Mario's Trip To The Finale: Part 1 - Breakfast With Rodger
Posted by Mario Lanza on 12.20.02


That's all I can say right now. Well, okay, no it's not, but it's what I am feeling. You see, I was fortunate enough to be part of the Survivor reality tour the past 24 hours. I got to take part in not one, but TWO, live events, got to meet a multitude of Survivors, told everyone who would listen about All-Star Hawaii and All-Star Alaska, got a bunch of pictures, and... oh yeah... I got to see my favorite Thailand player win Survivor: Thailand live in the studio. It was a whirlwind of a day that I will never forget.

This column will be a little different than most of mine. Usually I write about strategy, and gameplay, and observations. But this week I have a two-part column. The first part is a report of Thursday morning's Survivor luncheon, which my wife and I both attended. The second part will be a report of my trip to the live finale show, a running diary of what went down, stuff you may not have seen on TV. If you want to know what it's like at a live event, you will enjoy both sections. So thanks in advance for reading, and a very special thanks to both CBS and Teresa "T-Bird" Cooper, who pulled the strings so that I was able to go to both.


Part One: Survivor Benefit Brunch

Pictures from the trip can be found here.

I had been working on trying to get tickets to the Survivor finale for a few weeks now. You see, I write for a major Survivor website and I happen to live in Los Angeles. Since the finale was in L.A., THREE BLOCKS FROM WHERE I WORK, I figured it would be easy to get tickets. It turned out to be much more difficult than I imagined, but the brunch plans were very last minute and unexpected. Murtz Jaffer (our webmaster) told me a few days ago that there was a Survivor benefit brunch right before the finale. It was very exclusive, a meet-and-greet with the Survivors, and was being held to benefit the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. Once Murtz found out we had tickets to the finale, he told me he was trying to pull strings to get us into the brunch as well. This whole process started about three days before the actual event.

Murtz figured the odds of the brunch tickets were pretty slim, but we got some help from an unexpected source. Teresa Cooper ("T-Bird" from Survivor:Africa) is friends with Murtz, and she helped get us the tickets. I had been writing to her recently, mostly because I owe her an explanation for kicking her off first in All-Star Hawaii, so she knew I wanted to go as well. Just because I felt it wouldn't hurt, I asked, "Hey, if you can get two tickets, how hard would it be to get three?" You see, I wanted my wife to go too, she is as big a fan as I am, and we couldn't get her tickets to the finale. So Teresa pulled some strings and Tuesday morning we heard back from Teresa, "You have three tickets!!!"

So Thursday morning, we headed off for the Universal CityWalk, a big walking mall near Hollywood. The event was held at the Daily Grill, one of the restaurants there, from 11-1. Diana and I showed up at around 10:50, with our 4-month old son, Nicholas, in tow. We couldn't really get a babysitter on such short notice, so he was along for the ride. Luckily, babies are great conversation pieces, so he turned out to be the MVP of the afternoon. More on that later.

We entered the restaurant and suddenly it is Survivor fan overload. All of a sudden, these people you have seen on TV are right in front of you. I don't care how many times you have had it happen, or what level of celebrity you think people from Survivor have attained, the first time you see a "TV personality" in person, it is a rush. There's Lindsey, talking with Jessie. There's Lex, surrounded by a few friends. There's Tom, you might recognize him as the giant man wearing overalls. There's Ethan, talking with Boston Rob. There's Sonja, sitting at a table. It was a little much to take in all at once, so we checked in and got our table reservations. We turned out to be sitting at table "Maraamu 2," and we found out later that our table guest was Rodger Bingham (from Australia). But before the food was served, we walked around to meet the various people.

First off was Lex, I absolutely had to say hi to him. We had conversed through email for some time now, and had a connection through the same college (plus his dad was my French teacher). So we said hi to him, and he recognized my name and shook my hand. He cooed over our son for a minute, and we soon met Lex's wife, Kelly, as well as Ethan. Ethan wanted to talk about babies because he is about to become an uncle for the first time. Both he and Lex were really nice, and my wife even got a picture with Ethan. He was her favorite player ever, so it was a nice moment.

Diana and I went to sit down at our table, and it turned out it was just the three of us there, Diana, me and Rodger Bingham. He is, as you would expect, one of the nicest and most down-to-earth people you will ever meet. We had a long time to talk with him, all during lunch, about teaching, and his new life, and the Australia season. It was funny that Rodger is as big a fan of the show as the rest, he was often getting up to take pictures of people there. The ratio of fans to Survivors was probably about 3:1, so you had pretty good access to anyone if you wanted to. And luckily, the autograph hounds didn't show up until the end, so for a good two hours, you could talk with anyone who was there. Here are some notes on the people we saw:

Sarah Jones - I didn't really get to meet Sarah, but she was around quite a bit, usually hanging out with Lindsey and Jessie. She is very tiny in real life, I forgot how small she is. But she spent a few moments cooing over and playing with our son, it is obvious that she likes babies.

Teresa Cooper - Teresa and I have been in touch lately, first because we kicked her off first in All-Star Hawaii, but then about the finale. She is a very sweet person, and always willing to talk about the show. She was extremely busy at the brunch, covering the event for CBS Atlanta, and was very much in demand by everyone. I only got to speak with her for a few minutes, but she gave my wife and I big hugs and introduced us to the people we wanted to meet most. She knew Tina was my absolute favorite, and said she was sorry but Tina wasn't there for me to meet. She had to leave early, but I got to talk with her more at the finale later on.

Gabriel Cade - I was very excited to talk with Gabe, for several reasons. First off, he has been pretty ripped apart by the online fan community, which I feel was completely unjustified. He never did anything wrong, he only played the game his own way. But I also wanted to talk with Gabe because I wrote to some members of his family during the Marquesas season, they are all really nice people. Gabe himself had written to me in the past, so he recognized my name and we talked for some time. The best part was that he was very familiar with our All-Star Hawaii fan story, asking "Why didn't you include me??" He later added that he knew he was in one of the episodes, so he was happy to see that. I added he would be in a "Second Chance" edition sometime in the future. But he just got back from Fiji, where he was helping out with Eco Challenge. He also added that he was living in his car right now, pretty much traveling around the country, which he highly recommends. Gabe is a great guy in real life, a lot of fun.

Lindsey Richter - Teresa introduced me to Lindsey because she was one I wanted to meet most. Like Gabe, Lindsey was also pretty much ripped apart online, so when I joked that I bet she doesn't read websites anymore, she said "God, no!" I introduced myself as a fellow Northwesterner (she is from Oregon, I am from Seattle) and this reminded her of the Amazing Race, which had ended in Seattle the night before. "Did you see that chick," she said, speaking about Flo, "Going on and on and on!" She did a pretty funny impression of Flo whining, and then said, "I was never THAT bad on TV!" Lindsey is very energetic and wired in real life, just like on the show, but is a lot of fun to talk to. She is also pretty tall, taller than I remembered. She said she is modeling now, and she and her boyfriend are building a house. She is on painting duty. I promised that she would show up in a future All-Star Survivor story (she was the last female cut from the Alaska story), and promised her I would write her much more three dimensionally than she was showed on TV. I said we'd be nice to her, and she seemed grateful. She met my wife and son and we all got a picture together. Oh, and she is also big into hugging people, I think she appreciates her fans more than anyone I saw.

Jessie Camacho - I didn't get to speak with Jessie, but she looks very different in real life than on the show. She and Lindsey seemed to be very good friends, and were usually hanging out together.

Gina Crews - Gina was one I didn't expect to run into, because she was kind of hanging off to the side, out of the limelight. I don't think a lot of fans realized she was there. I kind of caught her as she was heading out, but she didn't seem to mind. My wife was a -huge- Gina fan, and told her how sad it was when Gina was kicked off. I told her about All-Star Alaska, and how she was in it. She was interested in reading it, so I said I would email her with the URL when the episodes are up. I thought she was much taller than she really is, I had described her as "The tall Floridian" in Alaska, but oops, I think I have to change that. Anyway, she was really nice, giving me her email address. She also -loves- babies, and we got a picture of her cuddling our son. She said she had a little nephew who saw her when she was on TV, and said "Gigi-vivor" everytime Gina was on the screen. That was cute.

Paschal English - My mom was a giant Paschal fan, so I promised I would say hi to him for her. He was eating breakfast with Neleh, Tom and Neleh's boyfriend, so Teresa had to introduce me to him. We didn't have much to say, just hi, I'm a big fan, but he has a very strong grip. He almost broke my hand when we were shaking! But he seemed nice, he spent a lot of time autographing things later on for fans.

Lex van den Berghe - Like I said before, Lex was the first one we saw, and was very nice. He promised to hook up with us sometime in the future when he was down in L.A. He was very much in demand, probably the most popular person among the fans. He is also quite tall.

Kelly van den Berghe - Lex's wife, she is almost as recognizable as he is. She was very nice, speaking with everyone. We actually had something to speak with her about, since my wife used to be an autism therapist (home schooling autistic children) and one of Kelly and Lex's sons is autistic. So they talked about that for a few minutes, and she said our son was "beautiful." I asked if she was used to these events by now, and she just waved her hand dismissively and said, "Oh yeah." She seems to like these events as much as Lex does.

Kathy Vavrick-O'Brien - Kathy came in late, and kind of hung off to the side. Murtz introduced me to her, because I had to thank her for helping us out with All-Star Hawaii. If you didn't read it, she actually gave us her thoughts on how her character would play a certain event, and was very helpful. So I thanked her, and she remembered me. She said that all the players who were in All-Star seemed to get a kick out of it in real life. But she had just got there and was trying to eat, so I kind of sensed I was bothering her and left her alone. She seemed to be a very popular person to talk to, it was hard to get Kathy alone.

Ethan Zohn - Like I said, Ethan was my wife's favorite so we had to meet him. He is very nice, but spent a good deal of the brunch on the cell phone with people. He liked our son a lot, and was very excited that he was about to become an uncle. I said, "Is it your first," but he misheard me and said, "Woah, just an uncle. Not MY kid, hold on here." He was a pretty funny guy and also signed a ton of autographs. I got a picture of him and my wife together.

Neleh Dennis - Neleh was sitting right by me, but I never got to talk to her. She was with her boyfriend and Paschal most of the time, and also seemed close to Tom. She looks great in real life, and I wanted to tell her she was in All-Star Alaska but never got a chance to. For some reason, she was one of the more intimidating ones to approach (Mario's note: Yeah, because I kicked her off first in All-Star Alaska!).

Vecepia Towery - Vee was one I didn't think we'd get a chance to talk to, but I actually had a nice discussion with her. She was there with Leander, and was very popular. She is also five months pregnant, and they hope to finish their new house soon for the baby. She is in full new-mother mode, and cooed and awwwed over our sleeping son. My wife also had a nice discussion with her about new motherhood and the things to watch out for. She is currently on sabbatical from her job. I told her about All-Star Hawaii and how she was one of the stars, we heard from Vee fans more than anyone, happy about how she was portrayed. So she wanted to read the story and I got her email address, saying I would send the link. She was very nice, thanking us and wishing us well, once again getting a peek at the baby. She is probably going to be a very good mother, it is obvious she loves kids.

Jerri Manthey - I barely saw Jerri, and you probably wouldn't recognize her if you saw her. She has long blonde hair, curlier than on the show. She was sitting way off in the corner, kind of alone in her own group. I was very intimidated to talk with her, so I never really came close. She is also in All-Star Alaska, but I never got to tell her that.

Joel Klug, Sonja Christopher, Jenna Lewis - The three people from the first Survivor season kind of stayed to themselves, Joel in particular. I didn't even recognize him at first, he has different hair now, longer and golden brown. It was obvious Jenna still enjoyed all the Survivor hoopla, she was bouncing all over the room, talking to everyone. My wife wanted to talk to her about her kids, but we never got a chance.

Kelly Goldsmith and Kim Powers - They popped in and out of the brunch, but didn't really appear to want to be there. I think they spent most of the time shopping at the mall outside, but did hang out with Sarah from time to time. Never got to speak with them.

Tom Buchanan - Big Tom was a big hit, recognizable from any point in the restaurant. We only got to talk with him on the way out, where he liked my son, and I joked that we won a baby in the doorprize raffle. My wife also pointed out that our son was wearing overalls, just like Tom. Tom is MASSIVE, even bigger than you would expect.

Rob Mariano - The most surprising discussion we had was with Rob. My two favorite players of all time are Rob and Tina, so it was imperative that I had to meet the Robfather. Anyway, he stopped by our table and was as nice and charming as can be. You wouldn't guess this about him, but the guy loves kids. He spent a lot of time talking and playing with the baby, and said he is a big softie. I talked with him about his appearance on the Howard Stern show, where he was so nervous that all the guys thought he was stoned. He admitted he was just tired and terrified, and it is because the Stern show is set up where you have people all around you. I remember hearing the show that day, and I felt bad for Rob because you could tell what a big Stern fan he was and what a big deal that was to him. So we talked for a while, he is very nice in real life. I shook his hand and said he was one of my favorites, and he seemed genuinely thankful. He is kind of soft-spoken in real life, you wouldn't expect that either.

Rodger Bingham - Now, of course, Rodger was the big star of the day. We sat at his table and talked with him for a good 90 minutes. I asked if he has been swimming since Australia and he said he has been practicing. He also admitted he still has no memory of what happened after he jumped off the cliff in Australia, he actually blacked out and doesn't know what happened. He joked that Mike wasn't at the brunch because Mike is always late for everything. We talked about a lot of the behind-the-scenes Australia stuff and about Nick Brown (who is friends with my brother as well). He was super nice, and more than happy to talk about anything. He loves kids too, talking about his grandkids, and even held our son on his lap for a few minutes. He was saying that he never really realized how big Survivor was until the first time he went back to his school after being on his show. The kids he had taught, the ones that knew him for years, were all suddenly treating him like he was a celebrity. He said he was in awe of how big this show was at that point, when his own schoolkids treated him like he was a movie star. We also talked about how Cincinnati was the biggest market for the show, ratings wise, and how surprising it was that he was the only player from there so far. But then he leaned over and said, with a grin, "I have to admit, though, that I kind of like that."

So all in all, it was a great two hours. If you are a fan of the show, it was pretty much the ultimate fan experience. Great access to the players, no pressure, no deadlines or pushing fans, just a fun chance to talk to people and meet them. And all for a great cause (to fight pediatric AIDS). They even had props there that would later be auctioned off, like immunity necklaces, ballot boxes, and a few torches.

I would like to especially thank Rodger Bingham, who was the perfect host, and Teresa Cooper, who pulled the strings to get us tickets. We all had a great time, and hope to go again next time!



Part 2: My trip to the CBS finale

Will be in a separate column later today


Mario Lanza lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two small children. He is one of the writers of All-Star Survivor: Alaska, as well as this weekly column.

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