Process of Elimination

'Survivor' contestants can give you a million reasons for spending more than a month on a deserted island. But two Baltimore women are simply game for the challenge of being the last one standing.

January 11, 2000|By Sarah Pekkanen | Sarah Pekkanen,SUN STAFF

If you were about to be dropped on a deserted island and could bring only one thing, what would it be?

More than your survival is riding on your answer. The right item could also be worth a million bucks -- but we'll get to that in a minute.

Sandra Kaufmann is considering the merits of aluminum foil: "It's light, reflective, you can cook in it, and make cups, and use it to attract fish -- they like shiny things -- and if you had lots of it, you could waterproof a house."

Kaufmann has clearly given this a lot of thought, and for good reason: She might actually be sent to a tropical island in the South China Sea. If she can last 39 days, she might win the million bucks. And yes, she'll be allowed to bring along one item of her choosing.

But it isn't that simple. It never is, in the new gung-ho world of television game shows with giant payoffs.

Kaufmann, a 31-year-old anesthesiology resident at Johns Hopkins, is among a pool of contestants vying for a spot on the new CBS show "Survivor," slated to be broadcast this summer.

The TV show is based on a Swedish program called "Project Robinson," and the premise is fiendish: Not only do ordinary folks have to endure more than a month on an uninhabited island with no shelter and only whatever food they can forage (the island has fruit and, for non-vegetarians, snakes and monkeys), but they also have to stay sweet and lovable.

That's because contestants are sent to the island in a group of 16. Every three days, the group votes on a member to eliminate. Whoever is left standing at the end gets the money. So to win the cash, you've got to win a popularity contest.

It's "Gilligan's Island" meets "The Real World" meets your worst high-school nightmare.

"They need each other to survive," explains Michael Naidus, a CBS spokesman, "but they're against each other for the money."

Kaufmann, who lives in Federal Hill, figures she's already ahead of the game. More than 6,000 people filled out extensive applications and videotaped themselves attempting to charm CBS executives after the network launched a contestant search on its Web site.

Recently, the field was narrowed to 800 semi-finalists -- several from Baltimore. On Friday and Saturday, producers will be at WJZ-TV to select the chosen few who will be flown to Los Angeles for physical and psychological tests and the final cut of 16.

"What to wear?" muses Kaufmann, who donned an evening gown, her surgical scrubs, a kick-boxing outfit and casual clothes to show her diversity in her try-out videotape.

If Kaufmann can just make it onto the island, she figures she's a shoo-in: "Who's going to vote to boot the doctor?"

But she faces some stiff competition, demographically speaking, from another Baltimore semi-finalist. Heidi Daniels is also a white, professional female (she works for Constellation Power), and she's just two years younger than Kaufmann.

The women also share some specialized knowledge that would come in handy when a diet of bananas and coconuts grew tiresome: Both know which plants are safe to eat.

Kaufmann has a master's degree in tropical ecology and plant physiology. Counters Daniels, "Where I grew up (in Florida), it was like the backwoods. We had to live off the land."

The women sound remarkably similar. Too similar. "Diversity is important" for the 16 contestants, says Naidus.

"I'll have to kill her," Kaufmann has decided.

Murderous sentiments are likely to flow freely on the island as sleepless, insect-filled nights and hungry days accumulate, Daniels expects.

"In circumstances like that, everyone gets on your last nerve," she says. "It's gonna be rough to keep your sanity."

But contestants not only have to stay sane, they've got to avoid angering their fellow castaways so they don't get kicked out. That's where the bring-along item can make a difference. The person who passes around a jumbo box of Godiva on, say, day 13 would have an edge over the guy who hoards his deck of cards for all-day solitaire marathons.

Kaufmann is ready to charm: "As an anesthesiologist, I have five minutes every morning to make people trust me enough to put them to sleep."

Which brings us to this point: She has a good job. She has a life. So does Daniels. So why do it? Why forgo deodorant and Starbucks while ever-present TV cameras capture your worst moments?

There's the fame, of course. But Daniels is blase about the possibility of a stint on prime-time TV (the network plans to air 13 one-hour segments).

"If I'm on a deserted island for seven weeks with no curling iron or mascara," she says, "they won't recognize me if I'm walking down the street."

There's also the money. But interestingly, that isn't what seems to be driving most of the would-be contestants. In this convenience-oriented age of microwaves and minute rice, people are apparently hungering for a chance to test their mettle in the most primitive of circumstances.

Those seeking a contestant slot include everyone from "an astronaut to homemakers to strippers," says Naidus. And a large number are senior citizens, many of whom wrote on their applications, "I'm looking for an adventure at this point in my life."

"It's not the money," Kaufmann explains. "It's the fun. How many times in your life do you have the opportunity to do something like this?"

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