Helen Li: Outwit. outplay. outlast.


Credit: Alyssa Ao

Helen Li, a 29-year-old product manager who grew up in Wayland, became a contestant on season 44 of the reality game show “Survivor,” which is currently airing on CBS. “‘Survivor’ is just this unfathomable situation that you can’t find anywhere else,” Li said.

Penelope Biddle

Wayland native, Helen Li, was one of 18 castaways on season 44 of “Survivor.” Li has already finished filming in Fiji and is back at her current home in San Francisco, California. However, like any other “Survivor” fan, Li has to wait until May 24 to watch the finale and find out who wins the title of “Sole Survivor.”

Li grew up in Wayland and attended the Happy Hollow Elementary School and Wayland Middle School before heading to Buckingham Browne & Nichols, a private school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she graduated in 2011. She then began her freshman year at Dartmouth College, which is where her “Survivor” journey began.

“I got to know a group of people and was trying to make friends my freshman year,” Li said in an interview with Parade. “They were really excited about season 25 of Survivor in the Philippines because there was someone on the season who had graduated from our school. So they were like, ‘Do you want to join us on this fantasy draft? We’re gonna make it a thing. We’re gonna watch every week and keep up with it.’ I then started watching that season, and ever since then I was absolutely hooked.”

Li has been watching “Survivor” for ten years, and it’s become her favorite show. She was first drawn to the game because of her passion for having new experiences, which she says is how she learns and grows the most.

“I’ve always wanted to [play ‘Survivor’],” Li said. “I think I’m just someone who loves adventure and doing crazy new experiences, and this was just the ultimate dream of what you could put yourself out there to do.”

She decided to audition for the show in 2017. It wasn’t until her second audition, at the beginning of 2021, that she officially became a cast member on the 44th season. After being chosen by CBS, Li had to complete a number of steps before being featured on the show.

“You hear back from casting and you go through a bunch of different hurdles,” Li said. “Obviously there’s paperwork, there’s a bunch of medical checks, things like that. It’s a long process.”

Once the preseason protocol was finished, it was time for Li to head off to Fiji, where the show was filmed, but the game had yet to start. Instead, the cast members waited out in a pregame period until filming began.

“We don’t even know each other’s names,” Li said. “We only know each other’s initials. So you have a few days where you’re not allowed to talk to each other, but you’re starting to already form some first impressions. Then, all of that can change the second you’re actually face-to-face and able to have a conversation on that first day.”

Li had to fully commit to the castaway lifestyle. During the pregame, cast members occupied themselves with solitary activities like journaling, reading or doing puzzles and crosswords. When the show started, all of that changed.

“The production team is very strict,” Li said. “We all go through a security check so that nothing that’s not allowed on the island is brought to the island. One thing that I was very pleasantly surprised by is how seriously ‘Survivor’ takes fairness. So if you’re trying to go in there and have like a Swiss army knife in your underwear or something like that, they will find it and take it away. You go in there with nothing but the clothes on your back.”

Finally, Li officially became a contestant on “Survivor.”

“No one really warns you that it’s gonna happen, but you’re coming off these boats and jumping into the water and walking up onto the island and you see host Jeff Probst standing there in his ‘Survivor’ hat and his shirt,” Li said. “It’s just the most surreal thing because you see the challenge is set up, the puzzles are all out there, and the other two tribes are already standing on their mats. And it just felt like you’re transported into your television, and it was almost like an out of body experience.”

It’s just the most surreal thing because you see the challenge is set up, the puzzles are all out there, and the other two tribes are already standing on their mats. And it just felt like you’re transported into your television, and it was almost like an out of body experience

— Helen Li

The 18 cast members had been split into three tribes. Li was on the Tika tribe, where she had to adjust to being around other cast members 24/7. She learned that it’s not as easy as it seems when watching from home.

“What surprised me personally is I think you watch the show and you put yourself in the mindset of the players that you feel most similar to,” Li said. “Then when I got out there, I was like, oh shoot, I kind of forget that these huge personalities on the show, like, of course you’re also living with them.”

Tika was made up of Li, Carolyn Wiger, Yam Yam Arocho, Carson Garrett, Sarah Wade and Bruce Perreault. From early on, the Tika tribe was down on its luck with Perreault, who Li describes as a leader on their team, injuring himself in the first challenge. As his injury proved to need further medical attention, he was pulled from the game.

“All of us, at this point, were huge super fans who had wanted it for so long, and to see Bruce so quickly get taken out of the game was just heartbreaking because you think about how this guy left his family, his kids, and how he’s wanted this for so long,” Li said. “All of us have, so it must be the worst to not even feel like you got to play, and then be taken out of the game. So I’m really happy he’s getting invited back because there’s no one more deserving.”

Tika, which Li said felt like was now starting at a disadvantage, lost its second immunity challenge. This meant Tika was sent to tribal council, which resulted in Li facing the upsetting blind side that sent her home.

“I went into the tribal council definitely thinking things were gonna go my way and didn’t realize they weren’t until Jeff flipped over that first vote,” she said. “It was my vote in my handwriting for Carolyn. That’s always a terrible sign because that means that most people probably didn’t vote with me in most cases. It was definitely devastating, and I had to go through a whole grieving period after I got voted out.”

After Li left the game, Tika’s unlucky streak continued with a reward challenge loss and two more immunity challenge losses. However, watching the season back now, Li gets to see the show through the eyes of both a player and a fan.

“Not only do I get to watch this amazing season with this amazing cast, but I have a front row seat because I know these people and they’re my friends,” Li said. “It’s just such a fun experience seeing my friends play out there and seeing what they do, and obviously, some of this stuff I knew about or heard about, but just seeing it play out on the screen, it’s so fun.”