John Cochran, simply known as "Cochran" to Survivor fans, competed on the show during Season 23 and walked away as Sole Survivor on Season 26. After the most recent castaway Shirin Oskooi had her torch snuffed by Jeff Probst, Cochran sat down with the former Survivor player for a Q&A. Read on to hear how the interview played out.
By John Cochran
While it’s not unusual to hear Survivor players say “it’s just a game, nothing personal,” that most certainly wasn’t the case for Shirin Oskooi. Shirin’s Survivor journey was intensely personal; she was the object of ridicule and aggression, attacks on her character and her personal life. And yet, while her tribemates called her annoying, unlikeable, and unloved, Shirin ultimately emerged as one of this season’s most popular and celebrated players. Shirin and I talked about her bad reputation in the game, Mike’s shocking Tribal Council move, and her Shirinspiring resilience.
Cochran: Given all that’s transpired in the interim, it’s easy to forget that the first half of your Survivor experience was defined by your relationship with fellow superfan Max Dawson. When Max left, it seemed inevitable that you’d be next in line to go. Against all odds, however, you managed to fight your way to day 29. How would you say your approach to the game changed after you lost your closest ally?
Shirin: Yeah, I think Max going was a big wake-up call for me to just lay lower, shut my mouth, and be less annoying. And the other thing is, I had a really good relationship with Hali at the tribe swap, and that worked in my favor because then she brought me in and I was able to win Jenn over. Once people gave me a chance and got to know me, we very quickly became good friends. It was only when people didn’t give me a chance that they ended up hating me and spewing all this vitriol at me.
Cochran: Even though you’ve won the hearts of America, it’s pretty obvious you had a tougher time winning over “Merica" — but it’s not clear why. I spoke with Hali and Jenn, who both said they couldn’t understand the weird disdain your other tribemates had for you. Where do you think this negativity came from? What is it about Shirin that inspired such inexplicable animosity?
Shirin: It was a couple of different things, and there were different camps. Carolyn didn’t like me simply because she hated Max and I was associated with Max. But she and I actually got along quite well and she’s a lovely person. Joaquin loathed me from day one. He actually called me fat to my face on day one. He said to me, “Well, she’s old and you’re fat, but we’ll get rid of her first, and so you only have to worry if we lose twice.” Like, that’s something he said openly to my face as though it were just obvious fact. And when So ended up going home, he took it so personally against me. I mean, he obviously already had no respect for me, but from that point on it became personal for him. So, after the tribe swap, he went and said all these really toxic things about me that basically created this negative baseline of respect for me. And when the merge came around and I got to meet all these Blue Collars for the first time, Rodney and Dan readily absorbed the poison that Joaquin served them about me, and they never gave me a chance and got to know me. Whereas, in the case of Mike, Mike obviously cared a lot about working hard and getting firewood. I always worked hard and got firewood. And also, Mike and I share a history of domestic violence from our childhood, and that also bonded us pretty quickly. Sierra is an amazing human being — big heart. She said she had been afraid to meet me because of everything she’d heard about me, but she gave me a chance and got to know me and we became really good friends out there. And then, with Will, he have a totally different scenario altogether, which is that — at the tribe swap — he wouldn’t look at me. He wouldn’t talk to me. I pulled him aside a couple times, asking him if there was an issue, and if we could work through it. He always said that I was just in my head. And then, after the merge, he started actually personally attacking me. And it was always around me not having a soul. It was always questioning my integrity and telling people not to trust me because I don’t have a soul. There were these mini-blowups leading into that huge one. I have no idea what it means to not have a soul. I have no idea where that’s coming from. But I think it’s coming from a deeper, darker place, and if I were to speculate, I would say there was some discrimination involved.
Cochran: We heard both Dan and Sierra say at different points last night that “no one” would vote for you to win in the end. As an admittedly uninformed outsider, that doesn’t feel right: I would guess you’d get the votes of [at least] Hali, Joe, Jenn, and Mike. What do you make of Dan and Sierra’s assessment? Did you view yourself as an easy-to-beat goat, or did you feel you could win the game?
Shirin: For sure I thought I could win. I was playing up that “goat” card so hard, because I knew that I could win over the No Collar votes; I knew I could get Mike’s vote; and I knew I could get Sierra’s vote. I probably couldn’t have gotten the remaining votes. But all you really need is four or five. So, yeah, I was playing up the fact that nobody would vote for me. And it’s funny, it was so easy to create that illusion because everybody left in the game hated me. So, in their minds, of course there’s no way I could win, because everybody hates me. They weren’t even thinking about the other side.
Cochran: Seemingly out of nowhere, we started hearing a lot of players last night discuss Tyler as the game’s biggest threat. Sierra even went so far as to say that “Tyler will win this game.” Where did this opinion of him come from? As a viewer, it’s sometimes hard to tell whether Tyler is a strategic mastermind or just a guy who’s really good at enigmatically sitting off to the side, looking smart and squinting thoughtfully. Which is he?
Shirin: I love that you just said that. Because it’s true: he’s a tall, attractive man, he’s athletic-looking, and he’s got those big glasses. And so everyone was like, “That guy’s a thinker. He’s strategizing.” And in a sea of annoying [expletive], Tyler’s quietness stands out. All you have to do, with all these crazy people around you, is just hold your tongue and not say anything. Not even strategize. And if you make it to the end, guess what? All these people who hate all these other people are going to vote for you to win. That’s why he was a threat. And that’s why, when I was voting, I said, “Just sit there and look pretty.” That was Tyler’s catchphrase in the game — he often said that to women in a kind of condescending way when he thought a woman couldn’t do something. But he’s a really nice guy, and I don’t think he realized that he treated me and other people that way in the game, and we’re good now. But no, during the game he wasn’t strategizing at all, but the No Collars really liked him, and he was the least offensive option in a pool of offensive players. That’s why he was threatening.
Cochran: I was surprised during my interview with Jenn when she identified Rodney as the most powerful player in the game. What was your take on him? Did you see him as a dominant player, or just a loudmouth Bostonian?
Shirin: I didn’t see him as a threat until I got voted out. When I got voted out and reflected upon what was actually happening, it was clear. Everyone was really open about the fact that they wanted to go to the end with Rodney and Will at that point, and Rodney controlled Will’s vote. Therefore, Rodney gets to decide the entire rest of the game. And the other thing is that Rodney is a Bostonian loudmouth, but he’s not vicious. He doesn’t come at you, attacking you, proactively. He’s a reactive guy. He was mean to me on a couple occasions, and his applause on my way out was tacky, but he actually was quite friendly to me a bunch of times, and he certainly didn’t insult me the way some of the others did. So if it were that horrific final three of Rodney, Dan, and Will, Rodney’s the only option.
Cochran: You found yourself in somewhat of a “Cassandra” situation last night (the Cassandra from Greek mythology who was cursed to have all her accurate predictions fall on deaf ears — not the finalist from Survivor: Fiji) when you were trying to convince Sierra and Dan that they were doomed to 5th and 6th in their alliance. How obvious was it that they were at the bottom of their alliance? And how optimistic were you that you’d be able to pull them over to your side?
Shirin: To me and to Mike, it was incredibly obvious that they were at the bottom. And the reason why it was so obvious is because the Axis of Evil spent all their time together. Rodney and Will sat in their throne around the fire and did no work and just laughed and hung out and were lazy together all the time. And you would only ever see Carolyn light up when she was talking to those guys and hanging out with those guys. And then Tyler was just kind of floating around and was obviously tied to them through Carolyn from White Collar and with Rodney through Joaquin from before. The four of them just spent all their time together and were thick as thieves. All you had to do was take a step back and see it. I think, in Dan and Sierra’s minds, just the fact that they were hanging out together didn’t necessarily indicate that they were going to vote together. And I was not at all hopeful that I was going to be able to flip either of them. It was very clear that neither of them would flip. I think Sierra would’ve flipped had one other person come with her, but without that one extra person, she just couldn’t do it.
Cochran: Mike’s move at Tribal Council — leveraging his immunity idol to force the majority alliance to expose internal fractures — was one of the more memorable and innovative maneuvers in recent Survivor history. Did you know anything about this plan prior to Tribal Council? Once he put it into motion, how confident were you that it was going to work? And were you legitimately not at all bitter that he didn’t play the idol on you?
Shirin: Mike first told Jenn and me that he had the idol after Will attacked me and we all went to the cave and had our little emotional moment. I was like, “What are we doing here? We need to go look for the idol and screw these people up!” And Mike said that he had the idol, and that was the moment in the game where it actually was no longer a game for me. It was about good versus evil. It was about one of the three of us winning. I mean, it wasn’t a good game move for Mike to tell us he had the idol, and that’s why I knew he was sharing it with us because we’ve got something bigger going on here. And so, going into last night’s tribal, it was so obvious that we hadn’t turned anybody to vote with us, that Mike said, “We’ve got one last hope. I’ve got a trick up my sleeve.” He didn’t tell me what it was, but the writing was on the wall; I could tell he was going to flash the idol so that people would be afraid he’d play it on me. So my job was to do everything in my power to make everyone believe that he really was going to play it for me. It absolutely would’ve been a terrible move for him to play it for me, because it’s not like it would’ve created a shift in the game. It’s not like we then all of a sudden would’ve had majority numbers to make it to the end. It just would’ve bought me one more tribal, and if he doesn’t win immunity next time, he’d no longer have that idol to save himself for one more tribal. So, I have no resentment whatsoever. He played it perfectly. The fact that two people actually flipped their votes and voted for Dan was pretty much the best outcome you could hope for. That’s why I was thrilled when I was voted out, because keep dreams alive. We exposed cracks in that alliance, and now Mike can go work with that. A Mike win is a Shirin win.
Cochran: Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about watching you play was how — despite all the negativity you had to deal with — your enthusiasm for Survivor never seemed to waver. I mean, we’ve seen players quit the game after having endured far less. How did you manage to stay positive? To what do you attribute your resilience in the game?
Shirin: I think in large part it’s because I had such a horrible childhood — both my family life and my school life. I had to work really hard to get out of there, to go to a good school, to get a good job, to make a better life for myself. I’ve worked so hard at expunging negativity and ugliness out of my heart and to just fill my heart with love that I think, when all these things are happening to me, yes, I was horrified and I was depressed a lot of the time. Because I oftentimes found myself alone out there, and always at the bottom. But I was playing Survivor. It was my life dream. I got to go on a lot of rewards. I got to kill a chicken. I got to make coconut popcorn. I got to do all these things. And honestly, even watching it back, I’m shocked at my zeal at these challenges, and getting voted out — how excited I was. But you’ve got to keep hope alive. There’s always something to be happy about. I’m a grown-ass woman. There is no point in me getting stuck in their swamp of [expletive]. I was trying to make the best of it.
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