10 Controversies From ‘Survivor’s First 20 Years (VIDEO)
Amid its ratings wins, Emmy glory, and enduring status as one of America’s longest-running reality shows, Survivor is also known for its many, many controversies.
In the last two decades, the show has faced uproar over environmental misdeeds, faulty gameplay, dishonest contestants, and even a wardrobe malfunction.
As the CBS reality competition turns 20 on May 31, we’re recapping 10 of its biggest publicity flaps below.
Stacey Stillman’s Lawsuit
In 2001, original Survivor contestant Stacey Stillman sued CBS and Survivor producer Mark Burnett, claiming that Burnett orchestrated her exit from the competition. The network countersued, and the parties eventually settled out of court, according to E! News.
Colby Donaldson’s Coral Removal
During Survivor: The Australian Outback, contestant Colby Donaldson removed pieces of coral from the Great Barrier Reef as souvenirs for contestants who couldn’t visit the natural wonder. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority later launched an investigation, as the New York Post reports, and Burnett apologized on behalf of the show.
Body Piercing Settlement
CBS paid $100,000 each to Survivor: Africa runners-up Lex van den Berghe and Tom Buchanan after producers discovered an error in a tribal immunity challenge trivia question about the contestants’ body piercings.
Richard Hatch’s Tax Issues
Richard Hatch, the winner of the show’s first season, was sentenced to 51 months in prison in 2006 after failing to report $1.4 million of income — including his $1 million Survivor winnings — to the IRS.
Cook Islands’ Racial Lines
For Season 13 — Survivor: Cook Islands — the tribes were controversially split by race: black, white, Latinx, and Asian. Host Jeff Probst told the Associated Press that producers did so to bring more diversity to the show.
Denise Martin’s Job
Survivor: China contestant Denise Martin received a gift of $50,000 from Mark Burnett after claiming in the reunion episode that she was demoted to school janitor as a result of her appearance on the show. But after her local school committee revealed that Martin had actually applied and transferred to the janitor job months before she filmed Survivor, she apologized and donated the money to charity.
Marcus Lehman’s Genitals
CBS accidentally aired a shot of contestant Marcus Lehman’s penis slipping out of his shorts in an episode of Survivor: Gabon, later calling the NSFW moment a “completely unintentional, inadvertent and fleeting incident that was virtually undetectable when viewed in real time.”
Zeke Smith’s Outing
During a tribal council scene in Survivor: Game Changers, contestant Jeff Varner revealed that fellow castaway Zeke Smith is a transgender man in an apparent attempt to brand him as deceitful. Varner was eliminated from the competition and lost his job as a result of the outing, per People.
Alec Merlino’s Spoiler
Survivor: David vs. Goliath contestant Alec Merlino posted a photo of himself with fellow contestant Kara Kay on Instagram before the season’s official cast reveal. As a result, producers reportedly barred Merlino from the reunion show and withheld his appearance fees — opting not to slap him with a $5 million penalty for a non-disclosure agreement violation — per Hollywood Life.
Dan Spilo’s Drama
Survivor: Island of the Idols castaway Dan Spilo was ejected from the game amid allegations that he inappropriately touched contestant Kellee Kim and a female producer. “I truly regret that anyone was made to feel uncomfortable by my behavior,” he later said in a statement to People.