Parvati Proves Nice Girls Don't Win
Story by Tobias Hess / Photography by Moni Haworth / Styling & creative direction by Malcolm Mammone
Feb 01, 2024
In a time when the internet will froth itself into a rabid state of “Mother! Mother! Mother!” over just about anything, this was all too much. I had idolized Parvati Shallow — Survivor legend and perennial cool girl — since I was a child, so I was understandably awestruck as I watched her from the photoshoot’s sidelines, posing languidly on an ATV, squinting in quintessential fashion, her shining brunette frock of hair waving cooly in the desert wind. I turned slyly to Malcolm Mammone, the shoot’s stylist and the only other superfan on set, and whispered, “We’re staring at the sun.”
During her first stint on Survivor in 2006, Shallow entered the collective zeitgeist as a bubbly waitress/boxer/free spirit from Georgia. Most notable for her infectious laugh and devious smile, Shallow made for good, if not groundbreaking, television. It was during her next two seasons, though, that Parvati Shallow — the legend, the character — was etched into the stones of icons. On Survivor: Micronesia, Shallow linked up with a team of women so memorable that the looming threat of an “all-women” alliance became a hallmark trope of the show. Along with fellow Survivor hall-of-famers — Amanda Kimmel, Cirie Fields, Natalie Bolton — Shallow and her squad (later dubbed the “Black Widow Brigade”) used flirtation and charm to massacre every male contestant on the island. Voting each man out with delicious, slippery tact, Shallow came to personify the female Id-monster of early-aughts reality TV: the charming, beautiful, smiling girl who will kiss you one night and slit your throat the next. She won, and earned, the million-dollar prize, but unsurprisingly, 2008 America wasn’t quite ready for our subversive anti-heroine. She faced constant and vicious backlash from the public.
On her next season, the series-best Heroes vs. Villains, Shallow cemented her status as the latter, surviving a season that played out like a horror movie and making it to the finale. She didn’t win this time. That victory went to another Survivor queen, Sandra Diaz-Twine, but despite that loss and the closure it should’ve brought, Diaz-Twine has consistently harped on Shallow. In a now-deleted Facebook post from January 2023, Diaz-Twine wrote: “For those Parvati lovers out there, go spend 2 hours on Survivor with her and see how much you like her then! She’s not that nice.”
So what? Shallow reflected to me, proudly, buoyantly: “Nice girls don’t win Survivor.”
When it was announced that Shallow and Diaz-Twine were returning to TV together for Peacock’s The Traitors, there was a euphoric response from the Survivor-intelligentsia. The Traitors, which is essentially an elaborate game of Mafia played by reality TV stars in a Scottish castle, was the perfect, campy context for our two favorite Survivor divas to return to battle. That they would be joined by Real Housewives, Big Brother notables and a Drag Race fan-fav, made it all feel almost too good to be true. Thankfully, it was terrifically, iconically happening.
Gloved cardigan and knit short: Isa Boulder, Bodysuit: Palace Costume House
The internet lost its mind over The Traitors cast, but that excitement felt minuscule when compared to the pure euphoria that was expressed when Shallow made another announcement. In January, she revealed that she was dating superstar comedian Mae Martin. “We’re here. We’re queer. Happy new year,” she shared to the rapturous applause of 60K likes. That Shallow, the platonic conception of a 2000s straight girl reality star, was now reintroducing herself as a mom standing firmly in her queerness: it felt like all of the cultural winds of the past 20 years were channeling through her. The Survivor community let out one collective gasp.
This announcement also prompted a re-reading of Shallow's work through a queer lens, most notably her relationship with Natalie Bolton, her compatriot from the “Black Widow Brigade.” In a scene that many queer survivor scholars have referred to as their “Roman empire,” Bolton asked Shallow how her flirtatious spirit shows up in the bedroom. The two were coy and close before, so the salacious question beckoned many-a-fan fiction on the pair’s alleged affair.
Today, PAPER, Shallow and Bolton are here to answer all your questions. Returning to the press for the first time since her time on Survivor, Bolton proudly joins Shallow for her first glossy photo shoot. The duo, who have remained good friends since their time on the island, still have the same carefree, giddy banter they had in 2008. Settling up in bikinis, dousing each other in mud, laughing and reminiscing: the girls are still girling. And though the lore is strong, it’s just that: folk tales, Bolton says. “I knew Parvati was going to get my vote [to win the game],” she remembers about that question she asked at the final tribal council. “So why not make her work for it and have some fun?”
Lovers? No. Dear friends? Yes. Icons? Always.
PAPER chatted with Shallow the day after her photoshoot in California about the trials and tribulations of reality TV, The Traitors and the enduring gift of queerness.
The following interview was edited for length and clarity, and contains spoilers about the first four episodes of The Traitors Season 2.
So the last time you were on TV was for Survivor: Winners at War [which shot in 2019]. Why return to television?
Well, Winners at War was a tricky one. I had just had a baby and I said, “No, I would never do Survivor again, but if they ever did an all-winners season, I would probably do that because the FOMO would be too intense for me.” But the timing was really bad. I wasn't in a good head space. I was sleep deprived. I hadn’t exercised in a while, and I just was out of the game and super rusty. So when I played, I was like, Okay, I'm just doing this because this is my extended family and it feels like a whack family reunion that I just can't miss. And I don't think I'll win this game, because there's such a huge target on me and I'm so beat from having this baby, but I'm gonna do this anyways. I had a very different experience watching Survivor: Winners at War, because it had been nearly 10 years since I last played Survivor. And when I was on Survivor the first three times, I was in my twenties. It was a very different era in television. And I received a lot of backlash and negative feedback from critics, from viewers, from the media, so my experience watching that was pretty uncomfortable. So now, 10 years later, playing Winners at War and receiving all this love on social media was very different for me. I was like, Oh my God! This is a whole different experience. I didn't do as well in that game, which was interesting, but the feedback and the love that I got from the fans was really surprising and healing for me. So something clicked for me that this is a very different era of [television]. People have now had time to watch my arc as a character on Survivor. People now wanted me to do well, and they were cheering for me. And I was like, Oh, this is it!
Why The Traitors?
So The Traitors called me last year to go on the first season with Cirie [Fields who she played with on Survivor: Micronesia]. Cirie and I were chatting about it, and I was going through my divorce, and we hadn't settled on custody, and I was like, “I'm not ready to go do a game show. I'm in the middle of this really hard thing right now.”
But it stuck in my head. First of all: Alan Cumming is magical. He's a magical unicorn in a Scottish kilt and I adore him. And I'm a big fan of Romy and Michele's High School Reunion', so if you have a chance to hang out with Alan Cumming, you say yes to that. And then I watched Cirie and was like, This is so cool. It's a very different game than Survivor: there are the outfits and the theatrical elements of it. This is so camp and so fun.Survivor is so serious and so suffer-y. This is playful and this would be an evolution for me. It seemed like it wasn't a personal drama show. The Traitors is like theater meets reality meets gameplay, and it's going to challenge me in a new way.
At the shoot, you mentioned Cirie told you before you went on that it was a “cakewalk.” I love the idea of you guys talking about that as these two gameplay veterans with this very unique mutual understanding.
Yeah, I called her after I watched her season [of The Traitors, which she won]. I was like, "Oh, my god! Congrats! You nailed that. How was it for you?" And she said, "Cakewalk. You would sail through it." But I was like, I don't think it would be that easy for me. Cirie has this ability to be perceived as a non-threat. She's really warm and motherly and people gravitate towards her. She's super cunning and strategic, but people tend to overlook that because she makes them feel held, included and loved. And she's cool; she's not trying to get you to like her.
You're obviously a strategic mastermind, but what about you is different from Cirie?
I think Cirie is more of a covert threat, and I'm more of an overt threat. People see me, and they're like, “Gotta watch out for her. Don't trust her.” It's the double-edged sword of doing the Eric immunity idol [move in Survivor] and then winning Survivor. Because Cirie was involved in that move, but she didn't win, so she doesn't have the same amount of public eye on her. So for me, it's like, Amazing I won, but now anytime I play a reality game show, people are instantly threatened by me.
Did you have an awareness of the cast beforehand? Did you know that it would be all reality stars?
I knew it would be all reality [stars], but I didn't know who was going to be on it. I definitely didn't know Sandra was going to be there.
So you see her and you have that initial moment with her and Peppermint, where the two of you make peace. What was your thought process when seeing her?
I was like, "No!" when I saw Sandra. I already knew I'm coming in at a disadvantage. I don't really watch a lot of reality television. I mostly watch cult documentaries. I don't know who the Housewives are. I did know who Peppermint was, because I do watch Drag Race, and I love it. And I know who Max was from Dancing with the Stars, but that was pretty much who I knew. I thought that they would put a friend of mine on from Survivor, not an enemy. Sandra has been trash-talking me for years. And I didn't know: Is she going to target me because she wants to be the star of the show? Is she gonna be able to let this go? Are we gonna be able to be friendly with each other and help each other out?
My heart sank when I saw her. It was like a gag reflex. Like, No, I don't want you here. But then when Peppermint brought us together, I thought, I just have to go with this. If Peppermint is saying, “Hey, you guys need to mend fences and be friends,” and if Sandra is available for that, I need to go with it. I didn't trust Sandra, but I was willing to try.
Was there ever a personal breakthrough where you felt that you and Sandra could connect as people?
I think the nature of the show, and being a Traitor, is there is a barrier to connection, because there's this suspicion on everyone. And for me, as a Traitor, I'm holding a lie. So I'm looking at you, knowing that I'm lying and trying to connect with you. It's a little bit of a mind warp. So as far as my relationship with Sandra goes, I wanted her to know that I'm not coming after her. I wanted her to know that I'm on her side and I'm not gonna be saying her name, because if that gets back to her, that's going to be bad for me. But we had some moments to connect. I mean, Sandra is funny. She's hilarious. I loved her on Heroes vs. Villains. I didn't want to go to the end with her, because I knew the jury also loved her and I knew that she would win. So I like her, genuinely, and I like to have conversations with her in life, but in the castle, it was really tricky, because I didn't want to seem too close to her, either.
You were not initially chosen as a Traitor. Was that a huge disappointment? How did you feel once you were chosen?
It's funny, because for the past couple of years I've been working as a life coach, teaching groups of people, leading them on retreats, and working one-on-one with individuals on their integrity. And I've been working on my own emotional integrity, which means being aligned with the truth of what's happening inside of me and then expressing that honestly. I've gotten into trouble in the past when I disconnect my emotions and override the signals of my body. And Survivor was that: I had to override my emotions constantly and pretend like I didn't care. So it was like turning the Titanic around. I was like, Okay, now, every time my body tells me to tell the truth, or to say something, I have to clamp that down and shut it down.
When I played Survivor, I was waiting tables, bartending, boxing. I was in that game in my real life. So the learning curve was really steep for me [with The Traitors], and the intensity of the emotion, the electricity that was coursing through my body as soon as I got that letter to become a Traitor, was significant. I was like, Okay, now I have to play into people's expectations of me as the Black Widow, even though I haven't been playing that role in my life and I left that behind in 2010. Now, I'm watching the show, and I look really chill, but inside, I was a hot mess.
I would think that it would be triggering to step back into that position, because being a "villain" led to you getting some really harsh backlash in the past. But it sounds like you were able to depersonalize Parvati (the character, the icon) and you, the human — because you know that you're not a Traitor in your day to day life.
These games feel so real when you're in them. There's no separation between reality and game. The game is your reality. The game is your life. That's how I played Survivor the first few times. I couldn't make the distinction when I came home between reality and game. And now with The Traitors, I have the experience from my past of having done that. I've processed it. I've really established who I am. I know what I value. I know what I stand for, and I can play this game as a game, and then I can come home and be back to myself. I don't have a problem leaving that in Scotland.
I could tell you were super shocked when you learned who the Traitors were. Just tell me a little bit about your reaction, and I just want to just a few general thoughts on Phaedra Parks [who was also chosen to be a Traitor], because she is a force of nature.
Phaedra is fabulous. I was so curious who my fellow Traitors were. Dan kept pulling me aside, and no one else was really pulling me aside. Also a lot of people didn’t trust me from the Larsa thing. So I was like, Why is Dan doing this? So he was a question mark for me. When I walked into that turret, and I looked down at the hands on the railing and I saw the fingernails with the bling . . . I'm like, "It's Phaedra!"
I didn't watch her seasons of Housewives. I've never seen her on TV before, so I'm just meeting her in this castle, and she is a character. First thing she tells me is that she's a Reiki practitioner; she's a lawyer; she went to University of Georgia, which I also went to, so we were connecting on that. She's just a trip. She's so funny and she's so likable, and she's larger than life. And her looks? She's just perfectly cast as a Traitor.
In episode 4, you and Phaedra went head-to-head after you put out some anti-Housewife sprinkles into the air. She was pretty harsh to you. She said, "Nobody likes you." I feel like you've encountered this really harsh reaction by people at other times throughout your reality TV career. How do you cope with that? Are you like, This is the game, or does that treatment live within you?
Oh, that's such a deep question! Well, I think what she meant by "nobody" is Larsa. Larsa, for some reason, instantly hated me. I think there's a thing that can happen with some women when they see a woman who is powerful, self-expressed, confident, doesn't wear a lot of makeup, doesn't put a lot of effort into her appearance, but is still attractive and naturally has a lot of light — some women don't like that. They feel like it casts a shadow on them.
I felt that way about Larsa. The Larsa stuff felt really personal for me from the very beginning of the show. I didn't kiss her ass. And I think she's used to a lot of people kissing her ass. But I think there was also some of that competition with women, [and I] especially [saw that] with the Housewives. That's not my genre. That's not my style. I am a girl's girl, obviously, and I'm always down to bring my women into whatever magic I'm making. I think the best thing we can do is lift each other up as women, because we are already being vilified from original sin, so let's help each other out.
But I think with Phaedra, she was so cliqued out with the Housewives and Larsa was a big voice and a big personality. And I think she was pissed off at me, and that was the best way she knew how to handle it. I don't remember that moment, to be honest. I probably blanked that out because I was so shocked that she was so mad. So I was like, I'm gonna gloss this over. I didn't think it was a really big deal, and I know that Phaedra is performing for the camera as well. She would turn it on for the turret, and she would turn it on for her confessions. She knows how to do TV.
And when I'm interacting with people on these shows, I'm like, Yeah, I get it. I'm a polarizing character. People can feel triggered by me. It has happened for my whole life. And I'm just like, Okay, you don't like me? Fine. But there's no need to be nasty to people. I could say some nasty stuff about some of these people, but why would I do that?
There's this thread of you having this very visible internal power and confidence. It's been present since Survivor: Cook Islands, and then came into fruition in Survivor: Micronesia. And that thread sustains now, even though you're a very different person today. So how would you describe the Parvati on Cook Islands or Micronesia in relation to who you are right now?
The Parvati on Cook Islands and Micronesia was powerful through overpowering other people. I knew how to get what I wanted through playing a part that other people wanted me to play. Now my power comes from a different source. I am no longer in a place of trying to get anything from anybody. I don't have to prove how powerful I am to anybody else. I have a deep level of self-trust through the life that I've lived and the work that I've done to align myself with what really matters for me. So I'm in a place where I'm like, I'm gonna be me. I'm gonna say what I wanna say; I'm gonna love who I wanna love; I'm gonna do what I wanna do; I'm gonna offer the things I wanna offer, and my life can be an example for other people to step into their own authenticity and integrity.
I'm having a lot of fun in my life. I feel like I'm having a lot more fun now than I was when I was in my twenties when I won Survivor, because I like myself so much more now. And these comments where someone's like, "Nobody likes you." It's like, "Okay, mean girl. I like me." There's a lot of freedom that comes with that.
I mean, reality TV is not a nice game. And with Sandra, we had that feud last year, when Sandra said, "Parvati is not nice. If you hang out with her on the island, you'll know that she's not nice." And I was like, "Nice girls don't win Survivor."
I want to pivot to where you are in your life now. You said you're having a lot of fun and are really happy. I think people feel that and are really excited by that. You announced your new relationship, a queer relationship at that. And there was absolute euphoria and craziness in the Survivor fan community. What was it like sharing that? I'm sure it was beautiful and moving on some level, but also maybe a bit strange, too?
It was wild. I did not expect the immensity of the reaction from making that Instagram post about Mae and I being together. This relationship feels so natural to me, just normal and easy. My experience inside my home and in my intimate life is like, I'm good. There's nothing big and newsworthy about it. But from the outside, seeing someone who's been straight and who's been the flirty archetype, who's been manipulating men for their whole life, who's now in a queer relationship: I can see how exciting that could be for the queer community. And I'm so pumped. And anything I can do to support people being themselves, I am here for that. So it's just exciting to be in a healthy, happy relationship for me, because this has been a difficult place for me my whole life. I've had a really tough time with intimate relationships. This is the emotionally safest relationship I've ever been in. And it's such a blast. Mae is a comedian, so we're constantly laughing.
I think I overheard you saying that you met through Mae's Survivor fandom?
Yes! My sister went to Mae's comedy show. Mae mentioned Survivor in their show. And then my sister googled "Parvati Shallow, Mae Martin." I don't know why she did that, but then she texted me and said, "Hey, do you know this person? They're a Survivor fan and they wrote this tweet about you in 2020.” And I had just watched The Flight Attendant, and I was curious about Mae from that. I was like, That person is pretty magnetic. So then when my sister sent me that text, I was like, ‘’Oh my god, that's crazy!’ So I slid into Mae’s DMs and just said, "Hey, why haven't you invited me to a show?" Mae [told me], "When I got that message, I fell off my chair."
And of course, part of the huge reaction to this announcement was all the hubbub around your flirtation with Natalie and the lore surrounding the Black Widow Brigade.Tell me a little bit about bringing Natalie back into the fold here, because this is the first Survivor press Natalie has done in over 10 years.
Look, like I said, I'm a girl's girl. If I have a chance to bring my girls into any cool thing that I'm doing, I am gonna bring them in. And Natalie has always been amazing to me. She's a buddy. She's very cool. She is someone who's been in and out of my life since Survivor: Micronesia. We've never had an issue with each other. I adore her, and when we were on the island, we had a lot of conversations. I never thought that there was like a spark or attraction between us, but she's nearby in Manhattan Beach and we meet for coffee and we always have really good conversations. She's been an alternate on a couple of seasons of Survivor, so she hasn't made her triumphant return to the arena, but I think the fans would love it if she did, because she's still so charismatic, beautiful and watchable. So I think maybe we can set something up with this.
So just to confirm, for all the people in the universe: We are, right now, quashing the myth and the legend of the secret relationship between Parvati and Natalie?
No secret relationship, just a dear friendship.
You have this very flirty and straight past, but at the same time, you've been a "gay icon" within the Survivor community for as long as I can remember. I mean you were my gay icon. Were you aware of that? What was your relationship to the gay Survivor fandom around you?
That really started happening around Winners at War and the pandemic. I think during the pandemic, a lot of people started bingeing Survivor and watched old seasons of Survivor, and then became fans of mine. And then this gay icon thing happened. And I was like, I'm here for this. I did the Las Cuturistas podcast with Matt Rogers and Bowen Yang, and that was when it really entered my awareness. And then I was like, “Wait, why am I a gay icon?” I didn't understand, because I was straight. But one of my gay guy friends said, "Well, men respond to you the way that we want them to respond to us.” So it's sort of like a mentorship [laughs].
That’s so real. But it's also that you're wielding power, and it's a soft power. I think a lot of us aspire to that sort of power in relation to our sexuality. Did your friend's analysis resonate with you?
Yes. I mean, as a woman, I can't be a man, but I live in a man's world. So how do I get power in a man's world without trying to become one of them? Well, I need to lean into the skills and assets of a woman and find a way to reign in this body. And if the straight men are the ones that are in power, then getting them to fall in love with me, or letting them think that I'm in love with them if that flatters their ego, then that's a way to subvert and claim power. You can subvert power from the patriarchy, if you are now the thing that gives them power. It's a mode of warfare.
What you're describing is a very binary gender dynamic. But you're in a queer relationship, and are floating in these queer waters. How has that shaped you? What is it teaching you?
Being in this queer relationship has really allowed me to drop all of these roles that I thought I had to play and helped me stop worrying about these power dynamics. We learn that men wanna be the hunters and women have to be the prey. I'm not playing into that unconsciously anymore. I once was: when I would go out and go on dates with men, and I would be automatically cute and giggling, looking them in the eye and brushing their arm. It was just automatic for me when I was in a room with a guy. I was like, I'm so good at this game. I don't even have to think about it. But with Mae there's so much freedom for me, because that doesn't exist. Mae is not a woman or a man. Mae is nonbinary. So it explodes my brain. I can't categorize you; I don't know how to play a game with you, so I'm going to be real. And it's so liberating. And it's allowing for a depth of truth and love to occur that I've never experienced. After the dismantling of my marriage, I was like, I don't need to rebuild in the same way. I think as long as people have enough of an open mind, they can be really, really happy. But you just have to be open to the possibility and say "yes" to new things and go with it and just experiment.
I think that's why I really like playing these kinds of games. I love Survivor and The Traitors and this relationship. This whole life is just a big experiment. I'm gonna put myself into lots of different situations with different kinds of people, and I'm gonna see what happens. I'm gonna see what I do, how I speak, how I interact. Do I like it? Is this for me? Or is it not for me? And if I don't make the experience mean anything about me — win/lose, divorce/marriage — if it just is what it is, then I can have a really have a good time with the life that I have.
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