'Survivor' finalist didn't mind 'annoying' portrayal
by Eric Fingerhut
Eliza Orlins thought she knew how to play Survivor. "I've been obsessed with the show since the first season" and often criticize "people's mistakes from the couch" while watching the CBS television series, she said.
But once she was out there on the island, exhausted both mentally and physically from "not eating [and] not really sleeping," she saw herself making "the same mistakes" that everyone else does -- such as trusting her fellow competitors.
"I kept thinking, 'Keep your head on straight,' but it's tougher than you might think. ... You form real relationships with people ... I really got attached to people."
Despite occasionally forgetting that Survivor winners usually must lie and backstab to win, the 21-year-old District resident still did very well: She finished fourth, winning $60,000 -- in addition to a Pontiac G6 she received by prevailing in one of the show's challenges.
Airing Thursday at 8 p.m., Survivor strands 18 people on an island -- this past season, it was Vanuatu in the South Pacific -- with pretty much just the clothes on their backs. During the next 39 days, the contestants participate in physical and mental challenges and vote others off the island until the last person standing wins $1 million.
In addition to being the youngest contestant since the series began airing in the summer of 2000, Orlins believes she was only the second Jewish person on the show.
She called herself a "huge fan" of the show's first Jewish contestant, third-season winner Ethan Zohn, because he was the only champ who did not deceive his fellow contestants.
Orlins, who became bat mitzvah at Am Kolel in Rockville, said her Jewishness was not a factor in the show. It came up only because some of her fellow competitors spent a lot of time talking about Jesus.
During a conversation early in the season, where others were discussing their Christianity and talking about how "Jesus is my hero," Orlins had to explain that as a Jew, she doesn't believe in Jesus.
That took some of her fellow competitors by surprise -- a few had never before met a Jewish person. But, she said, her religion did not become an issue during the game.
More problematic, Orlins said, was that her liberal political beliefs clashed with the opinions of some of her Christian competitors -- such as their differing attitudes toward gays and lesbians.
Although depicted as annoying to her fellow survivors, she was not upset by that portrayal.
"I knew going into [the show] that they have to create characters," she said, emphasizing that viewers see only a small fraction of what takes place during the more than five weeks of filming.
For example, second-place finisher Twila Tanner was generally disrespectful of her, but she noted that Tanner's helping Orlins out when she was injured was not shown to television viewers -- because that would have detracted from the story producers were telling.
More important, Orlins' mother, Susan, said is that her daughter "never came off as mean or a bad person."
As a reward when her daughter won a challenge, the 58-year-old writer from the District spent a night on the island and literally gave Orlins the shirt off her back -- as well as her underpants and socks.
Viewers have said they were "impressed" that she was "such a devoted mother," but Susan Orlins said "it didn't feel like any sacrifice."
She points out that her daughter had just a bathing suit and a tank top, with "nothing to cover her shoulders" during the cold evenings.
She, meanwhile, was "wearing a sports bra" and going back to a hotel where she had more clothes.
Like any typical Jewish mother, Susan Orlins was quoted on the show as worrying about her daughter -- wondering whether Eliza was "flossing" or if she might get "Ebola" -- but she said she actually thought being stranded on an island in the South Pacific was "safer than [being] here."
"There's not going to be terrorism," she said, and "CBS is not going to let anything bad happen to them."
Orlins lost about 20 pounds during the game, which was filmed last summer. Although she's back to normal weight now, her life isn't quite back to normal.
"People have been recognizing me" and asking for autographs, but "I don't really feel like a celebrity," said the Syracuse University senior and 2001 graduate of Sidwell Friends School in the District, who is applying to law school for next fall.
And, after more than five weeks without much food, she is now "petrified of being hungry" and carries around snacks to alleviate any hunger pains.
She is also much more cognizant of things she used to take for granted.
"Toilet paper, toothbrushes -- you learn to really appreciate creature comforts," Orlins said. http://www.washingtonjewishweek.com/localstory.php?/wjw2/282220674084382.bsp