"I'm outdoorsy," she says. "I love to exercise and be outside. I don't care what I'm wearing, and I don't care if I'm uncomfortable. I am nothing like Blair."
Whelchel, 49, has proved this to fans of Survivor: Philippines, in which she has demonstrated hard work around camp, a surprising proficiency for puzzle challenges, plus all the backstabbing and social skills necessarily to go deep into the game. (She made the final six without a single vote cast against her.)
But then, when asked about the breakup of her 24-year marriage to Steve Cauble, Whelchel gets quiet. "Of course I still believe in marriage," she says. "I never thought divorce would happen to me. But Steve is still my best friend. We just couldn't be married."
Although they wouldn't go into detail about the reasons behind the split, Whelchel and Cauble tell PEOPLE about their lives now.
"We still see each other every day; we go out to dinner and movies. At one point [our daughter] Clancy said, 'Mom, I think you're going to have to let me know when you get divorced, because I won't be able to tell when it happens.' "
Adds Cauble: "We spend normal family times together – holidays, birthdays, and of course, watching Survivor."
"I personally have much more understanding and empathy now," says Whelchel. "You don't know what people are facing in their lives, so it's important to love and not judge them. That's the whole Christian message: that we fail and forgiveness can happen. It's a sad commentary of many Christians that we shoot our wounded. So I've learned how important it is to be more encouraging and understanding, no matter what people are going through."
Playing SurvivorWith her marriage ending and her children reaching adulthood (she and Cauble have a son, Tucker, 22, and two daughters, Haven, 21 and Clancy, 20), Whelchel decided to compete on her favorite TV show.
"I wanted a challenge," she says of signing up for Survivor. "I had dreamed about being on the show for years. And I really wanted to do the Survivor challenges."
Monty Brinton / CBS
"I wasn't worried about going into Survivor, because in my head it all made sense," she says. "I thought, 'This is a game. I love games. I'm competitive. I'll play it strategically.' But then I got there. When you're playing with real people, your heart is in it, not just your head. I don't want to be a liar; I don't want to hurt people's feelings. It hurts me to talk badly about people. So every day, I had to think very carefully about how I played. Did I make mistakes? Sure. But that's life. You make mistakes sometimes."
Her Family – and FutureWhen Survivor ends, Whelchel is ready for new opportunities. (She is moving to Los Angeles after the holidays, and will start considering acting roles.) She says she keeps in touch with the other Facts of Life cast members, especially Nancy McKeon. "She'll be a lifelong friend," says the actress.
For their part, Whelchel's kids tell PEOPLE that their mom will succeed, no matter how what she chooses to do. "She has what it takes," says daughter Haven, who got married this fall. "She's the strongest woman I know." Adds Tucker, a singer in the Dallas-area band Dovetail, "When Mom gets something in her mind to do, she does it. I'm very proud of her."
And youngest daughter Clancy – who looks very much like Whelchel did in the '80s – has designs to follow in her mother's footsteps as an actress. "I'd love to be on a show with my mom," she says. "She's not really the type of mom who embarrasses us. She's really cool."
As for how Whelchel does on Survivor, she remains tight-lipped. "All I'll say is that it was a wonderful experience," she says with a smile. "But you'll have to keep watching to see if I win."