A self-described “socially awkward freaky nerd” from Oakton is now America’s Sole Survivor. John Cochran, a 26-year-old Harvard Law School graduate, managed to outwit, outplay and outlast 19 other Castaways on CBS’s hit reality show “Survivor” to take home the $1 million grand prize on Sunday night. Overnight, his posse of Twitter followers exploded to more than 100,000--more than legendary Survivor winner Boston Rob--and he has more Facebook friend requests than the site will allow him to accept. But he’ll return from Hollywood to his childhood home in Oakton this week, where he still lives in the bedroom he grew up in.
“It’s depressing,” he said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles after his win. “I’m a heartthrob on a TV show, but I’m still living at my parents’ house in my childhood bedroom, refreshing message boards and Twitter, and not doing much else.”
Survivor host Jeff Probst called him “perhaps the most unlikely Survivor winner” in the show’s 26-season history, but Cochran’s triumph was no fluke. He won four individual immunity challenges, never received a single vote against him, and was just the third person to win with a unanimous verdict from the seven-person jury. It was a startling turnaround for the pale, scrawny Oakton High School graduate, who received death threats after being labeled a traitor on Survivor South Pacific in 2012 and admitted prior to the start of this season that he didn’t deserve to be called a fan “favorite.”
“You were the zero on 90201,” said Probst on the reunion show, referring to Cochran’s unpopularity the first time he went on the show.
But it was a rocky start for Cochran this season, which was filmed on the Caramoan Islands in the Philippines last summer but concluded with a live reading of the jury votes in Los Angeles on Sunday night. On his first day, Cochran got a bad sunburn and his feet swelled up so big that he couldn’t fit into his shoes.
“It was a heck of a way to start the game,” he recalled. “I was lying on the beach with my feet elevated, trying to get the swelling to subside, while everyone else was frolicking in the ocean.”
But he recovered and as a host of other big personalities on the show flamed out, he stayed under the radar, quietly plotting, and, unlike last time, remaining calm and collected.
“I was such a nervous wreck the first time I played,” said Cochran, who finished his law degree at Harvard in late February. “This time around, I felt at ease with everyone in the tribe. It was a big group of weirdos, but with a group of weirdos, I was able to blend right in.”
In the show’s eighth episode, Cochran won his first-ever immunity challenge, devouring live beetle grubs, a shipworm, a duck embryo, and some pig brains faster than any of his competitors.
“My whole philosophy was to swallow everything whole, because when you bite into it, it secretes juice and you feel the texture in your mouth; that’s what caused people to get sick,” he said. “The shipworm actually wasn’t too bad. The pig brain was the easiest but I think it made me sick.”
After winning the challenge, Cochran did a celebratory shadowboxing dance and he seemed to carry a newfound confidence that never left him. In one episode, an attractive female castaway let Cochran lick some peanut butter off of her finger and Probst mockingly asked him, “How often does that happen to you, Cochran?”
“It happens more often than you think,” quipped Cochran, suddenly full of bravado.
After orchestrating the ouster of Brenda, one of the season’s more popular players, Cochran says he got a few death threats, but for every one of those, there were scores of new fans. He returned to live at his parents’ house in Oakton in late February and has been doing nothing but watching the show and fretting over whether he was going to win the $1 million.
“I’ve just been sitting in my bedroom, fretting over stuff I read on the Internet,” said Cochran, who watched one of the Survivor episodes at a bar called Red Line in the District, and most at home. “I’m so distracted when the show is on, I don’t have the energy or desire to do anything else.”
His parents, Arlene and Jack, traveled to the Caramoans to appear in the season’s penultimate episode and also hosted viewing parties at their home. They were also on hand in Los Angeles on Sunday night, along with his aunt and uncle, his grandma and a friend, when the jury votes were announced on live TV. Cochran was wearing a trendy vest with a loose tie and some new glasses; a look he says his mother engineered. He told the audience he wanted to be a writer, not a lawyer, but now says he isn’t quite sure what he was talking about.
“I’m still probably going to take the bar exam in February, even though I don’t want to be a lawyer,” he said. “Now I have a little bit of a safety net where I can fool around and figure out what I want to do. I have no idea what sort of writing I was even talking about. The idea of sitting own and writing stuff seems romantic and appealing to me.”
For the moment, he hasn’t hired an agent or a publicist or decided exactly how he wants to spend his money.
“I don’t have anything too reckless or extravagant in mind,” said Cochran, who is thinking about moving to New York, California or wherever he gets a job. “But I’m entitled to some splurge, an impulse buy. I’m thinking about getting a Segway. I know it’s not cool or practical and I’ll probably regret it after I’m on the thing for a couple minutes.”
Cochran still doesn’t have a girlfriend, and admits that he still gets approached by all the wrong women.
“When I go to Tysons, the people who approach me are over the age of 60 or under the age of 12,” he said. “It’s the very old and the very, very young.”
But the first question he was asked on the reunion show referred to him as a sex symbol and he admits that women in his own demographic are starting to take notice of his newfound confidence, which he attributes to his Survivor success.
“I’ll never be a big lothario, but I’m getting better,” he said.
Cochran thinks he can capitalize on his newfound notoriety, that is, if he can decide what he wants to do with his life. He says he’s done playing Survivor but he already misses it.
“It is a little sad,” he admitted. “The finale weekend ends and the level of interest drops off very drastically. The next cast gets announced and you have a short shelf life. You are reminded of that every time a new season rolls around.”