"I feel as though with Survivor and MasterChef, there's no tokenism," Ong tells Refinery29 Australia over the phone. The Melbourne-based reality star believes that people aren't just cast on these shows to service a queer-themed storyline. They can simply be themselves, free of added pressure and stereotypes.
"I feel like you don't get thrown on the show because you fit a certain mould," he explains. "On Survivor, once you're there, everyone is on an equal playing field."
Ong hopes that queer viewers can feel seen and heard when they see someone they resonate with on screen. It's what he remembers yearning for after moving to Australia with his family in the 1990s, following the first two years of his life in an immigration camp in Indonesia. After migrating Down Under, Ong struggled growing up in a Vietnamese household as a young gay man, and seeing no one in the local media that looked like him.
"I never grew up with an Asian refugee or a gay man, a gay Asian or a gay Asian refugee [on TV]. I never saw any of that," he says. "And now being a part of this TV landscape and being on the show makes me super proud. Because, when I was younger, I never even thought that I could do anything like this because I never saw it. But now it's there!"
Reflecting on the few relatable faces he saw on television in his early years, Ong says, "When we were younger and when we did see it, it was always just the one token person.
"I feel like that has really changed now for the better. Obviously, we still have a way to go but at the same time, we're moving in the right direction."
"I never grew up with an Asian refugee or a gay man, a gay Asian or a gay Asian refugee [on TV]. I never saw any of that."
This year Sophia Cachia, who's in a relationship with basketballer Maddie Garrick, is also competing. AFLW star Moana Hope starred on Survivor's 2018 season and in 2017, Peter Conte came out as gay in the first episode. Last year's season featured bisexual surfer Flick Palmateer, as well as Rachel Downie and Dani Beale, who are both in same-sex relationships.
The 2021 season also featured the show's first non-binary contestant, Phil Ferguson. Unfortunately they were eliminated from the show before they'd had the chance to disclose their pronouns to the other contestants. The professional crochet artist purposely left behind their handmade hat – made in the colours of the non-binary flag – to serve as a reminder that they'd been on the show.
Following their elimination, Ferguson told Yahoo Lifestyle they had felt some pressure as a non-binary POC to prove their worthiness to co-stars.
“I was expecting it to be an uphill battle in terms of being a double minority,” they told the publication. “I was trying to be as social as possible to counter that and prove myself in challenges and all that sort of thing.
“I was scared that I was going to be the only person of colour and the only gay person. And so being in a tribe of three gay people and two Asians, I was a bit like, ‘Oh I’ve got a bit of buffer room!’ But when you remove them all and it's back to square one, I just wasn't able to climb back from it," they said, reflecting on being eliminated first.
The above example is testament to the varied experiences queer people have had on the show so far. While Ong's argument that queer representation is less tokenistic on Australian Survivor sings true in some cases, so does his earlier statement which says "we still have a way to go".
Australian Survivor: Blood v Water airs Sunday to Wednesday at 7:30pm on Channel 10 and 10 Play on Demand.