As Survivor returns tonight, Tampa couple Brad and Monica Culpepper admit they almost didn't join Blood vs. Water season
The call, when it came, reached Monica Culpepper as she was hiking with her family in Arizona.
She looked down to see the Los Angeles area code, and hit "delete."
Survivor had come calling. Again. And she wasn't interested.
But Monica's 11-year-old daughter, Honor, had other ideas. She answered the phone when it rang again and ran to her father, Brad Culpepper, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle-turned-personal injury attorney with a raft of local billboards and TV commercials praising his tenaciousness and toughness.
"She told Brad, 'Get this dad … they called about Survivor and this time they don't want mom, they want you,' " said Monica, 42, shaking her head during an interview inside the spacious offices at his Tampa law firm Culpepper Kurland.
That's right. The CBS' reality TV hit featuring contestants stranded on an isolated island — the same show that had featured Monica as the fifth person ejected last year on its Survivor: One World season — wanted to talk to him about appearing, this time.
Months later, the Culpeppers had marshalled relatives and friends to care for their three kids while they headed to the Philippines in May and June for Survivor: Blood vs. Water; a first-ever edition with contestants who had appeared on the show before, competing alongside "loved ones" such as spouses, girlfriends, boyfriends and other relatives.
Before any of that could happen, Brad, 44, faced what might be his greatest challenge: Persuading Monica to do it in the first place.
"I had to convince my wife to go every single day, leading up to the day we left," he said, laughing. "Every day we woke up, it was 'We're not doing this.' And every night we went to bed, it was 'Maybe.' "
Brad headed to Los Angeles straight from Flagstaff for a sitdown with host and executive producer Jeff Probst. Right away, he saw they were seriously considering pairing past contestants with relatives for a new season.
"They probably brought 100 to 150 loved ones out there to see if they could cut the mustard," he said, noting that the network can be "cagey" about letting participants know if they've made the final cast. "They wanted people who would be good on Survivor by themselves, so that eliminated a lot of people."
Eventually, the Blood vs. Water concept came together: Alabama resident and borderline racist One World villain Colton Cumbie was paired with the man he plans to marry, Caleb Bankston; Survivor All-Stars fan favorite Rupert Boneham joined wife Laura Boneham; and Gervase Peterson from the first Survivor cycle in 2000 competed with his niece, Marissa.
Andy Dehnart, a journalism professor at Stetson University in Deland who tracks reality TV shows on his website Reality Blurred, said CBS has developed a strategy of migrating players among unscripted series such as Survivor, The Amazing Race and Big Brother, moving stars from one show to compete on another (this cycle, Big Brother winner Hayden Moss joins his girlfriend, former One World contestant Kat Edorsson).
"A lot of die-hard fans don't really like the idea. We're seeing the same people over and over in relatively short periods of time and it wears out their welcome," he said, noting even Probst seemed to want more players for Blood vs. Water from older seasons of the show. "There's probably some insecurity. They're scared of getting rid of someone who's popped."
Before the official cast of 20 was announced, the Culpeppers said, about twice as many people thought they would be on the show, sparking a flood of "pre-gaming" in which people call or email to offer alliances before the game begins — a practice banned by CBS.
The couple said one person got through the switchboard at Culpepper Kurland by pretending to be the show's casting director, Lynne Spillman. Monica also got a call from someone else who said a "pre-game" alliance already had decided Brad would be the first to go home.
That was enough. She decided, 72 hours before they were to get on a plane, that they weren't going.
"I'm not sacrificing the kids, not going all the way to the Philippines, not doing all this to have (contestants) willing to drown themselves to get at my husband," she said, insisting she won't appear on another Survivor. "It takes a lifetime to build your reputation. Are you willing to take that risk … getting out there with a bunch of people that will do anything and say anything to win a million dollars?"
Meanwhile, Brad, who admits he is much more of risk-taker than his wife, felt it was an opportunity for an adventure together that they couldn't refuse.
"The reason why I wanted to do it wasn't for me; it was because (Monica) didn't get a fair shake the first time around," he said, noting that his wife was targeted by Cumbie. "So the last thing I was going to do was go on the show and be the reason she got kicked off."
The Culpeppers can't talk about what happened during Blood vs. Water. But Probst and Entertainment Weekly magazine have made some revelations: loved ones are split up and compete on opposing teams; moments after meeting each other, both teams will be forced to vote out someone; those voted out go to an area called Redemption Island, where they can compete to stick around; and a loved one can volunteer to take the place of anyone voted onto Redemption Island.
Dehnart said longtime fans particularly seem to hate the Redemption Island twist. "It seems designed to keep people on a show where the whole point is to vote people off," he added. "You could technically be voted off the game three times and still win."
It also sounds like a series of twists aimed at keeping off balance a crew of contestants who have competed on the show before — some up to three times previously and three who already have won $1-million on the show.
One web site commenter already has named Brad among the sexiest male Survivor contestants, and Monica was 13th on Entertainment Weekly's list of Survivor's "All-Time Hottest Castaways." The Culpeppers know to outside eyes they have led a charmed life.
Despite the media attention, the only thing that gets this couple of 21 years agitated is the thought that some critic or competitor might go after their spouse (the pair even seemed a little irked by an online assessment from Probst predicting they couldn't win because Brad was an NFL star and Monica was too opinionated).
Brad cited a phrase he learned recently from a Navy SEAL to sum up his attitude on Survivor: Embrace the suck.
"You gotta learn to love the misery," said the ex-football player; an Eagle Scout and Tallahassee native who grew up on tiny Dog Island in the Gulf. "Don't go out there thinking, 'This is so hot; I'm so thirsty; I'm so hungry.' You gotta love it. It's clean, old-school caveman stuff."
Still, Monica maintains what got her on that plane to leave their children Rex (15), Judge (13) and Honor was another word from her tween daughter: "She said, 'I'm disappointed that you're going, but we will be more disappointed if you don't go. Now hurry up and go win and come back.' "
Survivor: Blood vs. Water debuts at 8 tonight on WTSP-Ch. 10.