They're baaack! This Wednesday, the premiere of Survivor: Caramoan – Fans vs. Favorites will celebrate the return of 10 former contestants, who will compete together (if they don't kill each other first) against another tribe of 10 wide-eyed rookies.
I interviewed all 20 contestants before they left L.A. for the adventure of a lifetime, and after sizing up both the new and old meat (ew, old meat), I've compiled a pre-show cast assessment to help you keep track of the "personalities" you can look forward to in Season 26, organized by reality stereotype in a handy scorecard.
Left to right: Phillip Sheppard, Brandon Hantz
Phillip Sheppard or Brandon Hantz: Who's the bigger TV lunatic? Their fellow "favorites" will find out soon enough (at the risk of their own sanity), but Phillip—whom I lovingly call Special Agent Samurai Sheppard Feather Hawk of the Cherokee Buddhist Nation—earns the title of Most Delusional.
In my chat with all the contestants before the game, the sacrificial goat that Survivor: Redemption Island winner Boston Rob dragged along to the finish, insisted the following:
Plus he revealed that intentionally mispronounced Francesca's name—as "Francesqua"—because "I wanted to call her an explicative [sic] and I thought, No I'll just change her name. I knew it was brilliant because she would constantly correct me. [That's why] they wrote her name down."
Brandon is a whole different breed of crazy—and not just because his uncle is Survivor archvillain Russell Hantz. Instead of waging a war against women he perceived as harlots sent by the devil himself to tempt him, the explosive Bible-thumper promised he's a new man.
"I tried so hard to show a representation of a Christian, and I didn't," the Survivor: South Pacific star acknowledged. "Now I'm more free-spirited, not as harsh on myself."
"I look back and I'm sad at that guy. I feel bad for him—and it's me! The intent of my heart was not the question, it was just ignorance."
"But God made me an exciting person," Brandon said, punctuating many of his comments during our interview by farting. (Oh, that charmer!) "So [I'm still] going to be fun, be a little bit wacky, maybe do some stupid stuff. Possibly poop in camp. Or take a dump in the pot we cook in. I'm not gonna burn your socks, but it's gonna smell for a while."
Top row, left to right: Andrea Boehlke, Brenda Lowe, Allie Pohevitz
Bottom row, left to right: Laura Alexander, Hope Driskill, Julia Landauer
Favorites Andrea Boehlke (Redemption Island) and Brenda Lowe (Nicaragua) were both on the "attractive" tribes in their respective seasons, but weren't afraid of making bold moves. Andrea admitted before Caramoan began filming that she was "leery of Brenda"—and with good reason. "They might think I have my own strategy and have no hesitation to play anybody out there," Nicaragua's femme fatale told me about her opponents, "which is the truth."
None of the new bevy of beauties are as obviously dimwitted as, say, last season's Angie or Redemption Island's Kat. But, warns Laura Alexander, a 23-year-old D.C. administrator specializing in Middle East trade, "never underestimate stupidity." (It's worth noting that the perky blonde is fluent in Arabic.) This group has an ally in Julia Landauer, 21. The intense, driven Stanford student is also a race-car driver with "street smarts" to back up her academic credentials, and expressed her plan to align early on with the younger women: "Women can dominate this game." Hope Driskill, 23 and Miss Missouri 2011, just received her undergraduate degree and plans to attend law school. And savvy New York bartender Allie Pohevitz, 25, said, "I hate people who think, 'She's cute, she must be an idiot.'"
Top row, left to right: Malcolm Freberg, Eddie Fox
Bottom row, left to right: Shamar Thomas, Reynold Toepfer
The girls would do well to watch out for Survivor: Philippines' Malcolm Freberg, and not just because he's so easy on the eyes. "I don't do critical thinking very well when pretty girls are around," he admitted before returning to the Philippines to film Caramoan just weeks after he left Season 25. "Turns out I don't make the best decisions when pheromones are involved. The plan might be to get rid of these pretty young girls early just for my own sanity and game."
Newcomer Reynold Toepfer, a 30-year-old San Francisco salesman with piercing blue eyes, also admits that flirting is his "nature," and has a "slew of ex-girlfriends" who can attest to his history of deception. For affable firefighter Eddie Fox, "flirting with women is always in my head…flirting is going to happen whether it's strategy or not."
But a flair for wooing others is not in the arsenal of Marine Sgt. Shamar Thomas, who became an internet sensation after confronting the NYPD during an Occupy Wall Street protest. "I want to make the Survivor experience as least pleasant as possible," says the physically intimidating Iraq War vet who views his opponents as "lunchmeat." "I want to make them cold and sick and tired," he said—with a huge, charming grin.
Top row, left to right: Erik Reichenbach, John Cochran
Bottom row, left to right: Michael Snow, Matt Bischoff
Micronesia "fan" Erik Reichenbach now returns as a favorite thanks to one of the biggest blunders in Survivor history: He surrendered his immunity only to be voted out moments later by Micronesia's "black widow" alliance. "It's cool that it's something memorable," the laid back mop top said of his ignominious exit. "I will play that up." On the stupidity that precedes him: "Sometimes the line gets blurred, because sometimes I am that dumb—I am a goofball."
Meanwhile, "There are a lot of people who made a disproportionate number of mistakes," observed South Pacific's John Cochran about his fellow returnees. "I'm wondering if they should call us 'dunces' instead of 'favorites.'" The bespectacled brainiac with more neuroses than Woody Allen said that this time, "I still have anxiety but I'm not self-conscious."
"I know it's going to be s***ty out here and it's going to make me irritable," acknowledges New York City event planner Michael Snow. "I don't like people who are acting nutty. I don't like jerks and big alpha male guys.... Those people irritate the hell out of me and I'm going to really have to hold my tongue." Though I hope he doesn't, because Michael has the potential to become this season's star of snark.
Judging by appearances, bearded wonder Matt Bischoff—whom Michael Snow dubbed "the Venice Jesus guy"—could be this season's biggest oddball. But Matt isn't worried. "I never go into any situation like I'm an outcast—I'm an extremely confident person," the BMX bike pro told me. "I'm a loud outspoken dude, I do gnarly things, but truly in my heart and soul is a sensitive, caring guy."
Left to right: Corinne Kaplan, Francesca Hogi
What can we expect from Gabon's Corinne Kaplan? "I'm going to be exactly the same as I was"—which her new tribemate, Francesca Hogi, calls "smart and bitchy." (For a refresher, take another look at Corinne's scathing smackdown of her season's finalists.) She also has a fan in tribemate Cochran: "She says bitchy stuff and is mean, but she can ridicule me all she wants, I don't care. She's smart and funny, and those are things I value."
And while "Francesqua" might be the game's most famous first sendoff, she admitted, "My fatal flaw was opening my mouth when I should've kept it shut. I should've kept my mouth shut and giggled a lot more."
"I think the younger girls seem like they're going to want a mom, someone to look to, a mother figure," predicts Sherri Biethman, 41, who named one of her three kids after Australia runner-up Colby Donaldson.
Surprise South Pacific standout Dawn Meehan, 42 and a mother of six, said, "I really did learn to become so much more patient and tolerant and to try to see the good in people, because I had a hard time. Hopefully some of those players that are new, I'll be able to identify with and help them, and that will help me in the game."
Survivor: Caramoan – Fans vs. Favorites premieres Wednesday, February 13 at 8pm on CBS.