TAMPA — They seem, at first glance, to be the oddest trio you could find 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, directs the conversation with an earnest energy while sprinkling anecdotes about her kids and husband, Brad Culpepper, the former NFL player turned lawyer.
Across from Monica Culpepper is 23-year-old Mikayla Wingle, a model and lingerie football player who also tends bar at a local watering hole.
But when these three women finally met for the first time at the Tampa Bay Times' Tampa offices, the conversation flowed easily, as if they had known one another for years.
That's because they have all accomplished something few others have managed.
They've competed on 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 Koh Tarutao with minimal food, water and shelter.
Wingle, who became the sixth person voted off Survivor: South Pacific in 2011, noted that their gender 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 said.
When CBS revealed that Culpepper was among the cast of last year's Survivor: One World, she became one of the best-known contestants because of her NFL connection. She echoed Wingle's comments about the difficulties for women on the show, a particular issue during her season when 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 ax 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."
On May 12, 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 contestants who love the show.
So it seemed the right time to gather the three Tampa contestants and talk about how the show has changed.
From then to now
Survivor was in its infancy when Gentry competed. Contestants were picked from a flood of applications, as producers sought people who could handle being stuck for weeks in an isolated area with limited food and resources.
But by the time Wingle and Culpepper joined, Survivor had begun recruiting contestants. Both women said they 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" now, said Culpepper, who initially declined when her husband told her that CBS executives were more interested in her than him. "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 want to be on TV … They want to be discovered … be just as outlandish as they can."
In Gentry's time, there wasn't a sense that contestants could earn a living by entering the Survivor universe. 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.
These days, some players like "Boston" Rob Mariano — a four-time Survivor competitor who also appeared on The Amazing Race twice with wife and fellow Survivor alum Amber Brkich, have competed many times — carving careers out of bouncing between reality TV shows.
Still, Wingle said she found competing on the show "ate through my savings," as she struggled to regain shifts at the bar after leaving town for weeks.
What they regret
Culpepper got the boot in a surprise vote shortly after the gender-divided teams were eliminated and new teams were drawn up. She was targeted by 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, admitting that she still avoids Survivor reunion events and didn't watch the Survivor cycle that 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."
As the three women traded notes, it became obvious that Gentry's era of Survivor was tougher on contestants, especially physically. Gentry recalled long treks to reach competitions where teams competed for resources or to avoid ejection. Culpepper noted that teams are now driven in vans, instead of hiking or swimming, which also allows more time for plotting.
Alliances come together quicker in recent seasons — Culpepper suspected some players violated rules by communicating while preparing to enter the game. And Gentry noted that today's players seem to get more food.
"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?"
But now the burning question: Would they do it again?
Gentry wouldn't mind a Survivor return and once applied to compete on Amazing Race with her stepdaughter. Culpepper also wanted to do Amazing Race with her husband, though she said he and former Buccaneers teammate Warren Sapp assembled a sidesplitting video application, dubbing their team "Ebony and Ivory."
And Wingle? "The first couple of months after the show, I said 'No way,' " she said, 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 have been announced as cast members in a new season; Culpepper admitted struggling with feelings that her 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 I (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."