Nice guys sometimes finish first Forget The Bachelor, ditch Average Joe and fire The Apprentice — Survivor is the granddaddy of all reality shows. And of the more than 100 players who have tried to “outwit, outplay and outlast” each other during the show’s four-year run, by far the most popular (and definitely the most recognizable) is a burley, bearded, tie-dyed Hoosier named Rupert. Port in the storm: Rupert with his wife, Laura. Survivor is known for its interesting and unexpected twists and turns. Host Jeff Probst announced one last twist during the Survivor: All-Stars finale: an additional million dollars would be awarded to one of the players based on the Internet voting of viewers across the country.
The true Survivor geeks knew immediately who would win this final competition and as soon as the broadcast ended, the votes started coming in. Rupert fans, especially those who felt he should have won in Survivor: Pearl Islands, now had a chance to propel their hero to victory.
In reality, the other All-Stars didn’t stand a chance. Strong, big-hearted Rupert, who never betrayed an alliance or back-stabbed a fellow player, became the most popular person ever to play the game. Four days after the All-Stars reunion show, Rupert received 85 percent of the 38 million votes cast via cell phone and the Web. Rupert Boneham finally won his million dollars.
Recently, I sat down with Rupert and talked about his life and his experience on Survivor: Pearl Islands and, more recently, Survivor: All-Stars.
Q: (NUVO) Rupert is an unusual name. How did your parents come up with that?
A: (RUPERT) My dad had “Rupert Frederick Boneham” picked out before he ever even met my mom. When he was younger he always liked that name; that was the name he had picked.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I was born in Detroit, just lived a year in Detroit, moved to Ann Arbor, lived a year in Ann Arbor, then started moving around Indiana a little bit while my dad messed around from IU campuses and finally stayed at the Kokomo campus.
Q: Your dad’s a professor?
A: He’s a professor of geology.
Q: What kind of kid were you?
A: I was that little one that would go out — I remember bringing home my first snake when I was 3 years old, that was latched a hold, biting a hold of the palm of my hand as I held it and brought it home to show my mother, who helped me set up a fish tank for it.
Q: When I first met you, you were a gravedigger and cemetery caretaker at Union Chapel Cemetery off Haverstick Road. How’d you get that job?
A: I was the only employee of the Union Chapel Cemetery. My wife’s father Bill was the superintendent of the cemetery for years and when the job came up we just kinda jumped all over that.
Q: You’ve had some other interesting jobs — oil rigger, mentor — can you tell me anything about that?
A: I’ve been in and out of the mental health field for 20 years. I moved away to Texas in the early ’80s because Abilene had the lowest unemployment rate in the nation and worked in the oil fields for about a year and a half, two years. Then I started in at the Abilene State School, a giant institution that had 2,000 inmates and probably a thousand employees, and did institution work for 10 years before I came back here to do mentoring. Q:
On Survivor: Pearl Islands, you were listed as “Rupert, mentor for troubled teens.” How did you get that job and what was it like?
A: They listed me as a “troubled teen mentor.” I always said that I was troubled and I mentored teens. I kinda stumbled into that job years ago when I was with a young lady who had a couple kids who figured out that if you were bad enough in school they’d kick you out of the public school system and you didn’t have to go to school. Fourteen years old: “I don’t have to go to school!” So I started working with this one young man and then his friends all did it, too, and got themselves booted out of school, and instead of them hanging around my house all day, I started a little kids’ group called Kids HOPE, “Kids Helping Other People Exist.” We worked for years with that group until it about bankrupted me. In ’96 we dissolved it; in ’97 I started up with the Dawn Project. I found the Dawn Project here in town that would pay me an hourly rate and give me kids doing the same thing that I was doing out of my own pocket. It just kinda was a natural fit.
Q: You worked in TV prior to Survivor. Tell me about that.
A: Well, I did for the last few years and every time for the last 10 years that ABC came into town for the 500, the Brickyard 400; I worked as a “utility,” laying cables, setting cameras up, carrying heavy loads up the stairs.
That 14-year-old little insecure kid Q: How did you wind up getting on Survivor in the first place?
A: I made a video in February of last year. I put two minutes of home movies together, little clips of me in the swamp up to my nose, sneaking up on alligators, sneaking up on turtles, catching ’em, bringing ’em back to the boat, showing my daughter and me playing with some of the little things that we caught and then letting them go. She had her little rubber alligator and I’d have my real alligator and we’d make ’em kiss and hug and play around. I put that with some of my State Fair Survivor that I did a few years ago with Bob and Tom of Q95 where I went through their little Survivor, 10 days in a hut with 10 people. So I put a video together of home movies with a little stand-up saying just give me a face-to-face, sent it in … They take you from 60,000, give you a face-to-face and put you in the top 800 throughout the country. They take those 800 and break those down into a hundred, give you two weeks (in Los Angeles) and make you crazy: tell you you’re good, tell you you’re bad, make you insane and just try and see what they’ve got in you after they’ve broken your defenses down. Out of that they take their 16 and then they take a few alternates. I know that Tina on her show in Australia was one of the alternates. The person that she replaced didn’t want to do the jump out of the plane to start the show, which they didn’t even do, so she backed out of the show, the alternate came in and won the whole thing.
Q: What was the best thing about living on the islands?
A: There were a lot of bests. There were bests that came out of Pearl Isles but they didn’t really happen to me until I was in the jury camp, where I had my whale experience. I actually came close enough that a mama whale came up from under me and touched me, picked me up out of the water and I’m riding on a whale’s back as it slams me down in the water and they take off. That was probably a best that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
Q: Explain what jury camp is.
A: In the game of Survivor there are different groups of people as people are voted out. The first person through the eighth person out are voted out and never seen from again, unless you’re brought back like on Pearl Isles as an “outcast” group. Then after that the next seven people that are voted out are on a jury that decides the last two people’s fate — which one wins the million dollars, which one doesn’t. We sit on this little rock of an island where you’re just kind of sitting there every day wishing you were back in the game. That is jury camp.
Q: What was the worst thing about living on the islands?
A: The game itself is a pretty mean game. I went out there thinking it was a game of “Survivor” and I came home from Pearl Isles knowing it was a game of “Conniver.” The hardest thing for me was playing that game of Conniver. It got a little easier for me on Survivor: All-Stars because I didn’t play the same game. But Pearl Isles was very hard on me.
Q: Hard on you in what way?
A: There was a lot of re-living of things. In this game, everything out there is magnified. The little “Balboa,” the little snake that I had and watched it die was watching every animal I’ve ever had in my life die right there. When Burt and Shawn and Michelle are taunting you and poking you, grabbing your fat and just kind of teasing you like you were when you were younger, you click back into that 14-year-old little insecure kid, even though you could kill ’em all, you don’t see it anymore and you play that role. That’s the pain of it; it was all self-induced.
Q: Jeff Probst is the host of the show. What’s your impression of him?
A: Jeff Probst sees a very bad side of people. He is used to seeing that conniver, liar side of people, so it takes awhile for him to warm up to you, but Jeff and I became pretty good friends by the end of Pearl Isles, and when I went into All-Stars I felt like I had a friend. So did probably everybody there — Colby, Ethan, maybe not so much Boston Rob. I’m sure Jeff has his favorites, but I felt like I had a friend.
Q: You mentioned that Jeff Probst told you that you wouldn’t make it very long because you’re too trusting.
A: There were a few times in the game of All-Stars where he would look right at me and tell me my strategy was wrong, with trusting, ’cause I’d come right out and say, as we got into the game more, that I trusted people.
A medical box with condoms Q: Who were your favorite players on the two shows?
A: Right now, from Pearl Isles, Sandra and Christa and I are still all friends. I’m not really friends with many of the others; I don’t really have much contact with ’em. And then now, on All-Stars, I still have the most contact with Boston Rob. I really never saw that bad side of Boston Rob, I still like Boston Rob; he’s a good guy, even though he’s portrayed as being the bad guy.
Q: How about your least favorites?
A: My least favorites went early in the game ... Jerri and Ethan were the ones that I met that really rubbed me the wrong way and I’m glad I made it further than both of them.
Q: Richard Hatch, the chubby gay nudist who won the very first Survivor in 2000 — what’s he like?
A: Admittedly, on his own he said he was not as hungry for the win on this one. He came in there very arrogant, very over the top, and when the nudity didn’t work so much, that’s where the rubbing on Sue Hawk came. He would take it one step further any chance he could — he was trying to make that second name. Things I’m sure have died down a little bit for him and it’s all about being seen.
Q: What is your take on Sue’s reaction when Richard Hatch intentionally brushed his naked penis up against her during a competition?
A: I think on the show you can hear me yelling out, “Oh my God, that’s gross, look at what’s going on,” you know. There is very little there to even be rubbing with. (Laughs) But even so, I don’t think I would have stood there and let him rub on me.
Q: Jon Dalton was the weasely guy on Survivor: Pearl Islands who called himself “Jonny Fairplay” and lied about his grandmother dying during the show. You had a special name for him.
A: Um, my little name for Jon was “Jonny Foreskin” — he is that little piece that you throw away. And he still continues to show that to this day with his interviews and his actions.
Q: (Laughing) Oh, shit! On All-Stars you were almost immediately asked by Rudy Boesch, the 75-year-old ex-Navy Seal, to form an alliance. It seems that you two are in many ways opposites, yet you got a little teary-eyed on the show when you talked about him being voted off. What’s Rudy like?
A: Rudy was probably the only one that I truly could have trusted on that show, on that island, in that Saboga tribe. Rudy I felt very close to very quickly. Like I say, things even after just six days — those were the six hardest days we had with very little food and water.
Q: Boston Rob and Amber — did they consummate their island romance?
A: I tried to just kind of notice, in the medical box, if the box of condoms had been opened or not, and I never saw the box of condoms open.
Q: A medical box with condoms in it?
A: They have a medical box with some, uh, feminine products and condoms.
Q: You got a phone call from Boston Rob following one of the Survivor: All-Stars episodes.
A: Usually we’d talk before if he was kind of worried. He wants to make sure that we’re still friends when he sees himself talking bad about me.
What’s behind the crystal? Q: How many camera people and crew are doing this show?
A: There were approximately 500 on the crew for Survivor: All-Stars; now there were three tribes. Survivor: Pearl Isles there was approximately 380. They’ve steadily gone up. I think the first Survivor had 80 crew members.
Q: Per each one-hour episode, how much film is shot?
A: They say they have about 300 hours of film to make up a one hour show.
Q: Each of you had an actor double on the island. Why?
A: You know, I never really knew very much about the doubles and for a long time I didn’t believe we even had ’em out there. I’m sure that they used doubles for rehearsals, but they’re not talked about, I never saw a double, I never met one.
Q: Was the All-Stars version of the show more difficult for you and the cast?
A: Survivor: All-Stars was the most difficult Survivor to date.
Q: Can you describe a typical day of living on the island on Survivor: All-Stars?
A: Any time that you’re out someplace like that your day’s wrapped around keeping the fire going, getting food and worrying about what everybody else is thinking. There’s a lot of underlying things besides surviving.
Q: People looked like they were getting eaten alive by bugs on both islands. Did it leave permanent scarring?
A: That is one of my favorite things to do is to pull my pant leg up and show — and I call ’em my Survivor tattoos — you know, where you pull your pant leg up and show the dark spots where they were oozing and swollen and bloody.
Q: Any significance behind the crystal you wore around your neck in Survivor: All-Stars?
A: The crystal that I wore was a crystal that reminded me of my daughter. It was a crystal that had a little crystal attached. I just felt close to my daughter. I would keep it with me — if it wasn’t on my neck it was in my pocket. One thing that I’ve learned about Survivor, if you don’t keep it on you, you’re not gonna keep it because they change things too much, so it was always, always with me.
Fan letters for Rupert Q: You get a lot of fan mail. Your wife told me that some of the letters have actually made her cry. Tell me about what people write to you.
A: I have received thousands of letters and every one of them is telling me how I remind them of their son, their father, their brother, their friend, themselves, or I’m somebody that they can relate to or something that just kind of touches people. It’s just people saw a real person in their TV and can relate to a real person.
Q: Have any letters made you cry?
A: Well, when I first came home and was overwhelmed with just boxes of letters my wife and I sat and cried for days over letters.
Q: For a while after Survivor: Pearl Islands there was an Internet campaign to send you cash. Tell me about that.
A: There was a push for everyone out there who thought “Rupert was wronged” to send a dollar, which was a wonderful gesture and I loved it and it really actually came in very handy with trying to create something to send back to everybody when I started sending a photo and a letter and a stamp and all. I’m thrilled that it was happening, but it’s since stopped, and I’m kind of happy that that has stopped, too.
Q: Because of your tie-dyed shirt and long hair, you were identified by a lot of viewers as a “deadhead.” Are you a big Grateful Dead fan?
A: I have been to many of the shows. I started going to shows back in Texas in the ’80s. I like the idea of sharing, caring, happy, nice music.
Q: What was it like knowing that people around the country were dressing as you this past Halloween?
A: When I came home and people told me that there was a Rupert costume out there for Halloween — that’s gotta make you smile. It’s very neat that there’re people out there who want to be Rupert for Halloween; I think that’s wonderful.
Q: Since the show, do you ever feel like a lot of people want a little bit of Rupert?
A: Watching the Web sites pop up online about selling Rupert merchandise and all the things that are Rupert out there, it’s amazing, you know. I don’t get a piece of any of that and a lot of them we have to stop because they’re saying terrible things like “Rupert Got Robbed” or “Rupert Got Screwed” on their shirts with a picture of me on there. We spend as much time stopping others from selling stupid things as we do about thinking about actually trying to make a Rupert shirt, although my cousin has drawn a nice little Rupert picture and we’re starting to think about getting a Rupert line of shirts.
Q: Do you ever feel like at this point people are trying to take advantage of you, that people want a little bit of Rupert’s soul?
A: See, you’ve gotta understand right now I’m — you’re never gonna get rich working social programs and mentoring kids and rehabbing properties to give back to low income families — you’re never gonna get rich doing what I’m doing. And now I’m looking at taking in the next few years and setting up my family and generations to come in money. I’m looking at, almost, well, I hate to say it, but I’m looking at selling myself right now, too. So if people want a little piece of me and I can win and they can win and it’s a good thing …
Q: Do you ever wish you were plain ol’ Rupert, like before the Survivor phenomena?
A: I’m still plain ol’ Rupert, but now everybody knows me.