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The Survivor

CBS crowns the champion of Survivor: Marquesas as Vecepia Towery becomes the first black person to win in the popular reality TV series.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 20, 2002

It was a night of firsts for CBS' reality TV phenomenon, Survivor: Marquesas.

During an unpredictable, two-hour finale Sunday, 36-year-old office manager Vecepia Towery was crowned winner of the reality TV hit's fourth installment, becoming the first black person ever to win the show's $1-million prize (she also gets a new truck).

"It is the bomb," shouted an exultant Towery, who beat out 21-year-old student Neleh Dennis, a heavy favorite. "To see God's work at was all him."

But Towery's win wasn't the only first for Survivor Sunday. It also marked the first time three women filled the top finalist spots in the game (the fourth finalist heading into the finale, poor Paschal "Pappy" English, was eliminated 30 minutes in by drawing the wrong pebble from a bag. More on that later).

The results were announced live to a packed audience in Central Park Sunday, marking the first time Survivor made such a public display of its results.

And the whole rigamarole -- including a too-long skit where host Jeff Probst took a helicopter into Manhattan and hailed a cab to the park -- led into an hourlong post-show interview by uber fan and talk show host Rosie O'Donnell, who replaced traditional host and Early Show anchor Bryant Gumbel in another first.

Best of all, Sunday's finale may have featured the most last-minute deal-making and allegiance switching in the four different incarnations of Survivor.

Coincidence? You decide.

Whatever it was, Sunday's finale proved a fitting conclusion to the Marquesas edition, handing victory to the last survivor most experts chose (many Web sites heavily favored English) and revitalizing a reality TV franchise many assumed was past its capacity to shock longtime fans.

Filmed last November on the island of Nuku Hiva in Tahiti's Marquesas Islands, Survivor: Marquesas featured 16 contestants vying for the ultimate prize, voting one player off each week. A jury of seven previously vanquished contestants chose the final winner in a 4-3 vote on the island, with results held until Sunday for the big announcement.

As the final episode began, the four finalists (Dennis, Towery, English and Kathy Vavrick-O'Brien) competed to answer personal questions about the jury members, with Towery winning immunity from elimination and one finalist set to be voted off.

But in a last-minute deal, Vavrick-O'Brien agreed to ensure Towery would reach the finals if she voted for Dennis instead of her. Because the expulsion vote then was evenly split between Vavrick-O'Brien and Dennis, the three finalists without immunity drew pebbles to see who would leave and English lost.

Deal-making later eliminated Vavrick-O'Brien, who fell during an endurance trial in which the three remaining women had to stand on elevated poles and keep one hand on a wooden idol for hours. Once she fell (while adjusting a too-revealing t-shirt), Towery made a deal with Dennis to ensure they both would reach the finals together.

All the shifting alliances rattled some members of the jury, who resented Dennis and Towery's claims of strong religious values while repeatedly switching allegiances in the game.

In particular, 29-year-old crime reporter Tammy Leitner lashed out at the women as "hypocrites" in a speech before the jury vote that earned her the Susan Hawk Sore Loser Award for sheer vitrolic bitterness.

John Carroll had expressed similar thoughts earlier in the episode, noting, "You've got these Bible thumpers up there banging their Bibles and lying out the sides of their mouths. I have to decide which of these creeps I'm going to give $1-million to."

Despite her status as the show's ultimate fan -- talking up Survivor for weeks on her own syndicated talk show -- O'Donnell proved an inconsistent host during the hourlong interview with all 16 contestants following the announcement of Towery's win.

Riding onstage on a motorbike driven by Survivor: Australia runner-up Colby Donaldson, O'Donnell launched into an off-key song satire (sung loosely to the tune of Gilligan's Island) that kept Towery from saying anything about winning the ultimate prize for several minutes.

Still, once she got going, O'Donnell proved an able foil for the 16 contestants, needling Vavrick-O'Brien for urinating on Carroll's hand to alleviate a sea urchin sting and Dennis for offering her fellow survivors a mint from her mouth.

It was enough to make you look forward to the next edition, Survivor: Thailand, set to kick off this fall. And for CBS, that's likely the ultimate test of survival.

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