Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: James Lim almost created a replica 'f---ing stick' on Ghost Island
With Survivor filming for seasons 41 and 42 indefinitely postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, EW is reaching back into the reality show’s past. We sent a Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire to a batch of former players to fill out with their thoughts about their time on the show as well as updates on what they’ve been up to since. Each weekday, EW will post the answers from a different player.
Like most contestants who play the game, James Lim experienced both the highs and lows of Survivor while appearing on the Ghost Island season. He cost his tribe an immunity challenge when he was unable to dive down underwater deep enough to release some balls, yet he also showed his social and strategic chops by masterminding the Morgan Ricke blindside.
However, a second tribe swap on day 15 left James on the wrong side of the numbers, and he was unanimously booted from the game. However, as he reveals in his Quarantine Questionnaire, James came up with an audacious plan to save himself on the day of his ouster, and it involves one of the most infamous items in Survivor history. A day before Michael Yerger actually found Ozzy’s “f---ing stick” fake idol from Survivor: Micronesia, James came up with an elaborate scheme to create his own stick replica to confuse his fellow tribemates. What was the exact plan? Read on to learn more about that and additional inside scoop on James’ all-too-brief Survivor stint.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you’ve been up to since appearing on Survivor.
JAMES LIM: It’s hard to believe that it has already been three years since I was in Fiji competing, and two years since we had our season finale in LA. After I got home from the finale, I took the summer off to travel across Europe and visit some friends — it was an incredible experience and I hope to return to some of my favorite destinations post-COVID.
That fall, I left my management consulting job in NYC and returned to Boston to begin a 4-year JD/MBA dual degree program at Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School. I am now two years into the program, and have enjoyed it thus far with incredible classmates, professors, and experiences. We are about to begin a very unusual school year with COVID, so we’ll see how that goes.
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
Definitely the 4-3-1 split vote at the third Tribal Council. To me and my narrative arc throughout the season, that night provided a few things — it was my redemption story after the early diving challenge mistake, and the moment in which I proved to myself, the cast, and the audience that I was there as a legitimate, capable contender.
On Day 9, as Domenick was pitching his plan (to vote out Angela) to myself, Libby, Laurel, and Donathan, I tried to think of the best way for our 4-person minority alliance to leverage the situation. With Chris off on Ghost Island, the crucial implication was that the majority (5, now 4) was splintered into two smaller groups (3 vs. 1), giving us the plurality in votes. I chose Morgan as the intended target for a few reasons: First, Laurel was pushing to keep Wendell in the tribe, second, the Naviti dynamic was clearly Chris and Angela vs. Wendell, Domenick, and Morgan so it made more sense to target the larger sub-group, and third, I knew I wanted to keep both Chris and Domenick around to maximize their tension and provide more strategic flexibility for my minority alliance.
I’m proud of my group for pulling this off together, since no split vote can be executed alone. That move is remembered as a strategic one, but I also remember the process of us getting on the same page, trusting each other despite the intense stress and uncertainty that afternoon, and sticking to the plan together. That night solidified the bond between me and Libby/Laurel/Donathan, and is a night that I vividly remember to this day. Fans still tell me that that move was one of the best pre-merge votes of all time, so it’s deeply humbling as well.
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experience?
My biggest regret is actually an idea that I came up with on the morning of my vote-off but didn’t execute on — one that might have saved me at Tribal Council that night. At that point in the game (day 18), it was known to all of us from following the past few Tribal Councils that the season’s hidden immunity idols would be artifacts brought back from past seasons. That realization got me to think about ways in which I could use this unique twist to my strategic advantage.
On post-swap Malolo, I was keenly aware that I was in the minority against the original Naviti so I had been looking for idols every day, but to no avail. So when we lost the challenge on day 18, while trying to persuade Angela and Michael to vote with me on one hand, I also devised a plan that could potentially save me even if they did not vote with me.
The plan was as follows: I would create a fake idol — given the season’s unique idols, the clear choice that was the easiest to fake was Eliza’s infamous stick idol from Micronesia. I would find a stick on the beach with similar dimensions, then carve a rudimentary face on it (since that’s what Ozzy did to the authentic idol) to bring with me to that night’s Tribal Council.
There are two inherent holes in this plan: (1) The idol is fake so it can’t actually save me, and (2) it doesn’t come with an authentic piece of parchment so it would not hold up under someone’s examination, especially someone like Kellyn who had deep knowledge of the game. I had planned to solve (1) by revealing it and “playing” it before the vote, and (2) by handing it to Jeff quickly so nobody could ask to take a closer look at it.
In my head, the move played out something like this: During Tribal, I would say, “Let me prove to you all just how much I mean it when I say I will be loyal to this tribe,” then take out the stick, wrapped in a piece of tree mail that I saved, from my bag. Then I would re-tell the original story behind the idol from Micronesia, walk over to Jeff, and “play” it for myself. Then I would say, “I could’ve played this after the votes. But I’m playing it now to be transparent with you all — I don’t want to blindside anyone tonight. I’m now safe, and you know how I’m voting tonight. When we get back to camp, let’s look for it together and make it our idol as we head to the merge.”
If the plan had worked, that move would have convinced Angela, Michael, and/or Kellyn to vote with me and against Desiree. At the end of the day, I got the sense from Angela that she was willing to vote with me, and the plan seemed to be such a far-fetched one that I never executed on the idea. Looking back, this is still the single biggest “what if” I have from my time out there.
If I had made the merge, I know I could have helped take the season in a more exciting direction as someone who had deep knowledge of how to leverage the Chris vs. Domenick rivalry that ended up lasting a grand total of one episode after the merge.
Funnily enough, it just so happens that Domenick pulled off a very similar plan of his own at the Final 6 Tribal Council — I called him as soon as that episode aired and we shared a good laugh together. I give him a lot of respect for coming up with the same plan, and having the boldness to act on it.
What’s something that will blow fans’ minds that happened out there in your season but never made it to TV?
Given how much today’s fans know about the inner workings of Survivor, I’m not sure if I know anything that will truly blow their minds. What I will reiterate, however, is how much of a blast our pre-merge trip to Australia was. That trip tends to be a hit-or-miss depending on the group’s composition; we ended up with a great group of 7 that focused on enjoying each other’s company and making the most of the trip, despite what happened on the island. From our Fijian parties at Ponderosa to bar-hopping in Brisbane to scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef, those 3 weeks were a solid consolation prize. We still joke about playing that trip back one day.
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
This is a question that I still get often. My truthful answer always has been that I feel grateful for having received a mostly accurate, genuine edit from the team over at CBS. Going on a reality competition show is inherently risky mainly due to this one specific element: the edit you receive, which completely dictates the “character” you become to the millions of people watching. While I was keenly aware of this risk, on the island I had nothing but the warmest interactions with most of the production team. Watching the season on air, I got a strong sense that they tried to portray me for who I truly was.
Of course, no edit is perfect. It is unreasonable to expect one, and it is also impossible for a show with weekly 42-minute episodes to capture 20 people holistically. In my case, I had hoped to highlight more of my background as a collegiate sprinter and someone who went from freshman walk-on to senior captain. Without any challenges that involved running, that didn’t happen.
A side note: Until the week of the premiere, I was not aware of what would become one of my main themes as a player since we are usually not given the results of our numerous casting finals evaluations. When Jeff opened up his cast assessment of me with “…the highest IQ of anyone we have ever had on the show,” I knew what was coming. Ironically, that image — while it lines up well with my strategic approach to Survivor — was something I had hoped to downplay. Let’s just say that being called “a machine” by Jeff on national television was an interesting experience. My friends loved that line. And it doesn’t hurt to hold a Survivor record now, despite being voted off pre-merge.
What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
There absolutely was. Some of it was health-related (it took several months to regain the shape I was in pre-Survivor), some of it was behavioral (the strong urge to sleep outdoors or constantly thinking about strategy even amongst my family and friends), and some of it was professional (I had to pretty much re-learn how to do my job and be a professional).
To this day, certain cues take me mentally right back to the Mamanuca Islands: the song “Despacito” (it was the Billboard #1 that summer, so we listened to it non-stop at Ponderosa), the taste of coconuts, the smell of ocean waves.
Never underestimate how fast and how much you can change in a completely immersive, all-encompassing environment.
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?
No. I played hard and I played to win. I backstabbed some people and I told plenty of lies (including coming up with an entirely fake background and profession instead of revealing that I went to Harvard), but I was never disrespectful towards another person nor did I cause any controversy. I drew some clear lines for myself going into the game, and I stayed well clear of them.
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your season?
Even within the Survivor alumni community, I think Ghost Island is pretty unique in how much we have bonded as a cast after returning from the island. Through the experience I met incredible people and forged lifelong friendships beyond the academic and professional bubble that people with my background tend to gravitate towards.
I have spent Thanksgivings with Brendan down in Virginia, I got to attend Morgan’s wedding last summer in Orlando, and rarely a day goes by that doesn’t involve a text or a joke on our pre-merge group thread. In addition, I try to stay in touch with Dom, Wendell, Laurel, Libby, Donathan, Kellyn, and several more.
Do you still watch Survivor, and if so, what’s your favorite season you were not on and why?
Yes, and season 40 was one of the few things that made the first couple of months of quarantine bearable. It has also helped that Boston and New England have a pretty robust alumni community with frequent watch parties — pre-COVID, I had the chance to meet up with Jeremy, Val, Bret, Trish, and Michele at a big event in Boston, and also got to travel down to Providence, RI for an event with several people from the season 39 cast.
In terms of my favorite season, it’s a close call between Micronesia: Fans vs. Favorites and Cagayan. Great, fun characters and the kind of strategy that kept you guessing every week until the very end.
Who’s one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
This is a tough one to answer — it’s difficult to choose one person from the 500+-person alumni community that we have. That being said, my answer would be my man Jeremy Collins. We share a lot in common: we are both proud Bostonians and we were both sprinters in college (ask Jeremy about his track/field days the next time you meet him, he was a legitimate track star back in the days). At the same time, combining his incredible social game with my strategic approach would make for a solid alliance. Having spent quite a bit of quality time with him through reunions and events, I know we will get along very well on the island.
Another intuitive answer would be Yul, of course. There is a reason why I mentioned him a role model in my bio — our backgrounds are uncannily similar, and I have a ton of respect for his approach to both Survivor and life in general. I hope to meet him in person one day.
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
I consider myself more of a purist when it comes to what makes Survivor special — it’s about the cast, it’s about the social strategy, and it’s about the challenges. What made the first few years of Survivor a national cultural phenomenon was not some kind of genius twist, it was simply the raw footage of average Americans surviving on an island and playing a compelling game of social politics. Therefore, I would take a step back with the twists that have made recent seasons exciting but also somewhat convoluted, and implement a season that brings out the kind of strategy that relies on social IQ (e.g. swaying a key vote using personal bonds, devising a majority/minority split vote by correctly identifying tribal social dynamics).
One swap or no swaps pre-merge, one hidden immunity idol in play per tribe, a compelling and driven cast, and badass challenges. More airtime devoted to survival, humor, conflict, and character development. That would be my production recipe.
Finally, would you play again if asked?
Absolutely. With the busy life I have going on in grad school, my mindset is one such that I will still be appreciative and at peace if Ghost Island does turn out to be the end of my Survivor experience. But if they do call me again within the next couple of years, my answer would 100% be an enthusiastic “Yes.” I remember noticing during my preparations that most winners tend to be in their 30s, and that trend continued into our season with Wendell — despite our cast being the youngest of all time by a wide margin. In that sense, I am a firm believer in that life experience plays a crucial role out there on the island. In the last few years I have grown and learned a lot, and I will be able to lean on those elements if I get to play again.
Of course, I am also self-aware that my objective odds of returning are quite low. The one scenario I think could happen — and one that fans have been requesting for years now, as you know — is a pre-merge all-stars season. Let’s call it Survivor: Unfinished Business.