CLEARWATER — In the surreal world of parking lot Survivor, no bare buttocks go unnoticed for very long.
So when the snoring began rising from the now-infamous tiny yellow and blue tent, it was no surprise that someone quickly realized how sheer the tent's mesh was. And how very naked the people were inside.
And like any good reality TV hopefuls would, the discoverers of this walk-by peep-show spread the news like Chocolate Rain on YouTube. The ensuing laughter was raucous and contagious. Cameras flashed.
The buck-naked, spooning tent couple snored on, oblivious to the joy they had imparted to the 70 or so other people they shared a patch of asphalt with at 2 a.m. this morning.
Their island may be the parking lot of a Clearwater restaurant and night club, but for the dozens of die-hard Survivor fans, camping out overnight Sunday for a chance to audition for the CBS reality show was nearly as good as the real thing. And for some, perhaps even better: On this island, there is booze, wireless Internet and no shortage of antics that would be more at home in an unsupervised summer camp than on prime-time TV.
Managing the menagerie
Clumped in a menagerie of tents, beach chairs and every bit of block-party-bonanza paraphernalia imaginable, dozens of would-be Survivors formed the peculiar parking lot sleep-over under the red-carpet lights outside the Venue's main entrance. Between Sunday and into the wee hours of Monday morning, the number of people vying for one of the 170 guaranteed audition spots had just topped 100. Even so, steps were taken to avoid chaos.
Atop the steep stairway leading to the club's towering front doors, Joey DeVito sat in a padded leather chair overlooking the covered car circle and huddled masses below. DeVito, 26, is the go-to guy for the Clearwater club, where auditions would be held starting at 8 a.m. Monday. But Sunday night and early Monday, he was Survivor host Jeff Probst during tribal council, keeping order among the people.
Mostly his job was all smiles. The crowd favored camaraderie over competition.
Even a few hours before their chance in front of the real Survivor judges, the ever-growing contestant pool was mellower than a mushroom.
"We expected ruckus," DeVito said. "But so far, man, this has been chill. Really chill."
Then a football streaked through the parking lot, a silhouette under the orange fluorescent lights. It nearly thunked against a parked Ford Expedition with tricked-out rims.
DeVito stood up.
"Hey, watch the car!" he yelled.
With a glint from his neck chain, the tattooed chief hustled down the stairs. He was going to set some ground rules for sports on the island.
Earlier, he'd taken care of the nudity situation in a similar fashion.
He covered the tent with a towel and told the occupants to get dressed or get out. After all, there were kids around.
They complied — but only after he gave the mesh-and-nylon abode a good shaking.
Derrek Morton, part of the Venue's security detail, shared his view on the source of continuing chuckles with anyone in earshot.
"Nobody wants to see their naked a---- anyway," Morton said. "I mean, come on, they know they're in a see-through mesh thing."
Then again, would it really be Survivor without the naked guy?
Definition of diehard
Nothing can stop the hardest of the hard-core Survivor hopefuls. Even the crunch of metal and glass.
Case in point: Brittanee Bernal, 19, of Brandon, whose gold Toyota sat in the parking lot, its bumper sagging.
She had a car crash on her way to the audition midday Sunday.
"Yeah, I kind of got into a little accident," she said. "But heck if I let that stop me from being here."
While many are skipping work, or bringing their kids along for the ride, others overcame different obstacles, like distance — and other things.
Carolyn Smith was the first would-be survivor in line. She arrived early Saturday for the Monday morning audition. She had driven from Massachusetts just for the event, along with her fiance, John Tarbox, 55.
Sometime about 3 a.m. Monday, Smith, with a cheerful expression on her face despite the humid, bug-filled night, drew the attention of DeVito from his leather chair perch.
"Hon, do you mind telling me how old you are?" DeVito asked. "You've been awake 90 percent of the time."
Swiveling in her blue beach chair, Smith lowered her voice and ducked a little bit.
"Don't tell anyone — I'm 70," she said.
The first one in line was likely the oldest, too. She didn't look a day over 50. Must be the ocean air — she said she lives on a 37-foot sailboat with her fiance.
"We'll sail it all the way back," Smith said. "After we win."
Time to face the jury
The first sign that the period of overnight revelry and instant best friends had departed came with the plodding HONKKKK! HONKKKK! of a garbage truck on Ulmerton Road in the hazy predawn.
Soon after, a TV news truck pulled up, raised its mast and doused even the dark corners of the crowd with broadcast-grade floodlights. A radio station set up its loudspeakers, and the morning show DJs began not long after that. The naked-guy tent went down, and not far from it, a Red Bull promotional tent went up.
The magic of late-night parking lot Survivor slipped as the sun rose. Even the diehards were giving in to the Starbucks next door. Lattes replaced lagers. The chairs, tiki torches and festive umbrellas were folded and stowed.
As the traffic on Ulmerton grew, the conch shell horn (yes, someone brought a blowable conch shell) was sounded for the last time before the sun had finished its ascent. A guy who goes only by "Florida Boy" rolled up his mattress and took a shower in the Venue's decorative fountain. The girls brought out their hair straighteners.
"You got to do what you got to do," said Jenny Gill, who had spent the night in the parking lot. Next to Gill, Brittanee Bernal, the self-proclaimed youngest girl in the crowd, got rid of the frizz that a night on a sidewalk will put in a girl's hair.
But don't the Survivor producers want people who look like they've spent two days in a parking lot?
Yes — and no.
Gill and Bernal answered together: "They want people who spent two days in a parking lot — and still look good."
Dominick Tao can be reached at 727-893-8751 or [email protected]