Lisa Whelchel today, as a 49-year-old minister's wife (Photo : Twitter)
Viewers of CBS's "Survivor" this season may recognize a familiar face among the show's rugged contestants.
Taking part in the "Survivor: Philippines" grueling survivalist contests will be Lisa Whelchel, who from 1979 to 1988 played spoiled rich girl Blair Warner on TV's "The Facts of Life".
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A born-again Christian even before playing Blair, Whelchel, now 49, walked away from her acting career at the show's end to marry a pastor and have three children. She settled in her native Texas, and for years busied herself with homeschooling her children and ministry work. In recent years, she has been a speaker for the Christian organization "Women of Faith."
Then last summer, her youngest child left for college and she found herself at a loose end.
"And I actually went on a vision quest, just to figure out 'Okay now what do I want to do with my life?' because I'd been so focused on raising my kids," Whelchel told Yahoo! TV.
When she got back, a friend reminded her of her longtime desire to be a contestant on the CBS show.
"I'm just a huge, huge fan and have been since season one," Whelchel said. With the friend's help, she made a video using her iPhone and posted it to her Twitter page, directing it to "Survivor" host Jeff Probst and asking her followers to retweet it.
Her plan to get the attention of the show's producers worked, and Whelchel is currently on location in the Philippines.
"This doesn't feel like coming back into television to me," Whelchel said. "This feels like being on a show, having an adventure that I've always wanted to have; and so even if this weren't filmed, I would want to do it. It just happens to be that it's filmed and put on television, and I used to be on television."
She added, "I've never wanted to do reality TV; but this feels like 'Survivor', not reality TV, and so it feels very different to me."
Whelchel said she has always exercised, but consulted a sports psychologist in Dallas to prepare mentally for the challenge. She also took a lesson in ocean swimming from an army diver.
She took other steps to prepare for the competition in which the mind games contestants try to play with each other loom almost as large as the physical battles.
In the run-up to their immersion in their exotic locale, the contestants spent several days in proximity to each other, but were forbidden to communicate. During this time, Whelchel said, she wore a tee-shirt from a 2010 triathlon. What her competitors probably didn't realize is that rather than earning the shirt, she had purchased it on eBay.
"Now I have never competed in a triathlon," Whelchel said. "There's no way I could; but if they want to think that I'm strong enough to compete in a triathlon, just to give me a little bit of a leg up the first few days, then that is just fine with me."
She may need the leg up when her fellow contestants are deciding who to vote off the show.
"Lisa's biggest obstacle is going to be her age, and it's not like she's that old, but she's old for 'Survivor,'" Jeff Probst told Yahoo! "I don't think Lisa's celebrity will get in her way nearly as much as her age."
Whelchel said she has a similar fear. Asked if she thought her fellow contestants recognized her from "The Facts of Life", Whelchel said, ""I don't know, there's an awful lot of young whippersnappers so I'm guessing they don't. But there are some that would be old enough to have watched it, but they're guys. Unless they had sisters, they might not know either. But even if one person knows, then eventually everybody will so it's not like something I going to hide."
She was also a little uncertain as to how they might react to her celebrity.
"I don't think it will help me," she said. "I hope it doesn't hurt me, but it could. I just hope that it doesn't take them long to know me for me."