Celeb Watch: 'Survivor' host Jeff Probst will survive -- and thrive; see video
Survivor souvenirs: Host Jeff Probst always keeps the snuffer used during the elimination ceremonies, like the skull version from the 12th installment, Panama – Exile Island.
LOS ANGELES — Though Survivor's format has changed only slightly since the CBS show made its debut in 2000, its host, Jeff Probst, has evolved quite a bit.
"I was pretty sure the center of the universe was me," says Probst, 46, sitting on a patio atop the Mark Burnett Productions headquarters. Now a producer on the series (Thursdays, 8 p.m. ET/PT), Probst says being exposed over the last 16 editions to tribal warriors and village children, some of whom "live in shacks made of elephant dung," has opened his eyes. "You start really seeing how huge the world is and that you're just one guy from Wichita — no more, no less important than anybody else. I think I'm a much better person because of Survivor."
This year, his efforts may add an Emmy to his collection of Survivor artifacts now that the Television Academy is adding a reality-hosting category.
His success already has awarded him lasting friendships with past Survivor contestants Colby Donaldson (2001's Australian Outback), Andrew Savage (2003's Pearl Islands) and Rob Mariano and Amber Brkich (who met on the 2004 All Stars edition and were married in 2005). "They're a fun couple," says Probst, who was treated to a barbeque at their Florida home not long ago.
But Probst, who has had "a ton of individual therapy over the years," says his own life has suffered because of the travel demands of the show. His three-year relationship with Survivor: Vanuatu (2004) contestant Julie Berry ended several months ago.
Asked whether he and Berry remain friends, Probst shrugs. "Nah. It's hard to be friends. Maybe it's too soon. But I definitely fell in love on Survivor. For sure. And wouldn't change a thing about it."
While on location in remote parts of the globe, communication with loved ones becomes a challenge. And he acknowledges, "I didn't always treat people in relationships especially well, so I've tried to make amends and move forward."
There was zero communication to the outside world available to him while shooting Survivor's very first season. But since then, he has had access to e-mail or "bad cellphone" reception, he says. "You have to make it work."
On-set psychologist Liza Siegel, who meets with each contestant after his or her elimination, also has provided comfort. "I've been on the show when I've had relationship issues," he says. "You don't want anything to affect your work, but sometimes that's hard. So after a (contestant) challenge, I can ask Liza, 'Can we sit down for an hour?' "
After 2006's Survivor: Panama — Exile Island, Probst announced plans to leave the show. He had reached what he called "a point where I thought 'Maybe I've done all I can do on the show.' And I wanted to be home because I thought maybe it was taking a toll on my personal life." But with therapy and introspection, he says, he developed a new appreciation for the work.
He is reminded of just how popular the show is (it still averages 13.5 million viewers) on road trips across America. His latest adventure took him across Arizona to the Grand Canyon, Lake Havasu and Sedona. "Because I spend a fair amount of time in other countries when I'm working, for me the best vacations are road trips," he says. "I get in my car, put a bunch of snacks in the back, a couple of pillows, fold down the back seat and sleep."
Such trips allow him to connect with Survivor fans in the heart of America, many of whom express their likes and dislikes. "That kind of feedback is helpful," he says. "But there is a certain dark sense of what we should make the contestants do. They want me to be more mean and give them less food."
He usually travels with a girlfriend, which means the next one will have to share his love for the outdoors. "If you're a five-star hotel person, I'm probably not the right guy," he says. "Not that there's anything wrong with five-star hotels."
He can certainly afford such luxuries. He recently signed on for four more editions, ending with the show's 10th anniversary and 20th edition. "I have one of the greatest jobs in probably the whole world," he says. "It lets me travel the world and make more money than I should ever earn after dropping out of college."
Now wrapping up casting on the 17th season, which begins shooting in June, Probst refers to the top-secret locale (to be announced on the finale May 11) as "probably as remote as we've ever been. The place we're going is one of the last of its kind. It's so wild out there and the animals aren't used to anybody.
could be Gorillas, huge Gorillas, there are gorrilas!!
But before that adventure starts, there are Survivor: Micronesia contestants to eliminate. Probst gives a teaser: An injury will send a survivor packing early.
He remains grateful that his own torch shows no signs of being extinguished. "All those nights sitting outside your tent and looking up at the stars gives you a lot of time to think about who you are and who you want to be, how you've lived your life and how you want to live your life," says Probst, who founded a charity (serpentineproject.com) to help foster children.
"I've undergone a tremendous change. I didn't always like the guy I was before, but I do like me now."