Five years after getting booted off the island, Gervase Peterson from ≠Survivor is still playing the role of Gervase Peterson from Survivor. Itís nice work, if you can get it
By Jessica Pressler
"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.” In the past five years, as reality shows have overtaken traditional programming with the enthusiasm — and, often, the charm — of garden weeds, we’ve seen “real” people replace one-dimensional television actors, the pool of the super-famous grow smaller and less accessible, and the rise of a new celebrity: the reality star.
Unlike actors, singers or dancers, reality stars aren’t famous for having a particular talent, but for having personality, moxie and, perhaps most important, willingness to show bare breasts. Often, reality stars are disposable — remember Puck? — but some stick, like Kelly Clarkson from American Idol, or Elisabeth Hasselbeck, who lost Survivor: Australia but became a host on The View. “When I came off of The Real World, we had a few offers,” says Glen Naessens, the crunchy Upper Dublin native from the second season of The Real World, which took place in Los Angeles. “But it was nothing like this. Ever since Survivor, kids have been making a living off of it. Someone like Gervase … well, he’s taken it to a whole new level.”
Reality stars work in the real world for the same reason they work on TV: They’re cheap, and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to make themselves famous. To advertisers, they’re attractive because they’re just like real celebrities, only there are more of them, and they’re willing to show up at a bar opening, product launch or charity event for less than scale. In short: The pool of celebrities is too small to accommodate our demand, so we’re manufacturing celebrities out of real people. Kind of like in Sweeney Todd, when Nellie Lovett runs out of sirloin and starts making meat pies out of human flesh.
“These people have the recognizability of Tom Cruise, but their price point is much lower,” says Marc Marcuse, who started Reel Management after his own stint on Average Joe, and now claims a roster of 130 reality TV “stars,” including Gervase, that he books on everything from cross-country bar crawls to Battle of the Network Reality Stars.
For such a person, this kind of work can add up to a nice chunk of change: Philly’s Heidi Bressler, the shrew from the first season of The Apprentice, isn’t making the salary of a Hollywood movie star by doing speaking engagements, but she’s said she’s making more than she ever did for Qwest Communications. For someone like Gervase — who grew up, he says, wanting to be an “entertainer,” who’s funny but not funny enough to be a proper comedian, who can’t sing, and who ain’t, in his words, no Brad Pitt — the stardom is a boon. He won’t say how much he’s making — who knows to what alliance the folks at the IRS belong? — but this year, we can safely estimate, he’ll clear well over six figures.
Gervase Peterson, sitting cheerfully here at Chuck E. Cheese’s with his soda, is the embodiment of the current zeitgeist: this rise of the personal brand as a business tool, the growth of celebrity obsession, and America’s transition from a labor-and-idea-based economy to one that’s increasingly based on hype: guerrilla marketing, hedge funds, Gervase. He’s a living, breathing pyramid scheme.
“I made a lot of money doing nothing,” he says. “Now, I just want to do more nothing. I get paid to be myself. How cool is that?”
It’s 10 a.m. at the Times Square Marriott Marquis, and Gervase is waiting in a long conference room with five other “Survivors” (once you have been on Survivor, the show, you are always referred to as a “Survivor”) to take their turn signing autographs on the faux island CBS has set up, complete with plastic palm trees and jungle noises, on the island in the middle of Broadway. It’s the Pontiac/CBS “Survivor: Search in the City” dual promotion, and General Motors is giving each Survivor a Pontiac Torrent, which they will drive for the next two months while hoping to be photographed even more than usual, since those who take photographs of the Survivors and send them to CBS have a chance of winning five Torrents (“for your tribe”). The buzz amongst the survivors is that the one who is photographed the most in his or her Torrent will get a $50,000 bonus. “It’s just like a reality show,” I whisper, when the publicist is describing the rules. “Everything,” Gervase responds, “is like a reality show.”
The other Survivors present treat him, at 35, like a sage uncle. “I’m actually really surprised I got called to be in this,” says Erin, a thin, tan Texan from Survivor: Thailand. “I mean, with Boston Rob, and Rupert, and you? I mean, people know who you are,” she tells Gervase. Her perfectly lined eyes widen. “People know who you are, too, Erin,” Gervase says warmly. Unlike the other cast members of Survivor: Borneo, who are regarded by the reality community as thinking they are better than everyone else, Gervase is known, in the reality family, as a man of the people. It’s who he is, but it’s also part of his strategy — his likability was what kept him on Survivor, and it’s part of what keeps him in this game, too.
The conversation eventually turns to Kill Reality, the absurdly meta E! Entertainment series, which stars a group of notorious ex-reality stars playing themselves filming a movie of ex-reality stars. “It’s, like, the worst thing ever,” says the publicist.
“Yeah, I was in that,” says Gervase. Although he doesn’t entirely approve of that crowd, he rarely says no to a paid appearance. “Those girls — Trishelle, Jenna Lewis and Tonya? They’re like ho bags. It affects all reality stars. We’re trying to have a career, and they’re peeing on each other. Who’s going to hire you for something real after that?”
“It’s exposure, though,” ventures Erin from Thailand.
“Yeah, it’s exposure,” Gervase sighs, wearily.
In reality world, exposure is a much-valued thing. After all, visibility breeds more visibility. Nothing begets nothing. “To do this business, you’ve got to be a promoter. You have to be seen. You have to be everywhere,” Gervase says. Which is why — talk of ho bags aside — he’ll pretty much do anything, as long as the price is right.
“Playboy, they pay those girls six figures to take their clothes off. I’d do it.” He laughs. “I got the same shit everybody else got, but Playgirl don’t pay no six figures. If you gonna put a staple through my navel, you’d better pay.”
“Gervase is a total hustler,” says Mark Marcuse. “I mean that in a very positive way.
Salesmanship comes naturally to Gervase. Growing up, “I was a kid that everybody liked. I was a bit of a jokester, and I was a hustler. Bubble Yum was really big. In the mornings, I’d take a dollar and buy 25 pieces of gum, and I’d sell each piece for a quarter. I’d end up making a dollar profit on gum. When Sour Patch Kids came out, I’d go and buy three dollars’ worth of candy, and I’d give everybody one for free. It’s sugar — once you have one, you’re like, I want another one, right away. So I’d sell them for 10 cents apiece. I made a killing. When fat shoelaces were in, I’d go up to New York to visit my cousins, and on the avenue, they’d have fat shoelaces in every color. Here, they just had black, white, red; there they had fluorescents. They had stripes. So I’d buy a bunch and sell them. I always had money.”
“He would turn up with a new pair of sneakers or something, expensive sneakers, and I’d be like, how’d you get that?” recalls his brother Gerald. “It wasn’t ever anything illegal, he would just smile and be like, I have my ways.” It was Gerald who told his brother about the Survivor tryouts after Gerald’s pregnant wife wouldn’t let him audition. Gervase, whose then-girlfriend Carmella was also pregnant, jumped at the chance to leave his three jobs for a shot at a million-dollar payday and a stint on a tropical island.
“Look,” he says, back at Chuck E. Cheese’s. “When I meet with somebody about a promotion or an endorsement offer, I got about three minutes to close the deal. Survivor, you know, won a People’s Choice award. So I’ll say, ‘You’re looking at a People’s Choice winner. You’re looking at someone who five million people have seen on TV. I get letters from Finland, Mexico, Ireland, Sweden, Dubai. Some kid in Norway thinks that Gervase is the bomb-diggity. You’re a fool not to want me to endorse your product.’”
Of course, he’s right. You do want him to endorse your product. General Motors, after all, picked Survivors for a reason. If they’d bestowed a Pontiac Torrent on someone like Jennifer Aniston, it might have languished in a garage alongside other freebies. But they know with reality stars, they’re utilizing a bunch of hustlers. Which is probably why the literature given to the Times Square bunch warns: “There is no need to oversell the Torrent.”
In entertainment, as in business, it helps to be the type of person who oversells. Gervase will talk to your mom on the phone, he’ll come to your under-attended charity event, he is genuinely delighted to be co-starring with Screech from Saved by the Bell.
When Gervase gave his son Gunner the middle name “Tiga,” naming him after Pulau Tiga, the tiny island near Borneo where the series was taped, he must have known he was in this for the long haul — that he was making a strategic decision, letting Survivor become a part of his identity. He branded his own child. How’s that for marketing genius? Still, it doesn’t compare to the speech he gave when he was kicked off the island. “I freaked out, man,” he says, laughing. “I was like, you better kick me off. Because if you don’t kick me off today, I’m gonna kick all your asses.” This is, of course, an approximation; the actual speech was cut from the show, and the content was evidently more poignant — at least it was stirring enough that Survivor creator Mark Burnett was moved to tell Playboy, “Someday when Gervase’s son is old enough to watch the videotape of his father’s bold statements, he will see a model for manhood.” Burnett’s statement meant a lot to Gervase, who’s missed his own father since his death in a car accident when Gervase was 15. He also continues to mourn the loss of the speech.
“Aw, man,” he says. “If that speech hadn’t gotten cut, Americans would have loved me more than they already do.” Sometimes, it seems Gervase gets tired of being Gervase. At Diego and Chio’s Sunday Softball Game for — “I don’t know, some charity” — he is grumpy, his hat pulled low, barely verbal. There are about 30 people, a generous estimate, in the audience for Q102’s softball game against the Men of the Cave, and most of them look like friends and relatives. Gervase’s kids are arguing with Chio’s kid; it looks like a little inter-tribal conflict.
It’s a far cry from the heady post-Pulau Tiga days, before Gervase came home to take care of his mother (who is now in a nursing home), when he lived in L.A. and was invited to all the best parties, when people mobbed him in the street, on the elevator, at bars. “People still act crazy, like the show’s still on,” he told the Survivors gathered in the Marriott. But the truth is, it only happens occasionally these days.
After the game ends — Q102 loses — he perks up. There’s the Q102 party at the Lagoon later that night, and he’s meeting with a guy who wants to cast him in a movie.
He talks about how he wants to have a paper route, how he’s always wanted to be a human guinea pig, how he went to GlaxoSmithKline and filled out the paperwork and everything, because “That’s a cool job. You do nothing.” How he never had a paper route when he was a kid, but now he can. Because when you are making six figures for doing nothing, you can pick up and do whatever you want. “How cool is that, that I get to do that?” he says, in a way that indicates this is not a sales pitch. “I have a cool life.”
But doesn’t he ever worry that someday his 15 minutes, or whatever you want to call it, the Gervase Hour, might end? He has four kids, after all. Gervase Never Nervous climbs into his Pontiac Torrent, emblazoned with the Survivor logo, and smiles. “It won’t end,” he says “until I say it’s gonna end.” Then he drives off into the sunset.