Boise native Ben Driebergen waited months to learn he was the winner of the 35th season of “Survivor” and $1 million in December — and he still hasn’t quit his day job.
Filming for the show began in April and lasted 39 days in the Fiji Islands. That means that for nearly seven months, Driebergen, a Capital High School graduate, was forced to wait until the reunion show in December to find out his fate and the fate of two other finalists.
The 35-year-old was one of the older cast members, surrounded by a handful of early 20-somethings. He said he lost 30 pounds over the 39 days of filming, eating anything he could get his hands on. Leaving his wife and two children back home was more difficult than he could have imagined.
Driebergen, who served in Iraq as a Marine, sat down with the Idaho Statesman to discuss how he ended up on the show, what it feels like to win one of the most popular reality TV shows in the world and why he returned to his job at a grocery distribution center despite winning a million dollars.
Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Did you watch ‘Survivor’ growing up? Were you into it before this happened?
We started watching it about seven years ago — and watching it religiously. I’d catch a season here or there before but, once we had Wyatt, my son, we really started watching every season. And that’s how this all came about, was watching the show being a ‘Couch Survivor’ being like, ‘I can do that. What are these people doing?’ And so my wife was finally like, make a video. Put your money where your mouth is. So I made a video. And next thing you know, a year or so later, they called.
What was in your video, and when you send something like that in, is it like “This is never going to happen” and you just kind of forget about it?
We looked online to see how other people’s went. And there was some editing and music and stuff, and we don’t know how to do that. I literally sat out on my front porch with an iPad and just talked to it for the three minutes or whatever it is. And I just sent it away and never thought anything would come of it ... A year and three months later, I thought they forgot about me and got a call saying ‘Hey, we just got to your video, and we’d like to talk to you.’
What is it about “Survivor” that draws you in?
The social dynamic of it, right? You build your own society and you make your own rules, because there (are) no rules. And then the challenge part of it ... you’re out there catching fish and eating snails and hermit crabs. It’s just a fun experience. And it’s a game. It’s the greatest game on earth.
What was going through your head when you saw (“Survivor” host) Jeff Probst for the first time?
I didn’t fully commit to believing I was on “Survivor” until the cameras were rolling and Jeff was like, “Welcome to Season 35 of ‘Survivor.’” It was a great feeling, like I finally made it. And then it’s like, “Oh no, I hope I’m not the first voted off.” And then reality sets in.
How strange is it knowing everything you do is being filmed?
At first it’s (weird). They’re filming everything. You’re 24/7, you’re filmed sleeping. The only way you’re not filmed is if you’re in the bathroom, and that’s if you’re doing it by yourself. ... It’s pretty weird at the start, and then you just get used to it. They stay out of your way.”
You mentioned that you love the societal aspect. What is the dynamic of these people? You’re competing with them but you have to create alliances, etc., but if push comes to shove, you might have to stab someone in the back?
A perfect example was (fellow competitor) Lauren (Rimmer). We were best friends on the island. We’d wake up every morning and talk about our children and have really personable conversations. And being able to separate those conversations with gameplay is a must. And some people have a hard time doing that, because you build friendships with people. But in the same breath, it’s a game where only one person wins a million dollars, not a team. You have to be able to flip the switch and play the game. ... It’s the funnest thing I’ve ever done.
How much did your experience in the Marine Corps help?
Oh, it helped 100 percent. Like I said, being away from the family, being out in the elements, that’s all familiar. Being hot, dehydrated. No one’s trying to shoot us out there, so I’m used to sand and heat and stuff and being able to build relationships with strangers, that’s what you do all through your Marine Corps career. ... It was very easy to switch over and use my experience in the military.
In an interview with The Daily Caller, you discussed having post-traumatic stress. Was there ever a moment on the island when you thought it was too much and you started having flashbacks or thinking you couldn’t handle it?
Never. There was never even a thought or an itch of quitting. When the bamboo went off, it was just like any other loud noise, a door slam or a backfire. I just kind of took a little time and got with myself and made it OK upstairs and went back to playing the game. It caught me off guard, and that’s something that we vets deal with on a day-to-day basis.
There’s seven months between the end of filming and when you find out you actually won. How difficult is it to go from the island to everyday life but also know there’s possibly a million dollars waiting?
The first month you’re excited. ... As it starts to go and the season starts, you start to watch the edit and seeing what people say and are voted off. That’s when it gets tricky, because you’re reading into everything. It gets pretty stressful.
So you actually watched the season as it was going?
Oh yeah. It was weird. It was fun to be able to watch it with friends and family, though. Being able to share that and watch them see for the first time was neat. ... Nobody knew (I was in the finals). I told my wife, and that was it. Everyone else had to wait and see.
When they have the final show and you are announced the winner, does that even seem real?
No. It still doesn’t. It hasn’t sunk in yet. I went back to my original job. We’re trying to get back to normal, because it’s a lot of responsibility and a great title and we have platform to potentially help a lot of people. It is unreal ... We are still taking it in and figuring out how we go forward.
You won a million dollars. Why are you going back to your job working at a grocery distribution center?
We paid our taxes, we paid the house, our debt off and we stashed a bunch away. ... We want to take our time and learn about investing and saving and not rush into something. ... We’re trying to stay in our lane. Just because we won this money doesn’t mean we’re going to go out and buy fancy stuff.
When you’re competing, are you thinking, “I don’t want to let Boise down?” And now that you’ve won, do you feel like you’re someone for people here to look up to?
If that’s how people want to look, I’ll take that. I love Boise. I’ve traveled a lot and always ended up back here. I’ve lived in Wyoming and in Alaska. I always came back here. So, I love this town. This is where we chose to raise our kids.
What was the worst thing that you either cooked on the island or were forced to eat on the island?
Worst thing that I ate? The hermit crabs were pretty bad. Because they were just really fishy. ... These things were huge. ... I didn’t like the snails. But they were food, and that was towards the end, so we’re shoving them in our mouths. Coconut, we found out real quick too much coconut gives you the coconut runs. I didn’t know that before. I know that now. ... But you’re hungry out there. Everything tastes good.
You said you put most of the money away. Is there anything that you said to yourself, “If I win this, I’m buying it.”
(A) race car. I bought a race car for Meridian Speedway. So I’m going to run out there this year. ... That was my present to myself. ... I’ve always been into race cars, but the class that I bought was my dream class. There was no way I would ever be able to race and run in this class. ... And I cannot wait.