Really? Them? A Look at the Success and Failures of the Unlikely Survivor Returnees

In every half or full Survivor returnee season (i.e., seasons with more than one returnee per tribe), there’s always one or two contestants that make fans wonder, “Why?” Sometimes this is due to the player being controversial, sometimes they just didn’t seem particularly interesting the first time around. Sometimes these returnees become top tier players or beloved characters. Other times they end up being exactly what we’d expect, if not worse. Since we just said goodbye to a couple that would fit on this list, I thought I’d take a look at the unlikely Survivor returnees to see if we can learn anything from casting’s oddest choices.

Casting Struck Gold 

Jeff Varner

What, haven’t we at Purple Rock Podcast already said about the delightful Jeff Varner? Though we were on the Varner hype train early and often, I admit I don’t remember much about him in The Australian Outback. Perhaps I was too young, perhaps it was too long ago, but I know I wasn’t the only one to wonder about him. At least before the preseason press started coming out.

Bless your heart, Jeff Varner.
Bless you, Jeff Varner.

But once he hit the beaches of Cambodia, production and audiences alike saw exactly why Jeff Varner was put on the Second Chance ballot. And even though we’re still heartbroken that he went out fourth, no one will be surprised if he returns for a third time.

The Purple Rock Podcast Staff

Kelley Wentworth

While I was on the Wentworth bandwagon by the time Kelley was voted off San Juan del Sur, if not earlier, I could understand why some people were surprised to see her on the Second Chance ballot, much less making it on the cast.

Although…slim pickings.

Some people got a little intense in their disdain for Kelley. No one around here, of course; you all are the best. But certain segments of Survivor fandom acted as though Kelley getting cast would be a huge injustice. (Editor’s note: Holla at the people at Sucks that were trolling us for supporting her candidacy. Just know that we found it hilarious.)

By the strength of her social media campaign, Kelley made it onto Survivor: Cambodia and proceeded to find an idol on the first episode. Then she quietly started playing a strong game with stronger confessionals. Although time will tell if she lives up to her current hype, Kelley has already surpassed her performance and screen time on Survivor: San Juan del Sur.


Andrea Boehlke

Although most agreed that Andrea was the best of the worst, the Survivor community seemed fairly surprised that three castaways from what is almost universally considered a bottom five Survivor season ended up on the second Fans Vs. Favorites season.

Both terms used loosely.

Despite many people disparaging the return of Phillip, most at least understood why it happened. Andrea, on the other hand, was more of a surprise. The former Miss Survivor endeared herself to the fans by playing a solid game, annoying Malcolm out of finding an idol, and having a good sense of humor when she was #blindsided.

Parvati Shallow

Remembered largely for being the pretty but somewhat obnoxious flirt on Survivor: Cook Islands, Parvati was possibly the most surprising casting choice for Survivor: Micronesia (aka the real Fans Vs Favorites). While rumor has it she was only cast because Candice couldn’t defer medical school, Parvati took full advantage of her second chance, going on to win the game and inspiring a certain blogger to write over 2200 words about an alliance she helped form.

Bow down, bitches

Parvati was brought back and came close to winning Heroes vs. Villains and is now agreed to be a top five Survivor player at the least. She’s also one of the most common choices when new castaways are asked which player they are most like.

This is Parvati's Heroes Vs. Villains bio. It's not really relevant. I'm just sharing because it's so awesome.
This is Parvati’s Heroes Vs. Villains bio. It’s not really relevant. I’m just sharing because it’s so awesome.

Rob Mariano & Amber Brkich-Mariano

The first couple of Survivor started off as a pre-jury boot and someone who the Survivor Wiki describes as “not an influential personality in Survivor: The Australian Outback“.

Not the Survivor Wiki!
Not the Survivor Wiki!

Amber was an All-Star because Colleen Haskell disappeared into the ether and Elisabeth Hasselbeck became too good for us before we all realized we were actually too good for her. Boston Rob was an All-Star because Brian Heidik wanted more money. They proceeded to quickly form a strong pair and the most famous and successful showmance in Survivor history, if not reality TV in general. After steamrolling through the competition, Rob and Amber made it to the final two, with Amber winning on a 4-3 margin. Though Amber still may not have been particularly dynamic the second time, “Romber” was the story of Survivor: All-Stars (plus, you know, scoreboard). Their success as a couple got them two seasons of The Amazing Race, a wedding special, some weird poker reality show that no one watched, and four daughters.

I didn’t even know this network ever existed. The show or the network.

Boston Rob went on to become one of the biggest Survivor stars and is one of only two four-time players.  Like the aforementioned Parvati Shallow, Rob is considered one of the top players ever and is regularly named by new castaways as the player they are most like.

Honorable mention: Jenna Lewis, whose game in All-Stars would probably be better appreciated in the modern era.

Casting Struck Out

Monica Padilla

YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO BE THE NEW PARVATI! Instead Monica was largely invisible until her early boot episode, where she ultimately paid for her poor social game and playing a post-merge game pre-merge.

She does give good #blindside face though.
She does give good #blindside face though.

Colton Cumbie

Easily one of the most hated Survivor contestants of all time, no one wanted to see classist and racist Colton back. Fans were deprived of seeing his torch snuffed when he quit Blood Vs Water in just the third episode. But at least that means we know he won’t be back a third time, even if it was unfair of Jeff Probst to say that Colton quit twice.

I doubt the doctors just said he had to be pulled for funzies.

Brandon Hantz

This may be the one that taught Survivor a lesson. Fans were largely disappointed to see Brandon Hantz return for Survivor: Caramoan. He was the third contestant from yet another disappointing season, and largely remembered for being Russell Hantz’s nephew, bad at the game, and a sexist creep.

But it was actually so much worse than that. This was not just a dud casting choice, this was an irresponsible casting choice. Brandon Hantz had such an extreme mental breakdown that his tribe mates rightly feared for their safety and had to vote him out at a challenge, rather than risk what would happen if they waited for tribal council. He was such a disaster that the show altered the reunion seating to avoid the optics of a missing seat when they had to ban him from the event.

But at least we got to see Jeff's sweet massage skills.
But at least we got to see Jeff’s sweet massage skills.

Candice Woodcock 2.0 and Danielle DiLorenzo

When the cast of Survivor: Heroes Vs. Villains was announced, there were only two castaways I did not remember. But once I became more active in the Survivor community, I learned I was not the only one who forgot about Candice and Danielle.

What’s interesting is that they probably shouldn’t have been forgotten. If Candice had been cast on Survivor: Micronesia as planned, she would have been remembered as the girl who mutinied against the lovable Aitu Four so she could make out with that douchebag Adam.

Uhh, why is she on the Heroes tribe?
Can you believe she’s on the Heroes tribe?

On any other season, Danielle would probably be a pretty memorable character with her brashness and thick Boston accent. However, she was a part of the Casaya Six, and even being a runner-up isn’t enough to get attention when Shane Powers, Courtney Marit, and Cirie Fields are in your alliance.

On their returns, they really only functioned to help out Russell- whom the audience was already growing sick of- without contributing their own strategy like Parvati. Despite flipping once again, Candice’s casting on Blood Vs Water was once again met with a “Her?”

What, is she funny?

Ironically, it was the season where she was voted out first that finally endeared the audience to Candice.

Honorable mention: Monica Culpepper. She’s a neat lady.

So for the next returnee season of Survivor, when there’s inevitably a questionable casting choice, don’t panic! As long as the producers avoid the truly offensive choices (on the off-chance a Survivor producer/casting person is reading this…seriously, no more of the racist, sexist, miscellaneous prejudice variety), the worst-case scenario is someone who is not particularly interesting.

Well, guess what? Someone always gets shafted by the edit, so isn’t it better if it’s someone who is already boring? On the other hand, the best case scenario is someone goes from obscurity to Survivor royalty. I know I’m ready for someone to actually become the new Parvati.