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She was on the outs of her tribe on day one and compared to a dog that needed to be put out of its misery, but Lisa Whelchel made it all the way to end of Survivor: Philippines, losing (along with Mike Skupin) to Denise Stapley in the finals. Now, the former Facts of Life star discusses her time on the island, including her shock over Jonathan Penner outing her past, what we didn’t see at the final Tribal Council, as well as her plans to co-host some episodes of The Jeff Probst Show. (Click through both pages to read the entire interview.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Lisa, you’re a giant fan, you come on the show and make it all 39 days. Win or lose, that has to feel great to go the distance.
LISA WHELCHEL: I would have loved to have won the million dollars, but the fact that I got the whole experience — from Ponderosa at the beginning to burning down our camp at the end, and got to sit at final Tribal and give my plea I really got to do every single possible thing there is to do except receive the big, big check.
EW: Let’s talk about Penner outing your past on The Facts of Life just moments before everyone went up to vote. Did that hit you like a bombshell? People’s minds were probably already made up before then, but you’re sitting there fighting for your life and then he comes out and does that.
I should have been expecting it, and I don’t know why I wasn’t. But I was actually shocked when he came out with that. So it absolutely threw me back. I think you’re right, I don’t think it affected the outcome. I’m not saying he didn’t affect the outcome, but he had already affected it at Ponderosa with the many speeches I’m sure he gave there which were just as bitter. But at that moment, I wasn’t prepared for him to out me. Now, stepping back as performer and a lover of the show Survivor, it was absolutely what was needed to bring resolve to that question: Did they recognize you? Who didn’t recognize you? Why didn’t they recognize you? So as far as good storytelling, I think it was an important part of the last chapter.
EW: Well, he was certainly performing and it was a great performance, but it did feel below the belt. I wouldn’t have had a problem if Skupin or Denise had done it since they were still fighting for the money, even though I’m not sure how well it would have reflected on them to bring it up at that point. I could see why someone competing for a million dollars would bring it up. Penner, not so much.
I think he was still fighting to prove the point to Michael and me that when he said “If you vote me out, there is no way you will win the million dollars.” So he was pulling out all stops — not so that his favorite person, Denise, would win. But so that his favorite person, Penner, would ultimately be right.
EW: And I didn’t realize until I spoke with Denise this morning that she is the one that actually told Penner about your past.
Yeah, in the mud challenge. Denise and I were there for an hour while the guys were negotiating and she said, “I recognized you immediately. I watched the show. Did anybody else recognize you?” And I told her Skupin, but I said it was really fun to play the game without being Blair or the perception of Blair and so she said, “Oh, I won’t tell anybody,” which of course lasted five minutes after she got out of the mud.
EW: What was reaction among people about that once you spoke to then out of the game. Did they even know what the show was? Were they like “I thought you looked familiar.” Or were they just too young?
They were just all too young. I did get a few “Oh, my mom loved you growing up when you were on.”
EW: I know a lot of stuff doesn’t make it into the final edit of the Tribal Council. I imagine you took some other hits from people that we did not see. What can you tell us about what we didn’t see at that final Tribal.
Well, one thing I’m glad that you didn’t see was that Carter was under the impression that I had told Skupin that it was obviously God’s will that he had lost that challenge. And that broke my heart because that was the exact reason why I didn’t want to even mention God much less pray, because it is so confusing and nuanced and never translates well. And that was a case in point. The reason I had prayed for God’s will is because I really didn’t know if it would be right to play the game or if I should stick to my word, so I was just saying “God, you intervene because I’m afraid I’m going to make a mistake because I have no idea which way to go here.” So I can understand if Skupin told Carter that I thought it was God’s will that Malcolm won that challenge and Carter lost it. So I’m glad that didn’t make the edit, but I’m sorry that even for a little bit, that Carter would feel that God was picking sides like that.
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EW: How much did you want to win that final immunity challenge, to get not only an individual immunity win, but the most important individual immunity win.
Yeah, and it really wasn’t because I felt like I needed the win so much because I did have an alliance with everybody that wanted to take me to the end — mostly because they all figured they could beat me, but still. But I figured like I was pretty safe and they were all going to take me to the end. But I wanted to win it for my story to say that when I finally got in the game and finally got my head in there I ultimately even won the deciding immunity change. I just wanted to be able to have that immunity necklace. I felt it internally that people on the internet were saying “She doesn’t deserve to be there. She’s too wishy-washy. Get your big girl panties on or get off the island.” And I felt that way about myself, so I understood it. So I wanted to say, okay, I actually do deserve to be here, I can play this game and I can actually even win a challenge — even the most important one.
EW: I thought you did a good job at some of the later Tribal Councils of laying the groundwork for Tandang pride and reminding everyone that you tried to stay loyal, yet at the end you and Skupin only got one Tandang vote combined. Why is that?
I think there’s a two-edged sword to loyalty and relationships in this game. For instance, Denise wasn’t really that close in relationships or emotionally with anybody, so when she wrote their name down, the knife didn’t go as deeply. But I actually made some very deep connections out there, so what happens then is when I write their name down, it hurts. And what you lay on top of hurt is anger, so when you are hurt and angered by somebody, you don’t want to give them a million dollars.
EW: What was your biggest mistake? if you could get a do over on one thing that would put you in a better position to win at the final Tribal Council, what would it be?
If I had 20-20 vision, I would say vote out Denise and keep Abi, and then vote out Malcolm at the final four, and then go sit beside Skupin and Abi, and of course I would have loved to have done that. But without the benefit of 20-20 and only having the benefit of what had happened, which was Malcolm being on a challenge-winning run and there’s no end in sight and assuming he’s probably going to win the final four immunity challenge and we need all of our best guns there. And Denise has two of the best guns on the whole show, so we needed everybody to try to beat Malcolm, because if anyone is sitting next to Malcolm at the end, nobody is going to win.
EW: I don’t buy for a second that poll Probst took at the reunion where people said they would have still voted for Denise over Malcolm at the end.
I really don’t. The truth is, there’s not one person on that jury that didn’t like Malcolm.
EW: I know CBS is probably already outside your house begging you to come back on this show. Would you go back?
I don’t know. It really is a lot like childbirth. You don’t ask a woman right after she’s delivered the baby and you don’t ask her when she’s been up all night and is exhausted, and you don’t really ask her when the kid is running around and getting into everything. Give me a little time and then ask me again.
EW: I’m curious about what it’ s like generally being back in the spotlight. You’re back on primetime television, and you win the fan favorite vote and everybody is loving Lisa again. But you’re also a person that wants to guard your privacy. So what is it like having to be out in the public eye again.
It’s funny. I was just telling my friend yesterday that I feel two very strong but opposing drives in me. There’s one drive that loves acting and wants to do what I enjoy doing for living and along with the privilege of having a platform that I want to do for good. I want to be a channel for the love of God to flow through me to touch this world and bring His light to the world. But there is another part of me that just wants to kind of run away and be a grandmother eventually and have family parties, because this is my happy place when I am just with my family and enjoying those relationships without all the pressure that comes with speaking up and speaking out. And, you know, not everyone is going to love everything you say. And it does hurt when you get the backlash and the judgment.
EW: Well, it’s always great when fans like you and Malcolm do well and make it far in the game. It just seems to mean more when it is someone whose dream it is to play this game, as opposed to someone who was just found by casting in a bar and has no real connection and history with the show.
Well, thank you, and the great part is that it hasn’t really ended and the dream has not stopped because I got to play Survivor and now I’m actually going to be doing some co-hosting on Jeff’s talk show for the next couple of weeks. So the prizes just keep coming. We’re going to try out a little co-hosting and see how that works so I’m gong to try a handful of shows with him this week that will air in January. We really did have some good back and forth at Tribal Council. It felt right, and it was fun and easy and hopefully we can bring that to his talk show too.
Check out all the rest of our ‘Survivor’ finale coverage, including Dalton’s full episode recap, exclusive intel from the host on next season, Probst’s thoughts on the finale, our interview with winner Denise Stapley, and interviews with the rest of the final four. Plus, enjoy an exclusive deleted scene from last night’s finale — as well as pre-game interviews with the final four — in the video player below. And for more ‘Survivor’ scoop all year long, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.