Surviving the Survivor stereotype 

Turning real people to mush for the camera

I admit, I was disappointed. When I walked into the Survivor 9 casting call at The Broadway sports bar last Thursday, sheepishly carrying my 3-minute video tape and application under my coat, I was expecting at least a Survivor banner. Or some flashy L.A. reps asking me to answer revealing questions under stage lights. Maybe even a Survivor souvenir for my efforts (I’d rented a video camera and set it up in my living room and everything). But all I had to do to officially apply to be a member of the next Survivor cast was hand my application envelope to a Broadway employee seated at a fold-out table set up in front of a wall-sized TV screen silently rolling old Survivor clips. For those who hadn’t yet made their tapes, a video booth had been set up in the back of the room, under Budweiser lights. And for the first eight people who jumped at the opportunity to do Stupid Survivor Tricks—bird calls, or wiggly dances, or even roping a chair with an extension cord—on the Broadway stage, there were Survivor hats and bandanas and purses.

Still, silly as I felt, I was let down. For someone who’d completed the application only for the sake of an article, I’d worked up an unanticipated case of the jitters in preparing my response—I am the ultimate Survivor because…—and I wanted my shot at dazzling a producer. I wanted to be deemed fit and cagey and multi-faceted by a team of experts who must surely have a delicate eye for those qualities by now. In the absence of any such challenge, however, I settled for a beer and conversation with other Survivor hopefuls. I watched a dozen applicants record their 3-minute video segments. As I listened, and as I reflected on my experience preparing my own video audition, I learned something new about the camera: It doesn’t just add 15 pounds to your face. It also flattens your character, dulls your edges, reduces you to a stereotype that does little justice to who you actually are.

Which is, of course, exactly what reality shows from Survivor to the latest The Apprentice with Donald Trump are looking for. Watch these shows and a formula quickly emerges. You have The Jock. The Homemaker. The Eagle Scout. The Villain. The Ditz. And judging from the videos being taped at The Broadway last week, that’s exactly the lineup CBS will field again for Survivor 9. Because for every unique dream or motivation I heard when talking to an applicant one-on-one, I heard a patently dull, canned plea recorded in front of the camera.

I recognized the same trouble with my own homemade video. After some amateur wrangling to balance the camera on an open phone book so that it focused on a propped-up pillow where I could then run and center my face (even with this article as an excuse, I was too self-conscious to enlist help filming), I yammered for three minutes about my strengths, my idiosyncrasies, my societal contributions—and of course not a word about my interest in a million bucks. Playing the tape back, however, not even I could identify my worthy quirks. My puffy face set forth the same blithely effusive reasons-I’m-the-best that everyone in the Broadway video booth was declaring their own. If I make it to the next round of auditions (to be held in Seattle in a couple months), those Survivor producers will have selected a glossed-over version of me I don’t even know. In front of that camera, I was not interesting or different or even myself. I was a blur of me. I was just blonde.

So what happens when we get in front of the camera? No matter how particular our successes or defeats or dreams may be, put us in front of that lens, and what do we say? “I’m good-looking.” “I like to travel.” “My children are my life.” “I’m a team player.” “I love the outdoors.”

At The Broadway, the discrepancy between on- and off-camera talk was fascinating.

A local KPAX employee introduced the casting call by announcing that no Montanan has yet been cast on Survivor, so it would be great to get one of us on this time. As I stood in back beside the camera, watching it capture one earnest clip after another—“I camp.” “I fish.” “I fight fires.” “I backcountry ski.” “I’ve hiked out in a blizzard.” “I’m a corn-fed Montanan.”—I saw our applicant pool crumble from an engaging, disparate bunch of characters to a nervous roomful of Montana posterchildren. I envisioned the opening episode of Survivor 9 slapping broad titles under the 16 new cast members’ faces: Account Executive, 42; Ivy League Grad, 28; Montanan, 36.

Two hours into the evening, I hadn’t even finished my beer. Maybe I was afraid of losing whatever edge I had left. So I wove through the tables of patrons hunched over their 10-page Survivor applications, paring themselves down as I had done to a list of their favorite TV show, their favorite movie, their perfect day, and zoomed home to record my proof that actually we Montanans do comprise a strong, scintillating populace. In the interest of squelching stereotypes, of supplementing our sorry videos with evidence that we are indeed built of one-of-a-kind stories as well as the fishing trips and snow adventures which, sure, we all enjoy, I submit my own diverse findings from conversations I had with Montanan Survivor applicants away from the camera’s blinding light.

Seventy-one-year-old Mario Locatelli of Hamilton sat in a booth with his backpack and a Robin Williams twinkle, explaining that this is his second time trying out for Survivor (last year he heard no response). From his backpack, he withdrew Missoulian articles documenting his ascension of all the highest peaks in the Lower 48, as well as a plaque affirming his summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. In 1949, Locatelli celebrated his 16th birthday on the ship that brought him from Genoa to the U.S., and he’s since lived in Montana for over 30 years. He spoke of his plans to climb Mt. McKinley next June, and later called the whole bar to attention by cupping his hands together and sounding his elk bugle. If any Survivor producers are reading, hear this: My vote is for Mario Locatelli. He brought his own video with him, so be on the lookout for the clip of the bearded man standing on his head, wearing skis.

Near Locatelli, Joan Cuplin of Missoula and Isaiah Parramore of Helena sat with two Survivor applications and a Bible word search book. With matching camo jackets slung over their chairs, they shared what they would do if they won Survivor’s million-dollar prize. “I’d buy a house and cars for my kids,” said Cuplin. “And I’d send my ex to Germany so he could meet his mom, because he’s adopted and he’s never met her.” Said Parramore: “I have a calling to go into the ministry, so I’d say I’d give it back to God. I’d split it between charity, the Church, and education.” Then he paused to think. “And I’d give some to the guy at Papa John’s that covered my shift so I could come here. He deserves some.”

When Parramore’s turn came to do a Stupid Survivor Trick (he was one of the first eight people to volunteer), he performed a marching cadence while humming first the Gilligan’s Island theme song, then the Star Wars theme. Anticipating what she would say when her turn came in front of the camera, Cuplin said, “I don’t know. God will lead me, and if it works, it was meant to be.”

Across the room, UM alumnus Jesse Driscoll took a drier approach to the proceedings. Sitting with UM student J.W. Reid, he didn’t brush his hair from his eyes as he deadpanned what he might do if he won: “Start getting in shape. Talk to my family, tell them now there’s something so they’ll be proud of me. Maybe wear a Survivor T-shirt.” But on the off chance Driscoll doesn’t make it in front of Survivor’s cameras (neither he nor Reid even knew they had to make a video), he said he could use a job if anybody’s hiring.

And in a booth near Driscoll and Reid, 911 operator Pat H. of Missoula lightheartedly filled out an application with a friend who’d come along just for kicks. Asked why she wanted to be on Survivor, Pat said, “So I can get out of the basement of the courthouse,” where she works. “See some daylight.”

Five different Montanans, five different stories. From Kilimanjaro to Papa John’s to 911, and not even a mention of fly-fishing. I was impressed. Even heartened. But only time—and a commendably patient panel of judges, God bless them—will tell if one of us will stand out enough to make the cut for the next round of auditions in Seattle, and eventually advance to L.A. Whatever the outcome, The Broadway crowd seemed to be having fun with the trying. The bar’s staff estimated about a hundred applicants showed up that night, though there could well have been more. With the camera rolling and the beer flowing, it was hard to keep track of so many individuals, so many Montanans who, like me, had grown a little giddy subjecting themselves to the power of one small lens.

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