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Jan wins respect, but not a million

Past players laud Tampa's player, who finishes third on "Survivor.'

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 20, 2002


[CBS]
Jan Gentry was voted off by Brian Heidik, leaving him to face Clay Jordan.
Despite dashed hopes, Gentry a winner to teachers
LOS ANGELES -- She didn't win the $1-million prize.

But it turns out Jan Gentry's third-place showing in CBS's reality TV hit Survivor: Thailand on Thursday won the Tampa first-grade teacher some fans among people who would understand best: those who have played the game before.

"She's got a heart and she's brave when she doesn't want to be," said Susan Hawk, the tough-talking Wisconsin truck driver whose emotional outburst during the first Survivor's finale -- she compared the two finalists in that game to a rat and a snake -- won her a spot in TV history.

"No matter how hard the game gets, Jan keeps trying," added Hawk, who was brought to town Thursday to help CBS publicize the conclusion of the fifth Survivor installment at a huge viewing party in the network's Television City studios. "She's wonderful."

But Gentry, 54, wasn't strong enough to reach the game's final two spots, unable to last in a competition requiring contestants to squat under a wooden frame holding several coins in each hand.

Instead, California used car salesman (and onetime soft-core porn movie actor) Brian Heidik, 34, won the $1-million grand prize, capping a game in which he seemed to manipulate his teammates almost from the start.

"Daily affirmations helped a lot," said Heidik (who beat crusty Louisiana restauranteur Clay Jordan by just one vote), during an hourlong, live reunion special that followed the two-hour finale. "Every day, I had to wake up and remind myself, "This is a game."'

Far from being disappointed over her third-place finish, Gentry seemed proud and happy she had survived so long in a game typically dominated by younger, more athletic competitors.

"My experience has been totally surreal," she told the camera moments after her ejection, while still in Thailand. "If there's one thing I've learned, it's don't listen to the world (when people say) you can't do something."

The finale capped a 39-day competition filmed in June and July on the remote island of Koh Tarutao off the southern coast of Thailand. Starting with a field of 16 contestants divided into two teams, the game forced the group to face harsh deprivations under constant camera scrutiny -- voting one of their number off every three days.

In Thursday's episode, the four finalists were whittled down to a final two, with the $1-million winner chosen by a "jury" of seven previously ejected contestants. As in Survivors past, producers fooled viewers into thinking the winner was announced in Thailand; actually, the revelation occurred on a set here at CBS studios that was a detailed replica of the Survivor: Thailand Tribal Council area. (Producers cut from the jury footage to the live set when host Jeff Probst announced, "Let's go tally the votes.")

Thursday's two-hour finale showed the emotional bonds among Gentry's tribemates curdling as the four finalists -- once loyal teammates -- had to figure out which of their number would get voted off the show.

First to go was 47-year-old Navy swim instructor Helen Glover, who was blindsided by a secret alliance among Gentry, Heidik and Jordan. Though Heidik and Jordan had told her the Tampa teacher would get the hook first, Heidik decided Glover would be a bigger threat and badgered Gentry into going along.

"This was unexpected," Glover said in comments filmed right after her ejection vote. (During the reunion special, Glover admitted she tried to turn Gentry against Heidik and Jordan earlier in the game, but failed.) "Of the three of you that are left, break a leg ... and I mean that."

Heidik's manipulations eventually earned him the anger of some former teammates -- particularly Glover and Ted Rogers Jr. -- who felt betrayed by his misdirections.

"You sold me your friendship ... you sold me your word ... only to find out each of those things were lemons," Rogers said to Heidik during the jury vote. Later, Rogers accused Jordan of making a racist remark behind his back, calling him "an ignorant Southern redneck."

Despite not faring so well in the game's physical challenges, Gentry's easygoing personality made her a favorite among former contestants, who often cited her as their favorite current competitor.

"Jan was one of my favorites, because she's a teacher like me," said Sean Rector, the brash New Yorker whose incendiary comments on race helped spice the show's last installment, Survivor: Marquesas. "She obviously knew what she was doing, because she picked the team that made it to the final four."

On Thursday, CBS invited a select audience to its Television City studios to watch the finale, erecting a huge, heated tent just outside the building to hold a giant aftershow party for Survivors past and present.

To help create the aura of a big event, the network brought more than 30 past contestants to its studio for schmoozing of the press Thursday -- from Hawk to million-dollar winners Ethan Zohn and Vecepia Towery.

Gina Crews, the Gainesville nature guide who joined Rector on the Marquesas edition, was just glad to see another Floridian excel at the reality TV hit.

"We need another Floridian in there to show them how its done," she said, looking more like a fashion model than a nature guide in a flowing purple dress and high heels. "I know what they're going through, and it's a wonderful experience."

Zohn advised the winner to enjoy the brief burst of fame that comes with Survivor victory, and use the notoriety to live out any dreams they may have.

"What do I think about Jan? Actually I'm dying to meet her," Zohn said, laughing. "She got a little kooky sometimes crying over the (stillborn) bat and everything. But she's really played this game well."

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