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Columns
'Survivor' hopefuls ready to try anything

Wednesday, April 11, 2001

By Cristina Rouvalis, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The hit TV show "Survivor" has plenty of young, buff, smooth-skinned contestants, but Steven Michalek showed up for a tryout yesterday, arguing for a little buff-bodied diversity on prime time. "I'd like to see more older people with long hair and tattoos," he said.

"Survivor" fan Lezlie DelVecchio went to the tryouts yesterday and got a kiss from the "so beautiful" Jeff Varner, who was voted off the show in March. (Martha Rial/Post-Gazette)

In other words, more people like him -- a ponytailed 47-year-old in a skimpy pink muscle shirt that showed off the guardian angel and Jesus Christ tattoos on his back and a winged heart on a bulging bicep.

"Don't you think I have a nice body for a 47-year-old?" he said.

Then the general contractor from Hampton recited his pitch, the one he had written on his application form: "I'd cut my hair off and go naked in Times Square. The only thing I wouldn't do is change my sex."

That was what passed for restraint yesterday at the auditions for the upcoming third "Survivor" series.

Eager for $1 million and undaunted by the prospect of eating insects and stabbing others in the back, dozens of people auditioned inside a small office at the Annette Ganassi Oldsmobile-Pontiac dealership in Shaler. Each got three minutes to talk in front of the camera without any prompting.

Even people who had tuned out the cultural phenomenon of "Survivor" wanted to take a shot.

Nancy Palmieri, a lean 46-year-old from Squirrel Hill who looked "Survivor"-worthy in khaki shorts, announced during her audition that she never watches TV, which is a little like being interviewed for a librarian's job and saying you don't read.

"You mean you have never watched 'Survivor?' " the incredulous KDKA-TV producer asked.

"No. I haven't watched TV since 1990," Palmieri said.

Once the TV camera began rolling, she said she really wanted to compete on "Survivor" because she and her husband, who own an asphalt company, were in bankruptcy.

"The money would help and it would be a great accomplishment for me," said Palmieri, who had heard about the show from a friend.

Lezlie DelVecchio, a 24-year-old from Shaler, declared herself "the next Amber" -- Amber Brkich, the current "Survivor" contestant from Beaver County -- because she would have the mental edge to compete, thanks to her training as a family counselor.

But she also came to meet her beloved Jeff -- Jeff Varner, who was just voted off the show and was signing autographs in the showroom next to glistening new vehicles.

The tanned, newly minted celebrity hugged and kissed her after she identified herself as the Lezlie who had written the e-mail that said she had dreamed that he was rude to her and was hoping it was only "an irrational fear."

Turns out it was an irrational fear. In person, Varner was perfectly polite to DelVecchio and smiled as she gave him a camera and picture frame for his coming birthday.

"Your eyes. You are so beautiful," DelVecchio gushed before reminding him that she was single.

Besides greeting many female fans, Varner also did a double-take at Michalek, the tattooed 47-year-old who had survived severe injuries after falling off a roof in 1981 and figured he could survive the rigors of the show, too.

Varner looked Michalek over and said, "You would scare me if you were in my tribe."

It was the ultimate "Survivor" compliment -- or curse -- and Michalek smiled.

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