Colton Cumbie may have left Survivor: One World after only 16 days due to a bacterial infection, but he spent seemingly every waking moment of those 2+ weeks establishing himself as an unrepentant villain, a casual elitist, and a racist who declared that fellow castmate Bill was “ghetto trash” and that the only black person he regularly interacted with was his “housekeeper.” Nowadays, the 22-year-old gay Alabama native is both apologetic and ready to explain himself, and you might be seeing him do it as he interfaces with Jeff Probst yet again: Cumbie is returning to Survivor on its new season Blood Vs. Water, which premieres this Wednesday, and he’s paired up on the Phillipine island of Palaui with his fiance, 26-year-old farmer Caleb Bankston. As Bankston says himself, he’s almost nothing like Colton, and it’s clear he’s a tempering influence on his fiance’s maniacal, strategizing ways. But it remains to be seen whether their dichotomy will make for effective gameplay.
We caught up with Cumbie (pictured left) and Bankston (pictured right) to discuss being split up into competing tribes (just like the other returning Survivor veterans this season — including One World alums Monica Culpepper and Kat Edorsson — and their newcomer loved ones), Colton’s reputation, and why Colton says his “heart breaks” for the equally incendiary Aaryn from the current season of Big Brother.
TheBacklot: You guys have been together for awhile, since well before Colton was on Survivor. Three years now? How did you meet?
Caleb Bankston: Four now! My mama decided that I needed a higher education, so she sent me off to Alabama. While I was there, I was working on my political science degree, got it, then started law school. That’s when I met Colton in a little cafe that I used to eat at pretty much every day for a sandwich. We met, started dating, and of course I knocked him head over heels.
Colton Cumbie: I thought you were about to say you knocked me up!
CB: As bad as I want a kid, no, I’m not going to do that to you. Anyway, in law school, I decided it wasn’t for me. Poor Colton, he thought he was going to get a lawyer. It didn’t work out that way.
TBL: So what did you do after that?
CB: I dropped law school and stayed there kind of thinking I’d get an MBA or a Master’s or something. When the April 2011 tornadoes came through, that’s when we decided we were going to move away from Tuscaloosa and I was going to go back on the farm and be a farmer. I brought him with me, and he decided he wanted to be a teacher. So now he’s in Jacksonville State University.
CC: So we basically went from lawyer and socialite to farmer and teacher. We’re very humbled.
TBL: Did Survivor and the ensuing mania over Colton’s behavior affect your relationship?
CB: I guess it strengthened it. Like most people, Colton was insecure. He went on the defensive any time there was an opportunity for someone to go up against him. In our relationship, I’m kind of — well, I’m really passive. He can call the shots and I could care less. It’s whatever makes him happy. Our relationship was fine, and it strengthened because Colton would call me because he read something, blogs, whatever. I would say, “These people? They don’t matter. They don’t know you. All of your friends are still your friends. Your family still loves you. I still love you. You need to just turn your computer off and go watch TV or something.” He kind of grew more secure just knowing that I don’t care what people say about him. Nothing’s going to change that. With that, Survivor kind of helped him realize there’s really nothing he could do or that anyone could say that would change my views of him.
TBL: Caleb, you obviously said plenty of things on the show that were construed — with reason — as bigoted. At home, did your gay and straight friends react differently to seeing you become such a villain on the show?
CC: No. Not really. I really only have two gay friends. They’re not really on every corner here in Alabama. I wouldn’t say it was very different. Honestly, and this is just me and my negativity showing, but I was really shocked. I was 19, really young, when I was on Survivor. When I was out there and saying the stuff I was saying, the producers were laughing, people were laughing, and I thought I was being funny. Sometimes I took it way too far and it became hateful, but for the most part — and I say this all the time — if I say something inappropriate, I mean it as a joke. I’m not trying to offend you. I make my fun of my friends; I make fun of one of my friends and she and her boyfriend are celibate right now. I give her a hard time all the time, but it’s a joke. I honestly don’t mean to hurt anyone. So I was just kind of shocked by the reaction of people. I didn’t realize that people felt that strongly about me because in my life when I say something, people just laugh.
TBL: Would you say the show was eye-opening for you on a personal level then?
CC: Yeah, I think Survivor was kind of a like a stepping stone for me in terms of exposing me to different people from different ways of life other than mine. I still live in Alabama; we actually live in a town smaller than the one I grew up in. It’s a smaller town, but there’s a wider range of people, cultures, heritage, and all that kind of stuff.
TBL: I was wondering if you related to any other reality stars with similar reputations. Did you watch Aaryn on this recent season of Big Brother?
CC: I knew that’s where you were going to go with this. Here’s how I feel: Caleb and I watched the night Aaryn got evicted. I’m not saying I felt bad for her because of the things she said or anything like that, but I really — I told Caleb this — my heart is breaking for her because of the position she’s in right now. And yes, just like I did it to myself, she did it to herself. She said the things she said; I said the things I said. I get that. But I know where she’s coming from. What kills me is that everyone from Texas wants to turn against Aaryn and say, “She does not represent Texas.” Like, what are you talking about? She exactly represented Texas — just like I exactly represented Alabama. We didn’t just grow up one day and say, “You know what? We’ll just have these hateful, bigoted thoughts.” Obviously we developed them from somewhere.
Bigotry isn’t something that’s just born, you know what I mean? While her situation is obviously very different from mine — she’s a beautiful woman who probably doesn’t struggle in life — and those are probably the views of people around her, those were the views of the majority of my state! I live in a state where I can’t even get married because of bigots. I live in a state where blacks and whites couldn’t get married until the federal government made it happen. It kills me when people from “the great state” of any place in the Bible Belt decide they’re going to turn on one of their own and say they’re not a representative of the state. Well, yeah, we are. We may not be a representative of you, but we are a representative of the state.
TBL: Speaking of reality stars, the cast of Survivor: Blood Vs. Water is full of the game’s veterans. Were you particularly excited or intimidated by any of the returning veterans?
CB: I’d have to say the biggest one — and it’s weird because I’m a fan sometimes and not a fan sometimes — but of Rupert. When you think about Survivor, you think about Rupert. That was the one I may not have been starstruck about, per se, but I thought, “Oh, it’d be fun to play with him since he’s been on so many times.” Tyson too. I thought, “I can’t wait to play with that guy because he’s pretty cool.”
CC: I was pleasantly surprised by who was there, just because I was like, “I’m not starstruck by any of these people.” Like, when Parvati showed up to do interviews with us, that was the most starstruck I was. It would’ve been a struggle for me going in to think, “I have to play with this person, and I absolutely adore them. I don’t want to vote them out! What if they don’t like me? What if they’re in a different alliance?” I didn’t really have that problem. None of them really stood out as my top 20 favorite Survivors ever.
TBL: When you said you got to meet Parvati, a chill of excitement ran through me.
CC: Exactly. But of the people playing the game, I was most starstruck by Tyson’s girlfriend. I was like, “Wait. Who is she? I think I’ve seen her in something? She was on the cover of Vogue, right?”
— Colton Cumbie (@ColtonCumbie) September 11, 2013
TBL: Did you guys anticipate being split up?
CB: We had thought, “How could it go? This way? That way?” We were trying to figure it out ahead of time. You can’t prepare ’til you’re there.
TBL: Colton, would you have been able to do the show again by yourself?
CC: No. Probably not. I didn’t want to do the show again. Caleb really wanted to do it, and I really wanted to do it with him. I was back and forth about it, even when I found out Caleb was going. I would have days where I’d say, “I don’t want to do this again. I don’t want to go through it.” He kept saying, “It’s whatever you want to do. You make the decision. If you want to do it, we’ll do it. If not, we won’t.” I knew he really wanted to. I was like, you know what? This is an opportunity for him. I’ve got to stop being selfish. It’s not just about me anymore. This is Caleb’s thing. We complement each other really well when we’re together in terms of survival. That’s his forte. He can build a hut and catch fish and start a fire and all that kind of stuff. I can strategize with the best of them.
CB: Going into it, we thought we were a really good power couple for the show.
TBL: Finally, without giving anything away, can you broadly compare both of your seasons, Colton? Is Blood Vs. Water a more positive experience? For everyone?
CC: I’ll just say that this time it was definitely tougher. Survivor is a game where if you’re going to be successful, you have to be selfish. You can’t get to the end of the game and win without taking out someone who might be your best friend because maybe you don’t think you can beat him. Look at Dawn and Brenda. Dawn would’ve never made it to the final three — and she still didn’t win — but she had to cut Brenda. That was the decision she had to make. She had to make a selfish move. If you look through the history of Survivor, a ton of selfish moves were made. People could say I was selfish by giving up immunity because I knew I was safe, because I was putting the rest of my tribe in jeopardy and weakening them so I could get rid of someone who was a threat to me. In this game, especially in this format, you can’t be selfish. Every move you make, you worry how it’s going to affect the people on the other side.