When Survivor debuted in 2000, it became a phenomenon. It was a new form of reality television, with viewers on the edge of their seats every week as they watched to see who would be crowned the Sole Survivor after 39 days of living on a deserted island with total strangers.
The first 10 winners of the show are iconic for many reasons. They set the precedent for the show, and their games are looked back on and referenced by newer players as strategies they hope to emulate or even re-create. Each season contained something new and exciting, and no two winners played the same game.
10 Palau: Tom Westman
Season 10, Survivor: Palau featured a new twist where two castaways were voted off the beach before the game even officially started.
Firefighter Tom Westman escaped that first vote and was picked for the Koror tribe, one that dominated every immunity challenge and ultimately absolved the opposing tribe. Tom’s bonds with fellow contestants Katie, Ian, Jenn, and Caryn led him to the final stages of the game, where he won the final immunity challenge and beat out Katie in the Final Tribal Council in a 6-1 vote.
9 Vanuatu: Chris Daugherty
Vanuatu was the second season of Survivor to initially (and controversially) split the tribes up according to ethnicity (the first being The Amazon). Chris Daugherty got off to a rough start but was spared during the first vote, as Brook was sent packing. He went on to form strong alliances and hold his own against a tribe composed mostly of women.
Once the game reached the Final 7, Chris was the last man standing and he made it all the way to Day 39. He beat out Twila in a 5-2 vote due to his ability to adapt and persevere.
8 All-Stars: Amber Brkich
In the first all-star season of the show, previous contestants returned to make up three tribes and get a second chance at winning a million dollars. The cast was made up of underdogs, fan-favorites, and even past winners.
Sweet Amber Brkich (who originally competed on season 2) was placed on the Chapera tribe, where she made an alliance on Day 1 with ‘Boston’ Rob Mariano. The pair grew so close that they actually fell in love while on the show, and made it to Day 39 together. Ultimately it was Amber’s social game that granted her the win over Rob in a 4-3 vote.
7 Pearl Islands: Sandra Diaz-Twine
Survivor: Pearl Islands introduced many Survivor players that would go on to be some of the most familiar faces in franchise history. These included Jonny FairPlay, Rupert Boneham, and the first two-time winner, Sandra Diaz-Twine.
This season featured the Outcast Twist, in which those voted out were given a chance back in the game. Burton and Lil returned on Day 19, with Lil finding herself in the Final Two against 29-year-old Sandra. Lil chose to take Sandra with her over the villainous Jonny FairPlay, and Sandra won in a 6-1 vote.
6 The Amazon: Jenna Morasca
In season 6 of the reality show, the tribes were separated by gender, leading to sexist comments by the men and the underestimating of the female competitors.
21-year-old Jenna Morasca teamed up with Heidi Strobel and fought hard to make it to the end of the game. She eventually got so sick toward the end that she nearly quit, but when she decided to power through and grab some immunity wins, she made it to the final two. She chose Matthew to go with her and defeated him in a 6-1 vote to become the youngest female winner on Survivor.
5 Thailand: Brian Heidik
Though Survivor: Thailand is regarded as one of the worst seasons of the series, it still has its iconic moments, and “do nots” that future castaways should learn to live by.
The season featured the first offer of Mutiny and a fake merge. The fake merge happened when the castaways were played on the same beach in the middle of the game, leading them to believe they had become one tribe. The season’s winner was Brian Heidik, who beat Clay Jordan in a 4-3 vote after the latter was criticized for his relentless bullying and negative attitude.
4 Marquesas: Vecepia Towery
Survivor: Marquesas contained many firsts. The castaways were deprived of the regular small supply of food and matches to create a fire when they first arrived at the beach, and the infamous “purple rock” tie-breaker rule was enforced.
This season was the first appearance for future legend, ‘Boston’ Rob Mariano, one of the Survivor contestants that has played the most seasons, though he was ousted during the merge episode and did not make the jury. In the end, 36-year-old Vecepia Towery narrowly beat out 21-year-old Neleh Dennis in a 4-3 vote at the Final Tribal Council for her sneaky, laid-back strategy.
3 Africa: Ethan Zohn
Survivor: Africa had some of the harshest living conditions and introduced the first-ever tribe swap in Survivor history. Alliance members Tom, Lex, and Ethan kept their word to one another and made it to the Final Four alongside Kim.
Ethan’s likability and charm gave him the upper hand over Kim, who the jury thought got lucky. The soccer player ended up winning in a 5-2 vote, returned for All-Stars, and then once again for Winners at War.
2 The Australian Outback: Tina Wesson
Survivor: The Australian Outback was the longest season of Survivor to date, lasting 42 days instead of the standard 39.
39-year-old mother of two Tina Wesson made strong connections with just about everybody, one of the reasons she deserved to win, from those on her original tribe to those she merged with. She never received a vote against her in the game, and fans were shocked when Colby Donaldson chose her to go with him to the end over Keith Famie, who he surely would’ve defeated. Tina beat him in a 4-3 vote and became the first female winner on the show.
1 Borneo: Richard Hatch
Survivor‘s first season set the precedent for years to come, and introduced television viewers to 16 strangers they would remember forever.
On Day 1 of the game, Richard Hatch declared that he would be the Sole Survivor, and he was right. After forming the game’s first alliance with Rudy, Kelly, and Sue, the foursome made it to the final stage of the game. Kelly took Rich to the Final Two, thinking she could beat him over Rudy, but she was wrong when the final votes were read and he beat her in a 4-3 vote.
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