Editor's Note: Seven Days contributing writer Sarah Harris authored this post.
Sophie Clarke is tough and smart. That’s what it took for the 22-year-old medical student and recent Middlebury College graduate from Willsboro, N.Y., to win “Survivor: South Pacific.” Sophie endured 39 days in grueling conditions and bested 16 other competitors to come away with a million-dollar prize. She told Seven Days what it was like.
Seven Days: When you were filming, you had to keep the fact that you were on “Survivor” a secret. What was it like not to tell people you were having such an intense experience? By the same token, what was it like to have your whole community watch it unfold in this really public way?
Sophie Clarke: It was very strange for me, because immediately when I got home I was excited and I couldn’t tell anyone. I had a good feeling, I was in the final three, I thought I might win. I wanted to tell my family about it. But it was much more exciting for my family to go and watch it each week and not know if I was going to get kicked off. I usually watched it with friends in the city, but even then it’s really stressful; they have so much footage, you don’t know what they’re going to show or not show.
But yeah, that’s a really difficult secret to keep, because it overtakes your life and it’s all that people talk to you about.
SD: How much surviving did you actually do?
SC: When we arrived on the beach, we came and found a machete and fishing gear. And other than that, we have nothing. No matches, no toothbrush, no cooking supplies. We ate coconuts, we’d boil our own water, we’d go and catch our own fish. Our days out there are spent thinking about where we’d get food and firewood. There’s no trickery behind it. I had people come up to me and be like "Where was the hotel?" And it’s like, Are you kidding? The survival part impacted my life the most and was most memorable, not the strategy part.
SD: After you won, you said, "I think I had my finger on the pulse of the game the whole time.” What exactly does that mean? What kind of strategy did you employ?
SC: In interviews at the beginning of the show, people ask you what your strategy is, and they want you to lay out some sort of war plan. And I said, "I don’t know, I’m going to see who’s in my tribe." And there were a lot of guys in my tribe who wanted to be in charge. We had Coach, who wanted to be a leader, and Albert, who couldn’t bear that he couldn’t be in charge. Everybody wanted somebody to listen and nod at them and tell them they were great. And so I did that. I think sometimes I was portrayed passively, but I was very aware of my passivity.
SD: Were you being yourself on the show, or playing a part?
SC: I think that everybody thinks that they’re much funnier and wittier and prettier than they are, but I thought I was portrayed well. I think that because we’re all hungry and starving and exhausted, I wasn’t quite myself when I was there.
SD: You grew up in Willsboro, N.Y., in the Champlain Valley, and went to college in Vermont. Did you employ any skills on the show that you learned in this neck of the woods? It seemed like your hometown was really proud of you.
SC: I think the greatest thing about the Adirondacks and Vermont is the variety of people there. Growing up in a small town and going to a small college, I’ve met people from all walks of life. I think that the most important thing on "Survivor" is to be able to relate to all kinds of people. You have to make as many people like you as possible. I think that because Middlebury is a small place and the town that I grew up in is such a small place, you’re forced to be friends with people and meet people you wouldn’t have otherwise met. I think that’s the beauty of a small college, a small state, and a small town.
I got mail saying, "Sophie’s done more for Willsboro than William Gilliland," who founded the town. I don’t really understand it.
SD: You’re, like, totally in the throes of 15 minutes of fame right now. How does it feel?
SC: It’s hard — at first I laughed it off. I went skiing at Christmas and got recognized every day with goggles on. And then I got home and everybody recognized me. And fielding all these questions and getting these overwhelming responses — one man who’d been really ill who said watching me on "Survivor" helped with his depression. That’s real. I do see some responsibility in it. But it's nice being back. I started school yesterday, and after working for 48 hours straight, I think the 15 minutes are over, and if not, I’m in for a rude awakening at school.
SD: One million dollars. Your plans?
SC: My roommate was making fun of me the other day because I hadn’t bought anything. I actually did order a Kindle online yesterday. But mostly paying for med school, investing. I think a lot of people choose their specialties based on how lucrative their specialty will be, and it’s nice to take that variable out of the equation. Maybe I’ll go on a trip this spring.
Photos courtesy of Monty Brinton/CBS© 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. and Greg Gaynes/CBS ©2011 CBS BROADCASTING INC. All Rights Reserved.