Judson Birza doesn’t particularly resemble “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” spokeman Fabio.
The occasional model, actor and reality contestant doesn’t sound very much like Fabio either.
But for some reason, Jud became “Fabio” within the opening minutes on “Survivor: Nicaragua” and the nickname stuck. It stuck for 39 days and it stuck as Jeff Probst read Fabio’s name five times on Sunday (Dec. 19), making Jud the latest “Survivor” winner, perhaps one of the game’s least likely champs.
Mocked, laughed at and underestimated, Fabio never made any strong alliances, but he also never made enemies. And when the game’s snake-like power players had finished picking each other off and finally turned their attentions to Fabio, it was too late. Fabio won three consecutive Immunity Challenges and conquered the jury.
Lovable clown or stealthy, calculating genius? I chatted with Fabio on Monday morning. And although I wanted to call him “Jud,” I just couldn’t do it.
Full interview after the break…
HitFix: Congratulations, Fabio! So how’d you celebrate last night?
Jud “Fabio” Birza: Oh man! Of course we had our red carpet, kinda crazy pictures. That was a lot of fun. And then we went over to Benry’s bar, The Parlor in Hollywood, and we had our family and friends there. It was cool, man. They made me go home at like 2 o’clock, because I had to be up at 4 o’clock again today. I slept for about 25 minutes.
HitFix: If I’d asked you yesterday morning to give me your guess on how the vote would go, what would you have told me?
Fabio: I honestly, judging from my experience at the final Tribal Council, I thought I was gonna win by more than one vote. I think some of the people on the jury did, too. I think some of them were like, “Holy s***, we didn’t know it was that close.” Yeah.
HitFix: So what do you attribute that closeness to?
Fabio: Well, Alina told me that she wanted Chase to get a few votes, so she voted for him. Brenda did the same thing, apparently. She wasn’t decided on who she was going to vote for until she got up there. They all communicate at Ponderosa and they have a game plan and it sounds like some people just deviated from that. It could have been bad. If Sash had gotten a vote? If Sash had gotten NaOnka’s vote or something, I would have been dunzo.
HitFix: Were you a big “Survivor” fan before this?
Fabio: I wasn’t. I’d seen a couple different seasons and I’d always enjoyed it. I’d always understood it and thought that it was a pretty cool concept and so when the casting lady hit me up, I was like, “Dang, you know what? I bet you I could do that.” I was thinking about my theater training and my personality and the physicality and everything that goes with it and I was like, “Dude. I have to go do this, because I think I can win.”
HitFix: So you didn’t know that your particular strategy was, for the most part, not one that’s been tremendously popular/successful in the past?
Fabio: Well, I know that JT won it by being everybody’s friend. I don’t exactly know his strategy, but everybody always wants somebody to lie and cheat and manipulate. They want conflict and all of that. I just thought it was funny that people thought that was the best way to win the game. I can say that, but there was really only one way I could have gotten into the Final Three and that was with the Immunity run. So you can have that Nice Guy strategy, but nobody’s gonna let you close to it.
HitFix: How did you know the exact moment it was time to click off that “Nice Guy” switch and flick on the “High Intensity” switch?
Fabio: When I got pulled away from my mom and had to go back to camp and hadn’t had a meal in 14 days. I was just thinking about all of these things. I was like, “F*** those guys. I’m not letting them win, dude.” Seriously. I felt like most of the Jury wanted me to win. I knew Benry wanted me to win. I felt a responsibility. I knew I had to.
HitFix: And was flipping that switch easy?
Fabio: It wasn’t easy. It was crazy. I just did it. It didn’t feel like me, the way that I was just flying through those last puzzles. And I knew that the very last challenge was going to be a focus-balance-type-deal. So I really tried to get prepared for that, just really trying to keep myself calm and composed, you know, not dropping a puzzle piece and then frantically not seeing it. Yeah, I shifted gears. It was good.
HitFix: One of the things you said on Sunday that I thought was fascinating was that you’re very conscious of the vibes that you put out there and the way people perceive them. I’d love to hear some more about that and how it played into your strategy right from the beginning…
Fabio: Yeah. Well, if you’re in a conversation and you’re listening to how somebody’s talking to you and you can get a feel for their point-of-view, whether they know they’re expressing it or not, you know? If you’re looking for certain things. Yeah, so say I’m giving off a super-goofy vibe and I’m having fun with somebody and I have them in that mode, to where they’re not even thinking about game strategy, they’re not even doing that, and then they let something slip or whatever and I’m still looking for it, even if it seems like we’re just goofing around, just making a mental mark of behaviors over the 39 days.
HitFix: How did the acting training work its way into that strategy?
Fabio: I know myself very well. I know all of the different sides and when to use them. Also, the way that you communicate with people, the tone of voice that you use for certain people… My mom always says, “Jud, you’ve gotta talk to people in a tone of voice that’ll get them to do what you want or to help you out.” It’s not as in a manipulative way, but just being aware. So many people just don’t understand how they’re rubbing somebody the wrong way. You know? I’m sorry… I’m almost fried!
HitFix: I totally understand, man. I was just talking Sash and Chase and they agreed that if your Tribe had lost the game’s very first Immunity challenge, you’d have been voted out first. Did you realize that you were in that kind of trouble?
Fabio: Yeah, I thought so. I knew I was a little crazy and a little intense, or whatever. There were a couple different interviews where I was like, “If I can get past the first three or four days, I think I’m gonna be good.” I call it the Jimmy T Effect, man. He was like, “I just didn’t get a chance to really… whatever.” He’s like, “My humor wasn’t received well.” He’s still a positive dude, but I almost got that effect. And Shannon even said it. I don’t know if they showed it, but he was like, “Man, Fabio. You went from going home first to going home last.” So yeah, I was away of that. And Alina at some point, I was climbing a tree and after I almost fell, she was like, “Oh my God. You sold me now.” I was gonna go home until I started making them laugh, I guess.
HitFix: Can you isolate things you were doing wrong in those first few days? Or did they just start to get you?
Fabio: I don’t want to say I was intimidating them, because I wasn’t intimidating in a game way, but I was just being a strong character, dude. Yeah, but I knew that making people laugh and just having fun was going to be a big part of just keeping me around.
HitFix: Then at the final Tribal, both Sash and Chase made a big deal about the various votes where they said you were out of the loop, or you cam back confused. What’s your interpretation of those circumstances?
Fabio: Dude. Alright. When I knew I was gonna be on the wrong side of a vote, I would listen to the game plans and sign up for it and I would still calculate all of the outcomes and where I would be sitting with the leftover people and I just always imagined the circumstances where I would still have friends on the other side. Like when Marty went home, they thought that I was left in the dark on that one, but I knew that if we didn’t blindside Brenda, that it was gonna be Marty. It wasn’t a secret. And the other ones where it was gonna be either Brenda or Benry and I was the swing vote, they tried to act like I was in the dark, because Benry pulled a quick one… Man, this is getting too wordy. F***, man. No, I always knew that I was safe. My name didn’t come up once until Benry threw it up there to save his own ass. So I really didn’t have anybody gunning for me.
HitFix: But did it feel constantly dangerous not having a core alliance of any sort that you were in? Or were you comfortable with floating on the outside?
Fabio: Yeah, I was comfortable with that. They ask you your strategy going into the game and I knew that a lot of it was going to be improv according to who you’re dropped off with and all the variables that whatnot. I knew I was going to be good at adapting. I never got nervous. I would go through a whole little prayer-type-deal in my head just to keep myself relaxed and making rational decisions, not being like Chase asking everybody, “Did you throw my name out there?” In conversations, Chase would just walk up and say, “What are you guys talking about?” If I saw somebody talking and I’d be far away and I’d wave and I’d say, “Can I come over?” I’d give them a chance to stop talking or whatever. I think that that type of etiquette is smart.
HitFix: At the final Tribal, we saw you get very emotional talking about your mother and presumably that wasn’t calculated, but did you see the way that you were impacting the jury members at that moment?
Fabio: Yeah, I knew it. There were a couple interviews before we go out there and I talk about what it means to manipulate somebody emotionally. People do it all the time, whether they’re conscious of it or not. Yeah, playing on their heartstrings probably did help. I knew that NaOnka’s mom was very important to her. She talked about it and her question was all about my mom. Yeah, I definitely… yeah.
HitFix: In that case, how calculated was it, letting yourself go in that moment?
Fabio: It was pretty good, you know. When you’re in that state, it’s easy anyway. It’s like exhaustion/emotion and I just let it fly, dude.
HitFix: As a last question: The way you played this game was very particular, but if hypothetically you were going to come back for an All-Star season, would you be able to play the game a different way, since you wouldn’t be able to sneak up on everyone?
Fabio: Yeah, I would almost have to. I think my game would naturally evolve. It would be my second time playing and other people would know who I was. Yeah, I think I would have to bust out another character.
HitFix: You’ve got other characters you can bust out?
Fabio: Oh yeah, yeah. Because a character, all it is is a filter. It’s your point of view. Characters are all built around points of view, so I’d just have to go in with a different mentality and that would naturally change all the decisions I make and who I decide to play with. I played with some of the more aggressive people this time and I knew that Dan and Marty and Benry were going to be doing my Jury work for me and I didn’t have to be like Sash, patting people on the back and being so obvious about it. I think that’s a turn-off.
The full season of “Survivor: Nicaragua” Exit Interviews: