‘Survivor’ Finalist and Minnesota Native Carolyn Wiger Is All About Authenticity

Fans adored her ’I’m not changing anything about myself’ attitude
"Survivor" contestant Carolyn Wiger
“Survivor” contestant Carolyn Wiger

“Never underestimate a Minnesotan.” That’s the advice we’ve learned over the last few weeks watching the series finale of “Succession” and the season finale of “Survivor.”

Fictional and real Minnesota natives have triumphed, with (spoiler alert) St. Paul’s Tom Wambsgans (played remarkably by Matthew Macfadyen) rising to the top of the corporate world, and Carolyn Wiger (played expertly by herself) finishing in the top three of Season 44’s finalists.

We’ve explored what it means to be a Minnesotan in pop culture, but Wiger managed to smash all those oh-so-nice-and-reserved stereotypes. Emotional, approachable, adorable, Wiger was the mother of all competitors who wisely played her heart on her sleeve as others wondered if it was real.

Wiger finished in third, behind winner and compatriot “Yam Yam” Arocho of Puerto Rico and second-place winner Heidi Lagares-Greenblatt. Not the $1 million prize winner, she was a fan favorite and winner of pop star Sia’s $100,000 side prize. Wiger was often described as “wacky,” “kooky,” and “goofy,” but she had the smarts and strategy to play the game.

“I consistently underestimated her, and I think everyone has else has underestimated her, too,” competitor Carson Garrett said in an earlier episode.

We spoke with Wiger (who is an addiction counselor in her day job) a few weeks after the finale about her experience, and she offered some advice to others trying out for “Survivor.” These questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

How did you first apply to be on the show? Did you attend a casting call in Minnesota?

I sent videos [starting several years ago]. I was called back but then ultimately cut for that one. So I kept submitting, and I remember saying to myself, ‘I’m going to make it on.’ And I said, ‘I’m not changing anything about myself.’ I said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with me, and I will continue applying, and I will get on, and I’m not changing.’ And I applied again, and then I didn’t hear anything. And I’m like, what the heck? So I sent another video, and then I got called. It was right away. … Sometimes I feel like it truly is like, OK, they just happen to be by their computer or whatever and happen to see that

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. So, there is a little bit of luck to it, I believe. They get so many applicants. I heard back, and then it was fast. So that was September. And then I went to finals, and it was just boom, boom, boom, boom.

That authenticity made you a fan favorite and one of the most emotive contestants ever, but that isn’t like the stereotypical stoic Minnesotans. 

[Mainly it was,] ‘She’s not like a lot of the Minnesotans here.’ But I’m not representing Minnesota. Yeah, let [other Minnesota natives and season 44 contestants] Sarah [Wade] and Frannie [Marin] do that. I’m not the representative. I’ve never claimed to be.

What kind of reactions did you get? Your social media feeds are entertaining.

My dad was really good about sending me the articles that were positive or whatever. Have I cried from people saying stuff? Of course I have. But I truly wasn’t searching my name—’What do they think about me?’ Because … OK, let’s say I posted something and someone said, ‘Why are you posting that? That’s weird.’ Or, ‘What was she doing out there?’ First of all, I can’t change it. It’s done. Secondly, I don’t want to ever post stuff and feel the need to get other people’s approval. Like, oh, I’m not doing that. So, I will post, or I will say things, and I just don’t look back because otherwise, what am I going to do? That is when society comes in and tries to change us. I don’t want to make it look like I don’t care about anyone and what they think. It’s not like that. But I just don’t want to change who I am to appease other people.

You talked about your dad’s reaction. How about your son?

It’s been awesome. We’ve done so many of the challenges and stuff—not anything on Carson’s level, but we were practicing, and he was helping me with fire, and it’s been so much a part of our life. Like, if we go camping, we’re not using matches or a lighter. And he’s seen my knuckles are bleeding, but I won’t give up. And I’ll tell him we’re not getting a match. So, he’s been so much a part of this. Our backyard is full of makeshift shelters, and we do it every time we’re on the beach.

Have any brands reached out to you now that you’re a social media influencer?

I do not like that label. I hate social media. I’ll just make that clear. Before this, I didn’t even watch TV. I watched “Survivor” and “Dateline.” I love Keith. I don’t care about celebrities. I don’t care what’s trending. But to be honest, right now, I can’t keep up with my messages. I stopped reading them probably, like, two months ago. I can’t keep up. [Wiger is also contractually prohibited from certain appearances or promotional events through CBS.]

Do you see social media, though, as a platform, for either recovery or any other aspect of your life?

Uh, yes, and honestly, that’s the dream. I would love to do something and be able to reach people. I have gotten so many requests, and I’m doing the cameo thing right now. It’s exhausting, but it’s people [saying], ‘You inspired me so much. You were so yourself out there,’ and that makes me want to keep going. I get so much of that. And yes, I’m seeing the response, which makes me happy, because above all else that’s what I wanted to do out there. But even before winning—of course, I wanted to win, but more importantly, I wanted to tell my story and be myself.

As Travel Editor of Minnesota Monthly, Amy creates impactful, surprising, timely and insightful content that reflects the Spirit of Minnesota. An award-winning newspaper and magazine editor based in the Twin Cities, Amy has decades of experience guiding coverage of luxury living, arts and culture, style and travel topics across multiple platforms. She has interviewed personalities ranging from Prince to Roger Goodell and has stories to tell.