Heidi Hamels Is More Than Just Mrs. Cole Hamels

The former Survivor contestant is doing something far bigger than reality TV—trying to save Africa.

Heidi Strobel never auditioned for Survivor. She’d never even seen the show back in Missouri, where she grew up in farm country that prides itself on life that’s “a little slower … and a whole lot friendlier.” Heidi and her two younger sisters were raised with values that seem almost old-fashioned now—whether you have enough food for a feast or one slice of bread, you give half to someone in need. “In the spiritual world, you might call her an indigo child,” says Heidi’s mother, Kathy Greene, referring to the New Age concept that certain people are born with heightened sensitivity to the needs of those around them. “She has the gifts of compassion and empathy.” Kathy was the daughter of a Navy pilot and traveled the globe as a child, from Laos to Europe, and she’d tell her girls what her own mother always said: “Don’t be afraid of the world.” Kathy was also an accountant, and her eldest showed a knack for entrepreneurship from an early age—chicken eggs were sold, a neighborhood newspaper was created, kiddie drawings became a curbside art gallery. Never mind that her street saw about four cars a day. Heidi had big ideas.

At age 21, Heidi was studying to be a teacher when she heard about a new television show called The Amazing Race, a global scavenger hunt with a million-dollar prize. She made an audition tape with her grandfather, but the show’s creator, Mark Burnett, wanted just Heidi, for his other reality contest, Survivor. After weeks of lobbying and pleas from Burnett himself, Heidi relented and eventually arrived in the Amazon jungle ready to compete. Or so she thought.

Heidi liked The Amazing Race because it’s a team competition of larky adventure. Survivor is nothing like that. You’re starving, living in makeshift shelters, exposed to monsoons and scorching heat, and all the while, it’s the social game that matters as much as, if not more than, the physical one. Heidi was an athlete—a runner and a basketball player. But she wasn’t prepared for the emotional chess match she’d signed up for. This was also 2002, before we understood just how unreal reality TV can be. I watched that season when it aired the following year, and I remember Heidi, or perhaps more accurately her “character”: cute phys-ed teacher using her looks more than her brains. Heidi’s mom had a different reaction: “I’d say, ‘That’s not my child.’”

It didn’t help Heidi’s image when, during the physical challenge, after standing on that perch for as long as she could last, she volunteered to disrobe for a meal. Or that she snuggled at night with a male cast member. Or opined that most women, if told of their partner’s desire for a ménage à trois, would oblige. During the season-finale reunion show, Probst revealed that the contestant with the highest IQ was … Heidi. No one saw that coming.

A week after our XIX chat, we’re in Heidi’s silver Lexus SUV, on our way to pick up her eldest son, Caleb, from his Main Line grade school. She’s fresh from teaching a boot-camp class—black leggings, loose tank draped over a sports bra, purple-accented sneaks. She looks like a hundred other moms around here, except none of them get asked for their autographs. See, Heidi and her ally on the show, Jenna Morasca, not only bared all on Survivor; they later posed for Playboy—together. Like going on television, it was a very un-Heidi thing to do—unless you know that after the show wrapped, Heidi weighed 86 pounds and felt her left leg go numb from a spider bite, and that a treatment for parasites she’d contracted in the Amazon led to kidney failure and physical problems that linger to this day. When her health improved and Playboy came calling, Heidi thought, Why not? It was another adventure, and she felt lucky to be alive for it. Heidi was YOLO before YOLO was a thing.

As we sit idling in the parking lot of Caleb’s school, Heidi considers how the show changed her. “Pre-Survivor, I was very innocent,” she says.

“Were you mad at Mark Burnett?” I ask.

“I think I was mad at myself. Like, Oh my gosh, I don’t like to be had. I ask so many questions because I’m a calculated risk-taker. I felt like, man, I did not do my homework here. That’s my own fault.”

But maybe even Heidi forgets what happened in that infamous episode, because for her, it wasn’t an episode. It was a day—a very strange day—a very long time ago in her actual life. At that point in the contest, the guys outnumbered the women, six to four. The cocky alpha males spoke to the camera and told the audience the girls would be picked off, one by one. But the tables turned. Heidi and her ladies’ alliance quietly schemed, recruiting three guys to vote with them. What’s best remembered as the show’s “Girls Gone Wild” segment—and what cemented Heidi’s status as a Google Image search topic—was really an episode of empowerment. If Heidi came across like a strumpet, she was playing the game like a pro.

Jenna won that season, and with it, a million bucks. Heidi placed a respectable fifth, and would end up throwing out the first pitch at a minor-league baseball park in Clearwater, Florida. It seemed like one heck of a lousy consolation prize.