Jessica "Jess" Chong
Next up on the Survivor slideshow is someone who makes a living designing them: Software engineer Jessica "Jess" Chong. The 37-year-old peppered my interview with her with, "I don't know." But she's able to bring power to the phrase, as someone who has gotten through a whirlwind life across multiple industries and countries using purely her gut rather than hardcore planning. And it's that coding that she plans to bring to the beach, along with her own moral code and a machete to grind for anyone who goes against it.
Read on for my interview with Jess, and check in with Parade.com daily for interviews with this season's contestants and other tidbits. Survivor 46 premieres on February 28 with a two-hour premiere on CBS.
Related: Meet the Full Cast of Survivor 46
Interview with Jess from Survivor 46
To start, give me your name, age, and occupation.
So, my name is Jessica Chong. I'm 37. And I work as a software engineer. I've been doing it for eight years, which is a long time. But then, if you consider that I was 29 when I was like, "I'm gonna be a software engineer," it doesn't seem that long.
What does your work entail exactly?
Getting into fights with people. [Laughs.] No. So, I work at a 12-person startup. We're making a really cool, fast way for people to make slide decks. Basically, you input a prompt, and then it generates a slide deck for you. And obviously, the slide deck that it generates isn't the finished piece. You can go in and edit it. But it's like Notion meets Canva. It's really fun to use.
Was software engineering something you always wanted to do?
Oh, no. I had no idea you could become a software engineer when I was a kid. When I was 12 or 13, I was obsessed with making websites. So I bought this book that was this thick about HTML and CSS. [Measures with hands.] And I owned a domain with three girls in Canada that I didn't know. One of them had access to their parents' credit card, and they registered a domain name. And so we just hosted websites. I had a WWF fan site, a Chris Jericho fan site; this is circa 2000. And we had a message board and everything. And so I didn't know that you could have a job doing that.
Also, in high school, I didn't want to be the Asian nerd. So I threw myself into all the arts and social science kind of stuff. And I kind of was like, "I'll just kind of stay abreast of developments there. That's not me. I don't want to be a nerd. That's social suicide." So, I studied geography in undergrad. And I thought I would work in writing or editing. But I ended up in the nonprofit industry. I tried a bunch of those things, and then ended up making websites and then actually learning how to write program in 2015.
So, let's move to the next slide on your Survivor deck. What led you to write your own program to come out to Fiji?
Oh my god. A bunch of different things. So I moved to San Francisco in 2015 [for] coding boot camp, and I had not watched Survivor ever. I don't even think I watched a single episode when it first started airing when I was in high school. But my husband and his family were obsessed with Survivor. He would put on his buff and watch it, and I'd be like, "You're such a normie nerd! What are you doing?" [Laughs.] But then I started watching during Kaoh Rong, and I was like, "This is addictive. But I'm also hate-watching it because some of the people on this are really mean."
Not a Scot Pollard fan, I'm assuming?
Oh my god. Well, I don't know what he's like in real life. But when I was watching it, I was like, "They're being so mean to that blonde girl!" They kept calling her Blondie, and it was just very uncomfortable. But it was so fun to watch. Oh my god, don't put this out. I don't want Scot Pollard coming after me.
I have a fair assumption Scot Pollard isn't reading this. [Laughs.]
So I watched Kaoh Rong, and then I just kept watching and watching. And then I was disappointed every time the first vote out was an Asian woman. And then I watched Gabby play, and I was like, "That's somebody I could be." I mean, she just cried so shamelessly. And I was like, "I could be like Gabby!"
So, if you could select a winner and a non-winner who you identify with the most, would Gabby be on that list?
I feel like my lineage is Gabby, Maryanne, and Carolyn. And Fabio further up.
I would not have expected Fabio! Why is that?
Because he's kind of hapless but also indignant a lot of the time. I feel like a lot of the people in that season, I don't know where their heads were at. But he seemed to have this strong sense of what was right and wrong. And I kind of was like, "Yeah, I kind of identify with that." He was totally hapless and clueless. But he knew what was going on. And he knew how to talk to the right people at the right time.
Do you have a sense as to whether you'll bring that morality into the game? Because the social contract you write may fly on some seasons and not others.
God. I don't know. I feel like I don't want to strongarm anyone into abiding by my code of ethics, whatever that is. But I do feel like when somebody crosses me or does something that I think is egregious, like bullying someone, I'll usually do something about it. If I don't confront them directly, I'm gonna turn everyone against them. [Laughs.] Public opinion is more important than anything else.
What's your favorite moment in Survivor history?
The most recent one was when Carolyn was at the "brodown" feast. Oh my god. Because I know what that feels like. That happens to me all the time at work, or it has happened to me a lot at work.
What's one life experience you feel has prepared you most for the game? Does it come from that work setting, as you mention?
I have no idea. Everything. Everything has prepared me, from when I was in the womb. I'm an identical twin. And I came out first. Probably because I looked like I needed more help. My face was smushed. It was a C-section. Most of my sister's knee was in my face. So it was totally smushed. And my dad was like, "Is she gonna be okay?" And I guess I'm okay. So I've been fighting for nutrients since I was an idea.
And the cycle continues. You've got 26 days of fighting for nutrients.
Beyond that, I don't know. I don't think any one experience has prepared me for it. I grew up in Hong Kong and Toronto, and was always kind of moving between places or studying through these different spaces with people. And a bunch of people had different ideas about how it was supposed to be. As a woman, as a Chinese girl living in Hong Kong that didn't speak Cantonese, all these different things. I feel like kind of saying, "Haha, you don't get to tell me who I am" through anything that I've done. Even in my career as a software engineer, having a nontraditional background, I feel like that's kind of prepared me. I don't know; that was long-winded and incoherent.
No, it was coherent and properly winded! You wrote in your bio that, at 24, you were working two entry-level jobs, and you quit them to become a freelance web designer. I feel like that's part and parcel of what you just said. "I can have other people determine my success, or I can determine my own success, however risky that may be." And that feels so conducive to this game.
Oh my god. I have to tell you about another situation. There was a time where I was like, "Maybe I should help people get into college," because I had writing and editing skills. And I worked at the admissions office at my university and stuff. So, I applied for this gig when I first moved back to Hong Kong in my early 20s. And it was run by these guys who I think were just like, "We need someone." I knew that I was going to be exploited. And so I tried to get out of it as quickly as I could. And they sent me an email that was really threatening, like, "Hong Kong is a small place. Such moves can and will damage your reputation." And I was like, "Who the [expletive] are you to tell me?!" [Laughs.] I think I shrieked with laughter when I got the email. But then I got a little bit freaked out. And I showed it to my friend, who was a lawyer. And he was like, "You don't have to worry about this." So people telling me what I can and can't do, I don't like that.
How do you think people will perceive you in this game?
I think once people start to talk to me, you can already tell from even nonverbal communication that I don't take myself that seriously. So when you use the word "frivolous," that's the word that my dad also likes to use sometimes. And it's not the right word to describe me. I think I can come off as hapless and kind of fun loving and very friendly. And that is a fine perception for me. I don't want them to be like, "She's smart." I don't really think of myself as smart. But I feel like I don't want people to think that.
When it comes to other people in the game, what qualities are you looking for in an ally?
Oh my god, I want a soulmate like Carolyn and Yam Yam! I want what they have. I want someone who understands me and doesn't take themselves too seriously and wants to have fun. Because I think it would really suck to be in alliance with somebody that's too serious and not having fun. I would feel very claustrophobic in that kind of arrangement. And if I can't find someone like that, then I would hope that I would find someone that has that also understands that he doesn't have to be exactly like me, and hopefully has a skill set that's complementary to mine. So maybe they're a bit more strategic and logical.
You talk about Carolyn and Yam Yam. When it came to that pointy end of the game, would you debate cutting them to help your own game?
It would depend so much on their relationship with the people in the jury. I have no idea. I don't know. Like what Gabby had to do with Christian. Because I do see that it would be so fun to play the game with someone I felt very close to and go to the end with. I don't think anything could beat that experience. Except for winning.
Looking around your competitors right now, are you getting any vibes one way or the other?
I can't really say because I've been taking very seriously this whole thing about not talking to people. There's a girl with red hair, and she's covered in tattoos. I'm too indecisive to get a tattoo. So I'm like, "That's really good." She was doing embroidery. And I am a crafter. I sewed this outfit. It's a fake jumpsuit. So she looks cool. But I also feel like I'm not allowed to make eyes at her. I don't know.
You talk about that craftiness. Is that going to carry over into making fake idols?
First order of business is they did not allow me to wear a hat. So I'm going to make a hat. I watched this video 20 times, and then I diagrammed all the steps. I think I have it in here. Palm fronds, like the ones Cody and Yam Yam made.
On the other side of the spectrum, is there anyone you're picking up bad vibes from?
I think people that look really serious. Because I feel like people who are very serious can be very put off by me. And I don't want to piss people off right out of the gate. But sometimes, I have that effect on people who take themselves seriously.
Let's say a boat shows up at your camp on Day 2, asking one person to go on a journey. How would you approach the situation?
Oh my god, I haven't thought about that. I feel like I would not volunteer to go, because I wouldn't know if I would be allowed to pee on the island. [Laughs.]
Well, actually, I don't know. I haven't really plotted out my course because I just have no idea what's going to happen. And I feel like whatever happens, I would just have to roll with it. So if I went to the island, I would do my best to ingratiate myself to the people there and make it seem like I'm telling them lots of juicy gossip, but not really tell them anything meaningful, which I'm very good at doing. I think that's my magic spell.
That lack of forethought, is that coming from who you are as a person? Or is it more so about not knowing what's to come in the new era?
It's just part of who I am. I just found out this year that I have ADHD, which makes everything in my life make so much sense and makes this seem not that scary. I feel like I'm supposed to be more freaked out and more like, "Oh my god, I have to be plotting and planning." But I'm just kind of like, "I'll roll with it."
Speaking of rolling with it, is that how you're going to play with advantages? Are you going to be hunting for them?
I feel like if I found one, I would plan it such that I could watch someone else get it and know exactly who had it. A lot of magical things would have to fall into place for this to happen. And then put the target on them. Hopefully, it'd be someone I didn't like that much.
You could do what Matthew did with Jaime, leading her to a fake idol.
Or what Danny did with Matt, yeah. You never know if something is real, either. I'm almost like, "Let's not touch anything."
Related: Everything to Know About Survivor 46
How do you usually make an important decision in your life?
I am 100% gut oriented. This has been a learning experience for me and my husband, because he's very process driven. He's been trying to give me advice about how to play. And he really loves board games and Dungeons and Dragons and stuff like that. And I don't have patience for the rules and stuff. I'm just like, "I'm just gonna go with my gut. It's worked for me so far in my life." I think my process, the one thing that will move the needle on how I decide stuff is if I've decided that somebody has done something that I find to be morally repugnant. Or if I find they're a little bit too rude to someone they don't like, I'd turn everyone against them.
What's been your preparation for Survivor?
So, I conveniently live with someone who bought a 3D printer on Craigslist and printed out some puzzles. And his name is my husband. [Laughs.] Because I would never have the patience to learn how to use AutoCAD or whatever software he was using to do that. I also started swimming at a pool near my house. I also started going to the gym, because I've been rather sedentary leading up to this. The only exercise I get is bike commuting by necessity because I don't know how to drive. I did a lot. I got a brain teaser book in case they were like, "The Asian girl has to do the Savvy. I feel like every day, I did something that would help me.
I saw you wrote in your bio that you like to binge shows 80% of the way through, and then Google the last 20%.
I can't watch anymore! I just want to know what happens.
What shows have you been doing with that recently?
Oh my god. Succession. I missed the finale.
Well, at the time we're talking right now, it just ended. So you can give your live predictions in the moment.
Roman's going to die! Or Ken. One of them. Succession and Survivor are the only TV shows I watch.
Have there been any seasons where you've done your usual method?
I think I didn't finish Gabon. Because that one was really hard to watch. Nicaragua I really enjoyed. But then I was like, "I don't want to watch the game because I don't want it to pollute my sense of self going into the game."
What is your hottest Survivor take?
I liked the Medallion of Power! [Laughs.] I think I liked that season because the challenges looked easier because there were geriatric people on it. I think the Medallion of Power is cool because it gives you some agency, and you have to really think about it. It's another vector to see how the tribe sees itself and how they make decisions together.
What celebrity or fictional character would you want to come out for a Loved Ones visit?
I think I would pick Catherine O'Hara. Because I think she would give me some very good advice about how to give a sizzling final Tribal Council speech.
Well, how are you feeling right now? I know you said you should be feeling more scared. But what are the emotions now as we're getting closer to the big day?
Repressed. Because I haven't been able to talk to anyone. Nothing makes me happier than going out and meeting new people, getting to know them. And I feel like I've just been going like this and acting like a weirdo. [Laughs.] I just really want to go out and meet some people and figure out what they're about. And yeah, hopefully, there's someone that I vibe with. I don't know.
Next, check out our interview with Survivor 46 contestant David Jelinsky.