On Friday I drove six hours to Wichita Falls so I could sleep in my car and audition for the thirty-eighth season of “Survivor” the next morning at 8 a.m.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, and the answer is ‘YES!’ “Survivor” is still on TV — for 35 seasons and counting. I’ve applied to be on the show four times in the last few years. That’s a respectable amount I suppose, but it’s not as much as Mychael, a guy I met this weekend who wore a crop top that he made specifically for the event.
“I want to be the first person to win ‘Survivor’ in a crop top,” Mychael told me, explaining how he cut hundreds of tiny holes in the bottom of the shirt for added style. He’s applied nine times (but more than 15 if you count his auditions for “Big Brother”).
Oh, what’s that? You already knew that “Survivor” still comes on TV and you were thinking something else? Well, in that case, the answer is ‘NO!’ I hadn’t traveled the farthest to audition. Out of everyone who showed up to the Patterson Kia dealership on Saturday morning to try out, that honor goes to Shae – from Phoenix, Arizona!
“I’ve never missed an episode,” Shae told me. “I’ve been watching since I was seven. I flew from Phoenix into Dallas-Fort Worth and took an Uber to the Greyhound station at 2 in the morning. Hung out with some interesting characters, made some friends, and then took the bus to Wichita Falls.”
Shae also told me that she has a cat named Probst, named after the chiseled and stern Survivor host himself, Jeff Probst. That’s pretty cute, sure, but is naming your cat after your reality show hero really that big of a deal? You people with cats named after the chiseled and stern Donald J. Trump might not think so, but considering that my cat is also named Probst, who could blame me for being excited?
Anyway, all of this is to say that Survivor fans can be quite enthusiastic about their love for the show as well as their passion for wanting to make it on. A trip to an open casting call event is certain to be nothing if not interesting, even if you don’t care about the show, right? Here’s how it all went down:
I left Houston at around 5 p.m. in my Corolla and drove northwest toward Wichita Falls, wondering what it would be like as I waited in traffic and listened to “Survivor” podcasts. Were there actually waterfalls there? Would I be able to find a good place to park and sleep in my car without getting harassed by cops? Why would CBS choose to inconvenience me by holding a “Survivor” audition in Wichita Falls as opposed to the bar down the street from my house?
As it turns out, the answers to these questions are as follows: “Never found out;” “No;” and “Still unclear.”
You see, when I arrived at my destination I began searching for a safe place to call my home for the night. As I’ve learned from past experience, when you sleep in your car you want to park in an area that falls somewhere in between two ill-advised extremes: So public that you risk getting slammed into and killed by an inebriated driver zigzagging home from the wild Wichita Falls bar scene; and so private that you risk waking up to the scarred, deformed hand of a stranger reaching in through your cracked window to gently stroke your face.
I chose an isolated parking lot on the campus of Midwestern State University.
When I unrolled my foam camping mat in the back of my car around midnight, everything was going as well as could be expected. My battery powered fan was working fine and there weren’t as many fire ants as I had worried there might be back there. It started to rain at 3 a.m., and even though I needed to pee, I had a Gatorade bottle. It was just like living back at my parents’ house — home sweet home.
Like at my parents’, I woke up the next morning to a security guard picking up the urine-filled Gatorade bottle from where I had placed it outside with one of those trash grabbing claw devices. He looked at me condescendingly through the windshield and held the bottle up as if to say “Is this yours” and “Get the fuck out of my parking lot” at the same time. I drove off toward Patterson Kia, curious and hopeful.
I pulled into a driveway where a sign declaring SURVIVOR AUDITIONS had been placed, and a Kia dealership employee directed me toward the back of the parking lot. Oh sure, I fumed, put the “Survivor” fans out of sight, where we won’t humiliate your precious car business. I parked and trudged up to the building where the auditions were being held.
Inside I was told to provide some contact information and sign some legal documents. Yep, these seem like they’re legit, I thought as I glanced over the fine print. The documents were informing me that just because I audition doesn’t mean I’ll get on the show and also that CBS reserves the right to hold on to my pathetic audition tape forever, just in case any fancy pants producers are ever in the mood to watch a 3 minute video that would make them feel seriously embarrassed for a stranger.
Needless to say, I signed on the dotted line with enthusiasm and got in line. There weren’t too many other people waiting to audition, believe it or not, and the CBS people who were running the show told me that they expected less than 100 to show up by 2 p.m. That’s when the audition would close and the Kia dealership employees could start talking shit.
As I waited for my turn, I interviewed my fellow “Survivor” fans.
There was Crop top Mychael and his crew, which included Savannah and Phoenix. They had driven to Wichita Falls from Dallas.
“That’s your real name?” I asked Phoenix.
“Yes,” he said.
“Cool,” I replied.
We stood in silence for several moments, hating each other, and then I asked him what he had planned for his audition.
“Just tell them about how I live ‘Survivor’ in my daily life,” he said. “My job — I’m required to talk to people who don’t want to talk to me, so just how I use my abilities and how I can use them on the show. I’m an auditor, like in financial services. No one ever wants to talk with me.”
Mychael (“Mychael, with a ‘y’,” he clarified) told me that since this would be his ninth time auditioning, he was feeling more ready than ever before.
“If I look back at all my old videos, I’d say ‘Oh, this is why I didn’t get on,” he told me. “It’s very embarrassing. I made a ‘Mean Girls’- themed audition tape before. I had all my friends say different things about me, a Regina George moment. It was very ‘Mean Girls,’ but it was too creative, though. It didn’t show off who I was exactly. I’m a creative person, so I want to be as creative as possible, but it takes away from who I really am. Plus none of the gay guys on ‘Survivor’ have ever had a crop top before.”
“Can I be honest?” Shae, the girl from Phoenix asked. “None of the gay guys on ‘Survivor’ have ever had a body like yours before, either.”
Savannah, her teeth chattering because she was so nervous, declined to be interviewed.
As we all talked I heard a guy closer to the front of the line say that he’d never seen the show, he just saw the audition sign by the road and decided to give it a shot. Everyone’s eyes immediately narrowed.
“I would fucking hate it if he got on,” Phoenix said.
“Fucking normie,” I added.
After about 20 minutes of waiting, it was my turn! I entered a small room where a couple of video cameras were set up. Some producer types, who apparently worked for the Wichita Falls CBS affiliate, asked me a couple questions – “Why do you think you’ll win ‘Survivor?’” and “How do you live ‘Survivor’ in your every day life?”
I’d like to report back what I said word for word, but honestly, I’m pretty sure I blacked out from nervousness. I had promised myself I wouldn’t be like Savannah with her chattering teeth, but there I was, voice shaking while I barfed out some nonsensical answer.
I think it had something to do with how I’m a newspaper reporter and I can “draw a story out of any stranger that I meet.” I’m certain that I sounded like a maniac, but for some reason I just couldn’t stop talking about a guy I met at a garage sale in Canada once who told me about a famous circus elephant that got killed by a train in the town he lived in.
“That’s the kind of storytelling you’ll get if you put me on the show,” I proudly informed the producers after telling the long and rambling story about an elephant who got pulverized by a train. They all nodded halfheartedly, and with concern.
Despite my madman audition, I left the interview room feeling accomplished. It was my fourth time applying for “Survivor” and I was excited. Maybe this was my big moment! But then, as I walked back to my car glowing like a war hero, I ran into a woman in her 50s on her way inside to audition. She told me her name was Lola, and I instantly knew she was better than me.
“I’m from here,” Lola told me with a Texas accent. “I grew up in this area — on a ranch west of here. I’ve wanted to be on ‘Survivor’ because since day one I’ve been like ‘That’s me!’ I can do this deal. I’m very ambitious, and I don’t fit in a certain column. I don’t do the other things that normal people do. I work with all these men on an oil rig. I’m offshore for 75 days and then I’m home for 60. I’m a utility person, which loosely translates to ‘slave.’ It’s true, there’s only one utility person on each ship, and it can be dangerous. If you’re towing a tugboat or something, sometimes the lines can part. And people, they can get dead. There’s a lot of things we have to do to make sure that people don’t get dead.”
Go get ‘em, Lola, I thought. Don’t get dead.