'Survivor 43's' Jeanine Zheng Says She "Never Felt Lonelier" in Her Life Than on the Island

The UX designer gets into losing her closest ally and idol back-to-back, and her reaction to Gabler and Sami turning on Baka.

At long last, Survivor 43 has arrived! Every week, Parade.com's Mike Bloom will bring you interviews with the castaway most recently voted off of the island.

Unfortunately, some contestants' games on Survivor succumb to Murphy's law (not to be confused with the castaway of the same name): Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. And that was definitely the case for Jeanine Zheng. The UX designer thought her premerge game had crafted the perfect user experience. But over the course of only four days, Jeanine astoundingly lost two allies, her idol, and eventually the game, picked off in this most recent episode.

Jeanine and her Baka tribe got off to a rough start when they lost the first two challenges, with her in a pivotal role in both losses. But she took it on the chin (quite literally), forming a tight bond with Elie Scott that served to be her most important alliance in the game. Together, they spent the first two weeks of the game concocting a plan to boot Mike Gabler by convincing him his idol was no longer valid. Jeanine went so far as to go through his bag as part of their plot. But while planning around Gabler's idol, she ended up acquiring her own. Unfortunately for Jeanine, all of her maneuvers were being delivered to the enemy via Sami Layadi. And those eggs laid premerge, like Gabler's children, began to hatch when the tribes merged.

Jeanine experienced elation when she became safe at "mergatory," then immediate devastation when she heard Gabler tell everyone that Elie went through his bag and had to go. She scrambled to keep her closest ally safe, but lost the battle, without even a sympathy vote to help Elie. Jeanine was down but not out, and rallied when she was told about a brewing alliance between the Baka and Vesi members. Unfortunately this also was too good to be true, as she was left out again. And to add idol insult to injury, a pre-Tribal advantage swap by Dwight Moore to circumvent "Knowledge is Power" wound up with him seemingly leaving with her idol (not knowing Jesse Lopez actually had acquired the yellow bracelet). The new majority of seven set their sights on Jeanine, feeling she was a threat to slip through. But Sami wanted to already shake up the status quo, trying to whip the votes to get out Ryan Medrano. Unfortunately, though, the consensus could not come together. Ryan was left to fish another day, and the third strike of Jeanine being left out sent her to the jury.

Now out of the game, Jeanine talks with Parade.com about her reaction to losing so much in the last three votes, how pivotal surviving this Tribal Council would have been, and what is has been like watching the show with her superfan father.

Related: Read our Survivor 43 pre-game interview with Jeanine Zheng

I feel like we were along for the ride with you last episode. It seemed like everything was building for a Ryan boot. Then all of a sudden, you get nearly all the votes at Tribal Council. Were you surprised it ended up being you, and by such a large margin?
I was definitely not comfortable. Like I said at Tribal, I knew going in, it was a very, very likely possibility that I was going home. I knew it was going to be Ryan and I. And I think I was a little bit surprised at, like you're saying, the number of people that have voted against me. Because in my mind, I at least thought that some of the minority, for their gameplay, it made sense for their long-term game to keep me. So I really felt like, if I were to trust that it's best for their game, I wouldn't have gotten so many votes against me. But obviously, that didn't happen.

That being said, did you consider playing your Shot in the Dark at last night's Tribal Council?
So I definitely considered playing my Shot in the Dark. Actually, I was going back and forth between it up until Tribal. At the end of the day, the reason why I decided not to is because I was playing a very long-term game, and I was playing a very relationship-driven, alliance-driven game. And I don't regret that at all. But I wasn't willing to throw anyone on the minority's name out there under the bus. I stuck to my guns. I never said Gabler; I never said Noelle. Owen obviously was immune.

So for me, playing the shot in my mind was an indicator. Even if it were successful, best case, one out of six, really small chances there. It wouldn't set me up for having trust with the people that I wanted to or felt like I had. And so I thought for my long term game, maybe it'll keep me alive for another day. But it's not going to bode well with my alliance or the people that I could possibly or potentially work with. And, if given the chance again, I think one day really can make all the difference, especially in this 26-day game. But that's not how I was playing. I was really looking at who are the people who will carry me longer than just the day?

So answer that question for me. Because you know the Baka people the best. But then you have Gabler immediately turn on Elie, and Sami ends up joining another alliance and leaving you on the outs. Who were you making connections with by the time you left?
Yeah, I think what was missing--which I understand why--it was the merge day and we had one day where we were all just bonding. There was everyone just getting to know each other having these conversations. I really did bond with Cassidy. We had a strong bond going, and you kind of saw a little bit of that in this episode. I bonded with Karla. I had these individual ties. But because of my loyalty and allegiance to this Baka/Vesi coalition, I cut off Coco and cut off that those relationships preemptively. I really didn't explore strategy in a way that I should have with those people. And it came back to bite me. Those are people, though, that I leaned on my day out. I was still talking to Karla and Cassidy about the potential of working with them. Noelle, Gabler, Owen maybe Sami, plus Noelle's Steal-a-Vote. There were options there for me that I felt like I was really just trying to lean on.

Talk me through, emotionally, how you were handling the last few days in the game. You lose your closest ally, then you idol, then you lose the game proper. And we see you breaking down in confessional about it. How tough was it to work through those emotions and say, "I'm still in the game and I have to keep playing, even if these people voted out my closest friends"?
I mean, you just hit it right there. I've never felt lonelier ever in my life. And I've never felt more at odds. But what really inspired me in that moment was, "Okay, give yourself a good cry. Let yourself feel how you're feeling. But you're out here. You are here to play." And until the moment my torch was snuffed, I was not going to go down without a fight. And I was not going to not exhaust every possibility for me to still be there. And hinging on my dad, who was my inspiration, I was like, "If he can be completely alone in a new country with no idea of language or the culture and be able to survive and thrive. Jeanine, you're here for x amount of days, you can do it. Suck it up." So that was really the mentality going in. It's not over until it's over.

Let's rewind to where it all starts to unravel. You're at this merge feast, where Gabler starts talking about how Elie needs to go because she went through his bag. And later he'll say in mixed company that he knows you have an idol. What was your reaction to how all of that went down?
I mean, you saw my reaction. I was just shocked. My jaw's on the floor. I cannot believe that you're saying this right now. To a certain extent though, Gabler was always a wild card. And so I was like, as crazy as it was, I didn't even have time to process how crazy it was. Because I was immediately having to do damage control. I was just like, "It's out there. There's nothing I can do about the fact that it's out there now other than try to work against it and reel it in." And I think I just went straight into solutioon mode where I was like, "We just need to make sure that this doesn't travel any further," even though it was already out. As ridiculous as it was, I didn't even process how ridiculous it was.

I talked with Elie about your plan in the premerge to try to convince Gabler that his valid idol was expired. Now, I could understand how you feel you would be able to do that for a couple of days. But what made you think you'd be able to still pull that off as the days went on and the chances of Gabler actually double checking his idol increased?
What's not shown is there were a lot of moments where, like I said, Gabler was a wildcard. We never knew with him. And so on top of that, we really trusted that Elie had a close, almost father-daughter relationship with Gabler. And that when she was kind of toying with this idea of, "Oh, well, maybe we can make it a fake idol." With his reaction, we thought that he had been playing with his heart his whole time--he was a very genuine, upfront person--that whatever his reaction would be, would be telling towards what he thought was going on with his idol.

I think there were a lot of pieces where it made it seem like the two of us were super overconfident and cocky about our situation on the Baka tribe. But I think what that actually was was his "over trust," honestly, in our relationship with the Baka boys and being so willing to believe their reactions to things and that what they were the information they were giving us was true.

On that note, talk to me about your relationship with Sami. It seemed like you and Elie were the tightest with him on Baka. And this past episode, we saw you clearly emotional with him for betraying you on the Dwight vote.
Oh my god. I mean, it's on the episode. But Sam Bam broke my heart. He really did. And that's what I think was missing from premerge. You don't see how much Elie and Sami and I really did bond and got along. You don't see the other side, the fact that Sami is giving us information actually about Gable, playing the middleman on Baka. And because of that, I did feel like I could trust him. Up until this point, ironically, where he actually wanted to work with us, where I just said, 'It's too little too late. You've burned me too many times. I don't think I can trust what you're saying." But we were very close out there.

We've seen over the past couple of episodes that people tell you that losing Elie and your idol were actually better for your game because it made you seem less threatening. Did you believe them?
With the Elie vote, I actually do think that it was. Because everyone had at that point believed Gabler and that she wasn't trustworthy. It was actually better for my game to not be associated with someone who no one else would trust at that point. With the idol, though, I don't believe that flushing it would. I mean, the target was already on my back, right? Even having it and everyone knowing that I had it already puts the target on. At least I have the thing that I can use. So flushing that, I don't think actually helped my game or made it seem like it lowered my threat level.

I'm curious, as someone who knew that the idols this season came from the beads. Were you paying close attention to anyone trying to figure out who else had the idols?
Totally, absolutely. And the whole time it was just about speculating, "Well, who do we think on Coco has it?" Because there's no way that someone on Coco didn't find it. It was me just trying to put feelers out. But at the same time, that was not top of mind for me. I have a lot more to worry about than who has the idols.

Speaking of your threat level, we saw people like James and Ryan really build you up as a threat, someone who is good in puzzles and could also slip through to the end if you didn't go now. Do you believe that truly was the case, or is that just a fabricated reason to vote?
That's the thing. I mean, I thought that Tribal Council you just saw was crucial. That was a crossroads for me. Because if I were to have stayed, that would mean that there were enough people that I could work with moving forward. And so I do believe that had I been able to survive that Tribal Council, I think I could have made it a lot further, to the end even. So that was a crucial point for me.

You brought up your dad before. And you talked in the preseason and on the mat Day 1 about how he was an essential part of you discovering the show. What has it been like for him to watch you on his favorite American show?
I mean, it's everything. It makes this whole experience just so worthwhile. I'm literally getting emotional. We cried about it last night. People can nitpick about things that they wished had happened or whatever. But I meant what I said in my confessional. I left it all out there. I was so content with the way I played because I knew that my family, especially my dad, would be proud of the way it played. So now to be able to just share it and be completely upfront and honest with my experience. Because they actually didn't even know up until yesterday what the situation was. They were shocked with America about my vote out! I wanted to keep it spoiler-free for them. I wanted him to have the ideal watching experience. But it's nice that now we can fully share in this experience.

And you can say, "Dad, everyone on Twitter is stanning me as the underdog!"
(Laughs.) The last few weeks, it's been so bitterswee. I'm so grateful for the support but at the same time, I'm like, "Oh, they don't know it's coming. It's about to happen."

It's better than the memes about your chin!
Oh god, the chin. Yes, it is better than the first half of this season. I think the word cloud associated with me was "Jeanine Survivor chin." Those are the main topics that were related to me. (Laughs.)

read our interview with Dwight Moore, who was voted out in Survivor 43 Episode 7.