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Local 'Survivor' competes in Amazon edition

Thursday, February 13, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

With each incarnation of "Survivor," the less secretive CBS is about the granddaddy of "reality" shows.

South Fayette native Jenna Morasca says her experience on "Survivor: The Amazon" is similar to competing in beauty pageants. (Robert Voets, CBS)

That's no surprise. The older "Survivor" becomes, the more publicity CBS needs as the show's status as water cooler television is usurped by newer, wilder reality shows, particularly ABC's "The Bachelorette" and Fox's "Joe Millionaire."

Ratings for "Survivor" remain strong, but with "Are You Hot?" premiering at the same time tonight on ABC, CBS knows it can't afford to be as tight-lipped as in the past. This time, the network offered up South Fayette native Jenna Morasca's father for an interview (although Jenna herself will not be available to the media until she is either voted off or wins) and a review tape of the first episode without the immunity challenge outcome or tribal council vote.

Jenna, a student at the University of Pittsburgh, stars in "Survivor: The Amazon" (8 tonight), which has a rollicking 90-minute premiere that introduces a battle of the sexes between all-male and all-female teams.

"I can't see the women working well together," says contestant Rob Cesternino. "I see them all crying and panicking and trying to build a cell phone so they can call their boyfriends to come over and help them build a shelter."

For her part, Jenna is disappointed by the way teams are split along gender lines.

"[Going] into the jungle with seven other women is my worst nightmare," she says in tonight's episode. "If you're in a tribe with all women, you can't use your womanly powers on women. They could care less. They'd find that insulting. With men, you can manipulate them better."

Will Jenna give "Survivor: The Australian Outback" player Amber Brkich of Brighton, Beaver County, a run for her money in the contest to be Pittsburgh's reality-show Hometown Hottie?

"And then some," said Mark Burnett, executive producer of "Survivor." "She's quite sure of herself and will speak her mind. She certainly isn't a wallflower."

Jenna, who turns 22 on Saturday, is a swimsuit model who has appeared in Maxim and Stuff magazines. She's competed in various beauty pageants and swimsuit competitions, winning several. And she was second runner-up in the Miss Pennsylvania USA beauty pageant in 2001.

Series host Jeff Probst said Jenna defies the swimsuit model stereotype.

"She looks at beauty pageants as sort of a mini-'Survivor,' " Probst said. "It's all about psyching people out, not about letting people see you sweat. She made a lot of analogies through the interview process that this is no different than what she does for a living."

"Survivor" won't be Jenna's first TV appearance. She was a correspondent for Eddie Edwards' short-lived local show "NiteLife" on WCWB in 2001.

Her father, 54-year-old Michael Morasca, said she auditioned to host E! Entertainment Television's "Wild On!" and made it to the final 20. A one-minute segment that showed Jenna parachuting aired on E! last year.

Her mother, Carla, has been battling breast cancer for 12 years. Her father, director of engineering at the Westin Convention Center Hotel, said he was initially reluctant to see his daughter participate in "Survivor."

"Naturally, being the father, I thought she was crazy," Michael said. "She kind of convinced me that's the thing to do. She's a go-getter. When she wants something, she goes and gets it."

Jenna graduated from South Fayette High School in 1999 and attended Duquesne University for two years before transferring to Pitt, her father said.

She took last semester off and departed for Brazil on Oct. 27. Michael said he and his wife told family members she'd left for Pitt's Semester at Sea program.

"That kind of kept them quiet for a while, but eventually they figured out [something was going on because] they at least let you call," Michael said. "A couple family members started wising up."

Many of them will be at the Morasca home tonight for a viewing party.

Jenna took her sorority's "Zeta Crown" as her luxury item. Her father said it's not a dainty tiara, but a piece of wood carved in the shape of a crown signed by Jenna's sorority sisters and parents for good luck.

"She said, 'It's made of wood, so if I need it to break something open, I can use it,' " her dad recalled.

In the future, Michael said, his daughter would like to combine her love of animals with television, ideally hosting a show on Animal Planet.

Until offers for post-"Survivor" work come in, Jenna will undoubtedly see her fame spread, especially on the Internet. Web sites devoted to Jenna have already sprung up, most notably the locally created www.jenna-morasca.com from the supportive creators of www.amber-brkich.com. Web site www.betwwts.com gives Jenna 7-1 odds of winning the $1 million grand prize in this round of "Survivor."

Probst said "Survivor: Amazon" will differ from the widely panned Thailand edition.

"There are going to be some people that, unlike Thailand maybe, you will root for. There are some likable people," he said. "Jenna is likable from the very beginning. ... She is a lippy girl with a pretty decent vocabulary. She can put a thought together in a biting way."

No-nonsense women in the Jaburu tribe think building a shelter should be everyone's No. 1 priority in tonight's premiere. Jenna and some of the other young women instead boil water to wash their clothes.

"Underwear needs to be clean. I think it's a priority," Jenna says. "Things can live on you, especially that area, 'cause it's dark."

In addition to pitting men against women, another "Survivor" first is the participation of a deaf woman, 24-year-old Christy Smith. "I'm wondering how she's going to be able to work with the group since she doesn't hear well," Jenna says.

Comparing Jenna to Survivors past proved challenging for the show's host.

"She's not like Elizabeth, she's not America's sweetheart," Probst said. "She's got a point of view, but she's not Jerri, she's not the villain."

In the end, viewers will decide where Jenna fits in the pantheon of reality show contestants, a prospect that doesn't worry her dad.

"We've seen all the 'Survivors,' and believe me, when she wanted to be on this, we watched it with a different view in mind," Michael said. "I realize sometimes they make you out to look like somebody you're not, but I'm not really worried about that because I know what she's like."

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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