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Exclusive: Stephen Fishbach talks about 'Survivor: Tocantins'


By Reality TV World staff, 05/20/2009 

Stephen Fishbach survived 39 days in the Brazilian Highlands and made it to Survivor: Tocantins' final jury vote.

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However once he got there, he failed to earn a single vote from the seven-member jury and became only the third Survivor castaway to make it to the end of the game but suffer a unanimous loss (the other two, Survivor: Fiji runner-ups Cassandra Franklin and Andria "Dreamz" Herd, lost to Earl Cole in a 9-0 vote in 2007).

On Monday, Stephen talked to Reality TV World about whether he was surprised Survivor: Tocantins winner James "JT" Thomas Jr. opted to take him to the jury vote, what he thinks he did wrong during the jury questioning, why he told Tamara "Taj" Johnson-George had been wanting to vote her off "for a while," why he eventually agreed to vote her off, and why he was so confident he could have beaten Erinn if she had been in the Final 2 with him.

Reality TV World: Congratulations making it to the Final 2.

Stephen: Thank you very much, I was pretty excited.

Reality TV World: Were you surprised that JT decided to vote off Erinn and take you to the Final 2 instead?

Stephen: You know, when we got back to camp from the [Final 3 Immunity Challenge] I knew that he was going to take me.  I just knew him really well.  I was very sure.  He had given me his word.  I felt like he had obviously betrayed his word to other people but I felt like I know what it meant when he gave it to me.

Then going into the [Final 3] Tribal Council, I could see him sort of starting to get nervous and I was like 'Oh my god, the possibility of losing a million dollars is just looming large over him.' 

And so yes, I was definitely -- when it came out that he'd voted off Erinn I was shocked and I was humbled.  Only because -- obviously he ended up blowing me out and in a sweep -- but at the same time, it was a difficult decision.  To be that close to a million dollars and take any risk at all.

Reality TV World: So before the Final 4 Immunity Challenge, you seemed to try and float a trial balloon with Taj about the idea of voting JT off if he didn't win immunity... was that what that was?

Stephen: That's exactly what that was.  And you know she did not react well to that and that was it.  Erinn and I had talked about it too. 

I wasn't sure if I necessarily wanted to vote JT off then because it would have been me, Taj and Erinn and I figured either of them would have taken the other one if it came down to it. Or they might have.  You know, I think Taj might have taken me, but whatever, it would have been a tricky decision had JT not won immunity of what exactly to do.

Reality TV World: So if he hadn't won immunity you could have still teamed with Erinn and tried to blindside him [without Taj], right?

Stephen: That's right. We could have had JT go for Taj, Taj vote for Erinn, and Erinn and I vote for JT.

Reality TV World: Do you think that's the way you would have gone?

Stephen: I don't know.  The question at [the Final 4] -- I mean obviously I've thought about it totally counter-factual now and it's all hypothetical. 

I had not figured out what I'd wanted to do there because obviously voting out JT at No. 4 would have put me in a weaker position because I wouldn't have been guaranteed at getting to [the Final 2] but it would have removed a big competitor.

And also, there was a personal element to it.  To vote JT out at No. 4 -- you know, he and I had come through the entire game together, I wanted to go as far as I could with him.  I was wrestling over the question [of] going with him to the Final 3 versus voting him out at No. 3.  I think that would have been really tough.

Reality TV World: So did you really believe Taj was the bigger threat of that Final 3 Immunity Challenge?

Stephen: No, no I did not -- that's what I told JT.  What actually happened was Taj -- I had Final 2 alliance [with all of] Taj, Erinn and JT.  And I was able to sort of keep everyone  in line and not talking to each other up until that point. 

But at the Final 4, there's only four people there. Everybody is talking to each other.  And Taj started to figure out that I had made the same promises to JT and Erinn that I had to her and she started to get pissed about it.

And I was nervous about what that meant.  I didn't know -- I didn't want her sort of stirring things up with JT and Erinn and also I was nervous that if she won that final immunity [she'd] take JT just because she was angry at me.

You know she did make emotional decisions sometimes. She was very strongly about -- she believed very strongly in alliances and the power of alliances. So for her to see me kind of moving around between different alliances, I think might have biased her to take JT over me.

It's certainly why -- it's certainly one of the reasons -- why she voted for JT over me [in the jury vote].

Reality TV World: So that was the initial reason you gave for wanting her out it seemed, and then later on during the jury [questioning] you also said you were worried she wouldn't have taken you. That one was legit then?

Stephen: Yeah, that's what I'm saying, I was worried that she wouldn't take me.  She was getting pissed at me because she was finding out just how many alliances I had in the game (laughs)

And I thought A) she was stirring things up and B) she might not take me to the end.

Reality TV World: Were you surprised you didn't get a single [jury] vote?

Stephen: I thought there was a good chance I wouldn't get a single vote.  Especially given the tenor of the final Tribal Council (laughs)

You know going in I thought I had a shot at Taj and a shot at Erinn.  But JT was this incredibly -- you know, he's an amazing social player, a strategic player, an incredible physical player, he was amazing around camp.  [Plus] he did this grandiose thing at the end of taking me.  And he's got this amazing back story of being this poor Alabama country boy.

So, you know, how -- it was almost impossible to go up against him.  Add to that the fact that Timbera loved JT, as you saw in the show.  Even more than you saw on the show.  They were tripping over themselves to get him to win against themselves.  I know that I was in dire straights. 

I was hoping for one or two votes.  Part of the reason I said [I'd take] Erinn [to Debbie] was partially, it was probably true, but also I thought it might bias Debbie and also win me Erinn's vote.  I was just trying to not be shutout basically.

I went into that final Tribal Council knowing I had lost and hoping to win at least one or two jury votes.  And I failed.

Reality TV World: That question from Debbie about whether you would have taken JT to the Final 2 was obviously one of the controversial things that came up during the jury questioning.  Did you give that answer because that was what you really thought or, like you mentioned on the reunion show, because that seemed to be the answer she was fishing for?

Stephen: You know, so many things go through my mind when I think about it.  There was that element.  When she asked that question -- I went into the final Tribal [Council] thinking 'There's no way I won, no way that I can get Debbie's vote.' 

[And then] she asked that question and said that 'My mind is not made up.' She was clearly looking for me to say the hard, honest thing.  And you know, it would have been hard not to take Erinn.  For JT to take me was very different than for me to take JT. 

As you saw last night, for JT to take me he swept me.  If I had taken JT you know people might have appreciated the gesture but he still probably would have gotten most of those votes.  I think if it came down to it I probably would have taken Erinn.

Reality TV World: Do you think that your answer to [Debbie] had any impact on why you didn't get any votes from anybody else?

Stephen: I don't know.  I actually think my overall sort of [presentation was the issue].  I didn't represent myself as a strong strategist in that final Tribal Council and I think that's really what did it.

I think I went with the wrong narrative basically for myself.  The reason I did that was I basically knew I had lost, I don't think there's any way I could have won.  You know many I could have gotten some jury votes if I'd talked about my strategy [more] but at the same time people might have thought that it was grandiose, that I was being ridiculous. 

You know they all kind of thought of me as 'JT's goofy sidekick.'  It was a role I was playing and I played it maybe too well.  And that's on me, that's my bad.

Reality TV World: Actually, that came out in some of the other exit interviews we've done, where some of the [previously eliminated castaways] said that they didn't realize how much of a role you were playing out there until they saw the season on TV.

Stephen: Yeah, and you know, again that's my fault. (laughs)

I set out, basically, to sort of be that guy.  The consigliere role where [I could] try and influence a guy's decision but never be the one [that was going to be] the big target.  But when it came down to it, I thought that people sort of guessed that I was strategic. You know, I wear glasses so [I thought] that looked pretty devious -- it turned out no.

I knew that they thought of me as JT's sidekick, [but] I didn't know to what extent they did.  You know, I'm in my head, I'm playing my game, I'm not thinking [about that].  It's basically my own fault that I was too much the goofy city boy. 

Reality TV World: I guess the thing that seemed to be a little bit of a disconnect to that answer to Debbie was that before that there had actually been a clip where you had said you were relieved that you'd lost the Final 3 Immunity Challenge because taking Erinn over JT would have been a "scumbag decision."  Did you not worry that the jury members might have that same feeling if you made that admission to Debbie?

Stephen: Well again at that point I was just... I wanted -- and to some degree I was playing for people at home, for viewers, because I wanted people to see that I was not just JT's sidekick, that I was playing, that I was making hard decisions to win the game.

Saying that definitely shifted the emotional tenor of the final Tribal Council.  You know, JT really hammed it up, ever more than you saw [on TV].  But I really don't know if it effected the outcome.  I can't see who would have voted for me had I not said that. 

If I had said 'JT' everyone would have just said 'Great, he's loyal.' It makes me look more 'scumbaggy' but I didn't lose because [they thought] I was a scumbag.  I lost because JT's the golden boy.

Reality TV World: So just to make sure I understand it, your reason behind taking Erinn wasn't so much that you necessarily thought you could defeat Erinn so much as you thought you had no chance of defeating JT?

Stephen: Oh no, I knew that I would defeat Erinn.  I was actually surprised to learn that Taj would have voted for her, that would have been her one vote.

It didn't come across [on the show] just how much Timbera disliked Erinn. The jury members will come up to me even now and they will say 'I understand that you had to vote me off, it was a game, but the one thing that I'm upset about is that Erinn lasted longer than I did.'

They really did not like her.  It was crazy.  It was to our advantage.  They just totally mistreated her.  So when we got over there it was easy kind of bring her over to our side.

When we were [looking at] voting off Sierra --  it was [actually] the vote that we actually voted off Tyson, but when we were talking about voting off Sierra -- there was still some concern that she might have the [hidden Immunity Idol], that Brendan might have given it to her because we didn't know.

And my inclination was always like assume the worst [and] take the most cautious route.  And Tyson was telling Erinn 'Yeah, we're splitting votes on you' [in case Sierra plays an idol], like she was supposed to be thankful.  If he was the boss, if he was the leader, then he should have volunteered himself.

But it was just the way they sort of treated her as though she should be grateful to like be talking to anyone.  It was really done strategically, I just didn't understand it at all.

There's no way that any of them would have voted for her.  To their detriment, they did not respect her at all.

Reality TV World: One of the other big things that came up during that jury session was obviously the whole Taj question where you made the comment that JT had actually been pushing to vote Taj out "for a while."  Did you mean specifically at the Final 4...

Stephen: No...

Reality TV World: ...because that sparked a whole discussion between you two.

Stephen: Yeah, I know.  For me that was the hardest part, was that exchange. 

When we were sort of allied with Tyson and Coach, JT had been willing to give them the Taj vote-out.  He said, 'You know we can vote out Taj at No. 7 and use the idol to flip the game at No. 6.'  And I had argued that it was much more important to keep Taj.

I, of course, was thinking of myself in the Final 2 with her as a possibility.  Just the point that having a strong, solid ally who was always going to vote with us.  It made more sense to keep her.  There was no reason to kind of give kind of give her as 'an offering' to Coach and Tyson.

He, I think, was willing to get rid of her and I really did fight for her.  I really did.  And he wanted to get rid of her at the end too because in his mind she was the bigger threat than Erinn was.  And I again had argued against that.

But once Taj sort of started to get leery of me I then sort of tried to vote her out.

Reality TV World: So at the end of that whole exchange, JT made his "Is this the same guy I brought with me?" comment.

Stephen: I know, right.  Amazing.

Reality TV World: You seemed to kind of get upset about that, was that legit?

Stephen: Oh yeah, I was devastated.  Like I was heartbroken, like I went in knowing I had lost and now I had also ruined my friendship with my best friend. 

And then of course as soon as the lights were off JT was cracking up.  It was a big act and he killed it.  I believed it, everyone on the jury believed it, and it probably solidified him the sweep.

Reality TV World: Part of that exchange also had you saying your friendship meant more to you than winning, so if that's the case why did you even take the risk of damaging you friendship?

Stephen: I didn't actually think that it would be damaging. Do you mean to say [I'd have taken] Erinn?

Reality TV World: Erinn, and then the Taj thing as well, I guess, that he disagreed with.

Stephen: By the end it actually was 'on.'  I was going to air the laundry and you know, we were going to have it out 

But with the Erinn thing I was actually surprised he jumped on that and reacted to it the way he did.  I mean if anything I was making myself look bad, you know?  But he really latched on to that, as a major, personal betrayal.

I was surprised that it upset him as much as it.

Reality TV World: Where you shocked that nobody ever came after you two [the entire time]?

Stephen: Yes, consistently surprised, I think it was just because, first of all, we were really good at working together.  We would always be on the same page about everything  We would always talk like 'What are we going to say to Coach about who has the idol?' -- some people thought Joe had it, some people thought Taj had it.

We would always get on the same page about everything and then we would go out there and spread the same information and they would hear it from two people.

The other thing we were real good about was just sitting back and listening.  And you have big personalities and big egos on this show and they want to tell you about all of their grand plans and big schemes. 

Everyone out there is the star of their own heroic adventure and [considered] us to just sort of be the goofy guys sitting beside them, listening and along for the ride of their lives.  As a result, no one really, I think, realized, how big of a threat we were.

(Photo credit CBS)


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