April 11, 2004
Sentinel exclusive interview: Lex looks back on ‘Survivor: All-Stars’
By PEGGY TOWNSEND
Sentinel staff writer
A breath of air and a friendship.
That’s all that stood between Santa Cruz’s Lex van den Berghe and a $1 million check in Thursday night’s episode of the CBS hit "Survivor: All-Stars."
In a wide-ranging telephone interview with the Sentinel on Friday, Lex talked about that fateful gulp of air, the behind-the-scene "Survivor" maneuverings and why he trusted a man who later engineered his ouster.
"‘Survivor,’" he said, between a flurry of interviews with "TV Guide," "Entertainment Tonight," "Access Hollywood" and "The Early Show" in New York, "is never a cakewalk."
Lex, 40, is no stranger to "Survivor," a show that spawned a generation of reality TV and, this season, has ranked among the top five network shows.
He was one of the top three contestants two years ago in "Survivor: Africa" where, some of his fans say, he was the victim of an unfortunate mix-up that cost him the win. And he has critiqued several seasons of the show for this newspaper.
So, Lex said, he thought he knew what to expect for the eighth edition of "Survivor" which pitted 18 former players against one another in a Robinson Crusoe-test of survival and relationships.
The reality turned out to be different.
His strategy, Lex said Friday, "was to play hard, play honest and play straight" and, before he left, he set to work doing the physical training necessary for the kind of diving, running and swimming challenges he knew were ahead.
So it wasn’t a surprise when the Santa Cruz surfer pulled ahead of Rob Mariano, a brash construction worker from Boston, in Thursday night’s crucial immunity challenge, which involved swimming under water to untie a series of 10 buoys.
But although the first buoys were easy to free, the last was lashed down with up to a dozen knots, said Lex.
"I literally had one loop left and was running out of breath," he said.
In what turned out to be a game-altering decision, Lex kicked back to the surface and got a gulp of air, only to see the man everyone calls "Boston Rob" had somehow caught up with him.
"In hindsight I should have stayed down that extra three seconds and the game would have been very different," Lex said.
Had he untied that last knot, the Santa Cruz contestant would have won "immunity" and could not have been voted out of the game for an additional three days — time enough to pull together a new alliance.
But the real decision that cost him the million-dollar prize, Lex said, came earlier.
And, because of someone he considered to be a friend.
Even before they arrived on the palm-tree studded island off Panama, Boston Rob and Lex had been good friends.
They met at "Survivor" events and talked on the phone.
"He would call me on the phone in tears when he was breaking up with his girlfriend," Lex said.
So when Rob whispered to Lex that he would "take care of him" if Lex managed to save his alliance-mate and island girlfriend Amber Brkich, the Santa Cruz contestant agreed.
"It was a friend coming to a friend," said Lex of the request. "The only way I could act in that situation was to answer the call of a friend that needed help."
But he was torn, he said, because he had promised an alliance with another friend and tribemate Jerri Manthey.
Even though his gut told him to vote off Amber, Lex said, he voted to have Jerri leave the show.
What the camera didn’t reveal, he said, was that he allowed tribemate Kathy Vavrick-O’Brien make the final call.
"I thought my own decision-making skills were being clouded by being loyal to a friend," he said and Kathy, a 50-year-old Realtor, had told him that she thought they could trust the construction worker.
"None of us in the game got to see the trash-talking that Rob was doing in his interviews — something all of you guys in the comfort of your armchairs got to see," Lex said.
Nor was Lex in the same camp as Boston Rob, watching him on a day-to-day basis, he said.
So it was a surprise when Rob told Lex he planned to give him the heave-ho.
Off-camera, Lex said, he scrambled to build a hasty alliance but couldn’t cobble one together in time.
"He’s got his tribe of sheep," Lex said of Rob, "and they (the contestants who voted with him) are going like lambs to the slaughter.
"They’re happy," he said, "to be Rob’s hand puppets."
Rob and Lex are apparently no longer friends.
"He’s a despicable scoundrel," Lex said of Rob. "I’ve got such good friends, why should I have trash like that in my life?"
But Rob’s friendship was not the only illusion in a show that bills itself as reality TV, according to Lex.
There was that scene Thursday, for instance, when Lex’s jaw dropped after a red-eyed, emotional Kathy said she would not hand over the coveted immunity necklace to Lex at the Tribal Council meeting.
Lex said Friday he already knew Kathy would not give immunity to him — even though she had insisted earlier that he deserved it because she had decided Jerri’s departure.
"As we walked up to Tribal Council I whispered to her, ‘you better not give it (immunity) to me,’" Lex said. "If you do, I’m going to turn it down."
The look of complete amazement on Lex’s face actually came after Rob insisted he and Lex could still be friends at Tribal Council, Lex said.
The rest was celluloid magic.
Likewise, his apparent betrayal of "Africa" teammate Ethan Zohn.
They were pals, not alliance-mates, Lex said.
The only thing he promised, he said, was to tell Ethan when he was getting the ax.
The toughest game
"Survivor" is never an easy game, according to Lex. Producer Mark Burnett, also responsible for the successful "Apprentice" series, makes it hard on contestants — giving them minimal amounts of food, no shelter and situations designed to make people distrust and scheme against each other.
"Survivor: Africa," the series’ third installment, was tough physically, said Lex.
Not only did the already-wiry Lex lose 35 pounds in that 39-day adventure but he came back to Santa Cruz with a parasitic disorder that took six months of medication to cure.
In fact, it was only a few weeks before he left for "Survivor: All-Stars" — two years after the first show — that his digestive system got back to normal, he said.
In "Survivor All-Stars" there were cold rainstorms, big winds and huge swarms of biting insects that turned Lex’s tattooed body into a relief map of bumps.
He lost 20 pounds.
But the hardest part of "Survivor: All-Stars" was the psychological game.
"The mental game was harder because we all knew each other," he said. That meant building a strategy was a lot harder.
Lex said he tried to always think ahead — booting off soccer-playing Ethan and athletic Texan Colby Donaldson early on — because they were likable and also would prove to be tough in the later physical challenges that are such an important part of the game.
And even though some Internet chat rooms, and a few e-mails to the Sentinel criticized his play, Lex said, he thought his strategy was sound.
It was one mistake — the decision to vote off Jerri — that cost him the big win.
Even though he didn’t survive, he insisted Friday, he’s still a rich man because of his family and friends.
After a whirlwind of interviews — Lex will appear on Tuesday’s "Regis and Kelly" show — he’s headed back to Santa Cruz where he and his wife, Kelly, plan to write children’s books.
He plans to keep writing for this newspaper and magazines, and continue doing motivational speaking.
Just about anything, he said, to avoid a 9-to-5 job like he had when he worked at a high-tech firm in Silicon Valley.
And if there’s one thing, he said, he’s learned from playing "Survivor" and one thing he’d like to pass on, it would be this: "Be true to yourself," he said.
"And good to your friends."http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/archive/2004/April/11/local/stories/02local.htm