Notes from a Survivor

Sep 2, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Hello, my name is Jerri Manthey, otherwise known as “Jerri From `Survivor,”’ “The Ice Princess,” “She-Devil in a Blue Bikini,” the “Bitch/Joan Collins of the Outback,” “Man-Eater” (thanks for that one, by the way) and various other derogatory names-most of which can’t be printed in a family publication.
Yes, I am one of the many reality television participants who have become a household name and, for the most part, exploited by the system that created us. What sets me apart from most of the others who have now flooded Los Angeles, trying to make it in the biz, is that I was an actress long before the phenomenon that is “Survivor” ever scooped me up and turned my life upside down. I have been doing theater since I was 9 years old and have lived in L.A. now for 71/2 years. As an army brat, I’ve moved around my whole life-and this is the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere. L.A. is my home. My relationship with L.A. has been one of love/hate, but I have grown to be a huge fan of its idiosyncrasies-the glitter, the smoke and mirrors, the nuts, the flakes a constant source of entertainment.
Before “Survivor,” I, like most actors I know, was bartending to help pay the bills. It was this profession that taught me a lot about the different sorts of people who live in L.A. The nightclub/bar/restaurant scene is a literal gold mine of cool characters, stereotypes and interesting personalities I’ve used on numerous occasions during the course of my acting career.
But I will admit, when I was sent off to the land Down Under it couldn’t have been at a better time. If I had heard one more time someone say, “This drink isn’t strong enough,” or, “I’ll take care of you if you hook me up,” or had some drunk guy who hadn’t gotten lucky with the girls in the bar and decided on the way out the door to try to pick me up, I was going to lose it! I just couldn’t take it anymore. The late nights, the exhaustion of mind, body and soul, the seeming loss of a sense of humor and hope in humanity, the feelings of defeat-they were just getting to be too much.
And forget about having a healthy relationship. Every guy I dated either worked with me or was a patron at the bar-both very volatile combinations. I was tortured because I just couldn’t get that break I was looking for that would save me, whisk me away from all of it. I had completely given up my fantasy of a white knight saddling up to the bar and scooping me up, taking me away from all the stress and heartache, making all my dreams come true-a knight we bartenders like to call “the producer of our first big film.”
Then it happened. I was chosen to be on “Survivor.” I was so excited I could barely speak. I jumped up and down on my bed for at least 20 minutes, realizing the amazing adventure I was about to go on, and the fact that all my dreams could very well come true. I had been chosen to take part in an unbelievably successful show that had taken the nation by storm.
Mum’s the word
It was then that it hit me, the horrifying detail I hadn’t thought of until that very moment: I couldn’t tell anyone. Not even my own mother. I couldn’t share my happiness and excitement with anyone. I never felt more alone in my life.
This loneliness escalated upon my return from the experience. I had been gone for three months. I couldn’t call my friends. They all had to be wondering what happened to me. I couldn’t answer their questions. I sat in my apartment totally alone, shell-shocked with post-traumatic-stress disorder, eating everything I could get my hands on, the psychiatrist provided by Mark Burnett and CBS on call.
The experience has reshaped my entire existence, the way I look at myself and other people. It has frustrated me, made me happy, given me things I thought only other people could have.
I posed for Playboy, on my own terms. I was criticized by people who didn’t even know or realize that I had turned down an extra six figures to make a coinciding video-a route I felt went too far beyond my morals and boundaries. I bought a house. I’ve never even lived in a house my whole life, and now I own one. I still worry someday that someone will come to my door and admit to making a big mistake. There was no way someone like me could own a house!
I have spent an entire year flying to places I’ve only dreamed of. I’ve been to New York more times than I can count.
On the other hand, I’ve done nothing but defend myself for the character I appeared to be on the show. Apparently the concept of editing for entertainment value is lost on a majority of the audience. I’ve had my feelings hurt. People have come up to me on the street and told me they hated me, but that they really like me now that they’ve seen me in the press giving them some insight into the other sides of me. I always remind them that we were starving and sleep deprived. I’ve answered the same questions over and over again, making the answer seem like it’s never been said before, acting surprised as if I’d never heard the question. “YES, I really do believe Kel had beef jerky. … NO, Keith couldn’t make rice. … YES, it really was tough and very real. … NO, I had no idea I was going to come across so harsh. … NO, I’m really not a bitch. … YES, I did find Colby attractive. … NO, we never had any sexual relations with each other (even though I tried).” I could have taped my answers and replayed them until the tape broke.
But I’ve had fun. And I learned a lot about the power of the media, and the scary fact that people believe almost everything they see on television. Now things are different. I get called in to auditions from casting directors who loved the show and want to meet me. I get in the door only to have them be shocked that I actually can act. Then they are surprised that I’ve been out here for so long. You see, I understand the frustration of the struggling actor. I’ve been struggling-and I’m still struggling.
Defending reality TV
I see the way reality television has taken over, has taken jobs away from actors and has reshaped the entire industry. I get it. But now I have to take the other side. Reality television is in high demand. It is a new genre of entertainment. It is not going to go away.
If you sit back and look at past TV programming, we have had reality television in our faces for a long time. “That’s Incredible!” “Candid Camera,” “Dance Fever” and “American Bandstand.” These are all reality television shows. We just hadn’t labeled them yet. Now the label is in place. And one should seriously take note of the careful wording (i.e., reality-based entertainment). So now, in a post-strike-that-didn’t-happen business, when we need something or someone to blame for our lack of work, we blame reality television and all the people involved in it. This is just plain wrong.
I understand the frustration in a town already flooded with actors trying to make it, seeing their jobs go to people from reality-based shows who decided yesterday to be an actor. I feel and see both sides of it every day. I think this will change. From what I’ve seen, these “newcomers” are realizing it’s not so easy to be an actor. People are not giving us scripts or handing us roles (at least not substantial ones), and we are struggling all the same. The only difference is that we have recognizable faces. I am a “celebrity,” yet I still have to fight and kick and scratch to get an acting gig-and let me just tell you how frustrating and bizarre that is!
Please, don’t for a second believe that the person you saw on “Survivor” is the complete person that I am. I’ve eaten and slept since then, and when people irritate me in my everyday life, I can walk away. And let us not forget-in the “real” world, we’re not all fighting each other for the same million-dollar prize!
And by the way, to those people out there who have made it a point to tell me that they enjoyed me on the show, that they can only imagine how rough it all was, and how much they appreciated seeing a strong woman stand up for herself and speak her mind without fear of judgment, THANK YOU. It means the world to
OK. I’ve said my piece-and this has been an opportunity that would not have happened, of course, if it weren’t for a six-month-long trek to the land of reality television.
Jerri Manthey describes herself as an “assertive woman/actress/writer/human being/ generally nice person and occasional bitch.”