Almost 25 years after The Facts of Life went off the air, Whelchel, 49, has joined the cast of Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas.
But instead of playing a spoiled prep school student, she'll be someone in charge. "I play the role of Nancy Porter, the country school principal," Whelchel tells PEOPLE. "I'm having fun!"
Since The Facts of Life ended, Whelchel has put her career on hold to raise her three children, acting in just two TV movies. (Her last role was a Facts of Life reunion in 2001.)
She returned to the spotlight last fall as a contestant on Survivor: Philippines. At the time, she told PEOPLE that she was exploring new opportunities after her stint on reality TV. "I'd host," she said. "I'd do a sitcom. Really, I've got a lot of opportunities."
After placing second on Survivor – and winning an extra $100,000 as fan favorite – Whelchel signed with Hollywood agency David Shapira and Associates. Her audition for Madea was her first in 33 years; three hours after reading for the part, she was offered the role.
Whelchel tells PEOPLE that she loves working on the film, which started production in Atlanta this week. "Tyler Perry is such a brilliant man," she says. "He's a nice guy, and so funny when he gets in his Madea garb."
But there's more going on in Whelchel's career. Still a massive Survivor fan, she's keeping close to the show that put her back on the map.
After guest hosting several episodes of Jeff Probst's talk show, she agreed to host the TV Guide Survivor special next week. "In my view," she says, "that's equivalent to working on a Spielberg film!"