Nice Going

updated 05/21/2001 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/21/2001 AT 01:00 AM EDT

A part from the $1 million prize money. Survivor: The Australian Outback victor Tina Wesson loves the little complimentary gifts that come with her whirlwind celebrity appearances. "This is so much fun," she says in her Tennessee drawl. "I'm not used to getting free stuff." Backstage at a special Survivor cast taping for Hollywood Squares (airing during the week of May 14), she digs into a basket of cellophane-wrapped goodies provided by the executive producers and notices a small sack labeled RICE. "There's no way they gave me that," she shrieks, tearing open the bag. Yep. Rice, the dreaded staple of the Survivor diet. "I think I might have to leave this behind," she says.

But Survivor is something Wesson, 40, will carry with her for years. In the Australian Outback last fall, she weathered a flood and energy-sapping hunger, dropping from 118 to 99 lbs. in 42 days. Watching her niece waste away on TV, says Gail Woods, "I wanted to hug her and say, 'Honey, you come home any time. You're a winner with us.' "

Having triumphed over runner-up and custom-auto designer Colby Donaldson, 27, the Knoxville resident is suddenly a champ everywhere. So many shoppers buttonhole her that she can barely go through the local Kroger's supermarket in under two hours. "You're in the eye of the tornado," says Wesson. "It's like, 'There goes a cow! Oh my God, there goes a car!' "

The 36 million viewers of CBS's Survivor finale on May 3 might have longed for a flying cow or two. The first Survivor ended last summer with volcanic eruptions of bad will and the crowning of the unlikable Richard Hatch. This one wound up a weep-a-thon. Minutes before host Jeff Probst tallied the votes one last time, Wesson cried just thinking about the also-rans. "Colby had his arm around me," she says. "I was a basket case." Hatch might have sneered in contempt, but Carolyn McClain is proud of her daughter, who didn't receive a single vote against her in the tribal councils. "Negativity sells," says McClain, "but this time sweetness won."

The lady isn't all cotton candy. When she rescued a tin of rice from the flood, says Probst, she made sure she pounced before Michigan chef Keith Famie, 41, got there. Manhattan personal trainer Alicia Calaway, 33, booted in Week 8, says her first impression of Wesson "was a Southern belle who wouldn't hurt a fly. She was more cunning than expected."

And surprisingly scrappy. A month into the game, a depressed and depleted Wesson confided to Probst that she didn't see how she could last out the competition. "She was ready to quit," he says. Oddly enough,-Wesson also wonders if the miserable rice diet didn't ease the discomforts of her rheumatoid arthritis. "It was the only variable different from my normal life," she says.

That life, of course, is over. For Wesson, husband Dale, 43, and their friends and family—she has a son, Taylor, 12, and a daughter, Katie, 13, from a previous marriage—it's Christmas in May. She says she'll stick to her promise to buy Colby a Harley-Davidson—and maybe one for herself, though she and Dale already own four motorcycles. She's going to pay off the mortgage on best friend Tracey Graves's house and plans to retire the roughly $50,000 mortgage on her own snug three-bedroom home. Then she may shop for a new place. "We're pretty reasonable people," says Dale, vice president of operations for a construction company. "We're not looking for a mansion. Just a little more closet space."

Survivor has opened up other, inner doors for his wife, he believes. "Spiritually, I think it changed her. She has seen a lot of the purpose that God has been working in her life." Wesson hasn't decided whether she'll resume work as a private nurse. But she likes the idea of establishing a charitable trust for the needy, and she plans to volunteer for the national Arthritis Foundation. "Whatever they want me to do," she says, "I'll do."

Some obligations, though, she'll delegate. "Maybe," Tina says, "I'll send Dale to Kroger's for a while."

Tom Gliatto
Fannie Weinstein and Bruce Stockier in New York City, Marisa Laudadio and Julie Jordan in Los Angeles and Lauren Comander in Chicago

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