This was a research report I compiled for my senior year of college. I have divided it into two parts just to keep it from being an incredibly long post, and edited it to update with current facts and figures.
I was on TV.
I was on “Primetime” television, to be exact, for about 14 weeks in 2008. I was on the hit television reality show Survivor Micronesia, Fans vs. Favorites produced by CBS and Mark Burnett. I did very well by the shows standards finishing in fifth place out of twenty and because of my efforts I won a few thousand dollars and a great deal of public recognition as a “reality star”. An average of about 12.6 million viewers tuned in for Micronesia each week between February and May of 2008 and I receive fan-mail, emails, and thousand of messages from these viewers even to this day. (Russ.) Since having my fifteen minutes on Survivor I have been invited to do radio and television interviews, featured in my hometown papers, appeared at autograph signings, and paid to attend other celebrity type events at nightclubs, parties, and other special events. As a senior at a small mid-Michigan University, I went from being another nameless fan to a Survivor reality television star in a matter of months.
There is no question that I have enjoyed the positive effects of both celebrity fame and fortune: however, what few people really understand about being a reality star is that your life can never return to normal after the show is over. For all the millions of people who tune in every week to watch Survivor and other reality programming the icons of these shows are usually the only ones left to witness their own lives after these fifteen minutes of fame end. Unlike career actors, reality show contestants go back to their real jobs (assuming they weren’t actors before the show) and to their families, friends, and communities which are oftentimes far removed from the glamour of Hollywood or idyllic island settings.
Will your career path change if you manage to make a big hit on television? What will your friends and family think of it all? Can the momentary fame and fortune regular people earn while on reality TV transform who they really are as a person? After going through the process, from being a die-hard fan of CBS’s Survivor to becoming a favorite cast member of the show itself, I am still addressing these kinds of questions as they concern my own identity and personal happiness. Thankfully I am not alone when met with these difficult questions, as many other cast-aways from past Survivor seasons serve as examples of what I can expect in my own future.
For those who haven’t ever heard of Survivor it is hailed as one of the first popular reality television shows and is still extremely popular even today in its 22nd installment. The program begins each season with a new group of 16 to 20 Americans who are isolated on a deserted island environment somewhere in the tropics of the world with no food, shelter, or modern appliances and put divided into opposing tribes. Through a series of puzzles, alliances, and obstacle courses the entire game show turns into a complex contest which contains a, “…fundamental premise of elimination and dog-eat-dog competition.” (Keane 160.) After contestants have voted one another off the island, and out of the game, the final person left remaining on the island is declared the “sole survivor” and wins the coveted million dollar grand prize. The slogan of the show, “outwit, outplay, outlast,” references the notion that players must trick, deceive, or physically beat out the other players to preserve their spot on the tribe and in the game.
When I first saw Survivor on television back in 2000 I was desperate to apply for the show. Survivor Borneo aired on CBS when I was only about 14 years old, around the same time I was reading the book Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Like Golding’s book (a fictional story island survival) I became aware that psychology and individual motivations are at work within people and it fascinated me from a young age. Because I started to run Track and Cross Country competitively (which had me running in the deep woods and camping out) Survivor seemed like the perfect fit for me. I understood there was a great deal of money to be had at Survivor, a million dollars, but I really didn’t want to go on Survivor primarily for the money. I just knew that I wanted to be a part of it.
For many Americans, who yearn for the spotlight, being on a primetime reality show such as Survivor is a once in a lifetime shot at fame and fortune, so its no wonder that people are drawn to applying for it. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have some desire to apply for the show for these reasons; I wanted to be a character, a player, and I wanted the fame the show offered to ordinary people. Keith Famie, a chef who grew up just down the road from me in West Bloomfield, Michigan , used his notoriety as the third place finisher in Survivor: Australia to catapult his career by opening his own restaurant, publishing two of his own cookbooks and has since appeared on the Regis and Kelly Show with his recipes. Jerri Manthey, the notorious villainess from the same season also went on to do over 14 guest appearances including CBS’s Early Show, VH1’s Surreal Life, and a guest spot on The Young and the Restless. (Collins 103.) Colleen Haskell from the first season (Survivor: Borneo, 2000) landed a starring role alongside Rob Schneider in the 2001 film The Animal and had a guest appearance on That 70’s Show in the same year. (Needham.) After seeing other Survivors that were able to “spin straw into gold” many people are simply interested in Survivor for the notion that anyone can be pulled out of their boring life to be made into a celebrity through help of reality television.
Elisabeth Hasselbeck (formally Elisabeth Filarski) from Survivor: the Australian Outback is one contestant that was able to reinvent her public image after Survivor and succeeded in remaining on television as a strong personality. Elizabeth was depicted as the sweet heart of the season and by the time the show ended she had a 9.3 out of 10 approval rating by viewers making her the most liked individual on the program. (“Weekly Ratings”.) Because of her success in the game which earned her a spot in the “final four” remaining contestants, Hasselbeck was able to earn some decent prize winnings and remained in the game long enough to leave a lasting impression with fans. Following her time in the Outback, Hasselbeck used what fame she had to find her way onto another television program 2003. ABC’s The View, a television talk show in which four to five women discuss current events, has only lead Hasselbeck to greater opportunities in popular media. In The View’s biography for Hasselbeck they summarize these media opportunities in detail:
Since taking the coveted seat on The View, Mrs. Hasselbeck has been the focus of major magazine covers and articles including USA Weekend, Curious Parents, People, TV Guide, Glamour, Us Weekly, Life, Pregnancy and ePregnancy. Elisabeth has filled in on the FOX News Channel’s Fox and Friends, and has been a guest on Hannity and Colmes, Larry King Live, The Martha Stewart Show, The Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Good Morning America. (“Co-Hosts: Elisabeth Hasselbeck”.)
This desire to gain a chance at celebrity and boosting your career is a serious goal for many people looking to make their dreams come true. I was extremely lucky to be on Survivor in 2008, one of twenty that was cast out of the hundreds of thousands who apply twice each year since the shows inception in 2000. Most are not so lucky and expend a great deal of time, money, and energy trying to make it to the island and consequentially our living rooms. One such example looks at Tom Sullivan, a typical 38 year old television and radio host from Atlanta who has since poured 5 years and over $8000 dollars into the application process for Survivor in hopes of getting noticed and furthering his career in broadcast arts. (Ellin.) So much expense may seem futile in the face of impossible odds, but the results speak for themselves. When talking to Alexis Jones, another fellow contestant of the Micronesia season, you can see the positive effects a good television persona can have on prolonging a Survivor’s fifteen minutes and building their resume for a professional career. Alexis (25) has been a motivational speaker and television host since she was 18 but says only recently has the success she found on Survivor given her a solid business platform in which to promote herself and earn a substantial living. The exposure she received on the island game show has given her public persona “legitimacy” as a television personality and a source of respect. Rather then being another nameless face in the crowd she’s known for doing something extraordinary; she’s known as, “Alexis from Survivor Micronesia.” Survivor adds to Alexis’s resume and serves as a badge of accomplishment.
You can read part 2 in the next blog entry —->