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Pop Crave spoke with the ninth eliminated castaway of Survivor 45, Kellie Nalbandian, who was voted off on Wednesday night’s episode.

Check out the full exit interview below!

Courtesy of CBS

What a shocking blindside your elimination was! What did you think was going to happen heading into tribal council, and where did your sense of safety for that vote come from?

I think you can see in the episode that early on the plan was to blindside Bruce, and my sort of dream scenario was to take his idol in the process there. Of course, Bruce winning immunity, Bruce losing his vote—all that throws all this up into the air. And I really wanted to save Jake; I put in a lot of time to try to do that. He really was searching for idols all day and being a little bit erratic, so it was hard. And eventually, I was at this point where I was like, I have three votes, maybe—me, Kendra, and Katurah. But Bruce lost his vote; Jake is definitely playing his Shot in the Dark, and so I kind of feel like at a certain point, my hands were sort of tied, and I had done what I could, but I didn’t have enough [numbers] to sort of flip the script on it. So I thought Jake would go home, and I thought that maybe I would get a vote or two, just in case there was this concern that he had the idol, which is why I tried to get Jake to not play his Shot in the Dark, and we would all put votes on someone from Reba. That didn’t really make the episode too much, but that was where the shot came from. I definitely felt Jake was gonna go home. You could kind of see at tribal he was sort of struggling with his words. That was definitely the prevailing feeling at camp, and we really had had a bunch of dogpile votes previously. Even though there were exciting tribals, everyone voted Kaleb. Everyone voted Sifu. Everyone voted Kaleb again. So I was like, ‘Is it inconceivable that that would happen again?’ sort of in this Season 43-esque way? Maybe not. And maybe we’re going to turn it on. And I wanted to be the one to kick it off. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the agency to do it at that time.

Kaleb told me last week that you and Dee were rising up people’s target lists. How aware of that were you in the game?

Definitely, I think I knew coming into the merge that if people sort of realized what was going on at all, I would become a threat. And so that was where that sort of, like, looming thing that I say in my exit words, where I’m like, ‘I had this bad feeling,’ [came from]. It was just like, if someone caught on to what I was doing, I knew I was screwed. I had to try to keep it on the downlow. And I think me and Dee winning the pole challenge together definitely put a target on our backs that was already there. And she and I actually did have a pretty good relationship in the game that didn’t really make it to the show. I think you can kind of see that in the hesitation she has in wanting to vote for me in that first conversation with Reba. And basically, we were looking at each other and being like, ‘Okay, we know, people are calling us like the female threats that are left in the game.’ We kind of wanted to both stay a little bit longer as sort of a shield situation. Unfortunately, I was just a little bit less well-insulated than Dee because this Reba four alliance at this time is quite tight and was protecting her, where I think I would have needed her more than she needed me. But this actually, I do know, played a factor in me leaving from some of my postgame conversations. That sort of looming threat of the possibility that me and Dee would work together was scary, especially for the men on Reba. Just to see us sort of like—we were just vibing. You know, we just sort of [are around a] similar age; you know, we have a lot in common. And it was too scary.

There’s been a lot of talk in confessionals about an impending Reba/Belo war. Seeing that a women’s alliance was discussed in last night’s episode, what was your perception of Dee and Julie’s relationship with Austin and Drew?

I mean, I think if you look at new-era Survivor, it’s very rare for a large group from their initial tribe right at the merge being like, ‘We’re all going to work together and keep going.’ That doesn’t really happen that often. I was like, ‘Okay, there is going to be some cross-tribal alliance formed at the merge, and I want to be a part of it.’ And so that was something I didn’t anticipate that factored into the amulet decision. I definitely thought Austin would be targeted early on in the game because he’s like this big dude; he’s very threatening. The person who went out in my spot on [Survivor 44] is Brandon Cottom, like this huge NFL player. This is sort of the equivalent for us for our season. So I was like, ‘I really thought Austin would be targeted just for being so threatening.’ But I don’t have this information, right? I think they did a really good job of… It was pretty clear that Dee and Julie were close, and maybe Austin and Drew. But how close they were and how tight they were at that time was definitely not so obvious. And I think coming from my group, who was in a similar situation—we didn’t really go to tribal very much; we spent a lot of time together; there was a lot of fracture—I thought that it was definitely very plausible that that would be in the Reba group as well. And so, if this women’s alliance… I didn’t think that we were really going to stay strong till the final six. That’s obviously not going to happen. I don’t think anyone thought that, but I knew I needed someone because I didn’t really feel like Belo was going to hold together forever. So I was like, ‘I need to get Emily,’ or ‘I need Dee.’ I [needed] a new partner. I mean, I don’t know if people realize this, but I lost Brando at a tribal council I’m not at. I lost Kaleb at a tribal council I’m not at. I save Bruce because I need his vote, and then he loses his vote. [laughs] It was just so many things; like all of these, series’ of unfortunate events happened. And that’s Survivor; you know what I mean? I signed up for this game; it is what it is, but definitely losing all of my strong strategic allies when I’m not there is a bummer. So I was kind of on the hunt for a new one, and they were much tighter than I knew.

Emily’s position in the game is interesting to me; it seems as if she’s been given permission from Reba and Belo to play the middle. Why do you think she’s been allowed to remain in that position for so long?

I think Emily’s situation is so complicated, and it’s fascinating to watch, right? She’s doing a phenomenal job. Early on in the game, what we would see of Emily was the barge and her little fighting comments. And so she just seemed like this really intense person, and we weren’t really sure, like, ‘Would she be someone that you would be like, “She’s definitely going to be loyal to Reba” or “She’s definitely going to be loyal to Belo?”‘ Like, probably not. I definitely saw her as someone who would swing back and forth in whatever way she needed to go. And so that was where I thought there was some potential with Emily because I was like, ‘She’s a logical player. I think I’m a fairly logical player.’ Like if our interests aligned, we could work together. And then coming back after Bruce wins immunity, and we had that conversation with Jake, the earlier part of that conversation is Emily telling me that she would want to target Dee. And so that’s what we were trying to do with Jake there—try to get him to stop, not play his Shot in the Dark, stop searching for idols, and be like, ‘If we had your vote, we could make a move.’ But Emily is logical. She is a financial analyst. She’s looking at the math. And Kellie has three votes, because Bruce doesn’t have one and Jake doesn’t have one, probably. And Reba’s got more. So it’s just the logical decision for her to go with them. But I definitely was surprised that she she did sort of stick with that group. I thought she would be a little bit more back and forth. But that was sort of the perception on the beach, I think, from a lot of the early stuff [about] how she was acting.

There was a moment when the votes were being read, and you asked Austin if he played a part in your blindside. Can you talk a bit about your relationship with him after your journey together?

On the journey, obviously, so much doesn’t get shown, right? But I told you my motivation for taking it was that I really thought that Austin would be targeted, and I wouldn’t even have to sort of throw his name out there. I was like, ‘This is great!’ I saw Survivor now, and like I’m looking at people who’ve been winning recently, it’s not someone that’s really like a traditional threat. Like someone like Gabler or Maryanne. It’s not like Ozzy or these big guys or like these really [controlling] players like Kim Spradlin; like, those people are having a hard time winning Survivor now. And that was sort of my conversation with Austin. I was like, ‘Yeah, people are looking at us as threats; let’s work together. I am not motivated to take you out right now.’ And so you see Austin in the last episode; he’s like, ‘If I take Kellie out right now, my target level is going to rise.’ And so that was sort of the, I think, kind of a little bit of the unspoken and somewhat spoken agreement we had there. Like, the 10 would probably be earlier than I was wanting to take the shot. Obviously, I was just waiting for the opportunity to do so. And I really thought that his name would come up earlier, but I didn’t know he had an idol—another idol—and I didn’t know how well insulated he was in that Reba four. That was not quite as clear, I think, as it is on the show, obviously to everybody on the beach. So for me, my relationship with Austin, it’s not like we had some crazy, huge strategic relationship; I’m not going to pretend that, but I definitely think we had built a little bit of a bridge there that this had been a little bit early. I mean, this idol is good until six or five. So I was like, ‘This doesn’t necessarily mean we have to go for it right at this moment.’ And I knew I couldn’t get the numbers to vote out Austin; the name that was being thrown out a lot was Dee. So I was like, I have to have people to vote with me, and so that was where I was kind of going, unfortunately.

Let’s go back to last week’s episode. You decided to go after Sifu despite him being a wildcard and low on allies. Why wasn’t Drew an option?

I definitely considered Drew, for sure. I would have liked Drew to go home, but no one else wanted Drew to go home, and it was pretty clear. I think that’s a testament to Drew. And, you know, Emily and Drew were definitely very close. I think that was becoming a little bit more clear, like they sort of have this nerdy vibe, and they were definitely working together on that vote. And Kendra, my priority at that vote was making sure Kendra didn’t go home. That was my closest ally at that time. She literally cried for me. So, obviously, I wanted to keep her in the game. I wanted to go the distance with her. And I was really nervous that if we all dogpiled on Bruce or if I tried to make a move on Drew, that it would end up being Kendra because Bruce would play his idol or something crazy would happen. So I floated out Drew’s name to Kendra, and she was really not about it. So that kind of stifled my play there. And you know, Sifu, he’s a great guy. So funny. He spent a lot of the day napping in the shelter, so I was like, ‘How am I gonna strategize when you’re napping?’ You know what I mean. So that just made me nervous that he was still doing a little bit of his Sifu antics. He was like cutting beads off the torch. I was like, ‘Oh, what is this guy doing?’ There was definitely a lot of fear, also. Everyone knows in the edit that Austin has the Reba idol, but we did not know where it was. So the idea that Sifu maybe had an idol, or maybe had something, was very much out there. And he had forgotten his bag, so we were like, ‘Oh, maybe we can get rid of this Reba idol by getting Sifu out.’ So there were like a lot of reasons. And also, I knew that I could get Emily on board to vote out Sifu. And Drew even seemed kind of into it. And honestly, as difficult as Bruce was to work with, he was obsessed with me. Like, having him go home was probably not my best move. And so saving him and making sure Kendra didn’t get the ricochet was my absolute priority, and I spent hours of that day getting those two on the same page. And, you know, I obviously wish I went for Drew, but that’s hindsight (20/20). I didn’t have all that information.

Katurah also made a big move by siding with Reba and voting out Kaleb. How did you feel about that move?

I think that’s a very difficult position that she’s in right there. Obviously, going to rocks for somebody is a ballsy move. And it’s early on in the merge, so I think it’s really hard to be like, ‘I’m definitely going to do this.’ I think the way Jake was seeing the game was that there was going to be this Reba/Belo war. And if that was going to happen, he needed to save Kaleb, which, I mean, was my perspective as well. Losing Kaleb was a huge detriment to my game, and that’s why I saved Bruce. I was like, ‘I can’t let him go right now. He needs to go at some point.’ He really does. And I was ready to take the shot and try to take his idol and all that stuff. But at that moment, it didn’t make sense just in the situation with Katurah and Jake. The way the vote split went, it was going to be a riskier thing. Like, would Austin really do this? So yeah, I do think we’ll see how it plays out for everybody. I’m not gonna say anything about that. But I do think that was an opportunity for us to, as a group, garner some agency, potentially if we could save Kaleb there. So I get the pitch; I get why Jake did it. But it would have been risky. And when she came back, I really did think Kaleb was going to go home, which was also a motivating factor of why I kept Bruce. Because I was like, ‘Oh, now I’m going to lose Kaleb? If two people from my side go home on this split, that is not good for me.’ So you know, […] the way that split went with the rocks—another freaking rock draw—it was not really on his side there, unfortunately.

The Survivor Auction returned for the first time in 15 seasons! What was it like to take part in such an iconic reward challenge?

So great! I mean, when they first brought that in and there were all those plates, all of us were like, ‘Oh my God, we’re doing a gross food eating challenge,’ which was like my absolute worst-case scenario. I’m not going to be good at that. So I was, like, thrilled. I mean, so cool. It’s like such an honor to be on this season where, like, the auction comes back and the main title, the 90 minutes. I mean, we’re eating. You know, we’re gonna eat. It was so fun. Such an honor. Obviously, I wish the twist was not there; it kind of screwed me over with Bruce losing his vote, but I think it was a really interesting thing we didn’t see coming, and I had a lot of fun. And I finally got to eat. You know, I won no rewards. I got to have some french fries, so…

Jeff cutting the bag of rice at the immunity challenge was savage! Did you ever consider stepping forward for the tribe?

I didn’t think about it until the knife hit the rice. First of all, all of us were so caught off guard. It wasn’t like Jeff was like, ‘I’m hitting this, and the rice is going to be gone forever, and you can’t eat this,’ It was literally just [slicing noise], and we all were just trying to process what was going on. It was so jarring, so I think I was just honestly so shocked that I didn’t really even think, ‘Oh, I have to do this.’ And then Drew’s like, ‘Someone’s gotta go! Someone’s gotta go!’ And Katurah sort of already mentioned it, so she stepped forward, and it kind of made sense. Now I’m glad I didn’t, because it would have sucked to have sat out of immunity and gone home on that. But it was so savage and so out of nowhere that, honestly, I didn’t really think about that. And I really wanted Bruce to not win immunity. I wanted to blindside him. I wanted to take his idol, and that was going to be my big move of the day. Everyone was really ready to get Bruce out, so I wanted to make sure he didn’t win, and I kind of wanted to compete, but it is what it is.

You are officially the second member of the jury. What traits are you looking for in the winner of Survivor 45?

For me, it’s all about gameplay. I want to reward the person who I think played the best game. I definitely want to see a little bit of ruthlessness, and you know, eventually, someone’s gonna have to cut some of their allies and stuff like that. I’m looking for making big moves that make sense, not just for the sake of being moves, but something that is going to move forward your game. And then going into final tribal and fighting for yourself. That’s also definitely really important for me. Awesome.

Courtesy of CBS

Survivor airs Wednesday nights at 8/7c on CBS and Paramount+.