Exclusive: Erik Huffman talks about his 'Survivor: China' experience
By Christopher Rocchio, 12/07/2007
Erik Huffman never watched Survivor before being approached to appear on Survivor: China -- and the further he made it in the competition, the more that was evident.
The 26-year-old musician from Nashville, TN became the eleventh castaway eliminated from Survivor: China during last night's broadcast of the long-running CBS reality competition series.
On Friday, Erik talked to Reality TV World about his relationship with fellow castaway Jaime Dugan; why he tried to use his "easy-going" side to form relationships and build alliances; how he could have changed the complexion of the game by serving as James Clements' informant; and why he thinks Todd Herzog's strategic approach to Survivor has made his character questionable.
Reality TV World: How did you end up being cast for Survivor: China?
Erik: I was pursued by a person that asked me if I was interested in it. I had never even watched the show, so it was kind of hard for me to say yes or no. I said, "Well let me look into it." I started watching a few episodes of Survivor: Fiji, and then I went through the application process and I kept getting further and I realized, "Gosh! I might actually get on." (laughing) So I was really starting watch a lot more of episodes... It was a last minute orientation process to the game.
Reality TV World: Having never seen it before, what peaked your interest about participating in the show?
Erik: I've never got into reality TV that much as a whole, but I think with Survivor I felt like it was such a unique show in that it was something that wouldn't... Somehow it was different then being on The Real World to me. It seemed like it was going to be a much more challenging and rewarding experience. Of course, I could win $1 million. That's a pretty good incentive...
Reality TV World: You seemed to develop a really good relationship with Jaime. Why do you think you two got along so well?
Erik: I don't know... It's just like we hit it off. I didn't know we grew-up in the same area [in South Carolina], like about 30 miles from each other. Once we discovered that, it led to more conversation. We were just buddies right off the bat, and we really only got closer from there. I think we just really felt comfortable around each other and had fun together.
Reality TV World: When you told her you were a virgin, was that some sort of strategy? What was your reasoning for divulging that information?
Erik: Honestly in that moment, it wasn't really a strategy at all. We had a lot of time to just hang-out and talk, there was a lot of time to just talk about life. I felt already I was close enough with her as a friend -- we became friends so quickly -- we talked about a lot of other stuff as well, but that was one part of my life, my story, that I felt like sharing. So I did. It was more just to open myself up to her.
Reality TV World: What is the current status of your relationship with Jaime? Anything romantic?
Erik: I will say she's a really amazing person. She's very special to me. It will be interesting to see what happens when she and I... I do know for a fact that I want her to remain in my life and we are very close.
Reality TV World: Were you surprised Fei Long didn't decide to swap for you and instead chose Sherea Lloyd and Michael "Frosti" Zernow? Did you think you'd be part of that swap?
Erik: I thought there was a good chance of that. I don't know why [Fei Long] didn't choose me, I guess they saw Frosti maybe as a more versatile player or something. If they probably knew [Zhan Hu] was going to select James and [Aaron Reisberger], I figured they might want to replace them with a slightly bigger guy. But I guess that wasn't part of their strategizing...
Reality TV World: When we talked to Sherea and Jaime, they told us Zhan Hu had discussed throwing challenges prior to the swap. Was that the case? Did Zhan Hu discuss throwing challenges before you swapped Sherea and Frosti to Fei Long for James and Aaron?
Erik: Yeah, once we had gotten the letter that we had to give-up Frosti and Sherea, before they got on the boat to go to the other tribe, we last minute decided to all stick together. In order for us to do that, we decided we would throw challenges if we had to in order to get rid of [James and Aaron] and keep our numbers strong.
Reality TV World: [So] why did you seem so surprised when the tribe returned to the Zhan Hu camp after the challenge was thrown by Peih-Gee Law and Jaime?
Erik: The full story is, Peih-Gee and Jaime and I had discussed whether or not to throw the challenges -- the next two -- thinking there could be a merge. But we also weren't sure there 100% would be. So with that in mind, we kind of tried to balance the risk and we were going to win the first Immunity Challenge and then see what happened with the voting on the other tribe. Then depending on that, we may throw the second one.
But as it turns out... We did decide to win that first challenge, and at the last minute Peih-Gee and Jaime got spooked. They thought they saw some communication going on between James and Todd and some of the other Fei Long people. They got really spooked, and it was too late for them to tell me. They kind of eyed at each other and decided to throw that one. I did not know they were going to throw that challenge at that moment...
Reality TV World: I see. So that's where the surprise came from?
Erik: That's where the surprise was. I tried really hard to win, but I put two and two together. By the time we got back to camp, any surprise that I showed at camp was a complete farce. I was putting on an act sort of to... I don't know, to make it look to James and Aaron that I was completely confused. I wanted to make sure that I was remaining almost kind of neutral, but I was still siding with Peih-Gee and Jaime. I wanted to not look shady in James and Aaron's eyes.
Reality TV World: The original Zhan Hu members were outnumbered by original Fei Long members when themerge happened. Were you confident that you'd be able to sway some of the former Fei Long members to your side? Did you try to switch to Fei Long's side?
Erik: It was kind of daunting coming in. We were outnumbered. But I guess I felt more comfortable sticking with the people I already knew for sure had been with me and trying to swing one or two from [Fei Long] as opposed to trying to work my way in and somehow go to the top of their tribe. That just seems like it would have been impossible based on how things were.
But it seemed like I had a pretty good shot -- especially at the end -- of swinging at least one person, specifically [Denise Martin]. In my eyes, she was kind of at the bottom of [the Fei Long] totem pole. I even thought that she thought that, and thought it was a good chance that she would realize that and go with Peih-Gee and I.
Reality TV World: What was your initial reaction when Jaime found the wooden plaque on the ground that she subsequently thought was one of the Hidden Immunity Idols?
Erik: At that point, we knew that there was an idol -- at least one -- maybe two. We saw that plaque laying on the ground, so we were suspicious. We knew that it wasn't [on the ground] before, and James had been the only person up there, he must have taken it down. We immediately thought it could have been the Hidden Immunity Idol.
As it turns out, soon after that, Jaime went snooping through James' bag and found two wooden blocks. It was dark, we couldn't really see them. So at that moment, we suspected that he had two Hidden Immunity Idols, but we probably had one that wasn't the real one. But because we couldn't see, we couldn't distinguish the difference between the one we found versus the one he had in his bag. So we thought it was a good idea to hang onto it at least until we could further asses.
Honestly by the time Jaime used it at that Tribal Council [when she was eliminated], she and I were both fairly certain that it wasn't the right one, but it was worth a shot trying anyway.
Erik: I mean I guess by "sweet-talk," I definitely was nice to them and very open to them. I was showing my fun side, my easy-going side. I certainly didn't want to be standoff-ish just because they were from the other tribe. I tried to play it cool and just have a good time with them.
Some of my strategy the whole time in the game was to try and be nice and draw people in just with my natural personality. I thought if I can get them to just like me at all as a person, then it would make it harder for them to vote me out, or maybe they would actually want to have me around longer.
So I was thinking at the time if I could kind of be myself -- yeah, I was conscious of it a little bit -- but it was hopefully helping (laughing). But I didn't' like try, or blatantly flirt or be too forward with them. I just tried to be easy-going and fun...
Reality TV World: Were you aware of the Amanda, Courtney, Todd and Denise's plan to blind-side James before that Individual Immunity Challenge that you won?
Erik: They hadn't told me until after the Immunity Challenge -- when I had already won Immunity -- they did fill me in on it.
Reality TV World: How confident were you that they'd follow through with their plan?
Erik: I didn't know. It was really kind of a tough spot. The one good thing that I knew at that moment was that I couldn't be voted out (laughing). I was happy about that. When they filled me in on their plan, in this game, I had no idea who I could really trust or if they were serious or not. But I had nothing better to go on at that point.
I'd even wondered what if I told James to play the idol. You know, because there's all these other possibilities. But because a) I didn't even know for sure if they were telling the truth; b) if they did lie to me, oh well I expected it anyway because they weren't on my side; and c) if they were telling the truth -- which it turns out they were -- if I told James and maybe tried to vote for Todd, then I was scared of what that might do, that it might hurt my chances in the next round.
As it turns out, it hurt me anyway. That could have been a chance I could have taken, but I was really trying to tread softly.
Reality TV World: Prior to that Tribal Council, you were really reluctant to follow Peih-Gee's suggestion that you two hedge your bets by voting for Todd -- you even said you were "risking a lot" -- and then actually didn't vote for Todd when the time came. Exactly what did you think you were "risking?"
Erik: In my mind, I guess I was paranoid that if two votes for Todd showed up, it would somehow be obvious that it was Peih-Gee and I. If everybody else's votes did go [against] James, and James didn't use the idol, then it put that much more of a target, it was that much more blatant that Peih-Gee and I were trying to get rid of Todd.
Maybe it would have helped if James had used the idol and we had voted for Todd and Todd was gone, maybe thinking back, if I had told James maybe he would have shown loyalty to me, maybe he would have switched side and then we would have been back at three versus three.
But I don't know man (laughing)... When you're out there, I did what i felt was safest based on the information I had.
Reality TV World: You already touched upon your strategy a bit, but towards the end of the competition, did you have some plan of your own that you were working on? If so, what was it? Based on what home viewers saw, it looked like a guy who had given up and become resigned to his fate. Was that the case?
Erik: I stuck with the same strategy most of the game, and that was trying to draw people in by being likeable. But also, I always liked to give other people possible scenarios and allow them to make the choice. I feel like when it was down to six people, I knew I was on the chopping block -- whether I liked it or not -- and I really thought I had a good chance of convincing Denise that it was in her best interest to join-up with Peih-Gee and I. She was at the bottom of the totem pole on the other side. I think she believes it to, she was just a little scared to jump ship.
Reality TV World: Did Denise ever lead you and Peih-Gee to believe that she'd be voting with you to eliminate Todd, or was she always noncommittal about it?
Erik: She was usually noncommittal about that specifically. But she tended to be pretty... It's weird because she was fairly certain that she knew that she's probably at the bottom of [the alliance with Amanda, Courtney and Todd]. That's where I didn't understand why she wasn't willing to take the risk with Peih-Gee and I because we guaranteed her, "Look, this is huge for us and everybody left here." I guess maybe she had a last-second stroke of, "Well, if I just stay loyal to [Amanda, Courtney and Todd], it'll help me get up in the ranks." We'll see what happens...
Reality TV World: Were you surprised James decided not to play either of the Hidden Immunity Idols?
Erik: I really thought he would play one before he was voted out. I mean he had TWO (laughing). The again, maybe he was going to wait until that next Tribal Council... He even said afterwards that he suspected a little something fishy going on. If I were him, I would have just done it. Of course you're trying to think long-term, but I feel like he could have still been working strategy, even using those Immunity Idols as leverage for something else.
Reality TV World: Once James' elimination was in the books, did you sense a divide in the former Fei Long members' alliance and try to exploit it?
Erik: Yeah, I mean that was a big sign of hope in that they are willing to go against their own. They are trying to get as far as they can, and that honestly gave me a lot of hope that we could convince Denise to come over.
I even had several conversations with Amanda, about how she didn't trust Todd. Maybe it was all lies from her, it was just her strategy to convince me, but I was pretty convinced that she really was leery of Todd because he made it clear he was a very strategic player and somehow he kind of snuck through to where he still is...
Reality TV World: You just mentioned you talked to Denise and Amanda, did you ever approach Todd about forming something with him?
Erik: I did. I was very careful in how I approached things with Todd. I guess unfortunately everybody else was too because... I guess he was slightly intimidating in that you just knew he had about seven cards up his sleeve. So I was very careful in what I tried to form with Todd. I was never opposed to it, and I had several conversations about how he and I might be on the same team or at least not enemies. At first, it was just how can I stay in, because I felt like I was at their mercy.
Even if I had tried to form something with him, I don't think I would have trusted it at all. It wouldn't have been not enough for me to rely on...
Reality TV World: You were vocal about not believing Todd's story about his younger sister having a miscarriage. Do you still think he wasn't telling the truth?
Erik: I don't know the truth of the matter. I haven't heard news, one way or the other. But again, I feel it's a tough spot because Todd's a person, I of course care about him, care about his family. I wasn't trying to be insensitive about the news he shared, because it's really sad if it is true. I am sad about it.
But I also just feel like Todd's character in the game of Survivor was one that was willing to do whatever it takes to win. He made that very clear. So unfortunately for him, that caused everybody else to doubt whether he's being sincere or not or was it just a strategic move. If it was, that's his decision. That's his choice. I'm not making a judgement call one way or the other. It just from my perception -- knowing what I knew about Todd as a Survivor contestant -- I had my doubts whether it was true or not.
Reality TV World: In a recent TV Guide interview, host Jeff Probst said you had "no chance of winning" because you're a "lousy Survivor player." What do you make of those comments? Are you surprised to hear he'd say something like that?
Erik: I was a little pissed off at first, but then I realized I see his point. The funny thing is, it really is all a matter of opinion. It's either a matter of opinion, or who actually wins. You know what I mean? A person who's a lousy player can win, a person who's a great player can be voted out first. There's really -- in my mind -- it's such a gray issue that I really had to tell myself, "That's certainly a valid opinion." Apparently his idea of what a good Survivor player is is closer to a Todd or and Amanda... I don't know (laughing).
Reality TV World: Is there anyone you would really like to see win?
Erik: I feel like I would love to see Peih-Gee win because it would be the biggest Cinderella story of all time.
Reality TV World: Anybody you don't want to see win?
Erik: (laughing) I kind of don't want Todd to win... Sorry Todd! (laughing)
Reality TV World: What was it like during those early days at Zhan Hu when the tribe was having a tough time winning and seemed to be constantly bickering?
Erik: It was a really tough time. We kept losing over and over again -- it was just like demoralizing -- and we were already starving and tired... It does a lot to you're mental game too when you're giving it all you've got and then you lose -- you've got nothing to show for it -- and then you lose one of your tribe mates over and over again. That definitely didn't help.
Reality TV World: So what's next for you? How's the music career going?
Erik: Yeah, as of now I'm really pushing hard with my band Florez... We're putting out some new music. We've got a couple albums already, but we're putting out some new music in the early part of the year. We're going probably be doing a lot of college shows and club shows starting in February. So be on the lookout...
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