Peachtree City's Desiree "Desi" Williams on 35th season of 'Survivor': competitive, physical, social

This was posted on Wednesday, September 20, 2017 by RODNEY HO/ on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

While many "Survivor" contestants are super fans or viewers who have tried out time and time again, casting directors sometimes seek out people they think might be good for the show.

Former Peachtree City resident Desiree Williams fits that bill. Season 35 of "Survivor" features three groups: healers, hustlers and heroes. Healers are considered nurturers, including a urologist and a social worker. Heroes include a lifeguard and a firefighter. Hustlers are folks who juggle multiple jobs or do whatever it takes to make it work with a bellhop and a fisherman among the players.

From those broad stereotypes, a casting director found 28-year-old lWilliams on Facebook and reached out to her as a potential "healer." She's a physical therapist who had lived in Virginia for 10 years after growing up in Peachtree City. More notably, she was both Miss Virginia 2013 for Miss America and Miss Virginia 2016 for the Miss USA contest.

That pedigree - and her fierce competitive streak - helped her get on the show even though she hadn't watched it since she was a child in the early 2000s during the more innocent Richard Hatch/Tina Wesson years.

She even admitted in an interview that when she heard from the casting director, she was surprised the show was still on. She binge-watched past seasons and quickly learned as an adult how complex the game has gotten and how it manages to maintain a core, dedicated fan base into its 18th year.

Williams, who taped the show in Fiji earlier this year, immediately believed given her athleticism, she would be fine in the physical challenges. And as a pageant veteran, she has learned the social game really well. The only part she didn't have as much experience is with game play. But she said she did enough research to know that the best asset on that front is adaptability because the producers throw too many curveballs to ensure that any single strategy will work.

"I'm Not Crazy, I'm Confident" - Jessica Johnston, Desiree Williams, Cole Medders, Mike Zahalsky, Roark Luskin, and Joe Mena on SURVIVOR, themed Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers. The Emmy Award-winning series returns for its 35th season premiere on, Wednesday, September 27 (8:00-9:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Robert Voets/©2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved

She said she has had a tendency to speak her mind and rub people the wrong way, so diplomacy is something she would have to focus on to ensure she doesn't upset the wrong people at the wrong time and be targeted. "The trick is to maintain being true to myself while being diplomatic," she said.

At the same time, she knows this is a competition for $1 million, not how real life dynamics necessarily work. "How people are portrayed or how they play the game isn't necessarily their personalities," Williams said. "You have to take some perspective. I can see why some people are put off by the deceit and lying. But that's part of the game."

Jeff Probst, in an interview with EW's Dalton Ross, explained this year's theme: "' 'Survivor' is a game about social politics so we continue to look for new ways to divide people based on human behavior. This season is unique in that they are divided based on how they are perceived by others. Heroes are used to being heralded, healers receive gratitude, and hustlers earn respect. The question this season is, how do those imposed labels impact how they see themselves and how will they play 'Survivor' " (Past seasons, producers have broken up teams into "Heroes vs. Villains," "White Collar, Blue Collar and No Collar," and most controversially by race.)

The McIntosh High School graduate said her family moved to Peachtree City but had zero ties to the airline business. Her mom worked at AT&T and her dad sold life insurance. And yes, she did spend plenty of time driving around in golf carts because that's Peachtree City. "I was a pretty irresponsible golf cart driver," she said. "My sister and I pushed our golf carts home three or four times a year because we hadn't properly charged them before going on  an all-day long adventure."

Her entry into the pageant world was more happenstance than planned. While in high school, she told her grandmother while visiting Hampton University in Hampton, Va. that she wanted to be homecoming pageant queen at that university. When she was a junior there, her grandmother reminded her about her promise years earlier. So she decided to go for it and actually fulfilled that promise.

This led to Miss USA and Miss America. The competitions "teach you discipline. I'm not a casual type of person. For me, if I'm entering a race, I'm entering a race to win it. It took a ton of dedication and time management. I was working on my doctorate while competing for Miss America. It also taught me about being diplomatic. The thing that casual pageant viewers don't see is that everyone has private interviews with the judges. That's where pageants are won. You have to read their body language and they have to buy into what you're selling. You have to make subtle adjustments to make them feel comfortable."

Although she can't say how far she got on "Survivor," she readily admits she's ready to do it again, comparing it to pregnancies.

"People often say having a baby is the most painful thing in the world. But after the fact, they figure it wasn't so bad. Let's do it again! There were moments in the game when I was like, 'Who put me here? Who do I blame? I could be at home eating whatever I want in my bed! ' Now that I'm home, it's not quite so bad."

Given she has a passable social media presence (10,000 followers on Instagram), she had to create a bit of subterfuge as to not arouse suspicion when she was halfway around the world for six weeks. Her mom posted photos of daughter as if Williams was still floating around. She said her mom did a good enough job that casual readers didn't think anything of it but some friends after the fact said the captions didn't always sound like her.

Williams was surprised folks at her physical therapy practice showed little curiosity when she asked for a two-month leave of absence. "Nobody asked me where I was going," she said. (She has since moved to Los Angeles and is working as a physical therapist there.)

Her McIntosh High School friends will certainly have something to talk about when the 10th reunion happens the weekend after the season debut. She hasn't decided whether she's going to attend or not. "We have a Facebook group," she said. "They are super excited for me."


"Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers," debuts Wednesday, 8 p.m. September 27, 2017 on CBS

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Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
I cover local radio and TV for both the print and online editions. I write a blog on the same topics.Rodney Ho's Radio & TV Talk blog (new) | Recent archiveSports...