Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Jonny Fairplay on his infamous dead grandma lie

Dalton Ross
·10 min read

Watch Every 'Survivor' Intro in this Epic Jeff Probst Supercut

Every time Jeff Probst introduced a new season of Survivor from season 1 through season 40.

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.

Survivor has had more than a few iconic moments over its 40 seasons of strategy and suffering. Sue Hawk’s famous rat and snake speech will live on forever. Erik Reichenbach giving away his immunity will go down as a huge turning point for the show (and the program’s greatest moment ever). If you’re making an all-time top 3, the moment to round out that trifecta would probably be Jonny Fairplay’s infamous dead grandma lie.

To recap, on Survivor: Pearl Islands, Jonny Fairplay (a.k.a. Jon Dalton) had his Loved Ones friend “Thunder Dan” tell him upon arriving that his grandmother had died, causing Fairplay’s tribemates to tear up and allow him to win the reward so he could find out more information about his deceased grandma. But it was all a premeditated ruse. Fairplay later told listeners that his grandmother was “sitting home watching Jerry Springer right now.”

A lifelong wrestling fan, Fairplay was more than happy to play the heel on national television, and had Lillian Morris taken him to the final two, he may have won the million-dollar prize doing so. But she didn’t. Instead, Lill took Sandra Diaz-Twine, who won the first of her two Survivor titles. Fairplay — who came back for Survivor: Micronesia, but then asked to be voted out first so he could be with his pregnant girlfriend — has plenty to say about Lill’s decision and the stuff you didn’t see both during and after the game, and it’s all to be found in his Quarantine Questionnaire.

Monty Brinton/CBS via Getty Images

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

JONNY FAIRPLAY: I have two beautiful, amazingly intelligent daughters, Piper, age 12, and Madilyn, age 3. I’m a realtor in Virginia and I host a weekly reality television podcast at SurvivorNSFW.com with Matt Bischoff from Survivor: Caramoan; Zack Hacker, a USA Today best-selling author; and Karen Eisenberg, legal genius. I’m also kind of a t-shirt impresario, which you can check out my offerings at jonnyfairplay.com, and don’t forget with every t-shirt purchase you get a phone call from me, Jonny Fairplay, thanking you for your purchase.

What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?

The “Dead Grandma” lie is still considered one of the greatest moves in the history of not just Survivor, but reality television as a whole. I wanted to bring an outside element to the game and create the first reality villain. There had been “bad guys” prior to me on reality TV, but they never sought out that personification. They claimed bad editing or creative storytelling. I embraced the role and reveled in it.

What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experiences?

Burton shouldn’t have told Lill about the change in vote from Sandra to Darrah right before leaving on the car reward of Pearl Islands. I’m just as much to blame as him as I could have passed on going with him on the reward. But I would have used that information against him.

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

When Burton finds out from [Jeff] Probst in Panama that he won the Chevy Envoy, Burton asks me when he’s driving not to mention that he won the car to the rest of the castaways. I immediately agree… But in reality, I’m thinking I’m not telling anyone about the Chevy Envoy until my final jury speech against you to win the title of Sole Survivor and throw that car jinx on you!

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

Perfect! It was me. As I mentioned, no one prior to me wanted to be a bad guy. When I explained to production that I wanted to be the "heel," they were elated and gave me every opportunity to run with my notorious ways. It was like getting a permission slip to do evil. My heroes growing up were Roddy Piper and Ric Flair. I got to bring all of their villainy to the world of reality TV.

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

Burton and I skipped our returning flights home and spent a week in Miami together hanging out in the real world. Against the rules, of course. But it wasn’t as awesome as we had hoped. The surrounding and elements of the Pearl Islands had really done a number on our bodies and skin and we looked like lepers. Chasing tail seemed to be an uphill battle at that time. So we called our celebration short in lieu of a better time down the road. I then hid at a million-dollar lake house in Smith Mountain Lake Virginia for about a month until I was physically and mentally normal.

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

About 30 minutes or so after landing on Drake Island, I went off by myself along the shore and sat down. I then had an internal conversation about what I was doing? I don’t like camping, I don’t like bugs, I hate sand, and I don’t really like people. This might have been a mistake. That lasted seconds, as I refocused and said, well, you’re here, make the most of it.

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

I talk to pretty much everyone from my season except Lill and Skinny Ryan. Skinny Ryan disappeared from the entire Survivor community, and I’ve yet to find him on any form of social media. As for Lill, I was pretty harsh to her at the final Tribal and she won’t communicate with me. I’ve reached out a couple times and none of those conversations really amounted to much or just didn’t go well.

Look, she has a right not to like me. But I have a right not to like her either. She took away the final chapter of Pearl Islands. She knew she couldn’t beat Sandra in a final two jury vote. But she “thought” she could have beaten me. But Lill decided that she would guarantee the winner by letting Sandra go to the final two. She didn’t give the jury the opportunity to choose a winner. Lill dictated the winner by choosing Sandra. I think that’s kinda crappy. But I also think that’s why we now have a final three.

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

I watch every week now. Heck, I do a weekly podcast at SurvivorNSFW.com, I have to watch, right? I skipped a couple seasons. Saw where the edit was going and had no desire to see those stories. I’m talking about you, Cochran. I don’t really have a favorite season other than Pearl Islands. It was such a complete tale of good vs evil, Rupert vs Fairplay. It was pirate themed. The outcast twist. I love and it still holds up today in my opinion.

But right up there for me is Survivor: Africa. I consider Lex, Big Tom, and Ethan three of my closest friends from Survivor. And it’s a truly grueling season with some compelling storylines. I also loved David vs. Goliath. I had a live viewing party for my podcast in Durham, N.C. at Durty Bull Brewing Company and it was the episode where Dr. Alison won immunity. She cries as Probst puts on the immunity necklace thinking about her mom later watching this moment on television. That night, Dr. Alison was in attendance at my viewing party with her mom. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, including mine. It was such a cool moment.

The next week, I did a viewing party in Cincinnati with Nick Wilson in attendance. It was the night in which the idol nullifier was played against Hot Cop Dan. Everything came together perfect and it was beautiful, except for Hot Cop Dan of course. Looking over at Nick Wilson in that moment and seeing that s---eating grin on his face made me so proud. And a final moment from that season, I went to Dr. Alison’s viewing party in Chapel Hill, N.C. It was the episode that she voted out Christian. The place exploded with cheers as it was Christian and not Dr. Alison voted out. I was so happy to be at the only place on earth that was also excited for that chain of events.

And lastly, I love Survivor: The Amazon. If it wasn’t for Rob Cesternino, I wouldn’t have been able to put together the Jonny Fairplay character. He was the blueprint. His ability to jump from alliance to alliance without consequence was the impetus for my game and the “voting bloc” and “fluid” strategies that we see today. Rob C. is a true pioneer in the game of Survivor and I’m happy to call him a friend.

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

I want to vote out Boston Rob more than life itself. There’s no player with a more self-inflated ego of their greatness, other than me, than Boston Rob. Please Probst, give me the opportunity to send him to Boston, Florida, or wherever the hell Ambuhhhh is.

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

I don’t like the fire-making challenge at final four. I’m ok with Edge of Extinction as long as it ends at the merge. Once an idol is played, kill it. The game of who can wake up the earliest shouldn’t make you the better castaway. I’m also for a throwback season for the rumored “legends” season. No idols, no gimmicks, just rely on the personalities of the greatest players that ever played the game to tell the story.

Finally, would you play again if asked?

For all that is sacred, YES! I used to say, only if it’s legends. But I don’t care what the theme is at this point. I feel I’m one of the greatest players of all-time and I want to prove it. I want my daughters to watch me play in the modern era of Survivor and I want them to be proud of their dad.

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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