Survivor returns tonight for it’s 23rd season, South Pacific, where a group of 18 castaways will battle it out to become the latest sole survivor. So, what better time to rank all the previous winners?
Survivor debuted in the year 2000 on CBS, instantly becoming a cultural phenomenon, reaching an audience of over 50 million, and made house-hold names out of contestants such as Richard Hatch, Rudy Boesch, Sue Hawk, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, Jerri Manthey, and Colby Donaldson. The game has evolved over the years, new twists have been added, and viewers have dropped off, but Survivor still holds a loyal audience of around 13 million, who tune in week after week to see whose torch will be snuffed next, and who will be crowned the latest sole Survivor.
There have been 22 seasons of Survivor, and 21 different winners. Each winner brings something different to the table, their strategies (or lack thereof) vary, and every one of them has had the ability to outwit, outplay, and outlast their fellow competitors. But who are the best winners? Who out of all 21 would have the best chance of winning over and over again?
I have tried to be as objective as possible in my ranking, putting aside personal favourites, and looking at who had the best overall game. There are three key factors that I have focused on when ranking a winner: strategy, social, and control. I have trawled the internet, reading various blogs, and Survivor related websites, such as Survivor Sucks, Digital Spy, and Survivor Skills, and have taken in to account the wide variety of opinions on who they believe are the best winners.
So with that, on to the list…
1. Sandra Diaz-Twine (Winner: Pearl Islands and Heroes vs Villains)
I really struggled with the placings of my top five, to be honest, I could find reasons for each one of them to take the number one spot, but when it came down to it, how can you deny a person that has won the game twice?
Sandra is unique, in that she is an under-the-radar player, but has absolutely no problem in owning that role. Sandra perfected the “as long as it’s not me” strategy, always managing to make herself an asset to the dominating alliance, and was effortlessly able to switch back and forth to where the numbers where. She turned her weakness in challenges in to an advantage rather than a hindrance. Sandra was also distinct in how she was honest about her motives, she had no problem letting everyone know she would lie to get ahead, so when it came time to vote for a winner the jury couldn’t exactly hold that against her. And for such an under-the-radar player, Sandra sure had a set of balls, and was not afraid to stick up for herself, as we saw in her many arguments with Jonny Fairplay, it was her social skills that made her likable even when she was shouting and swearing.
It’s this passive-aggressive personality that makes her perfect for the game of Survivor.
Sandra didn’t receive one vote against her in Pearl Islands, and only had one vote against her in Heroes vs Villains (two didn’t count), that is immensely impressive. Sandra’s style of play may not be the most exciting to watch, but it is the most effective, she is a shrewd woman who always makes the best move to benefit her, and is constantly in control of her position in the game. If each winner was to play Survivor a hundred times, I’d be confident that Sandra would win the most.
Defining moment(s): Organising the vote against Burton in Pearl Islands. Her social game in Heroes vs Villains.
2. Richard Hatch (Winner: Borneo)
The pioneer of Survivor strategy, whose to say what Survivor would have been without the one and only Richard Hatch? When Survivor: Borneo started nobody quite knew what to expect, especially the contestants. It was a social experiment, placing a group of 16 strangers on an island and stripping away their basic essentials. But while most were simply trying to survive the elements, Richard was hatching (pun intended) a plan on how to win the $1 million.
Hatch was the originator of the alliance, creating a four-strong faction including Rudy, Sue, and Kelly. He picked off his competition one-by-one, and never once faltered. His control over the game was masterful, and hasn’t really been matched until this most recent season with Boston Rob. Richard was a business man, and great with words, and could make people buy into his BS. He also made himself an asset around camp, been the main food provider with his expert fishing skills. Hatch could talk-the-talk and walk-the-walk. If Hatch didn’t win the first season, who knows if Survivor would even be still on the air?
The only thing stopping Hatch for taking the number one spot was his inability to recapture former glory on All Stars, but he came in to that season with such a monumental target on his back, it was always going to be near impossible to overcome.
Defining moment(s): Forming alliance. Throwing the final immunity challenge.
3. Todd Herzog (Winner: China)
I swapped and changed with Todd’s position a few times, initially placing him at number four on the basis that those ranked above him had scored a better average because they’d played more times, but it just felt unfair, so Todd takes his rightful place in the top three.
Todd was only 22 years old when he played Survivor, and yet had the smarts and wisdom of someone double his age. Although there was a professional poker player on this season, Todd was the expert people reader, and knew how to influence individuals. He appealed to their logic, beliefs, or way of life - it didn’t matter if he truly had anything in common with these people, as long as he could make them think he did. He controlled pretty much every Tribal Council he was involved in, and yet he never felt pushy or overbearing in his decision making. His skills in manipulation were so impressive that he had people giving him clues to the whereabouts of the hidden immunity idols. Todd created many sub-alliances, and turned on them when he felt the time was right, while maintaining his true alliance with Amanda and Courtney, and all but dragged them to the Final 3 with him.
Todd barely put a foot wrong, and dealt with the jury in a calm and concise manner, owning his game and admitting to his manipulations, while still demonstrating that the relationships he had formed with his fellow contestants were real, and therefore boosted up his social game. Todd did however lose a couple of votes from those that thought his deceitful gameplay was too much. Todd is my number one pick for a player I’d love to see return for a future season, because I believe he has the ability to go all the way again.
Defining moment(s): Blindsiding Jean-Robert.
4. Parvati Shallow (Winner: Micronesia - Fans vs Favourites)
Outside of Sandra, Parvati has one of the most impressive Survivor resumes. She has played a total of 114 days in three seasons, and has finished 1st, 2nd, and 6th. That is one hell of an average.
Parvati is often categorised as the “flirt”, and while she certainly is a flirtatious person, it is unfair to diminish her strategy to just that. Parvati is very charming, and if given enough time she is able to use that charm to put together a strong alliance with an almost unbreakable bond. She inspires loyalty, one only has to look at her controlling of the female alliance in Micronesia. She can be a leader, but also allow someone else to take charge while subtly controlling their moves (as in Russell Hantz in Heroes vs Villains). Parvati is a strong challenge competitor, a decent worker around camp, and has a mind built for this game.
What is holding Parvati back from that number one spot is the fact that although she played an incredible game in Micronesia, she had a lot of help from Cirie, who arguably would have won that season if not for the sudden change from a Final 3 to a Final 2. Also, if it wasn’t for Jonny Fairplay throwing in the towel, Parvati very well could have been voted out first in Micronesia. Parvati also benefited from sitting next to one of the worst jury performers of all time in Amanda.
Defining moment(s): Blindsiding Ozzy. Forming female alliance.
5. “Boston” Rob Mariano (Winner: Redemption Island)
There is no doubt that Rob should be in the top ten, it was just a struggle in deciding what half he belongs. Rob has had the advantage of playing the game four times, beating Parvati’s amount of days played record with 117. His placings have been uneven to say the least. In Marquesas and Heroes vs Villains he failed to make the jury, but in All Stars he was runner-up, and arguably should have won, and he has just won Redemption Island. It is Rob’s utter domination in both All Stars and Redemption Island that earns him his spot.
Rob’s effortless charm and charisma has the power to brain-wash his fellow players, and that combined with his challenge dominance makes him such a huge threat. I said earlier that nobody has controlled the game quite as masterfully as Richard Hatch, until Redemption Island. Rob put on a masterclass of Survivor 101, keeping ahead of every aspect, and lead his alliance like a Manson-esque cult (but with less killing and less head-shaving). Alliances, sub-alliances, sub-sub-alliances, Rob managed to keep them all secretive. He did the same thing in All Stars, but lost due to one vote, and a very bitter jury. In Redemption Island his social game had improved, and was enough to give him the win.
Having had the chance to play four times obviously drops Rob a few places, if I was to judge just on his All Stars and Redemption Island performances he’d be top three at least. As Jeff Probst said, Rob played as close to a near-perfect game of Survivor as you are ever likely to see.
Defining moment(s): Instigating Rupert/Big Tom argument. His control over Ometepe alliance (buddy system, separate shelter, different eating times etc).
6. Brian Heidik (Winner: Thailand)
Sleazy, slimy, shallow, but a superb game-player. Brian, a former used-car salesman, described his time on Survivor as a “business trip”, and that’s exactly how he handled it. Thailand is often criticised as one of the worst seasons due to it’s mostly unlikable cast and predictability, and while those points are valid, it is still an interesting season to watch because of Brian’s manipulative strategy.
“It’s all about love,” Brian said during the first Tribal Council, just the start of a cunning plan to fool his fellow players in to believing he was their friend, that he had their back, that the bond they had formed was real - yet it was all a mirage. Brian’s grip over the game was so tight that it left no room for anyone else to breathe, the Sook Jai tribe was easily decimated come merge-time, and Brian had his alliance so wrapped up in his promises, each person believing they were the one that Brian wanted to sit next to in the finals, that they were almost frightened to make a move against him. Brian was also dominant in challenges, winning three back-to-back immunities. Brian’s game was very similar to how Boston Rob played Redemption Island, constantly in control, and not allowing anyone else to sneak an advantage, it’s excellent game-play but can make for a very dull season.
Brian loses points however for losing three votes to Clay, one of the biggest goats in Survivor history, Clay shouldn’t have come any where near to winning! So although Brian controlled the game expertly to get to the Final 2, he almost blew it at the end.
Defining moment(s): Keeping his three separate Final 2 alliances secret from each other.
7. James “J.T” Thomas (Winner: Tocantins)
Out of all the winners JT is the one I have re-evaluated the most and changed my opinion on, despite his massive blunder in Heroes vs Villains. At the time, I found Tocantins to be an average season, and very predictable post-merge, and I believed runner-up Stephen Fishbach to be the one with all the brains. But on re-watching, and reading interviews with the cast members from this season, it seems JT played an exceptional game.
From everything Stephen has said in interviews post-show, pretty much all strategic decisions were made together between him and JT, they would both hash out various options, and choose the one that would benefit them the most, which kind of makes them a partnership and that’s what stops JT from making the top five. When it comes to the social game, I don’t think anyone comes close to JT, at certain points in the game he had people sacrificing their own game to help him make it further. His charm and likability had an almost hypnotic effect on people, and it wasn’t as if he was playing against a bunch of dummies, he managed to outwit, outplay, and outlast players such as Taj, Erinn, Brendan, and Tyson (before his blunder in Heroes vs Villains) who were well-educated, intelligent players.
JT is only the second person in Survivor history to receive a unanimous vote, handling the final tribal council perfectly, and it was against a very worth adversary in Stephen. He also won more individual immunity challenges than anyone else in his season, and was voted the Sprint Player of the Season. JT played the perfect game, and if he went further in Heroes vs Villains he could have been further up the list.
Defining moment(s): Final Tribal Council jury performance.
8. Earl Cole (Winner: Fiji)
There is one word that instantly springs to mind when I think of Earl, and that word is “slick”. Earl is a very likable guy, a smooth talker, and very logical in his approach to the game. Fiji, much like Thailand, is regarded as one of the more boring seasons, another opinion I’d agree with, although it does have its moments, the Edgardo blindside being a particular highlight. Earl is not the most exciting winner on the list, but he is one of the most successful.
Much like JT and Stephen in Tocantins, Earl formed an early partnership with Yau-Man, and made most of their strategic decisions together. And not to take anything away from Earl’s win, but in Fiji the majority of the cast were either deluded, feeble, or completely unhinged, so in comparison Earl and Yau-Man looked like geniuses. Earl was a silent leader, and was able to control his alliance, and recruit new members to his alliance come the merge. Earl only received one vote against him at Tribal Council, made it all the way to the finals without ever winning individual immunity, and was the first player to ever win by a unanimous vote.
It’s arguable that if Dreamz hadn’t reneged on the deal he made with Yau-Man to give him immunity at Final 4, then Yau-Man would most likely have won the season, and the fact that Earl was sat against two of the biggest goats in the Final 3, loses him a couple of points.
Defining moment: Convincing Cassandra, Dreamz, Stacy and Boo to join his alliance.
9. Tom Westman (Winner: Palau)
Tom Westman was a born-leader, abandoning his initial plan to blend in to the background in Palau, Tom became the head honcho of the most successful tribe in Survivor history, winning every single pre-merge immunity challenge, and the most individual immunities in his season.
There haven’t been many people that have been able to control the physical aspect of the game as equally as the mental part, but Tom was one of the best. He was a power-house in challenges, a great provider at camp (even catching a shark!), and a strong leader of his alliance. He was able to navigate the game well, and was always one step ahead of the competition, as seen with him voting off Coby and Gregg.
Tom loses points for his failure to recapture former glory in Heroes vs Villains. His heart and drive was still there, but he was unable to manouver himself in to a solid alliance and it became his early downfall.
Defining moment(s): Voting out Gregg. Guilt-tripping Ian to throw Final Immunity challenge.
10. Yul Kwon (Winner: Cook Islands)
Yul was a methodical player. His every decision was thought through, never hasty or scatter-brained, his plans were accurate and precise. Cook Islands was one of Survivor’s most controversial seasons as they decided to divide the tribes based on race, which still sounds odd to this day. When the tribes were eventually shuffled Yul ended up in an alliance with Becky, Sundra, and Ozzy, and remained loyal to them throughout the game.
This was also the third season to feature a hidden immunity idol, and the first time that the idol was used to it’s full potential. Yul milked that idol for all it’s worth, using it as a bargaining chip to get Jonathan to jump ship, and vote with the Aitu alliance. Like Earl and Brian, Yul may not be the most exciting player to ever play the game, but he was certainly one of the smartest.
However, Cook Islands was one of the most twist heavy seasons of all time, and fortunately for Yul many of those twists ended up in the favour of him and his alliance, in particular the “message in a bottle” twist. Also, Yul was almost beaten in jury votes by challenge dominator Ozzy, who despite his physical skills had a poor social game.
Defining moment(s): Convincing Jonathan to switch sides.
11. Jenna Morasca (Winner: The Amazon)
Jenna Morasca is one of the most unfairly judged winners in Survivor history, in fact, Jeff Probst once called her the worst winner ever, which is just ludicrous. Not only is Jenna not the worst winner ever, she is far from it. Yes, Amazon was strategically dominated by Rob Cesternino, and yes Jenna was up against someone who the rest of cast thought was psychotic in the final two, but that shouldn’t totally discredit her victory.
People rank Jenna so low because she spent the first half of the season with the pretty girls, hooking up, whining, and even considering quitting at one point - and people can’t see past this, they don’t like to admit that someone like that deserved to win. But Jenna did have game, she always had herself in a comfortable position within the majority alliance, when numbers started to dwindle she fit in elsewhere, yes Rob was dictating most of the game, but Jenna was right there behind him. And in the latter half of the game when Jenna lost the numbers, she stepped up in challenges, winning back-to-back immunities, and eventually got rid of Rob and took Matt to the final two, and won in a near unanimous vote. And when she returned for All Stars she was the best positioned out of all previous winners before having to exit the game early due to her Mother’s illness.
Yes she moaned and complained, but she was 21 years old at the time, still the youngest female to ever win the game - and how many people have considered quitting Survivor over the years? I think nearly every one of them must have considered it at one point or another, whether it was thought out-loud or not.
Defining moment(s): Choosing Matt over Rob in Final 2. Giving immunity necklace to Heidi.
12. Ethan Zohn (Winner: Africa)
It would be cruel not to put Survivor’s cutest couple next to each other, so Ethan follows Jenna. Was Ethan a strategic mastermind? Nope. But he was one of the nicest guys to ever play the game, and outside of JT perhaps had the best social game of all previous winners. Ethan is a Survivor in more ways than one, fighting cancer since 2009, and currently in remission. It’s been great to see the love and support from Jenna through his ordeal, and I wish them luck on the upcoming season of The Amazing Race.
Ethan didn’t make any specific big moves in Africa, but he remained part of a solid alliance with Big Tom, Lex and Kim J, and performed well in challenges. When Kim J surprised everyone by winning the final two immunity challenges, it was Ethan’s personality and superior social game that kept him over the likes of Lex and Tom. Ethan failed to repeat his success in All Stars, but he made more of an effort than most that season.
Defining moment(s): Social game.
13. Danni Boatwright (Winner: Guatemala)
Danni is one of the most over-looked Survivor winners, as is the season Guatemala as a whole, the only season not to have had a repeat chancer (Stephenie doesn’t count because she was originally from Palua). Danni’s game perhaps lacked the flare of other winners, and she certainly didn’t dominate the edit, how could she when Stephenie LaGrossa was involved, but she had a great underdog story, and was extremely likable.
While Stephanie and her alliance back-stabbed and played a more devious game, Danni was loyal and trustworthy, and had a very good social game, probably one of the most underrated social games in Survivor history. When it came down to it she won crucial challenges, and her choice to take Stephenie to the final two proved a smart decision as Danni won 6-1 in a near unanimous victory.
Defining moment(s): Choosing to take Stephenie over Rafe to Final 2.
14. Tina Wesson (Winner: Australian Outback)
Survivor was still in its infancy when Tina won back in Season 2, Richard Hatch had set the template the year previously, and people were still trying to figure out whether this was the only way to win the game. Tina didn’t strategically dominate the game like Hatch did, but she managed to slot herself in to a strong alliance, and displayed a winning balance of strategy and social skills to get her through the game.
Tina convinced Colby to take her to the Final 2, using the nice, older lady routine, and this would prove a fatal mistake for Colby, in fact, it’s one of the biggest blunders in the show’s history, as Colby was guaranteed to win had he taken Keith instead. But the jury rewarded Tina’s strategy over Colby’s challenge dominance, and Tina became the first woman to win the game. Tina drops low in the ranking because she was the first person voted out in All Stars, and despite winning Australian Outback, it was a very close vote.
Defining moment(s): Convincing Colby to take her to Final 2.
15. Aras Baskauskas (Winner: Panama - Exile Island)
As we get lower down the list it becomes harder to be positive. Was Aras a bad winner? It’s difficult to say, especially in a season when you think there were others who deserved to win much more, it’s the reason people rank Jenna Morasca so low because they believe Rob Cesterino should’ve won the season, it’s an unfair way of looking at things, but it happens. I’m guilty of it with Exile Island, because I believe Cirie played the strongest strategic game, and dictated the big moves, especially in the latter half of the season.
Aras was a strong member of the dominating alliance however, he performed well in challenges, and earned peoples trust with relative ease. His game wasn’t exciting or controversial, it was just, consistent, and when it came down to him and Danielle he deserved the win.
Defining moment(s): Winning Final 4 immunity squashing Terry and Danielle’s plot to oust him.
16. Chris Daugherty (Winner: Vanuatu)
Is Chris often regarded as a bad winner because he just isn’t that likable? Maybe, I mean, he’s not a bad guy by any means, but he just wasn’t that rootable, despite being the underdog in the latter part of the game. In Vanuatu for the second time in the show’s history, the tribes were divided between gender, and despite performing abysmally in the first challenge, Chris was spared due to the older men forming an alliance and eliminating all the younger guys.
Vanuatu, for the majority of the season, was dominated by the women, from the cult like leadership of Ami, to the fiestiness of Twila, to the scrappiness of Eliza. Eventually Chris was the last man standing but found himself in a valuable position as a swing vote, and he pulled off a couple of big betrayals on the likes of Julie and Eliza, and went to the Final 3 with the two older women Twila and Scout, allowing him to win the final immunity challenge.
Defining moment(s): Voting out Julie instead of Twila.
17. Natalie White (Winner: Samoa)
Samoa is a strange season because the Survivor editors decided to neglect every other played and build the season around Russell Hantz, with Shambo as co-star. This meant every one else was severely under-edited, even the winner Natalie White. Does this mean Natalie was a great winner? No. Does she deserve to be ranked in the lower half of the list? Yes. But she definitely isn’t the worst winner ever.
People say that Natalie rode Russell’s coat-tails, and that is true, but that is a valid strategy, and one that Natalie was fully aware of. Natalie said early on in the season that she knew if she was against Russell in the end that she could beat him because of his aggressive, bully style of gameplay. Russell wanted to take Natalie to the end because he believed he could manipulate her, but it worked both ways, they used each other, it’s just that Natalie didn’t feel the need to brag about it and build herself up in every confessional. It could also be argued that if it wasn’t for Natalie convincing Galu to turn on Erik, then the Foa Foa alliance wouldn’t have made it as far.
Defining moment(s): Convincing Galu to vote out Erik. Aligning with Russell.
18. Bob Crowley (Winner: Gabon)
Bob is personally one of my least favourite winners, he’s not a bad person, far from it, but his strategy was just so uneventful and tame. Gabon was hardly a season of the strategic masterminds but it was full of big characters such as Sugar, Randy, Corinne, Kenny, and Crystal. Bob won almost purely on likability, which means he had a decent social game, but he did almost lose to Susie, who did even less than Bob!
When it came to challenges Bob was very successful, and for a guy his age against lots of youngsters that was admirable. And he was good at making fake immunity idols, but it was all a little pointless, all the fake idol did was humiliate Randy, which could have lost him a jury vote. The big strategic moves of the season were made by Kenny, and Sugar, which shows how insane this season was when Sugar was a power player!
Defining moment(s): Winning fire-making tie-breaker against Matty.
19. Amber Brkich [Amber Mariano] (Winner: All Stars)
If we were ranking the hottest Survivor players then no doubt Amber would be near the top of the list, but unfortunately for Amber we aren’t, we are ranking the winners, and she just wasn’t a good winner. It doesn’t help that she really didn’t deserve a place on the All Stars season to begin with, and much like Jenna Lewis was only included because Colleen Haskell turned it down, Amber was only there because Elisabeth Hasselbeck refused to participate.
I hate to say that anyone was carried in Survivor, but if there was ever a season when somebody was carried it was All Stars. Whether they were an item before the season or not will never be truly known, but the fact is Rob and Amber formed an early alliance/relationship and had a grip on the entire season. Rob controlled the game much like he did in Redemption Island, he dominated in challenges, he betrayed people when he needed to, and he had Amber under his wing while he did it. It was even Rob’s promise to Lex that helped Amber survive when the tribes were shuffled. Rob lost in part to a very bitter jury, and Amber reaped the rewards. The reason I don’t place Amber any lower is because she did finish 6th in Australian Outback, which gives her a very good average.
Defining moment(s): Aligning with Rob.
20. Jud “Fabio” Birza (Winner: Nicaragua)
Jud aka Fabio is the opposite of Bob, he’s one of my favourite winners, he was likable, rootable, and just a cool, chilled out dude. But that doesn’t change the fact that he was a poor winner. Much like with Gabon, it wasn’t as if Nicaragua was brimming with strategic masterminds, although Marty and Brenda did show early promise, and Sash played a good if flawed game, but it still doesn’t improve Fabio’s ranking.
It’s hard to tell if Fabio played clueless or just was clueless, signs point to the latter, but his lack of strategic wit made him a non-threat, and he avoided been targeted for the majority of the game. When he did become a target he managed to pull out all the stops to win immunity, three times in a row, and secured his place in the finals. He did almost lose to the wishy-washy Chase though, who would’ve been an even worse winner than Fabio!
Defining moment(s): Going on a challenge winning streak.
21. Vecepia Towery (Winner: Marquesas)
Being an under-the-radar player is a valid strategy, but you don’t have to be so boring with it. Sandra was under-the-radar but she owned her role, you always felt like Sandra knew what she was doing and was always in control, not necessarily in control of an alliance or the votes, in control of her own position in the game. Vecepia I felt just floated along, not really becoming an active player until right at the end when she won immunity (and her social game came in to use in that challenge) and then made a deal with Neleh to take her to Final 2.
Marquesas is one of my favourite seasons, it had the first major power shift in Survivor history, and it included some of my all time favourite players in Boston Rob, Sean Rector, and Kathy Vavrick-O’Brien. But it also had one of the worst Final 2’s ever, and it put a damper on the entire season. I feel kind of bad about ranking Vecepia last, I mean she did win the season, and that’s something only 20 other people can say, so she obviously did something right, I just feel that other people in the game controlled her fate and she simply swerved in at the last minute and reaped the benefits.
Defining moment(s): Making Final 2 deal with Neleh.
And there we have it, all 21 winners ranked from best to worst, you may agree, you may disagree, I’ve tried to be objective as possible, but at the end of the day, it is still my opinion, and your list may look entirely different to mine. The question now is, where will the winner of Survivor: South Pacific rank amongst these? We will find out soon.
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