2016 Sole Survivor Michele Fitzgerald

For 39 days in the spring of 2015, Freehold’s Michele Fitzgerald lived in a world of constant struggle and isolation. Her daily routine consisted of foraging for food, eating snails and cracking coconuts with a dwindling group of campers as she competed on the 32nd season of the hit CBS show Survivor. But on May 18th of this year, about 14 months after she began the contest, those five and a half weeks paid off handsomely for Michele when she found out she won the competition, would take home the show’s $1 million prize and be catapulted into national fame. For the 24-year-old avid fan of the show who had already traveled around the globe prior to participating in the contest, winning Survivor was a goal she had set for herself several years earlier after not succeeding at a previous casting call for the show. And if there’s one thing that Living In Media learned in our conversation with Michele, she’s nothing if not determined.

Michele has consistently traveled both home and abroad independently, sometimes staying in a different state or country for weeks or months at a time. Although she says that the physical skills she learned while traveling and camping didn’t do much to prepare her for competing on Survivor, her amiable personality, willingness to try something new and reliance on her herself played a critical role as she advanced through the competition.

Despite her innate urge to explore the world, Michele hasn’t forgotten her Monmouth County roots. She says the support she received from her family, friends, and the local community after her victory helped her filter through and ignore the criticism she received from some fans and critics of the show on social media. And since winning, Michele has spoken at several schools in the area to encourage children to pursue their dreams, no matter how big or out of reach they may seem to be.

Above all, Michele admits that she’s earned a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, not only to set herself up to pursue a career in the travel industry, but also to make a difference in other people’s lives. As she puts it, her fame for winning the show is fleeting—another winner will be crowned later this year—so she’s used the awareness that she has now to benefit charities across the country.

Michele discussed her short and long-term goals, independent spirit and, of course, what she ate during her 39 days in Cambodia, plus much more during a recent conversation with Living In Media.

LIM: How have you been spending time since you won Survivor?

MF: I took some time off. I’m between jobs right now. I’ve been travelling with my family, figuring out where I want to go from here. Survivor has been my life for so long, about two years. From the first call that I got, up until when it ended, it’s been all consuming. So I’m just trying to figure out where I am now and to evaluate all my life’s decisions.

LIM: Where have you travelled to?

MF: Immediately after I won, I took a few girlfriends to Napa Valley. Since winning, I’ve been there, Ohio, the Hamptons. I’ve been hopping all over. I’m just enjoying it.

LIM: What do you think you learned about yourself, both during your time in Cambodia and afterwards while you were waiting for the result of the show?

MF: I think that I went into the game a certain way, and I had to have faith in myself. Throughout the process and playing I had to trust the decisions I made. You can only rely on yourself. I went in there alone as just depending on me, and I evolved. Everyone can turn to their family or their friends for advice, but in that situation I had to act on my own and believe in myself, my social skills and my physical abilities. So what I learned is that I have to be my own biggest support system. Even though you form relationships with the other contestants, you’re still competing against them. And you can believe that you’re in a relationship or alliance with somebody, but how often do you see backstabbing in the show? At the end of the day it’s just you, and you control which way you should go.

LIM: Where were you working when you left to do the show?

MF: At the time I was a travel agent. In the past I was bartending, catering, doing things like that. Before I went out to the show, I started a job as a travel agent up in Woodbridge. I just left to do the show. And then I went straight from the game back to work.

LIM: That had to be a difficult transition.

MF: It was really bizarre to go from a crazy experience like that to all of a sudden being back at a desk where no one knows what I just went through. All they knew was that I took a leave of absence. It was hard to compartmentalize that experience with your life after it, when you’re keeping that kind of secret from your friends and a lot of your family.

LIM: After the game was finished, you had to keep your experience a secret from almost everyone for a year. How did that feel?

MF: It was hard, and I had to stay away from alcohol. (Laughs.) I could talk to my family all I wanted, but they couldn’t understand what I went through. I think it just became something that I had experienced with my cast-mates. They almost became like my new family, and they were an extra support system for that year. It weighs on you. Especially, not just the experience that people don’t know about, but also getting that far and the uncertainty of whether or not you’re going to win. That’s a huge weight to carry around for a year. You just have to put it in a folder and say, “Ok, I’ll just reopen this folder when the episode is airing.”

LIM: During that time, did you second-guess anything you’d done on the show? Was it hard to not obsess or over-analyze anything you did?

MF: I knew I played to my abilities, so I didn’t look back and say, “Oh, I wish I had done this or that.” I didn’t wish that I changed anything. I was just processing the uncertainty. That was more where my head was at. I did ask some of my fellow cast-mates what they had seen or how they would assess certain things. Rather than having regret or doubt, I just really assessed where everyone else’s head was at. I didn’t want to have doubt before the result came out. I was putting so much pressure on myself already. I wasn’t going to beat myself up about getting as far as I did. I just wanted to embrace it and own it.

LIM: During those 39 days on the show, did it ever sink in that you were on Survivor, or were you just focusing on what you needed to do to advance and get through every day?

MF: There’re two different parts of that. I was trying to take it day by day. A lot of my game-plan was to take things one obstacle at a time and not plan too far in advance. I just went with the flow and adapted as I went along. That’s what I tried to do, to stay open to whatever was going to come my way. As far as smelling the roses and things like that, every now and then I’d look down and see my shirt says Survivor on it, and know I’m actually on the show. It caught me at the weirdest of moments, but it just became my reality. You’re fighting for your life, and the struggle is constant, every day. You forget sometimes, and then I’d see the word Survivor and I was forced to recognize where I was.

LIM: You said in your bio for the show that you wanted to remain positive and upbeat during the competition. Why, and how did that help you?

MF: It was something that I found out about myself there. I’ve travelled a lot by myself and have been in some really tough situations before, whether it was getting lost in a station in Thailand or missing a flight and having to adapt. I travel a lot alone, and I know that it’s all a mental state. All of the situations are temporary, and it’s within you to address them. I didn’t know that was the way I was going to respond, but when you’re out there your true nature comes out. And instead of it wearing me down and making me paranoid, I was able to take a different turn on it and I responded to everything in a really optimistic light. The show really brings all of your core features to the surface. There were times that I knew I was on the chopping block and it was really do or die, and I knew if I didn’t win some of the challenges, I was going home. So I put myself into an extra gear that I didn’t really know I had.

LIM: So you had traveled to Asia before?

MF: I had spent some time travelling to Southeast Asia before, when I was volunteering for a yoga meditation detox center in Thailand for a few months. Cambodia is in the Gulf of Thailand. As much as I may have been somewhat familiar with the region before the show, I was isolated on the island so it didn’t really affect me one way or the other. If I had the chance to haggle with the locals, I already knew how to do that. But I didn’t experience anything but the deserted island.

LIM: What about the pure survival aspect of it? How difficult was it to have to gather food and eat strange things?

MF: You’re dropped off and then you think, “Oh crap.” Once you take everything that you carried off the raft, you put it all in a pile, look around and then think, “Now what do I do?” You have to build shelter, gather firewood, make food. The initial reaction was overwhelming, but there becomes a type of routine to it. Once you build your shelter, you focus on the maintenance of it, gathering coconuts, other food, and it all becomes routine, just like waking up here and brushing your teeth. The struggle of not having food was exhausting. You struggle in competitions, you’re not able to work on 100 percent brainpower, you get sluggish. It’s like you have a fuzz in your head, but then when you eat, you have four or five hours where you can think straight.

LIM: Was there anything you ate on the show that you hadn’t eaten before? What was the oddest thing you had to eat?

MF: Snail. We ate snail every day. Pretty much the staples of our diet were snail and coconut. By the end, I never wanted to see a snail again. I stopped eating it at a certain point. It was not fun.

LIM: So if you travel to France, you won’t be ordering escargot.

MF: No. Actually, I just had dinner with a friend in a French restaurant, and he ordered escargot. He asked me if I wanted to try it, and I said, “Get it the heck away from me.” I couldn’t push the dish far enough away.

LIM: What was it like with all the cameras constantly around you?

MF: They’re not allowed to talk to you at all, so you rarely stop to recognize them. If you have to step around them, it’s like stepping around a log. You’re aware of them sometimes when you’re walking with just one person, but for the most part, they almost become part of the scenery. After about two days, you get used to it. Sometimes though, I would feel bad for them when it was 100 degrees outside and they were carrying a lot of equipment. I thought a few times that I wouldn’t want to do their job.
But they worked hard to put the show together. All of the hours of boring footage they had to go through, let me tell you. For the most part, other than what you see on TV, it’s a lot of downtime. That’s probably the most challenging thing about it. A lot of the time, you’re just sitting around waiting for the day to end. We try to set things up to pass the time, but a lot of it revolved around just talking to people about their lives at home, their pets, jobs, and things like that. It’s the only thing keeping you sane at that point. It was crucial to me.

LIM: What was the support like once you got home?

MF: I wasn’t able to tell anyone besides my family. They really supported me. I had applied about three years before I ended up going out there. Being on Survivor had been my goal for a long time. Initially when I applied, my family thought I was insane, but they did support me and had faith in me before I went out. They told me to just be myself. But between getting home and it airing, I didn’t say anything to anybody.

LIM: Once you found you won, what was the local support like?

MF: There was a mixed reaction to my winning. On social media and things like that, which I tried not to look at but it was pretty inevitable, everybody was talking about my win. But the local community here, my friends, my family, they all knew that how I played is exactly how I really am as a person, and they told me that. The support system here has been great, because I didn’t have to justify my victory to people here. Thank God.

LIM: Did the social media criticism wear on you?

MF: A little. When you go out there, you’re trying so hard to win that you forget about the television and social media aspect of it. It’s a television show at the end of the day, and everyone has an opinion or someone they were rooting for, but I’m proud of what I did. I wouldn’t have played it any other way.

LIM: What was the first thing you did after the finale aired?

MF: Once the episode ended, we did a red carpet event. Then I went back to the hotel and went straight to Napa, where I unplugged and had a digital detox. I turned my phone off and didn’t access social media. I focused on the here and now because it was overwhelming. I had been so stressed out the week before and I wanted to celebrate. I could have sat in the hotel and just looked at all of the comments all day long. Instead, I was happy that I was able to get away from it and celebrate my victory with the people that were the reason I went out there: my friends and family. To focus on the positives of it, it was a great way to end it all.

LIM: What was the tryout process like for the show?

MF: First, I went to a casting call in Atlantic City a few years ago. I just said I would go to it and wing it. I completely bombed it. I wanted to prove it to myself that it wasn’t a representation of my abilities and I could get on the show, so I made video, sent it in, and I got the call. Actually, I got three, but the first two, I couldn’t do it. Once, I was in Thailand, and the second time I couldn’t do it then, but when the third call came, I said I’d drop everything and do whatever they needed.

LIM: What did you have to drop?

MF: I was moving the day that they called me. I got the third call the day I got the job as a travel agent. It happened all at once.

LIM: What did you tell your employer?

MF: I explained that I had a volunteer opportunity and that I needed to take some time. I said if the job is there when I come back, then I’d love to keep it. But if not, then I understand.

LIM: You grew up in Freehold. Do you still live here now?

MF: Yes. I’ve lived here most of my life. I lived in Ocean Grove for the last year, but I just moved back here.

LIM: So you were in Ocean Grove while you were waiting to hear back? Where did you go to clear your head or reflect on your time on the show?

MF: I went to beach every single night. I walked from the pier to the jetty. It was my Zen time, and my outlet. But the beach has always been my outlet. I was a swimmer in high school. The shore has always been my spot that I liked going to. Ultimately, I always need to be near the ocean. That’s my only criteria for life.

LIM: Now, how have you re-acclimated to life? You mentioned you’re in a transition, but do you have a clear vision of where you want to go?

MF:  I have a vision of what I want to do, but to figure it out and take the steps to get there, that’s where I’m at right now. I want to make sure I’m taking the right steps to set myself up at this point. If I have this exposure right now, I want to make sure I’m using it in the best possible way that I can to make my dream a reality. At Montclair State University, I majored in communication and public relations, but now I’m going to focus on travel and tourism. I love to travel so that makes sense to me to make it my career. But I also think it’s my duty right now to talk to kids and make sure that I’m getting out there to send a positive message. There’s a lot going on, and I’m a little bit overwhelmed since winning with learning how to balance my dreams against what I’m doing right now to get there, and other obligations that come with the title of winner.

LIM: Like what obligations?

MF: While I’m relevant, I think I should be doing charity events and talking to the youth about the paths that they can take and to follow their dreams. I just want to be a positive role model. This relevance is not going to be forever, and I want to spend that time now in a good way. There’s a lot happening, but I can’t let that paralyze me into not doing anything.

LIM: What events or charities have you been to?

MF: I went out to Ohio for a juvenile diabetes charity, and I’ve been to a few local schools, like Marlboro and Belmar, doing field days with the kids and talking to them in the classrooms. I’m going to Give Kids the World in Florida in October. I’m trying to do what I can now to make sure I can help donate as much as possible to different charities.

LIM: You certainly have no requirement to do that. Why do you think that’s important?

MF: I do see it as my obligation because I was given this blessing of relevance. Not everyone is given the opportunity to do something good, and if I can talk to 100 kids and change even one of their paths, then I think that’s a successful thing. Come December, there’s going to be someone else that will hold the title of winner. So my 15 minutes of fame are short. I want to make the most of them.

LIM: You alluded to a grand vision for yourself and your future. Do you know what it is?

MF: I would like to be involved in travel, whether it’s educational tours, adventure travel, or writing about travel. I’m trying figure out my niche. I’ve taken a lot of independent, long-term vacations, and I’d like more people not to be scared to do that. The world is getting smaller, and travel like that is life-changing. It’s kind of what I did as a travel agent, but I’d like to take it to a larger scale.

LIM: Was there one moment that you realized that winning Survivor could give you a huge boost toward fulfilling your dreams?

MF: Before I left, I calculated that it was about, before taxes, $20 a minute for those 39 days to win the $1 million prize. Whenever I was frustrated, or thought was I going to lose it, I just thought, ‘OK, Michele, just get through this one minute, because that’s $20. If I win the million, it’ll all be worth it in the end.’ When I finally won it, I realized it was a life-changer, but it hasn’t changed me too much as a person. I’ve put it all away, and I have a financial advisor and I’ll deal with it later. But that’s a lot of money, especially for someone who had about $1,000 in my bank account before this. It is a crazy realization to have that check in your hand that says $1 million to Michele Fitzgerald. The day that it got transferred into my bank account and I saw all the zeroes, my jaw dropped. But, I still make my friends buy me drinks, so not much has changed. (Laughs.) I still buy them, too. It’s a fair trade.

LIM: Do you have a job lined up for the future?

MF: I do, but I’m not sure if I’m going to do it yet. I’m taking this time to just figure a lot of things like that out, and going to the charity events I talked about. I heard that the principal of Freehold High School made an announcement when I won, and maybe I’ll get back there sometime in the fall.

LIM: What was the first thing you bought when you came home?

MF: A new car. It’s a Volkswagen convertible. It’s nothing crazy, but it doesn’t shake when I go far, so it’s an upgrade.

LIM: Where have you lived and travelled?

MF: I lived in San Francisco and Martha’s Vineyard for a little while and Westchester, Pennsylvania, too. Internationally, I went to Thailand, Bali, Italy, Prague, Vienna,
Budapest. I didn’t study abroad, a lot of it was all independent. I spent months away from home for a while. I did everything alone.

LIM: What jobs did you do while living and travelling all over?

MF: That’s where bartending is helpful. You can bartend anywhere. The social aspect of that environment helps you anywhere you go.

LIM: What was the oddest or most interesting job you did?

MF: I’ve done everything. It’s like a running joke in my family that I’ve done everything but work in a funeral home. I think most of that is just figuring out what my niche is.

LIM: Did you ever try anything you never saw yourself doing as a job before?

MF: I never saw myself working in a cubicle, but I did that for a little bit. (Laughs.) I’ve done a lot of odds and ends things.

LIM: Do you envision living a future that’s different from the life you’ve lived before winning Survivor? Where do you see yourself once you attain your dream job or career?

MF: It’s hard because anyone who has the travel bug won’t be content in one place. There’s always going to be a part of me that will want to try something new. But there are jobs where you can travel, and that’s enough movement for me. I would love to find something like that. For the most part, I really don’t see winning Survivor making me all of a sudden content to stay in one place. And that saddens me a little bit. I want to be able to just plant my feet and be happy with that. But I have the jitters. I like to get out there. I think eventually that’ll change. I’ll meet a guy and he’ll lock me down and I’ll stay in one place—as long as we take a couple of vacations every year.

 Favorite Restaurant:The Metropolitan Café in Freehold
Porta in Asbury Park

Favorite Movie:
The Big Lebowski

Favorite Band:
The Beatles

Pet Peeve:
Judgmental people

Three People You Would Like to Dine With:
Leonardo DiCaprio, my sister Kim, John Lennon

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02 Oct 2016

By Paul Williams