INTERVIEW: 'Survivor: China' champion Todd Herzog talks strategy
By Christopher Rocchio, 12/18/2007
Todd Herzog felt like the other Survivor: China castaways were mostly clueless when it came to playing the game.
He was right, as the 22-year-old self-described Survivor fanatic from Pleasant Grove, UT took home China's $1 million grand prize and title of "Sole Survivor" during Sunday night's finale of the long-running CBS reality series' fifteenth edition.
On Monday, Todd talked to Reality TV World about the only other castaway he felt was playing the game; why his strategy of calling the shots basically went-off without a hitch; how each of the other castaways played a role in helping him achieve his dream; if the story about his younger sister was true; and what his plans are for the $1 million.
Reality TV World: How did you end up being cast for Survivor: China?
Todd: It took me three shots -- I sent in three different videotapes -- one for Cook Islands, one for Fiji and finally China. I made it to semifinals for Fiji and all the way for China.
Reality TV World: You made it known throughout the season that you're a huge Survivor fan. What is it about the show that's so appealing to you?
Todd: I was about 15 when the show came out. For some reason, it just caught my attention. I just loved the adventure. I loved the fact that it was a super-game. I got hooked, and I started watching every season -- fell in love with it more and more -- and knew that one day, I'd be able to do it as well.
Reality TV World: You seemed to be well aware that most of the other castaways were going to view the fact you had "pissed the most people" on the jury off as a good reason to keep you around. I assume that was part of your strategy?
Todd: That was most definitely a part of my strategy. I wanted to let people know that I'm a good person to go up against in the finals because I've pissed everybody off. So why not take me along? They won't vote for me! But in my head, I already knew that I was going to use my game strategy for my final plea to the extreme... Let people know that my game play was hardcore.
Reality TV World: So I guess based on that -- I don't want to put words in your mouth -- but do you feel like you suckered the jury into voting for you?
Todd: I would say that I convinced them. I don't if I "suckered" them. I kind of made them realize, "Hey, wow, look! This kid had a huge passion for this game from Day 1, and he actually made it [to the Final 3], which says something about that. And he's not lying. He's telling us all that, yeah, he hurt us. But he played the game."
Reality TV World: What was your reaction when Amanda Kimmel decided to stay true to her alliance with you and instead boot Denise Martin? Were you ever concerned she'd side with Denise and force a tie?
Todd: I honestly trusted Amanda out there at all times. It wasn't until I was watching the show that I realized how much she doubted me. So it was kind of a shock to me. But luckily she never back-stabbed me or else I would have been completely dumbfounded.
Reality TV World: Since they were your closest allies, do you think Amanda and Courtney Yates ever realized being a "schemer" was part of your strategy to win the $1 million?
Todd: I kind of think that they knew, but I also think at the same time they were going to try to convince everybody that I'd pissed them off. So... It just made sense for me to go and fight the "game argument" whereas they probably were like, "Oh, we can totally tell everybody that we did better than him."
Reality TV World: During the penultimate Tribal Council, did the face and comment you made have a purpose behind it like Amanda insinuated?
Todd: It wasn't until I was watching the show that I realized how many faces I make (laughing). But that one, I was just reacting in my own little head and then [Survivor host Jeff Probst] asked me about it. If it was me in Denise's position, [what Amanda said] would have been like a giant, huge slap in the face. I didn't realize it then, but I was calling Amanda out on it (laughing). I didn't do it on purpose, but I am glad that I did.
Reality TV World: So you think that played a role in the jury's decision?
Todd: Oh yeah! You know, Amanda said that she was not lying and that she was some good little girl, but she was telling many, many lies. I never told Denise that I would never write her name down. That was stupid on Amanda's part.
Reality TV World: So you've talked about completely trusting Amanda, was it a similar case with Courtney? When did your alliance with Courtney begin?
Todd: My alliance with Courtney -- you'd be surprised -- was about Day, 6, 7, 8, or 9... somewhere right around there. It's when I realized, "I need this girl around because she's smaller than me -- so as a team, if we do lose -- I cannot be the weak link. We'd have someone smaller." So I made a close alliance with her, but it was not ever confirmed. It was just kind of an unspoken thing. We were really close throughout the entire season. So bringing her to the Final 3, I was really proud to be sitting next to her.
Reality TV World: During last night's finale broadcast both you and Amanda acknowledged you formed an alliance on Day 1. What was it about Amanda that made you want to align with her?
Todd: It's surprising because I looked at Amanda... I looked at everyone on my tribe when we got out there. Amanda had something in her that looked like she was there for the adventure, there for the game, and that she really wanted to be there. That's why I was like, "You know what? You're on the same page as me." So we chatted, we decided it was the best thing to do, and I meant every word of I'm being honest and I'm sticking to you.
Reality TV World: You and Amanda initially chose Aaron Reisberger as the third member of your alliance due to his strength and ability to serve as the target. Would you have remained aligned with Aaron had the swap not occurred? When the swap did occur, what did you tell Aaron before he left for Zhan Hu?
Todd: When Aaron left for Zhan Hu, I told him, "Look. You need to join those Zhan Hu members and let them know that you are more than willing to vote [fellow swapped Fei Long member James Clement] out if you expect to stay in this game. Because if not, you're gone." Apparently he just felt way too comfortable and James just did way better sweet-talking instead of Aaron. But I'm kind of relieved because if Aaron would have gone farther in the game, he would of become an extremely huge threat. So in a way, Zhan Hu did my dirty work for me.
Reality TV World: Was there a point where you began to feel this was going way too easy? You almost seemed to be like Survivor: Thailand winner Brian Heidek -- surrounded by people like Clay Jordan and Jan Gentry that were afraid or uninterested in making a move.
Todd: I really felt like nobody was playing the game out there other than [Peih-Gee Law] and myself. I knew that Peih-Gee was a total hustler, but I think the reason why I was so bugged by her was because she was the other one who was really pushing. I was like, "No! I'm supposed to be that one!"
But I was more than happy calling the shots. I didn't realize Amanda had such a strong opinion. I felt like she was just kind of la-di-dahing her way around until I saw on the show... I was kind of proud to be able to say I'm playing this game -- I may second-guess myself or think about all the different options I can -- but I'm still here and I'm still going to fight.
Reality TV World: Were you surprised that Leslie Nease made the decision to share her Hidden Immunity Idol clue with you so early in the game?
Todd: Of course! At first I was completely shocked -- but now that I sit back and think about it -- it was probably in her best interest. She's also an extreme, diehard Survivor fan, so she knew I was as well. She figured take the two fans, align together... I love her. She's a great lady. But she liked to play a really, really nice game. That would have hurt me later down the road.
Reality TV World: Seeing as how you were such a strategic player, why did you decide to retrieve the Hidden Immunity Idol in daylight while people were at camp? Did you ever think that plan could backfire?
Todd: Well this is the story behind that...
Reality TV World: I just talked to Amanda, and she described you as a "kid in a candy store," which is why you two didn't wait.
Todd: I was so excited about it! This is the thing. After I talked to Amanda about it, I saw her messing around in that area. I was like, "Uh-oh! If she finds it first, it's technically hers." So I went over there and started feeling around too, and I was like, "As long as I'm the one with it in my hands. As long as I'm the one with it in my hands." Then I would use it into my power, you know?
I didn't realize it was the whole square (laughing). It fell off and it had the big writing on the back of it, I just remember I was like (takes a deep breathe). So I really thought it was just one of the little, tiny bats. I was like, "I can pick this off and no one will even notice!"
Reality TV World: What was your reasoning behind giving the Hidden Immunity Idol to James and then telling him where the other Hidden Immunity Idol was at the Zhan Hu camp?
Todd: I was so worried that Zhan Hu was going to throw the next challenge again; that we were going to go into a merge five/five; and that we would literally get screwed. So in my thinking, I said, "If I give this to James as insurance..." Because we didn't know the idol would be the same at Zhan Hu [as it was at Fei Long]. I said, "You go see if the idols [at Zhan Hu] -- if it is -- we're going to show these idols."
He agreed to it. We agreed to show the idols... He even told me when we got [James] back, "These are OUR idols if we need them." So I was never worried. Then it got to the point where we were in the Top 7, and he wasn't handing me one! He just kept saying, "Yeah we're sharing. We're sharing." But he wasn't giving it to me so he just had to go.
Reality TV World: Okay, so that was one of the contributing factors as to why you agreed to blind-side James?
Reality TV World: Just to backtrack a second, you just mentioned Zhan Hu throwing that Immunity Challenge. Was that something you surmised or did somebody tell you that's what happened?
Todd: Amanda was sitting out in that challenge, and she watched [Zhan Hu member Jaime Dugan] completely throw it. I was doing the puzzle so crazy, I just thought, "Go, go, go!" Then when we got back to camp later, [Amanda's] like, "Todd, they totally threw that challenge." It all hit me really quick... "They're going to throw the next two challenges, vote out Aaron and James and we're going to go five/five into merge." That was NOT okay with me.
Reality TV World: You seemed to place a lot of importance on the "numbers" game throughout the season -- and you even just mentioned it. Were you confident at the merge since Fei Long had the numbers advantage over Zhan Hu?
Todd: I was 100% confident. I thought my ideas and my plan was going to work great.
Reality TV World: What was your reaction when James told you Jaime had what she thought was a Hidden Immunity Idol and intended to play it? Did that factor into your decision to vote for her instead of Peih-Gee or Erik Huffman at that Tribal Council?
Todd: I think the reason we ended up voting for Jaime was because her and Erik were so tight. They worked as one -- instead of individually -- so it was like "let's break that alliance immediately." Jaime definitely, definitely called the shots between the two of them. She has that boy whipped (laughing)! So it was just an easy decision: breakup the alliance, get rid of a key player... and when she played that Hidden Immunity Idol, it was just hilarious.
Reality TV World: Seeing as how it ended up not having much weight to it, how seriously did you take Jean-Robert Bellande's threat that he would "lobby so hard" against you if he were on the jury due to you screwing him over?
Todd: I went away and I just laughed hysterically to myself because the guy couldn't convince someone to... He couldn't convince anybody of anything! He's Jean-Robert. He's all talk. He's a big guy who likes to make people think like he's top-of-the-line.
Reality TV World: So at the final Tribal Council when you called Jean-Robert an "extremely great strategic player" in the competition, I assume you were just feeding him what he wanted to hear?
Todd: He's a big guy with a big ego -- and I wanted to win his vote -- so you make him feel like he's even more powerful and he's going to love you.
Reality TV World: You told everyone about the plan to blind-side Jean-Robert -- except Denise. What happened there?
Todd: I wanted to tell Denise. I really, really did, because I trusted Denise. But James and Amanda were both afraid that Jean-Robert and Denise had a secret alliance, and they were afraid she would tell Jean-Robert that we were going to blind-side him. Just in case they did [have a secret alliance], I was like, "Okay, I'll just ignore the fact I want to tell Denise."
Reality TV World: We've talked about how several other castaways fit into your plan. When did Denise come into the picture? She seemed like kind of an outsider at first.
Todd: It's surprising the bond I have with Denise. She's a great person... I don't really know how that came around. We just sort of watched out for each other in weird ways.
Reality TV World: Was the decision to eliminate Michael "Frosti" Zernow before Erik solely a test to see if Courtney could be trusted?
Todd: You want to know the real reason why I voted him out? After he won that freakin' Reward Challenge -- he did a flip off of a pole! -- I saw that and was like, "No way! This kid is still way too strong. He hasn't had food in days and he's doing flips? No dice..."
Reality TV World: Both Jean-Robert and Amanda had the idea to blind-side James. Why was it that when Jean-Robert proposed it you blind-sided him but when Amanda suggested it the plan was put into motion and James was booted?
Todd: One reason I decided to take care of Jean-Robert when I did is because Courtney was having a problem trusting us all -- and we needed her so badly to stay tight with us -- [so] we had to do a move that she wanted [done]. So I said, "Let's get rid of Jean-Robert so she can see I was on her side."
Reality TV World: You realized the problem that Peih-Gee and Erik would most likely vote for you -- so if James did use the idol, the person with the next highest vote total would be booted, meaning you'd be booted. You still decided to vote for James anyways and it all worked out, but how confident were you James wouldn't play one of the idols?
Todd: I was actually not confident at all. That was the one Tribal Council where I was scared to death. I had actually talked to Amanda and said, "Look, I'm writing Peih-Gee's name down just in case." [Amanda] said to me that if I really trusted her, and she wanted to keep my trust or vice versa, that I had to, had to, had to write down James' name. So I took a gamble -- rolled the dice -- because I wanted her to see that I had her back.
Reality TV World: What was your reaction when James decided against using either of the Hidden Immunity Idols? Did you feel that cemented your standing as the game's frontrunner?
Todd: 100%. When he didn't pull the idol, the first thing that went through my head was, "WHAT!?!" I was just so happy at that point -- sad because I liked him -- but SO happy because it worked.
Reality TV World: What do you think happened there? What do you think was going through his head?
Todd: Right before Tribal Council, I approached him and said, "Look, they're going to vote for me. I need the idol tonight!" he said, "Okay, I'm going to go get it for you." Instead, he yelled at Erik and said, "Erik! I don't know what you're thinking -- what you're putting in this boy's mind -- but I'm voting with him tonight!" So I went back to James and I said, "You keep the idol because I want you to trust me." That's when I put the final nail in his coffin. I wanted him to feel super-confident that he wasn't going home that night.
Reality TV World: Had you and Amanda always planned on taking Courtney to the Final 3?
Todd: Amanda did not want to take Courtney. She didn't like her at the very beginning at all. She had no desire to. But I just ignored it (laughing)!
Reality TV World: So based on that, it sounds like you never considered taking Denise to the Final 3.
Todd: In my opinion, it was always Courtney. I knew Denise would throw "the cry card" out [and] probably make the jury feel SO bad for her. Kind of like she did last night to get a $50,000 bonus check from freakin' Mark Burnett!
Reality TV World: I'm sorry I have to ask this, but was the story about your younger sister's miscarriage a strategy or was it something that really occurred?
Todd: That was the complete truth. The only reason I asked my sister was because I was afraid if I didn't win or get chosen to go on the Reward, that I wouldn't see her again, and I was really worried about our little sister. She's 17, I was worried. It got turned into a really big deal that I didn't want to get brought up -- but again -- I said it and I shouldn't have...
Reality TV World: So how much weight did you lose while participating in Survivor: China?
Todd: I lost 27 pounds.
Reality TV World: Since you were kind of a small guy to begin with, how do you think that affected you?
Todd: It was surprising because I didn't feel like I was losing weight. I really didn't. Then one day I remember waking up and having bruises on my side from sleeping on the bamboo and I had no cushion. I was like, "Ooh! I look heroine-chic! I can't wait to go buy a pair of skinny jeans!" (laughing)
Reality TV World: I know you tried to hide it for a while, but it seemed pretty obvious out there that you were Survivor: China's strategic puppet master. Why do you think the other castaways blindly followed your lead throughout the game?
Todd: I really think a lot of them were very clueless in the game. So they were like, "Todd what do we do next!? Todd what does this mean!?" So it's almost like they needed me there. I really don't understand why they didn't vote me off like seventh or eighth. I don't get it. But they didn't! (laughing)
Reality TV World: Was it hard to keep a straight face when Courtney and Amanda decided to keep you around because you pissed the most people off on the jury, knowing they were basically helping to further your strategy?
Todd: I don't know... I thought I was keeping a straight face for a lot of it, but apparently I don't. I have so many facial expressions I didn't know I had.
Reality TV World: At any point in the competition -- even prior to the Final 4 -- did you ever think there was a scenario where Amanda or Courtney would blind-side you?
Todd: No. Surprisingly I wasn't concerned about it. I guess I should have been because that might have been a bad move on my part... too confident. But luckily for me (laughing), it wasn't.
Reality TV World: What's your plans with the $1 million and what's next for you?
Todd: You know, it still doesn't seem real. I can't wait to get home and... I don't know. I'm going to go get a car! (laughing)
Reality TV World: Sounds like a good place to start.
Todd: I'm going to go on a little DVD shopping spree. But I really don't know. I'm excited to see what happens next. It will be really neat to set back into real life because I feel like I put everything on hold until December 16.
Reality TV World: You commented during the finale that participating in Survivor was living your dream. Was Survivor everything you thought it would be?
Todd: This has been my dream since I was 15. Kids say they want to be famous, or they want to be in a band, or they want to be a doctor. This is what I wanted and I actually got to do it. Not only did I get to do it, I got to win. This is my dream come true, as cheesy as that sounds... I'm going to Disney World! (laughing)