Survivor has often been referred to as the ultimate metaphor for life, an unfiltered contest of strength and stamina versus congeniality and cunning. With six seasons at the helm of the Australian incarnation, JONATHAN LAPAGLIA knows a thing or two about the strategies and ‘gameplay’ that will set you up for success, regardless of your habitat.
ONE OF REALITY TV’S most compelling franchises, Survivor has achieved enduring popularity, no doubt due to the parallels between island life and, well, reality. It’s a game played out in the elements, and yet the contestants’ challenges, conversations and alliances could just as easily occur among colleagues in a CBD boardroom.
You could argue Survivor’s format trumps even Big Brother’s as a social experiment – survival, after all, is the most basic human instinct. But what makes a survivor?
Through an incredible 40 US seasons, the format has seen contestants divided into teams to battle it out for the title of ‘Sole Survivor’ in an effort to answer this very question. Often grouped according to socioeconomic status, age and even, controversially, by race, the contestants’ trials and tribulations provide an extraordinary insight into the nature of community, human interaction and the hardwired drive for supremacy.
The current sixth season of the rebooted Australian series will again adopt a theme, pitting ‘brawn’ against ‘brain’. It’s perhaps one of the more relatable contests for young Australian men as they weigh up traditional male stereotypes and fresher, more nuanced conceptions of masculinity.
Interestingly, returning host Jonathan LaPaglia seems to think that perhaps neither brains nor brawn alone do a survivor make. Rather, LaPaglia believes the key to modern-day survival lies in remaining socially adept.
“You’re trying to navigate your way through this social world,” reflects LaPaglia from the set of the latest season, in the harsh Queensland outback. “You have to be socially aware and make sure you don’t tread on people’s toes to work your way up.”
In the Survivor universe, LaPaglia would feature very near the top, rivalled only by US host Jeff Probst and the exotic locales. Both hosts command as much admiration as the best players themselves. If a season of Survivor is indeed life in miniature, then LaPaglia, given his half-decade at the helm, must have some first-hand knowledge of the attributes common to winners.
LaPaglia is somewhat the hybrid Survivor contestant: a former career as an emergency doctor ticks the brains box, while our photoshoot provides clear evidence of his formidable brawn. Yet as anyone who has had the good fortune to meet him will attest, it’s the self-identified ‘social’ game that Lapaglia has truly mastered. His colleagues continually sing his praises, former contestants gush, and further removed, fans can’t get enough of him onscreen.
In person, he’s humble, amicable and vulnerable, showing equal empathy for all contestants on the show. (Conversely, Probst is notorious for playing favourites.) It’s no surprise LaPaglia has risen to the top without stepping on any of those toes he’s acutely aware of.
Perhaps Lapaglia has picked up a tip or two on how to play the game of life from watching contestants battle it out in the elements. But that seems unlikely, because the guy exudes authenticity: he’s not a game player, but rather the real deal.
Then again, that’s exactly what a master of the game would have you believe …
Survivor’s a little bit different this year, back with a Brains vs Brawn theme, and filming in the outback. How has that changed the game?
The location has had a real impact on the game, more than I anticipated, actually. I mean, the conditions are so different from tropical Fiji. Fiji is hot, but I think it’s a little more difficult to be surviving here. It’s really tough out here. It’s harsh. Obviously the temperature is way hotter here than in Fiji. It’s a different kind of heat. It’s an intense, searing heat that just cooks your brain. I mean, I’m out there for an hour and I’m a blubbering mess. I can’t even speak after about an hour in that heat.
That has been particularly difficult for the contestants. They’re exposed to that 24/7. And then at night time sometimes, because it’s desert, it’s the complete opposite. It becomes freezing cold. So they’re really dealing with the extremes.
The other thing is there’s not much for them to forage. There’s no real way for them to survive off the land. In Fiji, there’d be coconuts, bananas, papaya. There’s none of that here. So that’s an issue. In Fiji, fish were plentiful. Here, not so much. I think they’re getting some yabbies and stuff like that in creeks, but it’s been a big difference.
And then, of course, you’ve got the wildlife. There’s a plethora of deadly snakes and spiders that could kill you at every turn. So I think it’s been really tough for the contestants. Certainly tough for us from a production point of view, operating under these conditions. And for that, I think it’s added a whole new level for the game.
With the new concept Brains vs Brawn, what constitutes ‘brains’?
We have some people that academically are well-accomplished. We have doctors, we have a researcher, we have various other academics. But then with that, we have a politician. It’s not just book smart. There’s also street-smart people mixed in with that as well. It’s kind of a cross-section.
It’s the same thing. Some of them are personal trainers. We have a couple of bodybuilders. We have a pro surfer. We have a correctional officer. So it encompasses not just physical strength, but also mental strength.
But having said that, like every season, when we introduce a theme, it’s really just a jumping-off point to tell a story, to start a narrative. And the truth is that there’s crossover even between the tribes. It’s kind of an artificial separation because there are people on the Brains who have physical strength and there are people on the Brawn who have the brains to navigate the game.
So the truth is you need both of those to make it in this game. I think that’s what you really start to see – that both tribes have elements of the other. In actual fact, that’s not the complete story, because we’re still missing one crucial element and that is the social game. In many ways, I think the social game is probably the most important part of Survivor. Even though they’re doing well, even though they’re really living up to their namesake in tribes, you really start to see that social game come out. Because it has to. You can’t progress in this game without it.
A previous theme was Champions vs Contenders. When contestants were put in those boxes and given those labels, those qualities seem to amplify. Have you found that happening again with these tribes?
Yeah, look, you’re right, and they run with them. But like I said, if you really look closely, they have both aspects. The characteristics really cross over between the two. We’re coming close to the end of the game and they’re still talking that, “We want a Brawn to win or we want a Brain to win”.
I think it’s hilarious, because I don’t see the difference between them anymore.
Entering your sixth season as host, what are the biggest lessons you’ve learned from watching the game play out firsthand?
I think if you look at Survivor superficially, it’s all about muscle. But there’s a lot more to it. It’s a very strategic game. But what we’ve had more over the six years is the social game, which is much more subtle. The premise of the game is that you need to vote people out, put them on the jury in such a way that they’ll vote for you in the end. I think that requires a very special social touch. So I guess that’s the biggest lesson for me: that it’s the social game that’s the most important.
It’s clear that your own rig is in unbelievable shape. How do you typically train outside of filming?
I’ve been training a long time, I guess, probably since I was like 16. I started when I was a goalkeeper in soccer and when I got to the age of 16, I had to move up a division, and I ended up being smaller than everyone else. All the guys seemed to be a lot bigger at the time. So I started training more and it kind of started from there. I’ve just been consistent ever since.
I’m kind of old school. It’s alternating weights one day with running the next. And a rest day every, like, five or six days. But that’s it. I’ve tried some yoga when I can get myself motivated, but otherwise it’s just old school weights and running.
And how does that change when you’re on set in the outback?
Well, it’s the temperature that makes it difficult to run and also the schedule is so brutal. It’s just hard to find the time. But I still try and squeeze in whatever I can. Where I’m staying, there’s a small gym with some weights.
Is your diet pretty clean, generally, no matter where you are?
Yes. I’m not crazy about my diet. I eat what I want. I just make sure it’s relatively balanced in terms of carbohydrates, proteins and fat. I used to be a doctor, so I have a science background, so I have a rough idea what the body needs, but I’m not maniacal about it. I still eat sweets and stuff like that. I’m not counting calories. I’m not weighing stuff. I’m not doing any of that stuff. I guess it’s kind of intuitive, you know?
I really don’t do any special diet or any of that water loading and loading up with sodium and then stripping away the water and all that sort of stuff. That just seems like a lot of hard work. It’s hard enough training.
This is the first time I’ve had a kitchen in six seasons of Survivor. I’m actually enjoying that because I can prepare my own meals. Normally I have to rely on catering and stuff like that. It becomes tricky and a bit unhealthy. So I’m enjoying the fact that I have my own kitchen.
Will you return to LA after Survivor?
Honestly, I’m going to go back. My mother lives in Brisbane. I’m going to go visit her for four or five days. I have a couple of days to do stuff for the show. Then I’m going to head back to LA, because it’s where my family is. And honestly, I think I’m just going to fall over for a month. I’m so exhausted from the shoot. It’s been real tough for the contestants. It’s been tough for us, too. So I’m going to fall over for a couple of months and try and recover and then go from there.
You’re under a lot of pressure – time pressure and performance pressure. Do you have any go-to strategies or ways to manage your mental health?
I don’t. I wish I did. I wish I was better with stuff. I wish I was better at meditating and stuff like that. But honestly, I know some people, when I tell them [about the stress I’m under], it’s like, “Really?”
But I’m working nonstop, from the minute I get up in the morning to the minute I go to bed at night. I’m in front of the camera, or if I’m not, I’m preparing to get in front of the camera and all the material. I don’t even feel like I have time to take care of my mental health. It feels like it’s a sprint – a three-month sprint until the end. Then I end up being a basket case at the end of it. That’s why I go and see Mum.
Honestly, I don’t have a lot of time just to ruminate. It’s just coming at me so fast that you’ve got to sink or swim. You’ve just got to get on with it. It’s not until it’s all said and done that it starts to hit you. Like, “Whoa!” I feel like I’ve been hit by a Mack truck.