As befits her past as a child sitcom star, the beginning of Lisa Whelchel’s “Survivor: Philippines” journey was a joke.
Best knew as Blair Warner on “Facts of Life,” Lisa struggled to understand the facts of “Survivor” and coasted to the Merge seemingly at the bottom of a Tandang alliance, frequently uncertain and frequently in tears. Lisa seemed unprepared for the elements and also unprepared for the social aspect of the game and she remained around because her tribe was unbeatable.
Then, something shifted. In a bold move, Lisa attempted to orchestrate a game-changing blindside on strong and popular Malcolm. The move failed spectacularly, but it displayed Lisa’s willingness to play “Survivor.”
After a brief regression into regret, Lisa bounced back after a visit from younger brother Justice, as she began taking control of her own fate, aligning with and then backstabbing Malcolm and taking the most powerful player out of the game. In the end, Lisa and Mike Skupin finished tied for second behind winner Denise, but audiences respected the journey that Lisa took from meek to somewhat-mighty and gave her the fan-voted Player of the Game.
In her exit interview, Lisa talks about that journey, including the impressive fact that in 39 days only Jonathan Penner and Skupin recognized her from her sitcom glory. We discussed her strategy, the moment she realized she couldn’t actually win and the faith that she demonstrated vocally in her last days in the game.
Click through for the full conversation.
HitFix: Congratulations on winning the fan vote.
Lisa Whelchel: Thank you! I’m very excited. Just thrilled.
HitFix: What do you think America based that vote on? What set you apart from the other players in their eyes?
Lisa: You know, I think much of America identified with me. I think many people out there were watching and just said, “You know what? I think I would struggle like that out there, too. I think it would be hard on me, too.” I don’t know that everybody sees themselves as these strong people who can overcome anything and everything and just make the best decision every time. I think most people are pretty realistic about their vulnerabilities and weaknesses and identified with me and mine.
HitFix: In contrast, then, what do you think the Jury based its vote on?
Lisa: I think they based their vote on who outwitted, outplayed and outlasted and I think they made a wonderful decision. I would have decided the same thing out of respect for the game.
HitFix: When did you realize that you would have decided the same thing based on respect for the game?
Lisa: [Chuckles.] Oh, I realized that before we ever went to Tribal Council. I thought there was a slim, outside chance that possibly Abi, who did not like Denise or Mike, would vote for me and that she’d go back to Ponderosa and remind Artis and Pete and RC — though I knew that they probably wouldn’t be talking — that it was my desire to be Tandang all the way and that out of loyalty and my loyalty, that they would vote Tandang to the end. But I knew that was probably a pretty slim chance.
HitFix: Looking back, then, at the Top 6 or the Top 8 or really wherever you want, can you make a Final 3 in which you win?
Lisa: I think I would have had a better chance if it had been Abi and Skupin and me, but even then, I think it would have been split three ways and then anybody’s swing vote could have gone any direction at that point.
HitFix: And when did you realize that you’d put yourself in that position, even?
Lisa: I knew that all along, but I thought that it was more important not to be sitting next to Malcolm. It was more of a sure thing not to be sitting next to Malcolm than a possibility of sitting next to Abi and Skupin. So therefore not voting out Denise and then having maybe Malcolm not winning the last Immunity, which would have been the only way I would have ended up at the end with Abi and Skupin. But that was a longshot, so I went with a little bit more of a sure thing of getting to the Final 3.
HitFix: Let’s talk a bit about the Jury. Did you expect Penner was going to do what he did?
Lisa: I really didn’t and I should have, because that’s so Penner. He is a storyteller and a performer and loves the stage and the spotlight and that was the perfect opportunity for it and I should have seen it coming, but I was caught off-guard.
HitFix: You gave a good answer, but how much was that the answer you had prepared in case, at any point in the game, somebody had outed you in that way?
Lisa: I went into it thinking this would come up early in the game and I was just gonna own it, because there was no reason not to. It would have only backfired had I not just owned up to it. So the fact that I had made it that long without it coming out, I think lulled me into this sense of, “Oh great. This isn’t an issue.” So I wasn’t prepared.
HitFix: Do you think there was any approach in which you could have told people up-front, right from the beginning, without anybody instigating it and it and people just would have accepted it?
Lisa: No, I never would have volunteered. I was waiting for somebody to say something and then I would have confirmed it, but there wasn’t any need to volunteer. First of all, if I could get away with it, all the better. Second of all, then it just kinda sounds like bragging.
HitFix: But, like you said at Tribal Council, it was just something you did when you were younger. It’s just a part of you. I guess.
Lisa: Yeah, but… um… There’s a little bit more sparkle around being on television as a teenager, as opposed to, you know, working at McDonalds. I get that.
HitFix: Did you think that people would have pre-conceived notions about you in particular, about Blair Warner or just about generally anybody who was a child star?
Lisa: Yeah, I think that if they had known the specifics of “Facts of Life,” that would have colored, because they would have seen the show and even the character would have colored their perception of me. But even if they hadn’t seen the show, then you just have a blank slate. If you know somebody’s been on television, you can draw any kind of picture you want to and most of the time it’s not gonna be anywhere close to reality.
HitFix: It was interesting to see that side-by-side picture that Jeff Probst showed last night of Lisa pre-Justice’s visit and Lisa post-Justice’s visit. When you think back on it, how do you sum up the different before and after that visit?
Lisa: There were many things significant about Justice’s visit. First of all, it was just a safe place to be able to just let out all this emotion that I’d been just kinda barely keeping behind the wall. But also, he got it and I could trust him. He knew the internal struggle. He’s a pastor and wants to represent the love of God and the character of God, so he understand that it was a very valid argument I had. It wasn’t something just to be kinda like, “Oh, come on. It’s a game. Get with it.” He understood that that was a really strong concern of mine and a very important part of my life that I didn’t want to just throw away, even for a million dollars, or to take a chance on it. It wasn’t worth that. But he also understood me and the fact that I love the game and that I’m a gamer. We played games together as a family growing up. So he got both sides of my struggle. So when he was able to really empathize with my conflict and still say, “But hey Lisa. Everybody does know that this is a game. Everybody who signed up for this knows it’s a game. Nobody’s playing by different rules, so you’re not breaking any rules by playing by the rules of this game.” That really meant something and it really gave me permission to play the game hard.
HitFix: How do you think things would have been different if somehow Justice had been able to give you a phone call on Day 2 and told you the exact same thing?
Lisa: I really think it would have made a tremendous difference in my game. I think I would have played a better game. And I’m not just giving the beauty pageant speech right now, though, when I say that if I truly, before God, was given the chance to win a million dollars or win what happened inside me and what I learned, I do think it’s of more value what I learned. That couldn’t have been won except for some of the game mistakes that I made.
HitFix: But you’re watching the season on TV… Did you find yourself watching and enjoying your personal journey in the first half of the season? Or did you watch and go “Boy, I wish I had done these things differently…” ?
Lisa: I watched and said, “Oh my goodness.” I said what probably most other “Survivor” fans were saying. “Come on! Get your big-girl panties on and get on that island and play this game. You were an emotional wreck and you’re wearing me out!” So I was feeling probably what many “Survivor” fans were feeling.
HitFix: But what were you telling yourself you should have done? What moves were available that you could have or should have made?
Lisa: I would have abandoned the irrational, untrustworthy four who proved that they weren’t trustworthy when I came up with the plan to blindside Malcolm, which was for the benefit of all of us, but they didn’t trust me and then were mad at me for some unknown reason for even suggesting it. At that point, I really should have gone, “Hey. Wait a minute. This isn’t really a real solid alliance here. I need to find one where people are going to actually appreciate it when I come to them with some pretty solid, important information.”
HitFix: I was struck in the Reunion Show by how much time was spent with you and Jeff discussing your religion and its role in the game. Do you think that what you said about your own faith and spirituality — and specifically to God’s interest in reality TV shows — extends to or compares with other reality contestants who have had vocal relationships with God on their shows?
Lisa: You know, having watched the show and having seen those, I’ve understood. I don’t question anybody’s sincerity, no matter what their conversation is with God out there, whether it’s past contestants or even this season with Roxy and Russell. I whole-heartedly believe that this is a sincere relationship that they have with God, but I also know that that is such a complicated and electric and potentially divisive relationship that it usually just doesn’t translate well on television and it’s probably best to not bring it into a game like “Survivor” and that was my intention. I didn’t even pray out loud until my brother came and what you didn’t see is that he’s the one who said, “Can we pray about this?” And I not going to say to my brother, “No. Shhh. We’re on TV. We can’t pray. We can’t talk about God. Stop it.” So that’s how the prayer started, but I had planned on not bringing that into it, because I didn’t think it would end well.
HitFix: When you say “divisive” do you mean that more for other people playing the game or for audiences watching at home? Or for both, I guess?
Lisa: Absolutely both.
HitFix: Obviously much has been made of the journey you had out there. Having completed that part of the journey and gotten to the point where you got, are you ready to get back out there and play another season of “Survivor” tomorrow?
Lisa: Not tomorrow, no. As a matter of fact, I think I need a little bit more time. I’m not saying “No,” but I’m also not saying “Yes.” I think it’s like childbirth. You need to give a mom a little bit of time to recover.
HitFix: Did you talk at all with Skupin about that? About how long it took him before he really got that itch to be back out there?
Lisa: No, because it was obvious that he was just thrilled to be back, as was Penner. I think most people feel that way. It was just an exceptionally emotionally rigorous and painful journey for me. I just need a little bit of time to recover.