Marisa Calihan: “I am very expressive, and if I don’t like something, you can see it all over my face”

This is the second in a series of interviews with Survivor Samoa cast members.

Marisa CalihanMarisa Calihan is kind of impossible not to like. Although Marisa was recruited for Survivor Samoa, she is anything but the type we’ve come to expect from some recruits. She’s certainly attractive, but she’s had an interesting life and is thoughtful about it. She’s somewhere between quirky and traditional, unpredictable and conservative.

A songwriter who “lived in L.A. writing music but also designing hair accessories,” Marisa was shipping some of her work at FedEx when she was recruited. However, “in a twisted turn of fate, three people that were close to me were diagnosed of cancer,” she told me, so she went home. “I was sort of being a free spirit and roaming free, and just doing all the things I loved. … Coming home and having to deal with that and take care of my little sister while my stepfather got chemo really grounded me and centered me, and it got me back into school, which is what I’m doing now.” (She’s majoring in Spanish, but says songwriting is still important. “I will always do that; it’s such a part of me.”)

Clearly, family is critical to her, as is her heritage, which I’ll admit surprised me at first, because I’ve never heard someone claim to be a proud Appalachian, or even just Appalachian; I almost thought she was kidding, but pretty much everything she says is so raw and honest it can sound a little naive even when she’s being very thoughtful.

Anyway, while she lives in Cincinnati, Marisa said, “I’m first generation Appalachian. People use derogatory terms like hillbilly and all that stuff, but the spirit in those mountains is really amazing. … I’m my first generation of my family to not be born there, but the roots run so deep and so strong.”

Of Marisa’s eight siblings, “none of them have the same mother and father as me, but we did grow up in the same household, none the wiser to these technicalities,” she told me. “We rode around like a band of gypsies in a big, gold van and would go to different churches and would sing as a little family choir…it was really an exciting childhood.”

Beyond that, Marisa’s experiences have affected her profoundly, especially “working with street children in El Salvador” (hear her discuss that below). Marisa doesn’t like to characterize that work as helping others, because that has “such a superior tone. I don’t want to help anyone, I just want to share in their experiences, and maybe give them some of mine, and some hope.”

Living in El Salvador has given her a perspective that will help her in the game. On the island, she’ll know that “this could be a whole lot worse; this could be my reality, this could be my every day.” She pointed out that when she was working and living internationally, “I didn’t have any running water,” and the water they did have had “worms crawling around in it” and “tasted terrible.”

Although she doesn’t expect the elements and the living conditions to present a challenge, she is aware of other potential problems in the game. “I think my face is a really big challenge, because I am very expressive, and if I don’t like something, you can see it all over my face, even if I’m not saying a word. I really hope I can have that poker face going, but that’s going to be difficult,” she said.

Perhaps the biggest problem is, as she said, “I snap back really quick at people, especially men. If there’s an arrogant, cocky man, I’ll be the first one to chop him down to size. And it happens so quickly, I don’t even realize I’m doing it. I’ve always been called blunt, or honest, or those sort of words to sugar coat the fact that I’m just kind of wretched when it comes to that. I’m going to try to reel that in, but only time will tell. When you get stripped down to the bare minimum of you, things come out, so we’ll see how it goes.”

Talking about strategy, she used an awesome metaphor. “It’s kind of hard to build a strategy in the beginning. I think if you do, you’re kind of a fool. It’s sort of like driving: You don’t know what to dodge until it jumps out at you, so you have to be prepared for anything,” she said, then adopting the voice of a clueless driver to drive home the point: “‘I’m just going to drive straight, I’m not going to look at anything’—you can’t do that.”

So, her “general strategy is to just be prepared for anything. … In the beginning, just be really helpful, and do your part, and clean up after yourself—make things pleasant for other people. But once things get down to the nitty gritty and the final few, you’ve just to start cuttin’ throats. Unfortunately, you do.”

I hope she makes it to that point, but I am concerned that she won’t make it that far, particularly since Marisa told me that she thinks it’s a mistake to break early alliances. “Any initial alliances you make, even if you question them … you need to stick with it, because it shows your character to other people. … Right off the bat, nobody trusts you. And that word will get around like a cancer, and you don’t want that. Even if you think you’ve made the wrong alliance, stick with it; you can always change it later.”

Marisa also expects to use others’ weaknesses against them, using her intuition. “Not being compassionate or dismissing someone is just a manifestation of your own fear and what you don’t like about yourself, so it kind of gives me a glimpse into their weaknesses and I can use that, for sure.”

While Marisa told me that “I want to come across in this game as just an honest representation of somebody that I want my nieces to be proud to call their aunt, and just a good example of a woman,” there’s nothing she won’t do in the game except for one key thing: “I won’t slut around the island for any amount of money in the world.”

Otherwise, Marisa said, “There’s no moral lines for me as far as lying, cheating, stealing, backstabbing, all of that stuff. As soon as you put your name on the application paper, you’re signing up to get lied to, period. I am all about the truth—I have the word “truth” tattooed on my body—but the truth of the matter is, I’m going to lie in this game. That’s just the way it goes.”

Hear Marisa describe how “working with street children in El Salvador” changed her life, and how she wants to eventually live on a “completely organic, off-the-grid farm”:

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