Really Good Coby Story ]*[
'Survivor' stint shaped Texan's priorities
09:16 PM CDT on Saturday, May 14, 2005
By LEE HANCOCK / The Dallas Morning News
TYLER, Texas – Forget the million dollars. Coby Archa says being on the CBS reality show Survivor wasn't about the money.
The payoff is having kids hugging him in parking lots and their moms calling him a role model. Middle-aged women have stalked him for autographs at Six Flags, and a retired military vet bounded into Mr. Archa's hair salon to say he'd want him for a teammate.
JOHN F. RHODES/DMN
Coby Archa didn't win the top prize on Survivor: Palau , but he says he found himself on the island. It's about coming full circle and finding a measure of acceptance in his quirky corner of East Texas. On that Hollywood-perfect desert isle, the 32-year-old says, he let go of some of the pain of his past and learned what he's capable of. Now he's ready to embrace his life exactly where he is and become a family man.
After all, he's a survivor. He's even played one on TV."It took going to the other side of the world and having everything stripped away to make me realize what really matters," he said.
When Survivor debuted in the summer of 2000, Mr. Archa was instantly obsessed. It dominated conversation on the sweltering day that I picked him from among the hip, bored 20-something stylists waiting for walk-ins at the Tyler mall's Toni and Guy hair salon. I left promising my new hairdresser that I'd see the show.
"You watch. I'm going to be on Survivor," he declared.
My response was something inane, like, "Oh, right."
Mr. Archa says he was always picked on as a boy growing up in West Texas. His mother indulged his wish for his own Barbie doll. Then again, he was determined, funny, and easily the most out-there gay man in largely closeted East Texas. He shrugged off what came with being so different in a conservative town. Teenagers made it sport to yell "Toni and Gay!" at the mall, and rednecks sometimes muttered slurs, so Mr. Archa made wicked comebacks a performance art.
Born near Abilene, he said it was obvious early on that he wouldn't be a roughneck, a cowhand, a football player or any other "Bubba" persona favored by his neighbors and his "redneck, hillbilly" kin.
"I've had no choice. People have always known," he said. "I've always known that this is who I am."
His older brother, Chad Archa, recalled their father vetoing Coby's pleas for a Barbie until their mother stopped a sibling spat by whacking Chad with the first thing in reach: Coby's Ken doll.
"She ended up breaking it on me," Chad said. "Mom felt so bad, she went out and bought him a Barbie. I'm not sure Mom wants everybody to know that she was beating me with a Ken doll. But boy hidey, Coby was glad to get that Barbie."
Their parents divorced when Mr. Archa was 8, and he moved with his mom, Bonnie Archa, to Durham, N.C.
By the end of his junior high years, the family discussed his sexual orientation. Ms. Archa said "we all already knew," but she made a point of talking about it and telling her youngest son that their love was unconditional after her brother was diagnosed as having AIDS.
"My mother would never admit that my brother was gay, so he had to be a different person when my mother was around," Ms. Archa said. "It was always hidden, and that always hurt him. I just decided that I wasn't going to make my baby feel that way."
Outsiders were far less accepting. Mr. Archa said fellow students taunted him as "a sissy," and jocks chased him, once spitting so much gum into his hair that he had to cut it off. After his uncle died, he said, kids regularly called, "Here comes AIDS boy!" as he walked school halls.
He said he dropped out of 10th grade after someone heaved a log through his windshield. "It wasn't like they were just calling me prissy boy," he said. "It was more than I could take."
He stayed with friends when his mother moved back to Texas, acting in local theater and gravitating toward trouble. He got busted for breaking into cars, burglarized a mansion and then stole a car that he and a friend drove to see his mother in Midland.
"I was awful," he said. "Unhappy teenagers do messed-up things."
Dodging cops, he hopped a bus to Dallas "with $10 in my pocket" and spent weeks on the street "in a cardboard box" before a new boyfriend took him in.
"One day, I got up, looked at myself in the mirror and said, 'This is not my life,' " he said. "I went back to North Carolina."
By then, his family expected his rap sheet to be longer than his resume. But he said turning himself in, pleading guilty to a theft charge and serving seven months in jail "changed my life, thank God."
Once out, he joined his mother, a medical stenographer, in Midland and learned hairstyling. He flirted with acting but settled with his mom near Athens in 1999 and started doing hair at the Tyler mall.
In 2003, he and his best friend, Amanda Page, opened a Tyler salon and got matching tattoos to celebrate. He muscled up his 6-foot-4-inch frame and got a bleach-blond mohawk. It waved like a yellow warning flag when he cruised through Tyler in his Miata convertible.
He sent audition tapes for every new season of Survivor. Some acquaintances scoffed that it sounded like asking to go back to junior high hell, with cameras recording every zit for a worldwide audience in 108 foreign countries and territories.
He admitted a fascination with being marooned with bimbos and buff boys, mean girls and brains, clowns and outcasts on a post-modern Gilligan's Island – all to find out to how much lying, cheating and manipulating they'd do for $1 million.
But there also was something about going in the wild, deprived of everything. The game might be more TV construct than rite of passage, he told people, but it might change his life.
In early 2004, he heard from show producers and was among 800 people interviewed in Dallas and 15 other cities. He was candid with CBS about his criminal history. He was then one of 50 flown to Los Angeles for 10 days of tests and interviews.
He said he knew he was one of several vying for the "gay role," so he pulled out all his drama-queen stops. In one meeting, he dropped his pants and showed the room – including Survivor host Jeff Probst – that he'd written the casting producer's name on his butt with an indelible marker.
"It was a freshness that we don't see very often. He just had an energy around him that was so fun and likeable," he said. "We got lucky."
Without the mohawk, which producers made him lose, Mr. Archa left in October with 19 other castaways, all sworn to secrecy about their destination: the Pacific island of Palau. He returned in late December 10 pounds lighter, tanned and ebullient.
"He said he realized how lucky he was and that he wasn't taking things for granted anymore," Ms. Archa said.
She and others said they soon realized how serious he was. At his urging, relatives began joining him, Ms. Page and other friends for monthly family nights – something they'd never made time for. When the show's 10th season started in February, they gathered each Thursday to watch and share a meal, most decked out in pink "Coby Survivor Palau" T-shirts.
His TV tribe, Koror, included a New York City firefighter, a Las Vegas showgirl, two lawyers, a nanny, a consultant, an ad executive and a dolphin trainer. They annihilated the younger Ulong tribe in contests for food, water, shelter and avoiding Tribal Council, each episode's end when someone is voted off the island.
Mr. Archa often paraded in black bikini briefs he dubbed "manties" and dished regularly about alpha males, lazy girls and tribal intrigue.
"Part of his strategy was to play the game the way he was," Mr. Probst said. "You could go to Coby for an interview, and he would give you something every single time. If I asked him something at Tribal Council, I would get something good and probably stir something up."
Mr. Archa was also competitive. In what Mr. Probst called "one of my favorite moments of the season – of any season," the Texas hairdresser thumped a self-described redneck steelworker from Alabama in sumo-style combat. The steelworker later bemoaned getting "whipped by a homosexual."
"That's a tailor-made square-off, and when the gay man kicks the redneck's ass, that's a home run!" Mr. Probst said. "He's fighting, in his own way, for everybody who's picked on."
Mr. Archa's earthy Texas clan alternated between laughter and tears, particularly during the eighth episode, when his role in winning a challenge ensured that he'd be among the castaway jurors who will tonight choose the show's $1 million winner from the two Survivors left after 39 days.
"Coby, you run like a girl!" Chad yelled at the TV as his brother rushed through the crucial challenge.
"But you sure swim pretty," his aunt, Deanna Calvio, added.
On the show, Mr. Archa told his tribe that he'd just realized a life goal. Since childhood, competition had been little more than an invitation for abuse, but on Palau, he'd been cheered and allowed the chance to show that he could hold his own.
"When I was a kid, the jocks would make fun of me. I'd quit. I'd run off crying. That was one of the reasons I came here," he said as the cameras rolled. "I never got to be part of a team, especially a winning team."
He was even more emotional in the show segment offering contestants' private thoughts.
"As a kid, I never played sports. I was always called the girly guy, you know. I was a sissy. People would pick on me, and I would just give up. I ended up quitting school because people made fun of me. I've given up a lot in my life," he said, tears rolling down his cheeks. "But I wasn't going to let anybody make me quit this time, no matter how hard it is."
He wept again while watching, and family and friends hugged him and wiped their own tears.
Then his aunt lightened things. "You made me cry my false eyelash off, Coby!" she declared.
Later, his brother cried again trying to explain what it had meant.
"It's just hard to see his pain," said Chad Archa, 36, an X-ray technician who lives with his wife and stepson near Chandler. "He's tougher than I'll ever be because he's been through more ... than I ever did. He's been in more fights, had more hell, been called more names, had people treat him worse than most of us ever will have to put up with. But still, he's pulled through."
Mr. Probst said those scenes were among the season's most moving.
"This is no longer the kid who got picked on. That guy is gone," Mr. Probst said. "Coby showed a lot of people: You can change your life any time you want. Just stand up and be strong in your convictions."
Mr. Archa said being voted off in the ninth episode, which aired April 14, was a "total and utter relief." He added with a laugh that he wasn't expecting to be booted on the 24th day, but he wasn't exactly playing it safe – complaining, squabbling and revealing Koror's tribal strategy to the last Ulong.
His family kept gathering weekly for the show, reveling in his island stories and the messages and calls he exchanged with his fellow castaways. Mr. Archa said the show prompted his first real conversations in years with his father in West Texas and his sister in Arizona. He got other castaways from the show to leave her supportive phone messages when her husband died in March of brain cancer.
He said Survivor: Palau also rekindled his relationship with his half-brother, Obie Archa. The 22-year-old had never left his West Texas hometown before Mr. Archa recently offered him a place to live and help paying for an education with some of his Survivor winnings.
Mr. Archa said he can't discuss how much he will get after the show ends. Some Internet sites speculate that players at his level get about $30,000.
He bought a house last month in Tyler with Ms. Page, and they recently moved in with her 2-year-old daughter, Chloe, his mother and his half-brother.
And on April 28, he brought home what he said is the best result of Survivor: a newborn baby girl he's in the process of adopting.
The baby was born to a 25-year-old cousin, Victoria "Torie" Ramoz of Colorado City, a single mom with two young daughters. Mr. Archa said he learned just before leaving to film Survivor that she was pregnant and considering offering the baby for adoption. Ms. Ramoz said she'd just had a "hard separation" and lacked the financial or emotional resources to raise three kids alone.
Mr. Archa said he'd always wanted a child, particularly after Ms. Page had Chloe and he became her godfather. But he expected that his cousin's baby would go to another relative.
On Palau, he grasped for the first time that he carried "tremendous guilt" about his sexuality, and he also understood that that had kept him from seriously considering fatherhood. "It's just something society says gay men aren't supposed to do," he said.
He also realized that his Survivor experience and money could allow him to make a difference, but to do that, he'd have to stop allowing himself to be confined by other people's attitudes about gay people.
"I answered so many questions," he said of his personal journey. "How many 32-year-olds get a second chance at all that? Yes, Survivor is candy-coated. It's a TV show. But if you strip it down, it was a deep, profound experience. I came home knowing I couldn't waste it."
Once back, he told his cousin that he wanted to be a father. As the show started in February, Ms. Ramoz asked him to adopt her child.
Mr. Archa said he knew that the adoption might be controversial, and he got bad reactions from the first two lawyers he tried to hire in Athens. One wouldn't shake his hand and showed him the door when he said he wanted to adopt. The second was more cordial, he said, but kept asking why a couple couldn't take the baby.
He ultimately hired a lawyer in Tyler, and Ms. Ramoz and the baby's birth father have signed papers surrendering custody to him. The adoption is expected to be final this summer.
Mr. Archa went to Colorado City for the birth on April 27, and Ms. Ramoz said word spread quickly among her friends what he was there for. She said one friend came to the hospital to say she was cutting Ms. Ramoz off, and others quit calling her.
"In a small town, people aren't so understanding," she said. "People are afraid of what they don't know. I know Coby. I know his heart. I know that he will love her like I would and take care of her better than I'm able to."
This weekend, Mr. Archa traveled to New York for Survivor's live finale tonight, along with Ms. Page and most of his East Texas kin.
Mr. Archa said he plans to surprise his fellow Survivors with the news of his new daughter on national TV. He'll also reveal to his closest friend on the island, showgirl Janu Tornell, that he named his child after her.
Mr. Probst said it will be a "huge" moment.
"Think about kids who are gay and are thinking about coming out, or about kids who aren't gay and are picked on, and what this says," he said. "We've had a lot of fun people on the show and a lot of great, funny characters. ... Coby changed people. Coby changed himself and, in doing so, will change a lot of other lives."
Afterward, Mr. Archa said, he'll come home to East Texas, to do hair and raise Janu. For now, he has no romantic prospects.
"I don't date well. Maybe I'm just not meant to have a partner. My life is full," he said. "I've realized in the past few days that I've actually formed my own new tribe. Maybe we don't have a mom and a dad and two kids and a dog. This is a new face of a family, and that's OK.
"We all have such a loving relationship and want to take care of each other, so why can't we?" he said. "This is what I've wanted all my life."
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