Stanford’s “Survivor”: Julia Landauer

Feb. 11, 2013, 11:58 p.m.

The line between heroism and villainy; the relationship between the individual and the community; the long-lasting appeal of tales of endurance. For Angela Becerra Vidergar, a Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature, screening clips from the CBS reality show “Survivor” to her class last spring quarter was simply an entertaining way to launch some of the course’s thematic discussions.

Courtesy of Monty Brinton
Courtesy of Monty Brinton

She was also unsuspectingly giving one of her students, Julia Landauer ’14, tips on how to play the game.

Landauer, a 21-year-old professional race car driver and Stanford undergraduate, recently spoke to The Daily about competing on the latest season of the long-running reality series, which chronicles the adventures of 20 contestants who must outlast each other after being stranded on a remote island. While filming of Landauer’s season finished at the end of last June, contractual obligations prevented her from speaking about how she played the game or where she placed among fellow cast members.

Starting this Wednesday at 8 p.m., however, members of Stanford community can begin to see for themselves how Landauer fared when CBS premieres the first 90-minute episode of “Survivor: Caramoan.”

Landauer, for one, expressed excitement at being able to finally share with friends and teachers what had been such a tightly guarded secret for a long-time. Despite being officially selected as a contestant last April, she was not allowed to tell anyone about her participation on the show until CBS made its official casting announcement this January.

That lack of disclosure included Vidergar, whose comparative literature lectures had an unsuspected resonance due to Landauer’s upcoming participation on the show.

“I wanted to tell that teacher so bad that I was going to be on ‘Survivor,’ but I couldn’t,” Landauer said. “She showed us clips of [former cast members], explaining why they played good games or why they hadn’t played good games. So actually, this teacher was unknowingly giving me a little bit more insight — and a little bit more ideas — as to how to play the game.”

Landauer’s friends have organized a premiere screening this Wednesday at her Robinson dorm lounge, an appropriately named venue given the show’s parallels to one of literature’s most famous stranded island narratives, “Robinson Crusoe.” The event’s Facebook page jokes about coconuts and rice being served, two of the few food items that Survivor’s “castaways” are able to eat during the game.

Miranda Mammen ’14, Landauer’s sophomore year roommate, will not be able to attend the premiere screening, as she is currently studying abroad at the University of Oxford. She will, however, be rooting for Landauer from the other side of the Atlantic.

“I think this can be a really amazing opportunity for Julia, especially with her goals to become a professional race car driver,” Mammen said. “This can be the perfect chance for her to get some media play and get people to understand what she is capable of and how driven she is. I am excited for her.”

Preparing for the game

With Mammen’s help, Landauer filmed a video application last January in hopes of being cast on the show.

Sitting in the Main Quad, decked in her racing gear, Landauer laid out the reasons why she should be should be selected as a contestant. She talked about her racing career, her distinction as the first female NASCAR driver from New York City, her experience trying to develop her racing brand and her status as a full-time Stanford student majoring in Science, Technology and Society (STS). Landauer said it was the combination of all these attributes that made her think that she would be a good fit for “Survivor.”

“I really thought I could bring something special to the table, a combination of the whole competitive edge I have from racing, and my analytical nature from being at school, and then my personality, being able to balance being ruthless and working with others,” she said. “I thought ‘Survivor’ would be a really cool place to show all of these skills, so I sent in my video.”

From there, producers conducted a background check on Landauer and subsequently called her down to Los Angeles for a final round of interviews.

Mammen was one of the individuals CBS called up during the background check.

“The background check was a pretty funny experience because I had never done anything like that before,” Mammen said. “They asked me: ‘What are some of Julia’s biggest strengths?’ [and] ‘Does Julia have problems with drugs or alcohol?’ Stuff like that. Julia is so easy to give a background check for because she’s so upfront and has a lot of great qualities. That was not a stressful part of my job.”

Knowing that if she was cast on the show, filming would take place during the months of May and June, Landauer began contacting professors during winter quarter to see if they would be willing to accommodate her finishing their spring quarter courses early. Since she could not tell them that she was in consideration for a slot on “Survivor,” she told professors that she was “pursuing a racing opportunity.”

Landauer ended up finding three classes, totaling 14 units, whose professors agreed to work with her to have all of her coursework due before the end of week six. In order to ensure that the Honor Code was not violated, Landauer enrolled in courses that evaluated students on the basis of final papers instead of in-class examinations.

Midway through spring quarter, however, Landauer had still not heard back from the show’s producers.

“I didn’t know if I had gotten it,” Landauer said. “I hadn’t gotten any confirmation, and I was like, ‘Oh no, what if I don’t get it, and then I’ve just finished my ten-week quarter up in five? What am I going to do with my other five weeks? Am I just going to stay around and Camp Stanford, or am I going to go and do other racing?’”

Neither option ended up being necessary. Towards the end of April, she officially received the news that she had been cast on the 26th season of the series.

Landauer said that she immediately began preparing to compete on the show by practicing survival skills like fire making, targeting specific muscles through special racing workout routines and marathon-watching past seasons of “Survivor.” She said that reviewing these past seasons gave her a better idea of the level of strategy and deception that would be necessary to win the game and the $1 million prize.

“Basically, my days consisted of going to class, doing homework, watching ‘Survivor,’ and going to the gym, and eating from time to time,” she said.

Anticipating the limited amount of food that would be available during the filming of “Survivor,” in which contestants often feel the effects of starvation, Landauer decided to experiment with her diet and severely restricted her daily caloric intake for a couple of weeks. She reversed her strategy, however, when she decided that it might be better to pack on some extra pounds before heading out to the Caramoan Islands.

“I was like, ‘I don’t want to start off really small and then end up really, really small,’” Landauer said.

While Landauer said that she would have trained more if she hasn’t been a full-time student — her accelerated courses required her to finish midterm papers by the end of week three and her final papers by week five — she ended up feeling content with the level of preparation she put in before ever setting foot in the Philippines.

During filming, Landauer could not contact anyone back home. Mammen, having participated in the application process, was one of the few who knew why.

“I missed her a lot, but the main thing that was hard was not her being gone, but her being completely out of communication,” Mammen said. “I was excited for her though because I knew it was something that she really wanted to do.”

Finding celebrity

Landauer woke up early on Jan. 11, the first time that CBS publicly revealed the cast for the next season of “Survivor,” so she could finally share the news with friends. That same day, Landauer’s Facebook page crossed the 1,000 likes mark for the first time.

“Social media kind of exploded that day,” Landauer said. “It was really cool, and it was just fun to be able to surprise everyday. Some people were really impressed, and some people were really confused, but overall…I got a lot of love.”

Being cast on “Survivor” means joining the very vocal — and very active — “Survivor” fan community, whose speculation about contestants take up entire blogs and Internet forums. Landauer has taken this part of the experience in stride, even in the instances where commenters have not been entirely kind. She posted a picture on her Facebook page Sunday night, which collected some of the pettier comments that have made about her on the “Survivor” page.

She said some of the fans’ assessments, however, are substantive and fun to read.

“I kind of like seeing their critique, and it will be interesting to see, throughout the season, how I fared in their eyes,” Landauer said. “Not too [much] though because I don’t want to drive myself crazy reading all of these reviews, but I think ‘Survivor’ fans really remind me of NASCAR fans.”

“They are very, very loyal,” she added. “Once you become a ‘Survivor’ fan, you become one for life, and it’s really the same with NASCAR and racing.”

One of the most frequent comments that have been made about Landauer on online “Survivor” forums is one comparing her to Sophie Clarke, a previous cast member who emerged victorious during her “South Pacific” season of the show. At the time, Clarke was a 22-year-old medical student from New York, who became known primarily for her analytical mind and occasionally condescending attitude.

“I think the whole student aspect really anchors that comparison,” Landauer said. “I just think she was really analytical, and so am I…I do agree that she did have some more condescending moments, but I didn’t as much.”

“It’s a cool comparison though because she played a really great game, but I definitely think that I’m a little different in personality ways,” she added.

Vidergar, who is a long-time fan of the show, favors a different comparison. She said Landauer reminded her of Yul Kwon ’97, a Stanford alumnus who claimed the title of “Sole Survivor” during the 13th season of the show. Entertainment Weekly has named Kwon “one of the smartest players ever” when ranking past “Survivor” contestants.

“I like to think that Julia will be a hero character just because my experience with her is very positive,” Vidergar said. “She has a very positive demeanor. She’s very hard-working. And she’s very good at dealing with pressure, like many Stanford students who have a lot of balls in the air that they are able to juggle very successfully. I think all of those traits make her a very strong person who would probably carry that strength over into the game, both as an individual and as someone who is able to form bonds and connections with others.”

“Some of the most effective and beloved ‘Survivor’ winners have done so by being successful both as an individual and as members of their community, along with having a greater awareness of the ethical choices that all survivors have to contend with,” she added. “I think that’s something that Julia can be really well-prepared for.”

Jeff Probst, the show’s host, released his own assessment of the cast last Thursday.

“Julia is fascinating to me simply because she’s only 20 years old, and she’s already accomplished so much,” he said. “She’s a race car driver. She’s a student. Super high IQ.”

Probst added a brief caveat, however, noting that “Survivor” would present Landauer with different challenges than what she might have experienced previously.

“Everything that she goes in her life is in someway individual pursuits, and this is very much a group dynamic,” he said. “If you go inward in this game, you’re done.”

Landauer said the critique is fair, and something she considered while playing the game, but that it may underestimate how much a group sport racing can be.

“You don’t pass the ball to each other in the way that you might in other sports, but I convey what has happened to the crew chief, who talks to the mechanic, and I have to have a good bond with the mechanics,” Landauer said. “I think people underestimate how important meshing with the team is to racing.”

Last weekend, Landauer participated in a race at the Sonoma Raceway. During spring quarter, she will be racing once every month.

“No matter how far she gets, I think it’s a really amazing thing that she was able to have that experience, and I’m really proud of her,” Vidergar said. “We are very excited to hear about Julia, and it’s really amazing to see one of my students who we really admire be a contestant on the show.”

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