Dawn Meehan Reflects on Her ‘Survivor’ Performances

The first time I played Survivor, I knew I would play a game that was consistent with my personality and character.

Dawn Meehan has played Survivor twice and was the runner-up on Survivor: Caramoan (Fans vs. Favorites). She’s reconciled with Brenda since the emotional request to remove her teeth at the final tribal council, but says that it’s still painful to think about. Dawn also talks about her love for Brandon Hantz, her career as an English teacher at Brigham Young University, and the role of her Latter-day Saint faith.

How did Dawn Meehan get involved with Survivor?

I watched the first season of Survivor and was just immediately drawn to it. The show was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. I felt the game itself was an incredible metaphor for life (being part of a tribe, facing challenges, meeting your basic needs, individual needs before community, etc.). So with that appreciation for the show, I auditioned for season 2 (yes, season 2). And while I made far in the casting process, I was not selected.

Over the years, I continued to apply and watch the show. And eight years after my first audition, lightening struck: I was cast for season 21. But, if you can believe it, I was cut from that season a month before departure. (Talk about devastated.)

Fortunately, I didn’t give up — because I auditioned again the following year and was cast for season 23.

And if that wasn’t magical enough, I was asked to play again in season 26. So Survivor has been a MAJOR part of my life for at least a decade!

How did Dawn Meehan become an English teacher at Brigham Young University?

I began my own education with the goal of becoming a public defender/attorney. So, I studied International Relations in college.

However, once I spent some time in an actual courtroom (shadowing), I quickly learned that I wasn’t going to “love” the actual courtroom experience.

At that point, I decided to pursue my graduate degree in rhetoric and be part of helping other people learn to represent themselves in wider variety of situations. That seemed, and still does, so valuable to me: learning the critical thinking skills necessary to represent yourself at work, in your community, etc.

While I’ve taught in the English Department at BYU for over 20 years, I’m currently on leave (with six kids, it’s been great to have this time with them!)

How did your game evolve from Survivor: South Pacific to Survivor: Caramoan?

The first time I played Survivor (South Pacific), I knew I would play a game that was consistent with my personality and character outside the game.

Basically, I wanted to be myself and see where that led me in the game. And while it was a positive experience, I didn’t make it as far as I’d hoped.

When the opportunity to play a second time came about (which was just 10 months after South Pacific), I gave myself permission to try and “Outwit, Outsmart, and Outplay” the other castaways. That ended up being a great strategy to get myself to the end of the game—the Final Three. But given my relationships with the other players (that I bonded quickly and deeply), it wasn’t a great strategy for winning the game.

Would Dawn Meehan play Survivor a third time?

I’m not sure I can see playing a third time, so I don’t know how my game would change. I just feel extremely lucky to have played at all. Making it to the end is such an incredible thing; I’m proud of that achievement (even though I didn’t win the million dollars).

Did any of the insecurities you felt during Survivor: Caramoan follow you back to real life?

I’ve never felt more vulnerable — in my entire life — than when I played Survivor. I think sometimes we (in First World countries) take for granted just how much we depend on technology to get us through the day (problem-solving, entertainment, social connection, etc.). I also think we are fairly dependent on friends and family for decision-making and support in high-stake situations.

So right away, Survivor places you in unfamiliar territory.

Add to that, the fact that we have a limited food supply; we’re sleeping on bamboo in a man-made shelter and exposed to the elements; we’re limited to one outfit and a bathing suit (in my case, a dress!); we’re participating in extreme physical and mental challenges; living on an island in a foreign country with people we’ve just met . . . and vying for a million dollars.

It’s unsettling.

Completely unsettling!

So for me, both times I played Survivor I found it difficult to transition back to my home/life here in Utah. (In the same way we had to transition to life in the game, we have to transition to life outside the game. It’s a process.)

Is it still painful for Dawn Meehan to reflect on Brenda’s final tribal council speech about her teeth?

THAT final tribal council was painful. I mean FULL of PAIN! Does it still sting to think about? Absolutely.

However, I am grateful for it now. I think our greatest learning and growth can come from painful experiences. I was so humbled by that exchange with Brenda; it changed me permanently. (In good ways.)

Dawn Meehan talks about Brenda’s request to remove her teeth at the final tribal council.

What went through your mind when Brandon Hanz had a mental breakdown on Survivor: Caramoan?

I love Brandon. He’s all heart—and wow, he’s so physically strong. I know for certain that I went to get to the end of the game because Brandon helped our tribe win so many of the early challenges. That impromptu tribal council was an expression of how difficult the game had become for Brandon.

That was one of the first times I actually thought, “under certain conditions, this is a dangerous game.” I just wanted Brandon to get medical care (and food) immediately. It was emotional and I sincerely regretted losing him in the game (because he had done so much for our tribe).

Just as a post script: Survivor has an incredible production and medical team observing, interviewing, and documenting our progress in the game (literally hour by hour). I know from experience, they do their best to put the players’ needs before the game/show.

How does being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints impact your daily life?

Being a member of the Mormon faith impacts every aspect of my life. It helps me feel connected to every person I meet. It helps me practice and learn compassion and tolerance. It helps me find calm when things are chaotic. It helps me to appreciate every good thing in life.

And hopefully, it helps me to be less “me, me, me” in a world that sometimes teaches us to put self first.

Did religion come up when you played Survivor?

Players have a lot of time to talk in the game. Hours and hours. I think we cover nearly every topic that exists to humankind—sometimes twice!

I never felt like there was contention when we talked about faith/religion, but the second time I played, other players definitely held me to a higher standard because of my faith. (And were disappointed when my game-play was inconsistent with their view of a religious person. And I understand that.)

Do you feel like you were held to a higher standard than other Latter-day Saints who have played Survivor?

I tend to bond with people quickly. And I think the main reason people held me to a different standard of game-play had to do with the bonds I’d formed. No matter how many times you hear “it’s just a game,” betrayal is a painful experience out there on the island.

I think having a mother of 6 children betray you just plain hurts. I really was the last person people thought would betray them. So, I think being a mom had more to do with people’s expectations of me.

(I mean, here I am French-braiding someone’s hair one minute, and voting them out the next. EEK!)

What does Dawn Meehan think about the Survivor: Ghost Island concept?

The concept behind Ghost Island is fantastic, especially if you are a long-term fan of the show (because you’ll be able to recall previous players and their game-changing mistakes). I’m also curious to see how many players know enough about previous seasons to avoid repeating those mistakes.

Who does Dawn Meehan think will win Survivor: Ghost Island?

I usually wait to make a prediction about the contestants until I’ve seen the first episode. I think there’s a radical difference between pregame (well-fed) contestants and mid-game (hungry) contestants.

Further reading

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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