The Queens of Kaôh Rōng
The Greatest Story 'Survivor'
Written on February 7, 2018
Last Updated on August 24, 2019
Anybody who knows me at all can tell you that I am a massive fan of the CBS reality competition series 'Survivor.' It hasn't been until just recently that my love for the show and my love for writing have been able to intersect. That all changed when the show aired its 32nd season, titled: Survivor: Kaôh Rōng—Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty. The season premiere aired on February 17th, 2016 and reached its dramatic and polarizing conclusion later that year on May 18th. Little did I realize this one season would not only give us one of the show's most controversial finales, but also light the spark that would one day inspire the concept for my book The Laws of Vanity.
The Laws of Vanity begins with a young woman named Courtney Suveau, who was born with a rare neurological disorder called Venusagnosia. Because of her condition, Courtney is unable to see or interpret beauty, and therefore perceives everything and everyone around her as completely neutral, with nothing appearing to her as attractive or unattractive. Despite this, she has spent the last several years working in New York as a fashion model, and has lived in constant curiosity over this single trait that has defined her life and has shaped so much of the world around her.
The story begins when Courtney moves to Los Angeles with her mother after she's invited to audition for the part of Olivia Deliére in the film Candlelight Palace. When she realizes how unprepared she is compared to the rest of her competition, she sets out to improve her acting skills to prove she has the talent to succeed in Hollywood. She seeks out the help of another young aspiring actress named Gwen Bressly, a strong-willed, Ivy League graduate who has been living in L.A. for three years and is currently auditioning to play the character of Isabelle Deliére, Olivia's sister, in the same film. Courtney learns that Gwen does not think of herself as beautiful, but remains committed to her dream of one day being a famous actress despite all the obstacles she feels she must overcome.
As their budding friendship leads them from rehearsing lines in a shabby apartment out to the dazzling bars and clubs of the L.A. nightlife, Courtney begins to notice how differently she and Gwen are treated, and how this difference in perception has sent their lives down two very separate paths. As their vastly different worlds continue to collide, Courtney and Gwen must decide day by day if their delicate friendship is too difficult to handle, or if they will stay loyal to one another so they can help each other succeed with their auditions and prove that their identities are not limited by the way that they look.
So...what does 'Survivor' have to do with this?
I'm glad you asked! Now we can get to the juicy stuff!
Before I do, I feel obligated to issue a *SPOILER WARNING* since I am going to talk about the ending of Kaôh Rōng in detail, which will probably spoil certain scenes that occur in The Laws of Vanity. My advice to those of you reading this would be to come back later once you've either watched Kaôh Rōng or read The Laws of Vanity. Once you're familiar with one, you will automatically be spoiled for the other, so there's no need to wait and do both.
For those of you who've stuck around, let's continue...
As I mentioned earlier, this particular season of the show had a theme of Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty, in which the contestants begin the game divided into three tribes of six people based on a singular attribute that is most commonly associated with them. At the very end of the game, the majority of the fans believed that Aubry Bracco, a then 29-year-old Bostonian social media marketing strategist, who began the game on the Brains tribe, had played the best game of all the players who made it to Day 39. Despite being hailed as an audience favorite for her sharp wit, quirky sense of humor, and overcoming the loss of two close allies due to medical evacuations, the jury voted to give the win to the Beauty tribe's Michele Fitzgerald, a then 25-year-old bartender from New Jersey who impressed her fellow castaways with her strong social game and for having the most individual challenge wins of any other player in the season.
Inspiration for Courtney Suveau
Inspiration for Gwen Bressly
Michele's victory garnered a mostly negative reception from the viewing audience. Some will argue the reception is more mixed, since Michele does have somewhat of a niche following in the community, but whichever way you want to look at it, it's still far from the kind of reaction a Sole Survivor would want in the aftermath of their greatest achievement.
Just to provide some evidence for all this, on December 12, 2017, Entertainment Weekly's Dalton Ross posted the results to a Survivor Winners Ranking that allowed the fans to rate all of Survivor's then 34 winners from best to worst. The final results showed Michele Fitzgerald as the 33rd best (2nd worst) winner according to the fans, only beating out Survivor: Nicaragua's Jud "Fabio" Birza.
I've included a link to the article below, along with a photo in case this webpage is taken down or replaced in the future.
Full disclosure, I was one of the people rooting for Aubry to win the game and I was initially very disappointed by the season's conclusion. But more importantly, I was genuinely shocked by the results. I honestly had no idea how the other players in that jury didn't respect Aubry's game as much as the fans did. This shocking ending would eventually condemn me to seven consecutive months of reliving that season over and over again, trying to put the pieces together and figure out what led to the biggest upset of 2016.
Okay...SECOND biggest upset of 2016.
I found myself constantly thinking about Michele and Aubry during the off-season while I was attending my summer quarter in college, looking back over those 39 Days and trying to weigh the pros and cons of both of their games to see if I could decipher what created this huge contrast between the audience's perception and the jury's perception. I thought about how well they competed in challenges, what moves they'd made to shape the narrative of their season, how good they were at connecting socially with other players who would eventually be deciding which of them won, or how each of them grew as a person during the game and the story they could tell about their experience once they made it to the Final Tribal Council.
As I reached the bottom of my list, I eventually asked myself if their physical appearances had anything to do with their in-game success. In a season called Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty, I thought I at least had to consider it as a possibility. I didn't think it could be purely coincidental that a woman praised for having the best social game of the season started off on the Beauty tribe, and a woman praised for having the best strategic game of the season came from the Brains tribe. I wondered if perhaps there were people on the Kaôh Rōng jury who voted for Michele simply because they liked her more and didn't care enough about the strategy of the game to weigh any other factors. I also posited the same question in reverse, and wondered if perhaps this was a reason the fans rejected Michele so harshly, since they probably would have found Aubry to be the more relatable player of the two, and may have subliminally taken the jury's decision as a message that a pretty girl would always be more valued in society than a smart one.
*I would like to make a quick disclaimer here that I genuinely do find Michele and Aubry both very attractive and very intelligent. I'm simply trying to convey how caught up I was with their tribe labels and the stereotypes associated with their game-given identities.*
I also discovered there was this amazing irony about how the season's premise affected these two players. Despite the fact these 18 contestants were put on tribes that were meant to draw attention to their most admirable quality, in the case of Aubry and Michele, I believed these traits actually became more of a burden than something that helped them. Being on a Brains tribe made it very easy for viewers and fellow players to stereotype Aubry as a nerd—a person with comparatively poor social skills, someone who is neurotic, and someone whose attitude may be perceived as elitist or intellectually superior. In the case of Michele, being placed on the Beauty tribe presented its own consequences because it allowed viewers and fellow players alike to perceive her as vain, superficial, and as someone who doesn't need to work as hard to receive special treatment and social gratification. Michele even addressed this dilemma during Final Tribal Council, claiming that any player who starts on Beauty has to earn respect because it's not given to them at the start of the game, as opposed to players who get to start on Brains and Brawn and be rewarded for their achievements and abilities instead of being rewarded for how they look.
It became increasingly clear to me that their tribe labels were obstacles—a superficial reduction of their identities that they needed to escape from in order for their games to tell a story that would resonate with their future jury members and prove they were more than a manifestation of stereotypical attributes. But what I found especially interesting is that Michele and Aubry both managed to succeed and fail at the same time. Michele was able to win over the jury by proving she actually was a self-reliant young woman who was willing to get her hands dirty in order to win, while many fans struggled to see her gameplay and dismissed her win as the result of a petty popularity contest. Conversely, Aubry won the hearts of the fans by proving she actually did have the social intelligence and the communication skills to lead her alliance and mastermind several of the game's biggest moves, but it wasn't enough to change the minds of some crucial jury members who continued to perceive her as neurotic and paranoid.
Survivor had seen plenty of controversial winners and polarizing jury verdicts before the events of May 18th, 2016. In most cases, a controversial winner pick comes from this disconnect between the audience and the contestants as to which finalist had a more impressive resume of accomplishments. For example, contestants are able to form relationships with one another during the game that are more visceral and tangible than what the fans can experience. If you've bonded and shared deep, meaningful conversations with someone who was able to survive to Day 39, you might be more inclined to vote for that person to win and forget about some dumb moves or mistakes that the audience wouldn't forgive so easily. Conversely, you could hold a grudge against someone who betrayed you and ignore objective accomplishments due to personal reasons—a decision that will inevitably have you labeled as a "bitter juror" from the mass audience. This disconnect is certainly very obvious with Survivor: Kaôh Rōng, but what I think makes the Michele vs. Aubry debate so unique in the Survivor pantheon, and why I think it elicited such an intense reaction from fans, was because of the social and cultural context that came from their Brains and Beauty tribe designations.
As I mentioned earlier, I wondered if the audience's disapproval of Michele was the result of following an underdog story that was never fulfilled—a likable, strong, intelligent heroine coming so far and accomplishing so much only to lose to the shallow, popular pretty girl who was given a pat on the back for doing the bare minimum. In the aftermath of such a surprising victory, I suspect it was easy for a lot of people to latch onto this superficial interpretation when they needed an answer, and I was no exception. The only thing that separated me from the rest of the fan base was that my curiosity didn't end on May 18, 2016, and my search for answers took me away from my television and into the real world.
I soon found myself thinking about beauty in a more critical manner than I'd ever done before. I would pay close attention to the models featured in the signs and advertisements I saw every day walking through Seattle. I was constantly bombarded with a strange truth I'd never considered before, and realized that at some point the people I saw in these advertisements had been given a job and had received money simply by agreeing to have their picture taken—a job that would be unavailable to someone if they were too short or didn't fit this implicit cultural standard of beauty. I started thinking about beauty as a form of privilege—a trait that offered certain individuals more advantages and opportunities, but had somehow escaped the cultural scrutiny that was taking aim at race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. I was constantly asking myself if I'd ever fallen prey to this kind of bias without knowing. I wondered if I'd ever offered to hold a door open for a beautiful woman but decided not to be so courteous to a woman I was not attracted to. I wondered if I'd ever subconsciously pegged someone as being cool or popular just because she happened to be a thin, pretty, white woman, even when I knew nothing about her personality. I even went so far as to question if rejecting a girl because she wasn't pretty was comparable to rejecting someone because they were black, or Hispanic, or Jewish, or part of some other group that had been marked as a protected class and was part of the national discussion about equal treatment in America. This constant fascination with beauty would reach critical mass on December 4th, 2016, when, on my way to Seattle Central Community College, I would ask myself one of the most important questions of my life:
"What if we lived in a world without beauty?"
I quickly simplified this idea into a question about what it would be like if there was a neurological disorder that prevented someone from being able to perceive beauty. I called it Venusagnosia, a combination of Venus, the Roman goddess of beauty, and 'agnosia,' which is a Greek suffix that means 'ignorance.' With this question, I developed a concept for my second book, a story about a young, beautiful woman who worked as a model and was blind to the very thing her life was built around. She would move to Los Angeles with hopes of starting an acting career, and the plot would focus on analyzing how her condition would affect her dating life, career prospects, and other relationships she would develop with other characters along the way. As you can see, the relationship I grew the most attached to was the one she developed with the character of Gwen Bressly, a young woman with the exact same goal of becoming an actress, who didn't look like Courtney but had plenty of other great, admirable qualities that nobody ever recognized her for.
As I began my original draft of The Laws of Vanity, I tried to imagine how these two characters would interact with one another and what sort of tension would arise from a relationship like this. Once again, I found myself thinking about Michele and Aubry. More specifically, I thought about the kind of relationship they had with each other during the game, and how they would feel toward one another after the season's controversial ending. I wondered if a friendship like this could last, if these two women really could stay friends with this massive shadow hanging over their heads anytime they entered a room together.
And, as it turns out, they could...
I'm sure it's no surprise that I follow both of them on Twitter and Instagram. I could easily show you some of their posts so you can see them getting along with each other, but I feel like it wouldn't be appropriate to put their words on a different platform without their permission. I'm assuming all of you reading this are on social media in some form or another, so I'm sure you're all capable of typing names into a search bar and scrolling down if you're so inclined to check my work. Since I don't feel right showing you their posts directly, I'm going to do the next best thing and post these videos. Enjoy!
Trust me, I have spent a lot of time scouring the internet looking for videos, interviews, podcasts, you name it, trying to find just one case where one of them said something bad about the other person, and I've come up short every single time. If you don't believe me, feel free to waste a good few hours on the web trying to prove me wrong. I've never seen such a civil, kind, loving relationship between two people I would never assume to be friends in real life, much less during such a stressful, high-stakes game, much less after cementing themselves in this legendary Survivor upset with a $900,000 difference between them. I honestly don't believe I could maintain a relationship with someone I had this much awkward history with. I really don't know how they do it, but somehow they've managed to pull it off.
As I once again began to replay the entire season in my head while being aware of this 'epilogue' so to speak, I suddenly realized there was an entire alternate storyline to their game I hadn't noticed before. I realized that if I ignored everything about the game itself—the challenges, the torches, the idols—and only focused on the story of these two players, I was left with this story about these two young, ambitious women who are so easily judged in their normal lives back home, who are now being thrust into this immensely competitive, stressful environment that is stripping down their identity to just one superficial detail, and now must spend the next 39 days defying other people's expectations and escaping from their respective stereotypes to prove they were both worthy competitors and that their identities were more than just the way that they looked. Despite their initial segregation and their (seemingly) many differences, they were able to work together, respect one another, and somehow develop a relationship that was strong enough to survive the onslaught of negativity and scrutiny they experienced at the end of their journey. Once I realized there were so many great, positive, healthy messages to take away from their story, I was continuously disappointed that nobody else seemed to be talking about this. Everybody else was trying to sweep the memory of Kaôh Rōng under the rug while I was slowly falling in love with it. The pieces for a good story were just resting on the table waiting to be put together, and that's exactly what I did.
From this point on, starting around April of 2017, my entire process for writing The Laws of Vanity focused on trying to retell Kaôh Rōng the way I'd learned to see it. I would represent Michele and Aubry through Courtney and Gwen, put them in another stressful, competitive environment that constantly forced them to contend with how they are perceived in society and media (Hollywood), give them a different goal they had to accomplish in order to prove their naysayers wrong (getting cast in this film), and finally, put them through the ultimate test of friendship and see if they can maintain their love for one another in the face of their own national controversy. My goal was to recreate all the crucial story beats of Kaôh Rōng in a modern world setting, except with one fundamental difference. Rather than focusing too heavily on the actual competition, I would dedicate most of my time to Courtney and Gwen's friendship, and use it to tell a story about how two women with such different body types and lifestyles learn how to overcome their insecurities, and encourage one another to pursue their dreams without letting the way they look define who they are and what they're capable of. Gwen would help Courtney discover she's a lot smarter than she once thought, and Courtney would encourage Gwen to stick with her dream of being an actress so she can be a role model for young girls who are insecure about their bodies and need someone like her to prove there are many different ways to be beautiful.
In summary, I wanted to see if I could capture that emotional spark that the show was never able to find, and give this story a chance to find a second life outside of its original audience, while possibly changing a few minds within the Survivor community in the process.
No, I am not joking. I genuinely tried to turn Michele vs. Aubry into an inspiring story about friendship, persistence, and having the courage to be strong and kind even when the rest of the world doesn't give you credit for it. I honestly thought there were so many people, particularly young girls, who would find their story to be really empowering if I just learned how to balance out these two characters in a way the show never could, and draw attention to both of their accomplishments and struggles without taking anything away from the other person. I truly, honestly believe I've cracked the code on how to tell this story in a way that can make everyone happy. Only time will tell if I actually pulled this off, but hopefully it won't be long until my Survivor queens get their second chance to climb out from their own shadow and start a healthier legacy.
Thank you for reading!