Very few African Americans make it to the finals of CBS’ hit show ‘Survivor: One World.’ But in the twenty-fourth season, runner-up Sabrina Thompson beat the odds and earned $100,000. Though she may have come in second-place, Sabrina’s giving spirit proves she’s still a winner.
In an interview with EBONY.com, the former TV-producer turned Brooklyn high-school teacher talks surviving ‘Survivor,’ her new endeavor to take kids around the world, and her advice to Black women on reality shows.
EBONY: ‘Survivor’ is such an intense show. How did you get into the mindset to compete?
SABRINA THOMPSON: [Laughs] Girl, you have to be a little bit crazy to be on that show. It's not for the meek and mild! I only had three weeks to prepare to play the game, but I’d watched it enough to know you can't get too far with a bad attitude and I saw the other Black women on the show who were really good and really smart women, but they were very also aggressive. I have an aggressive personality too, but I knew I wouldn't last long if I kept that up. I kind of mastered the middle ground. I had to lay low in the beginning and that's how I made it all the way to the end. It's sad, and I hate to play the race card, but a lot of times, [networks] cast the stereotypical Black woman on shows like this, and I knew that if I would even remotely speak up, I would be seen like some angry Black woman. So, I had to be the peacemaker around the camp. That was my strategy.
EBONY: How were you able to downplay your personality in order to avoid the pitfalls of the stereotypical Black woman?
ST: It was really hard, but when a million dollars is on the line, I listen more and I shut my mouth. Part of the game is deception. It wasn't the weird animals or lack of food that got to me during the competition, it was the lying. I'm a very black and white kind of person. I’m not into lying because you start lying, you have to top that lie with another lie and another lie and that is just too much energy. But, I played the game as close to my regular personality as possible. My strategy was to just keep it real. People love people who are loyal, even when a million dollars is on the line, so that’s how I was able to keep the respect of everyone in the game and make it to the end without people voting against me.
EBONY: You weren’t even supposed to be on ‘Survivor.’ It was really a mistake on the part of the producers that you were chosen because they confused you with another woman. Why do you think this opportunity was placed into your life?
ST: I don't believe in accidents at all, but basically the producers had already chosen the contestants they wanted but the Black lady that they’d chosen had the exact same name as me. Every time they Googled that woman, information about me popped up and they just decided that they liked me better and they sent me an email asking if I wanted to be a contestant.
I do believe everything was designed by God because I was working as a teacher in New York and I had just received a letter from the state Department of Education saying that, due to budget cuts, they were laying off teachers and my name was on the list of teachers that could be laid off. I’d been teaching for 5 years, so that was God transitioning me out of that life in a really big way. So I obviously jumped at the opportunity to be on ‘Survivor,’ and it was the wildest ride ever.
When I was on the island [in Samoa], and it was the closest I've gotten to God in my life. I had time to reflect on the things. You have no cell phone, no computer, and no conversations with people other than those on the island or yourself. You start to think why are you here on this earth? I got a lot of clarity, and as a second place winner, I got $100,000 and I played a game that I’m proud of and my family is proud of, so I am satisfied. I’m excited about what's coming next.
ST: Well, my passion is to work with kids, but no longer in the classroom setting. I teach in a very unconventional way. In winter 2013, I’m launching the Teen Travel Society, a travel academy and my goal is to teach a subject in a certain place or country to a handful of kids each year, allow the kids to study the subject intensely and then pick up and do a ‘Survivor’-based community service project there. When I was teaching in Brooklyn, so many kids were 18 and had never been to Manhattan before. I’d ask them, “How far do you think Manhattan is from here?” and they’d say, “70 miles,” and they’d think Washington, D.C. was like another country. They’d get embarrassed about it and I’d have to just say, “Don’t be embarrassed about it, let’s just roll up our sleeves and learn this stuff.” Kids need to be taken out of their element and know that there is this whole world out there and a teenager on the other side of the world who could be just like them.
In order to raise the launch money for the travel academy, I’ve created TheGenderWars.com, which is the website for these battle-of-the-sexes events that will be hosted in lounges in different cities across the country this summer. Men and women will compete in these trivia games and the registration money will be the launch money for the academy. So, everything is falling into place, so I’m terribly excited about that.
EBONY: So much of the proceeds from your projects are given various charities. How did you develop the confidence to give so generously without worrying about whether all of your own needs would be met?
ST: Well, I was born and raised in the church, and even as a gave to charities, I've never been a consistent tither to the church, but I promised God I’d start tithing regularly. So after "Survivor," I turned over a big check to my church, which does such great things in the community, and I just told God, “Have your way. Use me however you want to use me.” I just know to live within my means. If I don’t love it, I don’t buy it. I know material things are not going to sustain me.
EBONY: Would you ever do reality television again?
ST: I would do "Survivor" again, and The Amazing Race. But a show like “Basketball Wives,” or “Love and Hip-Hop”? I highly doubt it. The show would have to be ridiculously compelling. But those shows I just have a problem with. I do believe in people being authentic and showing the struggle some people go through, but when it starts to be damaging, that’s where you draw the line.
EBONY: As a former TV-producer, what advice would you give to the women on those shows and Black women on reality shows in general?
ST: I would take the physical drama out, but leave maybe the emotional drama in. But I would bring in a really good expert to sit these women down and get them to talk through these problems and find solutions to these problems. I’d get them out of these high heels shoes and put them out in the damn woods and let them get a new appreciation for life, because what they’re doing is impacting kids.
EBONY: What is the one thing you hope to provide for kids through your charity work and travel academy?
ST: If I could narrow it down, I just want to show kids the world. The world has changed immensely but teaching kids about it hasn't and I just want them to get out and experience the world and expose themselves to new parts of the world and new people so they can have a better life.
You can keep up with Sabrina’s latest endeavors at IAmSabrina.com.