From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
In the kitchen of her upscale home near Dallas, Lisa Whelchel is all smiles. As her three kids banter, the former teen star-who catapulted to fame as rich girl Blair Warner in the hit '80s sitcom The Facts of Life and returned to TV this fall as one of 18 castaways on Survivor: Philippines-casually touches the arm of Steve Cauble, the man she married in 1988. They whisper and exchange knowing smiles. Yet the warm moment belies a painful truth: After undergoing years of counseling, the couple quietly divorced in March. "We will always be close friends," says Whelchel, 49. "But the marriage just didn't work out. It was a painful time for our family."

Her divorce revelation shocked fans in September when People.com announced the news, but no one was more surprised than Whelchel herself. After playing Blair for nine years, she retired from acting in 1988 to start a family: the couple's kids Tucker, 22, Haven, 21, and Clancy, 20. The family immersed themselves in Christian ministry-Cauble as a pastor, Whelchel as an author and motivational speaker. In her books and speeches, Whelchel candidly talked about her own marriage and motherhood, including her controversial discipline method of putting hot sauce on her children's tongues. While Whelchel was able to weather criticisms of her views, negotiating her split has been tougher. "My goal has always been to help people," she says. "But I never thought a divorce would happen to me."

The cracks in Whelchel's marriage started five years ago. "We started counseling to try to get through it," she says. She declines to detail what specifically went wrong, and despite Internet rumors pointing to everything from her demanding personality to Cauble's sexual orientation, she maintains that the truth about their split will remain private. "People can say whatever they want to say," she says firmly, "but what happened in our family is between us and God."

Suddenly single and looking for new opportunities, Whelchel tweeted a Survivor audition video. Producers saw the minute-long tape and quickly cast her. "I was a diehard fan. I wondered if I could compete at that level," she says. "It was my time to find out." To prepare, she hired a former Navy SEAL to teach her to build a fire and swim in the ocean. "If I was going out there," she says, "I was playing to win."

Survivor's harsh conditions were cathartic for Whelchel, who began the show just 10 days after the divorce was final. "I focused on the game," she says. "I didn't have time to wallow. I could do something out of my comfort zone and prove my strengths." Her fellow castaways were impressed. "She came to play hard," says returning Survivor cast member Mike Skupin, who, like Whelchel, is one of this season's frontrunners. "She's tougher than you think." (Whelchel recently announced she had been diagnosed with West Nile virus but is "feeling fine and expecting a full recovery." She likely contracted the disease, which has a 14-day incubation period, several months after wrapping Survivor.)

That toughness is what Whelchel hopes will help her face her uncertain future as a single woman. She's not ready to date again-"I don't see that happening for a long, long time," she says-but wants to minister to others in her situation. She also plans to keep working alongside her ex. "We still travel and work together in ministry," she says. "The only difference is we get two hotel rooms instead of one." Cauble, 61, agrees. "We're still a family," he says. "Lisa's my best friend."

And after resisting Hollywood offers for years, Whelchel is finally open to taking advantage of whatever doors her Survivor success might open for her. "I'd do another sitcom. I'd move with my daughter to L.A. and do a family show," she says. "Every door is open!"