Exclusive: Sydney Wheeler talks about her time on 'Survivor: Tocantins'
By John Bracchitta, 04/03/2009
Sydney Wheeler had been told repeatedly that she had nothing to worry about regarding Jalapao's upcoming Tribal Council session.
However all that seemed to change once James "JT" Thomas Jr. discovered that Tamara "Taj" Johnson-George had found the hidden Immunity Idol and was added JT to her alliance with Stephen Fishbach. Suddenly Sydney found herself on the outside of the tribe's strongest alliance, and led to her becoming the sixth castaway to be eliminated from the CBS reality series.
On Friday, Sydney spoke to Reality TV World about when she learned that she would be going home instead of Taj, whether or not she thought Joe Dowdle was lying to her when he promised she would be safe, and why she didn't like claims that she flirted her way to as far as she made it in the competition.
Reality TV World: It seemed like you were pretty sure you would be safe from elimination pretty much all the way until the Tribal Council vote. Was that accurate or was it just the show's editing?
Sydney: No, I think it was pretty accurate.
That morning before the challenge JT and I walked to a place together and he told me "Taj, tonight for sure if we lose." We ended up losing, and about two hours before Tribal Council I see JT, Stephen and Taj talking and I'm wondering what's going on so I take JT to the side and he tells me that it's actually now me and [he] doesn't know who's gonna be better at the merge.
And at this point we don't know when we're merging, but we know it's coming and we need numbers on our side and we need someone who's going to fare better with the other tribe. And obviously Taj had more experience with the other tribe.
So, I mean at that point there was no pleading for my life for me. I knew it was time.
Reality TV World: What were you thinking when [Joe Dowdle] told you that you weren't really in danger of being eliminated? He really didn't even address the possibility that you could be on the chopping block.
Sydney: Yeah, well he had just come back from Exile, and he didn't really know what was going on. And at that point I should've never let Joe be the middle man between JT, Stephen and I. I should've just allowed myself to figure out what was going on. I didn't really understand what Joe meant, but I think he was just trying to make me feel comfortable about it.
Reality TV World: So you think he was being truthful just miscalculated what was going on? There wasn't any gameplay?
Sydney: Yeah, I don't think he did maliciously. Towards the end once we were going to Tribal Council he was like "I'm staying true to Taj, voting for Taj, voting for Taj," so he made me feel comfortable enough to tell me it was gonna be Taj all the way.
But I think he just didn't know. I think, if anything he was blindsided more than anyone.
Reality TV World: Can you explain what your Tribal Council point about how you wouldn't have any prior relationships with Timbera once the merge came was supposed to be all about? Because even if you guys had a loyal foursome, you would have to get someone else to flip so you could have numbers.
Sydney: Oh, exactly. You know, we're going into a merge without numbers, and we would need someone who just has more experience with Timbira, like Taj. Whether or not it's good experience? What I meant was loyalty and how I wouldn't flip necessarily to the other tribe, where Taj might have more of a reason because she'd made better relationships with them.
Reality TV World: In your exit statement you said that you "really see anyone from Timbira switching over, but they might try to do something." Does that mean that you didn't have any idea about any of the cross-tribal alliances that were being formed away at Exile?
Sydney: Oh yeah. Every time Taj would come back it would be 'Oh, I didn't learn much.' Taj didn't have much to say about Exile except about how horrible the conditions were. So I thought she was playing a totally different game than what actually was going on, and the whole [cross-tribe] thing is brilliant. She's really smart for doing it.
Reality TV World: You and Joe were obviously allied together, did he make any mention of, well, what turned out to be that fake Immunity Idol he found before Tribal Council as a possible way to save you if you were up for elimination?
Sydney: No he didn't. He never told me that he found it, which I'm almost glad he didn't because it would have been an embarrassing thing on my part. But he never did, no.
Reality TV World: Stephenâ€™s alliance with JT seemed pretty obvious based on what was shown on TV, but how obvious was Stephen and Taj's alliance while you were out there, did you know about it?
Sydney: That's a good question. You know, I always felt something. I even would call Stephen out on it because he was easier to call out than Taj was. Taj would get mad at me if I tried to call her out on anything and blow up at me. So I think with Stephen he would always play it down, 'Oh no, we don't have that. We're not that big.' He would always play up him and JT's friendship. So I would just believe him (Laughs), of course.
Reality TV World: Did you have any suspicions that Taj and Stephen -- and eventually JT by the end of last night's episode -- were sharing the hidden Immunity Idol?
Sydney: No. You know, I never really caught on that Taj had the Immunity Idol for some reason. I thought [Brendan Synnott] was smart enough to find it. I was stupid enough to think that there wouldn't be one at each camp, so I never even suspected it. But I knew there was an alliance going about an hour before when I saw them talking, which sucked. Because I knew it was me [going home].
Reality TV World: Do you think Taj's decision to bring JT in on her hidden Idol -- which she only did after Stephen told her he'd already found out about it -- was the deciding factor as to why you were voted off? Because based on what was shown last night, it looked like JT's belief that they were all kind of "sharing" the idol seemed to play a big role in his decision to vote for you.
Sydney: I definitely think it was the deciding factor. Why wouldn't you go with someone who has an Immunity Idol? Especially when they're willing enough to give it to someone else. And she was with Stephen but she gave it to Stephen. Why wouldn't you go with someone and blindside them later on, with possibly you getting [the Idol]. So I think it was a smart move on her part to tell him, and I think it was smart move to go along with it, which doesn't fare nicely from my side, but it's true.
Reality TV World: We saw Joe trying to sway JT and Stephen into keeping you but we didn't really see you do a lot of campaigning. Did you ever approach JT or Stephen yourself and try and sway one of them to your side?
Sydney: Yeah definitely. Like I said, the hour before Tribal Council I took JT aside and just kind of tried to pick his brain and see where he was, and he told me it was me or Taj but he was leaning towards me more because Taj had more of a pull. I definitely did a little pleading for my life and told him how I would be a little bit more loyal, I would definitely be able to pull some of the guys.
And with Stephen it was... (Pauses) Stephen always lied to my face.
Stephen told me straight up "Hey, we're voting for Taj." He never told me that he had any doubt that Taj wasn't going. So I had no reason to go to Stephen and plead for my life, in a way.
Reality TV World: Actually I'm not sure if it's what you were alluding to with the 'guys' thing you just said, but you seemed to catch some flack in the early rounds of the competition for flirting with some of the guys, especially Joe it seemed, to get some alliances going. What did you think of that?
Sydney: Well I just think it's funny because it's my nature, my personality, it's just me being friendly. And I do have flirtatious qualities, it's in my personality and I'm not ashamed of it or anything, but I just think it's funny the way it played up, and also that that's my only strategy and that's the only way I'm getting by in the game.
That's not what it was. I made these alliances with [Spencer Duhm] and Joe, that's as far as I got with Spencer, you know? And then with Joe, JT, Stephen and Taj we were all good buddies. I mean of course [Sandy Burgin] is gonna be next.
And then after that it's just like whittling them down. So it sucked to watch that edit, but whatever, that's what I signed up for.
Reality TV World: If it's any consolation, when we talked to Sandy she said she 'woulda done the same' if she had "the brawn and the brain and the body' that you did. Tell me about Spencer, you were also the one who seemed to be testing Spencer the most about his past relationships. When we talked to him, he told us he didn't tell anyone on the show he was gay but he thought you probably suspected it. Is that true?
Sydney: Oh yeah. From the first for hours of the truck where we met each other I picked up on it. It's a girl thing, 'gaydar,' whatever. I didn't wanna call him out on national TV, but I was trying to make him feel more comfortable by asking him what was his status and he still never came out, so I knew it was a touchy subject.
And the I even did ask the guys, JT and Joe, what they thought and if they thought he might be gay and they both said "No, he likes sports, he's a guy's guy. No way." So it was kinda funny to be right about it.
Reality TV World: How were you cast on the show?
Sydney: I was at a bar and was found by a casting director, and then she gave me her card. I was in college for the first time when they called, so I didn't go. The second time they called I was able to go in for an interview and did an on-camera interview and then had the final interview. So I guess, yeah, I was found at a bar. (Laughs)