Erika Casupanan achieved many firsts when she won Survivor Season 41 in December 2021: She was the first woman to win in seven seasons, the first Filipino to win and the first Canadian. Now popularly known in the Survivor fandom as the lamb who revealed herself to be a lion, Casupanan was an incredibly smart player: skilled at reading social situations, able to quickly observe power dynamics and read people’s true motivations and weaknesses.
But when the 33-year-old returned home to Toronto after winning the $1-million (USD) prize and filming the survival-style reality show in Fiji, her story was portrayed on screen far differently than she expected. The edit left her “purpled”—a term coined by the Survivor fandom for contestants who get little screen time.
As a result, Casupanan received a lot of criticism for her win. “It created a lot of questions and question marks,” she explains, “[and] it made some people who didn’t relate to my win say, ‘Okay she was the first this or the first that, but did she really deserve it?’
Casupanan’s season of Survivor was the first to implement CBS’s new diversity mandate, which requires that casts of its reality shows—like Survivor, Big Brother and Amazing Race that have historically underrepresented people of colour—are comprised of at least 50 percent Black people, Indigenous people and other people of colour.
Casupanan has been a Survivor fan since its first season, which she watched as a child. Growing up in a multi-generational immigrant household, she was very close to her grandfather, who died shortly before the show premiered. “It was the first time I experienced a loss and I didn’t know how to process it,” she says. “Then I saw this show on TV with all of these people in crazy, hard circumstances and they were persevering. I was hooked. In hindsight, the show was an escape for me at that confusing time.”
The show continued to intrigue Casupanan over the years. “There is this delicious balance you need to strike between voting people out while maintaining respect,” she says. “As an Asian woman who is routinely underestimated, I really believed I had what it took to win. It’s really rewarding to look back at that little girl who watched Survivor to process her grief and to be able to tell her, ‘You did it.’”
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Casupanan says her experience on Survivor was a microcosm of her experience as a woman of colour outside of the show. Playing the game as an Asian woman was a difficult juggling act, she says—one that she’s all too familiar with navigating in her previous career as a communications manager. Be too assertive and risk being labeled as “bossy” or “bitchy” and directly contradict the stereotype of a subservient Asian woman, or be the “model minority.”
“Certain personality traits—like the person who speaks up the most in the meeting or takes on the command position in a situation—get rewarded or recognized as being the best leader or having the most confidence,” Casupanan says. “But the tricky part is that not everybody can exhibit those traits and be accepted in the same way. In my career, people would say, ‘We want you to be more assertive or speak up more in meetings,’ but when I would do those things and I would do the things that my counterparts would do, I would get a different response.”
As a result, Casupanan was used to having influence from the sidelines during Survivor, often finding herself in situations where she would be around the people who had the power in the game but was never the one with the power herself. “I had to learn to navigate being someone who was almost like a sidekick or a consultant,” she says. “And even though so many of the ideas or recommendations I’d bring forward would help and really shape and influence the outcome, I was never fully the person that got the spotlight.”
Casupanan used this understanding of people’s expectations of her strategically on Survivor, intentionally not creating situations where people would be uncomfortable with her asserting herself. “I understood the way I move through the world and used that to keep going [in the game],” she explains. “I think that perhaps I did that almost too well because people wondered why I ended up winning at all.”
Caspunan’s voting record shows that she was not merely in agreement with who was getting voted out from week to week, but that she was very much in control of it. “The moment that things really changed for me,” she recalls, “was when all of my behind-the-scenes work culminated in coordinating a split vote to eliminate a formidable competitor, all while allowing everyone else to fight over who gets credit for the move. After that, I allowed the egos remaining in the game to butt heads while I was the main decision maker for the remaining votes—again, while giving people the confidence to believe they had full control.”
But her biggest strategic move was in her final pitch to the jury, which she points out requires “a lot of self-awareness, social awareness and cleanliness in your gameplay up until that point to ensure no one can poke holes through anything. It took more than just playing behind the scenes—I needed to hit a home run to make the jury believe it even if they didn’t necessarily see it in the moment.” And Casupanan did just that, receiving all but one of the final jury votes to win the game.
Casupanan has been inspired by the people who said they saw themselves reflected in her Survivor victory. Most memorably, a Filipino woman who, inspired by Casupanan’s win, messaged her to say she had quit her job in order to pursue her real passion of becoming a writer. “She wanted to say thank you for showing her that someone like her could have their dream come true,” Casupanan says. “And I thought it was so cool that this crazy experience I had could help this person feel seen in the media, but more importantly help them to see themselves more clearly than they had before.”
Casupanan’s experience watching her story told through someone else’s lens on Survivor has inspired her to become a storyteller herself. In January 2023, she launched a podcast, Happy to See Me, where she interviews people from reality TV, social media, pop culture in order to get to know the person behind the screen. Notable interviewees include Olympic boxer Mandy Bujold and Great Canadian Baking Show co-host Ann Pornel. “It focuses on celebrating the people and the human experience behind the public persona,” she says. “I’m talking to people that we might have watched or heard of but maybe we haven’t fully seen them.”
By using the platform she now has as a Survivor winner, and by exploring new platforms for herself, Casupanan’s “firsts” have the potential to be the first of many for other people to see themselves in as well. “I want to surface more stories about different types of people through different lenses than we normally see.”