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Editor’s Note: The players were separated by gender and didn’t officially know the theme of the season when this interview took place.
Another Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted across from the giant “Boston” Rob and Sandra heads at the Island of the Idols.
Winner of “All-Stars” (2004)
Name: Amber Mariano
Hometown: Beaver, Pennsylvania
Current Residence: Pensacola, Florida
Occupation: Director of Marketing and Communications
Gordon Holmes: Alright, for the recording, can you give me your name, where you’re from and what you do.
Amber Mariano: My name is Amber, I’m from Pensacola, Florida with my husband “Boston” Rob…
Holmes: You don’t call him “Boston” Rob, do you?
Mariano: (Laughs) No.
Holmes: “Pensacola” Rob doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
Mariano: (Laughs) It doesn’t. We have four daughters, and I’m just the most awesome mother there is.
Holmes: I’m not speaking from a place of experience, but I’d imagine four daughters would be exhausting.
Mariano: You know, they’re not exhausting yet. They’re a lot of fun. They’re at fun ages.
Holmes: And you had them in quick succession too.
Mariano: We did, four kids in under five years.
Holmes: That’s insane.
Mariano: It was hard at the time, but we’re going to be so glad. We’re already so glad, because since they’re close to the same age they can play together. They can create this friendship from the beginning. Whereas with my sister, she’s five years older than me, and it’s not like we’re not close, but it didn’t happen until much later on.
Holmes: I get that. My sister is five years older, now we’re besties, but before I was just her pain-in-the-butt little brother.
Mariano: It was hard thinking, “I just had a baby and now I’m going to have another one?!” But it’s a good thing now. And they’re all at the age where we’re not doing diapers anymore, we’re not doing naps anymore, we’re having fun with them and really appreciating them now. Talk to me in five or six years when they’re all teenagers.
Holmes: I figured the whole point of this little field trip to Fiji was to pay for college.
Mariano: College, weddings, proms.
Holmes: Wow, I didn’t think about all of that.
Mariano: I need to teach them how to sew.
Holmes: One prom dress can be used for four different proms, right?
Mariano: What’s awesome is we’re Catholic, so two of them have made their first holy communion and they both wanted to wear the same dress.
Holmes: That’s the move, “It’s such an honor to wear your sister’s dress.”
Mariano: Right? And they actually wore my veil from when I was a little girl. So, I’m really hoping we can keep that going. I’ve also been trying to sell them on the big backyard group wedding. So, we can just wait until they’re all engaged and have one huge party.
Holmes: I feel like your husband gets credit for being the clever schemer…
Holmes: But, what I’m hearing now is you playing some next-level mind games.
Holmes: When people think of Amber Brkich and her time on “Survivor,” what do you think they remember?
Mariano: I think they remember a kid. I was a kid. I was fresh out of college at the first time. I literally had graduated in May and I went on the show in September. I think they’ll remember a friendly, young, maybe naïve person. It wasn’t that long until I did “All-Stars” so I wasn’t that much younger. I think I was a little less naïve and just as friendly. So, when they see me now, they’ll forget that it’s almost been twenty years since they’ve seen me. So, they might be expecting that. I still think I am the friendly person, very easy to talk to, I can make bonds with anybody out there. But, I’m very comfortable in my shoes now. I know who I am, I know what I’m doing. Back then, I was just starting the journey of life. And now, I’m smack-dab in the middle of it. I feel good and I have nothing to prove.
Holmes: I think anyone who thinks you won “All-Stars” by riding Rob’s coattails wasn’t paying attention.
Mariano: If people think I’m someone who will hop on your back and let you take me to the end, I’m fine with that. I want to be underestimated. We’re all winners, we all did something right to get to the end. So, if they forget about the other part of my game, other than that I teamed with a really great person, then that’s awesome for me.
Holmes: I’ve always said, the only thing you can trust in this game is for someone to work in their own best interest. With a bunch of winners, is there a concern that someone might be more interested in putting on a big show and parlay this into reality fame than in winning?
Mariano: I think the show has changed a lot since I was on in season two. It wasn’t about who could get the most airtime. Nobody knew what was going to come after it. It was solely for playing the game. I think that has changed quite a bit. I think people do up their personality and up their moves because they want to be shown, they want to be noticed. And, I think that’s something you have to be careful of. You have to be good at reading people and finding out what’s real. I’m going to be as real as I can be. I’m not trying to get the most airtime. I never was. I never did get the most airtime and I’m completely fine with that. I got the win in the end and that’s what mattered to me. I’m playing this game, not as one person. I’m technically coming in as two people. That could be a good thing or a bad thing. I have an alliance that I know is not going to go wrong, unless it’s for the better of our game. If he has to vote me out to win, I get it. And vice versa. I have that one person I can trust, and if someone aligns with me, they know they’ll have that person too. However, it also creates a target twice as big.
Holmes: Something that gets lost nowadays is the fact that “Survivor” was legitimately the biggest show in the world at one point.
Mariano: Yes, and I was season two.
Holmes: So you were there when it was literally at its peak. Can you put that into perspective for the millennials?
Mariano: I remember competing against “Friends.” “Friends” was the biggest show on TV and it was a half-an-hour show and they would extend their show an extra five or ten minutes trying to win that next half hour. It was insane.
Holmes: And TV is so different now. Outside of maybe “Game of Thrones,” I don’t know if watercooler shows really exist anymore.
Mariano: I ended up meeting Jennifer Aniston too…sorry if this is off track.
Holmes: I don’t have anywhere to be.
Mariano: I was in LA having dinner with a friend, a publicist who became a friend, and when we walked in we noticed Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt, Gwen Stefani, and Gavin Rossdale all sitting there having dinner there. I thought, I have to do something because the “Friends”/”Survivor” thing was huge at the time. So, I asked the waiter what kind of wine she was having, and they said pinot grigio. I said, “Send her a glass of wine on me and say, ‘Sorry we beat you in the ratings, but I’m still a big fan.’” Which was true because after we’d watch “Survivor,” we’d watch “Friends.” We had taped it. So after dinner, I looked back and they were standing up, waving me over to their table. And so I went over and Brad stands up and says, “Hi, I’m Brad.” And I’m like, “Yeah, no (expletive deleted). I know who you are. C’mon.” But, they said they taped the show every week and they loved it.
Holmes: It’s possible that glass of wine jinxed both of those marriages.
Holmes: That’s terrible.
Mariano: I did!
Holmes: What if you looked back and Aniston had just taken that glass, cocked an eyebrow, and dumped it on the floor?
Mariano: She would never do that.
Holmes: It was so big back then, I worked at QVC, we used to do an office pool that everyone would get in on. I’m pretty sure I picked Kel (Gleason) your first season.
Mariano: Really? Ooof.
Holmes: Tell me about it. It blows my mind that you’re out here. I’m so excited.
Mariano: It blows my mind too. I never in a million years thought the show would last as long as it has, but I’m so glad. I love the show so much and I’m so excited that I get to share this with my kids. They get to see the show that their parents met on. It’s not this show that used to be on TV, we can still watch it with them every week.
Holmes: Who gets to show their daughters a professionally edited, episodic…
Mariano: Here’s our love story. Wanna see it? It’s the coolest thing ever.
Holmes: Are they too young to get that right now?
Mariano: I think the younger too are little bit…they watch a show, but they think . they’re watching it in real time. It’s hard for them to understand that it’s taped. I think the older two are getting it though. Even the younger two will be excited to see us on TV. They might be a little confused how we’re there and with them at the same time. The older two get it. All their friends are watching it. They talk about it at school. Their friends think it’s cool.
Holmes: They haven’t officially told you a theme. If you had any guesses…
Mariano: I wonder…
Holmes: What do you think it could possibly be?
Mariano: My guess is that it’s a winners theme.
Mariano: (Laughs) I’m camping with nine other women and they’re all previous winners. But hey, I could be wrong. It could be all women winners against men first offers. I don’t know. Although I think my husband is here…
Holmes: I’m trying to remember if he was ever a first offer.
Mariano: No. (Laughs)
Holmes: So, ten women and Rob on an island. Interesting concept.
Mariano: Maybe. I’m thinking that’s a season I’m going to win. Or…there are other men here.
Holmes: If there are other men…
Holmes: Any guesses as to who you might see?
Mariano: I would guess…that’s a hard one. Maybe Tyson, he was quite the character. Maybe Ethan…maybe Jeremy? I’m not sure. What’s hard is…I used to watch the show as someone who studied the show because I had been on it recently. I would watch it and really know everybody’s names and moves and remember it. But then, when I closed this book and started thinking that it wasn’t going to happen again, I started watching this show as a fan. So, season to season I’d let that go and start over again. So, my memory is fuzzy for the more recent Survivors.
Holmes: Something that maybe casual fans might not appreciate is how much of a family the “Survivor” community is. You’re probably very close with people from those earlier seasons and less so now. And, with all of these charity events, a lot of these newer players have met each other and it doesn’t seem you and Rob do much of that.
Mariano: We don’t really have the ability to be traveling around and doing all of these events. It’s awesome that people do so much for charity, but we have very young kids at home. There are some things that Rob has been able to go off and do. That was fun to do when it was just the two of us, but mom or dad has to be around at all times.
Holmes: What kind of situational strategy talks have you two had?
Mariano: We didn’t have too much time to talk because he was out here filming a season.
Holmes: How long was he home?
Mariano: Two weeks. And that was a quick two weeks, he had to get ready again for this season and do everything he had to do. Plus, he wanted to spend as much time as he could with the kids. Knowing him, I know he would have liked a little more strategy talk time. But, we had a little bit of time. We practiced our fire-making skills in the background. We talked a little bit, but it’s hard when you don’t know who’s out here or when you don’t know what Jeff is going to throw at you. He tried to remind me of the elements because he was just out here. He said I’m going to be pleasantly surprised because it’s not nearly as buggy as Panama was. The weather is nicer, the water is beautiful. Panama was…a rough atmosphere.
Holmes: Missed opportunity. If I come out here with my wife, we’re going to have hand signals worked out.
Mariano: (Laughs) If I’m pulling my ear, that means I’m in trouble. We should’ve. This means “E,” this means “A,” this means “O.”
Holmes: Before every challenge, Amber’s standing there like a third-base coach.
Holmes: I think she wants me to bunt?
Mariano: (Laughs) We should have talked to you before we left. Obviously we’re not starting off together, but I do hope at one point we get to play together.
Holmes: You’re in lockdown, you’re not allowed to talk. But, people wink, people nod…
Mariano: People smile.
Holmes: People smile. Have you caught any of that?
Mariano: You never know what a smile means with these people. I saw some shocked faces when I was revealed. I don’t think they were prepared to see me, which I like. I’ve seen lots of smiles. I get the feeling that a lot of people are going to approach me for an alliance. Which is a good thing. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to bond with each and every one of them. I’m trying to figure out if I should work with the ones I know I have a lot in common with and create a solid relationship. Or, do I team up with the people where people would be completely shocked. I haven’t figured that out yet. I’m going to follow my gut. But there have been smiles, and I smile right back. But yeah, I liked seeing the shocked faces.
Holmes: Have you noticed other people communicating? Sitting next to each other?
Mariano: I’ve been trying to pay attention to see if people are sitting together. I’ve been trying to mix it up. Eh…a little bit…but then I could be reading into it too much.
Holmes: There’s a bit of a damned if you do kinda vibe. If you sit together too much, you’re together. If you’re avoiding each other, that can mean you’re together.
Holmes: Your brain can take it wherever it wants.
Mariano: You’re going to be walking together at some point. But then you have to be seen not sleeping next to each other at some point. My husband always says you can tell who’s working together based on who sleeps next to each other.
Holmes: That’s true in real life too.
Mariano: (Laughs) Right.
Holmes: Alright, we’re going to play Align or Malign. Here are the nine women you’ve been hanging out with. I’d like you to tell me the four people you’d like to work with and the five people you’ll avoid.
Mariano: This is hard, because I feel like I’m still trying to figure out what I should do.
Holmes: Fortunately, the decisions you make at this table don’t have to follow you into the game.
Mariano: Oh good. (Laughs)
Holmes: I won’t hold it against you.
Mariano: My align would be…Kim…we have a lot in common. We have kids around the same age. I think she’s not too too much younger than me.
Holmes: Kids in rapid succession too.
Holmes: You guys don’t mess around.
Mariano: (Laughs) Right. And she looks amazing. Danni, I don’t know why I’m drawn to her. But I remember watching her season and thinking she was good at the game. I want to keep some of the ones who are intimidating around. She’s not an enemy, but they say it’s good to keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Sarah, shockingly, the vibe I’ve gotten around camp is that she’s a lot friendlier than I thought she would be. And, I feel like I could learn a little bit from her. And Michele, she’s young but I’ve also gotten that warm and giggly feel from her. And finally…
Holmes: Nope, that’s four.
Mariano: Oh no…
Holmes: OK, because it’s been a while since you’ve done this, I’ll allow five aligns.
Mariano: Whew…OK…Parvati. We both married a “Survivor” player. She has a young kid at home. I feel like she could come to me and I could help her feel better when she’s feeling sad. I could offer her some mothering advice. I feel like I could bond with her pretty easily. She’s a sneaky player, but she’s one of those enemies you want to keep close. Not that she’s an enemy.
Holmes: OK, malign the rest.
Mariano: Denise, I don’t know anything about her. I don’t feel like we’re going to have too much in common. I don’t know if I can read her very well. Same with Natalie, she comes off as friendly, but not somebody…I don’t know what kind of conversations we’re going to have. Sophie, again I don’t know too much about her. She seems quiet and introverted and I’m a little more out there and talkative. She might get annoyed by me. But who knows, she might be my best friend. And Sandra, Rob just spent a lot of time with her and I feel like she could use that against me. She might pick up little things that he said. She’s very sneaky and she’s very clever. Whatever information she’s has in her pocket it too dangerous.
Holmes: OK, of those four, who goes home first?
Mariano: Sandra, I think out of the four she’s the scariest.
Holmes: Of your five, who is your ride-or-die?
Mariano: I’d take Michele to the end because I think I could beat her.
Holmes: How do you beat her?
Mariano: When she won her season, I feel like her game wasn’t better than mine. I feel like their games were a little bit more mixed up than mine.
Holmes: You’re from the olden times.
Mariano: (Laughs) Olden times?!
Holmes: Before idols and idols nullifiers and block a vote and forty other things. But, you’ve been watching. Have you gone through the thought process if you land one of those advantages?
Mariano: Yeah, I’m excited for it. It adds a little bit of excitement for camp life. Before, you’re just waiting out there for a challenge. There’s nothing else to do. Now that there’s more stuff to do…I can’t wait to go look for an idol.
Holmes: Just sitting around? I thought you guys would do cool stuff like putting on a fake Tribal Council.
Mariano: (Laughs) No…we’ve never done that.
Holmes: I could’ve sworn someone did a killer Tina Wesson impression.
Holmes: OK, an alien lands and you have to show them a clip that proves that “Survivor” is awesome. Which moment do you show them?
Mariano: I show them the clip of Rob running up those steps of that challenge where he had to win immunity before he won “Redemption Island.” He looked so completely exhausted and he put every single thing he could into it. It was unbelievable. I’m so glad it took him four times to win because he evolved so much from the first time he played to the last time he played.
Holmes: I remember asking him after “Redemption Island” if you had been holding your win over his head for all of those years.
Mariano: Me? No…
Holmes: There is a very real possibility that whole dynamic could switch and he’d be one up on you. Are you prepared for that?
Mariano: (Laughs) It’s not a concern. I used to say it’d be awesome to beat my husband at his game, because this is his game. But honestly, if he wins, I win too. And he feels the same way.
Holmes: If Jeff let you pick a twist, which twist would you go for.
Mariano: You can pick one person from the other tribe to speak with every two days and exchange information.
Holmes: I’ve actually thought of that before, if there was some kind of mail system. Like as a reward.
Mariano: They kind of did that where people can send advantages to each other. But, it’d be neat to be able to communicate with the other tribe.
Holmes: Alright, last game. I’ll give you a reason someone might use to vote you out. I need you to defend against it.
Mariano: Oh goodness.
Holmes: Let’s stop pretending that she just rode Rob’s coattails. She’s as sneaky as he is.
Mariano: Oh wow. Look, I’ve owned my game. I’m my own person. And we’re all sneaky.
Holmes: There is no way those two will ever work against each other. They’re a locked down pair of votes.
Mariano: If it means I can win the game and get further to the game? I’ll vote him out.
Holmes: Amber is really likable. I don’t want to sit next to a smart, funny, mother of four at the end.
Mariano: Yeah, you might think I’m too likable, but if I’m so likable then I haven’t made enough big moves. Even though I will…but nobody will ever think that. And I’m not the only mom out here, you have one, you’ve had four.
Holmes: My goal is to get you prepared.
Mariano: I appreciate this. And we should have thought of the hand signals. But, I bet Jeff would’ve caught on to it. “Marianos! That’s enough of that.”
Holmes: Why do you keep tugging your ear?
Mariano: I asked Jeff what he was going to call me because he used to call me “Brkich” and he can’t call me Mariano. He said he hadn’t thought of that.
Holmes: That’s the truest sign of respect he has to offer, the last-name nickname. I burst into tears the first time he called me “Holmes.”
Don’t miss the premiere of “Survivor: Winners at War” – Wednesday, February 12, 2020 at 8 pm ET.
Any Questions? Drop me a line on Twitter: @GordonHolmes