As Tampa's Monica Culpepper heads to Sunday's finale of Survivor: Blood vs. Water, she appears to be in a good position to win it all, or at least be in the Final 3.
But she knows that being the wife of ex-NFL player Brad Culpepper can play on the minds of jurors who might not want to give her $1 million, she said in an e-mail interview exclusive to the Tampa Bay Times before she headed out to Los Angeles for the live reunion show on CBS.
"My social position in life with Brad is definitely on my mind and on the jurors' minds," she said.
That wasn't Monica Culpepper's only challenge.
She could reveal only so much before the final show airs, but she did say how hard the competition was on the 43-year-old's body. After losing 20 percent of her body weight living on coconuts and eating chalky, hard bananas that she roasted on sticks like hot dogs, she found it difficult to adjust to eating again, "because so much of what we eat is processed." And she's still drinking coconut water, she said.
The Culpeppers both sported Plant High School ballcaps on the show like a bat signal to home where their son plays on the school football team. Brad, a Tampa attorney, joined Monica in the show's first try at pairing veteran Survivor players with loved ones, which turned typical strategy on its head and earned praise from critics for reinvigorating the franchise. The result has been an intriguing Survivor season — filmed in the Philippines last May and June — with solid ratings.
Brad drew a lot of heat for his all-male alliance and his outsized personality, and was the fifth person eliminated from the game. Monica has flexed her very toned muscles, winning a fair share of challenges to "show the kids that more than one bada-- lives in our house." In the highest rated episode of the season, she escaped two tie votes to kick her off the island, triggering a random draw for eviction for only the second time in 27 seasons of Survivor.
As the players head into Sunday's finale, there are four players left in the game and another three at Redemption Island, only one of whom will make it back into the game. Monica, Tyson Apostol and Gervase Peterson have maintained a tight alliance, but she points out that she is in a "perfect pole position again," as the swing vote to choose with whom she wants to sit in the Final 3.
Only one other Tampa Bay Survivor contestant has gone this far. In 2002, Lutz school teacher Jan Gentry made it to third place on Survivor: Thailand.
One drawback for Monica Culpepper can be that her tribe mates say she spends too much time rehashing strategy and seems too paranoid.
"It's Survivor," she said, dismissing the complaint. "Paranoid is the wrong word. Cautious, absolutely. I bet everyone sitting behind me wishes they were a bit more cautious. It's working for me. I'm still in it."
It has been unclear from the broadcasts whether the other players knew that Tyson and Gervase were secretly taking coconuts for themselves, jokingly calling themselves the Coconut Bandits, but she said that was hard to take.
"We (had) nothing left at this point thanks to Tyson the hogmo. Unripe tiny bananas and water with bug larva floating in it is all that is left! All the more reason to drag him to the end and beat him."
She resorted to chopping up the hard bananas into tiny pieces for the tribe.
"I'd boil them in water to get something to fill our bellies. Very unsettling at this point."