Welcome to another feature in “the state of reality TV”, where we take the time to examine the future of reality television through the eyes of some people who know it best — former stars of the genre.
To see other interviews from the series follow the link here. My chat this time is with Mike Skupin, a former contestant from “Survivor: Australia” who is arguably one of the most memorable contestants in the show’s extensive history. Early on in the show, Mike was a strong player who worked to make tights bonds while providing for the camp. However, he became the first person to be medically evacuated in the show’s history after severely burning his hands in a fire.
Mike has a new book out entitled Discover Your Inner Strength, and you can find out more about the book and purchase it at his official website.
Matt: I’m going to take you back really far here at the beginning. How did you get involved in the whole reality TV premise to begin with?
Mike: I really didn’t, interestingly enough. I didn’t even watch ‘Survivor’, my kids watched it. After about the third or fourth episode of the first season, they must have flashed something on the screen [about applying]. 6,000 people applied for the first ‘Survivor’, and they wanted to get more tapes. I came home from work one day and my kids were like ‘dad, there’s this really great show on called ‘Survivor’ and we think you’d be perfect for it’. So I downloaded an application off the internet and found out I had to make a videotape. Years ago making a videotape just wasn’t as easy as it is today, and long story short I ended up doing the casting call on the last day of applications just to keep my kids from bugging me. I never thought a thing about it and six weeks later I got a call from ‘Survivor’ saying they would like to interview me a second time. It was really by accident that I ended up getting on the show.
What did you think it was going to be like going in, and was it what you expected?
Well I didn’t watch the first season. I thought it was going to be more of a survival show than it actually was. Back in the early days of ‘Survivor’ it ended up being about 50% actual survival and 50% survival of the people … they didn’t feed us, we had to get our own food. They didn’t make it easy on us, and that was back in Mark Burnett’s ‘Eco-Challenge’ days where he just loved the adventure of people making it on their own.
Since then, they’ve really made it a lot easier — people don’t complain about being hungry. If I ever have the chance to do ‘Survivor’ again, I know it not be nearly as hard as when we did it.
I heard the same thing when I was talking to Colby after ‘Heroes vs. Villains’ — he said that they had a much smaller land area to work with and there was much less to get out and do. I don’t know if it’s a safety thing or what.
Speaking of safety, you’re well-known for the incident involving burning your hands. Do people recognize you because of your name, or because they recognize you as that ‘burning your hands’ guy?
I get recognized for my name just as much as my face. I get recognized a lot, and even when I don’t think about it. I was having lunch with a buddy and he asked me, ‘what’s it like being famous?’ I was like ‘my show was ten years ago, it’s calmed down quite a bit and I don’t really get recognized. We just had lunch and not one person came up to me’. Then the waitress happened to be walking by and she said ‘everyone knows it’s you’. So I think people just don’t come up to you like they used to … sometimes, I’ll be signing a credit card receipt and someone will ask for ID and say ‘you’re that guy’.
So it’s interesting, but my name’s been out there. I do motivational speaking. I’ve done 45 motivational speeches in the last 30 days, it’s still going as strong as ever, and I’ve been traveling all over the world. I’ve been gone for 30 days, I’m home for a week, and then I’m gone for a week … since I travel so much and speak to groups that are sometimes fifty to sixty thousand people, my name gets put in the paper and on billboards to promote the event. I think my name is still out there, which is why I get recognized more than people who did the show a long time ago.
How big of an impact has ‘Survivor’ made on your life? Were you doing these sort of events before, or has that been a catalyst?
No, that was a catalyst. When I got off ‘Survivor’, my phone starting ringing off the hook. Being able to find people off of reality television was brand new, and if you wanted to watch a reality show back then it was just ‘Survivor’. Everyone was interested — even the Hollywood actors that felt very threatened by us, they still watched us because they wanted to know what in the world this new genre was and if it was going to stick around.
It’s been a pretty amazing ride since then. It wasn’t something that I intended to do — I now have 47 motivational speeches that I have prepared, I customize for each event — but I’ve done fundraisers and schools from high school to elementary and college and trade schools. Plus corporate stuff — teamwork, leadership, keynote.
Have you become a big fan of watching ‘Survivor’?
I’m more of a fan of what ‘Survivor’ was than what ‘Survivor’ is, because I’m an adventure guy. I’m 48 years old and I still barefoot water-ski, hunt, play baseball, and do a lot of pretty intense things. It’s my world, my makeup. I loved the actual survival stuff — given almost nothing and being forced to survive out there. I loved our season because there were extreme temperatures, and you had to make it. You had to create — it rained 22 of the 42 days out there, we had to start our own fire and keep it going just to keep warm and boil water. I loved that part of it just as much as I loved the game.
Are you against some of these new twists like the hidden immunity idol?
I wouldn’t say I’m against them. Everything evolves — professional sports evolved, and they used to put asteriks behind people’s names when the rules changed. They let people quit on the show today, they didn’t used to let people quit. There were days where if somebody had been offered the quit card in 35 degrees and pouring rain, hadn’t eaten for three days … there was no quit. You could’ve gotten up and walked off, but where are you going to go? We were hundreds of miles from anything and you didn’t know which direction to go in.
It is what it is. I liked that sort of ‘new vs. old’ drama that played out between Boston Rob and Russell, because Russell depicts the new generation. Without those immunity idols, he would have had a tough time playing. Boston Rob had a tough time playing with immunity idols. The significant impact of those things is crazy, it impacts the game. You gotta go for it, it turns it into a game from the very beginning. It makes it hard — when I did it, I spent a week trying to decide who I was going to be in an alliance with and who I can trust and play the game with. Today, they’re firing alliances from the first day — ‘hello, how’re you doing, you want to be in an alliance’ — you have no idea if you can trust about the people.
Speaking of people coming back, let’s talk about the ‘Second Chance’ idea [of bringing back pre-jury players]. No matter who you ask, you are always one of the first names that comes up as a candidate. Would you be interested in going back?
It’s an interesting dynamic. I’ve been asked back five times, and for some reason CBS never pulls the trigger. I’ve never said no to them, but somewhere along the lines in the negotiation process and the scheduling process something happens that makes CBS go in a different direction. I don’t really know what it is, they never tell you — they just call you and say ‘we’re going in a different direction’.
I’d love to play. I know I’m ten years older than I was, and I saw how other people have underperformed when they come back. Rudy — he was over 70 years old — but he underperformed. We saw it happen to Rupert, we saw it happen to Colby. I still think I could play the game at the exact same level. That remains to be seen because of the new breed of people. I stay in shape because I have seven kids and I don’t really have a choice but to stay in shape because I want to keep up with those guys.
I remember back before ‘Heroes vs. Villains’, Jeff Probst was doing an interview with Entertainment Weekly and your name came up as hero. Probst said that you were a good choice, but you may be catered too much for the hardcore fans. If you were casting [this season] for the hardcore fans, what other names would you think up?
[First], I think Jeff’s memory is a little fuzzy. When you look at my game and the way that I played it, I wasn’t loved by everyone. I sort of saw an out-of-control situation and I took control of the situation. Not to be a leader — I didn’t even know what being a leader was — but I took control which caused [problems]. Jeff and Alicia had an alliance and they weren’t happy that I was bringing food up every day. They said ‘I loved you were bringing food, but hated you were getting all the attention’. People were saying ‘we’re not going to vote you off because you’re bringing food by’. That was a big deal then — you do that today, they vote you off because they see you as a threat. That’s because ‘Survivor’ feeds people now. They feed them so much that it’s not a big deal anymore that you can bring food.
Bringing people back, everyone loved Elisabeth [now Elisabeth Hasselbeck] — I know it may never happen because of all her other commitments and I’m not sure she would do it. I thought Rodger Bingham played a great game. There are people from the first season that played a dynamic game.
… Every episode, I was doing something. I got off the show too soon for people to know. They talked about a season called ‘Brains vs. Brawns’, and people were asking which one I would be. But people don’t really remember my game that well. Was I the strategist or the fierce competitor or the survivalist that kept bringing food? My game got cut short before anyone could really find out what my game was. I would be a question mark as a returning player.
I will say that my demographic could win. Richard Hatch was my demographic, Ethan Zohn was my demographic. We could win ‘Survivor’ being strong and being the leader and doing the things that we did. That demographic doesn’t win anymore, since people like Natalie White and Amber win — people that are in the background more. It makes you really think about what game you would play out there and can you be a leader and take a backseat and play that game. It’s hard to when that’s what you’ve done your whole life. It would be a tough game to play since it has evolved.
What do you think is the biggest problem going on right now with reality TV across the board?
I don’t know if there really and truly is a problem because I gotta believe it’s as successful as ever with the number of shows that are popping up. I know the dynamics of the cost of putting on a reality show versus a regular full-scale film … it’s ridiculously cheap, we work for nothing. I know that’s a big reason why there are so many shows.
Again, are you making ‘Survivor’ for the diehard fans or the new genre of people that are watching it? Are we going after the soap opera people looking for that human dynamic or are we ‘Man vs. Wild’ trying to see what people do? If you remember my season, all the really cool stuff happened when we were out hunting for food or returning from hunting for food. Me hunting caused controversy because people felt threatened. I caught that wild boar out there … we got investigated by the FBI for that since they wanted to make sure it was done as survival and not entertainment.
I still think the show would be better if they incorporated more survival into it, if they didn’t feed them. I’m not really sure they lose weight anymore! It used to be a big deal about the food — you would do anything to win a food challenge and we didn’t [largely] have food challenges. You know what we won? Spices.
It’s a good question and I have to think about it… I’m not saying for it to be ‘Man vs. Wild’, but make it more about survival.
So one final thing — what do you think of the new cast and ‘old vs. young’ twist coming up?
I think it’s interesting because if you look at the ‘Survivor’ winners — this was very true for the first 10-15 seasons — younger people never won. It was always people around 40 years old, because the younger people were not smart enough to understand the game … I know there were some young people who became superfans and began to understand it.
I really think the old people are going to have a huge advantage, I really do. Not physically — they have some really old people, the oldest person in ‘Heroes vs. Villains’ was in the forties outside of Randy. They have multiple people in their 60s, at least two, and they have some high-50 people.
You know they incorporate puzzles into every challenge — you can get a lead in the physical part, but if you can’t solve a puzzle, you’re going to have a tough time winning challenges. If I ever got back on ‘Survivor’, I would bury myself and puzzles and I would train my mind as much as I trained my body.
I do believe that if I had to put my money on the line, I would say that go have to go with the older people.
“Survivor” news central — all of the latest coverage
Want to read more of the latest TV news? Then subscribe to receive continuous updates. You can also follow me on Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter.
To view more new TV stories, follow the link here.