CBS' "Survivor: Philippines" Finale & Reunion Red Carpet
For 39 days, Lisa Whelchel went on the biggest roller coaster of her life: the reality show "Survivor."
The former "Facts of Life" star was struggling with the emotional aftermath of her recent divorce when she started filming "Survivor Philippines" last March. Then she had to deal with some bullying tribemates and tough weather conditions.
For most of the season, Whelchel played with heart, trying to be the "nice mom." But after a highly emotional visit from her brother, she sought to assert herself more strategically in the game. It paid off: She went to the final tribal council alongside Michael Skupin and the eventual winner, Denise Stapley.
And while Whelchel's painful journey didn't end with her winning the $1 million prize, it did earn her plenty of fans: She was voted fan favorite and took home $100,000. And more than that, she told Yahoo! TV, she learned a great deal about herself and her faith.
When we spoke to Whelchel by phone, she opened up about her deepened faith, being "outed" as a celebrity by Jonathan Penner, and what she learned about herself on "Survivor."
Were you disappointed when Jeff Probst read the votes and you weren't the winner?
I would say of course it was a disappointment, but it wasn't a surprise. It was very clear during tribal council who was going to get the votes.
Do you wish you'd presented your case differently in that last tribal council?
I perhaps could've presented my case a little less honestly and a little bit more persuasively, focusing on good moves I made rather than focusing on the wholeness of my game in its good and bad, but I still don't think it would've made a difference. I do believe that most people, by the time they get to the final tribal council, have had days at Ponderosa to think about it, to talk about it with each other, and I think the decision was really made before we even started talking.
When you started filming the season, you were going through a very emotional time with your divorce. How did you deal with those first few days on the island?
I probably should have realized that going out and being stripped of all creature comforts and any kind of external and internal support was not the best thing to do right after going through the emotional turmoil and decisions in my personal life. That was probably not the smartest thing to do. I was too raw, and there was still too much deep emotion, it was all I could do to keep it together in real life, much less in a game like "Survivor."
Was it hard not to talk to your kids all that time?
Not only was I not able to talk to my kids, but since they're my best friends, I wasn't even able to talk to my best friends. So, that was a double whammy.
Jeff Probst said your reunion with your brother was the most emotional he's ever seen. What was going through your head when you saw Justice running out?
Here's somebody safe, that I can just really completely let out all of this that I'd been keeping in. It looked like I wasn't keeping much in, because I was so emotional for so long (laughs), but the truth was that was a valiant effort not to be breaking down all the time! So, to see somebody I was finally going to be able to be totally myself with, without fear or worry or thinking about the game -- it was a huge release. You always feel better after such a huge release.
What was it about his visit that made something click in you and change the way you were playing?
He understood and validated both sides of my internal conflict. He's a pastor, so he knows this desire of what it means to go out into the world and to be a channel of God's love and a reflection of his light, and how important that is. But he also knows me, and he knows how competitive I am, and we've played games all our life growing up, so he knows how much I love this game and wanted to play it well. So he validated both of those conflicting emotions. And then said, "But it is a game. And everybody has signed up for this game. Nobody's playing by different rules, except you. So, get in there and play by the game by the rules of this game. Play to win."
While you kept some secrets close to the vest, you were very open about your religion. What did you learn about your faith on "Survivor"?
It was not just learning about it in my head, and the knowledge. It's one thing to know that God loves you, no matter what, and that it's not based on your performance, whether you're good or bad. It's based on the fact that He created you and loves you and wants a relationship with you.
And I could know that in my head all my life, but then to actually be in a situation where -- in my view, I was doing bad things and I was not being good, to then actually receive that love when I didn't feel like I earned it all ... Like in any relationship, if he really knew, would he still love me? Well, just to be at my rawest and then to choose to really believe it, then it goes from a knowledge in your head to a knowledge in your being, and it really changes you.
On the reunion show, you said you learned so much about yourself. What was your biggest takeaway?
There are so many takeaways. But one of my biggest takeaways was realizing how much I had at stake in what other people thought about me, whether it was good and they liked me so that made me feel good, or whether they rejected me or judged me and that felt awful. I didn't realize how much power I had given to other people about how I would feel about myself. So I think the biggest lesson was just being able to accept all of me. If I accepted all of me, then it didn't matter what anybody else thought. And I always knew God accepted me; I just hadn't been able to rest in it.
Were you surprised when Penner revealed your past on "Facts of Life"?
I really should've seen that coming, so the fact that I was surprised ... (laughs). Knowing Penner, I should've known that's what he would've done, but it really did catch me off guard.
Do you think his tattling changed the outcome?
I really don't. The bottom line is Denise played a great game, and I think she deserved every vote she got. I don't think anything I could've said would've made a difference, because it's not just what you say in the final tribal, it's how you play the game -- and she played a great game.
Do you regret not playing more strategically from the start?
If I valued the million dollars more than what I learned, absolutely. I totally wish I could've played with my head screwed on straight the whole game, and I think I could've played a better game. But I'm very sincere -- and I'm not giving the beauty-pageant speech -- when I do say, if I had to choose between the two, there's not a price you can put, not even a million dollars, on what I learned and how I grew and what it feels like to be able to just rest and not strive so hard for love and acceptance.
As fan favorite, you won $100,000. What's the first thing you're going to do with the money?
The first thing I'm going to do, I'm so excited, my brother has a church here in California, they just gave away 1,000 toys yesterday here in their community. They have such an outreach to the marginalized and poor in their community, so I'm going to give 10 percent right off the bat to that, which is just part of what I've always done. But it's probably the most exciting part of winning fan favorite, to be part of what he's doing.
And what's next for you?
I'm moving to California. I would love to get another sitcom; that was a wonderful time in my life that I thoroughly enjoyed. My kids are grown, and this is the time for it. And in the meantime, next week I'm going to film a few episodes on Jeff Probst's show as a co-host. My "Survivor" adventure will continue to be wonderful in that next little chapter.
Watch an interview with Lisa Whelchel on at the 'Survivor' season finale: