The 24-year-old UX designer from San Francisco calls the game's new era "liberating," and hopes her small size will make her underestimated.
UX designer Jeanine Zheng is ready to navigate a different web out on the island. The 24-year-old comes to the game to make both her and her father's dreams come true, having watched the show together through the years. And while she's excited about the looseness and unpredictability the "new era" provides, she hopes her resume of high achievement will lead to yet another hard-earned success in her life.
Read on for my interview with Jeanine, and make sure to check in with Parade.com every day for interviews with this season's contestants and other tidbits. Survivor 43 premieres on September 21 with a special two-hour premiere on CBS.
Related: Meet the Full Cast of Survivor 43
Interview with Jeanine from Survivor 43
Why are you here on Survivor?
I'm here for two reasons. So I'm here first and foremost to play for my dad. This is the culmination of his American dream. Survivor has been his favorite reality American TV show forever. And as a Chinese immigrant, he could have never imagined being on the show. But for me to now be on the show, as his daughter and first gen, is special.
[Second is] honestly for myself. I feel this whole life of mine has been high achieving, trying to fulfill this ideal of a perfect person that isn't necessarily me. And whether that was in high school, graduating valedictorian, or going to Harvard and graduating with honors and a thesis, all these things that I feel like I had to do or had to achieve and had to be. Survivor was kind of the first moment that was like, "Oh, I'm chosen for just who I am and for the things that aren't so robotic and so high achieving." I'm just excited to be able to get out here and play and prove to my eight-year-old self that me as a person–as a socially intelligent and creative and witty person–is enough out here to win.
What's your history with watching Survivor?
I have been watching before I could even really understand the show, to be honest. (Laughs.) As I said, my dad has been a fan since day one. So he passed down that love of Survivor to me. I just grew up watching it, and I feel I've evolved alongside the show. I can hallmark my life alongside the different eras of Survivor, from old school to new school to the big moves era we're now in. (Laughs.)
Give me one Survivor winner and one non-winner you identify with the most.
I don't want to toot my own horn when I say this. But I do think that I have the ability to make one on one relationships with people and make people feel really seen and heard like Kim Spradlin did. So I would say, for that reason, I am similar to her as the winner. For the non-winner, can I do one from Winners at War? (Laughs.) I guess this is kind of a loophole because, again, she already won. But Natalie [Anderson], I just think, is so impressive. She is such a physical and social beast and is so powerful. I just admire her so much. And I think people can underestimate the power females out there, and she just really puts that all to rest. I hope that I can emulate that in my game as well.
Could you share a favorite moment from the history of Survivor?
I have so many favorites. But I will say one of the most recent favorites that I've had is from this past season at the "unprecedented" Tribal Council. (Laughs.) All votes were nullified, and it came down to either drawing rocks or a coffee chat basically between Hai and Daniel to decide the fate of their tribe. (Laughs.) It was just crazy to me because seeing the looks on their faces when they were like, "Only two votes? What's happening?" I just think, with the chaos and the surprise on the players' faces, I love those moments.
What's one life experience you feel has prepared you most for the game?
Honestly, I think that my entire life has prepared me for this game. I feel like I have a lot of outdoor experience from leading backpacking trips at Harvard. And I also feel like, on a day to day, I am genuinely interested in and love hearing people's stories. And so I think that that is something I just do every day. People joke all the time; they're like, "Jeanine's always in the corner at a party while the music's blaring, and she's trying to have a deep one-on-one conversation with someone that's not supposed to be happening at the party." (Laughs.) But I think a lot of culminations of small experiences have led up to this moment, and I feel really prepared to play this game.
What excites you the most about the new era of Survivor?
I think that what excites me the most is that I have no idea what's in store! I can't even predict what is going to happen. And for me, as someone who, again, has been high achieving and has always had some sort of written out metric of success and way to achieve that and study for it and prepare for it, I find it so relieving and liberating just to come out here and know that I can't prepare it for it. I can only deal with what I'm given, when I'm given it, with what I have, which is who I am. And that is the beauty of the game. I'm so excited for it.
What do you think people will perceive you as?
I think that people will definitely underestimate me. I am prepared for people to see me as a small woman and think that I am weak and that I can't contribute to the tribe dynamic physically. But they are going to be wrong. I am athletic and strong-willed. I also understand that I am Asian and probably will be perceived as intellectual and strategic. So trying to make sure that I combat that a little bit going in, I think, is important.
What type of player are you looking for in an alliance?
I really want to find one person, my ride or die from Day 1, who I can just know that I can trust, at least until the individual game. I want to be able to know that there's someone who is eyes and ears for me and that we are a voting bloc for as long as we can be. And I understand that it's always an individual game, even more so once we hit the merge. So I'm just looking for someone that I can feel like I can trust and trust to process information the way that I would and share that with me.
What is the one thing you told yourself you wouldn't do in this game?
(Sighs.) I hope I don't make a fool out of myself. (Laughs.) I told myself that I can't be the first one voted out and that I have to make the merge. Those are my two "you gotta do, Jeanine "s. But yeah, I'm really, really just hoping that those things happen or don't happen. And then obviously winning is the third. (Laughs.)
How eager will you be to look for advantages in this game?
Oh, I'm so eager! And I'm going to have to reel it in. Because as a superfan, I am so excited just to explore every nook and cranny and take it all in and experience all the things that I've waited so long to do. But I know that looking for an advantage or an idol will put a target on my back. So I have to have some self-restraint. But as soon as I feel like it's in the clear, I'm going to hit the ground running.
What's the best advice you received before coming out to play?
The best advice is what I've received from my family. They know me so well and have seen me in this preparation game mode for so long leading up to coming out here. And they told me right before I left, "Jeanine, you have to just have fun. Be in the moment. This is your dream. And regardless of what happens, you've already done it. You've already achieved your dream." I think that, for me, I just need to let that sink in and understand that I've already done it, and anything from here on out is just additive.
What celebrity or fictional character would you want to come out for a Loved Ones visit?
I would probably choose Harry Potter because, one, I love the series as a fictional character. And two, he could really help me in a Loved Ones challenge if I have a wizard on my side, you know? (Laughs.)
Next, check out our interview with Survivor 43 contestant Elisabeth "Elie" Scott.