Mike Holloway won $1 million on the reality TV show Survivor last spring. Back in the early 1990s, though, you would’ve found him walking the halls of L.D. Bell.
Holloway, now a North Richland Hills resident, stopped by his alma mater on April 29, less than a month before he was announced as the season 30 winner. With him was fellow Survivor Shirin Oskooi, visiting from San Francisco.
In May, fans voted for Oskooi to be one of 20 “second chance” contestants for Survivor‘s 31st season. All 20 “survivors” have played the game before but have never won. Filmed during the summer, that season began airing on Sept. 23.
In an interview with the Blueprint staff, Holloway and Oskooi discussed high school, life on a reality show, and what the two experiences have in common.
MIKE HOLLOWAY: [The producers] drop you off and you are literally there surviving. They give you a little bag of rice and that’s it… They give you an ax, a hammer, and a machete and a couple of nails, and you’ve got to build a place to live.
The first four or five days we were there, we would start cooking at 5 o’clock at night and it would take an hour to cook it. It would be dark and we were trying to eat. It took four or five days to figure out that they needed to start cooking earlier.
SHIRIN OSKOOI: And you don’t even have a watch or anything, so you’re telling time by looking at the sun in the sky. I think, it’s probably afternoon-ish, but you have no idea.
MH: We had two camera crews that would follow us around. You can ask them questions, but they’ll just ignore you. I ate a scorpion on the first day, which was not a good decision. I was sick for six hours, and they just filmed. It was such a crazy experience just from that aspect.
You’ve got people there who are literally not looking out for your best interests. They want to harm you in the game. Not physically, but they want to harm your game so you don’t proceed or go further in the game. So you’ve got people lying to you all the time.
SO: [The producers are] bringing in people from all over the country, all walks of life… On top of that, you have to have a big personality for them to cast you on a reality TV show. So you’re not actually bringing in a representative sample of people coming together. You’re bringing in a lot of hotheads, a lot of talkative
people, a lot of type A, in-your-face people. And then you’re trying to survive. And then you’re starving… Sleep is terrible… There are mosquitos…
After about a week of that, you’re really stripped down to who you really are and you’ve got to either deal with it really calmly or it makes you lose your mind. And some people really lose it out there.
About dealing with others
SO: I had a slightly different experience in that I faced all kinds of discrimination out there. All different kinds… There was a guy who was calling me fat every day. He was really cruel to me… As part of the game, I’ve got to win him over. I’ve got to work with him.
You don’t want people to be talking down to you, you don’t put up with that, but you’ve also got to stand your ground to try to turn this guy around to you. You learn to kind of swallow your pride a little bit to make more progress to eventually win them over, and it doesn’t always work. But the good thing in the game, if it doesn’t work, you can vote them out. Or they vote you out.
I faced discrimination for my ethnicity—for being Persian. I’m Middle Eastern. Middle Easterners face a lot of discrimination in today’s world. You can’t control for that kind of thing. That’s real life. You get thrown in that situation, only you’re in this pressure cooker. You’re starving and tired or whatever. Aside from all that stuff, the most important thing is not to get voted out. So you’ve got to just try to make it work and try to turn these people around on you, and sometimes it works, and I was successful with a lot of people and I was also a failure with a lot of people. I couldn’t turn them around.
MH: The guy [who was cruel to Shirin] came over to our side [when the tribes were switched up]. I’d never met Shirin. For six days all I heard was how bad of a person she is over and over and over. You have five people who have never met her. When she does come over, they already have this negative connotation in their head about her.
If I can tell you guys anything to take away from this, it’s that just because you don’t like somebody, don’t say anything at all. You don’t know who you are talking to. They may have a completely different evaluation of that person. You may hurt your relationship with that person if you’re talking negatively about someone else.
It really is a common thread in life that as you get older you’ll understand, and maybe you already get it, that it might just be best for me to keep my mouth shut [when people are being mean or annoying] and let them hang themselves with all the rope I’m giving them.
Now that doesn’t count when someone is bullying you or someone is physically putting you in the way of harm. You have to stand up for yourself every single time no matter the consequence.
A lot of times if somebody goes to slap you in the face with words, if you just kind of sit back… people will figure out other guy’s an idiot.
Our knee jerk reaction is to attack—well, mine is! In the game of Survivor, that’s a horrible quality for me, ’cause I did that, but in life it’s a bad quality as well because you’re not giving the situation time to play out and to where you could look like a gem when you’re just looking like a piece of dog dung at that point.
SO: Honestly, playing Survivor was the first time ever it transported me back to high school. I went to a high school that was racist and had a lot of ugliness, and I got myself out of that in high school. I did really well in school so that I could go to a good college so that I could get a good job out of school and make a great life for myself.
I live in San Francisco where everybody is just really open-minded and friendly, and so I created this bubble for myself. Then I go on Survivor and it’s like high school again where there is gossip. And that’s part of the game, unfortunately. They’re talking crap about each other and being mean unnecessarily.
If there’s anything that I took away from our season, it’s that the people who are mean lost big time. They either lost right away, like the guy who called me fat ended up being ditched right away, and in other cases, I think people came out of the game feeling pretty righteous, but they’re losing now because the world is seeing what horrible people they were. You’ve gotta pay the price.
And so we’re in this unique circumstance… cameras… And the thing is, you shouldn’t need a camera in your face to change your behavior. You should just be a good person, and then the world will rally around you and you can actually make a positive change. We’re turning all of this into a positive thing, but for some of these people, they needed a backlash to understand, “Oh, being mean is not cool, it’s not acceptable.”
Advice for seniors
SO: For me to escape my bad childhood situation, I had to get good grades and I had to go to a good college so that I could get a good job, and then I worked for Google for four years and then I thought, oh my God, I’m so wound up. I’ve been doing this for so long that I feel programmed to always have a job, so I actually quit Google so that I could specifically take time off, travel and just kind of figure out my life because it’s important to just take a step back and figure out, what do I want to do? Am I enjoying what I’m doing? I don’t know but kind of clear your head and enjoy life.
Mike as a Bell student
MH: We had a lot of fun. I was never the popular kid. I was always hyperactive… But I didn’t understand how to focus it and put it to good use until I was older in life.
So high school was really hard for me.
I was a very talented athlete. The only people I really hung out with were the athletes but not the “cool kid” athletes.
I didn’t hit my stride until my sophomore year of college, seriously. Girls wouldn’t pay attention to me. Neither would the boys, for that matter. Once my sophomore year of college hit, I bloomed or whatever.
Some of us just aren’t popular in high school, and it’s the stupidest thing in the whole world because who cares?
I think that we get so wound up in the moment. Instead of seeing the big picture and going, I’m 16 right now. I’ve got 35, 40 solid years ahead of me, that these people are not even going to be a part of, so why am I going to listen to what they’re saying now?
High school was hard for me, but it also prepared me for my life because when you get out of high school, life’s hard. It’s not easy. Enjoy this time. It’s an amazing time in your life. Enjoy these times.
High school as preparation for ‘Survivor’
SO: In high school I faced racism and a lot of bullying, so I learned a couple of things. I learned to really always work hard, and that… no matter what it is, if you can work hard at something, your work will speak for itself and people will kind of see your value and automatically start treating you better.
The other thing is not to fight back. When someone’s coming at you, let them dig their own grave.
For me my instinct was to get really angry and to turn into an ugly person myself, but when I learned to actually just hold it in and always try to be kind, even if I did hate them, which I often did, then eventually one by one you could actually start turning people on your side. Actually, life got a lot better when people thought you were a kind person because people would stop coming at you.
MH: For me, just understanding how to deal with being not always liked. That’s a huge characteristic in the game of Survivor because people are… still going to try to make other people not like you so they can go further in the game.
A lot of that is whenever you get into the business world as well. People are cut-throat today because there are minimal amounts of jobs. The stars, even the “rock stars” in college who have the best grades, are having trouble coming out and getting jobs now.
Probably the thing I learned in high school is just always try to be the best version of yourself. You’re not being fake by putting your best foot forward. You should aspire to achieve greatness in your life, and that all starts with a baby step, and it may start with a word.
Mike told a story about a friend who recalled Mike saying seven or eight years ago that he would be on Survivor someday.
My friend said, “Mike said he was going on Survivor, and now here he is.” That all started with a statement. Statement became a thought, and a thought became an action, an action became a result. It all started with just saying, “I’m going to do this.”
I tell teenagers I work with all the time, “How do you know a star will burn your hand? How do you know if you never reach for it?” I know it’s corny, but it’s true. The answer is always no if you don’t ask the question.
High school as preparation for life
MH: If anything, it helped me grow a thicker skin probably because you’re always going to deal with high school kids. There is always somebody in your life—always—that will bring you back to that moment of high school when you felt the worst about yourself. There’s always going to be somebody in your life. You just gotta figure out who that person is and either cut them out or not listen to what they have to say.
SO: For me it also taught me that when you find something you love, bust your butt to be good at it. Work really hard. Even if you suck at it at first, just keep at it and eventually you’ll get better. Trying is not a bad thing. If you try really hard at the thing that you love, your life will end up being a lot better.
The things that you don’t love… don’t even mess with it. Do what you got to do to get that stuff done, and focus on what you love.
Favorite memories from Bell
MH: Playing soccer. Playing goalie. My whole life I played forward because I was really, reallly fast, super fast. Whenever we moved to Hurst, to Baker Street, I always played forward, because I was really, really fast and I was able to score goals, and I was good at that, but I always, always, always wanted to play goalie, and none of my coaches would let me play goalie because I was so fast.
So when I came to Bell and went out for the soccer team, they were like, “What position do you play?” and I was like, “Goalie.” I started and I ended up being the keeper.
MH: I view success completely differently than the world does as well. To me being successful means having one friend that you can call at 3 in the morning, and then pick up the phone and go, “Yo, what’s up,” or “Man, I’m coming. I’m on my way.” That to me is successful.
My relationships have made me successful, not the amount of money that I make, not the truck that I drive, not the house that I live in, which just so you guys know, everything I own is paid for… my house, my truck, my fifth wheel.
I’m extremely financially successful, but that’s not what makes me successful. What makes me successful is meeting this girl right here [Shirin] and letting her pour her life into my life and learn from her… By the way, we are not dating. She has a boyfriend for five years. I love her so much because she adds so much to my life, and she doesn’t take away from it.
When you’re picking friends and choosing people that you want to spend the rest of your life with, you should pick people that add, that don’t subtract. I have a couple of friends that subtract, but they need that from me. I am that person that adds to their life even though they don’t reciprocate it much.
Survivor: Cambodia—Second Chance airs at 7 p.m. Wednesdays on CBS.
[This story was first published in the May 2015 print edition of the Blueprint.]