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Lisa Whelchel on how Survivor changed her life, and on her new reality show

Lisa Whelchel was most recently on prime-time network television during 2012’s Survivor: Philippines, but she is still recognized from her starring role in the 1980s, when she played Blair on The Facts of Life. “A lot of kids grew up with the show, so there’s just a more tender place in their hearts for those shows,” she told me recently.

But there is something different about Survivor fans who recognize her in public. “The younger generation that wasn’t around during Facts of Life, [who] watched me on Survivor and know me—kind of actually know me, rather than know a character,” she said. “That has been gratifying: to have fans of me and not just a role that I played.”

Survivor led to another kind of recognition, too: of herself. Her 39 days playing the game ended up changing her life, and led to her a new role as a life coach.

It’s “the most creative thing I’ve ever done,” Lisa said. “And I don’t think I could have done it had I not gone through what I went through on Survivor.”

Lisa Whelchel, Collector's Call, Zac Vege, KISS pinball machine
Lisa Whelchel plays a KISS pinball machine that belongs to collector Zac Vege (Photo by Mike Schmiedeler/Weigel Productions)

Lisa is currently on television, hosting a brand-new show called Collector’s Call (MeTV, Sundays at 10), on which she visits collectors of pop culture memorabilia. Its network, MeTV, airs reruns of classic shows, from M*A*S*H to Alf to The Facts of Life.

Lisa wasn’t looking for a new job. In fact, she told me she’s basically removed herself from the Hollywood grind.

“I became a life coach because I really didn’t want to actively pursue show business any more,” she said.

Why not? “Part of it is—it’s just so hard, to be honest,” she said. “I don’t have the desire or the energy or even just the—I don’t know. My nervous system can’t handle just the judgment and the rejection that comes along with it. Especially in this day and age with the Internet. There’s so much expectation on … looking perfect.”

“You’re not really allowed to get old; you’re not allowed to gain weight; you’re not allowed to look like a normal person without people just having strong opinions about it. And I don’t think people understand that it’s still hurtful, and it’s hard. It got to be the point where I just didn’t want to—for one thing, it’s hard to get a job unless you’re perfect. I didn’t want to put in the two hours a day to be on the treadmill and get a personal trainer and do all that,” she added.

“Also, I had a wonderful career, and I have a lot to be proud of and to be grateful for. That itch was scratched, and I feel really, really privileged to have gotten to experience it, and I left that to be a full-time and wife and mother and jumped into that with both feet and loved it with all my heart. And then I went from there to be an author and a speaker and loved that. Now I’m a life coach. Maybe I want to live a bunch of different lives in this one lifetime.”

Collector’s Call, uh, called to her because it gave Lisa an opportunity to do something she loves: talking to people and learning.

“I would do this even if I didn’t get paid or it wasn’t on television,” Lisa told me. “I love meeting people, especially people that are characters—and trust me, anybody who collects like this is a character. … I love great conversations, and asking questions, and digging deep.”

Lisa and the production spent one day with each collector, “and filmed many hours” for 17 minutes of television.

While the collections are fun, the show isn’t just about looking at Winnie the Poohs. Lisa said it’s “robust in its learning opportunities,” including “learning about the times the collectibles are from, or what they represent.” She added, “I’m a lifelong learner, so that tickled my fancy.”

And so she said yes when a friend who’s producing the show asked her. “Just having fascinating conversations is something I eat up with a spoon. I don’t want a bunch of backstory; I really want to be able to have conversations, and connect with people, and then really learn what their passion is, and what’s behind the collections, and what have they learned?” Lisa said.

It’s what Lisa learned from Survivorthat helped her pursue her new work, although that didn’t occur to her until long after the show was over.

‘One of the hardest things I’ve ever done’

Lisa Whelchel, Collector's Call
Lisa Whelchel (Photo by Mike Schmiedeler/Weigel Productions)

Lisa is still a Survivor fan; she talked about fans in the first person plural. “And of course, Survivor fans, we are fanatics,” she said. “They so appreciate the journey, and understand it, and they followed it, and they’re all in. I would connect with them on that level whether I’d been on it or not.”

Her 39-day journey “was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, that’s for sure,” Lisa told me. “Certainly, physically, it’s hard. It rained for 17 straight days in the beginning, and you’re hungry, and you’re tired, and you’ve got bugs.”

“But that was the easiest part. It was the emotional part and the mental part that just ripped me up from the inside out. I felt like I was drawn and quartered and pulled in so many directions. So it was really hard journey for me, which I think was reflected on the show in the editing.”

Lisa made it to the final three on Survivor: Philippines, but received just one vote from the jury, losing to Denise Stapley. (Lisa tied for second place with Michael Skupin, who also received one jury vote.)

“I’m so grateful; I made it to the end, so I had the full experience,” she said. “It was really an incredible experience, but it was not one that I really thought Was it worth it? until probably at least a year after it aired. Then it was like, Okay, yeah, that really was worth it. But it did change me a lot. It changed me in great ways.”

That change was internal, and came in part because of the struggle of playing the game—and then dealing with how people responded to her game play.

“If it’s deep, it’s going to be difficult, because we are afraid of change, and it feels scary, and you usually have to go through a really hard time in order to actually change—especially deeper, more concrete parts of ourselves,” Lisa told me.

Survivor helped me welcome all parts of myself. Up until that point, I’d really been focused on trying to be good and kind and make all the right choices and have all people like me, and be a good reflection of Jesus,” she said. “I really spent a lot of energy focusing on those parts of myself, and exiling the other parts of myself that are human, but parts that I’ve judged.”

“I think I was so attracted to Survivor because it gave me permission, within the context of the game, to actually let some of those other parts out—the parts that were selfish, and would betray or lie in order to win a million dollars. Just be able to let [out] some of those quote-unquote ‘negative’ aspects of myself, which now I realize are just the human aspects that are within all of us. So being able to accept all of myself, and not just part of myself, was a real transformational gift that Survivor gave me.”

I asked how people’s comments about her game play—their judgement—affected her. “That’s a very important question, because there wasn’t the Internet when I was on The Facts of Life. I left to raise my kids, so I was out of the public eye for a while,” she said.

“Survivor was my first experience having these real-time comments, and even though, by and large the fans of Survivor were supportive, it’s just our natural inclination to have a negativity bias, so there can be 10 people that are cheering me on, and one person says something negative, and that’s the one that stings. That’s the one that lands, and that’s the one that makes you stay up at night wondering, Oh, I should have done it differently.”

“It was really, really hard to watch it. I did have to come to the point where I stopped getting on the Internet. It’s very difficult to please everyone. There was the camp that was saying, You are betraying your values: you’re lying, you’re backstabbing, and that’s not very Christ-like. They were judging me for playing the game and not being a better reflection of God and his love and character. And then there was the other camp that was saying, Hey, play the game, stop being such namby-pamby. Get on your big-girl panties or get off the island. You signed up to play this game, now play it hard and stop being so whiny about everything.

“Both camps had valid judgments! It’s still hard to read,” Lisa said. “Everybody just wants to be understood and accepted and given grace, and that’s not always what shows up on the Internet.”

Would Lisa Whelchel be on Survivor again?

I asked the inevitable, obvious question: Would she return to the show again?

The answer is no—and has been no in the past.

“I have been asked to return,” she said. “I was tempted to do Blood vs. Water, because my brother … really wanted to do it with me.” (He joined her for the family visits during season 25.) “But it was right after my season, and I was just too fragile at that point. I was tempted, but I don’t think I would do it again.”

Mostly, she doesn’t feel the need to return. “For one thing, I had the full experience, and I’m really, really grateful,” Lisa said. “I love the game, and I watch every season still, but I don’t think I would do it again. This scenario wouldn’t come up, but the only reason I would ever do it—if in some alternate universe, I had to choose between going back on Survivor or doing Dancing with the Stars, I would go back on Survivor, that’s how much I’m afraid of dancing in public.”

Her work now as a life coach, Lisa said, is “the most creative thing I’ve ever done. And I don’t think I could have done it had I not going through what I went through on Survivor.”

“I don’t think we can accept the humanity in all parts of other people until we can accept it ourselves. I think we are prone to judge, but we’re judging in other people what we first judged in ourselves,” Lisa said. “I wouldn’t be a good life coach if I judged other people in their process, and in our messiness, and when we’re going through transition. We’re just all finding our way. I think I can directly thank Survivor for how it undid me in ways that really needed to be undone, so I could accept all my messiness, and then be able to accept humanity in everyone.”

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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