Where in the world is Jeff Probst? Good question. We don't know, and he won't tell us—as host of hit reality program Survivor he prides himself on keeping details of upcoming locations top secret. Probst has come a long way since his days hosting VH1's Rock and Roll Jeopardy. Since trading questions for challenges, he has braved a deserted island in the South Pacific, crocodiles in Australia, and arid flatlands in Africa. And while his life as host is bound to be easier than that of the contestants, in no way has it been all mai tais and Four Seasons. Probst gives T+L a look behind the always-rolling cameras to see what life as a Survivor is really likefish heads, squiggly worms, and all.
1) Looking back, which season would you say stands out as best? Why?
The first season of Survivor will always stand out as the best simply because we were creating something brand-new from the ground up. We were all virgins in a sense, both the production team and the Survivors. We were on the island of Pulau Tiga, a two-by-five-mile deserted island near Borneo in the middle of the South China Sea. We were thousands of miles from home. Our crew was very small, and we had one phone line between 80 of us. We had no e-mail and absolutely no amenities. A local Malaysian family did the cooking, which consisted of fish heads and eel nearly every single night. They meant well, but let me tell you, it got old fast. There were monkeys and monitor lizards and rats and all kinds of bugs and insects. It was the first time I truly realized "I am not the center of the universe." It was such an awakening to spend two months on a remote island completely aware that this "home" belonged to the animals and not us. From a professional point of view, it was simply the most fantastic experience ever—watching the show unfold before our eyes, creating and adapting as we went along, and all the while wondering if anyone back home would even be interested. Adrenaline and enthusiasm are what got most of us through those two months.
2) What's usually in your suitcase?
For my trip to the Marquesas Islands, in the South Pacific: Plenty of PowerBars, a collection of The Best American Short Stories for 2001, an autobiography by the director John Cassavetes, a Walkman and assorted CD's ranging from Mark Cohn to Alanis to Eminem, a pad of paper, and plenty of pencils and pens.
3) If you could only bring one item for survival, what would it be?
A magnifying glass.
4) What are your living quarters like?
We build a tent city at each Survivor location. Our crew now totals 300-plus, so our production team constructs a huge campsite, where we all live. Everybody has their own tent, all the same size with a sleeping cot. There are a few shower stalls and a bank of toilets. We also set up a makeshift Internet café so the crew can stay in touch with loved ones back home, but everybody's favorite part of camp is the bar. We have plenty of beer, a dart board, and pool table. That's about it. It's glorified camping, but the few amenities make a big difference in day-to-day living. We learned from the first Survivor that if we want to keep our crew coming back we have to make the time on location tolerable.
5) Which locale has been your favorite and why?
Africa was the best and the worst at the same time. It was the worst locale because the conditions were absolutely miserable. It was unbearably hot, there was no water source, and the dust was so bad that it was ruining computers and editing equipment and making many members of our crew very sick. In fact, the dust became such a problem that we took drastic measures to combat the situation. We took our own sewage, put it in a water truck and sprayed it around camp in an attempt to temporarily wet down the dry dirt. That was the ugly side. On the other hand, it was my favorite locale, because of all the wonderful experiences. Every day in Kenya was a safari. I saw every kind of animal in its natural habitat and I witnessed so many things I had only read about. The people of Kenya had been so good to us that we wanted to do something good for Kenya before leaving, so we partnered the Wamba Hospital, a local AIDS hospital, with the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric Aids Foundation [EGPAF]. I just found out this morning that this partnership has made them an official Call To Action site and that means that they will receive financial support, HIV test kits, medicine, other supplies, and counseling for the life of the hospital, thanks to EGPAF. That was one of my most memorable and most impacting experiences.
6) What's the most unusual experience you've had while on assignment?
On each Survivor I have some sort of slightly unusual experience. • Survivor one: I was standing in the ocean during a challenge and was bitten in the nether regions by a jellyfish. Try explaining that one to the nurse. • Survivor Outback: I unknowingly relieved myself on an electric fence in the middle of the night. There is a direct cause and effect thing that happens. The pain is not severe, just enough to convince you to change your aim. • Survivor Africa: I was bitten on the Achilles heel by a scorpion. Definitely the most severe pain, but it leaves no mark, so you get absolutely zero sympathy from anyone. • Survivor Marquesas: I made an exhilarating dive that included being circled by a 10-foot silvertip shark for about 45 minutes. We were never worried that the shark would attack, it was just very exciting to have a shark that close for so long.
7) Have you tried exotic food items contestants have to eat?
I have tried every food item that we've made the Survivors eat. I think the worst was the twelve-inch black worms from Survivor: Australia. They slithered all the way down. A close runner-up was the beetle larvae from the first Survivor. You had to bite off their heads, but their bodies were still alive as they tossed around in your stomach. The only thing I elected not to eat was the rat from the first season, and if I were given another chance to eat rat, I'd pass again. "Tastes like chicken." Yeah, right.
8) Have you had the chance to interact with locals?
Locals play a big part in our production at every Survivor location. The strongest connection I've made was with Charles, a Samburu warrior, whom I met while filming Survivor: Africa. We worked very closely with Charles and his tribe throughout the shoot and he and I became friends. Toward the end of the shoot, I visited Wamba Hospital along with Lex, one of the Survivors, to drop off HIV test kits, some medicine, and other much-needed supplies. The visit was very sobering, and on my way back to camp, I stopped by to see Charles. I asked him if he had ever been tested for AIDS. He said no. I gave him the name of the doctor at Wamba and encouraged him to get tested. The shoot ended and we said our goodbyes. Just a few weeks ago I received a letter from Charles. He updated me on his tribe's life and at the end of the note he said, "P.S. I went to hospital, I am healthy." That is the kind of connection that you never, ever forget.
9) Any destinations you'd like to see on Survivor? Anywhere unfathomable?
I don't think you'll ever see Survivor take place in a cold climate. There are two reasons for this. One, your body tends to shut down when it gets cold, so the Survivors would spend most of their time just cuddled up together. Two, who wants to see sexy women and handsome men bundled up in parkas? Bring on the water and bring on the heat, 'cause Survivor loves bikinis.
10) What travel advice can you offer to anyone up for an adventure or future Survivors?
Give in to the experience and stay adaptable. It's much more fun.
Interviewed by Hillary Geronemus