Walnut Creek’s Sonja Christopher, beloved ‘Survivor’ contestant, dies at 87

Sonja Christopher, the friendly, banjo-playing contestant in the first season of “Survivor,” who was the first person ever to be voted off the reality show, has died at age 87.

News about the death of Christopher, a Walnut Creek resident, was confirmed by the official “Survivor” Instagram account Saturday with a statement from host Jeff Probst. No cause of death has been given.

“(Sonja) was one of the kindest people to ever play ‘Survivor.’ Every interaction I had with her over the years was lovely,” Probst wrote. “She would always greet you with a smile on her face and joy in her heart.”

Liz Wilcox, a current contestant on Season 46, first broke the news on X (formerly Twitter) on Friday. She shared a photo of the “Survivor” icon via FaceTime, as she held up her ukulele, her “luxury item” on the show. Wilcox wrote, “I had the pleasure of meeting her  on Christmas. She had so much spunk + love for ‘Survivor’ and what the show brought to her life. I hope you’re singing + playing your heart out somewhere beautiful, Sonja.”

In 2000, a then-63-year-old Christopher competed on “Survivor: Borneo,” the first season of the CBS reality series. She was well-liked among her tribe members, especially for the way she serenaded them with a satiric ukulele version of “Bye Bye Blues.” Nonetheless, she stumbled several times trying to transition from water to land in the show’s first immunity challenge. On day 3, her peers opted to vote her out. The winner that season was Richard Hatch, the Rhode Island competitor who performed the required feats in the nude.

Twenty years later, Christopher reflected on her “Survivor” stint in a lengthy interview with Entertainment Weekly. During that brief stint, she made history in more ways than one. In addition to being the first person voted off, the retired music therapist also was the show’s first lesbian contestant, as well as the oldest woman to ever play the game.

“I was newly recovering from breast cancer treatment,” Christopher told Entertainment Weekly. “And I had been in a 11-year relationship and my partner got consolation elsewhere during that time of the cancer. So I had moved to a senior retirement community, and I was by myself, no ties, my son was grown and taking care of himself. I was reading the morning paper, and it said something in an article about CBS looking for 16 Americans to cast away on a deserted island and see who could survive for 39 days.”

Christopher, who had moved to Walnut Creek’s Rossmoor community, also said she had always been intrigued by the idea of trying to survive “using only my hands and my wits.”

Being voted off so quickly was “a little humiliating,” she admitted. She also said she left with some physical injuries. “I was pretty beaten up,” she said. “To this day, I still have bruises that don’t go away.”

“Someone once asked me if I thought my being voted off early was due to ageism,” Christopher added. “And I said, ‘Oh, no.’ And you know why is because I had no concept of ageism. I was always good at sports and very active physically.”

Over the years, Christopher enjoyed some of the benefits of celebrity, appearing on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” and dining out with Ellen DeGeneres. She also was in demand as a speaker on behalf of survivors of breast cancer. Back home in Walnut Creek, Christopher was active in her community, especially at her local church, the Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church. She allowed her $2,500 consolation prize to grow into a cache large enough to help fund the construction of the church’s fellowship hall.

Christopher said she always felt “so fortunate” to have been on the show.

“The whole thing was so fortuitous. I mean, if I hadn’t had breast cancer, we probably wouldn’t have broken up the relationship,” Christopher explained to Entertainment Weekly. “And if I hadn’t been alone, I wouldn’t have tried out for ‘Survivor.’ And if I hadn’t tried out for Survivor, I never would’ve got to go around the country speaking and raising money for causes and trying to inspire people with breast cancer that they could not only survive, but thrive. And that’s been amazing.”

Christopher also remained good-natured about “the dubious distinction” of being the first ‘Survivor’ contestant to be sent home. In a 2017 video posted to the Survivor Central X account, she said she remained a fan. “I have not missed an episode in the past 17 years,” she said in a video posted on “Survivor’s” X account. She noted at the time that she had recently turned 80.

“I intend to watch the next 17 years of ‘Survivor,’” she said. “Then then I can happily hike off to the giant Tribal Council in the sky.” She then paused and said mischievously. “Hmm. I hope they don’t vote me off.”

Information about a memorial service are pending.

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