Exclusive: Spencer Duhm talks about his time on 'Survivor: Tocantins'
By John Bracchitta, 03/13/2009
For someone who was only 10-years-old when Richard Hatch won the first season of Survivor in 2000, Spencer Duhm did pretty well in Survivor: Tocantins' as the long-running reality series' first-ever teenage castaway.
However, following an Immunity Challenge that played to his weaknesses and left him as the scapegoat for the Jalapao's loss, the 19-year-old college student from Lakeland, FL became the fifth castaway to be eliminated from the CBS reality series.
On Friday, Spencer spoke to Reality TV World about why he felt he performed so badly in the Immunity Challenge, what actions he took to try and save himself from elimination that weren't shown on television, and what his rationale was for deciding not to tell his castaways that he was gay.
Reality TV World: So based on your pre-Tribal Council conversation with [James "JT" Thomas] and the comments you made at Tribal Council afterwards, it looked like you weren't too surprised to be the one voted off, is that correct?
Spencer: Sort of and sort of not. I knew I was being targeted, but when I left camp I still thought [Tamara "Taj" Johnson-George] was going home, I thought it maybe 50-40. I knew they were still upset with me, but I still thought the way I talked and we talked strategy... Down there we talked about the "Guys alliance" and everything and keeping [the tribe] strong and voting out the girls. So I still felt like Taj would be going home.
But when we got to Tribal Council, the whole time during Tribal Council I was still upset with myself -- especially because I was on the chopping block -- and I couldn't believe how I was secure five or six hours before that and all the sudden I was in trouble of going home.
I didn't know I was going home until they went to vote and I could tell it was taking them way too long to write T-A-J. They weren't writing like "Taj, we love you. We're gonna miss you," they were all taking a really long time so I was like "Aw crap."
That's when it hit me. Before then I still felt Taj was going home.
Reality TV World: Maybe it was just the editing, but it looked like you didn't really do too much campaigning to stick around after JT warned you that you were on the chopping block.
Spencer: It did look like that didn't it? I was kinda bothered by that. What happened was Taj went down to the water and blew up. I knew she went down there and blew up and I knew she was on the chopping block and I knew that they were gonna target me too. I thought "Okay, I'm gonna go down there and handle myself and be really humble and understand that JT's really gonna be upset with me and just deal with it, because there's nothing I can do. If I get snappy and I get defensive than it's really, really, really gonna hurt me."
So I went down there and I talked to them, they showed very little of that conversation we were down there for probably a half-hour with all the guys. We got over it, we talked that out, he realized that it wasn't that I wasn't giving the effort it was just that I suck at the challenge, I was giving it my all I was just doing horrible. So he got over that and we talked about the "Guys alliance" and keeping each other strong and everything.
I campaigned pretty hard to continue to get Taj out, with her possibly having an [Immunity Idol] and all that other fun stuff [as my reasons]. Then we talked about getting rid of [Sydney Wheeler] either this time or the next time if we went back to Tribal. We agreed on that, and all the guys left the water, we were good, we were together and voting out the girls.
Then [Joe Dowdle], who was very close to Sydney -- and I didn't realize he was gonna take Sydney's side over mine -- and he goes and tells Sydney that either this time or next time it could be her or me... So she agreed and then they went back to JT and [Stephen Fishbach] and they were like "Hey, we're going with Spencer," and they were like "Oh, well we were targeting him before when we were mad, so whatever." So yeah, they voted me out because of that.
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It looks like I'm not doing anything, I know, I know, which is really bad because I'm a huge fan and it looks like I was just like "Oh, okay vote me out, yeah." Stupid...
Reality TV World: And actually kinda going off the thing with Sydney. It seemed like, on the show, she didn't really come up at all. So she was actually being discussed to possibly be eliminated?
Spencer: She was, and the reason she didn't come up on the show was because I voted for Taj and not Sydney. Had they voted for Taj I'm sure the editing would have shown the conversation about Sydney and possible sending her home. That's, I think, why they played up the whole "woe is me, I don't want you to vote me out, I think I'm still an asset blah blah blah blah" as opposed to the strategy about Sydney, because then the strategy about Taj would've been super random.
But then afterwards, when we walked back up to camp and we were hanging out before Tribal, I was afraid at that point that they were still mad at me. I was concerned that if I walked off with somebody and had a private conversation with them that they would think I was scrambling and trying to make backdoor deals and stuff, and that would have them switch back to voting for me. So I was trying to act on my best behavior, like not going off and being devious or quiet or sneaky. So back at camp after we had the conversation and stuff I really didn't do that much, I felt that was in my best interest because I would have looked like a threat had I done that.
Reality TV World: Last night's episode seemed to a make a big deal about your performance in the Immunity Challenge, do you think that's really why you were voted out?
Spencer: No I don't, and I'm almost certain that wasn't the reason I was voted off. Like I said, JT was the main one who was upset with me, and he and I seriously, honestly got over it. He was obviously still mad that we had to go to Tribal, but he got over the fact that he thought I wasn't giving my effort in the challenge. So I'm almost certain that's not the reason I went home.
Reality TV World: Going back to Taj's tantrum, having a fit like that right before Tribal Council seems pretty dangerous unless you're already extremely sure you're not going to be the one going home. Do you think Taj was sure she wasn't going to be the one going home or that she was trying to flesh out if she was a target and then use the Immunity Idol to save herself?
Spencer: I think where that was coming from was she felt like even though she was bonding with Stephen, I don't think she had any other strong alliances on the tribe and I think she felt like she was going next. And she was being targeted next. After [Sandy Burgin] was gone for a long time I had planned, along with my allies that was pretty much the rest of the tribe, to get rid of Taj. I think she knew that, or suspected that, so she felt like she was going to go home and [had] performed well in challenges and thought that I should go before her, or at least maybe Sydney, anybody should go before her.
I think it was a culmination of all those different pressures that just resulted in that. And yes, that can definitely get you sent home, especially when you're already on the chopping block after already being up for consideration. As JT said last time it's either [me] or Taj that's going home, so clearly [she's] in consideration.
That's why I knew about her going down there and blowing up, [which is why] I went down there to talk sense. So I thought "Okay, she went down there and handled herself really poorly. If you go down there on your best behavior then maybe you can still deflect the vote back to her because they might be really upset with her for blowing up at them." That was the strategy I went with when I went down to talk to them.
Reality TV World: The last few votes before the merge are where the tribes sometimes decide to begin keeping the weaker folks and instead vote off some of the stronger ones that might suddenly become individual immunity threats. Do you think the fact your tribe believed the merge was coming up played any role in their decision to vote you off?
Spencer: No, I don't think that had any role. On my tribe would I be... I wouldn't be considered a threat on my tribe as far as physically. [I felt like] I was an asset in challenges, except for the last one. But overall it was JT was strong in challenges, Joe is good [at solving puzzles], Taj was a beast. We were all pretty strong at challenges, I think it was basically "How can we keep the tribe's strongest people," that was our strategy the whole time until my vote and they changed it up on me. That's not to say that I was a huge asset, but I think I was definitely more beneficial to the tribe than Sydney in challenges.
Reality TV World: When we talked to [Carolina Eastwood] after she got eliminated -- who was only out there three days -- she said that she was aware that you were gay. Do you really think that no one knew [you were gay] out there?
Spencer: Sydney was the only one who suspected anything and, as you saw last night during that conversation she had with me she was actually trying to feel it out and trying to get me to say that I'm gay. She suspected it, I don't know if she was certain, but she was definitely very suspicious.
Carolina, I mean she says she knew but I don't think she did, she never said anything to me or anybody else. But Sydney I do know for a fact she was the only one, she even brought it up to JT and the other guys and asked they "Hey, do you think he's gay, he's not snuggling with me at night like Joe does," and they're like "Oh, no he's really, really young and he's just not comfortable with that." I'm thinking "I'm nineteen, you don't think I have hormones?!"
Reality TV World: Could you go into a little more detail about why you decided to not tell anyone that you were gay?
Spencer: Yeah, basically it was just a matter of I wanted to fit in as much as possible because in a social game people like to find the little reasons to separate you from the group and make you a target, whether you're the leader or you're the crazy old lady -- like Sandy was -- or the loudmouth or anything. So I wanted to fit in as much as possible and I felt like somebody could have some underlying prejudices that subconsciously might give them a reason to vote me off.
Nobody's gonna sit there and say "Oh you're gay, I'm gonna vote you off," that's just like "Oh you're white or black or Hispanic or whatever so I'm gonna vote you off." I knew that wasn't gonna be the case but I didn't want to give them any small reason to subconsciously have something against me.
I don't think my tribemates really would've done that anyway but I still just didn't wanna risk it.
Reality TV World: You also said that "In our culture there's nothing really to gain by people finding out that you are gay." I imagine some people could probably take that the wrong way so could you just clarify what you meant by that?
Spencer: Yeah, oh I'm sure, people take offense to it seems like everything I say about that topic because people just like to complain. But no, like I said it's a game where they try and find reasons to separate you from the group and find little things to characterize you and make you different and then use that to vote you out. So that's why I said there's nothing to gain.
They're not gonna say "Oh, he's gay let's keep him," but they might have something in the back of their minds that's like "Oh, he's gay. I don't have many good experiences with people who were gay" for whatever reason and that might separate me from the tribe and have a negative effect on me. But there's really no positive, like "Yeah, he's gay let's keep him! Awesome!"
Reality TV World: You admitted to not suspecting Taj had formed any kind of alliance while in Exile. Clearly that wasn't the case. Did you ever start to suspect her, or Stephen for that matter after [you said that]?
Spencer: Well, I knew that she and Stephen were close but I didn't think that Stephen had an alliance with her. However I did think that she probably had the [Immunity Idol] because you'll see in Episode 2 that when [Brendan Synnott] is trying to pick who he's gonna bring from our tribe I raised my hand because I wanted to go, I wanted to find the [Immunity Idol] and it's really easy to find, it always is. I knew the first and second time you go probably is the best chance for you to get it.
So I wanted to find it and I just thought her going back so much she probably had the [Immunity Idol], but we were hoping that she would think that if we got down to the Final 6 of us that we would deflect the vote to Sydney, like looking at Sydney, and we would blindside her with the Idol and then we wouldn't have to worry about it. But that was our thought process, I didn't think that she had an alliance with Brendan, no.
Reality TV World: Were you aware of Taj's pop star and football wife background while you were out there or did you only learn about it when she revealed it?
Spencer: When she told us about Eddie George that's when I found out about that. I had no idea who SWV was honesty until afterwards. After I got back to Ponderosa after I got voted out they were like "Taj was in a group" and I was just like "Oh, I thought she was just married to Eddie George," and they were like "No, that's how he met her," or... I don't know about that, but they said something like "That's probably how they met, because she was in a group," and the told me what group and I said "I've never even heard of them."
So when I got back home I YouTube'd them and I recognized a couple of the songs, but I had no idea she was in that group.
Reality TV World: It seemed like your tribe had a strong reaction to Taj's revelation that she was married to [former NFL player] Eddie George, but unlike what has happened in Survivor before, most people didn't seem to see that as a good reason to vote her off immediately -- do you know why that was the case?
Spencer: Well I mean there's a reason to vote off everybody. I don't feel like you should find something like that... maybe if I was voting on the Final 2 and maybe if she was in the Bottom 2 with somebody else and it was a coin flip and I thought "You know what, she has the money" and I could just be happy with voting for the other person. In that situation I could go against her for having the money.
But she's a person too, she's playing a game, I'm trying to win as much as anybody else and we already targeted her for different reasons. So I didn't think that was a big issue and a reason to try and get her out. But that's just who she is, it's annoying to me that people find reasons like that to vote people out.
Reality TV World: Did you have any alliances on your tribe?
Spencer: Yes. (Laughs) They didn't show anything from our tribe strategically. I had an alliance with Joe and Sydney on Day 2 that I formed. And the guys formed an alliance on Day 2 or 3, so we had four guys together and I tried to create the alliance with Sydney and Joe to keep myself safe even further.
And then there was a lot of strategizing going on. It made it look like our tribe just voted off the annoying girl first -- or not necessarily annoying but she was annoying that day -- and then the crazy lady, and then guy who sucked at the challenge. That's what [the show] makes it look like, it makes it look like we have no strategy whatsoever, but it's not the case at all.
Reality TV World: Going back to last night's Immunity Challenge for a minute, could you talk a little about why that challenge was so difficult for you?
Spencer: I am a terrible outfielder. I played baseball when I was a kid and I was terrible at judging fly balls and the speed they're going at and where they're gonna come down. So it's not surprising at all that I was bad at that challenge, but I didn't think it would be nearly as bad as I was. If we had been able to change posts [and] I had been able to move to the back after a couple rounds I definitely would have and JT would have probably come up. But once we were at a post we couldn't change for the other rounds. (Pauses) Yeah. it was really frustrating.
Reality TV World: You are the youngest castaway in Survivor history. Could you talk about what that was like, and what positives and negatives of being so young and in the competition?
Spencer: I don't think there were any real negatives to it. Maybe the fact that being so young you don't have as many experiences -- and this came up in casting -- you don't have as many experiences as some of the other people so you're not used to dealing with as many particularly different people. But going into the game you have to be aware that everybody is there to play for themselves, so that's not really an age thing so much as you're aware of that.
But the positive side is it was just really cool to be chosen and honored with that spot, you know, the first-ever teenager, and that's one of those things that nobody can ever take away from me, and being such a huge fan of the show that's an incredible feeling. So I was just really blessed.
Reality TV World: When we were talking to Carolina she also said that she actually felt like you should have been the first one to go home and had complained about not having an iPod to listen to. Do you feel you had a hard time adjusting to the game at the beginning?
Spencer: (Laughs) No, not at all. Um, yeah. No, I didn't have a hard time adjusting at all. I think we all wished we had something to keep our minds going, but no we all had a great time out there. We played charades and stuff to keep us busy. I had no problem adjusting out there, and it was fun.
Strangely enough I enjoyed the whole starvation thing because it's part of the show, it's part of being dirty and just part of the Survivor experience. So no, I had a great time. I loved eating grub worms too!
Reality TV World: How much weight did you lose on the show?
Spencer: I lost 18 pounds in 15 days, so I was losing it rapidly.
Reality TV World: How were you cast for the show?
Spencer: [It was] the same process as anybody else. I applied, sent in my video and my application, got called back a couple weeks later and went through the whole process of all the interviews on the phone and my final [interview] in L.A. And then I was just the alternate, which was really a bummer but I was really just super excited to be called the alternate. I got to the location 24 hours before the show started and they told me I was gonna play and I freaked out and got so excited. In a quick synopsis, that's basically what happened.