The 40 Most Influential Survivors: Colby Donaldson

Colby Donaldson

Australian Outback, All-Stars, Heroes vs. Villains

To celebrate the 40th season of Survivor, we’re counting down the 40 Most Influential Survivors to ever play the game. Because Survivor is a game, a tv show, and a rabid fandom, we’re taking all forms of influence into consideration for this list. Go here to view the criteria we are using to determine what qualifies for the list. Note: this list is presented in chronological order and there will be spoilers for various Survivor seasons.

Colby Donaldson is the 4th entry in this series.

When we were trying to define “influence” we specifically said that being popular is not sufficient. And yet, it is undeniable that that being popular certainly helps. And perhaps it follows that the more popular someone was, the more likely they are to be influential. And I don’t know if any Survivor was more popular than Colby was after The Australian Outback.

This is something we have mentioned before, but the second season of Survivor was its most watched season. More people saw this season than any other and the big star of the show’s biggest season was Colby. His popularity was certainly helped by the fact that he was good looking. In fact, after All-Stars he was voted as the sexiest male contestant of the first 8 seasons. In 2015, he was named the second-best looking male contestant in Survivor history. And even if you want to dispute these rankings (and please go nuts doing so in the comments) they do speak to the fact that a key part of Colby’s appeal was his leading man good looks. Which leads to the next part of his appeal: he was arguably the first Survivor “hero”.

What does it mean to be a hero in a show where people vote each other out, stab each other in the back, lie to each other, etc? It’s never been exactly clear, but I think the way people have come to regard it is essentially “how close have people come to emulating Colby’s game in Australia.” Did Colby betray people? Sure, but he also stuck by his alliance. Did he lie to people? Sure, but no more than necessary. Did he win a lot of immunities, which for some reason correlates to heroism on this show? Absolutely. In fact it took until season 10 until there was another challenge beast on Colby’s level. Was Colby nice? Absolutely (Jerri possibly excluded). But was Colby actually a hero? No. He played a game and he had a personality that people found appealing. And this personality was necessary. Survivor had just seen Richard Hatch win and there was a chance that anyone seeking success was going to have to be as conniving as he was. And while that can be fun to watch, it can also be tiring. Colby (and Tina) showed that there was a different way to play and succeed at Survivor.

I think audiences needed to see that villains don’t always triumph in this show. And Colby was such an outsized figure in Survivor lore that when he showed up to Heroes v Villains 18 seasons later and failed to replicate his former challenge prowess, James described it like watching Superman in a fat suit. Colby’s heroic persona was so believed that he parlayed his popularity, good looks, and reputation into a career of hosting other reality shows. First Top Shot, then Top Guns, and finally The Butcher (yeah I never heard of this one either). Survivor turned Colby into a real world star, not just a Survivor star. It gave him a career.

Vegetarians avert thine eyes!

So who did Colby influence? He led to guys like Ethan, Rupert and Tom who tried to play the game with integrity, and were generally good dudes (or at least were edited as such).  And how about every male challenge beast that followed? Your Tom Westmans, your Terry Dietz, your Ozzys, your James, your Malcolms, your Joes. Every time one of these men show up, dominating challenges, preaching team togetherness, and trying to be above the game, they are taking a page out of Colby’s playbook. And yes, I said men above, because Colby’s influence is primarily felt by the men that followed. Colby laid out a plan to gain popularity that has been strongly related to traditional male traits and a traditionally masculine way of carrying oneself and playing this game. Women who win challenges or are popular are considered to be playing a different game. But even the men above are playing by what they think Colby’s playbook was. They ignore that Colby did betray people, like Jerri and Amber, but there is this myth of Colby that they try to invoke when playing. And this is where Colby’s influence is still felt. Even though at this point, only the long time fans really remember him, his archetype is still going strong.

There is another layer to Colby’s influence: the fact he didn’t win. Colby had a choice: he could go to the end with Keith who everyone hated, or he could go to the end with Tina who most people loved. Colby was the most popular Survivor player with the general audience, but Tina was probably the most popular player with the people on that season. And Colby chose Tina. Considering what followed for Colby (the career that followed especially), this wasn’t necessarily the wrong choice! But it taught a lesson to future players (well unless your name is Woo). For the audience, Colby was the star of the season and his genuine joy at Tina winning  was proof that this game didn’t always have to be so nasty.

Damn. He was PSYCHED.

Who else made the list?

You can see each entry on the list by clicking this link.