Survivor’s Erika Casupanan is Breaking the Invisibility Barrier on Reality TV — and in Reality

The first Filipino and Canadian Sole Survivor is “happy to show you this other side of me.”

The first Filipino and Canadian Sole Survivor is “happy to show you this other side of me.”

by Rebecca Gao
January 22, 2024

Even before Erika Casupanan competed on Survivor, she had a strong understanding of how the world underestimated her. As a lifelong Survivor fan, and a scholar of reality TV, Casupanan knew that Asian women fall largely into two categories on reality TV: evil dragon lady or invisible and disposable—especially on the long-running CBS show, where Asian women were typically booted off early in the game.

Rather than fight them, Casupanan decided to use the stereotypes that would typically work against her work for her. She also borrowed from her pre-island career: before landing on Survivor, Casupanan worked in corporate communications, public relations and marketing, where she learned the power of influencing a room, while remaining invisible. “It’s a strange position to be in—you have to ‘know your place’ but still move things forward without intimidating anyone,” she says. 

On the island, Casupanan says, “people would call me sneaky or shady because that’s how they perceive Asian women.” With a hyperawareness of that stereotype, she made herself appear less capable of a win. “I knew I could use that to move forward in the game,” she says. She also used her work experience training others to be confident in interviews, and flipped her advice. “I would make my body language smaller, I’d say ‘like’ every other word, I’d use up talk and look at the ground,” she says. “I would do all this stuff to make people believe I had less power.”

“[On Survivor], people would call me sneaky or shady because that’s how they perceive Asian women.”

— Erika Casupanan

When she finally got to Survivor 41, Casupanan arrived on the island as an underdog: she’s well-known for her lion dressed as a lamb strategy, stealthily pulling the strings in the background and forging alliances. In the end, Casupanan won the title of Sole Survivor, becoming the first Canadian and first person of Filipino descent to win American Survivor. 

On top of her strategy, due to the show’s editing, which largely erased Casupanan from the first half of the season, her “lamb” persona was made even more believable to viewers at home. However, it meant that audiences were blindsided by her win, leading to people saying that she didn’t “deserve” to be the sole survivor. It was a frustrating mirror of what she had experienced outside of Survivor—she remembers being stunned that she was allowed in rooms she never thought she’d be allowed into (board rooms of massive corporations and CEOs’ offices, just to name a few) and was given permission to influence them. But she was still asked to be an invisible player—she wasn’t given actual decision-making power, though her role was to sway people’s opinions as a communications specialist. The story was the same on Survivor, after her win.

“It discounted what I brought to the table and who I was as a player,” she says. “And that translates into real-life consequences where, for months, everyday, I would just have people telling me that I didn’t deserve it, I only won because it was a woke jury, ‘can’t you see in all their confessionals they just wanted a woman to win.’ I know it’s not personal, but it sucks.” 

Even as networks set out mandates for more racially diverse casts on competition shows (CBS set out to cast at least 50 per cent BIPOC in all unscripted programming, including Survivor, in 2020), Asian representation still lags. Statistics on the amount of Asian winners on North American reality TV are hard to find, but one can count the number of Asian reality TV winners easily. As a result, Asian competitors on reality TV shows still fight stereotypes that affect their game play and how viewers perceive them back home. 

Yul Kwon, for example, who won Season 13 of Survivor in 2006 has said that he felt a “tremendous amount of pressure” to represent Asian American men positively since there had been so little representation. To this day, his social game in 2006 remains underrated while he can’t escape his reputation as one of the “smartest” winners in Survivor history—even 13 years later when he returned for the Winners at War-themed 40th season. 

Now, with Survivor in the rearview mirror, and the lessons she learned from the online fall-out surrounding her win, Casupanan started a podcast called Happy To See Me. The first episode, which she recorded in January 2022 but didn’t release until January 2023, detailed her time on the reality series. When the episode went live, she was surprised to see the amount of people—especially Asian women and other Filipinos—who told her that they resonated with her story and strategy. “I think they’re all people who have felt underestimated in some way,” she says. 

Since that first episode, Happy To See Me has featured Casupanan chatting with guests about times they have been misrepresented, overlooked or underestimated. She’s chatted with Asian mental health advocate Vera Cheng about the state of Asian mental healthcare today, psychologist Kevin Nadal about Filipino representation in North American media, writer Kimiko Tobimatsu about being diagnosed with breast cancer and how her experience went beyond pink ribbons as a queer mixed-race woman and her fellow Survivor castmate Tai Trang on his journey from refugee to reality TV gamechanger. Among many others. “And I give them the opportunity to be seen in the way they want to,” she adds. 

For now, Casupanan, who also recently came out as a lesbian, says that—while she did appear on the inaugural season of The Traitors Canada, where she was unfortunately the first contestant to be eliminated—she’s happy to create her own storylines, rather than ones created by a show’s producers. 

“The name of the podcast, it plays on the idea that you didn’t really see me on Survivor,” she says. “And now I’m happy to show you this other side of me.” 

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