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The Telefile
<I>Survivor</I>: Live From the Finale

Being in the audience for a Survivor finale is infinitely more exciting than sitting at home watching it on TV. While you lose the option of fast-forwarding through all the boring parts and condensing the entire three-hour insanity into one small hour, you get to hear the live reactions and see the families in person. Which means, that while sitting at the Ed Sullivan Theater, I got a very close look at Coach's "lady friend" and I still didn't notice any bizarre abnormalities that would seemingly force her to limit herself to the self-proclaimed dragon slayer.

It also meant that I got to watch all of the castaways' dads dance in the aisle during a commercial break game, and that I got to see Cirie and Parvati (both from Micronesia) in the audience. As a bonus, it was entertaining to hear every groan, gasp, laugh and boo from people who have been loyally watching this show for ages. It really gave me a better sense of the actual Survivor fan, more so than what I normally get from sitting on my couch at home. The shouts for JT were so loud throughout the entire three hours, but there was a little bit of anger towards him when he voted out the other audience favorite, Taj. (Or Tag, as his parchment said.) But, his landslide win and fan favorite prize got big applause from the audience.

After the show and the reunion, there was a red carpet, where us press-types got to talk to the final four about their experience and either winning or losing, and in some cases what they thought of the larger than life personality known as Coach.

After the hugs and kisses with their family, they were whisked over to the photo station, where the jury and the final four all took plenty of photos. I was across the way and watching, but couldn't make out any of what was being said. It seemed like the contingent from Tocantins was giving JT some sort of wooden box as a gift. He seemed pretty honored, and Probst made a big deal during the commercial break about the folks from Brazil and how generous they were to let them film there, so that seemed fitting.

The first person to hit my section of the line was Tamara "Taj" Johnson-George, who was accompanied by her husband Eddie George. They are seriously adorable. I hate to say it like that, but how else can I explain Taj (who looked so amazing and was just beaming) and her enormous NFL star husband who was wearing a white and pink t-shirt (that said "team Taj") to support her? He barely left her side all night, and happily walked the press line, not as a football player promoting his team and career, but as the dutiful husband who happily told anyone that he was so proud of his wife. A colleague and I were saying that we'd love to watch a reality show with the two of them, and would not be surprised if they turned up some place together very soon.

Anyway, I've interviewed a lot of Survivor castaways over the years (too many to even count) but she's now up at the top. She credited "a little starvation" for her new svelte look, said that now that she's a master outdoorswoman she's going to "take my sons fishing this summer" and is looking forward to touring with her band this summer. As for her downfall, she says, "I think I am just too damned nice." Mr. George quickly piped in, "She is!" and said he thought that was to blame for her fourth place finish. She was bummed that her cleverly plotted "Exile alliance" didn't work out, but said she knew it was doomed when they went into the merge with smaller numbers. As for why people didn't vote her out early on once they found out who her husband was, she's got a simple explanation: "I think my work ethic spoke for itself, so that kind of overshadowed everything that he had done." She seemed pretty proud of herself and was very gracious.

After they moved on down the line, the next person I got to talk to was Stephen Fishbach. And talk he did. A lot. He was big into the whole gaming aspect, but he revealed that JT's charmer act may be just that. "[The final tribal council] was much worse than it is on TV. He was miserable and weeping and I was putting my arm around him and saying, 'Oh man, you know we are friends.' He is an incredible actor. The way he looked like his heart was broken and his friendship was destroyed and then immediately when the lights went off, he's cracking up. He fooled me and he fooled everybody. And he won, and he deserved to win for that."

Though he admits to acting a bit too, "I also played up the city boy thing. I had camped before. People found out that I went to Yale, and I didn't want to be seen as the devious, scheming one because then I would be seen as a threat. "

"I thought there was a good chance I'd be voted off first," he admits. "I thought if I made it two weeks it would be a big success, so to make it to the end and be running the game... that was the best feeling. I would have loved to have won, but to be there at the end and see my best friend win a million dollars is such a great feeling. I think in the second to last tribal council, you can tell just how shocked and humbled I was that he would take me. He just looked so conflicted, and I thought, 'Oh shoot, at the last second, he's going to choose the sure shot at a million.' He did shut me out, so it wasn't like it was that hard, and he beat me seven to zero."

Was he surprised that he got no votes at all? "I knew after that last immunity challenge that I had lost. There was no way that JT was not going to win. I thought maybe I could get one or two votes. I betrayed Taj more significantly than JT did. Erinn had told me that she thought JT deserved the money." Hmm... wonder what made Erinn think that?

But that had to wait because I looked up to see the sweet James "JT" Thomas, Jr. in front of me. He happily showed off his chipped tooth, and I immediately could tell how the other Survivors had been snowed by this act. In person, it is very good. Upon showing me the capped tooth, he drawled, "It wasn't no big deal. I was over it in ten minutes. I was more upset about losing the challenge."

I asked his thoughts on taking home the bonus 100 grand for the audience favorite, and he said he was surprised, but he was more shocked by the unanimous vote. When told that Stephen didn't seem shocked by that fact, he said, "I was very surprised. If I had known that, it wouldn't have been a big deal for me to take him to the final two. I really felt that I was risking [the million] to take him. Tyson and Brendan and those guys really liked Stephen, probably more so than they did me. I think the final tribal council may have changed some people's minds. I think Stephen got so worked up that he put his foot in his mouth, and that helped me out." That hurt puppy dog expression on JT's face probably didn't hurt...

As for the acting, he didn't deny it one bit. He seemed proud of it even. "I was definitely putting on a little bit of a show, because I knew definitely that Stephen wouldn't have taken me to the final three. He was there to win as well as I was. That was what we knew from day two when we formed the alliance. I was hoping that it would be easier for me not to take him. I was hoping it would be easier to turn on him, but we formed a bond so tightly that it never crossed my mind. I had to take him to the final two. I'm just glad it worked out."

So what about a future in Hollywood? "I doubt anyone is interested in my acting career because I am very blunt and my voice really sounds terrible on TV. I doubt it, but whatever pays the bills... I'm willing to do anything to make a little money." Not what you normally hear from a brand new millionaire.

Then finally as the press was starting to dwindle and all the other survivors had left for the hotel (to whooping cheers from the onlookers) I finally got to talk to Erinn Lobdell and find out exactly why she thought JT was so much more deserving of the cash, instead of Stephen. "Stephen was maybe the only person in this game who never wronged me. He never wrote my name down, he fought for me when other people wanted to get rid of me ... and then a couple of things happened. I had a conversation with JT about what he was going to do with the money. It was just this genuine, sincere, honest story." She continues, in her best JT drawl. "'My sister is 15 and my other sister has like seven kids and I figure that I'm the only person in my family that graduated from college and I want to send them all to school and I figure after that, there's not much left, so I might buy a truck.' What do you say to that? I was laying in the shelter in the middle of the night with tears streaming down my face saying, 'You're the sweetest guy ever.' And then he upheld that moral standard by taking Stephen and not me. And then Stephen shot himself in the foot. Going back and watching the show, Stephen played a great game -- if he had sat up there and told me that, I would have written his name down. But I literally said to him, 'Stephen, should I just vote for JT?' and he never gave me a reason not to. He was so worried about upsetting people that he never owned up to the way he played the game. He really wanted to make sure that everyone knew that they did everything together. JT was really all about saying, "I did this..." We thought JT was the mastermind and Stephen was his bumbling little sidekick.

Now she had a contentious relationship with Coach, he made no secret of the fact that he wanted her gone from the get-go, but all along the press line Stephen and JT were saying he was a nice person. I just had to know if he was for real. "Coach is an interesting guy. He is impossibly arrogant. He is so full of himself and the man is bigger than life, his ego is too big for him to handle, " she admits. "He told these great amazing stories, which probably have a kernel of truth to them, so many times that he believes them. So many times that he can pass a lie detector test because they are facts now. They are so ridiculous, but he is so honest about it. He's created a character that he wants to be so badly, that I believe that character."

After getting kicked off she talks about how it was to meet him when the cameras weren't rolling. "It is almost like he's a different guy. He was just toned down a little bit. He's cool, and I like him and I want to hang out with him." Wait, what? Really? "Not all the time!" she assures. "He is still impossibly arrogant, and he still has a giant ego, but he's a good guy and if he had shown us more of that and less of his giant ego, he could have made a good run [for the million]." She says that they'll stay friends, but that she's got one big problem with it. "I just can't figure out how I'm going to explain to all of my friends at home that Coach is coming to visit this weekend." Yeah, I can see how that would be a big dilemma.

Next year: Samoa... but will anyone ever be able to top the insanity that is Coach? I'll be there watching them try.

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