Even if she doesn't win, Denise Stapley has made the most of her opportunity on "Survivor: Philippines."
The sex therapist from Cedar Rapids heads into Sunday night's finale with a 1-in-4 shot at the million-dollar prize and the coveted title of Sole Survivor. But even if she doesn't go home with the title, she's already built quite a legacy in her first appearance on the CBS reality mainstay.
Let's study the evidence:
SHE'S RESPECTED BY THE GREATS
Denise pinged the radars of several of the show's great players coming out of the gate. A fine example: While analyzing the players after the very first episode, "Survivor: Cook Islands" champion Yul Kwon (host of the PBS series "America Revealed" after a stint working for the Federal Communications Commission in the Obama administration) was immediately taken with Denise and her game-long companion, Dartmouth graduate Malcolm Freberg.
"She seems really sharp," Yul said. "In terms of her professional background, she's a sex therapist, right? I mean, her skill set is getting people to trust her and open up to her about things that are very private to them, and she's also physically very strong."
SHE'S BELOVED BY THE FAN FAVORITES
Denise also has a huge fan in Parvati Shallow, arguably the most beloved "Survivor" player of all time - she was top vote getter in the inaugural voting for the official Survivor Hall of Fame (more on this later), as well as winning the title of "Miss Survivor" in a popular internet vote last year. Oh, by the way, she's also played the game for an astounding 114 days, finishing sixth (Cook Islands, 36 days), first (Fans vs. Favorites, 39 days) and second (Heroes vs. Villains, 39 days). So when you get the one and only Queen P gushing about you on a weekly basis in her column for the Hollywood Reporter, you're doing something right. Need proof? Here's a sampling:
"Words cannot do justice to the swell of pride I feel in my chest when I watch Denise prepare to do battle. The woman is just so badass. "
"Settle in and get ready to watch Denise shine, ladies and gents. This woman has got challenge dominator written all over her tiny bod."
"Denise does not disappoint. I love this lady. Have I said that already? Homegirl enters the zone and gets it done."
"The therapist is in. No, I’m not talking about my little firecracker, Denise. Although, you all know by now, I am simply mad about her, and the lady can do no wrong in my book."
Um, yeah. Case closed.
WANTED: COMPELLING FEMALE CHARACTERS? CHECK ...
A few weeks ago, host Jeff Probst courted controversy when discussing why the show, more often than not, brings back male players for return appearances over their female counterparts.
“There just aren’t as many colorful women characters in Survivor history, and we’ve used up the ones we can,” Probst told Entertainment Weekly's Dalton Ross. “For whatever reason we’re loaded with interesting guys.” This naturally ruffled the feathers of some of the show's most memorable women and they gathered in force on Twitter:
If finding players or characters that the fans love is difficult -- and finding memorable female players is that much more difficult, according to Probst -- it's fair to say that our favorite sex therapist from Cedar Rapids has created quite the argument. And her timing is perfect, with her appearance coming on the heels of a pair of strong female winners the previous two seasons. The first, med student Sophie Clarke, vanquished both of the returning male all-stars in her season (including beating the show's all-time greatest challenge monster, Ozzy Lusth - who would have faced a jury full of his friends and former tribemates, all but guaranteeing his victory - in the final immunity challenge to secure her seat at the final tribal council) en route to a stealthly brilliant and underrated win in "Survivor: South Pacific." The second, bridal shop owner Kim Spradlin, played one of the most dominating games of all time, leading her unbreakable alliance of five women strong into the finale before winning "Survivor: One World."
THE HALL OF FAME (AN EDITORIAL)
Has Denise done enough to be considered among the all-time greats? Well, by my standards, she's already done enough to earn the right to be judged, even if she doesn't close out the season as the Sole Survivor. As of now, she's lasted 36 days and made it to at least fourth place. When I created my own personal benchmarks for consideration for the official "Survivor Hall of Fame" (yes, there is one), I had only two main criteria.
Since the show has evolved a bit over the years, sometimes 36 days isn't good enough for fifth place and sometimes you can finish fifth with less than that. But either way, 99 percent of the time, 36 days/fifth place means you were an active participant of every single episode of the season. So that's the first criteria: Lasting for at least 36 days and/or finishing in at least fifth place. That makes them either great PLAYERS or worthy of being discussed as great players.
Now, there have been a few great players that didn't last 36 days. But there are always a few memorable players - maybe they got screwed over by a twist, maybe they got sick or injured, or maybe they were just crazy, funny or super-entertaining in general - that get asked to play again, even if they placed poorly the first time around. Hence, my second and last criteria: Selection for a return appearance. That makes them great CHARACTERS, the kind of players that casual viewers tune in to watch.
The former Survivors that have integrated themselves into pop culture after their stint on the show all fit this criteria. The player most famous for something besides "Survivor" -- Elisabeth Hasselbeck, co-host of ABC's daily talk show "The View" -- got her start on "Survivor," finishing in fourth place in the Australian Outback. That season remains the show's biggest, debuting after Super Bowl XXXV in January 2001 and eventually becoming the first show to unseat NBC's popular sitcom block ("Friends," specifically) from the top of the ratings.
There have been high-profile acting gigs as a result of “Survivor” experience (Colleen Haskell, Colby Donaldson). There has been philanthropy (Ethan Zohn and the late Jenn Lyon). A few “Playboy” cover girls (Jerri Manthey, Jenna Morasca and Heidi Strobel). One couple has parlayed “Survivor” success into reality superstardom (Rob Mariano and Amber Brkich), which includes a combined six "Survivor" appearances with two victories, two "Amazing Race" partnerships and their own televised wedding, among other things.
Common denominator? All of these players played at least 36 days or got asked to return. Denise has now reached that plateau. Also, she managed to survive every single tribal council of the season so far - a rare feat in the game's history that I broke down to my Gazette colleague (and newest "Survivor" fan) Diana Nollen here .
More importantly, she's impressed some of the show's greats with her strong physical showing in the challenges, her shrewd strategic game and her partnership with another fan favorite in Malcolm, and her even-keeled social game (no matter which side of the argument you come down on, Denise's divisive feud with hot-tempered Brazilian contestant Abi-Maria Gomes has become the rivalry of the season). And based on Probst's statement of surprise surrounding her popularity, she's made a strong case to be asked back in the future.
Is she a Hall of Famer right now? Probably not. But I'm willing to bet the only reason she wouldn't play again is if she simply doesn't want to. So don't unpack your bags, Denise ... you'll be getting asked back.
(P.S.: The Hall of Fame debuted in the fall of 2010, curated by entertainment writer Gordon Holmes of xfinitytv.com, who assembled an executive committee of voters which included Mr. Jeff Probst himself, as well three of the show's longtime producers and group of entertainment writers who have a long history of covering the show. Each honoree subsequently becomes an executive voter upon induction. A fan vote is also held, which drew over 2,000 votes a year for the first two years; the new class debuted this week at xfinitytv.com. However, every single player is eligible under the Hall's criteria. I just hold myself - as a nerdy superfan who can talk about the show the way most normal people talk about baseball - to higher standards. 36 days/fifth place or a return appearance ... you don't get there, you don't get my vote!)