Reality TV

EXCLUSIVE: Commando Steve Willis becomes the 18th person eliminated from Australian Survivor

'The kids love it, they’re so emotionally invested.'
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Steve ‘Commando’ Willis became the 18th person eliminated from Australian Survivor, after a brutal tribal council twist named him the ‘dead man walking’ and left him unable to cast a vote.

The 42-year-old Army veteran and trainer became the target of fellow Champion Brian, who succeeded in convincing contestants, including Shonee and Fenella, to vote against him.

Though he was sad to leave the competition so close to the finish line, he says he’s been forever changed by the ‘unique’ experience.

We caught up with Steve to find out more about his ‘rivalry’ with Brian, what his family think about the show, and his favourite memories from his time on Australian Survivor.

TV WEEK: Cats out of the bag! Were you excited for the episode to air or maybe a little bit nervous?

Steve: Well, I know what happens! Excited but I guess there were some nerves because you are on a television show and people love to comment on social media about how you play the game. It’s all based in expectation really and, you let people down and they let you know about it.

A lot of people on social media have been saying they’re really enjoying watching you on the show! It’s certainly shown us a different side to you, we’re used to seeing you on TV in a different way as a tough trainer. Have you been getting a lot of positive comments?

Oh yeah there’s definitely been a positive reaction and people have gotten to see another side of ‘The Commando,’ like you said, and I guess how I deal with difficult situations, and Survivor isn’t a walk in the park.

Jonathan Lapaglia snuffs The Commando’s torch at tribal council.

Are you watching it back with your kids? And are they loving getting to see you take on all the challenges and play the game?

Oh yeah the kids love it, they’re so emotionally invested and I think that’s what happens for a lot of people. They become so emotionally invested in something like this and they gravitate towards the characters, whether they had known of them in the past or not, there are certain strengths and the elements those individuals portray that the viewer likes. Yeah the kids though, they love it. I’m their dad though, so they love me regardless.

They must have been so excited when you came home, what was it like to see each other after so long?

It was amazing! It was about fifty days, more than fifty days of not talking to them or seeing them. Like what’s that seven weeks I didn’t see them? They were quite emotional, I was quite emotional. I feel that playing the game and having been a part of it was a very profound experience, it was quite an enlightening experience. There was a lot that I’ve taken from playing the game, in that I’m so much more respectful and grateful in the everyday sense. I’m just being in the present moment.

Some of the other contestants have said something similar, that it made them appreciate what they have or gave them a new perspective…

Yeah, all of the things we build into our lives to give ourselves an identity are removed. You’re challenged on a regular basis, where you might be feeling uneasy in yourself and a little agitated or unsure, and there’s fear, and there is nothing to escape into. You can go for a bit of a walk down the beach to try and remove yourself from others, but ultimately if you can’t connect with yourself, you find yourself quite worn out at times. It would affect your sleep, your mind would constantly be going. There’s just this uncertainty.

Which brings us to the episode last night, you know being sent off to exile beach as the dead man walking. What were you feeling suddenly being so alone…

For me, I guess, ‘stricken’ to be dead man walking. I’ve essentially had any semblance of looking after myself – in the sense of my vote – taken away from me. By going to exile beach I couldn’t communicate with anybody to try and… concern is probably a better word. I was concerned for myself, and I couldn’t reassure myself that people were onside with me, because you’re left to your own devices and your own mind. Like ‘oh are they talking about me’, ‘are they plotting about me’, ‘are they voting me out’.

You can let that really get the better of you and I just had to accept it. And that’s something I’ve worked on my whole life, acceptance of what is, and it really came to a head that evening when I found myself on exile beach.

Were you hopeful that Shane and Sharn were back at the camp working hard on your behalf, to score another vote?

I truly believed that they were. I felt that the three of us had a strong enough bond, and the way in which Mat went out of the game actually reinforced that bond. We weren’t willing to turn our backs on one another to further our game for the sake of it by aligning with people who’d blindsided one of our own. If anything, trying to work out a way in which we could get rid of one of them, if we could swing a vote in our favour to regain an upper hand. It’s tricky those numbers, and I was saying it before, we’d figured out that 11, 9, 7 and 5, that’s when anyone is most vulnerable because that’s the odd number and it just takes one person to jump ship and that power base is shifted.

Steve goes solo on Exile Beach.

There was a moment at tribal council were Brian said Shane had been carried through the challenges, and you spoke up and told him to have some respect. Did you feel he just needed to be put in his place?

I think reminding ourselves that we’re playing a game, and that we’re ultimately humans and we all deserve a certain level of respect, is important. To remind ourselves before we open our mouths of who we’re talking to, or who we’re talking about. You know, people go ‘oh they’re just playing a game’ but ah, it started to get a bit low.

That’s the tactics though and unfortunately that sort of behaviour surfaces when people feel pressure and they’re trying to create a diversion because they’re uncomfortable. People are acting out of fear and uncertainty and you don’t just see it on Survivor, you see it in everyday life too. We’re so quick to tear others down in order to prop ourselves up and make ourselves feel complete, and to draw the attention away from our inadequacies and I think that’s what transpired. I was just drawing the line a little bit and pulling everyone up and saying hang on a second, let’s be a little more respectful towards one another.

Yourself and Mat spoke a lot about playing the game with dignity and respect for others, and you certainly seemed to. Are you happy with the game you played or do you have any regrets?

Totally because I got a lot further than I thought I would! I didn’t think I’d make it past week three and I made it to 42 days in to the game, eight days from the finish line. To make it to merge and make it onto the jury was a fantastic feat. There were some decisions made collectively amongst alliances that I feel would have shifted the positions – not the positions, but the outcomes around things – but those outcomes, I mean who knows what would have happened? I’m talking rather than Tegan going home, Brian going home. We had a choice at that point in time but Brian kind of convinced Mat that he was onside with us and Tegan went home.

The vote to eliminate Tegan over Brian certainly seems like a turning point in the game, it had some pretty major repercussions for everyone…

Totally. I mean Brian was just bidding his time. But, hey, it is what it is and I think it was amazing. I absolutely loved playing Survivor and being fortunate enough to play the game and participate in the challenges, because some of them were really tough. Like balancing a ball on a flat piece of board for an hour while standing on a crate, I would have never have dreamt something up like that myself! And when you’re tired and you haven’t been eating much, doing that type of stuff is tough.

Steve and Brian shared a tense moment at his final tribal council.

One of the good things about making it so far in the game is joining the jury. Were you excited to head to jury villa and take a proper shower, eat good food and all of that?

I really embraced my experience on Survivor and to go to jury villa it was quite… it was so different coming back to everyday life. Having a hot shower, and some food, and conversing with people outside of Survivor where the game is all your focused on, I found it quite weird at the start. It took me weeks even after I got home to Australia to adjust. It definitely changed me, I’ve definitely grown from it and I’m so much more grateful, respectful, in my life for being able to get up each day and take a breath, walk on my two legs, say good morning to my loved ones, and go about the things I do, and just enjoy life. It’s so beautiful.

One thing that often shocks people when they arrive in jury villa is seeing their reflection after such a long time. What did you think? Was there a lot of weight loss or maybe some excitement seeing your epic beard?

I think I lost about seven kilos – there were others that lost a lot more – but I was still lean, though, I looked like a greyhound. I was like oh wow the beard! I’ve been saying for so long how I want to grow a beard and boom, I’ve got one now! A legitimate reason to be able to grow it, too.

What did the kids think when you came home? Any big opinions about the beard…

No, no, there were no big opinions on the beard. I think it was just the weight loss, like Dad looking skinny, or skinnier than I had been. But yeah nothing other than that, more just questions about my experience and what was it like. Just that sort of inquisitive nature. They’ve been loving watching the show. A lot of the questions they’ve had have really been answered by watching. They love it.

Australian Survivor airs Monday and Tuesday, 7:30pm, on Network Ten.

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