Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Christy Smith reflects on being reality TV's first deaf contestant

Dalton Ross
·12 min read
Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Christy Smith reflects on being reality TV's first deaf contestant
Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Christy Smith reflects on being reality TV's first deaf contestant

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With Survivor filming for seasons 41 and 42 indefinitely postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, EW is reaching back into the reality show’s past. We sent a Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire to a batch of former players to fill out with their thoughts about their time on the show as well as updates on what they’ve been up to since. Each weekday, EW will post the answers from a different player.

Playing Survivor is hard enough. Now imagine trying to play if you can’t even hear what your tribemates are saying. That is what Christy Smith was up against when she became the first deaf contestant to compete on reality television with her appearance on Survivor: The Amazon.

Christy had to rely on reading lips to understand what was happening around camp, but when the sun went down and tribemates did not go out of their way to make sure she could see their faces while they were talking, the adventure guide was completely lost. Still, she managed to last all the way to sixth place in the game. And she could have made it even further had she not shown some indecision about her own vote on day 33, leading to Christy’s blindside and her iconic “freakin’ evil stepsisters” comment.

Christy was a trailblazer for the Deaf community, and her appearance back in 2003 as the first deaf player on reality TV opened the doors for others to follow. Now, the fan favorite looks back at her experience on and off the island, and reveals that she would return to play again “IN A HEARTBEAT!” Someone make that happen… after you read Christy’s Quarantine Questionnaire, that is.

Monty Brinton/CBS

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you’ve been up to since appearing on Survivor.

CHRISTY SMITH: It has been 18 years since I first appeared on Survivor. My appearance has led to countless opportunities, as I had been the first Deaf contestant on a reality show. It bolstered my confidence as a deaf person, giving me the belief that I could truly “survive” anything.

Since that time, I created a children’s PBS show with both hearing and deaf children based out of Colorado, and traveled the world and cofounded Discovering Deaf Worlds, a nonprofit organization. Throughout all this, I was also able to give talks all over the United States about my experiences as a deaf person navigating the world that was reality TV. I also spent months in India, teaching deaf youth and supporting their education in the group home Shuktara.

These experiences led to me obtaining a master’s degree in Deaf Education in New York. I have been fortunate to teach ASL in a variety of educational platforms and was even able to return to the Amazon jungle with my mother, bringing my experiences full circle.

What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?

Honestly, my proudest moment was the fact that I did it. Those without disabilities struggle in the Survivor atmosphere, and even the stress of being on a reality TV show itself. The fact that I, a deaf woman, lasted 33 days in a jungle surrounded by strangers with whom I struggled to communicate and made it through all the way to sixth place — I am truly proud of the entire experience.

What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experience?

My biggest regret was that I didn’t sign enough. I am comfortable speaking, and it’s pretty awkward using ASL (American Sign Language) when no one else uses sign. In addition, you’re just trying to get by in an environment like that and trying to sign while speaking makes things much more difficult, so I didn’t. ASL is its own language and is not English. Trying to do two languages at once is hard.

However, I really didn’t comprehend that this show would catapult me into the spotlight as much as it did. Had I realized that I was becoming a role model and “spokesperson” for the Deaf/Hard of Hearing community, I would have used that opportunity to showcase the beauty of ASL. In addition, perhaps if I tried incorporating it more — involving the others — my experiences with the other contestants may have been a little more empowering.

What’s something that will blow fans’ minds that happened out there in your season but never made it to TV?

In the very beginning of the season, while everyone was getting their backpacks out of the box, there was a single granola bar at the bottom. How did that granola bar appear in the box? Did it fall out of someone’s bag and they had forgotten about it? Was it unintentionally or intentionally left there by a production team member? I still wonder. Is there someone out there that knows what happened? Is there some raw footage they are hiding from us that holds the secret? I think to find out now would blow everyone’s minds as it’s been 18 years. We need answers.

Honestly though, what I think would be mind-blowing is knowing the actual stuff that is going on behind the scenes. The production team and the amount of setting up, traveling, editing,.. The process of creating a reality TV show itself is pretty mind-blowing.

How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?

I was a typical 24-year-old, albeit deaf, woman and I think the show portrayed me quite accurately. It was so interesting seeing myself on the show and analyzing how I talked, moved, and thought. We didn’t have smartphones and take selfies and videos of our every waking moment back then like we do today, so it was surreal to watch. I do know that I completely cut out the word “like” from my vocabulary after watching the show.

What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?

Once I left Survivor and came home briefly, I then headed straight to Southeast Asia to avoid people I knew and questions I couldn’t answer during the show’s airing. During my time there, my eyes were opened to a world full of TRUE survivors — those who are simply surviving their realities. This series of events led to me setting my intentions to fundraise to generate the money required to travel the world to get a firsthand glimpse at how the International Deaf Communities lived.

Our knowledge of how the deaf in Developing Countries and beyond survived was extremely limited. With the internet becoming more widespread, it was a perfect time to get that information and get it out to the world. This all led to my most profound experience — the first time I lived in India working with the heroes of Shuktara, a wonderful group home of loving people who took in the unwanted disabled children into their forever home.

It’s funny, the first time I ever experienced “culture shock” was the time I left my cozy little town in Colorado and went to a deaf boarding school my junior year of high school. At 15 years old, from living with my parents and going to a regular school and speaking and using predominantly English to suddenly living in Washington, D.C., and being surrounded by ASL and finally being on equal footing with my peers — THAT was a culture shock.

Going to the Amazon surrounded by strangers and once again, being “the only deaf person.” Culture shock. Visiting all the different countries and seeing how they do things there and meeting deaf adults who had no real form of written or visual communication to the point where they didn’t know their own name? Culture shock. My life has been full of them, so none of it fazes me any longer and I truly believe this is one of the blessings of my life. Every phase of my life is an adjustment. What makes life scary and exciting also makes it worth living.

Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?

No, and most definitely no.

Like most people, there were many times when I was hungry, tired, frustrated, and the thought “What the heck did I get myself into?” crossed my mind. Sometimes life has a way of beating you down, and those moments of weakness trick you into believing you can’t do it. From the communication barriers and near starvation in Survivor, to the hygiene problems and lice infestations in India, to the sleepless all-nighters studying for my master’s degree — my life has been full of these kinds of challenges. I’m grateful that my mind goes straight to “fight” and not “flight” mode. The word “regret” does not even register in my mind.

I think because my circumstances were different, my experience after I got back was even more positive than I could have fathomed. While other players may have had negative backlash from their time on the show — with their playing methodology and strategies on the show — my experience cemented my status as a role model. I had nothing but love from the community I represented. They were proud of me and appreciated the paths for the community that were opened for the deaf in the future. Paving the way for others like Luke Adams (The Amazing Race Deaf Contestant, 2009) and Nyle DiMarco (America’s Next Top Model Deaf Contestant and Winner, 2015, and Dancing With the Stars Contestant and Winner, 2016) has made me eternally grateful.

Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your season?

None. I chat more with fans than other contestants. We have lost touch over the years and now there are so many of us after so many seasons of Survivor that there are many I’ve never met. The only reality TV show contestant I keep in touch with is Luke Adams from The Amazing Race.

Do you still watch Survivor, and if so, what’s your favorite season you were not on and why?

Yes, I do! As a matter of fact, this pandemic has given me Survivor withdrawals! I think season 40 is a recent favorite as it was a really great wrap-up with returning players because it was so fascinating to see how the old-school players went up against the newer players coming in with "fresh eyes.” Definitely a tough game and a fun one to watch.

Who’s one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?

I don’t think I could just choose one. There are just too many players I would have loved to play alongside. Some favorites are Todd Herzog, Jonny Fairplay, Helen Glover, and Tanya Vance.

If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?

Honestly, I can’t think of any from a viewer standpoint. I think the show has done a tremendously amazing job over the years. The game has organically changed — the new twists and challenges continuously keep everyone guessing. This is probably why the show has been so successful for so long; people never know what they are going to get, which is why they keep watching.

From a contestant standpoint, more time with the family during family visits would be nice. All that traveling to get to the contestants and the positive shift in mental focus that results, it would just be nicer if they had more time together. However, I guess it wouldn’t be much of a “survivor mode” in the game if too many amenities were given.

Finally, would you play again if asked?

I most definitely would. IN A HEARTBEAT!

I don’t know much of how I could do things differently in regard to player strategies, as the most important aspect of playing the game is knowing what is going on, what people are thinking, how to read people... and all of this requires communication. Something I will ALWAYS be at a disadvantage with. However, it would be fascinating to see how well I’d cope with the increased intensity of the game, as well as the fact that I’m now a grown woman in her 40s and not a 24-year-old youngster! “You know? Like, you know what I mean? Like, seriously.”

Kidding aside, I’d like to share some thoughts regarding my time on Survivor and the current quarantine we are all experiencing together. Although this pandemic has brought out the best of us and the worst of us, one thing I can say is that for the first time it’s not only the deaf community that is experiencing isolation, but now the world at large. It has been eye opening for many to see just how much a toll on our mental health being isolated from others can be. This is something the deaf and hard of hearing community experiences on a daily basis, not just something they deal with during a pandemic.

For us, facial expressions are a vital necessity for communication, and I don’t think it’s something that those that can hear have really thought about — until it was taken away with masks. Masks are making it difficult for even hearing people to be able to communicate properly as sounds get muffled and the lack of facial expressions is uncomfortable at times.

In addition, whereas the deaf have been told the technology just isn’t up to date to accommodate them in their educational or working settings — suddenly now that the world has changed, those accommodations have miraculously appeared and are being used. The experiences I’ve had on Survivor and in many other areas of my life have shown that there are ALWAYS solutions to every problem — we just need to care enough to address them. I am fortunate to have belonged to the very small group of 590 contestants of this show, but I hope everyone comes to the realization that we are ALL Survivor contestants in this game called life.

And we are ALL winners.

To keep track of our daily Survivor Quarantine Questionnaires and get the latest updates, check out EW's Survivor hub, and follow Dalton on Twitter.

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