The 2000s: A New Reality premieres Sunday, July 12, and Monday, July 13, at 9/8CT on National Geographic Channel.
He was Survivor’s first million-dollar winner. The first and only to find out that he was the victor at the final tribal council. Depending on how you remember him, Richard Hatch is also the guy who invented the now tried and true Survivor tactic of forming alliances. The naked guy. The snake that ate the rat like nature — and Sue Hawk —intended.
On Sunday night, National Geographic Channel catches up with Hatch in its absorbing two-night event, The 2000s: A New Reality, which, in part, examines how Survivor swept record numbers of people away from the Bush-Gore presidential contest and into an era of reality TV.
We talked with Hatch recently about the impact of Survivor on the television landscape — and the lasting repercussions on his life today, including a ten-year battle with the IRS over charges of tax evasion that he says are the direct result of his reality-TV fame.
CGM: We all know the television and pop culture phenomenon that Survivor became, but can you tell me about the earliest days of becoming a contestant — was the show you actually made the show you thought you signed up for?
Richard Hatch: Yeah it really was. I don’t think any of us really knew exactly what would unfold, but even before I was selected, people were telling me -— my mom particularly — “Hey, I just saw an ad for a show that they’re putting together just for you.” So they knew this was right up my alley: psychology and travel. I spent a month camping in the Talkeetna Mountains in Alaska, months in Maine, months in Canada — so I would have paid to do something like this. We didn’t have any details, and as we got details about what the challenge would be, it just became more and more exciting. What unfolded was clearly what I expected. Nobody else did.
CGM: At what point in the process were you aware of the fact that what viewers were going to be watching was going to be absolutely unlike anything we had seen before?
Richard Hatch: Fact is, it is why I applied. I thought to myself that this is what I’ve been missing in television. I wanted something meaningful yet entertaining and this was that. “Reality” televsion has been a misnomer all along; it’s really unscripted drama, but still. What this drama I perceived was about was real. It was about human interaction, who we are, how we perceived one another, how we would respond to those perceptions. What viewers would see would cause them to react in ways that cause them to be introspective. Wondering what they would do, or wouldn’t do, that we had done or hadn’t done or said. I knew it was really special. I told producers that this was going to be huge. Of course I couldn’t know, I didn’t know how huge it would become, but I believed it was going to be a very, very powerful new form of TV.
Channel Guide Magazine: You say in the 2000s that you believed everything about you was perfect for Survivor. Given that you weren’t entirely certain of what was going to be required of you when you landed on that island, can you expand a little bit on what you meant by that?
Richard Hatch: Yeah I’m just perfect — that sounds like I have no ego right? “I was perfect for this!” [Laughs] Sure, I can expand on it. The camping thing was one of the things I meant. It’s where I get my centeredness. It’s where I get rejuvenated is in the woods. The idea of being stranded on a deserted island or whatever else, that’s just heaven to me. Now you have the people, that was stressful, but there’s a lot that happens that’s good in that stressful process for me too. The psychology of it, that’s my background. I have a Bachelors degrees in Applied Behavioral Sciences and Management, which is psychology, and a Masters now in education. So that’s me, people. I’ve always been a people watcher and this is what Survivor is when it comes down to it. It isn’t necessarily a survivalist show – although it’s a lot harder than it even appears in TV. It’s about people. It’s a social dynamic. I’ve been so introspective since I was born and just trying to figure us all out, and interested in that, that I think that’s where that comment would have come from.
CGM: Kelly Wiglesworth says in The 2000s that she was studying up on how to butcher a pig, how to make soap, but — largely because of you — viewers quickly learned that Survivor was this kind of metaphor for life more than how to survive on a desert island for x amount of time. Were you aware of that fact from the get-go — that the psychology part was going to be of the utmost importance, as much as learning how to make a fire and eat stuff in the jungle?
RH: Actually if not more so — and yes I was. Yeah I think much more. I think I knew that all of that was extraneous. When I was 18, I went on an Outward Bound life project that my physics teacher and mentor found it. During that life-changing event, 28 days in the Maine wilderness, I realized that all of that stuff was extraneous. All the physical stuff, the flies, the camping, the fires, the hunger – what was going on among us, the dynamics, the people was profound. I believed right from the get-go that was very, very likely to have the larger impact on us during the show. Literally from before we spoke to one another, that was what I was focused on. Who are these people? Non-verbally, I was looking at them while we were on the boat to the island, never having spoken to one another, observing. Trying to gather as much data as I could about each of the people with whom I might compete.
CGM: Did you know then when you got to the island, or how soon afterward, that you were going to adopt this alliance tactic and who you were going to form that alliance with?
Richard Hatch: Before I was on the island. On the boat before we spoke, I had already decided. I can’t remember exactly how long it was, maybe within hours of being on the island, I found myself sitting in a tree watching these lunatics running around with no direction, no sense of what they were doing anything for. And Sue, a self-described redneck, comes up and challenges me about my trying to organize things and I thought, check. Right there immediately. Adapt. Switch. I can’t just tell these people, “Look you’re being idiots. We’ve got to decide how we’re moving forward.” I have to take a different track. From that second I knew that flexibility was key. That I had to literally adapt as I learned about each person despite what I might think would be the most intelligent thing to do.
I made Rudy a part of that alliance before he even knew it or before I knew his name was Rudy. Just by observing him on the boat. Rudy is a Navy SEAL who was, without having spoken a word, easy for me pick out as reliable, straightforward. If he said something, it wasn’t going to be manipulative.I expected his brusqueness. His simple, straightforward honesty was important to me. He wasn’t interested in watching any of the rest of us. It was really, really fun to watch and I knew he could be a very important ally.
CGM: I’m from Milwaukee as well and Sue’s is from a suburb of Milwaukee and you think Midwesterners are nice and resourceful and she’s going to kill it based on those things — and she kind of did. But to watch the things that we pride ourselves about actually play out on this island was a secondary social study to watching Survivor. It was fascinating to watch.
Richard Hatch: I was equally fascinated in the midst of it. I recognized right from there, right from my interaction with her, that it really didn’t matter what each of us thought was best or, in fact, truth. It’s something I’m writing a book about — what is actually true. What mattered more, was how each of us was perceived and how our perceptions of one another were affecting one another. It was an exhausting psychological engagement that I found utterly fascinating.
CGM: There’s only so much the producers can produce about Survivor. They can, like you said, put you guys though the psychological testing, but they can’t tell how you’re going to react in this circumstance, they can’t predict the weather…
Richard Hatch: It’s why Mark Burnett couldn’t get it approved. He went to every network and to CBS three times, at least, before getting their approval. Nobody was willing to take that kind of risk — for just the reasons you described. You can’t know. I get questions today, 15 years later — “So where were you sleeping when the cameras were off? What did they feed you?” People don’t really get that it was real. That we were dropped off and the cameras were turned on. There were many problems as I’ve talked all along about. Kelly’s cheating and then the food being provided and stuff — but it was real. It was not made up. It wasn’t intentionally done — the show I mean — to defraud audiences. It was us interacting in real ways. Those emotions were real. Those people who were overly emotional, Sue Hawk, were literally overly emotional and they could never have known what would have come out of any of us.
CGM: The miniseries notes that by the end, hackers were trying to figure out who was going to win so the producers had to thwart them …
Richard Hatch: It the last time Survivor ever filmed straight through to exposing the winner. So I’m the only winner to have ever sat in the tribal council on-site and learned that I won. From that day afterwards, CBS lost their minds with what they encountered with respect to people trying to figure out who it was that won. We had a closed tribal council — there was only one camera guy on the boom or something — who the heck knows. Even the people there weren’t told. I had no interest in sharing the secret no matter how much they threatened us to stay quiet. I wanted to lie to people so that they could enjoy it all along anyway, the way I enjoyed doing it. But it was, as you just described, unbelievable watching our collective society lose its mind trying to say who should and shouldn’t — the word “deserved” — who deserved it and who didn’t. How unprepared people were for the rules of the game, and how they quickly decided who we contestants were as people based on our choices — which were based on their misperceptions of what playing a game by its rules were.
I want to say there was a figurative roar and vibration that I felt as my name was turned over. No! People really, truly, just didn’t want that one. Not him. Not after all that he did to those …
CGM: “Not the snake!”
Richard Hatch: I love, love, loved it. Of course I told my family I didn’t win and told them, “You need to watch because it’s great. I’m between second and eighth.” I have twin brothers who were in college — literally their entire dorms rose, came out and filled the quad, and were screaming because they’d all thought I wasn’t going to be the winner and they just lost their mind. Those kinds of things are memories I’ll never ever lose.
CGM: The 2000s also touches on how this was also ushering in the era where television’s homophobia had gotten pretty old. You were very open about you sexuality right from the start — and throwing in the nudity thing — was that part because you were thinking that this really should not be relevant or was it also part of your tactics?
Richard Hatch: This is a great question. This is why I’m so thrilled with Nat Geo doing this, The 2000s, The ’90s, The ’80s — because you’re asking that question from the perspective of someone living now. I learned more abruptly and more powerfully than I’ve learned anything else in my entire life — and I was old when I did the show, 39, and I’m 54 now — that my perception of what’s right and how boring it is to talk about who’s gay or who isn’t was nonsense. That the majority of our country was still extraordinarily bigoted and powerfully impacted — negatively — by being exposed to someone who was really uninterested in what other people thought about who he was or what his sexuality was and how unimportant, uninteresting, a non-issue that was for me. I learned more than anything else, that I needed to care, I should care, about what other people think because most of us. Most of the people in my gay community weren’t as confident and healthy as I thought I was with not caring what people thought. They’ve been subjected to abuses that I’ve never imagined, until then I was subjected to them after the show.
CGM: Perhaps because you flew in the face of people’s stereotypes of how gay men behaved.
Richard Hatch: Agreed. People on both sides — gay people, straight people — who had ideas about what a gay person ought to be based on what they thought gay people were, instead of what I think more people understand now. That we who are gay are as diverse in our personalities as are any people. Yes, I may not wear a pink tutu or I may not have interest in effeminate things. So what? Some of us do. Some of my wonderful friends are effeminate, but I’m not. It just didn’t matter to me, and now it matters more because I see what people are subjected to when others disapprove of who they are. It’s been a truly amazing journey on both sides. I got gay people writing to me about not being gay enough. I got straight people writing to me about how dare I. My blurred dot was bigger than all of the rest of the contestants bathing suits put together. The idea in their head that I was around 8 people on a deserted island naked made people crumble. I mean they couldn’t grasp it. It was really something.
CGM: Obviously laws are laws, but do you feel like — because of your infamy from the show, who you were and because of who this show made you — that winning Survivor exacerbated your tax-evasion cases?
Richard Hatch: No, it didn’t exacerbate it. It was it. I’ve never evaded a cent of tax in my entire life. I’ve never attempted to evade taxes. That’s what I was convicted of, attempting to evade taxes, and sentenced to more time in prison than anyone in US history for the amounts they claimed. It had nothing to do with taxes or anything else. I’ve never evaded a penny. In fact, they didn’t even assess my tax situation for 2000 until 2010, a year after I was out of prison. People have no idea how broken the tax system is. It’s really, really, really, really awful — but again, a learning experience. One I would have preferred perhaps not to know, but that’s really not me either. I don’t like saying that I wouldn’t want to know something that’s true. Now that I do, hopefully I can expose it a little.
The 2000s: A New Reality premieres Sunday, July 12, at 9/8CT on National Geographic Channel.