Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 11 / 15 March 2018

Gay SF gardener surviving TV fame


Tai Trang, a contestant on Survivor, plays bocce ball at the courts on the Embarcadero. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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As his team of co-workers from the Port of San Francisco competed one recent weekday afternoon in the Ferry Bocce League, Tai Trang took a time out from the action at Justin Herman Plaza to pose for a photo with a fan.

Walking by with his lunch, Danny Tran had spotted Trang, one of the cast members from this season of the hit CBS show Survivor . The 26-year-old Tran, like Trang, is gay and their families both came to the U.S. from Vietnam.

He and his roommate have been rooting for Trang to win the televised competition, which this go-around took place in Cambodia and will award the winner a $1 million prize later this spring.

"He is a favorite to win," said Tran, who has been a fan of the show since it debuted 16 years ago. "He knows how to play the game and has a good personality. He is going to do well I think."

Trang, 52, who works as a gardener for the Port, is still adjusting to being noticed by fans of the show. One stranger recently gave him $5 and told Trang to buy himself a drink; he in turn gave it to a homeless man since he didn't need the money.

"It is fun to be recognized," said Trang during a recent interview with the Bay Area Reporter.

One of 18 contestants on Survivor: Kaoh Rong , which premiered February 17, Trang has largely come across as one of the more likeable cast members. This season began with the contestants split between the beauty, brain, and brawn tribes, with Trang assigned to beauty.

"When I was told on the boat I was part of the beauty tribe, I started laughing," said Trang, adding that he joked it was due "hopefully" to his "inner beauty is what I was guessing."

Early on gay blogs picked up on his "bromance" with fellow beauty tribe member Caleb Reynolds, who was taken out of the game for medical reasons. The two remain close friends, and Trang plans to attend Reynolds' wedding in a few weeks.

"Every night is so cold. The best thing to do is to hold on to people, body heat is amazing," said Trang. "I would hold Caleb; I asked if I could hold him. I didn't think about the bromance thing."

He has been communicating with fans of the show via Twitter, where he has 5,865 followers, and created a fan page on Facebook where people can comment on the show. He's been referred to as "adorable" and "lovable," and one fan posted a photo of her "star struck" husband posing with Trang.

Survivor contestant Tai Trang climbs a palm tree on the Embarcadero. Photo: Rick Gerharter

"It is amazing. Even the first day it aired, people recognized me. I guess I am very recognizable," said Trang, who even encountered fans during a recent trip to Joshua Tree National Park.

At times, however, the public adulation has turned negative. After last week's episode aired on the East Coast, which showed Trang and two of his allies sabotaging their camp, a number of his fans expressed their disappointment via social media.

"It is very hard, extremely hard," Trang said about disappointing his fans. "People think I am a certain way, the nice guy. But it was a game, right, and you have to separate that from who you are. I think a lot of people feel betrayed. It was really difficult to receive hate tweets."

The worst message he has received, so far, came in mid March from a fan of one of the female contestants Trang helped to vote off the show. The poster, who said he lived in San Francisco, called him homophobic slurs and threated to beat Trang up if he ever ran into him on the street.

"I tweeted out a screen image of his post and asked should I take this seriously?" said Trang, adding that the reaction from his Twitter fans was "amazing. So many people said they reported the guy to Facebook."

Failed tryout led to being cast

Trang hadn't set out to become a Survivor cast member. In the summer of 2014, he and his partner, Mark Philpot, 56, who works as a nurse in the Tenderloin for the city's public health department, had applied to be contestants on another CBS competition show, The Amazing Race .

Although the couple wasn't picked, Trang caught the eye of a casting director, who recommended he think about applying for Survivor .

"I am a huge fan but Survivor really scared me. The social game is so tough, I don't know if I can handle it," he recalled. "I said, 'What the hell, let's go for it,' and I sent in an audition tape."

Philpot hadn't really wanted to tryout for The Amazing Race , so he wasn't upset at not being asked to also audition for Survivor.

"I don't like to be in front of the camera and I don't like to have my picture taken," said Philpot, who like Trang has watched both shows from the beginning. "He is very good in front of the camera. He just kind of takes to it very naturally."

Trang left in March of last year to tape the show. His being away "was much harder than I thought," said Philpot. But watching his partner the last nine weeks has been "really great."

As for how long Trang has survived, that has been a surprise, admitted Philpot.

"Honestly, I just didn't think he would make it very far. He gets along with everyone really well, but he has a tendency to be a little bossy. So I thought he might rub people the wrong way," he said.

Several times it appeared his fellow tribe mates might vote out Trang. But so far he has been able to, in the show's parlance, "outwit, outplay, and outlast." He also has what the show calls an immunity idol, offering him safety in the game if used to protect himself from being voted out.

One reason for Trang's longevity on the show, said Philpot, is he "brings a lot to his tribe. He is a very generous person, just in life in general. He does things for people everyday I have known him, without hesitation."

Sunni Franco, who works for Bay Crossings, which runs the bocce ball tournament, said it isn't surprising that Trang is on the show.

"He is a really good guy and very outgoing," said Franco. "He seems to really enjoy being outside with people. He works as a gardener, so it makes sense he is outside in nature."

Trang was born in Saigon, Vietnam, where his parents had escaped to on foot from China in the 1940s. In 1979 the family then fled Vietnam, after five years of living under Communist rule, aboard a fishing boat and ended up at an Indonesian refugee camp.

A year later the family was resettled to San Jose, where Trang enrolled in high school without speaking a word of English. He excelled and was accepted to Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo.

Although he knew he was gay from an early age, Trang didn't start to date men until after college. To this day, he said, he has never talked to his family about being gay, even though he first introduced them to Philpot a decade ago. (Trang is one of 11 siblings who all live in the Bay Area. Their father died in 1991.)

"Even now my mom says how is your roommate? She must know now because I tried to kiss a straight guy," said Trang, referring to an interaction between him and Reynolds from one of the Survivor episodes. "It is an Asian thing. We just don't talk about it."

The couple owns a home in the Bayview, where Trang raises chickens and tends to a backyard beehive. They volunteer with the Quesada Gardens project, which turned overgrown medians in the area into landscaped gardens in an effort to ward off the drug dealing and prostitution in the neighborhood.

"Since I am a gardener myself, I am involved in the community work there. We do a lot of clean up," said Trang.

Over the last 13 years Trang has raised $75,000 as a participant of the annual AIDS/LifeCycle ride that benefits the Los Angeles LGBT Community Center and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. He took part in last year's ride just weeks after returning from Cambodia, where he broke a tooth eating a coconut, despite being anemic and having done no training.

"I was underweight and thought I had a parasite, but I had to be there," said Trang, who also ran the San Francisco Marathon last July. "I am planning to do the AIDS ride this year. It is a fun, fun event."

He has enjoyed watching himself on Survivor , even though he was terrified of coming off as stupid. One trait revealed by the show has surprised him.

"I never thought I had an accent until I saw my audition tape. It sounded like I was just off the boat and I have been here 30 years," he joked. "I worried at least I appear to be hopefully not an idiot. After the show started airing, it feels like I am who I am on the show. My friends say, 'You act exactly as you are.' I am glad that comes across."


Survivor airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on CBS5.



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