It's been almost a quarter of a century since Lisa Whelchel played vain rich girl Blair on The Facts of Life. But while tackling the challenges of Survivor: Philippines, Whelchel learned she still has some of her image-conscious, girly girl alter-ego left in her.
"I was really nervous about things like wearing a bathing suit on television or the fact that, depending on how long I lasted, that I couldn't wash my hair and couldn't wear make-up," Whelchel tells TVGuide.com. "All of those things were definite fears."
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She may still long for her blow dryer, but when the CBS reality show premieres (Wednesday at 8/7c), fans will see a very different side of the former sitcom star. Since leaving Hollywood more than a decade ago, Whelchel has raised and home-schooled three children, written 10 books, including The Facts of Life (and Other Lessons My Father Taught Me) and The Busy Mom's Guide to Prayer, and spoken at Women in Faith conferences across the country. Although Survivor seems a departure from her current lifestyle, Whelchel says she's a "superfan" of the show, partly because of her deeply religious background.
"So much of my life — from the time that I was an itty- bitty girl — was wanting to be good and wanting to be perfect. Anything that was considered to be bad was to be banished," she says. "Survivor was a way for me to live vicariously through the people who did things that I would never allow myself to do in real life."
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However, Whelchel always had dreams of living out the fantasy and competing on the show herself. She finally found the opportunity to do so this past year, when her children left for college and she suffered a surprising setback in her public speaking career. "My contract was rescinded which felt really devastating because that meant I didn't have a year's worth of work lined up," Whelchel says. "After I got over the devastation, I realized the opportunity presented to me, which was time to audition and try to be on Survivor."
Whelchel is one of a very small group of celebrities who have played the game. Former NFL coach and commentator Jimmy Johnson competed in Season 21, and Whelchel will play alongside MLB pitcher Jeff Kent. But she says she was the one who got starstruck during the auditions. "When I walked into the room with Jeff Probst and Mark Burnett, there was just this added dimension," Whelchel says. "[I thought,] 'Not only are you the producers and I really want to be on your show, but, oh my gosh! I'm your biggest fan! Can I have your autograph?'"
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As an avid viewer of the show, Whelchel knew she didn't have to sweat her celebrity status too much when it came time to play the game. "I know there are a lot of young people on the show typically, and I thought they probably [wouldn't] recognize me," she says. On the flip side, she acknowledges her age — she is the oldest female player this season — could very well be her downfall. "I've watched this show long enough to know that you want to have a strong team to win the challenges, so you're going to get rid of your weaker players earliest," she says. "And if you don't have time to find out the players' strengths, than you're going to take the easy way out and send home the oldest first."
However, the biggest hurdle Whelchel had to overcome was how to play the game without abandoning her morals. "I knew that to play the game and to play it well you needed to lie, break trust, talk about people and all those things that I've spent my life trying not to do," she says. "And yet, I really wanted to win this game. So my strategy going in was to be me, yet play the game the best I could and hopefully find a course that had not been charted before."
To quote The Facts of Life theme song, Whelchel learned in the end to take the good and take the bad. "The cameras catch you off guard and it's one of the things that helped me to come to peace with my imperfections, which I prefer to call my humanity," she says. "If I can come to peace with it, then I don't have to worry about what other people would think."
Survivor airs Wednesdays at 8/7c on CBS. Are you excited to see Whelchel back on the small screen? How far do you think she'll go?