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The ultimate 'Survivor' test: obscurity

Neal Justin
Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

LOS ANGELES — A true "Survivor" party should be held in a barren, barricaded room, the heat cranked to 110 degrees, and buffet tables covered with nothing but brown grass and sand. But this is Hollywood, the land where self-congratulation is an art form, so last month's bash to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the venerable reality series featured champagne, roast beef and more than 200 former contestants eager to bask in the spotlight once more. For most, it's probably their last bow.

While the Hollywood trade magazine Variety named "Survivor" the most influential show of the past decade, most of the players who sob and sweat their way into our hearts quickly return to anonymity when the cameras move on to the next round. "Survivor" may be one of TV's most popular shows, but it's also a stark reminder that fame is a fickle mistress.

Jerri Manthey, best remembered for her volatile temper and vivacious sexuality in Season Two, estimates that 90 percent of her fellow veterans attempt to launch showbiz careers after their moments in the boiling sun. And while she has carved out a comfortable position on the C list by exposing herself for Playboy and other reality shows, including "Blind Date" and "The Surreal Life," she's not close to preparing an Oscar speech.

"I feel bad for people who come on this show with stardom as their main purpose, because they're going to be severely disappointed," said Manthey, who returns Thursday for the 20th round, an all-star version titled "Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains."

"This show turned my 15 minutes into four hours, but there's a lot of luck involved. I had lived in L.A. for eight years before I did it, so I had a lot of contacts and knew what to do with the fame I suddenly had."

Rob Cesternino has continued to work in the entertainment industry since his 2003 stint in the Amazon, but it's far from a glamorous gig. He writes and produces online series.

"I think a lot of people think, 'Oh, I'll be a host like Tila Tequila, some sort of celebrity,'" he said. "But I don't know how many find actual work."

In fact, only Season Two's Elisabeth Hasselbeck has become a household fixture, thanks to a steady gig on "The View." But that doesn't stop some participants from thinking they have a magic amulet hanging from their necks.

Near the end of the party, Russell Hantz, whose underhanded approach last season was either the work of a mad genius or a raving lunatic, was doing his best impression of a rock star, gliding across the crowded floor of a packed soundstage at CBS Studios with some sort of misfit entourage at his side.

"I was so dominant it blew their minds," said Hantz, who seems to have conveniently forgotten that he lost. "I embarrassed them. Nobody expected a player like me."

What has failed to sink into Hantz's thick head is that he was never the show's star. No contestant will ever own that title. "Survivor" is a fascinating social experiment and the rats released into its maze are interchangeable.

"It's like a management exercise," said creator Mark Burnett. "Can you fire someone and have that person remain your friend? That's part of the morality play."

That kind of description doesn't normally get you prime-time real estate, unless you promise Pamela Anderson and Blair Underwood in swimming suits. CBS President Leslie Moonves admits that he wasn't instantly sold.

"I thought it was the dumbest idea I'd ever heard," he said. "Think of the pitch: 16 people on a desert island and every week somebody gets voted out. Sounded like a cable show."

Burnett's enthusiasm finally won over Moonves and he gave it a summer run. It instantly took off.

Moonves remembers his daughter, then 14, coming home from school and exclaiming that her friends were finally talking about a CBS show.

"That's when I knew we had a hit," Moonves said. "CBS wasn't cool before 'Survivor.'"

If only more of the contestants understood that the coolness factor doesn't automatically apply to them.

Minutes after my bizarre run-in with Hantz, I found myself chatting with Rita Verreos, a 2007 participant, who seemed truly humbled and inspired by her experience. She spoke eloquently about the lessons she had learned and how she hoped other single parents learned something about their own inner strengths. As we separated, she dropped the requisite plug: She can currently be seen on the Home Shopping Network.

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