Claire Rafson explains why she sat out all those Survivor challenges

Claire Rafson thought she was playing it smart by volunteering to take a back seat in challenges on Survivor 44, but the decision (made jointly by Claire and the tribe) for her to sit out of every immunity contest ultimately cost her. When the Soka tribe finally lost a challenge, it was Claire who was deemed most expendable — partly because she was not contributing in the immunity competitions.

What was odd about Claire's unanimous ouster is that there only appeared to be one person — Danny — that actually wanted her out. Still, Danny's pull on the rest of the tribe was too strong, and when Claire's Shot in the Dark came back "Not Safe," her fate was sealed.

Whose idea was it for Claire to sit out all those challenges? How did Danny convince the rest of the tribe to get rid of her? And what does she make about all these women being voted out? We asked the first Soka victim all that and more when we spoke the morning after her televised ouster.

Watch the entire interview above or read it below.

Claire Rafson on 'Survivor 44'
Claire Rafson on 'Survivor 44'

Robert Voets/CBS Claire Rafson on 'Survivor 44'

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First of all, should you be apologizing to me for ruining my winner pick this season, or should I be apologizing to you for retroactively jinxing you?

CLAIRE RAFSON: I think you retroactively jinxed me. I actually was the original winner of Survivor 44. And then when you picked me, they literally went back, re-edited it, and voted me out first.

They do that sometimes. Okay, so what went wrong? Why are you here talking to me after week 3?

Oh my God, so much went wrong. I feel like it was like a calamity of errors. Sometimes you win some, you lose some. I think, in the end, seven days of having not gone to Tribal, a bunch of factors worked together and led me to be sitting here with you right now.

That's showbiz, baby!

That's showbiz, baby.

Tell me what was going on there and what you've sort of pieced together afterwards, because the way it looked watching it, everyone was like, "I'd rather keep Claire, but Danny really wants her out." Did his vote just carry that much weight? How did he influence everyone to get rid of you?

It was really like that. I think if we had gone to Tribal that first week, it probably wouldn't have been me. Had we gone the second week, it probably wouldn't have been me. But there was this weird shift that I felt, probably like midday six, where I was like, "Oh, Danny's not having me right now." This energy just shifted, and I knew that Danny was all of a sudden not trying to work with me and was going to be gunning for me.

I remember waking up on day 7, dreading just having this feeling that if we lost, he was going to be gunning for me. And his voice was just really loud, right? He was our biggest challenge strength guy. He was the one carrying the team, he was working a lot. He's just like a hummingbird kind of guy and he really was able to whip those votes. Plus, you know, Matt not having a vote. It just was a lot of things together. But it was definitely like day 6-ish I noticed that Danny was like, "It's time to go for Claire." And he just went hard, and Heidi decided that keeping Danny happy was more important than keeping me around. And so that's where I'm at.

We saw you on the show saying Danny didn't have brains in his head to get rid of you. What was it like watching all that play back?

I don't regret anything I said. I don't think I was wrong about it. I think I really meant more of like, he really, truly thought he was pulling a fast one over on me. I think the edit [makes it look] like it was told to me that people were voting for me, but I was the original one to flag it to myself. On day 7, we got back from the challenge, and after that scene where Franny was apologizing, Danny's like, "Does anyone want to get water?" Me and Danny go alone to the water well, and he gives me this fake plan. He's like, "We're voting for Matt, you're the backup." And I was like: I'm the vote, it's me.

I remember being very distinctly like: Okay, let me see how serious he is about this. So I was like, "Okay, let me just think through some scenarios, like what if Matt got an advantage while he was on the journey?" And he was like, "You're being irrational." And I was like: I'm done. I'm cooked.

I remember walking back to camp, running into Franny and Heidi and being like, "We need to figure something out." And obviously we didn't figure it out. Heidi was really non-committal, telling me she doesn't know if I'm worth keeping to my face. Going into Tribal, I basically made the decision midday that I was going to play my Shot in the Dark no matter what and rode with that.

Matt Blankinship and Claire Rafson on 'Survivor 44'
Matt Blankinship and Claire Rafson on 'Survivor 44'

Robert Voets/CBS Matt Blankinship and Claire Rafson on 'Survivor 44'

Yeah, you could tell Heidi's lying wasn't very good when she was like, "I think so," at Tribal Council.

I was like, Honestly, could you at least pretend like you want to work with me? Or can you at least be honest and say you don't? But I spent seven days with her. I could get the gist of when she was lying or when she was evading and I think she was trying to, but it was a little obvious.

Okay, let's talk about those immunity challenges, or lack thereof. Take me through what those conversations were like with your tribe before each challenge in terms of who was going to sit out.

So, I thought they give you the full rundown of the challenge where you see everything and then you and your tribe have, like, minutes to strategize. You [actually only] have about five seconds before Jeff starts going, "Who's sitting out?" He wants it to be a quick decision. So you huddle together and you really quickly all do it. Our tribe vibe was we'd all just go and stare at each other silently.

In the first challenge, at that point I knew that there was going to be a lot of heavy lifting, a lot of heavy pushing. I didn't want to be the caller, so I was like, let me take one for the team. No one wants to sit out. Heidi actively didn't want to sit out and people were looking her way, looking my way. So I was like, "Let me sit out." I really wanted to get some time with Matthew. [I] wanted to hang out with him and get some stuff from him. That sit-out was the first one.

Just to be clear, the first one sounds like you volunteer, that you're like, "I'll do it."

Yes, and sitting on that bench, I feel 100 percent happy with that, right? That four-hour slide puzzle challenge would've sucked. I ended up getting a lot of information that was really crucial to my game, my allies' games. Also, obviously, Ratu and I had this desire that I always wanted to, if I was sitting on the bench, have it. And so I was like, another person sitting out, let's do this.

That's why I picked you to win!

Totally! And I thought it was a great move! [Laughs] So that was the first. The second one we get there and again, it's one of those silent [moments where] no one wants to do anything. They're kind of looking at me. I think Danny even goes like, "It's okay. It's fine." And again, I'm not going be doing the snake puzzle at the end. I think people undervalue how much tribe cohesion matters in those early days. You're at camp, no one wants to disagree about anything. You could be building the worst shelter and no one's going to say, "Hey let's do it correctly," because you want to be the yes person constantly. And so I'm not going be the one saying, "No, no, put me in, let's do it." And so they looked at me, they stared at me, I said, "I'll do it again."

Jeff called it out and I gave him as non of an answer as I could because it really did feel like the group wanted me to do it. I was also okay with sitting out. I was thinking about it like a long game. So that happened next. And then by the third challenge, when we had two sit-outs, it was kind of a done deal. They looked at me, they assumed I wanted to, and again, at this point, think about it: I've sat out of two, we've won both. I knew I was going to get this tribe strength challenge against me.

So let's say we go, I don't play, we lose. I knew they were going to say, "Claire's weak, let's go for her." Let's say I go in and they say, "Hmm, what's the one difference in this challenge? That wasn't the same the week before. Oh, Claire played, she must be the weakest."

So I think by challenge three, whether I sat out, or whether I played really wasn't going to change whether or not they were going to target me for being strong or not. So then the calculus goes: Can I differentially win this challenge for my tribe? Franny and Matt both said they had practiced insanity puzzles a ton. I had practiced them a bit and didn't think that I was going to crush it. So at that point I was like, I'll sit out with Heidi, and I'll try to whisper to her, "Hey, they're going to be coming for me, can you help me?" I tried a few times. She was not feeling my vibe. I guess she just wanted to hug and hold hands and I was like, "Okay, then save me!" [Laughs] That's kind of the thought process for the sit-outs.

The Soka tribe on 'Survivor 44'
The Soka tribe on 'Survivor 44'

Robert Voets/CBS The Soka tribe on 'Survivor 44'

So what are you thinking about when Probst not once but twice openly questions that?

What you don't see is there's a lot of mat chat. We aren't seeing a ton of mat chat at the beginning, but we're talking to Probst for a few minutes and maybe five to six of us will have little snippets talking about different things. So when he calls it out, I just tried to evade as much as I can, and I wasn't stressed. If the other tribes thought I was weak, fine. I was hoping to go into the merge having people think I was not going to be a physically dominant threat. I didn't mind that part. I thought by season 44 people were thinking next-level game, so I thought that there was like a little more to it.

Take game out of it for a second. What about just on a personal level? You're out there in Fiji and you see these incredibly built challenges. How are you feeling about just not being able to get out and have some fun and do them?

Oh, devastating. All I wanted to do was play. I'd be sitting there, and on the bench you can't help your tribe. I'd be sitting there like, "Oh no! Ugh!" I wanted to play so badly. But again, I was thinking about this so strongly in the long term. Probably should have been thinking a little bit more near term, like: Am I going to regret not playing a challenge maybe?

I was just thinking that I want to get to the individual challenges. Those are the ones that, as a kid I was like, I want to be the one hugging a pole like Parvati, or I want to be the one doing different individual challenges. For me, the calculus was that the best way for me to get to this merge is to let my tribe keep winning in the way that they do.

So yeah, it definitely sucks because I wanted to play. I literally worked out every day for four months. I was in the best shape of my life. I could have done any of those challenges, but I was really just thinking long term and so I pushed that down and was like, I'll have fun doing other things on the island. The challenges are a few hours every three days, there are a lot of things you don't see and that I got to do. I had a lot of fun doing things around camp. All that was really fun. It was a different Survivor experience.

The first four people voted out last season were all women. The first three people voted out this season were all women. In the new era of Survivor, 10 of the 12 people voted out first from their tribe have been women. Is this just all a big coincidence?

I love the new era. I've loved seasons 41, 42, 43. It's not a coincidence, right? And this is how it goes, right? If you have three tribes, no expectation of a swap — and I knew this going in — there is an incentive to keep your tribe as strong as possible, and then you can just get the physical threats out [in the] early merge. There's this interesting thing where, yes, if all of the challenges are [to] lift a heavy block, push the heavy block, do things that are incredibly taxing physically, you're going to favor tribe strength, which inherently favors larger men.

What's interesting about it too, though, is the puzzles are what it comes down to. It wasn't shown in the episode, but Soka always made it to the puzzle first. Where we kept getting second or where we lost was on a puzzle, not on whether we could dig faster or lift heavier or swim harder. We were losing ground on puzzles, which is not an inherently physically brawny kind of thing.

Personally, I think it's more of the Tika approach, which was [that] loyalty for me was more important than physical dominance. Especially when you're thinking about getting to the merge and making it further. I think it's a little shortsighted. I think in the new era, as long as there's no expectation of swaps and you start with six people, and you have people losing votes on day one, it is going to be very difficult to have some of the smaller people or women make it through.

Claire Rafson on 'Survivor 44'
Claire Rafson on 'Survivor 44'

Robert Voets/CBS Claire Rafson on 'Survivor 44'

How's it been for you over the past nine to 10 months dealing with being voted out first from your tribe? I'm sure it's not the way you envisioned it in your head when you went out there.

I've been a Survivor fan since I was four years old, since day one. I have thought about applying, I've recorded myself since I was 18, but I've never submitted because I have a deep fear of failure and embarrassment. This was the first time I ever took the plunge. I took the plunge, and I submitted, and I played, and I did a lot of pre-work of, like, I might fall flat on my face. I might fail epically and I need to be okay with that. [Or], I could be the first person voted out and I'm okay with that. I have a lot of things going on in my life that I'm proud of. I have family and friends who will love me no matter what. But it was devastating.

It's been a little fun the past eight, nine months. It's fun doing the pre-press when people still think I could be a winner when I'm like, "I'm gonna ruin your bracket! I'm gonna lose!" [Laughs] But as a lifelong Survivor fan, it's definitely given me a lot more empathy for pre-mergers. I think I'm going to become a vocal pre-merger rights advocate. [Laughs]

I was talking to my therapist the other day and she was like, "Remember four-year-old you or nine-year-old you, and nine-year-old me wouldn't be yelling at myself for getting out first. She would be so excited that I was even playing and that I was there and that I played hard and I did it my way and I didn't hide who I was or how I interact with the world. I did it. I applied. I showed up. I did my thing and no regrets — obviously [I have] regrets that I didn't win or make it further, but that's life and it's going to keep going and I'd obviously love to play again and get another shot. But, for now, this is a really great bookend and I feel really happy with the friends I've made and the experiences I've had.

Finally, what's something that happened out there that didn't make it to TV that you wish we had a chance to see?

Probably my favorite thing is that in the first challenge, I got everyone water bottles. Because Survivor is freakishly fair. If one tribe's in the shade, everyone's in the shade. Everything's measured to the tee. Brandon got a water bottle because he was obviously, like, dying. And I call over Jeff to the bench and I was like, "I see Brandon has water. Is everyone getting water?" And so mid-challenge they had to go and give every single person a water bottle. I don't know when they've done that before, but I was also like, "You're welcome, you got water. That was on me from the bench." That was a fun one that was definitely not shown.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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