Rats All, Folks!

updated 07/17/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/17/2000 01:00AM

Dirk Been, a lanky 24-year-old dairy farmer and substitute teacher from Spring Green, Wis., is living proof that Charles Darwin got it wrong. The weak and inferior can pull the rug out from under the strong and the fit, especially if there's $1 million at stake. Why else, Dirk reasons, did his tribe-mates on Survivor, the CBS reality show that kicked off May 31 with 16 well-fed contestants, vote to boot him off their desert island in Malaysia? "I was too good," he says. "Some of those people saw me as a threat to their own survival, which was absolutely correct. I was made to be there. I was doing a great job. I was going to win."

It won't be until the 13th episode on Aug. 23 that the summer's most talked about show—which began with contestants being divided into rival "tribes," the Tagi and the Pagong—reveals the sole survivor who gets the million. Until then, Dirk, who lasted slightly longer than two weeks as a Tagi, joins the show's pool of instant-celebrity losers. Now fully rested, they've begun sharing behind-the-scenes details of physical hardship and mental misery.

As Dirk tells his own tale, "I got caught up in a scheme" against him that included Tagi power player Susan Hawk, 38, a tough-talking trucker from Palmyra, Wis. "Susan has a kind of schoolyard bully-type of approach," says Dirk. "You either fall in line with her and do what she asks, or she's going to make sure you're gone." In the eyes of Susan, Dirk spent too much time studying his Bible and goofing off with Sean Kenniff, 30, a neurologist from Long Island. "Sean and I were like college buddies hanging out," says Dirk. Susan was not amused and joined an anti-Dirk cabal that banished him with a vote in the pitiless tribal council. She'd already done the same to Stacey Stillman, 27, a San Francisco attorney who thought they were allies but was voted out after nine days. "I think Susan got a kick out of it," says Stacey. "Pure sport." No matter who gets thrown off next, Dirk is sure of one thing: "It's going to get uglier and uglier."

Which, in all likelihood, means the show's through-the-thatched-roof ratings—20-odd million viewers per week—will only grow larger. (A sequel set in the Australian Outback is planned for next year.) On the map, Pulau Tiga is five square miles of rain forest and pristine beach 20 miles from Borneo. But the show plays more like the Blair Witch Project of the South Seas. By day, the castaways, selected from 6,000 applicants and followed by 10 camera crews, from March 13 to April 20, trudge through dense undergrowth and uproot tapioca for subsistence meals. "I've done stupid crash diets," says Stacey, "but I'd never felt hungry like this." By night, they sleep in ramshackle shelters invaded by rats that "nibble on your feet, toes, fingers—anything they can get their mouth around," says Survivor outcast Ramona Gray, 29, a chemist from Edison, N.J. The castaways do try to bond, especially when Tagi go against Pagong in physical contests. More often, in endless small internecine battles, they remain staunchly individual. "I don't have the energy to be phony," says B.B. Andersen, 64, a retired Mission Hills, Kans., contractor and father of five (and millionaire owner of multiple homes). He got bounced after six days. As Stacey puts it, the show was "a petri dish for conflict."

Which is probably exactly what CBS wanted. Inspired by a Swedish show, Survivor "is a sophisticated, well-planned operation," says B.B., who still doesn't get why tempers flared among the Pagong when he washed his T-shirt in the group's only cooking pot. "The day before we had dead fish in it for four or five hours," says B.B. "What's the difference?"

The other Pagong were probably too exhausted to grapple with such a deep question. The show's producers flung the rival camps into contest after contest, from chucking spears at fruit to staging mock rescue operations. By the time she left the island, says Stacey, "I was bruised all over my shins. I looked like I'd been in gang warfare." The main goal, says the show's incongruously peppy host, Jeff Probst, "was to keep the contestants off a routine. One day you'd go to bed by midnight and sleep until 8 a.m. Or sometimes you'd stay up all night." Despite the lack of a shower, the fatigued islanders couldn't even be bothered to bathe in the ocean. "After five days you might think, 'Oh, I'll wash off,' " says Ramona. She describes the collective body odor as "hot garbage." Says Stacey: "Everyone felt depleted."

They were always wide-eyed for the show's high point, the humiliating tribal council. On each episode, the tribe that loses the day's immunity challenge troops off into the rain forest to meet host Probst (who, along with the crew and a small medical staff, stayed in separate cabins on the island). Then they cast ballots to determine who least deserves to stay. "The day of tribal council," says Ramona, "the one thing on your mind is, 'Will it be me? What is everyone thinking about me?' It can be stressful." As Probst tallies the votes aloud, "I think he purposely goes slow," says Ramona. "I wanted to scream, 'Get on with it!' "

Now she wishes he hadn't. On her 12th day, her fellow tribemates ruled that Ramona was unfit. "I felt betrayed and angry," she says. "I felt like saying, 'I'm useful!' " Hobbled by nausea and dehydration, from the outset she had been branded a slacker, especially by B.B. "There were times I wanted to smack him," says Ramona with a laugh. "But how would that look? People would hate me."

Stacey might agree. Not only did the Tagi dump her for not having the right stuff, but now she's getting hostile viewer mail—comparing her even to Hitler—for having been too mean to Survivor's oldest player, Rudy Boesch, 72, a scrappy former Navy SEAL from Virginia Beach. "I definitely got crabby at times," admits Stacey. "I spoke my mind. But I also pulled back and listened." Maybe not hard enough. "Stacey had a little bit of an attitude," says Sonja Christopher, 63, a Walnut Creek, Calif., cancer survivor who became the first ex-castaway after only three days. "She seemed oblivious to how she came across to people. Perhaps that's her lesson from Survivor."

One other lesson: Be prepared. Stacey's readiness program for Survivor didn't involve much more than thumbing through a Malaysian cookbook and a few wilderness guides. "I skipped the hard-core chapters like how to build fires," she says. "I thought, 'They won't leave us without matches.' Wrong!" Contestants' supplies included some rice and canned goods (and, later, a few chickens), one blanket, string and sunscreen. Producers also provided a map to find fresh water, a chance for exploration that gave rise to what has so far been the show's only touch of Blue Lagoon romance-Greg Buis, 24, a Brown University graduate from Gold Hill, Colo., and Colleen Haskell, a 23-year-old college student at Miami Ad School. "They would go off on discovery missions," says Ramona. "We thought it was kind of cute. Somebody was gettin' some."

What everyone really craved was some protein, some carbo, some anything. Richard Hatch, 39, a corporate trainer from Newport, R.I., managed to net an eel that Dirk calls "the dirt-nastiest worst thing I ever put in my mouth." For Stacey, nothing was more repugnant than her sole Malaysian delicacy: the squiggly yellow larvae she gulped down in a challenge against the Pagong's Gervase Peterson, 30, a youth basketball coach from Philadelphia. "It was the sensation of having them wiggle in your mouth, then biting on them, feeling the crunch and then the innards," she says. "I almost lost it."

The Pagong developed their own culinary specialty, roasted rat, prepared over an open fire by Greg and Joel Klug, 28, a traveling salesman the Pagong nicknamed "Country" for his farm roots. "I was pleasantly surprised by the flavor," says Ramona. "But I think I've had my first and last taste of rat, thank you." The food situation led to other difficulties ("Constipation was definitely a problem," says Ramona) and even pipe-dream schemes of raiding the crew's food supply. One day, says Dirk, citing another effect of hunger, "we were in the jungle and I looked back at Sean and I said, 'Sean, what do you smell?' and he said, 'I smell an Italian restaurant.' I said, 'I smell the same thing.' The jungle plays tricks on your mind."

Meanwhile, the castaways were playing with each other's heads. With contestants dreading tribal council and dreaming of Si million, keeping track of alliances was like following a coconut-shell game. "It was anarchy," says Stacey. "People shifted every minute." Dirk knew Susan had it in for him, but he was stunned to learn that Kelly Wiglesworth, 23, a Nevada river guide, had backstabbed him in the tribal-council vote. "I thought we were friends," he says. Then again, in retrospect, he wonders now whether he shouldn't have helped Stacey dump Rudy. "He would cook, but that's about it," says Dirk. "It was his time to go."

Dirk went instead, preceded out of the heart of darkness by Ramona, Stacey, B.B. and Sonja. They were all whisked to the staff compound to decompress and be asked by a psychologist to evaluate their island experience. (The first rejected castaway in the Swedish show jumped in front of a train and died, a presumed suicide, before the show even aired.) Reintroduced to civilization, B.B. requested a vodka martini. Ramona, sent like the other rejects to a luxury hotel in nearby Kota Kinabalu, slept "for an entire day. In a bed. With pillows. And air conditioning." Back in San Francisco, says Stacey, "the most shocking thing was seeing a Starbucks and thinking I could have caffeine."

Now, watching the show with the rest of the country, "I don't feel like I was robbed," says Stacey. "I did the best I could. I kept telling myself, 'It's only a game.' "

Tom Gliatto
Kelly Carter in Pulau Tiga, Fannie Weinstein in New York City, Pam Grout in Mission Hills and Elizabeth Fernandez in San Francisco

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