Five Questions with Wendell Holland, winner of "Survivor: Ghost Island"

James Demer

James Demer: Wendell, congratulations on winning season 36 of Survivor. So many people ask me if the show is “real” and if the contestants are allowed to eat when the cameras aren’t rolling. I’ll confirm that these contestants suffer harder than humans are meant to suffer, and starvation is just part of it. As a crew member we were instructed to NEVER eat in front of a contestant (in fact we were instructed to never talk to contestants).

Was starvation difficult for you and did you ever resent crew members for being able to eat or smelling like food?

Wendell Holland: Great question. Folks ask me all the time whether or not Survivor is real. I tell them that a picture is worth a thousand words, and just show them one of my Instagram photos where my ribs are showing and my face is all bony. I lost 26 lbs out there! The first week or two was brutal. That’s when I really noticed my hunger. But, as the days went on, I think my body adjusted to the food deprivation. Yes, it was extremely difficult, but I think that my body somehow accepted that it just wasn’t going to get as much food as it’s used to.

To add another wrinkle to the equation, while you’re a castaway starving on an island, having to interact with crew members that are well-fed can sometimes be tricky. The crew consists of some of the hardest workers I’ve ever met. They’re trekking around the jungle just as we are! If we want to go for a dip in the ocean, they gotta get wet, too! But, they seem well-fit, and well nourished for the occasion. While we are withering away, they're surely eating well. I appreciate how professional they are, I rarely got a word out of them, and I never heard them talking about food to one another. That would have been the worst!

I do, however, remember one specific occasion. It seemed as though on the island our sense of smell was particularly sensitive to outside fragrances, because it was so rare that we smelled certain things while out there. One day a crew member passed me, and somehow I smelled his breath. It smelled just like one of my favorite candies in the world, pink starburst. That was the one single time that anything like that happened, and man, oh man, that split second killed me. I was so jealous and I just wanted to be able to have just one of those. Shoot, I’d have settled for an orange one!

Wendell Holland Talks “Lockdowns” on Survivor

James Demer working on the set of Survivor

James Demer: One of the ways Survivor keeps interactions between contestants genuine is by putting them in “lockdown” when the cameras aren’t rolling. This means no talking or non-verbal communication between contestants when traveling to and from Tribal Council or Challenges. As a sound guy on the show, lockdown meant that I could finally take a break from holding the long, heavy boompole in front of me and in your faces. It was also a mental break from the technical aspects of capturing secret whispers in passing between contestants, and the brain taxing, hours long discussions about food and family that never made it to air.

Tell me about your experiences with lockdown. Was it a time for you to self-reflect and strategize? Was it frustrating? Was it a relief? Did you ever cheat and sneak a sideways glance and nod at a tribe member?

Wendell Holland: Oh, good ole lockdown. We had some producers that were so strict about it (understandably) and they’d instill the fear of God in us should we whisper anything to anyone. I appreciated the time for a couple reasons. I used my time on lockdown to hone-in on a few things, namely, whatever I needed at the time. Sometimes on those long boat rides I’d sleep! I’d catch up on the sleep that I wasn’t properly getting through the night. Other times I’d reflect. I’d think about who I was playing for, my family, my loved ones, my community. That would help me focus on the task at hand. Sometimes I’d meditate, and sometimes I’d pray.

I remember one particular time on lockdown near the end of the game when I was in the boat sitting next to my best friend and big brother out there, Domenick Abbate. All the remaining castaways truly believed that the family/loved ones visit was coming up soon at one of the next challenges. We’d all spoken about who was coming from our families, and we were all in eager anticipation. On the boat ride a deep feeling of love and excitement came over me while my eyes were closed. One single tear rolled down my cheek, as I thought about my father— the loved one who would visit me should I make it that far. I’m awakened by a tough punch to my thigh from my big bro Dom, and a smirk that basically told me that I needed to man up! And, I appreciated it and knew exactly what he was doing. That’s a fond memory of our time and friendship out there.

Battling His Heightened Senses on Reality TV Show: Survivor

James Demer: Crew members who filmed were divided into two groups- Challenge and Reality. I did two seasons of Challenge crew and learned that my true love was Reality crew. Being on the beach with you at your camp felt like I was an anthropologist studying an experiment in humanity. It was so hard and so rewarding. My favorite shift was the early shift because we would wake up at 3:15am, get on a boat and ride to your island under an explosion of stars, then film you all waking up. Sometimes you woke up peacefully, and sometimes WHAM! You’d start strategizing before your eyes were even open. I loved both scenarios.

Tell me about your experience waking up on the island.

Wendell Holland: On the island I was always one of the first ones to wake up. I think being out there my senses were heightened—as I described earlier I was able to smell candy on the breath of the crew—I also think my sense of hearing was heightened. I’d be up before sunrise pretty much every day, with no problem. I wasn’t sure what would wake me up so early every day, but oftentimes I’d be up early building little things around the camp. I built a place for our tools, multiple seating areas, a pantry for our kitchen items, numerous swings, and many other things. Domenick, my partner in crime, was up early as well. The majority of the days out there one of us was up first, and the second was soon to follow. It really worked out well for us because we would sit together and strategize and figure out a game plan before anyone else was up.

One day, late in the game I realized what it was that allowed me to wake up before sunrise while the majority of the others slept. It was the production crew coming in on their speedboats. The crew wouldn’t pull up near our camp, so there were no loud boat noises. They pulled up a ways away from our camp. It was the faintest, most subtle humming that I heard, and that was what my body was trained to hear and wake up to every morning. If I heard something that faint while asleep here in Philadelphia there’s no chance it would wake me!

What Kept Wendell Strong for 39 Days of Survivor

James Demer: I remember working on season 29 when Natalie Anderson won. She said something interesting in an interview towards the end of the season when she hadn’t been on many (if any) rewards and was asked if she was bitter that she hadn’t had any luxuries like food, a shower, or even a blanket. Her answer was that these luxuries are just momentary blips in 39 days, which is also just a sliver in time. She said she wasn’t on Survivor to eat hamburgers or take showers, she came to win. I think about her strength and wisdom often in my own life when things get hard.

Was there something that you said to yourself to keep you strong for 39 days? How did you persevere through the dark times?

Wendell Holland: Before the game I constantly told myself, “you know what you’re signing up for.” I’m a big fan, and I’ve seen every season. I’ve seen medical evacuations. I’ve seen castaways extremely sunburnt, I’ve seen infections, hundreds of bug bites, cyclones, the list goes on. Gastro-intestinal issues. This isn’t an easy game, evidenced by some folks that end up quitting. So, willfully and knowingly accepting and entering this game, I told myself I can’t complain about the conditions. Yes, I’ll starve. 34 winners starved in 35 seasons before mine (there was one two-time winner, the Queen, Sandra Diaz-Twine). No, I won’t win every reward challenge. Yes, it’ll be hard under a full night of direct torrentially down-pouring rain. But this is exactly what I signed up for. So, when conditions got hard, I told myself, “this is what you signed up for.”

Fortunately, I started on a few very strong tribes through the merge. I only saw Tribal Council once pre-merge. That in and of itself is a morale booster. After the merge I had ties with many castaways, and a very strong covert alliance that ultimately made it all the way to the end of the game. I won some individual challenges, and got my hands on some advantages. Being in such strong, powerful positions for the majority of the game certainly made a lot of the other things a bit easier. The more rewards I won the more I ate. The more I ate, the stronger I became, and that allowed me to compete harder and see things clearer. That helped me win more, it was circular. Though my path to the end was difficult, there were things that made it easier, and it probably wasn’t as difficult a path as some others.

James Demer: Not only are you a Survivor winner, but you’re a former lawyer and a furniture maker! Tell me about your furniture company.

Wendell Holland: The furniture company I own is called Beve Unlimited. We source reclaimed wood and barn wood and turn it into beautiful furniture. I got my start in designing and building furniture when I was a law clerk for a Philadelphia judge and I needed a bed frame. Always resourceful and crafty, I decided to build my own bed, and it turned out great! After that, I began building more and more things for friends and family, and eventually through word of mouth and social media I gained clients.

Now I work with two of my closest friends, and we build and deliver furniture all over the country, but mainly up and down the east coast. Our hashtag is #LetsTalkAboutYourBed, because we started with beds. But now we build everything- desks, tables, shelves, barn doors, you name it!

I love, love, love music, and I’m always listening to something. Music keeps me moving. On a daily basis my crew and I build furniture out of our shop. We have a large basement area that we do certain kinds of cuts out of, and we have a large storefront area where we stain and finish projects. Every single day we listen to one of our playlists.

We keep a DemerBox in storefront where we do finishing and clients visit. DemerBox is a stand-out piece. It’s a functional piece of art that works perfectly in my shop. I’ve always considered myself an artist, and currently my medium is reclaimed wood.

My “gallery” so-to-speak is my shop. But, I didn’t want to have the standard dusty dingy shop. I wanted my space to reflect my creative side, so my shop is full of hanging art, creative lighting, and cool displays of our tools. Our properly placed, bright orange DemerBox is the perfect fit for our shop. It’s fulfilled our need for a quality sound system, while also fitting in seamlessly amongst our other creative displays.

DemerBox is speakers are built exactly for someone like me. I went to the DemerBox official Instagram page and saw all the different places people traveled with them. I saw the durability. I saw DemerBoxes that had been through it all. Scuffed up. Nicked, chipped, battered, and bruised, but still beautiful and functional. I can tell that the battle wounds on the DemerBoxes tell stories. And, I’m sure mine will have quite the story to tell as I use it for years to come.

1 comment

  • Wonderful interview!! I so enjoyed reading it.
    Becky Huckle on

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