Since Survivor premiered in the U.S. in May 2000, the reality competition has continued to be a great success for CBS. However, there have been plenty of controversies on the show along the way.
The uproar started from the get-go, when Richard Hatch walked around camp fully naked throughout much of the first season, Survivor: Borneo. However, he still went on to win the grand prize.
Various scandals followed as the years went on, but perhaps the biggest came in 2017 during season 34, Survivor: Game Changers, when Jeff Varner outed Zeke Smith as transgender during tribal council. Two years later, controversy struck again when Dan Spilo became the first castaway in the show’s history to be ejected from the game after he allegedly behaved inappropriately with his female costars.
“It has been an unprecedented season,” host Jeff Probst later told Entertainment Weekly. “Complex social issues were woven into the game in a way we have never seen before. With our contestants’ welfare at the forefront, we have spent a lot of time discussing every layer of the situation with human resources, diversity and inclusion representatives, show therapists, lawyers, publicists, and standards and practices. We all worked diligently throughout the entire process to make the right decisions and portray an accurate depiction of what took place. We have learned a lot and it will inform our process moving forward.”
Scroll down to revisit some of the most talked-about Survivor controversies ever.
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Jeff Varner Outs Zeke Smith as Transgender
In an attempt to save himself at tribal council, Jeff outed Zeke as transgender on Survivor: Game Changes in 2017. Jeff accused Zeke of being deceitful by hiding his identity, mortifying the rest of their tribe. Jeff was unanimously voted out, while viewers hailed Zeke as a hero for his graceful response.
2 of 9
Dan Spilo Is Ejected for Allegedly Inappropriate Behavior
Several female contestants accused Dan of behaving inappropriately and touching them without consent on Survivor: Island of the Idols in 2019. Kelle Kim led the movement, but she was sent home shortly after. Producers issued a formal warning to Dan, but he remained in the game for the time being. Later in the season, Dan was ejected after an undisclosed off-camera incident that did not involve another player.
3 of 9
Jonny Fairplay Lies About His Grandma Dying
In what Jeff Probst called “the greatest lie in Survivor history,” John “Jonny Fairplay” Dalton falsely told his Survivor: Pearl Islands costars in 2003 that his grandmother had died in an attempt to gain their sympathy. It apparently worked, as he made it to the final three.
4 of 9
Colton Cumbie’s Controversial Comments
Colton Cumbie made prejudiced comments about several of his Survivor: One World tribemates in 2012, most notoriously calling Bill Posley “ghetto trash” and telling him to get a job. When the topic of race came up later at tribal council, Colton argued that he was not racist because he has black people in his life. He then cited his housekeeper as an example.
5 of 9
Richard Hatch Rubs His Naked Body Against Sue Hawk
Richard, who infamously had a penchant for walking around camp naked, rubbed his exposed genitals on Sue Hawk during an immunity challenge on Survivor: All-Stars in 2004. Sue was so disturbed by the incident that she ended up voluntarily leaving the show shortly after.
6 of 9
‘Cook Islands’ Tribes Divided by Race
The show came under fire in 2006 after CBS announced that the tribes on Survivor: Cook Islands would initially be divided by race. Probst insisted the decision “came from the criticism that Survivor was not ethnically diverse enough.” During the reunion, contestants argued that it helped disprove stereotypes.
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Colby Donaldson Takes Coral From a Historic Reef
Executive producer Mark Burnett issued an apology in 2001 after Colby Donaldson removed coral from the Great Barrier Reef during a reward trip on Survivor: The Australian Outback. Colby’s actions violated Australian law, as did the production team’s helicopter that flew around protected sea bird rookeries.
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Caleb Reynolds’ Medical Evacuation in the Heat
During an hourlong reward challenge on Survivor: Kaôh Rōng in 2016, Caleb Reynolds lost consciousness in the sweltering heat in Cambodia. The show’s medical team noticed that his heart rate had dropped and determined his condition was too serious to remain in the game, so he was medically evacuated. Probst later said the moment was “the most frightened” he had ever been on set.
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Denise Martin Lies About Losing Her Job
Denise Martin raised eyebrows on Survivor: China in 2007 when she claimed during the reunion show that she had been displaced from her job as a lunch lady after returning home from filming. Burnett wanted to help Denise out, so he gave her $50,000. The school district in question later refuted Denise’s claims, prompting her to publicly apologize and donate the money to charity.