Three Tampa area Survivor contestants reflect on rivalries, rashes and whether they'd ever do the show again
They seem, at first glance, to be the oddest trio you could find to take up space together in one room.
At age 64, Jan Gentry is a wiry, good-natured firecracker, partial to wearing overalls and full of enthusiasm for the first graders she teaches at McKitrick Elementary School in Lutz. Next to her, Monica Culpepper, 42, sits like a well-sculpted version of the perfect soccer mom, directing the conversation with an earnest energy while sprinkling anecdotes about her kids and NFL player-turned lawyer husband.
Across from Culpepper at Gentry’s right hand, 23-year-old Mikayla Wingle is a statuesque beauty who towers over her two new friends; a model and lingerie football player who also tends bar at a local watering hole.
But when these three ladies finally met for the first time at the Tampa Bay Times’ Tampa offices, the conversation flowed easily, as if they had known each other for years.
That’s because these three Tampa Bay area residents have all accomplished something few others have managed.
They’ve competed on CBS-TV’s Survivor.
“We all have a mutual respect automatically, without even saying anything,” said Gentry, who made it to third place on Survivor: Thailand in 2002, enduring 39 days on the island of Kao Tarutao with minimal food, water and shelter. “I’d never met (Culpepper) personally, but we hugged immediately. You respect because you know what they did to get there.”
Wingle, who became the sixth person voted off Survivor: South Pacific back in 2011, noted their status as women added something to the bond. “It’s harder, I think (for women) than the males, especially because our bodies have different things going on than the guys,” she added (Culpepper added the starvation diet affected some women's body cycles enough some wondered if it might affect future fertility). “I think for girls to recover is twice as hard."
When CBS revealed Culpepper among the cast of last year’s Survivor: One World, she became one of the best-known contestants, thanks to her status as wife of former Tampa Bay Buccaneers star Brad Culpepper. She echoed Wingle’s comments about the difficulties for women on Survivor; a particular issue during her show, where teams were divided by gender.
“You don’t even think about it, but just in trying to make a shelter; I was one of the strongest girls out there, and I had to swing an axe 50 times (to cut a tree branch), while a guy swings once,” said Culpepper, who was the fifth person to leave her season. “We were just so exhausted the whole way through because everything’s so much harder.”
Tonight, CBS airs a three-hour finale for the latest Survivor edition, Caramoan – Fans vs Favorites, in which a team of former players faced a team of new people who loved the show.
So it seems an appropriate time to gather the only three participants from the Tampa area who have yet played the game, to learn how the show has changed over the years and what it takes to succeed.
FROM THEN TO NOW
When Gentry appeared on the show, Survivor was in its infancy, with just four previous editions aired over two years. Contestants were still picked from the flood of applications submitted by fans, as producers looked for people who could handle the challenge of being stuck in an isolated area with limited food and resources for weeks.
But by the time Wingle and Culpepper joined up, Survivor had recruited contestants through CBS’ casting department. Both Wingle and Culpepper were initially considered for the network’s other big reality TV competition, The Amazing Race, before landing on Survivor.
“They’re kind of scripting it a bit more (today),” said Culpepper, who initially said no when her husband told her CBS executives were more interested in her than him for Survivor. “The old days seem like you got people that real want to get out there and test their bodies. Once I got out there, I was a little disenchanted that I felt like, well, these are all just a lot of people that just wanna be on TV…They wanna be discovered…be just outlandish as they can.”
In Gentry’s time, there wasn’t a sense that contestants could earn a living by entering the Survivor universe, unless they one the $1-million first prize. Participants weren’t brought back on the show after competing and Gentry’s final take for placing third -- she said it amounted to $115,000 – was hardly enough to quit her day job.
But these days, some players – like “Boston” Rob Marino, who has appeared on Survivor four times and The Amazing Race twice, with wife and fellow Survivor alum Amber Brkich – have competed many times, carving a new career out of bouncing between reality TV shows.
Still, Wingle said competing on the show “ate through my savings,” as she struggled to regain shifts at work after leaving town for weeks to do the show. “They actually sent me some of my money early (for appearing on the show),” she added.
But one of the sharpest feelings Wingle and Culpepper admit to, months and even years after their time on the show ended, was anger.
WHAT THEY REGRET
Culpepper was eliminated in a surprise vote shortly after the gender-specific teams were eliminated and new teams were drawn up. She was targeted by a player, selfish, bigoted Colton Cumbie, who was removed from the game before the next elimination vote.
“I still have a lot of anxiety that I felt cheated,” Culpepper said, nearly 18 months after the elimination, admitting that she still avoids Survivor reunion events and couldn’t watch the Survivor cycle which aired after her season. “It’s hard to get over the people that did you wrong. You understand it’s part of a game, but you still feel like something got taken from you too soon.”
Wingle, who was the subject of an odd monologue by emotionally erratic player Brandon Hantz (the married man said her attractiveness tempted him too much), also got on the wrong side of teammate Benjamin “Coach” Wade. He ordered her ejection, but Wingle still blames Hantz for her downfall.
“He tried to talk to me at one event I went to…I didn’t even want to see his face,” said Wingle. “I feel even more cheated because (his outburst) was just total bulls---. It still tears me up.”
As the three trade notes, it becomes obvious that Gentry’s era of Survivor was tougher on contestants and more centered on the physical challenges. Gentry recalled long treks to reach competitions where teams competed for resources or to avoid ejection; Culpepper noted teams are now driven to such locations in vans, instead of hiking or swimming there -- allowing even more time for strategizing.
Alliances also come together quicker in modern shows – Culpepper suspected some players in her season violated rules by communicating while preparing to start the game at CBS’ offices. And Gentry noted today’s teams also get a bit more food than her generation did.
“They feed characters earlier and more because they realize the (early) groups…we had nothing,” Gentry said. “How fun is that to sit and watch us lay there because we don’t have the energy?”
Watching the current Fans vs. Favorites season, all three former players are enjoying the twists and turns (Wingle particularly enjoyed the prospect of seeing Hantz, who had returned to compete, ejected after emotional outburst convinced his team to forfeit an immunity challenge and vote him off).
But it took a moment for them to answer the question everyone asks: Would they do it again?
Gentry, who seems more at peace with her third place finish, wouldn’t mind a Survivor return, though she once applied to compete on Amazing Race with her step-daughter. Culpepper also preferred the idea of doing Amazing Race with her husband, though she noted he and former Buccaneers teammate Warren Sapp assembled a sidesplitting video application to do the show themselves, dubbing their team Ebony and Ivory.
And Wingle? “The first couple of months after the show, I said no way,” she admitted, laughing. “Then, after I calmed down and saw the season, I’m like ‘Get me back out there.’ If you have any competitive nature in you, it’s like playing a baseball game once, losing and being told you’re never allowed to play again.”
So far, none of them have been named to a new season's cast. Culpepper admitted still struggling with feelings that her relatively early ejection let people down.
“Once you’ve been on, you realize 90 percent of Survivor is the social game and 10 percent is actual survival stuff,” she said. “I felt like (spent) 90 percent of my time preparing to be strong out there and win challenges and win for my team. And only 10 percent of the game was that.”