Exclusive: Denise Martin talks about her 'Survivor: China' experience
By Christopher Rocchio, 12/21/2007
Denise Martin wouldn't turn on her Final 4 alliance, and it cost her the chance to lobby Survivor: China's jury as to why she deserved the competition's $1 million.
The 40-year-old school custodian from Douglas, MA was revealed to be Survivor: China's fourth-place finisher during Sunday night's finale broadcast of the long-running CBS reality series' fifteenth edition.
After dealing with her job-loss scandal earlier this week, Denise talked to Reality TV World on Friday about her in-game strategies -- including why she never turned on her alliance with Todd Herzog, Courtney Yates and Amanda Kimmel; how she never intended to use a "sob story" to lobby for jury votes had she made it to the Final 3; why she was confident her physical strength would be enough to get her to there.
Reality TV World: So a few days before the Final 4 Tribal Council, you had already told your husband Robert -- who got to visit with you after your "loved ones" Reward Challenge win -- that you were worried that Amanda and Todd would "back-stab" you and instead take Courtney to the Final 3. If that was the case, why didn't you make a decision to align with Peih-Gee Law and Erik Huffman at that point?
Denise: I figured if I had gone with peih-Gee and Erik, I would probably... Peih-Gee would probably end-up winning. Then if we had a tie -- which it would have definitely come down to, a 3-3 tie -- if we went back to camp, and Todd ended up winning [the tiebreaker], that they would have voted me out anyway in the Final 5.
But if I went to the Final 4, I [felt I] had a chance of beating Todd and Courtney in the last Immunity Challenge, which ended up being the case. I did end up beating both of them. I had to take my chance that way to win it on my own.
Reality TV World: So at that point, you were pinning all of your hopes on that final Immunity Challenge?
Denise: That's correct.
Reality TV World: So did you recognize the difference between Final 3 and Final 4?
Denise: I thought of that, but the way things were going... Believe me, in hindsight, everything is better. Going to the Final 3 would have been so much better. But I couldn't take the chance of Todd winning [the tiebreaker] and then [me] getting out at number five.
Reality TV World: After you decided to pass on the chance to ally with Peih-Gee and Erik and went along with the plan to eliminate Erik, you commented how it "could have been one of the biggest mistakes I have made in the game so far." You just mentioned hindsight, is that a decision you ultimately regret?
Denise: Like I said, I would probably still go the same route I went through.
Reality TV World: Once Erik was gone, what did you think was going to happen? Only a few days later you suddenly seemed sure that although you hadn't wanted to go through with it yourself, you thought Amanda would be willing to back-stab Todd.
Denise: I was trying to work on Amanda a lot (laughing). I had originally told her that we could try to vote out Courtney, but she would have no part of that because she knew that she could beat Courtney in the finals as well. [Amanda] wanted to stick with Todd to the end because she just knew that she could beat him because he's a sly little sucker (laughing)... But it backfired on her.
Reality TV World: Even if Amanda had betrayed Todd and gotten you to the Final 3, do you think you would have been able to build a stronger case with the jury?
Denise: Yeah I definitely do. I tried to play the game as honest as I could, I was up front with everybody. I did the best I could that way. But I definitely think I could have beaten [Amanda] in the finals because Todd was using her as a shield and she didn't even know it.
Reality TV World: What if you had gone to the Final 3 with Peih-Gee and Erik? You mentioned earlier that you thought Peih-Gee would have won. Why?
Denise: I think that most of the people on the jury would have seen that she's a strong, strong player. She worked hard. She did everything she could to scratch and fight to get where she was. For her to come above and beat all the Fei Long members, I think she just would have had the edge.
Reality TV World: Would you agree with the statement that you seemed to be a "follower" during the season? If not, can you give some examples where you actually took the lead instead of just following someone else?
Denise: I think a lot of the time, Todd would come to me and we would talk and then Todd would go off and use my ideas as his own. Basically, like a few times we would have a conversation and Todd would go talk to Amanda and Amanda would come back and she'd be like, "We should probably get rid of this person." I was like, "That was my idea! How did that all turn around?"
But basically in the background, Todd just used everybody... I definitely think that a lot of his information he was getting from me and just using it against me in the end.
Reality TV World: Can you explain a little bit more about your reunion show statement in which you claimed that if Peih-Gee suggested voting for Courtney instead of Todd at the Final 6 Tribal Council, you'd have gone along with her plan?
Denise: I actually said that to [Peih-Gee]. I said, "Let's vote for Courtney. We'll take Courtney out because Courtney couldn't beat Erik in a [Tribal Council tiebreaker] challenge." But she wouldn't do it. She was like, "No! It's got to be Todd! Todd has to go! Todd has to go!" I was like, "No, we should go for Courtney." Every time I would mention Courtney's name -- I mentioned Courtney's name to Amanda, I mentioned Courtney's name to Peih-Gee -- nobody would go with me because they all knew that they would beat [Courtney] in the end.
Reality TV World: During that final Immunity Challenge, what was your thinking when you tried to strike that deal with Amanda about not writing each other's names down at the upcoming Tribal Council?
Denise: I know how stubborn Amanda is. My arms were shaking -- my arm was numb from my hands to my shoulder -- and it was getting close. When I took that cup, I had it upside down in my hand and when I put it on top of the stack right-side up, I knew I was all done. I was just trying to finagle something.
Reality TV World: Did you ever think Amanda would accept the offer?
Denise: No. I knew she wouldn't accept it. I was just trying to put the thought in her head.
Reality TV World: During the Final 4 Tribal Council, what were your intentions when you revealed that Amanda had claimed she "had your back?"
Denise: We had a conversation and she said she had my back. Later on she said, "I only just said that. I didn't really mean that."... She didn't follow through on the plans that she was saying in the background because I think that Todd had convinced her -- as he convinced everybody else -- that him and her were in it from the beginning.
But in actuality at the beginning of the game -- when the game started -- they all came to me and tried to make me part of their alliance. When they came to me, I said, "Okay, I'll be in your alliance." I had to be in some alliance to get further in the game. They all approached me -- [Aaron Reisberger], Amanda, Todd -- they all came up to me and all shook my hand and said, "You're in the Final 5 together. We're going to go all the way."
Reality TV World: So just to go back to Amanda's guarantee. When you mentioned that at the Final 4 Tribal Council, what were your intentions? Were you hoping to turn the jury on Amanda?
Denise: I said that because she did say that. She did say that she had my back. I wanted to bring it up in-front of Todd for Todd to hear she was going against him. She was telling people, "We should vote for Todd! We should vote for Todd! We should vote for Todd!" Then it came to the time [of the Final 4 Tribal Council], and I said to her, "You said you wouldn't write my name down." We'd all agreed on that. Todd said he wouldn't write my name down, that he would vote out Courtney. Then he jumped ship. Amanda also said she wouldn't write my name down [if] I didn't write her name down. At the end, they decided that the three of them had to stick together because they knew that I would probably end up being the winner.
Reality TV World: Did Amanda ever approach you about voting out Todd?
Denise: She never came up to me and actually said it. No.
Reality TV World: Okay...
Denise: Like when we were in the background , she asked me who I was going to vote out and I said Courtney. She just said, "I'll think about it." But she had no intention of voting out Courtney. If I had said Todd, I think she might have jumped right on it and we both would have voted him out...
Reality TV World: Were you surprised when Amanda basically discredited what you said -- and in your opinion -- lied?
Denise: I was kind of surprised that she lied but I knew that she had to protect herself because Todd had no idea that any of that had happened. Then when he saw it on TV [before the reunion show started], I think he was like in shock because it really did happen. They thought I was just making this stuff up, and it was the truth.
Reality TV World: What led to your decision to cast your jury vote for Courtney? Was it because she was the lesser of three evils?
Denise: Basically, Courtney played herself the entire time. She went out there -- she had never even watched the show -- she adapted the best she could. She made it through every Tribal Council without even getting a vote. She was the most honest player, she represented herself the best out of everybody. That's really why I cast my vote for her.
Amanda kind of messed me up. She said she had my back and she didn't. So I didn't want to go with her. Todd, he's a good player. He had the greatest strategy. But I'd rather vote for the most honest person.
Reality TV World: If you had made it to the Final 3, what would have been your approach with the jury?
Denise: Basically what I would have said is I tried to play the game right and straight -- the best I could. I just played myself. I made it as far as I could on my work ethic and what I did in the challenges. I didn't make any enemies. I had a soft alliance with [James Clement and Jean-Robert Bellande]. I had respect from Peih-Gee and Erik. I didn't screw over [Michael "Frosti" Zernow]. I accepted everybody when Frosti came to our camp [as part of the swap]. When [Jaime Dugan] came to our camp with the merge. I was just friendly to everybody and I think that's what would have made me come through at the end.
Reality TV World: We touched upon this in some of the other questions, but were you confident in your ability to win a Final 3 with both Todd and Amanda?
Denise: Yeah, I [was] a pretty confident.
Reality TV World: How did you end up being cast for Survivor: China?
Denise: I actually came into one of the open calls. I stood in line for seven-and-a-half hours and they asked me one question, and I just answered and two weeks later they called me back. I tried out for Fiji, they called me back and right at the last minute they called me back and said, "No." Then they called me back for [Pirate Master] and I tried out for that. They said, "No." They sent me an application for China, and I went through the process all the way to the end.
Reality TV World: Had you watched a lot of the show before? Would you consider yourself a fan?
Denise: I didn't watch the first three seasons, but the more recent ones I have. We sit down as a family on Thursday nights just like everybody across America!
Reality TV World: You seemed to be in the background quite a bit during the first few days of the competition. Was that part of your strategy?
Denise: I'm a very strong player -- a strong person... We had to pick-up those heavy dragon parts. That thing was like 45 pounds (laughing)! When I came through, I slipped and I got right back up. Once I think they saw I wasn't a weak player and I was pretty strong then they switched alliances. They decided [Leslie Nease] should get out of their alliance and they wanted me in.
Then we were in that [Week 2] mud-wrestling [Reward Challenge] and I really proved to myself... You didn't see hardly any of me on the challenges. But I was out there. I rocked those. I wish you could see the whole challenges actually because they cut a lot of the stuff. On the [Week 3 platform Reward Challenge] -- when we had to wrestle -- I was out there for 20 minutes by myself fighting off these three girls, then all they showed was me being rolled into the water (laughing). It was ridiculous! But everybody out there knew how hard I was working and how hard I fought. Once they realized that, they knew that I was going to be a stronger player.
Reality TV World: So I'm assuming strength was part of your strategy going into the game?
Denise: Yes, absolutely.
Reality TV World: You seemed to get along really well with James. Was that the case, and if so, why?
Denise: Him and I really did hit it off. In the beginning, he's like, "I hate everybody! I don't want to talk to nobody!" (laughing) But then when he saw me working hard in the challenge -- he saw me not sitting around camp, I was up... I have a family. I know what it takes to get through a day. We had to have fire. So somebody had to go get the wood. Somebody had to set it up. Someone had to help fish. Someone had to collect fruit. I was the one that was doing all that stuff and all the people were just sitting around talking like [James] said. When he saw that I was willing to walk through all the muck to try to find fish, he knew that he had a person that he could depend on.
Reality TV World: Were you concerned about your standing in Fei Long and Zhan Hu decided to swap for James?
Denise: I was very concerned! When [Zhan Hu] went to the Tribal Council and voted off Aaron and I saw James come back, I was very, very shocked to see him.
But what had happened when he was over there, he had told [Zhan Hu] that he could get me to come along with him, and we could all hook up together [after the merge]. That's what saved him. But I had no idea that he was saying all that stuff at the time.
Reality TV World: Was he telling the truth with those comments? When the tribes merged, did you and James ever discuss joining forces with the former Zhan Hu members?
Denise: We had discussed it a little bit, but I was trying to not get in the middle of that because it was what [James] said -- it wasn't what I said. If it came down to the end, I could say, "Well I never said that," which was the truth.
Reality TV World: What was your reaction when Todd, Amanda, Frosti, James and Courtney never told you they were going to blind-side Jean-Robert at that Tribal Council?
Denise: We had a plan, and the plan was to get rid of Peih-Gee. Later on in the day, Jean-Robert comes up and he's like, "Have you heard anything? What's going on? Has anyone mentioned my name?" Honestly, I was like, "No, I haven't heard anything." Then I later found out what was going on, and I decided to stick with the Peih-Gee vote because my vote at the time didn't make much of a difference. I figured if I voted for James [with Peih-Gee, Erik and Jean-Robert], it would have been a tie or whatever [Editor's Note: It wouldn't have been a tie if Denise voted for James. Jean-Robert still would have been booted 5-4.] If I had voted for Jean-Robert, I wouldn't have gotten his vote on the jury.
By sticking with my vote [for Peih-Gee], not only did I not piss-off Jean-Robert, I didn't get James upset and I stuck with the original plan, which was to vote Peih-Gee. So everybody thought that I was out of the loop, but the truth of the matter was it was just for the jury... It was for the jury vote. I didn't want to get everybody mad on the jury, and if they didn't know what the truth was...
Reality TV World: So does that mean you were still confident in your alliance with Todd at that time?
Denise: Yes I was. When [Zhan Hu swapped for Aaron and James]; Courtney, Todd, Amanda and myself all sat down and said, "We could be the Final 4. We could make this game right now." And we all had that rice wine stuff and were all cheering. We were like, "Okay, we're going to be the Final 4."
Reality TV World: So that's when the Final 4 alliance was solidified?
Denise: That was incredible. That was like the highlight of the entire trip besides [my husband] being there. It was just so amazing. We went to parts of that Temple where no westerners have ever been. We got to go in the back to that courtyard and sleep in one of the temples. It was amazing...
Reality TV World: Did the other castaways know about your karate skills?
Denise: Leslie had told the people at Zhan Hu when she went over there, that I was a martial artist and did karate and stuff. But I tried not to show that to anybody. But when we got [to the Shaolin temple], Erik and Peih-Gee were like, "Wow! You really do do that stuff! You really are pretty good at it!" It wasn't my intention to let anybody know that I had that little secret part of me.
Reality TV World: Peih-Gee took you on that Reward. Did you ever think Peih-Gee would be so angry about you not choosing her for the two subsequent Rewards, which you won?
Denise: What actually happened was, she was up there trying to decide who to pick [to take on the Shaolin Temple Reward]. And [Erik] pointed to me, and I believe she picked me because she thought she would have a better chance of aligning with [Erik] and me at the end. I think it was just an ulterior motive -- I'm grateful that she picked me, believe me, that was the one thing that I really wanted to go on -- but I didn't feel she was part of our alliance and she had to go. I would have loved to reciprocated and do anything for her, but I just couldn't do it because she wasn't part of my alliance.
Reality TV World: Seeing as how he was one of your closest allies in the game, were you ever concerned that blind-siding James would hurt your own standing in the competition?
Denise: Well if you saw what happened, I tried to tell him. Literally, I said [at Tribal Council], "If there's five people and one person isn't in the clue..." But he just didn't get it. He looked in his bag. For me to be in the Top 3, everyone else had to go. It was the perfect opportunity. We had to take the chance. Todd would have went if James had played that Immunity, and I did try to tell him. I did try to get one of [James' two Hidden Immunity Idols] before we left [for that Tribal Council]... It was one of the best moves.
Reality TV World: Just to clarify, you tried to get James to give you one of his two idols?
Denise: When they did the Jean-Robert vote -- and the blind-sided him -- I went up to [James] and said, "I wasn't comfortable. I didn't feel comfortable. You have two of them, could you give me one? I could hide it or hold onto it?" He was like, "No, no. If you need one, I will give it to you when the time comes. But you're safe. You're not going to need it."
Reality TV World: How much did it mean to you to win that Reward Challenge with your husband Robert?
Denise: Before he left for China, he promised the kids that if he had to travel all that way, that he was going to win that Reward Challenge. He doesn't like to fly, and he flew all that way just for me. It was amazing.
Reality TV World: Was he surprised you were still in the competition at that point?
Denise: I told him that when I left for California -- when I first got on the show -- that I was gonna make it if I went there. And I did. We talked about a lot of stuff. He wasn't very surprised that I was still there because he has confidence in me. He knew I would do well.
Reality TV World: So how much weight did you lose while participating in Survivor: China?
Denise: I actually lost 30 pounds while I was on the show, and I had lost 25 before I actually left. So I lost about 50 pounds altogether.
Reality TV World: So losing 25 pounds before you left for Survivor, I'm assuming that was a conscious decision?
Denise: Yeah, I knew the weather over there -- it was different climates -- and all that extra weight, I knew I wouldn't do well. I had started training in January, I started running two miles a day, watching what I was eating and stuff...
Reality TV World: It seemed like Todd and Amanda were really concerned if they took you to the Final 3, that you were going to tell a "sob story." Was that the case? Would you have told a "sob story" like at the Final 4 Tribal?
Denise: No. These people knew that I had family and stuff and I never really showed any of that emotional part of my life because I didn't want to be felt sorry for. But I just wanted to go out and prove myself. That's what I did those first four challenges, and that's what I did around camp. That's really what I wanted them to base their vote on, not because I have a family...
Reality TV World: Seeing as how it was the opposite approach of what you planned to take, were you surprised the jury decided to reward Todd for being -- like you said -- a "slippery sucker?"
Denise: It actually didn't surprise me that they voted for him because he played a great game. He did everything. Every Survivor trick in the history of Survivor he tried to pull. He did a great job. He fooled a lot of people. He had an alliance with every single person.
Reality TV World: So what's next for you?
Denise: I'm just waiting to see what happens actually. I'm trying to clear all this [job] stuff up back home. I have no idea what's going to happen now.
Reality TV World: So everything is still up in the air?
Denise: Yeah, unfortunately. It was just a matter of one word -- I didn't say "old" [job back] -- and I as soon as I found out what was going on at home, I tried to clear it up. I didn't get my statement out the correct way. I went on [Tuesday's The Early Show], and they cut me off before I could say what was on my mind. Things just got flipped upside down.
But like I said, it was never my intention to lie to anybody. I'm an honest person. I tried to play an honest person on the show. I tried to be myself. It's all going to work out in the end...