Ever since losing the fire-making challenge to finish in fourth place on Survivor 45, Katurah Topps has had time to reflect on her Survivor experience. She was a hugely likable personality on the show from Day 1, when she clashed with a returning Bruce Perrault, both face-to-face on the Bello tribe and in her many frustrated confessionals. Her personal story was one of the most compelling Survivor has ever seen. In the season finale, Katurah's fateful decision to vote out Julie instead of Dee at the final five was a safe play that likely spelled her doom. Now, with a new Survivor season coming on February 28, Katurah sat down to talk with Primetimer about good advice — both the kind she received and that she’d like to impart — what it was like to navigate "new school" Survivor without any of its plentiful advantages, and how her personal history impacted her game.
What was the best piece of advice that you got before you entered season 45?
The best piece of advice I got before going into the game was "pay attention." When they said it to me, the person was like "Watch. Like really watch. Some of my favorite instances of really great game play don't come from clear explicit things happening, it comes from those cues where someone is just paying attention. I noticed these people walked away; I noticed this group does this. You know, little things like that, where you could miss it.
Is that something that came into play when you were first starting out on your original Bello tribe, [where] you could sense that they were drifting towards Bruce instead of you?
Just straight right to the point, huh? [laughs]
I watched a bunch of your interview clips a bit ago, and I could feel that frustration!
The biggest thing I learned about being out there is to throw away the Survivor rule book. It's really about humans and what humans feel good with, what humans don't feel good with, how some humans need to feel like they're being led, and some humans need to feel like they're leading. It really is a game of human chess, and if you're not watching very closely on what these humans do, I feel like you're going to be SOL.
Do you think you would have been worse off if you had been open about your career?
Yeah, I do. That's a big question that people always ask, "Why didn't you just say you were a lawyer from the beginning?" And I think about it, and I think about who that would have helped me with. Potentially it would help me bond with Jake, with him being another lawyer. That would have been good for those earlier stages.
But I don't think it benefits me in any other way, in any other space, with any other player. And I don't think the benefit of telling Jake would have outweighed the risk of people being like, "Here's what I view about lawyers, and here's how I can attribute it to you." And also, Jake and I really did talk about legal things and put a legal lens on things. I still talked to him about the work I do, the work I was passionate about. I just made it sound like I was a social worker or general public interest [advocate].
We bonded on that pretty quickly, so I don't think it would have changed much about our relationship. What it would have done, though, is establish me as the most senior skilled attorney in the entire game. And we saw people were not really loving me even without knowing that, and so I feel like that would just be a really easy way to be like, "And on top of this, she's super smart she's been a lawyer for ten years." So I think it was the best decision I made. It actually makes me nervous about future seasons, because I'm like if I ever play again, I can't lie about it!
Along those same lines, when it comes to other players, what careers or lifestyles would set off alarm bells for you for other people when you're like, "Oh, I have to watch out for this person?"
I think Sales. I remember watching… was it [Season] 44?
I think it was 44. [Ed. Note: It was Season 43] "Beware salespeople."
Yeah, exactly. It was like a whole thing, and I was like "Salespeople?!" That's not a field I would traditionally be nervous about. But seeing how skilled Kaleb was [on Season 45], I was like "Wow!" It really is a testament to how you're able to connect with humans when you are doing that every day and that's your livelihood.
The so-called "new school" Survivor is very known for having a ton of advantages, some brought over from old seasons, some of them are new for the new season. What is it like to navigate the game A) without finding an advantage, and B) not knowing what kind of new advantages they're going to throw at you in your season?
Joe, I swear you're just hitting me in all the spots! [laughs] So the craziest thing is, I remember going into the game and I said to myself, you know, you'll find one idol that you'll share with your alliance so that they can build trust with you, and then you'll find another one that you'll only share with your number one person. And [later] I was like, oh damn, that was pretty presumptuous of me to assume that I would find two! And I didn't find any!
You were dreaming of the Austin experience.
Right? Oh my God, Austin hit the jackpot with all the advantages he found. So I found myself kind of panicking a lot about what advantages were out there. Because one, I didn't find any myself, but I also didn't feel that I had an alliance where people would tell me if they did find advantages. And so because of that, and knowing right before we went to Fiji the last thing we saw on [Season] 44 was birdcages [laughs] and producers laying out fake idols, which I had never seen before.
So I'm like, really [there could be any kind of advantages] out here, and I'd have no idea to know. And if you don't have it yourself, the next best thing is to have the information about it. So it was terrifying, because I was just always thinking any moment a ball is going to drop, somebody's going to play something or do something at tribal. And we had so many twists that were unexpected, like I feel like we constantly had people losing their votes in my season. So it was kind of like "If this is happening, what else could be out there advantage-wise or disadvantage-wise?" So yeah, it was terrifying.
Survivor’s had these recurring moments that become landmarks in the game — “truths” that Jeff Probst will talk about as if they're self-evident. One is that letters from home or visits from home provide the contestants with an emotional or spiritual boost that they need to get through the rest of the game. Your experience was obviously very different. Can you talk a little bit about what that was like?
It's giving me literally the opposite, right yeah. You know, I remember preparing for the game and being so excited about the letters, and telling my close friends — I even think I had a partner at the time — being like, "All right, here's what you guys write in the letter. I need people only sending me letters who know Katurah, to say those words [that will be] my fuel.” So I think Jeff is right. 99.9% of the time it is your fuel.
I had specifically not wanted a letter from my mom, because I knew this was a risky emotional space. If I'm lucky enough to get letters, that means I'm deep in the game. And if I'm deep in the game, it's likely that things [will be] precarious. It's not [going to be] great and easy breezy. So I was like, I don't want anything that could potentially disrupt my emotional equilibrium because I'm sure I'll already be low. And then of course that is exactly what happened, and I learned how much it can impact the entire rest of your game too. It impacted me on the very next day at the challenge, that was the first time I had my panic attack. And it's so crazy, because I didn't even know it was from the letters. I thought I would be fine.
And then I saw on the opposite side, where after that panic-attack challenge and I got those letters, it put such a bad taste in my mouth about them. And I had already been feeling very alone and vulnerable, so I was dying for my letters. I was dying to have something that lets me remember that actually I'm not alone and there are people rooting for me. So, I tucked my letters in the bottom of my bag and I did not touch them again for the rest of the game. Even now, I haven't looked at them ever again. While on the other hand, Dee would constantly reread her letters. We would just be living life or whatever and we'd be like "What's going on?" She's like, "I gotta go read my letters." And I think that was just fueling her along the way.
Did it maybe impact your decision to open up to Jake and Julie on the beach in the moment that you did, when you let them in a little bit more about your past and your story?
No, I don't think the letters did. I think it was that this was day 20. It's been a long time, you had the exhaustion of everything. Also, Bruce left on day 19, and I remember being like, this should be a moment where I feel like I got a little bit of a victory, because I got out someone who was an opponent. But in reality I felt drained. When you've been having your guard up for so long and then the reason you've had it up [goes away], you can drop your shoulders. You're like, I'm just going to lay here; I'm spent now. I felt that around day 20. [But also] it's day 20, at any moment I could leave. Any moment, Survivor could come to an end [for me]. Let me not let this moment go without telling my story.
The fan reaction I saw was so great.
I didn't expect people to react to it so much. That's one of the biggest lessons I've learned from the game is it's so powerful to tell your story. I was raised in a cult, I was a 13-year-old girl engaged to a 68-year-old man, no one's gonna understand this. No one's gonna relate to this. This isn't what most people are dealing with. Most people don't say "I got pulled out of school at 10 years old and was told to go raise children." And my experience is so specific; I'm talking about being a Black, gay, poor woman. Most people — especially most Survivor fans — aren't like, "Yeah, that's my life!" I was like, "Will people even care?" And I was shocked by how many people just supported me and rallied around me. They said, "I don't for sure have the exact same story, but I know what it feels like to have religious trauma." Or no contact with the parent, or family issues, or all these other things. It felt really liberating for me.
What is one piece of advice you wish you had gotten and that you want to pass on to future players on the show?
This sounds crazy to say, as it's almost intuitive, and I probably should have already walked into the game knowing it, but I walked into the game thinking "You need to survive. And you're going to be the best equipped because you've been trying to survive for so long." And I think I should have been thinking "You need to win."
I was planning to win; my whole thing was I'm going to win, I'm going to win. But I thought I was going to win by surviving, and all I have to do is survive, because as I'm surviving, I'm going to be making moves along the way. I'm going to be doing stuff, I'm gonna be me, I'm an intellectual player. I'll do something along the way, you just gotta make sure you don't get hit and taken out. And I think my biggest lesson — obviously at final five — was to make the big move even if it means you might go home. Because the risk of not making the move means you might not win. That would be my advice to people — swing for the fences. Don't swing too early, but still swing.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.