Exclusive: Robert 'Bob' Crowley dishes about his 'Survivor: Gabon' win
By John Bracchitta, 12/15/2008
Robert "Bob" Crowley hardly seemed like the favorite to "outwit, outlast and outplay" his seventeen fellow Survivor: Gabon castaways when the reality competition began. In fact, the 57-year-old physics teacher from South Portland, ME, commanded so little attention during Survivor: Gabon's early rounds that he was known more for his lengthy naps than his gameplay.
However, after 39 days in which he crafted two show-quality fake Immunity Idols, won five straight challenges, and triumphed in a tie-breaker challenge that allowed him to stave off elimination and make the season's Top 3, Bob benefited from having several former allies on the jury and became the oldest champion in Survivor history.
On Monday, Bob spoke to Reality TV World about how he had pulled off his improbable win, what he deemed a "huge mistake" on his part that could have cost him the game, and how surprising his weight loss numbers (or lack thereof) were to him following his 39 days in Gabon.
Reality TV World: Congratulations on the win last night.
Bob: Thank you very much.
Reality TV World: I know you mentioned your plan had been to fly under the radar, but did you think that, given how much older you were than most of the other contestants, you had any chance of ending up as the winner?
Bob: Well, I knew I was flying under the radar, I just assumed I'd hit a tree at some point.
I can remember going on and thinking "I just want to not be the first one voted off," then I wanted to make the jury, then I wanted to make at least fifth so I could tie [Survivor: Vanautu contestant] Julie Berry, who was a student of mine. Then I got greedy...
Reality TV World: Well it paid off. Based on your comments on the finale, you seemed as surprised as anyone that [Jessica "Sugar Kiper] was willing to force a tie and take you to the Final 3. When did you realize that you'd apparently managed to form that close a relationship with her?
Bob: Actually just within days of that occurring. I realized that she had, previous to that, offered me the [Immunity Idol] that she gave to [Matty Whitmore]. Actually, when I gave Randy the [fake] idol, she said "I'll have your back," and I didn't realize she had the [Immunity Idol]. But it was only within days of the end that I really realized that I'd made such an impression on her.
Reality TV World: If any challenge would have seemed to be geared toward a physics teacher, it would seem to have been that "house of cards" challenge. Can you explain why you seemed to do the worst of anyone on it? Were you just "over-engineering" your structure?
Bob: I know the theory, it's just the practice that get's to me. The interesting thing is -- which I don't think came out -- was that [Susie Smith] was the daughter of a poor migrant family. They didn't have toys as kids, they just had decks of cards. Every Sunday, she said, that they would sit down as kids and play that game with cards.
I never remember playing that. I knew in theory how it worked, but for the life of me I couldn't seem to get it done.
Reality TV World: You seemed to get pretty frustrated at Susie after she won the challenge and asked you if you thought you'd win the jury vote. Why'd you get so upset?
Bob: Well after that I realized that I was that I'd made it to the Final 4, and I wasn't gonna make it [to the Final 3] and I assumed I was going to be the next one voted off. Susie -- as much as I love her, she's a wonderful woman -- was continually asking me questions and grilling me, and I knew I was going home. I knew that there was no way I would stay.
That was before Sugar suggested that she might force a tie because she essentially wanted to give both [Matty Whitmore] and I equal chance of getting to the Final 3.
Reality TV World: Did you realize [at the time] that, much like what happened, if you made it to the Final 3 that you had four former allies on the jury and were basically a shoo-in [to win]?
Bob: There was no shoo-in. I had three former allies. [Randy Bailey] was a floater. I had no idea until Jeff turned the card around how Randy voted, and I'm sure the last card he turned around was Randy's, you can tell by the handwriting.
[Survivor: Gabon host Jeff Probst] knew that I knew that, and that's why he tortured me for... how long did he hold that [card]? A half-hour or 45 minutes? (laughs)
Reality TV World: Did you have any idea Susie was apparently open to sending Sugar home instead of you?
Bob: No, I wasn't.
Reality TV World: Oh, well when we talked to her this morning, she claimed that it was something she had considering, so you hadn't [known] about that while you were there?
Reality TV World: Sugar said that she wanted to leave things up to "chance" or "fate" by forcing that Tribal Council tie, but did you feel like you had something of a head's up and an advantage because you were able to go and practice [your firestarting] while Matty didn't?
Bob: Yeah. Yes I did, and I think the reason why Sugar did that was she was afraid that if she told Matty that Matty may have done something differently and voted for her. If [Matty and Susie Smith] both voted for her, than she would've gone out. Sugar played an incredibly good game, she flew under the radar in between the trees.
Reality TV World: Going off of how Sugar played the game, based on her actions and jury comments during the last few days it almost seemed like she basically playing for you those last few days. Did it seem that way to you?
Bob: Oh without a doubt. She understood that she didn't have a chance against anybody there -- Matty or Susie or me -- because, for some reason or another I don't entirely understand, people were so upset with her. But she just really annoyed some people and she knew that she really didn't have a chance to get any votes.
Reality TV World: Did Sugar ever explain why, if she thought she couldn't beat anyone [that she ended up in the Final 4 with], she decided to turn her back on [Crystal Cox] and Kenny and ally with you and Matty instead?
Bob: There was a connection that was made, and I think she summed it up in four words: it felt like Matty was her brother and I was her father, and she just wanted to leave it up to the "fire gods" to make the decision because it was like a cruel "Sophie's Choice."
Reality TV World: A couple of the [other castaways] we've talked to have kinda vaguely implied that they believed Sugar and yourself had already established some kind of relationship before the game began. Do you know what they're talking about?
[CBS declined to allow Bob to answer this question]
Reality TV World: Do you believe Randy's claim that his jury vote came down to the fact that Susie had chided him for carrying on about the cookie thing is true?
Bob: I have no doubt in my mind that that's true. It's a funny game and if you slight somebody... and that's one of the slights that occurred. I can't believe that overwhelmed my [fake] Immunity Idol, but apparently it did.
Reality TV World: Based on what viewers saw of them on the show and their post-elimination behavior in the Ponderosa videos on CBS' website, [Marcus Lehman], [Corinne Kaplan] and [Charlie Herschel] really seemed to have a high school cool kid [clique] attitude to them -- they talked about [the game was like high school all over again] they described and the Fang folks as "mutant losers." I know they all voted for you, but were you surprised that some of the people in the game [basically seemed to be] acting like some of your high school students?
Bob: Yeah, I was. But its also a lot of pressure during the game. I think Randy said it best: it makes good people bad and bad people worse.
It's a tough game, and it can bring out the worst in you if you're not careful.
Reality TV World: After going through all the trouble of creating that first fake idol, why did you then turn around and almost immediately tell Sugar you'd created a fake idol instead of [following through with what seemed to be] your original plan [and] subtly letting someone know you had it but have them think it was real?
Bob: That should have been a huge mistake on my part. What happened is I came back to camp [from Exile] and Charlie said to me [that we had to swing Sugar and needed her vote] to sorta get control of what was going on, and he knew that I was the only one that Sugar kind of connected with.
In an attempt to show her that I was being honest with her, she asked if I'd [found] the idol. [I said I hadn't found the idol], and in hindsight it irritated me when I did it, but in order to gain her trust I said "No I didn't find the idol but I made this fake one." I thought at the time that it was a real bad move, but in hindsight it actually worked well on my behalf.
It was just a case of trying to win her trust, and apparently it did. I didn't realize it because she had clocked one of my alliances.
Reality TV World: It seemed pretty obvious from the show that Sugar's whole goal with getting Randy to play the fake idol was to publicly humiliate Randy so why were you so surprised about the way she ended up acting at Tribal Council?
Bob: I gave Randy the idol because it was extremely clear to me that I was gonna go that week if not Randy. At least that was my interpretation while I was there at camp [and] my attempt to stay on one more week. That worked.
Reality TV World: But what annoyed you the most about [how Sugar acted]?
Bob: Both she and Crystal were extremely cruel to Randy. It went beyond what they showed. I don't mind giving him the idol to save myself, but I just cannot stand cruelty and, even though Randy had given both of them a hard time and there was an unpleasant hatred between the three of them, I just didn't want to be part of being cruel to somebody and kicking them when they are down.
Reality TV World: It looked like you lost a lot of weight and had thinned out by the end of the game -- how much weight did you end up losing?
Bob: (Laughs) When I got on the scale at the end of the show the doctor said to me she said,"Oh my God Bobby, you've lost 7 kilograms -- that's  full pounds." And I looked to myself and said "I haven't lost 15 lbs." and [the doctor] goes "Look, you were 70.9 kilograms before the show and now you're 70.2." I said "That's a pound and a half," and she said "Oh yeah." Which is what they had documented.
I lost 1.5 lbs., but they weighed me with my pants and my tools on at the beginning of the show, and they weighed me in my underwear at the end of the show and my pants weigh 4 lbs. So I actually gained 2.5 lbs. during the show.
Reality TV World: Wow, that's news to me...
Bob: (Laughs) Are you implying that I'm a scrawny, little...
Reality TV World: ...I'm not implying anything (laugh)
Bob: That's what I look like normally, but if I ever play Survivor again my wife has made me promise that I won't take my shirt off! (laughs)
Reality TV World: During last night's finale, Kenny was shown making some confessional in which he claimed he'd made up the deal in which you'd promised to give him the idol if you thought he was in danger, but you had seemed to verify it was a real deal during one of your Tribal Council visits. Was the revised immunity idol deal real or not?
Bob: It had been revised. When we were at the gorilla sanctuary I began to realize that Kenny may not be a trustworthy player, and I suggested to him that it wasn't gonna help him if I gave him the [Immunity Idol] the next time I got it if he wasn't in danger, and I said "How about when I feel you are in danger, if you need it, ask me and I'll give it to you and that will go beyond the next challenge.
Then he tried to say that "whenever" I won it that [I would give it to him] forever, and I said "No, it'll only be for when I think you're in danger," and that gave me time enough to realize, well, time enough for Sugar to tell me that he was thinking of blindsiding me. And as soon as I was aware that he had told her that he wanted to make me look like the stupidest survivor ever, I explained to him that there's a little disclaimer at the bottom of any contract I make: If I offer to cover your back, and you use my covering your back to stab me in the back, all bets are off.
If you wanna [say I have] a lack of integrity, so be it. I was actually surprised that he really didn't seem to get the fact that he could lie and deceive and cheat, but when anyone else even approached that -- me -- that he was absolutely incensed that I would not stand up to my word when he obviously was not one who stood up to his.
Reality TV World: Kenny had Marcus had throw the Immunity Idol away, and also just seen Randy play the first fake idol that you'd created only three days earlier, [so] were you surprised how easily he still fell for your [second fake idol] story?
Bob: Well don't forget, Marcus was a long way out in the water. If I had been Marcus, you'd better bet your bottom dollar that the idol would not be part of that bottle when it went out, and I'm surprised Marcus wasn't sharp enough to do that himself.
The [Immunity Idol] is worth nothing, in my opinion, if everybody knew you had it. It's worth a huge amount if you have it and nobody knows it. That's why nobody was really interested in grabbing it while everyone was watching.
So... where was I going with that, what was the original question?
Reality TV World: Just if you were surprised that Kenny had fallen for your story so easily.
Bob: Hey, c'mon it's a great story! (laughs)
Corinne was one of the brightest people out there -- well, technically I guess [based on the IQ tests] it was Randy and Marcus. Corinne's a real sharp character and she fell for hit hook, line and sinker and it actually made a lot of sense. (Sarcastically) I actually almost convinced myself, I was gonna keep the idol and use it myself.
Jeff would've fallen for it too.
Reality TV World: You referenced it before that you had taught [former Survivor: Vanautu contestant and Jeff Probst ex-girlfriend Julie Berry] when she was in high school.
Reality TV World: Did you get a chance to get any advice from her before going on the show?
Bob: I actually haven't talked to her since she graduated from high school. Oh God that must be about ten years ago. So, long answer, no.
Reality TV World: How were you cast on the show? Was it the first time you had applied?
Reality TV World: Did you just apply normally?
Bob: [I] sent in the application and I made the video. I made a really cool video.
Click here to read Susie's interview and check back with Reality TV World on Tuesday and Wednesday for additional interviews with Survivor: Gabon castaways Sugar, Matty and Kenny.
(Photo credit CBS)
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