Kelly Czarnecki: Survivor “made me a tougher person mentally, socially, physically, and spiritually”

After Survivor Gabon‘s lame tribe Fang lost yet another challenge during last night’s episode–they’ve now lost eight of 10 challenges–Chicagoan Kelly Czarnecki was voted out at Tribal Council.

Kelly was my least-favorite contestant during pre-season interviews, and my analysis of her as a player led to an angry e.mail message. So I was anxious to talk to her–and both meanings of the word apply. Having just read Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer–a fascinating essay that starts with a declaration that journalists “[prey] on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse”–and discussing that in class using my interview with Kelly as an example, the interview has been on my mind.

I’ll be honest: Kelly was a lot more upbeat, amusing, and engaging this morning than she was in Africa. “Andy, my best friend, what’s up?” she said right away, and after we talked for more than 15 minutes, she said, “I hope you like me better now.” Kelly was also quite funny; referring to Crystal, she said, “this beast comes out of her when she’s around Jeff Probst.”

Were my first impressions wrong? I don’t think so, as her game play was weak, and her fellow cast members and others echoed some of my impressions during various episodes. Is Kelly stupid or unlikable? Not at all, because she absolutely has a strong personality that can be charming, but I don’t think public speaking is one of her strengths, and she’s not always her own best advocate.

Highlights from our discussion:

On our pre-game interview in Africa: “Clearly, I wasn’t being myself,” Kelly said, and while she insisted “you knew I had something in my eye the whole time,” I pointed out that didn’t happen until the last minute or two. She said, “It wasn’t the bug in the eye … in the beginning, I had mascara running down my face and I had makeup in my eye. I’m not, like, making excuses.” She said a friend probably sent the “talking shit” e.mail, which she first referred to by saying “they wrote something bad,” and later said “I thought that was funny, by the way.”

On Kota: “I wasn’t an outcast on Kota. I’m just more whose optimistic and I was with Paloma the whole time. Basically those people just did what they wanted to do and I did what I wanted to do, it’s not that they didn’t like me, as though I was portrayed as that. But we definitely all got along,” she said, pointing out that she never sat out any challenges as evidence that they appreciated her contributions. However, Kelly also told me that “These people had no sense of humor; they were all into themselves. But then when I went to Fang, I got into my groove.”

On Fang: “Their communication skills sucked, their team playing skills sucked, and that team is just cursed,” Kelly said. She said that Kota went into challenges talking “about what the game would be” and strategizing, while Fang remained quiet and just showed up.

On Jeff Probst and last week’s boat challenge: “Jeff likes to pick on me,” Kelly said, claiming that the editors left out her blocking the ball at least once. “I was moving but I was being portrayed as I wasn’t doing anything and that’s a joke,” she said, although she admitted that she was on the boat “backwards, so it was making me move not as fast as everyone else” because of the stabilizer/rudder underneath.

On Tribal Council with Fang: The experience, Kelly said, was “100 percent” different with Fang than at Kota, where people were honest and open with one another. At Fang, “nothing happens during the day” and then “these people come out of nowhere.” She suggested they “gain some confidence and come up to me rather than whipping it out at Tribal Council and making yourself feel better.”

On her Fang game play: Jacquie told TV Guide that she suggested Kelly align with Ace and Jacquie, but “All strategizing talk went right over Kelly’s head.” Kelly laughed at that and said, “Jacquie still thinks she’s in the game so she has a tendency to lie. She never came up to my and said let’s have Ace, Matty in an alliance. She did come up to me and she’s like, Let’s vote Kenny off.” But Kelly “already knew they were going to blindside” Jacquie.

On Ace: On Kota, “Nobody really liked him. They needed him at the time because he is a strong physical athlete,” Kelly told me. Once they got to Fang, she said, “I was a complete bitch to him because I didn’t like him.” While she originally had an alliance with him, “I just saw right through him and I didn’t like the way he was playing the game. I’m an honest player. I don’t lie. And I wanted to play a loyal game.”

On Crystal: Kelly said Ace suggested to Crystal that Kelly was talking about her, and “Crystal, the big girl she is, starts to believe it. She didn’t talk to me the whole rest of the day and then she decided to bring it out at Tribal that I called her weak. She made an assumption and that sucks for her … because she lost a person that was going to help her out the whole way.” Kelly also said Crystal “really is for being such a bigger person and an athlete, knowing that there’s going to be some some losses and there’s going to be wins and there’s going to be heartache. But it’s like, You don’t need to cry. She’ll cry; she’ll be happy; then she’ll be so furious. … It was fun to watch. This beast comes out of her when she’s around Jeff Probst, it’s unreal.”

On Kenny: “I wish he was more of a leader than a follower,” Kelly said, saying she wants him to go far in the game.

Reaction from others: Kelly said people will sometimes tell her, “CBS is really picking on you,” and she replies, “Yeah, but no worries. I know who I am, and so does my family. It’s fun to watch me and the way that they edit me. I think it’s goofy; it’s silly. A lot of people approach me and they say that they like me better in person than on TV. But they like the things I say and how I stick up for myself on television.” She told me she’s been getting “a lot of positive feedback.”

How the game affected her: “It made me a tougher person mentally, socially, physically, and spiritually–all of those things,” she said. “Most of all I’ve learned to take criticism. Those people are just saying that to better themselves and bring you down, and you don’t need to listen to that.”

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.