By John Powell – GlobalTV.com
For Toronto-born castaway Shantel Smith Survivor was not only escape during her troubled childhood, it was an inspiration.
“Survivor, oddly, really played a real pivotal role in my life. In my foster homes the one constant was that we had Global TV and Survivor. When it came on I was always in front of TV every week. I just remember Jeff Probst’s voice telling people that: ‘There’s more in you than you know. You got to dig deep’. Those were real encouraging messages that stayed with me. Eventually, I got sober and I got clean. I got baptized. I went on to complete college, did my masters and doctoral work. Change is definitely possible. Survivor played a huge role in my life,” she said the now Washington-based pastor.
Smith joins 18 new players from all walks of life competing for $1 million grand prize and the title of sole Survivor. Fellow Canadian Erika Casupanan, a communications manager from Toronto, is also a part of the cast this season which premieres on Wednesday night on Global.
So what is a pastor doing playing Survivor anyway?
“That’s a good question. I don’t know other than I had my dream to play Survivor way before the desire or the calling to be a pastor. It’ll be an interesting season for sure,” she said.
Although a “higher power” didn’t directly bless her adventure, her senior pastor did…in a way.
“My senior pastor ‘released’ me. He told me…Just go play the game and we will deal with all of that when you get back,” she said laughing.
Before she left for Survivor, Smith was at the Fellowship Church in Los Angeles. Her primary focus was working with young adults. Smith, who is also an actor and comedian, has been using social media, especially her YouTube channel, to create content which she believes is more friendly and relatable to those she is trying to reach out to.
“I believe in the Gospel. I believe in Christ. I just think it’s such a powerful message for transformation and healing and hope for our communities. I’m always trying to figure out ways to be relevant. I feel like comedy and acting and film and media so this is a new kind of path for me to do that,” she said.
Smith admits that playing the Survivor game was a balancing act for her at times due to her beliefs.
“I try to be as honest as I can and as authentic with people as I can. Even in the ministry there are times where you can’t share everything. There were moments on the show where I could share things and there were other moments where I couldn’t share things. It was not easy. It’s never easy having to deny parts of yourself or trying to be okay with parts of yourself that you have suppressed for a long, long time. For me it was being deceptive, being manipulative, intentionally trying to be that way. There was a time in my life where I was actually like that,” she recalled.
Smith is very open and honest about her troubled life growing up. Smith was raised in a single parent home where her mother battled addiction issues and Smith spent some time in foster care. She later joined a gang.
“Bouncing around from foster home to foster home I didn’t have a lot of money so I got mixed up and involved in some really reckless activities. I was initiated into a gang. You’re around a lot of shady people who do a lot of shady things. My life was really hard. I really battled with rejection, suicide, depression and my identity,” she said of her past.
Now having come out on the other side Smith believes her experiences help her connect with other people and help them turn their lives around and becoming better people too.
“I wouldn’t be a pastor that’s as helpful as I am, as relevant as I am in the spaces that I occupy, whether it’s working with a housing authority, foster care homes, speaking at schools or even at the churches that I’m in or community centers. I wouldn’t be able to speak the ‘language’ of the people there had I not lived that particular lifestyle. While I wouldn’t wish my childhood on anybody, I value it and I cherish it. I’m grateful for the parents that I had because they they gave me things they didn’t know they were giving me. There’s parts of myself that I wouldn’t have without them, without the experience I had with them. I’m grateful and I’ve learned to be grateful for things because there are people out there in even worse conditions than I was in. I’m grateful for what I have,” she said.
Smith was raised in Toronto, living in the downtown core for a time and even made a living waitressing at the Cafe Diplomatico in Little Italy, her grandfather’s restaurant. After grad school she was hired to work in the United States.
“There is no place like home! There is no place like Toronto! I live in D.C. but I am definitely a Toronto native,” she said proudly. “I definitely wanted to represent Toronto because all of my friends and my family still live there. I definitely wanted to make Toronto proud.”
Besides being a Canadian and a person of colour which weighed on her mind going into Survivor, Smith was also concerned about her health. Smith was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2018 and was fearful that the disease would take hold once again while she was in Fiji.
“I went into the game feeling so afraid. I’m in remission and I’ve been doing well but I still went into the game feeling scared. What if I have a flare up and they have to medevac me out? I came out knowing how resilient I really am and how strong I really am. Even the surroundings, like being on the beach, being surrounded by the green, all that stuff we take for granted like nature and how much it heals. I had a very spiritual experience out there. It was very healing. I didn’t flare up. I was fine. One of the things that I walked away from the game learning about myself was I’m just stronger than I realize,” she said.
Besides her MS fears, Smith was also concerned about COVID-19. Not having to wear masks or be socially distant from people was freeing but also a bit odd for her at the time.
“It was a super emotional experience from the very beginning, the moment that I saw Jeff (Probst) on the beach and nobody’s wearing masks. Before that, I’ve not been around more than five people that didn’t have masks on. It was such an emotional, jarring experience in that way but also in being able to celebrate and enjoy the fact that I could be around people. We can hug each other and we could laugh,” she remembered smiling.
As her Survivor bio states, Smith is a huge fan of Lucy Lawless and the Xena: Warrior Princess series which she admits she is currently watching once again in its entirety. Although she didn’t have a cool sword or Gabrielle, Joxer to help her out, Smith thinks both Xena and Lawless would have appreciated how she played Survivor.
“I think that if she saw my game she’d be proud. I think she would be like…Yeah, that’s bad ass!…but who knows? Maybe Lucy Lawless will chime in on the discussion at some point,” she laughed.