly comparing notes. You know what I mean?
Reality TV World: You seemed to recognize Todd and Amanda were big strategists in the competition. Was that the case, and if so, did you ever seriously consider putting them on the chopping block?
Courtney: I mean they were the power players, but for me, I don't think that... You've got to understand that this is all sort of silly because I was never a strategic person so people think I'm still getting all sassy about my strategy here. But by the time it got down to the last couple of stragglers, it was like [Peih-Gee Law] is the amazing warrior that just won't die; Denise has this amazing story about her kids and her job and this and that and the other thing; Todd's being a bitch; and (laughing) Amanda is a pageant queen who kind of can't put words together.
That's probably the best group to go with anyway for me. [Amanda, Todd and I] is a level playing field. It's three young people, three single people, who were kind of always in the majority alliance. I thought that was fair ground for me and I ended... I didn't quite catch Todd but I beat Amanda.
Reality TV World: Did you feel Amanda and Todd ever strong-armed you to vote accordingly with their strategy?
Courtney: No, not really. I think the only time it was really an issue was I didn't want to vote out Sherea because I liked her. But that was because I knew my vote didn't count at that point anyway [Sherea was booted by a 5-2 vote, with Courtney and Sherea voting for Jean-Robert], so I was like, "I'm not voting for her because I don't want to. It doesn't make a difference. Next time I'll vote with you, it's cool?" They were like, "Okay, that's cool. We respect that."
When it came time to vote out Frosti, everyone got all like, "Oh God! She's not going to do it! She's a loose cannon!" (laughing) But other than that...I think we were kind of boring (laughing).
Reality TV World: When you described Todd as a "slippery little sucker" -- like you just said, you were aware he was a strategist -- but when Amanda approached you about aligning with Denise to vote him out, you seemed to try and convince her against the idea -- why?
Courtney: Again, I thought that Todd, Amanda and I were all on a level playing field. From my perspective, Todd and Amanda were basically one player. They had the exact same strategy; the exact same story; and had been together since Day 1. So it was really me against one person -- as opposed to throwing a completely different wheel into it and having to defend myself against two different things -- I consolidated it in "Toddmanda," or whatever you want to call them. Then it's really just me versus them. That's what happened. Amanda got the one [final Tribal Council jury] vote, Todd picked up the rest of it for them, and I got two... So there was something working with that.
Reality TV World: So you think you got more votes than Amanda based on...
Courtney: I think I got more votes than Amanda because... I don't think anyone was intending to vote for me at all. That was a two dog race walking in. I think I handled myself well in-front of a crowd of people. I'm not intimidated by people shouting in my face... I think I handled myself better and Amanda kind of fell apart a little bit when it counted. That sucks for her -- but it's great for me! -- and I think I earned my second place at Tribal Council.
Reality TV World: You seemed confident the jury would recognize Todd as a "schemer" and use that to decide not to award him the $1 million. What made you think that? Recognizing that schemers were "just playing the game" and rewarding them with the win is what a lot of previous Survivor juries have done when a schemer makes it to the end.
Courtney: I recognized Todd as well, like all of us recognized Todd as a schemer and a back-stabber. But the thing is, he's amazing at it. I don't think that he didn't deserve to win. I think Todd deserved to win. That was his game from Day 1. If Todd didn't take over, I would have been in fourteenth place -- I know it -- and I wanted to do good by him too.
It just sort of was an all-around thing. I think he deserved an opportunity to argue in-front of the final jury, and I'm proud of him. I think that's great. I know that's not the answer everybody wants to hear (laughing), but I love that kid. This was his dream, and it was never my dream. I honestly like him. I'm not stupid. That game was never built for me to rule -- I got pulled into it -- and somehow managed to slink my way to the top and did really well. I beat one of the other players, and I'm glad that Todd's where he is.
Reality TV World: Okay, so just to be clear, you knew throughout the whole season that Todd had a good chance to win because of his "schemer" strategy?
Courtney: Yeah. Everyone knew that. We all knew it. Todd is a schemer. We're not stupid (laughing)...
Reality TV World: So I take it you weren't surprised the jury decided to award him the $1 million because of it?
Courtney: I don't think so, because for me -- coming from outside the game -- Survivor is known mostly through the first season, it's what everyone always thinks of. Who won that one? The dirt bag, slippery, little manipulator guy Richard Hatch. That set the tone for this game. That sort of play is respected and it's the benchmark. It's what people are judged against, whether you want to admit it or not.
If you play a good honest game -- like Amanda apologizing to people for hurting their feelings? She got laughed at. You get crucified for having feelings in this game, and that's just what it's about. That's the way it was built, and I think it was because of the first one rewarded treachery. Now treachery is the thing to do. So cold-hearted little bitches like me and Todd (laughing) go 1-2... I don't know. I knew Todd was slippery but I'm proud of him and I'm glad he did good.
Reality TV World: Realistically, did you ever see a circumstance where you would have won the $1 million?
Courtney: No. I didn't (laughing). You're just crazy! By the end of it, I thought, "Maybe I'll get two [votes], maybe I'll get second."
Reality TV World: During that final Tribal Council, you said you had no strategy entering the game. Was that really the case?
Courtney: Yeah, that was the case. I told you, I was really coming into my month-long vacation in China and being a moron on TV for one episode. I'm not lying...
Reality TV World: Did you really only lose seven pounds (93 to 86) while participating in Survivor: China?
Courtney: It is just simple numbers. We were talking, I mean it's percentages. Like [host Jeff Probst] said, seven pounds is whatever percentage of my body weight and James weighs 200 and something and he lost 50 pounds. People have lost less than me, but it's more noticeable on someone my size.
Also, they're talking to about the day I went to the game to the day I came back, Day 39. We literally sat down and ate pancakes and bacon and eggs and muffins, that whole basket of food [given to the Final 3 before Tribal Council]. So I had eaten all day long. So that's a little different. I mean there were days when we went six days without eating food because it rained and there was nothing because the rice died, or whatever the hell happened. It was miserable.
So there were times when I was lower than that, which is a little scary. Like, "Anorexic Survivor!" But you know, it is what it is? I was on a show where they starve you, what do you want? It wasn't my fault!
Reality TV World: Like you previously said, when they approached you to appear on the show you were afraid you'd "die" out there. Even though you passed the show's physical, weren't you concerned about your own physical well-being?
Courtney: I wasn't concerned so much about the starvation factor... When I actually began to starve, I was very concerned about it! But the beginning I was more afraid that the physical challenges, like the mud-wrestling ball thing where it's the boys versus the girls, and you see Jean-Robert grab [Ashley Massaro] by the back of the skull and slam her face into the ground.
I'm tiny. I'm the smallest girl, there's the huge guys, I was horrified to think that I'm going to have to go and get in a ring with Crazy Dave [Dave Cruser] and have him slam my face in the ground. What's a bruise on Sherea is going to break my friggin' leg! Don't you people realize I'm the size of a 12-year-old. I'm tiny!
Reality TV World: During the finale Jeff observed you actually weigh more now than you did before China and -- although you continued to insist what people saw at the beginning of the show was your "natural" weight -- you basically brushed off his comment without explanation. If 93 pounds is your "normal" weight, is there any particularly reason you seem to look so much healthier now?
Courtney: Yes. See, when you're on Survivor, they don't give you any food for days at a time. Then when you come back to the real world, you can eat whenever you want to. You know, so you don't look like a skeleton any more.
Reality TV World: Okay, point made. Some folks have been speculating you're possibly pregnant -- any comment on that?
Courtney: Could be pregnant!? (laughing)
Reality TV World: Yup, pregnant. I'll give you the chance to debunk it now or let me know if it's true.
Courtney: Well damn! If it is, I'm certainly the last to know.
Reality TV World: I'll take that as a no then.
Courtney: That would be a no... (laughing)
Reality TV World: You made many sarcastic digs and put-downs this season. Do you "take" as good as you "give" with those sarcastic comments and putdowns?
Courtney: In my group of friends, in my family, I have a really kind of sarcastic sense of humor. It just doesn't apparently translate to primetime TV all that well.
It's funny, because I think it's evident in how the jury responded to me in the end. In spite of everything that I said, we all got to know each other pretty well out there and I think everyone realized that it's not personal. That's just kind of how I am. I just throw out one liners and kind of say things off the cuff. The fact that I bashed and made fun of, literally everyone sitting on [the jury] and still had people kind of nod in respect and not hold a grudge against me, they just know that's just how I am and I don't mean it...
Reality TV World: So that's how you are in everyday life, ever when you are waiting tables?
Courtney: Yeah, absolutely. That's probably why I got cast in the first place (laughing)...
Reality TV World: In addition to you're "loser life" comment about Denise, are there any other comments you regret?
Courtney: I'm sure there are, but then I'm like, "Ah, ignore it! Put my head under the carpet for a week until it goes away." Because in reality, people remember those things for five minutes and then it's over.
Reality TV World: How do you respond to angry viewers that wonder why a waitress is putting down a lunch lady? They seem like very similar jobs to many viewers.
Courtney: People can think what they want. That was one of the hardest things for me to come to terms with when I agreed to do this show. I don't like to put myself out there to just be blatantly judged by people who don't know me. I was just sort of like, "Courtney, man up! Man up and just maybe you need to learn to not care what people think."
Reality TV World: Have you had any negative reactions from people on the street?
Courtney: No, I've only ever had people come up to me who were really nice. They're like, "You were hilarious! You were the funniest part of the show! My wife and I love you!" Like I told Jeff [during the reunion special], most of people who recognize me are little kids. They come up and they point and say, "That's the girl! That's the girl!" It's really funny because I'm like, "What is going on!?"
Reality TV World: You seemed to form a really good relationship with Frosti following the swap. Was that the case, and if so, why?
Courtney: When we first did the swap, Frosti kind of cliqued-off with Todd and I sort of cliqued-off with Sherea. So I didn't really get to know him very well. Then I think when the merge happened, I could see Frosti was kind of in an awkward place, where he had already thrown his old [Zhan Hu] tribe under the bus and thrown his allegiance to Todd.
Now that the old tribe was moving in with us, it was like a kid with divorced parents. he didn't know who to be loyal to; he didn't know who to sit with. I could see that he was just feeling weird, so I was like, "Hey! I'm like the crazy aunt! (laughing) Nobody takes me seriously and you can stay out of trouble!"
Because he was being watched by everyone. If he talked to Peih-Gee, Todd would freak; if he talked to Todd, Peih-Gee would freak. So he was getting all, "Ah! I don't know what to do!" I think I just ended up being kind of an outlet for him to just breathe for a second -- and if you're talking to Courtney, everyone knows I suck at this game so he's not talking strategy.
Reality TV World: What's the current status of your relationship with Frosti? Anything romantic?
Courtney: No, not at all...
Reality TV World: He's not the father of your Survivor baby?
Courtney: It's never been anything romantic. He's not the father of my fake baby... (laughing) But we all joke about it. [At the reunion], we were all like, "My Survivor boyfriend get over here! He's mine!" It's silly. Actually, I think it's almost insulting to [Jaime Dugan and Erik Huffman] who are a real, legitimate couple...
Reality TV World: Describe your feelings when you won your first and only Individual Immunity Challenge.
Courtney: I honestly couldn't believe it. I remember thinking, "Goal: Don't be the loser. You don't have to win -- but don't lose." So I sat on the stupid thing and then people started falling off, I was like, "I don't want to fall off!" So I just sat there, and I mean it was nice. Everyone clapped for me -- even Jean-Robert -- like good job. It was nice. Maybe I am like their bratty little kid and everyone gets annoyed with me but they like me (laughing)...
Reality TV World: Where did that cave come from that you seemed to take an intense liking to? Had it always been at the Fei Long camp or was that something you hollowed out on your own?
Courtney: No (laughing)... The cave was always there, but everyone was always afraid of it. Because there are creepy, crawly bugs and things in there. I kept threatening to go into the cave, and people would completely freak out... It was keen, it was a really small little place.
One day, it started thundering so bad. I was so sick of being wet and cold. Try living outside with nothing but a pair of jeans and when they get wet they don't dry for days. I was like, "Todd, I cannot be wet. I am going in that cave! You come or you don't come... I'm going!"
So me and Todd sat wrapped up with bugs crawling over us... Todd had a spider in his mouth (laughing). Then after the rainstorm ended we came out and we were dry, and everyone else was soaking wet. Amanda was like, "They're dry!" I was like, "Yes, there's a roof in there! It's amazing!"
It would get warm. It was the only warm, dry place in the entire camp -- and when you weigh seven pounds, warm and dry is a major plus.
Reality TV World: What was your initial reaction when Amanda approached you about blind-siding James and were you surprised the plan went off smoothly?
Courtney: I wasn't surprised to hear it because Todd had already talked about it before. That was being bandied about -- we dropped it for a minute -- then it just came back, because I think we all decided we were scared of James. When it went forward, I wasn't surprised with that either because it was in everyone's best interest to level the playing field. James was so far and beyond out of any of our reach, it didn't make sense for anyone to tip him off and be like, "Let me make an alliance with the guy who's going to clearly win! Let me be stupid!" (laughing) Me, Erik, Peih-Gee, Todd and Amanda, we were all even after that pretty much.
Courtney: I didn't bring it up in the first place. Erik started to talk about -- and being Courtney, I started getting funny about it because me, Erik and Peih-Gee were being miserable together and feeling sorry for ourselves. So I started being funny and just trying to laugh it all off. I wasn't trying to be malicious... again.
Reality TV World: So what's next for you? Got any plans? Relocating to the west coast?
Courtney: No! I dislike L.A. with an intense passion. I'm just going to take some time off, take my friends on vacation. You know, whatever. Boring stuff. Take a little break from waitressing. Hang-up my apron for a month or so and see how I feel.