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Eye of the 'Survivor'

Thailand contestant Jan Gentry gives us a piece of her mind on the new Survivor: The Amazon.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 13, 2003

The first thing you notice about Jan Gentry is that everyone seems to notice her.

Heading to a conference room in the St. Petersburg Times building Wednesday, the former Survivor: Thailand contestant is constantly stopping -- to shake hands with a fellow who loves her energy; to sign an autograph for a woman's young daughter; to shoot the breeze with a longtime fan of CBS's reality TV hit.

[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
"I think a lot of people go into this like it's a vacation. I'm like, "What are you thinking? Have you even seen one episode?'" Gentry said after watching the new episode.
Gentry, 54, had come to the Times to watch an advance videotape of tonight's 90-minute debut episode of Survivor: The Amazon, offering her perspective as a contestant who made it to third place last year. She had come straight from teaching first grade at McKitrick Elementary School in Lutz -- wearing her trademark overalls and pulled-back hair -- almost giddy with excitement over the prospect of seeing a new chapter of the show.

"I think a lot of people go into this like it's a vacation," Gentry said after watching the episode, sent to TV critics without the Tribal Council vote that shows the first person ejected from the game. "I'm like, 'What are you thinking? Have you even seen one episode?"'

The latest Survivor installment, filmed in November and December along a remote section of the Amazon River, features 16 contestants deprived of food and comfort, facing physical challenges and competitions, and voting one of their number off until one person takes home $1-million.

Every new Survivor game needs a hook, and this one has a doozy: Host Jeff Probst immediately separated contestants into two teams, male (Jaburu) and female (Tambaqui). ("We were prepared for that to happen to us," said Gentry, noting that Thailand's contestants were segregated by gender before the game started. "Maybe they got the idea from us.")

Early on, the women scuffled to deal with their environment, having trouble focusing their efforts to build a shelter and find food. "We're Amazon women ... we'll make it," said Jeanne Hebert, 41, a marketing director from Massachusetts.

But even though she cheered the women's team from the start, Gentry was dubious. "She's saying, 'We'll toughen up,' but you don't get stronger out there," she said. "You get weaker from a lack of food. You've got to go in tough."

She should know: To prepare for her Survivor stint, Gentry lifted weights, jogged up to five miles daily and turned off the air conditioning in her home to condition her body for the ordeal.

Watching the tribe members get to know each other while tackling the task of building a camp from nothing, Gentry chuckled while remembering the social dynamics that emerged during her early days in Thailand.

"The bossy ones come out. ... They come in faking like they're not, and then they can't stand it anymore and they take over," she said, watching 56-year-old construction company vice president Roger Sexton bossing his Jaburu teammates around.

The show quickly focuses on Christy Smith, 24, a deaf children's adventure guide from Aspen, Colo., who is the first disabled contestant to appear on the show. Only able to understand her teammates by reading lips, she quickly feels isolated as night falls the first evening and she can't participate in the late-night chatter sessions that help build alliances.

"Of course, I'm in a group of girls who like to talk and talk and talk," Smith says in one aside, tears filling her eyes. "I'm trying to be with them, but I'm not. I'm always totally different."

Over in the men's camp, the guys juggle building a surprisingly sturdy shelter with talk about which Tambaqui member they'd like to "get together with," asking a Magic 8 ball brought by one team member to predict their romantic future.

"I see (Tambaqui) all crying and panicking ... trying to build a cell phone to call their boyfriends to come over and build them a shelter," said 8 ball owner Rob Cesternino, 24, a computer projects coordinator from New York -- reflecting the general macho vibe of the Jaburu men.

But, as Gentry readily pointed out, many contestants predicted failure for her hand-picked team -- which featured older, less athletic contestants. Instead, her tribe's team spirit overcame a backbiting, fractious group of opponents who sabotaged themselves with constant infighting.

Like many Survivor alums, Gentry couldn't help feeling the new cast has things a little easier. "We didn't get fishing hooks. ... We didn't get machetes," she said, watching as the Jaburu men unpacked a crate of supplies. "I'm writing somebody about this."

But Gentry, who still e-mails her Survivor compatriots regularly (former rival Jake Billingsley offered valuable advice on what to charge for giving motivational speeches), remains energized by her experience.

"It was tough, but I had a ball," she said. "I just wanted to see if I could do it. And I could."

* * *

AT A GLANCE: The debut of Survivor: The Amazon airs at 8 tonight on WTSP-Ch. 10.

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