The 40 Most Influential Survivors: Stephenie LaGrossa

Stephenie LaGrossa

Palau, Guatemala, 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.

Stephenie LaGrossa is the 14th entry in this series.

Survivor: Palau was a game with a lot of firsts. The first tribe that dominated the pre-merge. The first time someone was voted off on Day 1 (Sorry, Jonathan and Wanda!) The first time an immunity challenge lasted half a day. But ask anyone who was still watching Survivor by the time Palau came out in 2005, and they’ll probably remember it for one thing: that tribe that kept losing.

Ulong sucked. Yes, Tom Westman led his tribe to dominance, but Ulong had several strong guys in their tribe to potentially compensate. Instead they just. Kept. Losing. And eventually, viewers saw a tribe dwindle down to two: Stephenie LaGrossa and Bobby Jon Drinkard. When Ulong lost once again, Steph won the final fire challenge and became the last woman standing.

Survivor had never done anything like this before. As Andy said in his Tom piece, you had to be there when it happened for maximum impact. Surely the show would step in and stop this? Nope. But that post-challenge episode where Stephenie persevered living on the Ulong beach alone for a day set off a series of influential changes in the show.

First, Stephenie was a fan favorite, with some calling her the toughest woman to ever play the game to that point. Stephenie’s tribe may have lost almost every challenge, but she built a reputation out of surviving the chaos—a reputation that got her voted out. (But even then, she survived two votes outnumbered!) Stephenie inspired lots of would-be female contestants the way that Rupert and Colby did for men, and put the “survivor” back in the title after years of strategy slowly taking center stage.

Hell, the producers were so moved by her survival journey that they turned it into a new twist within DAYS. Post-“merge”, the first individual immunity challenge revealed that the first person to drop out would be sent, alone, to be exiled on another island. (It broke Janu so badly that she quit soon after, which only served to boost Stephenie in comparison). And then the very next year, they made a season called EXILE ISLAND. Coincidence? I think not.

Exile Island became a staple of the show for the next 8 seasons. When that ran its course, they shelved the “wallow in pity” side quest until season 38, where an entire season was built around trying not to die on a deserted beach while you fight to remain in the game. And then they almost made that a permanent feature of the show until enough of you yelled at Jeff Probst’s favorite celebrity friends on Twitter! Needless to say, Palau influenced the game decades beyond its shelf life.

But wait! There’s more! Survivor had done an “all stars” season with all returning players just one year prior to Palau, but the saga of Stephenie and Bobby Jon made them so popular that the producers brought them both back the very next season (and let’s be real here, it was more Stephenie than Bobby Jon). This time they were “captains”, chosen to lead two tribes of newbies 11 miles through the wilderness. (Oh, and then play a game for another six weeks).

Seriously, Jeff!?

Proving that returnees and new players could work together, the show once again took something that was successful and brought it out again and again: Fans vs Favorites, South Pacific, Redemption Island, Philippines, Edge of Extinction… Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t, but if players didn’t tune in to Guatemala to see if Stephenie could get that win she missed out on, then a lot of those seasons may not have happened.* While Stephenie’s gameplay and demeanor was a far cry from the lovable survivor in Palau, she made it to the end and proved to be a big draw for viewers that season. Well, other than this guy:

*I’m still not sure if Guatemala even happened or if I imagined Danni being on season 40 as a fever dream.

Who else made the list?

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