When Lisa Whelchel first arrived on Survivor Season 25’s Philippines retreat, the former teen star was given less chance of winning than Jeff Probst’s sea glass necklace. But the woman who once played America’s most notorious prime-time pampered princess defied the doubters, making it all the way to the show’s final council, where she ultimately finished in the top three and took home the “fan favorite prize” to boot.
It was a stunning achievement for the 49-year-old mother of three, who has been largely absent from the public eye since Facts of Life went off the airwaves in 1988. To get to that last round, Whelchel not only had to outplay an army of contestants half her age, but very publicly grappled with the conflicts between her instinct to be honest, kind, and fair to all, and her desire to win the cutthroat game.
In a wide-ranging telephone conversation held the night after the final episode, Whelchel discussed her wrenching Survivor journey, which, under the strain of the brutal game, led her to confront some of the darkest demons of her past.
RR: How are you feeling on the day after?
LW: It’s that weird adrenaline rush where you are so tired, but also so hyper, so there’s no way you can ever settle down.
RR: How does ending the season of a reality competition compare to wrapping a scripted show when you were acting?
LW: It was a huge difference. Then I had a role, I had a script, and I had a part. And on this, I was just me 24 hours a day. Sometimes I would have liked to put on a Blair costume. It would have been less messy.
RR: Did you ever try to slip into a role while you were on there? You came off as so honest and direct. It must have been tempting to just play a part.
LW: I guess so, but when you’re out there, you — you’re just stripped of everything, so I don’t think I had the reserves to play a part at that point. It’s very raw, and that’s why it’s so compelling. You don’t have the energy to pretend.
RR: Is it hard for an actor to be so exposed and honest on a reality show like this?
LW: I think it got me back to the issues that made me turn to acting in the first place. I think it’s intertwined with the struggle I had pre-acting.
RR: What sort of struggle?
LW: The struggle for approval and acceptance, and wanting to be liked, and so thinking that I needed to perform well and be perfect. That is what made acting attractive to me, so when that was stripped away on the island, it was like my struggle was with my image going back to pre-acting days.
RR: What made you want to go on Survivor and put yourself through this?
LW: First of all, I didn’t think I was going to go through this experience. I love the show, I love Survivor. I’m a gamer. I’ve had a games club in my home since my kids were toddlers, so in my mind, I was going to go out there and take this game by storm. I didn’t expect and anticipate that it would be a whole body, soul, spirit, and mind experience.
RR: When did it hit you that you were in for more than you had bargained for?
LW: What’s interesting is that even though I really wasn’t aware that it was going to be that hard — but on the other hand, I really wanted something that would break though some of my foundational stuck places. It’s kind of this paradox between “come here” and “go away.” I was subconsciously very aware of what I was getting into. I wanted, I think, to shift some things, to put myself in a situation where I wasn’t able to be in control. But I was able to do that while telling myself, consciously, yes, but I’ll always be in control.
The Facts of Life, Season 5 — Pictured: (from left, standing) Lisa Whelchel as Blair Warner, Charlotte Rae as Edna Garrett, Nancy McKeon as Joanne “Jo” Polniaczek, (from left, seated) Mindy Cohn as Natalie Green, Kim Fields as Dorothy “Tootie” Ramsey. Photo by Frank Carroll/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank.
RR: Do you think that’s something more or less that everybody goes through on Survivor?
LW: I don’t think so. I think I was ripe for it. I wanted that kind of fix inside. Call it a midlife crisis, I don’t know. I do know I was ready to let go of some old patterns and some things that had worked for me in the past but now had me stuck. And I don’t think that’s the case for most players. I think most players are like, I’m going to be in control and take this game and show them what playing this is all about.
RR: How was it for you trying to deal with some of these personalities in the game while you were wet, cold, hungry, etc.?
LW: Well, here’s the irony. My struggle was in trying to be a mean person. Abi [the season’s Brazilian villainess] didn’t bother me, and yet, she should have. I let her walk all over me. I should’ve said, “Stop bullying me.” My struggle was the opposite. It was natural for me to be a pleaser and be good and kind, and it was unnatural for me to play the game and do some of the more insensitive things. So that was a kind of an upside-down struggle for me.
RR: What’s next for you, post-Survivor?
LW: Internally, I’m going to have to walk out what I’ve been learning. It’s one thing to see it. It’s another to actually walk it out. Even last night, after the final episode, you go back into your rut. You say, “Why did I do this?” “Why did I do that?” “That didn’t come across well” or “That’s not good.” I had to stop myself and say, “Hey, wait a minute, Lisa, you’ve been talking about accepting yourself. Are you actually going to do it or are you just going to talk about it?” And I had a good talk with myself, and I said, “OK, you weren’t perfect, and you didn’t do exactly what you would’ve done had you written a script ahead of time. It’s OK. Let yourself off the hook.” So I guess walking that out until it becomes more of a part of me, naturally.
RR: And will we be seeing more of you?
LW: Professionally it’s really opened wonderful opportunities already. I would love to do another sitcom. And in the meantime I’m going to do some episodes of The Jeff Probst Show, and that will be a lot of fun.