Lisa Whelchel on Penner’s ‘Survivor’ Blindside: “Why Didn’t I See That Coming?”


'Survivor: Philippines' (CBS)

Quick Note: Don’t miss out on our interview with “Survivor” champion Denise Stapley or our look at Lisa Whelchel’s next project after “Survivor”. We’ll also be having exit interviews with Michael Skupin and Malcolm Freberg later this week. Follow me on Twitter (@gordonholmes) for up-to-the-minute updates.

Lisa Whelchel could have easily been the first person eliminated from “Survivor: Philippines.” Usually the least athletic, least liked member of a tribe is an easy first vote. Luckily for her the Tandang tribe was a challenge monster, RC and Abi imploded, and Matsing beach was cursed.

From there, the former “Facts of Life” star made her own luck. She ramped up her social game and went from outcast to motherly figure. She made moves to try to eliminate the game’s most dangerous player. When that failed she eventually regrouped, went after him again, and succeeded.

I spoke with Lisa the morning after the finale and had a chance to ask about her strategic moves, her hectic 2012, and if any of her “Facts of Life” castmates will be following her lead…

Gordon Holmes: Lisa, I have to congratulate you. We didn’t have high hopes for you when we watched the early days in the Philippines, but you managed to turn things around and make a strong run of it.
Lisa Whelchel: Thank you, Gordon. I have to say that it’s surreal talking to you now because you’ve been a part of this “Survivor” journey. Every Thursday morning I read your recap and your interviews. You’re kind of a “Survivor” celebrity to me. (Laughs)  So, I’m continuing to pinch myself. Being part of this “Survivor” family is so cool.
Holmes: You are making me blush from across the country, that’s very impressive.
Whelchel: (Laughs) It’s true!

Holmes: Nobody has had a year like you’ve had. We found out that you separated from your husband right before you went to the Philippines, you contracted West Nile virus, you had a great run on the show, and eventually won the Fan Favorite award. When you look back at 2012, what’s going to stick out the most? What did you learn?
Whelchel: In the middle of all that, my daughter got married, and I’m moving to California. So much is going on all levels. So, for 2012 I’ll see a roller coaster. You’ve got the emotional ups and downs that sometimes you get nauseous, sometimes you’re squealing with delight. That’s what 2012 has been like for me.
Holmes: I hope you’re up now and for a long time to come.
Whelchel: Oh, both hands are thrown back and my hair is blowing in the wind. I’m so excited.

Holmes: Let’s start with the beginning of your game and work forward. Very early on in the show you were on the outside looking in with the Tandang alliance. You were miserable. The weather was getting to you . What was the moment where you were able to turn the switch and get into the game?
Whelchel: I would say there were two moments. The first moment was when Pete approached me for the four in Tandang which meant I was no longer going to be the first person voted out. And a matter of fact, there was a buffer of two people in front of me. That was the first light. My fear was I’d be voted out first, because in “Survivor,” like dog years, I’m ancient. So, I thought I would be voted out first. That’s where I jumped in with both feet. I thought, I’ve got some solid ground here, I can make a run for this. I thought I’d have a better shot after the merge and I thought I could get to that point. But after the merge, after I orchestrated that potential, but failed, blindside of Malcolm I lost the strength I had with Tandang…which still doesn’t make sense to me. I also lost my ability to play my game without my internal compass getting in the way. So, that knocked me out of it for quite a few days. It wasn’t until my brother came back and recalibrated me that I was able to regain my equilibrium and play the game.
Holmes: Speaking of your brother, what is it with the Whelchels that they make such good-looking kids?
Whelchel: (Laughs) Hey, have you seen my own kids? You can’t ask me, I’m a proud mom and people will say, “Oh my goodness, shut her up about those kids!”

Holmes: The one move that left me scratching my head was when you kept Denise and voted out Abi at the final five. Take me through that decision.
Whelchel: I realized that it didn’t matter who was going to be sitting up there, if Malcolm was in the mix, he was going to win. So, even if we voted out Denise, Malcolm was probably going to win the final immunity challenge because he’d won almost every challenge up until that point. We needed all guns to defeat Malcolm. And Denise has a pair of guns that most men would envy. We thought it was more important to have her there to defeat Malcolm. And, I was realistic about my chances. But, I did think I had a better chance, not necessarily against Denise, but with Abi on the jury. Because, she hated Denise and Skupin and she did have a relationship with Artis and Pete. I hoped that she would tell them first hand that I truly had stayed with my primary desire to go Tandang all the way.

Holmes: What was going through your mind when Penner outted you as a former TV star?
Whelchel: It really should have already gone through my mind that he was going to do that. The fact that it caught me off guard still shocks me. Why didn’t I see that coming? That was so Penner. And, it was the perfect opportunity for him to do it. I should have been prepared for it. I should’ve known he’d wait for the most dramatic moment to pull it out of his sleeve. I was taken aback because we were really close out there. He knew how important it was to me to win or lose the game based on my gameplay, not on a persona.
Holmes: What did you say to him when you had a chance to speak?
Whelchel: I told him over dinner after we did the Probst show that, “I’m glad you outted me, because as far as a storyteller goes, that needed to be resolved to answer the question from the beginning.” So, as far as the show goes it was a necessary part of the ending.

Holmes: Have you heard from any of the “Facts of Life” cast since you’ve been on this adventure?
Whelchel: I absolutely have. I got a text message from Nancy McKeon last night congratulating me. I‘ve had encouragement from Charlotte (Rae) and Mindy (Cohn) and Kim (Fields) all along the way. They have been right there with me.
Holmes: That’s good to hear. Is one of them going to be on the next “Survivor”?
Whelchel: (Laughs) I don’t think so.

Holmes: OK, you’re a loyal exit interview reader, so you know word association is a part…
Whelchel: Oh again! Why didn’t I see this coming and think about it?! You do it every time! Oh my word…OK…I’m ready. This really will be right off the top of my head.
Holmes: That’s the point of this exercise, Lisa. We’ll start with your buddy Skupin.
Whelchel: Lovable.
Holmes: Penner?
Whelchel: Brilliant.
Holmes: Malcolm?
Whelchel: Perfect.
Holmes: Artis?
Whelchel: I’m trying to think of the word…split?
Holmes: Abi?
Whelchel: Spicy.
Holmes: RC?
Whelchel: Confident.
Holmes: Pete?
Whelchel: Cute.
Holmes: Let’s finish with Denise.
Whelchel: Solid.

Holmes: At the reunion special, Dawson jumped out of her chair and planted a kiss on Jeff Probst’s lips. My question isn’t why did she do that, it’s why didn’t everyone else do that?
Whelchel: (Laughs) I guess we just didn’t have the guts that Dawson has. Or maybe we have a filter.

Any Questions? Drop me a line on Twitter: @gordonholmes

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