Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Lisa Whelchel 'cried for almost 3 straight days' after playing
With Survivor filming for seasons 41 and 42 indefinitely postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, EW is reaching back into the reality show's past. We sent a Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire to a batch of former players to fill out with their thoughts about their time on the show as well as updates on what they've been up to since. Each weekday, EW will post the answers from a different player.
Throughout our Survivor Quarantine Questionnaires, we have heard from lots of players who struggled once the cameras were turned off. And those struggles even extend to someone who has lived almost her entire life on camera. Lisa Whelchel grew up a star on The New Mickey Mouse Club and then rose to fame playing Blair Warner on The Facts of Life. But even someone who was used to the scrutiny and insecurity that comes with fame was unprepared for what happened after making it all 39 days on Survivor: Philippines.
"For starters, I cried for almost three straight days from the moment I walked away from Tribal Council," says Whelchel, who tied for second place. "As a player, I think I just tried to hold everything in to play the game (with the exception of #SurvivorMeltdown, of course!) and the moment I was free to let down, it was like a flood. Thankfully, when I was still leaking tears months later, the Survivor therapist helped me not feel so foolish by explaining that it is not uncommon to experience a kind of grief reaction."
Indeed, Whelchel's reaction upon reentering society mirrors those of many of her peers. And the worst was yet to come. "Unfortunately, I wasn't prepared for a whole new round of PTSD when the season aired," says Whelchel. "That was, in some ways, even more traumatic. When I was on television in the eighties, it was before the Internet and social media so, although, I got my fair share of public judgment and even shaming, this was so much more. It didn't help that I was more raw and open and undefended than ever before."
While Whelchel won the fan-favorite Sprint Player of the Season award (and the $100,000 that came with it), even beloved players can feel the social media sting, where no one is safe. But ultimately, going through that trial by fire made the runner-up even stronger: "This many years on the other side of it, I'm grateful. It was the equivalent of giving hundreds of people sledgehammers and submitting myself to a fairly painful ego-annihilation. Ultimately, freedom to just be is on the other side of that, but it sure hurts getting there."
Now, the sitcom and reality star is helping others overcome their obstacles as a life coach. She is also raiding some of the coolest treasure troves in the world as the host of MeTv's Collector's Call. But even with that busy schedule, Whelchel took some time to look back on her island adventure and everything surrounding it.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you've been up to since appearing on Survivor.
LISA WHELCHEL: Oh my! That's a lot. I'll do my best to summarize. Shortly after returning from the Philippines, I moved back to Los Angeles to film a couple of movies and TV shows. It didn't take long to remember why I left show business 25 years earlier, so I left again.
My next endeavor was a yearlong "interior journey." I traveled to India twice, did a 30-day silent retreat at a Jesuit monastery, participated in four Ayahuasca ceremonies with a Shaman in Peru, and walked 500 miles across Spain on El Camino de Santiago. I also became a certified Co-Active LifeCoach, was trained to use the Enneagram, and received Level One IFS (Internal Family Systems) credentials. Most importantly, I got married and became a grandmother! (Oh, and I'm also now hosting a show on MeTv called Collector's Call.)
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
Hmm… I don't know if it is necessarily my proudest moment but sharing the experience with my brother on the Family Visit was definitely my favorite moment. I guess it could be my proudest, too, since he was the catalyst for enabling me to let go of my need to be such a "good girl" and just play the game!
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experience?
Well, this relates to my previous answer. I wish I had given myself the freedom earlier on the island to remember that Survivor is a game with a unique set of rules which we all understand and signed up for—it's not real life. Therefore, it's okay to play by rules I would never consider in any other situation. I would never second guess myself for bluffing in poker or judge myself for stealing the ball from a player in basketball, so why was I so afraid to "do bad things" in this game? Ugh!
What's something that will blow fans' minds that happened out there in your season but never made it to TV?
I don't imagine it will blow anyone's mind, but I didn't tell anyone this until after the final Tribal Council. I landed in the Philippines only five days after my marriage of 23 years ended in divorce. Survivor is destabilizing on the psyche already; showing up in such a fragile state of mind and soul certainly made me ripe for some life-changing soul-shifting.
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
I think the producers' edit was an honest portrayal of the internal conflict and struggle I was wrestling through. I had spent the first 50 years of my life trying to live, "What Would Jesus Do." Sadly, this meant I was afraid to actually be human! I thought it showed a lack of faith to feel fear. I felt like I should always be peaceful and loving, never angry. I should focus on the positive, which meant I couldn't even allow myself to be too sad for too long.
I have a hunch that my subconscious was drawn to play Survivor because there was a huge part of me that was desperate to live more fully alive. Within the context of the game, I could do all the things I would never dream of doing in everyday life—lie, backstab, betray, choose money over people, pee in the pool! And, yet, I still couldn't bring myself to let go and embrace ALL parts of me.
The million-dollar prize Survivor gave me was forcing me to integrate as a whole person, to welcome my shadow sides, and realize that we connect with ourselves and others more from our imperfection than our perfection. Survivor helped me realize my darkness is as beautiful as my light.
What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
For starters, I cried for almost three straight days from the moment I walked away from Tribal Council. As a player, I think I just tried to hold everything in to play the game (with the exception of #SurvivorMeltdown, of course!) and the moment I was free to let down, it was like a flood. Thankfully, when I was still leaking tears months later, the Survivor therapist helped me not feel so foolish by explaining that it is not uncommon to experience a kind of grief reaction.
Unfortunately, I wasn't prepared for a whole new round of PTSD when the season aired. That was, in some ways, even more traumatic. When I was on television in the eighties, it was before the Internet and social media so, although, I got my fair share of public judgment and even shaming, this was so much more. It didn't help that I was more raw and open and undefended than ever before. This many years on the other side of it, I'm grateful. It was the equivalent of giving hundreds of people sledgehammers and submitting myself to a fairly painful ego-annihilation. Ultimately, freedom to just be is on the other side of that, but it sure hurts getting there.
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?
Not regret, per se, but for a couple of years I wondered if I had it to do over again, would I do it. I have loved the game from the beginning and always dreamed of playing. Friends would ask, "Why would you want to put yourself through all that?" In hindsight, I do think the phrase, "Ignorance is bliss" applies. I didn't really know on a visceral level how hard it was going to be. It was all abstract.
Interestingly, after the impact of my 39 days playing the first time, I think it would be harder to play again, not easier. The first go around, I was still fairly cut off from my feelings—emotionally and even physically. I had learned to shut off pain as an early defense mechanism. Survivor stripped me in a good way. But, it also ruined me for playing again, I think.
Whom do you still talk to, text, or email with the most from your season?
By nature, it is actually very easy for me to get along and genuinely like most people so I really enjoyed everyone on my season, even AbiMaria. That being said, I haven't really kept in touch with anyone with the exception of Denise. We make it a point to schedule a phone call to catch up periodically.
Do you still watch Survivor, and if so, what's your favorite season you were not on and why?
Yes, all of them! I wouldn't miss it. My favorite season was Winners at War. Speaking of Denise, wasn't she amazing? I was so proud of her.
Who's one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
Gosh, you could ask me that from season to season and it would change. I admire so many players. It would be impossible to choose one. Denise, Malcolm, Skupin, and Penner again, for sure. Cochran, Tony, Christian, Ozzy, Adam, Cirie, Yul, Parvati, Sarah, Boston Rob, Spencer, Sophie, Aubry, to name a few.
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
Until we step foot on the island together, we are not allowed to talk to another tribe member. Even though we travel from the States together and spend a few days at Ponderosa first. We just walk around silently the whole time. I think that should be the case for jury members, too. If jury members are still in the game at Ponderosa then there should be a camera crew filming them and it should be part of the show. If they are not playing the game, then they shouldn't be allowed to play. That means no talking.
Finally, would you play again if asked?
No. I got what I wanted and, more importantly, what I needed, and I am forever grateful for that. I'm content to enjoy the show from the warmth, comfort, and emotional safety of my own home, thank you very much!
Strangers starve themselves on an island for our amusement in the hopes of winning a million dollars, as host Jeff Probst implores them to "DIG DEEP!"