By Diana Nollen/ SourceMedia
She’s outlasted 14 other castaways, and now it’s down to the season wrap-up.
Denise Stapley, 41, a mental health counselor and certified sex therapist from Cedar Rapids, has made it to the final rounds of “Survivor: Philippines.” The finale for the 25th season of the popular television reality game show will begin at 7:30 p.m. Sunday (12/16/12) on CBS.
She’s such a strong player that at times it looked like the tables were turning on her in tonight’s 12/12/12 episode, but the numbers aligned in her favor, and the unpopular Abi-Maria Gomes, 32, a business student from Los Angeles, got booted off the island 4 to 1 and into the jury box for the grand finale.
So the Final Four now stands at Denise; Lisa Whelchel, 49, a former TV teen actress from Dallas, Texas; Malcolm Freberg, 25, a bartender from Hermosa Beach, Calif., and Denise’s ally from the beginning; and Michael Skupin, 50, a professional speaker, author and coach from White Lake, Mich., who was airlifted out of the show’s second season, “Survivor: The Australian Outback,” after falling into a fire and suffering severe burns.
Denise and Malcolm are original Matsing Tribe members, while Skupin and Lisa are original Tandangs. No one from Kalabaw made it that far.
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The 12/12/12 episode began in a most unusual manner, with Abi actually sounding sincere and humbled that she survived the Night 33 Tribal Council in which nice-guy Carter Williams, 24, a track coach from Shawnee, Kan., was voted off the island.
Abi said she was “over the moon,” but to everyone else, that comment was cheese.
Day 34 dawned with Abi declaring she was off to get water. Her antics took their toll, and the others jumped at the chance to mock her behind her back. Good-girl Lisa, however, told the camera she wanted to vote off Denise, who was a bigger threat in the million-dollar quest, but she admitted it might be wiser in the long run to kick Abi out of the game.
That afternoon, everyone gathered on the beach for a Reward Challenge ring toss, which wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Nothing ever is on this survival of the physically and emotionally fittest competition. Denise did well, scampering up and over a steep ramp and running into the ocean to untie bags of rings to then toss at six pegs.
Alas, Skupin prevailed, winning the chance to hop onto a helicopter then onto a boat for a pizza and pop feast, then into the ocean to snorkel with a whale shark. As a bonus, he was allowed to take two others for the afternoon jaunt. he quickly chose Malcolm and Lisa, and they spent most of the boat ride scheming their next moves and cementing their alliance.
Meanwhile, Denise was stuck for the afternoon with everyone’s least favorite castaway. Abi wasn’t thrilled either.
“I was crushed when I wasn’t chosen for the reward,” Abi whined. “To make matters worse, I have to go home with Denise. She’s a horrible person.”
Denise vowed “to make nice” with Abi. “It’s like being on a date with the kid who pulled your hair in first grade. I’m just going to try to get through the afternoon.” A bit later, she gave the most comical quote of the 25th season: “I want to hang myself, gouge my eyes out and stick needles in my eardrums. Then I’d be good for the afternoon.”
Perhaps karma bit her for those biting, yet hilarious, words. On Day 36, the dawn of a crucial Immunity Challenge day in the 39-day odyssey, Denise woke up with two bite marks on her neck and a horrible stinging sensation. Clearly in agony and reduced to tears, it looked like her journey might end just inches away from the final payoff.
But, survivor that she is, she shook it off and made her usual scrappy showing in the puzzle challenge, where the castaways had to create and navigate a rope bridge, gather puzzle pieces along the way, then assembly them in the right sequence to create a maze that a ball could navigate to land in a hole.
Malcolm fell off his bridge and into last place, then stunned everyone by winning. So he not only was safe from that evening’s elimination vote, he also still had a Hidden Immunity Idol that he could bestow onto another player. He chose, instead, to take it home as a souvenir.
That meant the other four were fair game for the vote. Each made their plea, with Abi ditching her lie about having another immunity idol. Despite her valiant effort to convince them to keep her in the game, she got the boot.
The surviving four cheered and danced their way back to camp and into the series finale.
Earlier Wednesday, all five appeared on host Jeff Probst’s afternoon talk show. They flew out to Los Angeles several days ago to tape the segment, which marked the first time the “Survivor” producers had allowed any contestants to talk before the series finale.
(I scored an interview with Denise before the season began airing in September, but the telephone interview was monitored by a CBS representative. I would assume the others got to talk to their hometown media, too, before the competition played out on TV.)
Probst asked about their chances and strategies, one by one, then in a group, and fielded questions from the studio audience.
Jeff asked Abi point-blank if her unpopularity was truly due to a “cultural disconnect” — she’s Brazilian — or was she “just entitled and kinda bitchy.”
“I’m hoping to be dragged to the end, to put together a big case to win,” she replied. She said the hardest part of the game was the emotional aspect of being unliked, calling it “a horrible feeling.”
“I’m a crazy Brazilian with great intentions,” she declared.
Probst lauded Denise for her physical dominance, calling it “impressive for a small woman.” He also noted that could work against her in the final voting, if the others see her as a threat. He then asked her if her strategy would be to downplay that.
“I can’t stop being who I am,” she replied.
And we wouldn’t want her to.
See the finale and season 25 reunion beginning at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 16, on CBS.