'Survivor' star talks to Chalfont students
By Lorraine Sciuto-Ballasy 05/26/2005
Money is the great motivator.
Like King Midas, humans have been said to display their true character while in pursuit of the golden calf, especially when it's valued at a million dollars.
That's exactly the premise for the hit reality TV series "Survivor," which premiered in 2000. It's certainly the basis for contestant castaway Stephenie LaGrossa's decision to compete this season in the 10th broadcast of the show, "Survivor Palau," filmed on location in the South Pacific, amid 83 islands north of the equator near the Philippine Sea.
"Did I want to win, be the sole survivor and get a million dollars? Yes. I'd do it all again for a chance to win a million," she said during a visit last Friday to greet students at Butler Elementary in Chalfont, the school her nieces, Brianna and Rachel Mellon, attend.
She told the students to always try their hardest, as she did on "Survivor Palau," "putting all of yourself into whatever you do," and spent the bulk of her allotted time telling them what they wanted to know. The youngsters were so excited by her visit there was a constant wave of hands in the air as Stephenie patiently answered individual questions from two groups of amazingly well-informed students.
Students wanted to know what her favorite challenges were, what she thought of the other survivors, were her tears real, what she ate, what was hard and what was easy, and would she do it again?
"I was friendly with everyone, especially Bobby John - and Tom, even though he voted me out," she said, candidly.
Afterward, several young men, intent on shaking her hand, formed a short line while they waited for a chance to get close-up with this celebrity survivor. Principal Sue Klimpl had to break it up, and earlier had to cut off the question-and-answer session, too. The student response was remarkable. It was evident these kids watch the show.
One girl's eyes widened as she passed Stephenie in the hall, creating a buzz among her classmates.
Stephenie, however, expected it, waiting calmly, hidden in the wings until Brianna, a fourth-grader, introduced her best friend and aunt.
Considering her petite frame and unassuming demeanor, it is understandable that the other survivors might have underestimated her strength - and determination.
That would be a mistake - under any circumstances.
Though Stephenie, the last of the Ulong tribe members remaining after all the others were eliminated, admits to finding the immunity challenges (every three days there were two) "hard" (she lost every one of them) and being scared, tired, and hungry throughout the competition, she said she would still jump at the chance to do it all over again.
"The money is awesome, but the experience is phenomenal," she said, mentioning she "did win some money."
Stephenie was selected in November 2004 as one of the shows 20 contestants after review of a three-minute application video and a series of interviews. The two groups were divided into two teams and given tribal names, Ulong (the younger contestants) and Koror (the older folks). The televised competition began in February and aired for 13 weeks, in addition to the final episode broadcast on May 15. She was ousted on Episode 11, Day 30 of the 39-day contest, which was televised on April 29.
"It was really scary being alone," she said, adding cameras are rolling the whole time, but when the cameramen were present "no one talks to you."
She said she often felt "nervous" - like when it took her two hours to start the fire again when she returned to camp alone and before tribal council meetings.
More than a test of will and strength, "Survivor" is a tale of broken alliances and unkept promises. To many, it's a good family show, a notion Stephenie wholeheartedly agrees with because it teaches the important lessons of survival.
Her fire-making abilities, albeit weak, helped her beat out teammate Bobby John, ultimately leaving her alone from the evening of Day 21 (and for about the next 18 hours) until she was summoned to join the Koror tribe. Upon her arrival, the other tribe members couldn't help liking her, although they quickly assessed her as a capable, worthy opponent. In the end, it was this judgment of her abilities that did her in - sealing her fate as a "Survivor Palau" loser.
Stephenie said she saw the inevitable coming and knew the Koror tribe allegiance would likely win out in the end, but this only compelled her into action. She attempted to lobby the girls to ban together to "get rid of Tom," who was recently pronounced the season's winner in the final episode filmed in New York. While her unbridled spirit was indeed infectious, it was, unfortunately for her, not enough to gain the trust of the remaining female castaways. In what many of the show's fans term an "unfair" and "surprising" turn of events, and without the support she and Tom vowed in an alliance they made early in the show "no matter what," Stephenie was the next survivor sent packing.
In a recent interview, Stephenie theorized she would have lasted longer if she had created an affiliation with the guys and speculated if she had been assigned to the Koror tribe she would have certainly faired better and lasted longer in the competition.
"My plan coming into 'Survivor' was to make good alliances and do my best around camp and in challenges and have no regrets. It did not change much because I have no regrets and did all that I could to succeed. My only wish is to have been on a winning tribe because then I definitely would have stayed around to the end," reads an interview excerpt.
"Survivor" host Jeff Probst has said he thought Stephenie, 25, was one of the toughest ever to play "Survivor," probably the toughest female competitor. She is second in popularity only to fellow contestant Rupert Bonham, receiving a 90-percent approval rating.
Fellow castaways also favored the lean, infectious competitor for her unrelenting competitive edge, describing her as "charismatic," "determined" and "forthright."
In a game designed to strip participants of their dignity as they deceive and trick each other in their quest to be the sole survivor, Stephenie, a competitive lacrosse player who grew up in Glenolden, Del., attended Archbishop Prendergast High School and now lives in Toms River, N.J., where she works in pharmaceutical sales, managed to maintain her decorum, as well as gain the respect of the other survivors and millions of viewers.
She said she did what she needed to do, no matter how much it hurt. And it did.
It seemed impossible to break her indomitable spirit. She wasn't good at throwing coconuts, but, as a novice, she was proficient at shooting. It took her hours to make a fire, and eventually she prevailed. She couldn't catch fish or shake coconuts from a tree, so she climbed the tree like a monkey to get the sustenance she needed. She grasped a buoy for 12 hours - then decided to let go for some pizza, it was meat lovers after all - and her fans understood. (Later, she said Tom had told her he would never let go.) She bargained away a portion of her allowance at a food auction just to get her mail, and then we watched as she sobbed over the heartfelt messages sent from her family and boyfriend.
So what if she can't win a race carrying weights? She has proven to be a good role model for young girls - even women, successfully sending the message she hopes to convey: Never underestimate yourself.
"Going through this, meeting the challenges, helps you realize how strong you can be," she said. http://www.zwire.com/site/news.cfm?BRD=1685&dept_id=45280&newsid=14594602&PAG=461&rfi=9
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