Sophie was the first person I met at Middlebury. On move-in day, I noticed Sophie struggling to carry her life’s possessions up three stories to Battell’s “Nunnery,” where I had just finished hauling mine. As I helped carry—and inevitably spill—boxes of clothes up the concrete stairway, we laughed and bonded over what silly implications our new home, “The Nunnery,” could have. When we reached the top floor, I asked Sophie what room she was in. “Three oh five,” she answered. “Hey, me too!” Sophie Clarke ’11 would be my freshman-year roommate.
Sophie was a tough one to crack. She was hesitant to offer up a window into her life, so I was usually the one overcompensating by throwing the door open to mine. Sophie wasn’t shy or cold; she simply had more layers than most. As I paraded around with a rowdy gaggle of field hockey players, I would often see Sophie in the dining hall with a small group of close friends—people who spent enough time with her to unfold some of her layers.
Whenever I walked into our room, Sophie would be hunched over her desk, poring over a new problem set or another Russian novel. She was so focused that oftentimes she wouldn’t even notice I had walked in. If I struggled with biology homework, I went to Sophie—as did the rest of our hall—even though she had never taken the class. It wasn’t just that Sophie was smart; she knew how to unravel the nuances of a question. She was strategic in her thinking, and usually if she spent enough time with a problem, she could figure it out. Sophie could stay up until the early hours of the morning working on a paper, even if that meant sitting on the girls’ bathroom floor because I had gone to bed. Whatever was necessary to get the job done.
At the end of freshman year, our hall put together a list of superlatives that characterized each girl according to the rest. Sophie’s—“Most Likely to Marry a Lax Bro”—couldn’t have been further from the truth. Yet, I don’t think anyone, much less Sophie herself, could’ve guessed her actual post-grad title—Reality TV Star, Winner of Survivor South Pacific.
Growing up, Sophie had watched the show with her family and picked it up again in college as a way to de-stress with friends. Taking after her father, Sophie would often yell at the contestants about what they should’ve done and would brag to friends about how good she would be on Survivor. One day in December of her senior year, Sophie’s friend Sarafina Midzik ’11 pushed her to earn those bragging rights. “We’re making a video application so that you can get on this show,” Sarafina insisted.
The video showed off Sophie’s extremes. Dressed in a lab coat, Sophie looked up from a microscope to tell the camera why her smarts would bring home the big bucks; moments later, she replaced the science garb with an ’80s ski suit, showing viewers she could bring her game to the slopes as well. Her over-the-top confidence and swanky demeanor made her seem smug—but that was the goal. “It’s not how I would normally present myself to people,” Sophie confided. “I knew I had to make myself into some kind of character, a character they would want.” It worked. A month later Sophie received a call from CBS casting.
Sophie stuck with the same über-confident persona throughout the requisite series of aggressive interviews. “I wanted to seem genuine so that it didn’t appear like I was putting up some kind of shtick,” Sophie told me. Yet, she admits that it was like acting. “I had the way I talked to professors, the way I talked to friends, and then the way I talked to Survivor casting.”
The acting became part of Sophie’s lifestyle during that final spring at Middlebury. Sworn to secrecy by CBS, Sophie devised a clever cover for the mysterious hour-long phone conversations and the days she would sneak off to Los Angeles for interviews: Sophie would be leading trips in Russia for the summer. Though her friends balked at the development, they were too busy enjoying their last days of college to question her plans. Meanwhile, Sophie was teaching herself how to skin a fish, start a fire, and crack a coconut. “I was physically there, but mentally, I was off in Survivorland.” As it got closer to filming, Sophie began to feel removed. “I couldn’t hang out with people who didn’t know because I wasn’t being genuine with them,” she told me. This was the biggest thing that had ever happened to Sophie, and she couldn’t tell a soul.
The day after graduation, Sophie left for Los Angeles. Those next 40 days were what she called “a living paranoia.” Surviving the island was only half the challenge; reentering life as a reality TV star was quite another.
Sophie returned from the island thinking she had played a smart, aggressive game, only to realize when the show aired that the editors had portrayed her as anything but. Her story didn’t really take shape until another cast member called her “pretentious.” When the people she thought she had bonded with echoed this sentiment, Sophie took a second look at herself. “I’m not overly friendly to people I don’t know, and sometimes I come off as aloof,” she admitted. For the first time in her life, Sophie received some critical feedback about who she was—and she found that just as difficult as surviving the island itself.
The other contestants weren’t the only ones judging Sophie. People on the Internet called her “Sophugly,” writing her off as a “smug elitist,” and a “smartarse” on Survivor forums. At first, Sophie was intimidated by this lack of privacy, but as time went by she felt liberated to be so exposed. When people would insult her, Sophie would simply wonder if that was all they had to remark about. “I almost think being so exposed made me more true to myself because I couldn’t hide anything. I couldn’t pretend to be someone I’m not.”
Just as Sophie’s view of herself changed, so too did her notion of reality TV. While she once considered it trash, she has since done a 180, and now considers Survivor a life-changing experience. “Believe it or not,” Sophie told me, “Reality TV is real.” She said this with such persistence I almost had to believe her.
I could tell that this experience had affected her deeply. She seemed different, more mature and sure of herself. Rather than fighting her public image, she embraced it. Maybe Sophie knew who she was when she graduated, but now that the rest of the world had seen that person too, she seemed more comfortable letting others in.
For 40 days, Sophie starved, barely slept, and let a game of lies and betrayal consume her existence. But it also gave her a better sense of who she is, not to mention the fact that in the process of her self-discovery, she won a million bucks.
These days, Sophie has resumed life as a post-grad. She lives on the Upper East Side of New York City, a five-minute walk from Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, where she is studying to become a doctor. Certain things bring her back to the island. When Sophie sees bananas at the fruit stand, she feels the warmth of the Pacific sun. Every morning she drinks a cup of coffee—a switch she made on the island after winning a bag in one of the show’s challenges. At times, Sophie will even wake up in the middle of the night on the hardwood floor, having moved there unconsciously from her bed, dreaming she’s still on the island.