"WHEN SURVIVOR SEASON one was on the air, we were on the level of A-list celebrities,” says Gervase Peterson. “People were all over us. We were getting letters. Underwear. Marriage proposals. Men and women would cry when they met us. We were invited to every event in Hollywood. The guest lists would say, like, Tom Cruise. Brad Pitt. Angelina Jolie. Gervase.”
“Now, it’s toned down somewhat,” he continues, rattling the ice in his generic Dr. Pepper. It’s a Sunday, and we’re sitting in the Cherry Hill Mall Chuck E. Cheese’s, where Gervase, the entertainer and businessman, is giving a version of his sales pitch. His voice, a peculiar combination of squeaky and sonorous, Urkel and Bible Belt preacher, rings familiar over the din of multiple birthday parties. “If you wanna call me a D, E, F, G list celebrity, it’s okay, because the key word is celebrity.” He smiles. “Sure, you can say I’ll always be ‘Gervase from Survivor,’ but that guy over there” — he points discreetly to a man hoisting his daughter out of a booster seat whose pants are dipping ever so slightly to reveal his butt crack — “he ain’t no celebrity. That’s Joe Schmoe. I’m a celebrity.”
Five years after Survivor: Borneo, the reality show that made Gervase, a youth basketball coach and post-office drone from Willingboro, New Jersey, a celebrity, Chuck E. Cheese’s serves as his de facto office. Gervase, who still lives in Willingboro, frequently holds meetings here, so that the younger two of his four children, Kayla, seven, and Gunner Tiga Peterson, five, can entertain themselves while their dad talks business. Gervase can talk business at Chuck E. Cheese’s because he is the sort of person who is undistracted by larger-than-life mice singing the Supremes. He is generally calm — “Gervase Never Nervous,” Bryant Gumbel called him once — which is why back in 2000, when Survivor: Borneo became a Capital H-huge hit, second in ratings that year only to the Super Bowl, he remained relatively unbothered, even in the eye of the famestorm, even when dudes were actually approaching him at the urinal asking for autographs. “I would be like, yo, my hands are kind of full right now,” he says. But he tried to be accommodating.
“I had a picture in my head of what fame would be like, and that was it,” he says. “I loved it. I thought, I want to stay in this business.”
He’s done one better than that — Gervase has made being Gervase from Survivor a business. Five years and 10 seasons later, while Richard Hatch, the winner of Survivor: Borneo, is roundly despised by all (including, it turns out, the IRS, which is trying to send him to prison for tax evasion), his lazy but lovable costar is planning his week: There’s a CBS/Pontiac promotion in New York, a celebrity softball game in Camden with morning show hosts from Q102, and three nights hosting a movie trivia show at area colleges (which means, regrettably, that he won’t be able to make the Arthur Fennell & Kenny Gamble Celebrity Pool Tournament on Friday night).
If you miss him at any of those events, you can catch him on television — on VH1’s Reality TV Secrets Revealed! or Bravo’s Battle of the Network Reality Stars. In Philadelphia, you can probably find him at one of the club openings, charity functions (he runs his own annual Gervase Bowl for Alzheimer’s, from which his mother suffers), promotions and parties he attends on a regular basis, or read about him in one of the city’s gossip columns, where his doings are inevitably chronicled.
“Gervase wasn’t the most recognizable character on the show,” says Murtz Jaffer, of the hard-core reality fansite InsidePulse.com, “but after the show, we stopped hearing from everyone else. Except Gervase. And this is the game that’s important.”
By the end of this year, Gervase plans to extend his game into a restaurant, Nostalgia, at 2nd and Fairmount in Northern Liberties, and he also hopes to launch a clothing line, Free As a Bird (“For single people — there’s a logo on the sleeve that tells people you are single and looking.”), with a neighbor from Willingboro next fall. “I’ve done everything except make an album,” he says. He smiles. “And that’s probably happening sometime soon.
“This ain’t no 15 minutes,” he says, as the gongs, bells and whistles denoting a particularly high Skee-Ball score go off in the background. “This is a career.”