Back in the early days of Survivor, the show revolved almost entirely on the personalities the contestants on the season. It’s more common now that we will see storylines about the strategy of the game and how players are posturing themselves for the end-game. While there has always been talks about the game itself, it was never the main focus of throwback Survivor. Since the show billed itself as the ultimate social experiment, it only made sense that it focused on those social parts.

When the show was at its cultural peak, plenty of big names came out of the woodworks. Players like Colleen Haskell, Elisabeth Filarski, Kathy Vavrick-O’Brien, and Rupert Boneham. They were all contestants that were almost as big as their season itself. It’s crazy to think nowadays that a Survivor contestant could become a household name but in 2003, there are few North American households that didn’t at least know of Rupert.

After Survivor: All-Stars, the show was looking like it would drop-off with its audience. All-Stars felt like a natural final season up to that point. People had no idea how many seasons CBS was looking to broadcast, they had already done eight in four years and the market felt oversaturated. A lot of people felt done with Survivor. Thankfully for production, for Survivor: Vanuatu, they had cast one of the best personalities the show would ever have on, Ami Cusack.

There have been notable female players before Ami, like those mentioned above and Jerri Manthey, her spiritual predecessor, and there were many after Ami as well, Parvati Shallow, Amanda Kimmel and Cirie Fields spring immediately to my mind. Aside from possibly Cirie, who has had two more seasons to develop her arc and Jerri, I don’t think any female player has been as complex and interesting as Ami.

On the second season to be split among gender lines, Ami was the woman that most rallied around the idea of an all-female alliance that could dominate the game. She quickly established power within her tribe by being a dominant challenge performer, acting as a shoulder to lean on for everybody around her and by making real bonds with both the younger and older women that had split off into two groups. While the early days of the women’s tribe in Vanuatu was filled with drama, neither side ever considered going after Ami.

There have been debates over who truly was controlling the primary women’s alliance that would go on to wipeout the men until there was only Chris Daugherty left. The show definitely tells us that Ami is the one calling the shots with everybody falling back behind her and following the lead. The cast, and especially Chris, has gone record in post-show interviews that Leann Slaby was the true leader of the alliance but it was never shown. Either way, no one could argue that Ami was not an important part of the women’s alliance. This is especially true in the broadcast where she is the figurehead and the one producers go to for any sort of confessional relating to the state of the game.

Going through Ami as much as possible makes sense for a season like Vanuatu. It has often been said that producers love when contestants embrace the theme of a season. Ami embraced the idea of men vs women more than anybody on her cast and really drove the point home whenever the opportunity presented itself. She was portrayed, and is also in real life, as a strong woman who can be looked at as an inspiration for young girls. Compare Vanuatu to Survivor: the Amazon where the men vs women dynamic mostly fell flat when the cast was more interested in flirting with each other. Ami is one of the key forces in ensuring Vanuatu would not go down that way.

We first see the wrath of Ami Cusack when she cuts Bubba Sampson. This is the first vote after the tribe swap that mixed together the men and women. At the immunity challenge, Bubba tries to send some not so subtle signs to Chris about throwing the challenge and Ami catches him. While it seems like the women would initially target Rory Freeman before Bubba, his act pisses off Ami so much that she convinces her tribe to vote him out first.

Bubba trying to sign (but really yelling) to Chris and Ami being like “seriously dude?”

Two votes later, she decides to flip the votes on Lisa Keiffer. The only mistake Lisa made was telling Ami she would like to see where the manioc is in case Ami is not around at some point. Ami takes that as Lisa wanting to stage a coup against her and immediately rallies her tribe to vote her out instead of Rory. From that point on, it’s clear from the show’s edit that Ami is the woman to watch in that alliance.

As she ascends to power, Ami becomes more and more confident that the end-game is hers to take. She has the numbers and a solid core alliance that will be able to get her close to the end. Among those around her, she is by far the most physically competent player and a favorite to win almost any late-game immunity challenge. By the time that Chris is the only man left in the game, it really looks like Ami has Vanuatu wrapped up. The edit shows depicts her confidence as cockiness because as we now know, Chris is able to grab the rug from under her and put together an upheaval.

Because she is so confident when in power. Ami is mostly seen as a villain in Vanuatu. She has smug grins as she votes off the men one by one. She does not want her tribe to teach Rory where the Manioc is hidden because he is but a prey to them. She does not really interact with the men outside of Chris because she knows their days are all but numbered. To the men, Ami is likely seen as a bit of a bitch because of how she acts with them.

There’s a whole other side to Ami, one that is sweet, goofy and lovable. She lost her brother in a car accident when he was hit by a drunk driver. That has impacted her life in many ways and it gives her some emotional gravity on the show. When Ami gets so upset about Twila Tanner swearing on her son’s life and going back on it, it’s because of that incident. When Ami gets to go to on a reward to a village, she glows when the children sing a song to her in English that they had practiced for the group. We see the human side of Ami, one that is compassionate and accepting of so many different cultures.

Of course, there’s also the fact that Ami is in a relationship with another woman. When Christy comes out for the loved ones visit, it is the first time that the show even points out that Ami is dating a woman. It does not define Ami as a character but Christy gives Ami even more emotional depth. She helps the audience see that Ami is not just a cold, cutthroat contestant but a loving partner. During the immunity challenge that they take part in together, we get a lot of Ami screaming “I love my girl” and generally showing support to Christy.

While the show portrayed her as a lesbian, Ami herself has been careful to steer clear of any labels outside of Survivor. As she stated in an AfterEllen interview during the airing of Micronesia,

Oh gosh, I don’t know. I don’t know if I would put a specific label on any of it. I mean, if I met the woman of my dreams and fell in love, I would stay with her, and if I met the man of my dreams and fell in love, I would stay with him. Like, I don’t know. “Bisexual” doesn’t really seem to fit me, and “lesbian” doesn’t really fit. I don’t know. I don’t know what I would classify myself [as].

To be a good villain on Survivor, you need a good downfall. While Ami’s true downfall comes with her vote out, the real moment where she knows things are not going to go the way she planned was when Leann gets blindsided out of the game. As Eliza Orlins gets vote after vote, Ami proudly sports a smug grin on her face that slowly disappears into a grimace as the votes start changing from Eliza to Leann. When her closest ally walks out of the game, Ami is downtrodden and knows that the end is nigh for her as well. It’s a fantastic scene that is really carried by Ami’s facial reactions to everything happening around her.

Before and after Leann is voted off. Notice the difference.

As she realizes that her game is coming to an end, Ami doesn’t lay down and die. After winning a reward with Eliza and Chris to go on an overnight stay, she works hard to try and swing Eliza back to her side. Ultimately, she falls short of her goal but her efforts in trying to stay in the game are honorable when so many have just let the inevitable happen. As she is voted off, it is an emotional affair between her and Eliza, both realizing that despite being on opposite sides, they have gained a true friendship out of the ordeal. Ami goes out with class and devoid of any bitterness, understanding that she was bested in a game of wits.

For a villain, Ami is also the nicest person to Eliza out of the entire cast. The show portrays Eliza as someone that is difficult to live with and a lot of that is likely true. Scout Cloud Lee and Twila very clearly hate Eliza. A lot of the other women make disparaging comments about her when she originally flips on one group early on in the game or when she struggles in numerous immunity challenges. Throughout the season, only Ami consistently gives her support and care to Eliza. If you look at their relationship, it’s a microcosm for why Ami is good at the game. When she wants to form a relationship with someone, she really gets to know them and creates a real bond. The women in her core alliance support Ami because they feel a true kinship with her. That is the sign of an amazing social player. Ami’s mistake was simply creating too few of those close bonds and especially ignoring the men entirely.

All of this is why it was incredibly disappointing when Ami was brought back for Survivor: Micronesia and subsequently relegated to being a background character. She comes in with an established relationship with Eliza and none of it is even mentioned other than them being obvious allies. For much of her run on Micronesia, she is part of the outsiders while Amanda, Parvati, Ozzy Lusth and James Clement form the favorites’ majority alliance.

Only in her final few episodes do we see the Ami we know from Vanuatu. She tries extremely hard to save Tracy Hughes-Wolf with a plan to blindside Ozzy. When that fell through, she tried extremely hard to get back in his good graces but Ozzy could no longer trust her. That would be her boot episode which gives us two amazing moments. The first is when she is talking to Erik Reichenbach and threateningly holding a machete towards him at the same time. Classic ice queen Ami. The second is her emotional plea at tribal council as she once again fights for her life with all of her might only to end up being sent off because Ozzy cannot trust her. It’s one of the saddest boots in Survivor history in my opinion because of how much Ami clearly wants to stick around.

Think of how the show likes to cast people within archetypes. Now try to picture where Ami would fall in a certain archetype. The answer is that she doesn’t and it’s what makes her such a great Survivor character. Yes, she was a great villain but she also had the emotional depth and character development of a “heroic” character. She was never just the lesbian or the woman who leads an all-women’s alliance against men. She was a three dimensional living being and a great example of what is sometimes sorely lacking in modern Survivor.

Ami Cusack is a Survivor legend, time may have made her name less memorable but go back and watch Vanuatu. You’ll remember quickly why she was such a big deal at the time.

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