A year ago, after being branded a traitor by his fellow “Survivor” castaways who voted him out before he could make his case for the $1 million prize, John Cochran said he was done with reality TV. But when the producers of the program, set to debut its 26th season Feb. 13, came calling again this past summer, Cochran couldn’t say no.
“My mom wasn’t a fan of me playing again,” said Cochran, now 26 and about to graduate from Harvard Law School. “She said I lasted longer than I had any right to the first time, and claimed I’d be kicked off first if I played again because I have a bad reputation.”
Cochran was ostracized by his tribemates and was inundated with hateful messages after he switched tribal allegiances in an unsuccessful bid to save his own skin on Survivor South Pacific. But he made it further in the game than a dozen other castaways, and his love-him-or-hate-him, sweater-vest wearing geek persona made him the season’s most memorable character, thanks in part to a record 56 “confessional” interviews that aired during the season. The student of the game who once won a dean’s scholar prize at Harvard for an essay he wrote on Survivor’s jury system had a taste of the competition and wanted more.
“I’m not going to have many more opportunities like this,” said Cochran, who earned a mid-five-figure payout for being on the show. “I’ve been a fan of Survivor for 13 years. That’s half my life, and I’d be betraying myself if I didn’t take another shot at it.”
The upcoming season was filmed this past summer in the Caramoan Islands in The Philippines, but Cochran and the other players didn’t realize the theme of the season was Fans versus Favorites until he arrived on the set.
“I thought it would be some unflattering label,” Cochran admitted. “Favorites seemed like a misnomer.”
When CBS released the names of the returning “favorites” in January, many fans of the show who had been expecting the network to bring back popular players such as Boston Rob, Ozzy or Rupert were outraged by the network’s casting choices.
“I’m already getting nasty messages before the game’s even started,” he said. “No death threats yet, although I’m sure those will come eventually.”
A year after appearing on the show, Cochran said people recognize him when he’s in Fairfax County but not as much at Harvard, where the students are either too serious or too cool to watch reality TV. He hasn’t secured a job yet and thinks the fact that he spent two summers on Survivor might have set his career back.
“The summer is when law students get summer associate positions, and that’s where you end up working after you graduate,” he said. “But I’ve spent two summers doing reality television in lieu of getting a job, so that’s probably why I don’t have a job yet.”
He still doesn’t have a girlfriend — he claims he’s popular in the cougar demographic but not his own — but says he’s “getting better” at chatting up women, thanks to the confidence he gained from being on Survivor.
He said he’ll probably return to his parents’ home in Oakton after graduation, at least for a while.
“I’ll go crazy if I have to spend too much time at my parents’ house,” he said.
Cochran told Entertainment Weekly he “brought virtually nothing to the table” and was “bad in challenges” “annoying” and “a traitor.” One of his former tribemates thinks he’ll either do very well or very poorly in the upcoming season.
“I think that Cochran is going to be in trouble early,” said Benjamin “Coach” Wade, who helped convince Cochran to defect to his tribe in Survivor South Pacific. “But if he can make it through the beginning, he should do really well in the game.”
For his part, Cochran said he’s taking a fresh approach into this season he hopes will pay dividends.
“You can’t have a single strategy going into it. You have to have a willingness to adapt to the situation,” he said. “I know that my reputation coming into the game wasn’t especially good because I’ve proven that I’m disloyal. It didn’t work out for me, so I’d have to be an idiot to make the same faux pas the second time around.”
Cochran said viewers will see a calmer, more relaxed player this time around, but said he can’t change his personality or how he looks. And like it or not, his trademark sweater vest will be back again this year.
“You aren’t going to see a huge physical transformation with me,” he said. “I can’t take off my sweater vest and flex some rippling muscles, as much as I’d like that to be the case.”