When Sandra Diaz-Twine auditioned for 2003’s “Survivor: Pearl Islands,” she had three goals in mind: “The million, the million and the million.”
At the time, she was living in “run-down military housing” and had just won a lottery for a new home. Little did she know she would go on to win two more lotteries as the reality program’s only double “Sole Survivor” millionaire.
Now, for the series’ 39th season — “Island of the Idols,” which premieres Sept. 25 on CBS — Diaz-Twine and fellow “Survivor” legend Rob Mariano are returning to the show once more, this time as mentors. With a combined six seasons, three wins and 200-plus days in the game between them, the two have made careers out of “Survivor.” And they have much to teach.
“Twenty years ago, when I first started this, it was never my intention,” said Mariano — better known as “Boston Rob” — of his “Survivor” fame. “I never set out to make a name for myself. I was a kid from Boston who wanted to go on a TV show and try to win a million dollars.”
Mariano’s first “Survivor” outing wasn’t quite as successful as Diaz-Twine’s million-dollar debut. But despite being voted out seventh in 2002’s “Survivor: Marquesas,” his candid camp testimonials and trademark Boston accent earned him fan-favorite status — arguably the most important form of reality TV currency. On a stubborn quest to clinch first prize, Mariano competed again as an all-star in three more seasons, finally coming out on top nine years later in “Survivor: Redemption Island.”
“For a long time, it was just — I wanted to win,” Mariano said. “That was the goal. And to be quite honest, I was done after ‘Redemption Island.’”
Until longtime host and executive producer Jeff Probst contacted him with an intriguing proposition. Mariano and Diaz-Twine topped a stacked list of “Survivor” royalty Probst compiled as potential “mentors” while plotting the series’ latest theme, “Island of the Idols.” Though he only needed two former contestants to say yes, Probst was prepared for rejection.
“Once you’ve played three or four times — and especially if you’ve won the game — it’s very hard to convince somebody to do it again because they know they’re likely to be voted out early,” Probst said. “So the pitch was, ‘Instead of competing against new players, where you’re likely to be voted out, what if we made you a ‘Survivor’ idol and brought you back as a mentor?’ And that pitch was pretty appealing, because it’s giving you deity-like status in the game.”
The brand-new format puts Diaz-Twine and Mariano on their very own island, decorated with two 30-foot busts in their likenesses — which Probst coined “‘Survivor’ Mount Rushmore.” There, select contestants arrive via boat for a “‘Survivor’ boot camp,” led by the masters, who coach and test each visitor for a chance at a strategic advantage in the main game.
The catch? Mentors have no shot at the million — a caveat that was of no importance to Diaz-Twine, who hasn’t been in it for the money since she won it the first time in the seventh season. She later bested her opponents, including Mariano, in Season 20’s “Heroes vs. Villains,” before returning for a third time in Season 34, where she was voted out sixth.
“The second time I played, I was like, ‘OK, I’m expecting to get voted off,’ and then that never happened,” she said. “It became more of like, ‘How long now can I last? Because I know these people want to dethrone me. I know these females want my crown’ … it becomes a challenge for me to see how far I can really get in the game.”
Like Mariano, Diaz-Twine never strove for reality TV fame. But she does value the special relationships “Survivor” continues to bring into her life. Once a person appears on the show, they are immediately and permanently inducted into the small but active “Survivor” community — as well as a private “Survivor” Facebook page, which Diaz-Twine uses to stay up to date on anniversaries, birthdays, first days of school and more milestones of past contestants and their loved ones.
“We have our separate groups, and there’s people you tend to bond with more, like, the winners usually always clique up,” she said. “But you tend to have your real family, and then you have this side ’Survivor’ family you’re always in the know with.”
No one understands the concept of a “‘Survivor’ family” more than Mariano, who met his wife, Amber, during his — and her — second run on “Survivor: All-Stars.” She famously beat him for the title by one vote in the Season 8 finale after he proposed in front of the live studio audience.
Their power-couple status and the “Survivor” network have come in handy when sharing their love of the show with their four daughters: When one daughter’s favorite contestant, repeat player Joe Anglim, got the ax in a recent season, Mariano was able to arrange a phone call, via Probst, between she and Anglim to console her before she went to sleep.
“There’s definitely a fraternity, so to speak,” Mariano said. “The ones of us that have competed multiple times, we know what it’s like, what we’ve been through, and we can relate to one another, so we’ll always have that camaraderie. Luckily for me, I have that in my everyday life because my wife was on the show, so she understands it completely.”
“Island of the Idols” will mark the first time the Mariano kids will be old enough to watch their father on screen. Whether their daughters will continue the “Survivor” family legacy down the road, Mariano said, is completely up to them.
“But they have two good mentors that they can look to if they ever did want to do it,” he added.
When it comes to “Survivor” clout, even Probst admits he has a soft spot for players like the Marianos and Diaz-Twine, who were there in the days when the producers were still finding their footing in the reality TV landscape.
“There is a bond there because we were creating the show together, and they were as much a part of it as we were,” Probst said. “We really didn’t know, in that first season, what was going to happen.”
Clearly the feeling is mutual, as Diaz-Twine and Mariano agreed to surrender themselves to the elements for Probst one last time — maybe. Mariano says his “Survivor” journey is “complete” for now, but left his plans open-ended, adding that Probst is “always good for some ideas.”
“You always come off the show saying, ‘I need a break — I’ll never play again,’ and then a month later, you’ll be like, ‘Hell yeah, I would play again,’” Diaz-Twine joked. “So would I play again? I’m going to say — for right now — no.”