Going into last night's Survivor Reunion show I wasn't certain how the fans were going to react. Would they boo Russell out of the building like a wrestling villain? Would they hail him as the conquering hero come home from war? Would they get behind someone else - Natalie, Brett or Jaison?
In reality CBS Studio City felt like a storm brewing, with warm and cold fronts of fan reactions meeting in the middle. Half the crowd erupted when Brett won the first immunity, and the other half responded in turn when Russell won the last. The split decision was fitting, since no one since Richard Hatch has generated such heated and contradictory emotions.
When I spoke with Russell an hour after he got the bad news that he wouldn't be winning Survivor: Samoa, his eyes were bright red from crying; he wore the expression of a sad puppy. He began the season as a giant but his face is now very gaunt and he is as thin as an office pencil pusher who needs to exercise more.
He told me how he had known for months he would lose, how his stories about Hurricane Katrina had gone over in New Orleans, and he offered advice to future players that was raw with hard-learned lessons.
You looked pretty hurt by the outcome. How are you feeling?
Well, I'm feeling pretty bad right now; but you know what? I won the fan favorite. That's pretty amazing. RussellGotScrewed.com is already up. Check it out.
The tide changed three or four or five weeks into the game, and you started winning people over.
I went from being even more hated than Johnny Fairplay to maybe even more loved than Rupert. How do you do that in one season? How is that possible? I don't know. Jeff would tell me. He said, "You can be cocky and charming at the same time." I don't know if that's it. I think it's my southern charm, I guess you could say.
Way back on the first day you made comments about Hurricane Katrina, and how you were a fireman. Marisa was infuriated. Do you still get flack for that?
You know what? I go to the LSU games all the time in Baton Rogue, where the people were effected, and I have a friend in New Orleans, who that did happen to, who lost everybody. They love it. At first I regretted the story about Hurricane Katrina when I saw it. But when I talked to people who were in Katrina, they were thanking me for bringing it back, because people forget about things. The story that I told happened to my best friend's brother, and I asked him permission to tell the story.
At the point people found out you made two million dollars last year, they must have realized you weren't a fireman who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. Did they confront you about making that up?
Nobody said anything. That's how easy it was to manipulate these people. All of them. They really sucked.
If they were all weak then why did you lose?
I was with a bunch of weak-minded people, and it proves that fact, because you see how I controlled them. I told them to get here - get over here. And then when they found out that I was mad at them they started shaking. They got nervous. That's sort of a double-edged sword, because then when that weak person gets on the jury they'll never vote for you, because they were weak minded already.
Did you believe you'd win?
I had a strong feeling I wasn't going to win.
When did you have a strong feeling?
When I was walking off the jury. You know what? That's why I'm good at the game. I can read how you talk to me and I can read how you talk to somebody else. When I saw how they were talking to Natalie and how they were talking to me I thought, "You gotta be kidding me." It was hurting me in the stomach. That's why I created a website - RussellGotScrewed.com. Because I knew there was no way.
What's your advice to a future player?
Jump on the strong guy. Play the social game because you'll win every time. You'll win every time playing the social game. But you know what? If you get there [that way] you got lucky. I'm not lucky. I played the game. If you play the social game you've got to make sure that your luck is running good because that's the only thing that's going to get you to the top.
Check out our other Back Stage Survivor interviews:
-Interview conducted by Henry Jenkins