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The tribe members have spoken: 8 secrets of ‘Survivor’

Mookie Lee who competed Fiji said viewers saw his tribemate use eyeglasses start fire but truth flame came from lighter.

Mookie Lee, who competed in Fiji, said viewers saw his tribemate use eyeglasses to start a fire, but in truth the flame came from a lighter. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 16, 2012 8:16AM

Six former “Survivor” contestants dropped by Northwestern University last week to give students the skinny on CBS’ hit show, which kicks off its 24th season Wednesday.

They spoke at a class devoted to the business of reality TV, a genre that exploded in popularity after “Survivor” debuted a dozen years ago.

“ ‘Survivor’ was America’s first hit reality show, and it is no exaggeration to say that it changed how audiences think about TV, celebrity and media in general,” said Professor Max Dawson, who teaches the Northwestern class made up of many undergrads who aspire to be television producers or executives.

During a spirited and candid two-hour discussion, the six “Survivor” alumni spilled their secrets about the reality of reality TV.

1. You ought to be in pictures

Several of the cast members said they were recruited by casting assistants as opposed to applying for the show on their own.

“They called me,” said season 18 runner-up Stephen Fishbach.

Ditto for fellow season 18 contestant Erinn Lobdell. The Milwaukee hair stylist initially balked at the idea. But she changed her mind and flew to L.A. for the audition process, where candidates get sequestered in a hotel for several days while the production staff makes its picks.

Chicago native Jenny Guzon-Bae initially thought it was a prank when she got a call at home asking her to apply for the show. The casting agent had spotted her real estate agent profile online.

Guzon-Bae, who’s Filipino-American, ended up on season 13, the controversial Cook Islands installment where the four tribes were broken up by ethnicity.

2. Gotta play the part

“They want you to fill a role,” said season 14 competitor and Chicagoan Mookie Lee, referring to the popular “Survivor” personae that continually crop up, like The Nerd, The Jock, The Crazy Old Lady.

Kelly Goldsmith figured her best bet was to play The Bitch when she tried out for season three. Goldsmith, now an assistant marketing professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, had noticed that “Survivor’s” season two ratings took a dip after the show’s original bad girl, Jerri, was sent packing. She astutely surmised that producers would be in the market for more bitches as a result.

For her audition tape, Goldsmith donned an old cheerleading outfit and made snarky comments about her sorority sisters. She got the call to go to L.A., where she was summoned into a room with executive producers Mark Burnett and host Jeff Probst, among other “Survivor” bigwigs.

“Mark looks at me and says, ‘You’re a-- is much bigger than I would have expected,’” Goldsmith recalled. Someone else chimed in that Goldsmith looked like she could barely do a single pushup.

A deflated Goldsmith walked out of the room, assuming she was toast. That’s when another staffer arrived to call her bluff, saying a real bitch would have gone off on Burnett for saying she had too much junk in the trunk.

“They said, ‘You need to play another angle if you expect to stay,’ ” Goldsmith said. It was suggested she drop the bitch routine and become a nerd. The “Survivor” super fan happily obliged. “I was obsessed with getting on the show,” she said.

3. Dressed for success

“They tell us what to wear,” said John Cochran, last season’s nerd who rocked a sweater vest in the South Pacific. Turns out that sartorial decision wasn’t his own. The Harvard Law student didn’t own a sleeveless sweater before the show, but producers wanted that look. “The lady on the phone said, ‘Justin Timberlake wears sweater vests,’ ” Cochran said.

4. Food desert

Lee lost 35 pounds in 30 days during his “Survivor” season in Fiji.

“The ‘no food’ thing is real,” said Goldsmith, whose season was set in Kenya. The landlocked location was on a protected game reserve, which meant contestants couldn’t hunt for dinner. “My season was super hardcore,” she said. “We didn’t have water for three days.”

Lobdell remembered being insanely hungry during a brutal stretch on Exile Island, where a single contestant is temporarily separated from his or her tribe. Come nighttime, a producer stays behind with the exiled contestant while the camera crew returns to the main location. Before shipping out for the night, a sympathetic sound man slipped Lobdell a piece of butterscotch candy, which she described as the best candy of her life.

5. Fire or smokescreen?

“Survivor” contestants often look like Prometheus when it comes to making a fire. Truth is they sometimes get a little help, cast members said. Goldsmith’s group was given matches once. Lee said a scene during his season showed them using glasses to make a fire when it was really a lighter that did the trick.

On Exile Island, a chilly, dejected Lobdell wasn’t having any luck getting a flame going. “The producer was gone … and the camera man set down his camera, took out his lighter and lit the fire,” she said, adding that he then picked up the camera and filmed it as if she’d done it herself.

(When I ran some of these anecdotes by the network, a CBS spokesperson provided this statement over email: “ ‘Survivor’ producers follow a very strict protocol to never interfere with reality, that includes helping or hindering with life on the island.”)

6. Being a good sport

The challenges are on the up and up, the former Survivors said. Producers can and will, though, switch the order of the competitions to increase the likelihood of getting the outcome they want, said Goldsmith, who worked on the production end of “Survivor” after her stint as a contestant. For example, an expendable cast member who’s more brawn than brains might get a puzzle instead of something more physical.

As for those aerial shots of the challenges, the people depicted in them aren’t the contestants, cast members said. They’re “Survivor” staff members — a.k.a. the so-called Dream Team — giving the challenges a dry run.

“There’s never a helicopter flying over us during a challenge,” Cochran said.

7. Power of suggestion

“I never felt like anybody was pushing me” to vote a certain way, Lobdell said. But the show’s alumni acknowledged that producers often chatted with them before a vote, suggesting hypothetical scenarios like, “What if you did x, y and z?” The contestants said those discussions sometimes planted ideas in their heads and got them thinking differently, but no one was ever given marching orders. How they voted was up to them.

8. Say what?

Cochran said one of his quotes was edited in a way that made it seem like he was complimenting his fellow competitor, Coach. What he really said was that Coach had tricked him.

“I haven’t heard anything like that,” responded Lee, who said the show is as real as reality TV gets. “You’re not put in a room with booze. You’re stripped of all your luxuries,” he said. “ ‘Survivor’ is one of the purest reality shows.”

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