August 2012

Survivor: Chelsea Meissner

Author: Courtney Hampson | Photographer: Mark Staff Photography


The Americanized version of the Swedish Expedition Robinson reality TV game show first aired in the United States in May 2000. After months of relentless promotion, fans were hooked before the first episode even aired. They tuned in week after week to watch the experiment unfold. When during the finale, Midwestern tough girl/truck driver Sue Hawk scowled as she told finalist Kelly Wigglesworth, “If I ever see you in a desert, dying of thirst, I wouldn’t stop to give you a sip of water …” a nation of reality TV addicts were appalled and secretly snickering.

As America’s obsession with all things based on “reality” continues to grow, so do the viewer stats of Survivor. Survivor was the first highly rated and profitable reality show on broadcast television in the U.S. With its 24th season recently in the can and season 25 in production, it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon.

Producers gather a cadre of strangers and strand them on a desolate island, in their impractical bathing suits, with no amenities, and the challenge to find food, water, fire, and shelter for themselves. As their bodies take a beating, they compete in challenges to earn either a reward, or immunity from exile and expulsion. As if that doesn’t play with their minds enough, the last few survivors then face a jury comprised of everyone they just turned on and voted off, to select the winner of the game, the sole survivor who walks away with a million-dollar prize. Each season comes with a new twist, making it difficult for contestants to strategize beforehand.
Season 24 saw South Carolina girl Chelsea Meissner competing for the grand prize.

So, we stalked her after the finale, and she agreed to share a behind the scenes look at America’s favorite reality TV show.

A self-proclaimed “redneck,” Meissner likes to hunt and fish, drive big trucks, listen to country music, and sport a camouflage baseball cap. A Hilton Head girl until her family moved to a farm in Florence, SC, when she was in 5th grade, Meissner walks the walk and talks the talk. She credits her farm-upbringing to her success on the latest season of Survivor. Never really an avid viewer of the show, it wasn’t until after a friend was a contestant that Meissner started watching and thought, “Well, I could do that.”

Turns out, she was right. Now a Charlestonian, Meissner made it to the final elimination ceremony on Survivor: One World, which aired on May 13. It was a long trip. In fact, the six-month application process alone may have been just as difficult as the game itself. The 200-page application required legal review and excruciating personal history and detail, including medical background, vaccination history, every past residence, 10 business references and 10 personal references (none of whom could be told what they were references for), videos, pictures, you name it. Once through the initial application process, Meissner was flown to Los Angeles for a week of interviews, where she had to assume an alias, make no eye contact with anyone, and follow a strict itinerary. Show producers insisted upon solitude, dictated what time she was allowed to leave her room for meals, and allowed her just one hour of exercise each day (sounds like prison), all in an effort to keep the potential contestants a mystery until show time. After each interview, they would take a group, load ’em up on a bus and let them know they’d been cut. Meissner continued to survive the process and was told that she was one of 30 finalists before they sent her back home for the two-week wait.


Two weeks came and went and Meissner resigned herself to the fact that she hadn’t made the cut. Then, two months later she got the call. She had two weeks to get her life in order and herself to Fiji. “I about threw up when I got the call,” Meissner said. Luckily her “awesome boss” (one of the few people she was allowed to let in on the secret) at the medical equipment company, where Meissner is in sales, told her, “It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. Go for it.”

With just two weeks to prepare, Meissner increased her workouts to twice a day, changed her diet, and attempted to gain some weight. She was also instructed to send three bathing suits and three other outfits to be approved by producers for the show. When producers were surprised to receive a package with no camouflage, they quickly called and told her to send a piece of camo. Stereotypes are stereotypes, after all.

When she boarded her flight, she was confident that she would do well. And then she sat in a holding pattern on the island of Samoa, in the South Pacific, for two brutal weeks. There, contestants were again instructed that they could not talk, could not make eye contact, and had to sit by themselves. No interaction. No swimming. No working out allowed. Nothing that might give anyone a little insight into his or her fellow competitors. It was a difficult existence for a young woman who is always on the move and hates to sit still. “It rained non-stop. We got no sleep. No exercise. It just broke you down mentally,” Meissner said. “At one point, Colton fell out of his chair, and even though it was a comic relief moment, no one laughed. We were afraid they would send us home if we did.” They kept their heads down and their mouths shut.

Finally, some interaction occurred, yet, still not among the contestants. TV Guide came out and filmed some promotional video. Media conducted interviews. Group pictures were taken. And producers started conducting interviews. “I was so emotional during the interviews,” Meissner said, “I was a wreck, a mess. Doing nothing was exhausting; we were going crazy out there.”

Then, one morning, they were awoken early, handed an outfit (Meissner’s, of course, included a piece of camouflage), put on a bus, miked, and the game started. Just like that.

And believe it or not, according to Meissner, what we saw on TV is damn near close to how things went down on the island. (It’s nice to know there is very little creative editing.) Meissner watched most episodes at home by herself, mostly because she got frustrated trying to watch with friends in a bar, where it was just too loud to hear anything. “It was an incredible experience to watch it on TV,” Meissner shared, mainly because the cast got along so well, and there were no horrifying moments. “Nothing hateful happened on the show; no one is bitter.” Meissner stays in regular (almost daily) contact with all but two of her cast mates. “Jeff Probst told us about seasons where they had to separate the cast to keep them from fighting,” she said. “Our season wasn’t like that. We did everything together.”

Now that she is back to the “real” real world, she does get recognized, but “rarely in Charleston,” Meissner said. “When I am traveling, I get the most attention. I was recently in Miami, and four or five times a night people would come up to me and say, ‘aren’t you the chicken girl?’” an ode to her hunting prowess and success as a tribe provider and part of what got her to the end and just one elimination ceremony from the million.

Meissner doesn’t appear all that upset that she didn’t win the million. In fact, she didn’t mention it once. Her goal from the get-go was to prove that a “country girl” is someone to reckon with. Point taken. Check mate. What did Meissner learn from all this? That’s easy. “Now I know I can do anything I want. I will never again be scared to try something new.”

In her words: An interview with Chelsea Meissner

C2: What did you miss the most?
Chelsea Meissner: Southern food and my dog Tyson.

C2: What skill do you believe helped you the most?
CM: My ability to stay calm and collected helped with the social aspect of the game. Being raised on a farm and knowing what hard labor is helped with handling the elements and work around camp.

C2: Does Jeff Probst really wear the same outfit every day?
CM: No, he always wears a different color shirt.

C2: Do they tell the women to wear bikinis or would a more practical sports bra and pair of shorts fly with the producers?
CM: Nope, they only allow swimsuits.

C2: Most uncomfortable moment?
CM: Having to go to the bathroom in the ocean. There is no privacy.

C2: Are you allowed to pack items for handling general grooming such as razors, tweezers, etc.? Or is there a makeup crew handling these necessary “touch ups”?
CM: There is no makeup crew and absolutely no toiletries. NOTHING!

C2: What were your first impressions when you met your fellow contestants?
CM: There were a lot of strong personalities, and everyone was in great shape.

C2: Toughest challenge?
CM: The challenge where we were over the water and had to hold on to a rope behind us. Every minute we were lowered and had to hold on through the pain. It didn’t seem too bad on TV, but it was very painful! (Writer’s note: It looked bad on TV!)

C2: Sweetest reward?
CM: I won the last reward challenge, and they definitely saved the best for last. The reward was an overnight stay on a yacht. There was a chef on board who prepared a three-course meal. We got to shower and had all of our clothes washed for us. I still have dreams about that day/night. It was one of the best days of my life, and I got to share it with Kim and Sabrina.

C2: You were pretty confident going in. Did your confidence ever waver?
CM: Not much. I was confident because I had trust in the people that trusted me.

C2: As you watched the episodes unfold, what was the biggest surprise?
CM: The biggest surprise was Colton. I had no idea he said the things he had to some of the guys. I had no idea how evil he was.

C2: Biggest misperception that the viewers may now have about you?
CM: They never showed how hard I worked around camp. There were a lot of lazy people out there, and I refused to be one of them. I was always in charge of hunting. Every day I went spear fishing, crabbing and chicken chasing. And I was usually successful in finding food for the tribe.

C2: First thing you did when you got home?
CM: I didn’t get home until 2 a.m., so there wasn’t much to do except go to sleep. My dad went grocery shopping before I got back home, so I grubbed out before bed.

C2: What book is on your nightstand?
CM: No Opportunity Wasted by Phil Keoghan. I highly recommend it to everyone. It’s a book on how to create your own bucket list, and it really helped prepare me for Survivor.

C2: Most played tune on your iPod?
CM: “She’s Country,” by Jason Aldean

C2: If Survivor All Stars comes calling, would you do it again?
CM: Hell yes!

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