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    Jan took unlikely path to 'Survivor's' $85,000

    The first-grade teacher from Tampa takes a quirky path to near victory. Her strategy: Stay under the others' radar and stay alive.

    By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published December 21, 2002


    LOS ANGELES -- It was so surprising, she had to ask a reporter to repeat the news, just to make sure she'd heard right.

    photo
    [AP photo]
    Jan Gentry, left, says she and teammate Helen Glover, right, remain friends.
    "It makes me nauseous," said Jan Gentry, upon learning her third-place finish in CBS's reality TV show Survivor: Thailand would net her about $85,000. "I just know the first (contestant ejected from the show) got $2,500. That would be a nice summer job for a schoolteacher."

    And that, in an instant, sums up the Tampa first-grade teacher's quirky path to success on the fifth edition of the reality TV survival game.

    Riding a mix of charisma, fortitude and good ol' fashioned luck, the 54-year-old Texas native found herself within a hairsbreadth of a $1-million payday during the show's three-hour wrapup Thursday -- even though she often looked as if she had no idea of the intrigue surrounding the game.

    "Frankly, I'm surprised Jan made it to the final three," admitted Survivor host Jeff Probst, standing at a huge after-show party held by the network shortly after Thursday's broadcast. "I'm still not sure if Jan was playing everybody or if she was just coasting. I don't think you get that far by really being as laid back as Jan appeared to be."

    Of course, a far more manipulative contestant wound up taking home the $1-million prize: used car salesman Brian Heidik, who controlled his teammates with the finesse of a born flimflam man.

    Wading through a sea of well-wishers, flashing cameras and reporters from celebrity TV news shows such as Extra, Gentry was philosophical about the game's results -- mostly because she never expected to make it this far, either.

    "It's very surreal to watch yourself on TV," she said, surrounded at the party by her 18-year-old son, William, daughters, Lisa and Molly, and other friends. (Husband, William Gentry, didn't make the trip west). "I stayed below the radar and I never quit."

    Decked out in a tight-fitting black bodice and pants, with a touch of mascara and lipstick, Gentry created a much different impression than viewers were used to seeing. Gone were the overalls and pigtails -- along with about 24 pounds she lost while competing on the show.

    Watching her sign autographs and pose for photos with fans, it seems obvious Gentry's success has made her something of a symbol for those who enjoyed seeing a fiftysomething woman reach the game's final hours.

    Her daughter Lisa said such fan encounters happen regularly these days -- especially when Gentry opens her mouth and looses that distinctive Texas twang. "We are so proud of her for getting as far as she did," added Lisa, who watched the show with her relatives from the reunion show's studio audience. "It was crazy and full of surprises, because we really didn't know what was going to happen. We were watching it right along with everyone else."

    Indeed, Gentry admitted she didn't tell her children, close relatives or her students at McKitrick Elementary School in Lutz when she would drop out of the game.

    "Kids would come up to me and say, 'My mom and dad say you're going to be the first one voted out,' And I'd just say, 'Really?"' noted Gentry, laughing loudly. "(Thursday) I called my school and they said, 'We heard it's you and Clay.' It's been fun to see what people say."

    Gentry's status as a schoolteacher was never far from her mind while playing the game -- leaving the longtime educator wary of committing too many lies or morally questionable acts, because she knew she'd have to answer to her students later.

    "If I was in a different profession, I could maybe cut and run and not think about (lying repeatedly)," said Gentry, who declined to sip a glass of beer while standing on the party's red carpet, for fear a wayward camera might capture the image. "But I have to teach morals and values."

    And even some acts that seemed accidental -- like her decision to stock her team with older, less athletic people -- were actually part of a thought-out strategy.

    "I remember sitting on my back porch, trying to make fire with sticks. My hands blistered up and I told (husband) Mr. Bill, 'I'm going to die out there!"' she said, adding that the experience made her pay attention during pre-game training sessions, noting who was good at survival techniques.

    When Probst told her and 61-year-old land broker Jake Billingsley -- the game's two oldest contestants -- to choose the competition's two teams, Gentry knew who she wanted.

    "I picked people who knew what to eat, knew how to make a fire ... it just so happened they were the older (people)," she said, noting some other contestants laughed at her choices. "They said they didn't want to be on the little old lady's team. Well, the little old lady's still here. Where are you, dude?"

    Despite talk of the show's waning popularity, Thursday's finale drew strong ratings, attracting 24-million viewers nationally -- about 2-million fewer than the last installment's finale, but more than the viewership for rivals NBC, ABC and Fox combined. The one-hour live reunion special that immediately followed the finale held onto 21-million viewers.

    Locally, the two-hour finale garnered 29 percent of the available audience, with 24 percent of those watching TV staying tuned for the live reunion show, easily winning its time slot.

    With an expertise that comes from hosting five editions of the series, Probst pinpointed the exact moment Gentry made the mistake that ensured she wouldn't make the show's top two finalists.

    "It was in the final four," he said, noting the moment Gentry was pressured by Heidik to vote off pal Helen Glover instead of Louisiana restaurateur Clay Jordan, who eventually won second place (worth $100,000). "She should have gone to Helen and said, 'Let's take one of these guys out."'

    But Gentry had little time for such recriminations Thursday, shrugging off behind-the-back insults from Heidik during the game (he called her a "disposable grandma"). Gentry also insisted she and Glover remain friends, despite her decision to join Jordan and Heidik in voting the Navy swim instructor off the game and into fourth place.

    "None of us are upset ... we're all a tight-knit group, very respectful of each other," she said. "I'm proud of what I did out there. I went in kind of clueless and just did my own thing."

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