The Adventures of Hayley, Queen of the Desert: A Chat with Pain Researcher and Sole Survivor Hayley Leake

Hayley Leake (@HayleyLeake) is a physiotherapist currently completing her PhD with Professor Lorimer Moseley AO at the University of South Australia. Her PhD research focuses on investigating pain science education for adolescents. Leake also works with Professor James McAuley’s research group at Neuroscience Research Australia (or NeuRA). Outside of work, Leake is a long-time fan of reality game show Survivor. Following her win on season six of Australian Survivor: Brains V Brawn, Leake spoke with Newsletter Editor Lincoln Tracy to discuss her love of the Survivor franchise, how her pain science knowledge helped her win the title of Sole Survivor, and what the future holds. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

How did your interest in Survivor start?

Survivor started 20 years ago in America and has been going for 40 seasons. I remember watching the first season when I was 10, just seeing flashes of the show and enjoying it. My mum also really liked watching it. My whole family did really—I’ve got uncles, aunts, and cousins who are all superfans and really get around it. The interest in the show really developed from there over time. It’s always been something I identified myself by: I’m from the country, I research pain, and I love Survivor.

The concept of Survivor—the social experiment aspect where people from different walks of life are bought into one space and are forced to collaborate on a goal together—really appeals to me. It always produces a surprising result in the sense that people you don’t think will get along do after finding common ground, which is something I really love.

Is it true that your 21st birthday was Survivor themed?

Yes, to an extent [laughs]. I had my 21st in Mildura, in country Victoria. It’s by the river, so we had plenty of tiki torches around. When it came time to the speeches the lights dimmed. My best mates parted the crowd and walked through to the front. They brought out their speeches, which were written on the parchment we use for voting, and they read off all the reasons why I should be voted out of my 21st. At the end of the speeches they snuffed my torch, and off I went. I’ve heard about very cool themed parties where they do more of the challenges, so I might have to do a more strongly themed Survivor party one day.

At what point did you first consider applying to be part of the show?

When Survivor started in Australia, I was a bit sceptical about it. I wasn’t sure if Australia would do a good job of creating a unique version of an American show. After a few years I thought they were doing a good job and were portraying people in a realistic fashion, which made me feel confident about it. But I still didn’t apply for a few years because there was part of me that didn’t think I would get cast. Although it’s supposed to be a show about ordinary people, often they cast ex-Olympians, ex-AFL players, and other people with big profiles. As much as I loved the show, I didn’t think my character would be interesting enough from a production standpoint and that I wouldn’t get cast.

Then one day I woke up and was inspired. I started to draw parallels between pain and Survivor, which I thought would make a good audition tape. I was playing around with this idea that pain is a perception. It’s all about protection, and so we manipulate the threat of pain in a way to try to get a different outcome. So, if we make something more threatening, then we predict there might be more pain.

And I thought to myself, that’s the crux of Survivor. You’re trying to navigate the game by altering the perception of yourself as less threatening and other people as more threatening. I thought this parallel would make an interesting audition tape. I threw the audition tape in, I got a call for the Zoom interview, and then for the group interview, and they just kept saying yes. Next thing you know, I’m in the Outback!

What was having to tell your supervisors and the university you needed time off to film the show like?

I was told to not tell anyone that I was going on Survivor, to just say I needed time off, that I was doing a science documentary, or anything, because they [Channel 10 and the production company] didn’t want it to leak who was on the show. While I completely understand their reasons for this, I thought, “I don’t think that’s going to fly” [laughs]. I felt the need to tell them what I’m doing.

I remember during the first few weeks of starting my PhD with Lorimer, we were sitting around in a meeting and we all had to say something interesting about ourselves that no one would know. I remember saying, “I’m a really big fan of Survivor, and maybe if I disappear one day it’s because I’m on the show,” as a joke to accentuate how much I liked the show. I never thought I would apply! So, the fact I had to walk away from my PhD to go on the show is kind of strange.

I’m very lucky because Lorimer is incredibly supportive. I was a bit nervous about telling him I was going on reality TV, being so close to the end of my PhD and knowing I should just finish it. But I could never pass up an opportunity like this, and I’m glad I didn’t. It was funny to tell people, “I’m going to go away for three months,” and some people retrofitted that with, “Oh, you’re going on a writing retreat to finish your thesis. That makes sense, we’ll talk to you after.” I was like, “Great, yeah, that’s what I’m doing.” They kept asking me whether I had finished writing, and I had to keep telling them no [laughs].

You mentioned your threat manipulation strategy in an earlier interview with the Society and clearly had some success with it. Did you need to deviate from your strategy at any point?

I went into the game with the strategy of trying to manage my threat level and not let myself become too threatening. But I don’t think I did a very good job at that because I got excited. I could feel I had a lot of power in this game in the form of information. A lot of people trusted me, and they were telling me every plan. This put me right in the middle and allowed me to swing back and forth. And instead of sitting with the information and not doing anything, I made a lot of moves. Getting to play such an active role in the game was fun, and the child in me was very excited. But it meant that I became quite threatening, and was voted off, but got a second chance to come back in.

When I came back, I knew I had to adapt my game, and I tried to stick to being less threatening. I really talked everyone up around me. I said a lot of things like, “There’s no way I’ll win this, I’ve been voted out, it’s not possible anymore, I just want to get as far as I can.” I also tried using my physical strength more to try to get further in the game and tried to target anyone who was physically stronger than me. Because some challenges are more suited towards specific body shapes, that became a bit more of the strategy in the second half. By the end I just kept making sure I had the three pillars: the physical, the strategic, and the social.

There are so many parallels you can make between the biopsychosocial model to pain research and Survivor. The bio relates to the physical aspect, how well can you do or outlast. The psycho is the strategic side of it, how well can you cognitively manoeuvre yourself to outwit your competition. Then there’s the social element and being able to outplay others. It’s interesting to me because typically people on Survivor focus strongly on bio aspect of it. They’re thinking, “How physical are you? You’re a threat because you’re so physical, let’s vote you out”. But in fact the most threatening people are the social ones.

How else do you feel your pain expertise helped you during your Survivor experience?

A lot of people have asked me about how I managed pain during the physical challenges, especially during the final three endurance challenges. The one thing I was trying to focus on was asking myself, “How dangerous is this really? If I stand here for 10 hours, how dangerous is this?” I concluded that getting a blister or having a sore foot for a couple of days wasn’t dangerous in the long term. So, I tried to use those thoughts to de-threaten that challenge to myself.

Meanwhile, I’m listening to the host, JLP [Jonathan LaPaglia], ask the other contestants, “Tell me how it feels, it must be painful, how does it feel?” I remember one of them saying, “It feels like a thousand knives in my feet.” I was thinking to myself, that is such a threatening message for your brain to be hearing about this—of course it’s going to protect you and make pain. I tried to block that out and just keep telling myself, “I’m safe, my feet are strong, I can stand here for 10 hours, I will be okay.” And in some way that helped me in that challenge.

You were recently awarded the APS/APRA/CFK #4 Clinical Research Grant. What was the basis of your application?

I’m really excited about this project. My PhD has been looking at what pain science messages we could try to get across to young people with pain, because a lot of the pain education work has focused in the adult space. Although it has been quite successful, we need to adapt it to teenagers or other young people and make sure it’s relevant and engaging for them. So, my PhD explored what pain science messages should be communicated to adolescents, from the viewpoint of clinicians and researchers, and from young people themselves.

Now we have these messages, we really want to communicate them to youth. A lot of youth are on social media, and so we want to find ways to create interesting content that they would engage with. To do that, we’re partnering with young people with chronic pain in South Australia to co-design social media content that we can roll out through a campaign. We’re also working also with a content consultancy group who can help create the content. But we’re keeping young people central to the entire design process, rather than just creating content then assessing if young people like it. We will be recruiting young people with chronic pain in the very near future through the South Australian Paediatric Chronic Pain Service and will hopefully be running the workshops towards the end of this year and the start of next year.

How do you feel the public profile you have gained through Survivor will help with this work?

Being on Survivor means I have a larger social media platform to communicate with people, and a lot of my followers are in the 15 to 35 year old demographic. I hope this will be helpful when I’m trying to gather information, or disseminate messages. A lot of people have approached me for influencer purposes, but I don’t want to sell sports clothes [laughs]. I feel very lucky to have this platform and I want to use it for pain advocacy and pain education and to learn from the people who are following me about what they understand about pain and what they want to know.

You have also recently joined the Society’s Scientific Program Committee (SPC). What motivated you to join the SPC, and what do you hope to bring?

I look forward to the APS conference every year. I’ve benefited greatly from the networking opportunities and getting to learn about current research. At times, it’s been difficult to get inspired about your own work over the last few years because of the pandemic, so I was keen to understand how the process of putting together a conference actually worked, and to be able to bring my insights into what I enjoy about attending these conferences.

Before COVID there was an annual conference in Sydney for early career pain researchers where we could all get together and talk about pain. I benefited so much from those—meeting and learning from early career researchers (ECR). So I am keen to bring my experiences to the APS SPC to help create and shape a programmes that appeals to ECRs – for example, developing trainee workshops, that kind of thing.

My PhD has also become quite heavily influenced with qualitative research. I find there’s a lot of value in qualitative research I wasn’t aware of before I got involved in it. I’d like to see more of that at conferences as well, improving the understanding and value of qualitative research, so we could communicate more about how those methods can be translated and used.

What’s next for you, both professionally and personally? Are you looking forward to getting back into research, or are you already eyeing off your next reality TV crown?

I’m very lucky I got to play the game that was my childhood dream, but I don’t have plans to stay in the reality TV space [laughs]. Survivor was the one thing I wanted to do, and I’ve achieved everything within that I want to achieve. My goals moving forward are really to step back into the pain research world I stepped out of for the show. I have a PhD to finish that I’m very close to submitting, and I have some work lined up next year in the paediatric pain space, which I’m excited about. I’m also going to do some endometriosis research with Dr Jane Chalmers. Winning Survivor has accentuated my life in a lot of ways, and the prize money is going to be a huge help as well. But I’m lucky I already have a path I’m so passionate about and that I can’t wait to get back into.

Lincoln Tracy is a researcher and freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia. You can follow him on Twitter @lincolntracy.

Photos: Nigel Wright