“Survivor” Champion Ethan Zohn – “The Internet Barely Existed When I Played”

“Survivor: Winners at War” (CBS)

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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 “Africa” (2001)

Name: Ethan Zohn

Age: 45

Hometown: Lexington, Massachusetts

Current Residence: Hillsborough, New Hampshire

Occupation: Social Entrepreneur and Keynote Speaker


Gordon Holmes: You’re a “social entrepreneur.” What does that mean? It sounds fancy!

Ethan Zohn: It is fancy, right? Basically I figure out way to help other people. I used a portion of the money from “Survivor: Africa” to co-found a charity called Grassroots Soccer, we are an adolescent health organization that uses the power of soccer to educate, inspire, and mobilize communities to make healthier choices in life,.

Holmes: That’s a hell of a mission statement.

Zohn: (Laughs) Tell me about it.


Holmes: And now you’re a newlywed?

Zohn: Yes, I am.

Holmes: Congratulations.

Zohn: Thank you. I traded in my white gold ring for a rubber ring for the show. I got married in 2016 to the lovely Lisa Haywood.

Holmes: I got married all the way back in 2015, so if you need any advice let me know. I clearly know everything.

Zohn: (Laughs) Is she out here in Fiji?

Holmes: No, I wish. She wishes too, actually. She’s not happy about it.

Zohn: (Laughs) Oh no.

Holmes: I’ll send her pictures, “Look at all of this gorgeous scenery…how’s Pennsylvania?”

Zohn: It’s different, I’ve never played with something to come home to. I was 27 years old, I was 30 years old, I had my family, but now I have my wife, she’s sitting in New Hampshire, alone.

Holmes: She’s thinking, “He’d better win this.”

Zohn: “You don’t come home if you don’t win the million dollars!”


Holmes: Health-wise…everything is good to go?

Zohn: Yeah, when you said you were surprised to see my name, I’m hoping it was a general consensus, either people don’t remember me or they thought I was dead.

Holmes: I don’t think either one of those is accurate. I think you’re well remembered, as a “Survivor” Hall of Fame member.

Zohn: That’s right, you brought me back to fame.

Holmes: I don’t think that’s accurate either! You’re a well-remembered, well-respected champion.

Zohn: (Laughs)

Holmes: I just want to be sure that you’re in tip-top condition, cancer-free, and ready to bust some heads.

Zohn: Everything is good. I’m feeling healthy, it was obviously a horrible bunch of years of my life. But, that’s part of the reason I’m here. I didn’t think I’d be alive long enough to be here. So, when I got the call to come back, it was an instant “Yes.” I was literally in my hospital room getting my second stem cell transplant watching “Heroes vs. Villains,” praying, dreaming of a time where I’d be able to come back and play. And it’s here and it’s now, so you’d better watch out everyone.

Holmes: We arrive at the hotel and they give us a packet full of bios. We’re flipping through it, and we were all so psyched to see your name.

Zohn: Aww…thanks!


Holmes: What else have you been up to since viewers saw you last in “Survivor: All-Stars”?

Zohn: Since “All-Stars”…can you (expletive deleted) believe it’s been that long? I pre-date the oldest camera person here! I’m grey! I’m known for my hair.

Holmes: You still have it though.

Zohn: (Laughs)

Holmes: That’s the most important thing.

Zohn: But what’ve I been doing? I’ve been working in philanthropy. Grassroots Soccer, I do a lot of work in the cancer community now. I helped launch “Survivor” Stand Up to Cancer with CBS. And, it’s just a huge part of my life. I always say; to make happiness real for others is one of the greatest gifts in the world. So for me, that’s what motivates me to get up in the morning.


Holmes: What do you think people remember about you and your gameplay?

Zohn: I feel they remember that I was a nice guy. I was loyal, trusting. I played a pretty well at challenges. That’s probably what they remember. Or, they don’t really remember me. I think that might be a hidden advantage. Being underestimated in strategy and gameplay is going to be my superpower. Everyone else who has played more recently, their strategy has been outed. I’m a little bit of a mystery. At least that’s what I’m hoping. And if they do know how I play, I’m going to revert back to what they remember. I’m a charity guy, I’m nice, I’m loyal.

Holmes: You’re going to lean right into that?

Zohn: I’m going to lean into it. But I truly believe at its core, “Survivor” is a game of relationships. It’s how you treat one another, it’s how you interact with one another that will decide how far you go in the game. So, I feel like having that…impression of me is a good thing. They’re going to think I’m trusting and loyal, but I’m really not.


Holmes: Are you going to be like, “Hey whippersnapper, tell me about these new-fangled immunity idols”?

Zohn: Yes, what is this I see in my hand? Is this an idol that I have claimed from under the Earth? I didn’t play with idols. I didn’t play with hidden clues. I’ve never played with ways to get back into the game. I’ve never blindsided anybody. And “Survivor: Africa” we really had to survive! We relied on each other to get by every day. That’s why it was about loyal, trusting, real relationships. It was about honor and integrity. I went back and watched “Survivor: Africa” since the first time it aired.

Holmes: Really? I’d be playing that on a loop at my house.

Zohn: I watched it with my wife.

Holmes: And you were like, “Whataya think of that guy?”

Zohn: He’s got great hair. (Laughs) I went back and watched it and I was a little bit taken aback. I didn’t recognize that kid. I was innocent and pure, a little bit soft-spoken and shy. And I’m thinking, “You have no (expletive deleted) idea what’s about to happen to your life.” (Laughs) But, I thought I had gotten far away from who that person is, but at more core, that’s who I am. Once you’re tired, you’re hungry, you’re thirsty, you miss your family, the true person comes out. I feel that. And all these other people, they’ve been outed. People know who they are and how they play. If you look at Sarah Lacina, who I assume is going to be out here. The first time she was loyal and nice. The second time she was cutthroat. How’s she going to play a third time? Everyone knows her game. I think it’ll be tough for the threats. Me? Nobody really knows how I’m going to play.


Holmes: Nobody has told you a theme.

Zohn: Correct.

Holmes: You’re a smart guy, any guesses?

Zohn: I think it’s all winners. I think it’s all winners men vs. women. If it’s not men vs. women, then maybe it’s old school vs. new school. But, I don’t think there’s enough old school here.

Holmes: So, you think there are women here?

Zohn: I hope it’s just ten guys. It improves my odds. Maybe just 26 days instead of 39.

Holmes: Maybe you guys can wrap this thing up in a week. If other people are here, who do you think we’ll see?

Zohn: I assume it’s the opposite sex. I assume we’ll see Tina (Wesson), Parvati, Kim Spradlin, maybe a Natalie…I’ve looked at the Internet…so I have some idea.

Holmes: What the hell is the Internet?

Zohn: (Laughs) That’s another thing. The Internet barely existed when I played. I think we had one chatroom, “Survivor Sucks.”

Holmes: I remember that.

Zohn: It’s 40 seasons! It’s ridiculous.

Holmes: I think of where I was in my life the first time I read that there was going to be this adventure show, and then where I am now.

Zohn: And reality TV. Everyone said it wasn’t going to last. We got back in August, 9/11 happened in September. Our premiere was pushed back a month. I just think about what the world was like back then. I think about stuff like that. I think people dug into “Survivor” because it was a nice family show and I was a nice guy and people like that.


Holmes: There’s always talk of pre-season alliances during these returnee seasons. Have you taken part in any of that?

Zohn: No, I have no pre-season alliances.

Holmes: Nobody called you?

Zohn: Nobody called me. I truly believe nobody thought I was going to be here. I definitely went back and watched the seasons of the people I thought were going to be here. I made dossiers on everyone, I researched them. Hopefully people didn’t think I’d be out here and it’ll be to my advantage.


Holmes: You’re on lockdown, so you’re not allowed to talk. But, there’s always non-verbal winks and nods. Are you doing any of that?

Zohn: I try not to. Even if I was approached for a pre-game alliance, I think it could (expletive deleted)(expletive deleted) up. Then you’re locked into something you don’t want to be locked into. I have no idea what we’re about to walk into. Well, I have some idea.

Holmes: Maybe an island, probably some water.

Zohn: I might be hungry for a while. But the game moves so fast, I don’t want to be locked into anything. The first “All-Stars,” that was hard because everybody did know each other. There were only seven seasons, I babysat for Lex’s (van den Berghe) kid, I hung out on Tom’s (Buchanan) farm. I partied with Rob. I think production had a hard time stringing that together. But, there were a lot of reasons why people were voted off that had nothing to do with the game. And I know there are people that are good friends here, it scares me a bit. I look at the Internet, I see photos of who’s hanging out together. How could you not be biased but to lean into a friendship.


Holmes: Corinne Kaplan told me something that you told her that always stuck with me.

Zohn: Really?

Holmes: It’s positive.

Zohn: Oh good! (Laughs)

Holmes: You got really nervous.

Zohn: Corinne and I had a past.

Holmes: I’m aware. I adore Corinne.

Zohn: Right? Did you see her on “Race”?

Holmes: Yeah, and it was funny because I was watching it with my wife who doesn’t watch much “Survivor”, and I said, “Corinne and Eliza (Orlins) are my favorites. I can’t wait to watch them.”

Zohn: Oh no…

Holmes: And then they came off as awful human beings on the show.

Zohn: (Laughs) What did she say about me? I love that she’s bringing me into the mix.

Holmes: She said that you said that in the game you need someone that needs you and you need someone that you need.

Zohn: Definitely, you need to know yourself. You need to know what you bring to the table so you can find people who have complementary strengths or weaknesses. Today’s game it doesn’t matter if I can build a shelter or catch fish, but if someone has a personality trait that you’re lacking, I think that’s more important. I’m not the a-type personality. I’m not a front-and-center bark orders kind of guy. So, I need to align with someone like that. I don’t know the new-school game. I need to align with someone who’s played in the past two years. I’m nervous about strategy, so I need to find a master strategist. I feel good with the survival side and the challenges and the physical part.


Holmes: Alright, we’re gonna play a game. (Pulls out cards with the players’ faces on them)

Zohn: Flash cards? Playing cards?

Holmes: Unfortunately, no. (Holds up Ethan’s card featuring his “All-Stars” photo) But, look at this handsome devil.

Zohn: Wow…that hair.

Holmes: What do you think of these nine other guys?

Zohn: Yul is even keeled, doesn’t offend anyone. Very smart. I feel he’s a little aware of how the world looks at him. He’s got a family, he’s got kids. I think that will factor in his game. I see myself linking up with him. I like the way he plays. He’s honorable. Tony is a little erratic. He take big risks. I think he comes on very strong and might rub people the wrong way. Adam…I like the way he played. In a new-school game he played an old-school style. He had a trusting relationship with a few people. He lost his mom to cancer, he plays with his heart. He’s a super fan so I imagine he’s flipping out right now. I’d like to use that to my advantage. When he was a ten-year-old Jewish kid watching “Survivor,” he saw me win. Jeremy is a major threat. Incredibly likable, he plays the game where he always wants to align with people where he’s not the biggest threat. So, I don’t see him linking up with me. He’s a challenge beast, he’s physically intimidating. I think women get the rough end of the stick in this game. I think it’s biased towards men doing well, especially men who look big and physical. I mean, look at Wardog (DaSilva), he was huge, but he was the worst challenge competitor I’ve ever seen in my life. But, he appeared like a threat. Tyson…he’s so monotone and sarcastic that it’s hard to get a read on him.  Obviously he’s fairly athletic, I know he’s buddy-buddy with “Boston” Rob. They all play poker together. “Boston” Rob, it took him four times to win. Took me once.

Holmes: That’s true. But, only one of you has a giant wooden head.

Zohn: Aww…that’s…what was that all about. Is that jumping the shark? I would have said, “Yes.”

Holmes: You win this, next time that’s your giant head.

Zohn: I went to Burning Man with my wife and one year they had these giant wooden statues and they just burn them. I’ve been thinking about that. But, “Boston” Rob is great. He’s an incredible player. He’s kind, he’s generous. It’s hard to read him, but he’s (expletive deleted) cutthroat, he’s good at challenges, good at puzzles. He’s someone I’d like to align with, but it’s like playing with the devil. Ben, I don’t know much about Ben. He found three idols…he’s good at social. Wendell seems like a nice, likable guy. I know his idol based on my dossier is Jeremy, so they could link up. I thought he was a good, well-rounded guy. Nick…he’s like another version of Wendell. But, I liked watching Nick, he transformed. He was shy at the beginning. He’s a smart, country lawyer. I think I want to align with the nerds.

Holmes: Speaking of, tell me which four of these nine you would align with.

Zohn: I would align with Yul, Nick, and Adam…I just don’t think we’d be as strong in challenges, so we’d take Jeremy.

Holmes: OK, of those four, who is your ride or die?

Zohn: Maybe Yul…Yul’s old school, we’ll have that bond, that loyalty. These new players don’t care about that.

Holmes: Of the other five, who is the first out?

Zohn: Oh…I don’t know…it could be Tony. You’ve got to break up Tyson and Rob…and quick. But I’m going with Tony. This got my heart beating.

Holmes: Good, you need to be ready to rock and roll.


Holmes: Here’s another exercise; we’re in the game together and I’m trying to get you out…

Zohn: (Expletive deleted)

Holmes: I’ve been called worse. Here are some of the ways I’m going to try to get people to vote for you. I need you to defend against them. Ethan is a nice guy, he’s got that whole charity angle, he’s got the whole cancer survivor angle. I don’t want to face him at final Tribal.

Zohn: First of all, to use cancer, to use my tragedy as a weapon against me to get me voted out of the game? That’s just silly. Cancer isn’t a good story. I’d gladly trade my million for your good story. I’d gladly switch places and give you a million dollars if you wanted to go through cancer. So (expletive deleted) you and (expletive deleted) your good story. We’re all here, we’re all winners. So, let’s play.

Holmes: Woo…I got chills.

Zohn: (Laughs) Thanks!


Holmes: They used this one in “All-Stars,” probably won’t work again. He’s a winner, let’s get rid of him.

Zohn: (Laughs) Hey, I lasted the longest of all the winners in “All-Stars.” I’m happy about that, but I didn’t even have a chance to play. I feel like this could work. Obviously I’m not the nice guy, but I come across that way.


Holmes: Alright, this is the one…he’s friends with Jonny Fairplay. You can’t trust that guy.

Zohn: (Laughs) Busted.


Holmes: An alien lands, and you have to show him a scene that shows why “Survivor” is awesome. What clip do you show them?

Zohn: Wow…I would show them a clip from “Survivor: Africa.”

Holmes: Shocker. Is it when the lions were trying to get at you?

Zohn: No wait…I would show them a recent clip of when Tribal Council went mad and everyone started talking to each other and someone pulls out an idol and Jeff’s like, “Oh my God!”


Holmes: If Jeff let you pick a twist, what would you choose?

Zohn: I had a twist for Jeff, somehow, the buffs that we wear have clues in them. You’d have to get a couple of buffs and put them together to find out what the clue is.

Holmes: So there are words on the buffs. And one buff alone isn’t enough to decipher the clue, you have to put them together.

Zohn: Exactly.

Holmes: Very clever.


Holmes: Is there anything to be said for you’re playing with house money so whatever happens happens, or are you too competitive for that?

Zohn: That’s a good question. I’ve actually thought about that. There’s going to be twenty million dollars walking around.

Holmes: Before taxes.

Zohn: Yes, before taxes. More like fourteen million dollars. And yes, the money is important but we all know what it’s like to win a million bucks. I’m not downplaying that, I’m just saying bragging rights and being the winner of an all-winner season is pretty important. I’m not motivated by money, I’m motivated by being the winner of “Survivor: All Winners.”

Holmes: Motivated by becoming a giant, wooden head.

Zohn: How would they even do the curls?

Holmes: That’s a good question. Do you want them to recreate the guy that won in Africa or the guy that’s about to win in Fiji.

Zohn: I’m going to have it on a lazy susan. The front side will be season 40, then you just spin it around and it’s the long curly hair.


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