‘Survivor’ has moved on from its #MeToo scandal. Former contestant Kellee Kim has not
Wednesday night, less than two months after December’s “Survivor” finale saw host Jeff Probst deliver an unprecedented on-air apology for the show’s mishandling of a #MeToo controversy, a new season is set to premiere.
But while CBS has turned its focus to the stacked all-winner lineup in store for Season 40, former contestant Kellee Kim can’t help but linger on the fallout from Season 39.
“There’s a sense of moving on and almost forgetting, but it is really important for me to make sure that the story continues getting heard, because I think that, only by remembering history can we continue to make sure that change happens and that change stays,” she said. “We can’t allow this to happen again, whether it’s because ... people really think it’s the right thing or because we are holding their feet to the fire.”
Kim, an MBA graduate from Costa Mesa, broke the “Survivor” mold last season when she spoke up about a male contestant, Dan Spilo, who had touched her inappropriately. Her concerns, corroborated on the show by footage from camp, prompted CBS to release a statement explaining that producers issued a “formal warning” to Spilo in response to Kim’s report.
He was not removed from the game, however, until a subsequent incident — not involving a player — occurred after Kim had been voted out. Also adding fuel to the firestorm was a controversial strategic move from castaways Missy Byrd and Elizabeth Beisel, both of whom later apologized for invalidating Kim’s experiences and coddling Spilo in order to further themselves in the competition.
Amid mounting public scrutiny, the reality show unveiled new policies and procedures drafted in an effort to create a safer environment.
Now, Kim has taken it upon herself to ensure that those guidelines are followed and that women — both on and off “Survivor” — continue to be seen and heard. Since Season 39’s bombshell #MeToo episode aired, Kim has partnered with Time’s Up, which connected her with prominent attorney Debra Katz through its Legal Defense Fund when she “didn’t know who to turn to.”
Through public speaking engagements and fundraising, Kim plans to continue her activism with Time’s Up by providing resources and support to others. Ahead of the Season 40 premiere, Kim spoke with the Los Angeles Times about her time on “Survivor,” the impact the show has had on her life and her hopes for the future in a conversation edited for length and clarity.
How did you get involved with the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund?
I knew about Time’s Up as a movement, but not this organization that actually helps women who have gone through anything related to sexual harassment or sexual assault, helping their voices get heard and helping them navigate a very complicated process. I was introduced to them through a friend in the middle of the season when I really desperately needed help, and as a result of their support, I was able to have my voice heard and help enact this change at CBS and “Survivor.”
In many ways, it seems to me that CBS and “Survivor” want to forget about Season 39. But Season 39 is particularly important because of the event that had transpired. Making sure that we aren’t holding on to the pain and the anger that everyone is feeling, but to remember what happened — to make sure that this never happens again — is hugely important.
It’s a little early to tell, since Season 40 was filmed before the new guidelines were introduced. But what progress, if any, have you seen from ‘Survivor’ since Season 39 ended?
Season 40 has already filmed, but there’s a whole new group of people that are going [to] Fiji in March, and then probably another season right after that. And so it’ll be really interesting to hear how these changes are implemented. And hopefully, if anyone else speaks up, whether it’s cast or crew, these changes are put into place so that there is an avenue to speak out. This is a big reason why I think it’s important to keep sharing my story and really for everyone who was a part of the season and watched the season to continue holding CBS and “Survivor” responsible.
What improvements would you need to see in order to feel satisfied with ‘Survivor’s’ progress?
We can talk about change; we can say we’ve implemented the change. But until something happens — because, unfortunately, these things happen all the time — and we see how “Survivor” and CBS and everyone around us reacts, we just don’t know that these changes are actually making a difference.
Now that some time has passed since Season 39 ended, what are your feelings toward Dan, Missy and Elizabeth?
I think I’ve said everything that I’m trying to say about Dan. In terms of everyone else that was involved, I really, truly hope that this has been a learning [experience] for everyone — not just the cast members, but also the crew members. It was a difficult season. There were a lot of really hard lessons. There was an immense amount of public backlash. It’s less important how it was treated and what happened to me, but really, how do we move forward in our lives and take the lessons that we’ve learned from this and apply them to our everyday lives?
Because this is happening in our everyday lives, and we might not have noticed it before. We might not have seen it before. We might not have known how to react before. But hopefully now that we’ve seen this, and we’ve experienced this, the cast, the crew, the audience, people who are reading about this in the media, can go back to their lives and say, “OK, this is how I can react differently. This is how I can be an advocate and stand up for someone who’s speaking up. This is how I can believe someone who is taking a risk and speaking up.”
Were there any other aspects of your ‘Survivor’ experience that you think the show could stand to improve upon?
“Survivor” is the way that it is because they create a really intense, stressful environment for 20 people to be a part of. And those dynamics are what create that tension and this level of competition that makes for good TV. One of the things that isn’t really talked about as much publicly that I’ve seen is: What happens after “Survivor”? It’s a game and yet it’s our real lives at the same time.
The situation I was in was a very unique situation, in the sense that the audience members were able to see this very, very real thing happen, and then the lines between real life and game are blurred. But I think this actually happens for a lot of players. And so I do think that one of the things that “Survivor” and CBS could do better is really focusing on the support from a mental health aspect after the show. There are certainly people who have echoes of what happened and maybe don’t have the resources or know how to ask for help or get that support.
You’ve received an outpouring of love from fans since Season 39 aired. How has that affected you?
The overwhelming amount of support from people has meant so much. It’s this idea of being believed and heard. That so many people saw my story and supported me and believed me — after a very long time of not feeling that way — was just a really incredible feeling of like, “This is really hard, but I am doing the right thing.” Each individual who literally posted a comment or tweeted or sent letters to CBS and tagged CBS and Jeff Probst and “Survivor” and expressed their outrage — every single one of those individuals made a difference in making this change happen.
It’s ‘Survivor’ tradition for fan favorites like yourself to get invited back on the show. Would you ever do it again?
My life was never meant to be about “Survivor.” I have a life. I have a career that is super important to me. I have friends and family. And it would be so much easier for me to just go back to my life, in some ways, and there’s absolutely a part of me that wants to do that. But it is really important for me to keep speaking out about this issue and my story because I don’t want this to happen to anyone else. But, as for “Survivor” and the game, I have this life that I’m really excited about, and it’s important for me to live that.
So, if Jeff called you right now and said, ‘Kellee, we’d like you to come back on the show...’
[Laughs] If Jeff called me right now, I would say, “No.” “Survivor” was an experience. That was a chapter, and I’m closing that chapter and opening a new one. And opening that new one doesn’t involve playing “Survivor” again. It involves talking about my story and living my life.
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