After 25 days on a Samoan island with a group of “Survivor” castaways — each vying for a chance to win $1 million — John Cochran faced a stark choice.
If he stayed loyal to his Savaii Tribe, he was likely to be voted out of the game. If he betrayed his alliance and jumped to the rival Upolu tribe, he’d be branded a traitor, but might have a chance to progress deeper into the game.
The Oakton native chose to ditch his tribe and paid an immediate price.
Tribemate Jim Rice called him a “coward” and “a poor excuse for a man,” while Whitney Duncan, another tribemate sniffed, “You disgust me.” The tribe had spoken, but the reaction online was nastier.
“I don’t want to call them death threats, but people were saying they wished I was dead on Facebook and Twitter,” said the 25-year-old third-year Harvard law student, who came to be known simply as “Cochran” on the CBS reality show, now in its 24th season. “It upset my mom more than me. She was reading every last page of this stuff on the Internet.”
The move didn’t pan out for Cochran. He was voted out by his new alliance two episodes after he made the flip, and then narrowly lost out on a chance to re-enter the game — extinguishing his hopes of winning the $1 million. But aside from the vitriol, he also won legions of fans who liked his witty personality and respected the fact he made it 31 days into the competition, despite being a 5-foot-9, 140 pound geek in a game dominated by brawny studs.
Now back at Harvard — after taking the fall semester off to bask in the “fleeting notoriety of being a reality TV star” in Fairfax County — Cochran said his decision to jump ship made sense in light of his low standing in his tribe and the way he was scapegoated by the clique of buff, popular kids in his tribe.
“I was always being reminded that I was at the bottom of the totem pole,” said Cochran, who practiced for the show by chopping coconuts with a machete in the driveway of his parents’ home in Oakton. “I wouldn’t say it was bullying, but it was condescension and disrespect.”
After contestants who make it far enough to become voting members of the Survivor jury — those who decide which contestant gets the $1 million — are voted off, they’re sent to a sort of rest and relaxation camp called Ponderosa.
Cochran said he lost 20 pounds during his 31 days in the game, but quickly put the weight back on, gorging on Snickers bars and other junk food at Ponderosa. But despite the bounty of treats, his former tribemates ostracized him at the camp.
“It was uncomfortable to say the least,” he said.
But Cochran said despite all the rigors and stress of the game, he’d leap at the chance to compete again.
“You’re miserable out there. You’re hungry, sleep deprived, and you’re surrounded by people you hate, but then you get back home and you really, really miss it,” he said.
He collected a mid-five figure payment for being on the show and returned to his parents’ home in Oakton in mid-July. Rather than return to Harvard for the fall semester, he decided to stay put.
“I didn’t want to deal with the stress of being in school and also the anxiety of watching myself on TV,” he said. “I probably sound like a prima donna, but I was concerned with how I came across. They have 400 hours worth of footage for every 40-minute episode, so they can create any story line they want. In my case, they managed to find all my embarrassing moments.”
In a season in which several contestants were hardly featured on the show, Cochran became a darling of the camera crew who was featured heavily on nearly every episode prior to having his torch extinguished in the season’s 12th episode. Online, Survivor fans debated his every move — everyone either loved or hated him. Cochran said he couldn’t help but go online to see what people were saying, and some of the nasty comments were pretty scary.
“The comments section of any website is pretty much like the scum of the earth coming out of the woodwork,” he said.
Jury members cast their votes before leaving the island in July, but no one is allowed to reveal their vote until they are read on live TV in December, during the reunion episode. Cochran said anyone who violates the hush clause in their contract can be sued for $5 million by CBS.
He had a feeling that Sophie Clarke, the 22 year-old eventual winner from upstate New York, would take home the $1 million, but he didn’t know for sure until he and six relatives saw it happen live in Los Angeles.
Cochran returned to Harvard for his final year of law school in January, but being on “Survivor” has caused him to rethink his goals.
“I don’t even know if I want to be a lawyer anymore,” he said. “Being on the show, I had a chance to think, ‘OK, I’m out here eating coconuts and sleeping under the Samoan stars, do I really want to be a lawyer?’ I don’t want to make a career out of being a reality TV contestant, but you get the idea that there are other paths in life.”
He said he gets recognized more in Fairfax County than at Harvard, where students don’t have much time for reality TV, and his love life and self confidence have improved. He doesn’t have a steady girlfriend, but has had some dates, and no longer has the fear of rejection that once inhibited him from asking women out.
“The only problem is that I’m more popular with the cougar demographic,” he joked.
Cochran has no idea what he’ll do after law school, but for the moment, he’s proud to have made his mark as a “memorable character” on Survivor.
“I hope you don’t hear from me a year from now and I’m trying to find the next reality show to appear on,” he said. “The reality TV circuit is a sad community I don’t want to be a part of. But who knows, maybe in a year I’ll have a new dating show on some weird channel you’ve never heard of.”