As Sandra Diaz-Twine will tell you, “the queen stays queen” no matter what. But the world’s only two-time Survivor winner knew she was going into season 40 with a giant target on her back. What she didn’t know was that her target was made bigger by a rumor that could have made her the first voted out of Survivor: Winners At War.
Diaz-Twine competed three times before this current all-winners season, but she most recently appeared on the series as a mentor to the season 39 castaways alongside “Boston” Rob Mariano. Diaz-Twine and Mariano didn’t actually play last season, but that didn’t stop the rumor mill from churning out a potentially damning story: that the two powerhouses had spent a month competing together just weeks before starting season 40.
“The rumor was that Sandra and Rob had survived 36 days on the island,” Diaz-Twine told The A.V. Club at an event celebrating the 10th anniversary of her fellow Survivor alum Rob Cesternino’s podcast. “Not that we were mentors, but that we survived for 36 days as an alliance. And that was furthest from the truth.”
Here Diaz-Twine expands on the origin of that rumor, why she was willing to sign up for another 39 days of starvation, and why she’s now officially retiring from Survivor.
The A.V. Club: Did you know you’d be doing Winners At War when you signed up to be a mentor for last season? Or did being out there make you eager to play again?
Sandra Diaz-Twine: Being on Island Of The Idols and enjoying it so much and even learning from the new players of that season I was saying, “Oh my God, I’m ready to implement all this stuff I am learning from them—put it into motion in a new game.”
AVC: You filmed these past two seasons back-to-back. You make it look easy, but it’s not.
SDT: It’s not easy. But my husband is always behind me 100%, and he knows Jeff doesn’t call me just to call me. If Jeff calls me it’s to come and go on Survivor. [My husband’s] getting ready to retire and I want to retire, and if I can come on here and make a couple of dollars, then so be it. I’m going to do it. I just got to make sure that I take care of everything at home, so when I leave I’m not thinking about anything. So I always make sure to handle everything so that when I go, I have a clean slate and I can focus on what I’m doing with just playing the game for my family to bring back the big prize.
AVC: You competed twice, won twice, came back a third time, did not win. Did that put more or less pressure on you coming into season 40, especially against 19 other winners?
SDT: Well, when I lost for the very first time… I really don’t give too many people credit for that, because at the end of the day it was a tribe swap that screwed me. They just had the numbers and they took the shot. If they hadn’t, it would’ve been a mistake on their part. So I don’t lose sleep over that loss. At the end of the day, a lot of people thought I’d be among the first to go and no I was not. So anytime I play moving forward, yes, I would love to get to the end. Yes, I would love to win. But at the end of the day, I come to prove people wrong and I will not be the first to go home. No, I will not be the second. You know what I’m saying? My philosophy is just to stay in the game as long as I can and that’s what I prove time and time again.
AVC: We spoke to Rob Cesternino before the start of the season and he gave you and Boston Rob the worst odds to win season 40. You both survived the first two eliminations, but do you think his call was fair?
SDT: Me and [Boston] Rob, I feel like had the biggest target simply because we’re doing interviews across from Island Of The Idols where our totems are standing there 20 feet, 24 feet tall that did not help.
AVC: You mean those giant Island Of The Idols statues of your heads were still standing when everyone arrived for season 40?
SDT: Yeah. Everyone’s sitting right there saying, “I don’t have a totem.” And I would tell them, “Well, you know you’ve made it when you have one,” simply because I knew they were already coming after me. And the rumor was that “Sandra and Rob had survived 36 days on the island.” Not that we were mentors, but that we survived for 36 days as an alliance. And that was furthest from the truth.
AVC: You didn’t play but you did spend time together. A lot of the season 40 contestants know each other well. Boston Rob and Amber are even married. How much did past relationships play into the dynamics of this season?
SDT: The past relationships, they hurt the game so much because at the end of the day you’re saying, “Oh my God, I’m going to do anything I have to, to take home the money. And if this is a real friendship, then after the feeling of being hurt is over, then maybe we can build a stronger relationship.” But at the end of the day, the friendships were null and void when we found out it was a $2 million prize. I think if it was just $1 million, it’d be a different story. But the fact that it was $2 million, everybody was like, “Oh my God. Whatever, if I said anything before, that’s out the door. Now this is a whole new game.”
AVC: Did playing with all winners change your strategy?
SDT: Yes. Playing with all winners changes your strategy because we know a lot of each other. So there’s people you know and people you don’t know. And you tend to trust the people because of their previous games, but what you don’t realize is that for $2 million, everyone’s willing to do whatever and change up your game. So you have to remember that.
AVC: You’re famous for being a big fan of Outback Steakhouse and the rewards you used to win that were sponsored by them. What’s the key to going on those food rewards without getting sick after existing on a bowl of rice a day for so long?
SDT: Well, anytime I’ve been able to partake in a reward, I don’t overdo it because I’ve seen people get sick to their stomach and not be able to then function later. So I don’t overdo it. I don’t overdo it, but I’m a pro at that.
AVC: It always shocks me that people drink alcohol on those rewards.
SDT: Yeah, you just have one or two drinks but you don’t push it. Some people they just gorge themselves. You can’t do that because your body can’t handle it.
AVC: Speaking of rewards, you sat out of both challenges in the two-hour premiere. But you were certainly vocal from the sidelines. What’s the key to being a good Survivor cheerleader?
SDT: They expect me, they want me to tell them the truth. You know, if we’re behind, I’m going to say, “Hey, we’re behind.” If you know somebody is not paying attention, I’d be like, “Tony, pay attention.” Because you give them an inch and that could mean the difference between immunity and Tribal Counsel. “Don’t focus on that over there. Focus on the task at hand and keep it moving.”
AVC: You obviously can’t tell us if you win this season. But after your season 40 experience, would you play again?
SDT: No, I’m retired. The older I get, the harder it is for me. And to go out there and be there for 36 days [as a mentor], take a two week break and then play again, it really took a toll on me. I’m not 27 anymore. I’ve been in this game for 16 years. And at the end of the day, no matter what happens, I’m still going to be the queen. And I’ve been the queen for 10 years and I’ve been the queen for 20 seasons. So no matter who wins or what happens, this queen will always stay queen.
Survivor: Winners At War airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.