From Our Tribe: 'Survivor' & Mensan Chrissy Hofbeck

'Survivor' finalist dishes to a fan of the show about her calculating strategy

Mensan Chrissy Hofbeck showed intelligence and endurance on the 12 episode of Survivor 35.
Mensan Chrissy Hofbeck showed intelligence and endurance on the 12 episode of Survivor 35. (Credit: CBS Broadcasting)

It’s easy to see why CBS’ reality show Survivor has lasted for 35 seasons.

With cast members ranging from 20-something surfer dudes to middle-aged Mensan moms, the show appeals to a wide range of demographics. Challenges are unpredictable, with the underdog often prevailing when all hope seems lost. And producers keep the show fresh by regularly introducing new twists that shake up the game.

All of this is something Central New Jersey Mensa member Chrissy Hofbeck can relate to on a personal level. As the second-place finisher in last fall’s Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers, she narrowly missed getting “voted off the island” several times before making it to the finals — only to have potential victory snatched away due to a controversial last-minute rules change. Along the way, she tied a record for the most individual immunity wins ever recorded by a female contestant in a single season, all while being the oldest player out there.

For Survivor fans like me, Chrissy got to live out our ultimate dream. She auditioned off and on for 16 years before finally getting the nod from producers. One year she even sent in a video with her body clothed in Saran Wrap in an effort to get the casting director’s attention. (In full disclosure, I gave up after only one failed audition, and I had enveloped myself in a German shepherd, not Saran Wrap.)

Having a fellow Local Group member to root for made the Survivor fans among us in Central New Jersey Mensa absolutely giddy. In particular, watching the actuary use her intellect to dominate in puzzle challenges was thrilling. At our annual holiday celebration shortly before the finale aired, we compared notes and speculated on whether Chrissy was going to triumph, but none of us predicted the curve ball that got thrown in the last few minutes of the show.

Now back home after filming 39 days in Fiji, Chrissy has had a chance to reflect on the journey that turned her into a media celebrity — and to ponder that end-of-season twist that had diehard Survivor fans crying foul play.

Iris Grossman: Did you tell your tribemates that you were a member of Mensa?

Chrissy Hofbeck: No! I really pulled back on anything related to being smart or successful.

First, it was really hard to figure out why I was on the Heroes tribe. We landed on the beach, and everyone’s like: “I’m a Marine. I do ocean rescue. I’m a firefighter. I’m an Olympic athlete.” And I’m an actuary! So I played up the whole mom thing and told everyone that I had left my career for a number of years to be a stay-at-home mom. I said I thought it must be because I was an everyday hero. I didn’t say that I went to the University of Pennsylvania. I didn’t say that I went to MIT.

But they did know that I was good in math.

There was one very memorable scene when you calculated a math problem in your head.

There’s a backstory to that. The idea of why I ended up being on the Heroes tribe became a big thing. One of the other players needled everyone every day — he found your spot, and he was just going to needle. He was all over me all the time: “What do you do? You’re a total liar. You don’t do math. There’s a reason you’re on the Heroes tribe that you’re not telling us, and we want to know what it is.” And this went on all day long.

So I felt like it was my moment to make him be quiet. So many people emailed me after they saw that happen and said that it was a mistake, that I had sealed my fate when I did that. But it was what I had to do to tell everyone that I wasn’t lying to them, that I really was an actuary.

I have gotten such a huge embrace of love from fans. I had a teacher send me a note that said he taught eighth-grade math and that he was going to show that scene to the kids and talk about how they would solve that problem quickly. It’s great hearing from math teachers that they are now going to use mainstream situations like that to show kids: “Here’s how you do it, and look, math is cool. Math is fun. Math is awesome.”

Portriat of Hofbeck on the beach
Hofbeck was one of the 18 castaways competing on the 35th season of Survivor, which was themed “Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers.” (Credit: CBS Broadcasting)

The producers knew you were in Mensa when they cast you, right?

Yes. As part of the paperwork, they want to know everything about you, and I had to put down all of the organizations to which I belonged.

We were actually IQ tested as part of the application process. I think it’s a situation where they don’t care what your IQ is, but they want to have a better understanding of the people who they’re putting out there.

In one of the pregame podcasts, a producer on the show called me incredibly intelligent and actually gave a plug for Mensa.

Of the 17 other players on the island with you, you were the oldest, at 46. What was that like?

I had lied to the other players; I said that I was 39. But I think it was a big shock when I started winning challenges, and even the ones that I didn’t win, I did really well in. I think people were really surprised. Frankly, I was surprised.

But the age thing was hard. I was very aware when I was out there that I was no one’s favorite person. I was the only one who had grown kids. It was lonely.

And I’m also an introvert by nature who pretends to be an extrovert. Extroverts gain their energy by being with other people, but as introverts we gain our energy by being by ourselves. I remember every day I couldn’t wait until the sun went down because I just needed my quiet time.

Funny enough, the reason that I think I won all those puzzle challenges on the show is because since I’ve been in seventh grade, every night I take my hour of quiet time and I lie in bed and I do crossword puzzles. I do sudoku, number things, word searches, whatever, every night. I’ve been practicing for 30 years.

So that’s the thing, when they say introverts can never go do Survivor, yes you can, because all the things we do as introverts also directly relate.

At the end of the first immunity challenge, you got physically ill and actually vomited on air. What were you feeling at that moment?

The reason I threw up is I was so scared. See, this is the thing about dreams. I had this dream for so long. And you wonder, is it better to have a dream that is unfulfilled, and you can just imagine how well you could do, or actually get the chance to live that dream and find out that you really stink at it? And I was so afraid.

So you knew this question was coming! At the end, you and two other castmates were poised to vote out a chief rival, and in every other season of Survivor, that would have happened. But a last-minute twist at the end that pitted two people in a fire-making challenge kept that chief rival in the game — and he eventually ended up winning over you. How do you feel about that?

I love the game of Survivor, so I have to accept that that’s part of the game. I really can’t live the rest of my life feeling bitter or angry because of something that I didn’t expect. I just have to embrace it and go with it.

I do believe that I would have won the game. But Ben [the eventual winner] is an amazing person. I feel like we both played winning games. We just played very different games. So I actually am OK with Ben being the winner of our season.

Survivor often brings back past players to compete in subsequent seasons. Would you ever go back if asked?

I don’t know. I feel like the main reason that people go back is to do better than they did the last time, and I don’t believe I could play a better game than I did. I was so much older than everyone else out there. I lasted to the end. I won four individual immunities, tying the record for women in the history of Survivor. I don’t think that doing it again is going to get me a better result.

In my mind, life is about experiences. I’ve had this experience. I say that, but the reality is that if they call me, I would definitely strongly consider it.

Chrissy Hofbeck competes on the finale of Survivor 35.
“Million Dollar Night” - Chrissy Hofbeck competes on the finale of Survivor 35. (Credit: CBS Broadcasting)

You’re an actuary and a suburban mom who’s going to cheer on one of her kids at a sporting event right after this interview. What was it like to be suddenly thrown into the media spotlight?

People started creating social media accounts with my picture and my name, and they were actually corresponding as if they were me. And I remember reaching out to CBS and asking them what to do about this. They said usually people can figure out the real ones from the fake ones, and they said we’re not going to tell you to do social media, but if you do, it’ll make your life a whole lot easier. So that was new to me.

After the first episode aired, I actually got death threats for not using my super idol to benefit another player. That was surprising. Survivor has some really fanatical fans. People find their favorites, and if you’re their favorite, man, they love you. If you’re not their favorite, man, watch out. So that was kind of hard to navigate, mostly because I wanted to shield my kids and my husband.

And I found out that my feet were being rated on wikiFeet.

I didn’t know there was such a thing as wikiFeet.

There are pictures of my feet for people who have foot fetishes. And apparently I’m rated very high on wikiFeet.

Good for you!

So I learned about this whole other aspect of social media that I didn’t know about.

It makes me sad for kids who are bullied on social media, because now I know how it feels. At least I feel I can turn it off or it will end. And I think that as adults we say, “Oh, just don’t go on social media. Just don’t look.” But you can’t, because sometimes you actually want to see what people are saying.

What’s interesting is that in my case, after the twist happened at the end of the show, all of a sudden I just got completely wrapped up in love. Now I get the most loving messages from moms who are like, “Thank you for showing me that I can do it, that it’s not too late for me” and kids saying, “Thank you for showing me that my mom is a hero, too.” So it’s come full circle.

Do you have any advice for Mensans who don’t necessarily want to go on Survivor but who want to pursue their own dreams?

Do not ever give up. Do not ever second-guess yourself. We seriously can do anything — even the things people think smart people can’t excel at. Look at me. I was a 46-year-old mom, an introvert, a Mensan, who got second place in the greatest reality TV show of all time. And I got second place playing a game with people who were much younger than me. So never count yourself out. We can do this.