Denise Stapley’s head is in the clouds.
She was reeling from a flurry of red carpets, cameras and interviews following her Sunday (12/16/12) win on the popular CBS reality endurance show, “Survivor: Philippines.”
She says wasn’t quite feeling like a million bucks yet — even though all those zeroes were staring up at her from the “Sole Survivor” check she received during the 25th season finale, which aired live from Los Angeles.
“What an end to this journey,” Stapley, 41, of Cedar Rapids, says by phone from L.A. “It’s crazy. Until we actually sit at home and I look at that check again, it’s really kinda surreal.
“It’s such a long wait to get here, and then you don’t even really know what’s going to happen, and you’re not banking on it, so when it does,” she says, her voice trailing off between a jumble of thoughts. “Once all the interviews are done, like when we’re eating dinner tonight or tomorrow, then it will sink in. I think.”
She and husband Brad have spent some of the money in their head. A chunk of the prize after taxes will go into a college fund for daughter Sydney, 9.
“We have some other things in our mind, but you really just want to take a deep breath and figure out how you can be a good steward of that money,” says Stapley, a mental health counselor and certified sex therapist.
“We kind of joke, what do you do with a million-dollar check? Do I just walk into Linn Area (Credit Union) and say, ‘Hey, can I deposit this?’ I’m clueless when it comes to that.”
She’s not sure what the final payout will be after taxes — competitor Jeff Kent, a retired Major League baseball player from Austin, Texas, told the others to expect about $600,000 after taxes.
“Regardless, I have never seen — nor would we ever see — that kind of income in my lifetime,” she says.
She earned every penny. Nothing was easy about the seven weeks she was gone from her family and her counseling practice last March and April to fulfill her quest to be a “Survivor” competitor. A colleague pitched in to assist with her clients.
Stapley developed a pretty elaborate ruse to explain her absence, saying she had to go Florida for an intensive therapy training session. She thought that would explain her tan and bug bites, but she says those closest to her were still suspicious.
Keeping it all secret, however, was fun, especially as they watched the season unfold on television, beginning Sept. 19.
“It was more fun to mess with them and make them wonder,” she says. “It was a blast to watch them squirm.”
An ardent fan of the series over the years, she found herself yelling at the television and feeling that deep down, she had what it takes to play the physical, emotional and social games required of the castaways. She didn’t hear back from her first application, so in the fall of 2011, she made her pitch again, and landed among the 18 players plunked on a remote Philippines island with little more than the clothes on their backs and no amenities, not even toilets.
“If you poo, you dig your own hole, kind of like a cat. You dig your hole and cover it up, or go in the ocean,” she says. “There are no latrines, there are no luxuries.”
Aside from fatigue, she weathered the physical aspects of the game pretty well. She says her small stature actually gave her an advantage, foodwise. At 5 feet and just 106 pounds when she started, she had the same food ration as someone like finalist Michael Skupin, at twice her weight. She did drop down to 100 pounds during the game, but is back to her norm now. She says she kept her belly full of water to stave off hunger, and when she got back, dived right into sushi, beer and pie.
She also brought home an unwanted souvenir of two little bumps on her neck — most likely from a centipede bite. The marks still occasionally swell and itch, and at the time, threatened her ability to participate in one of the final physical challenges. She woke up on Day 36 of the 39-day odyssey with stinging, shooting pain radiating from her neck, but worked through it to stay in the game.
Keeping her head in the game was more of a challenge, and for the professional therapist, the only easy aspect was building the relationships that paid off in the end.
“That came the most natural to me,” she says.
Demoralizing, chilling rain dogged the contestants throughout the ordeal — enough so that when all the tribes merged, they chose Dangrayne (dang rain) for their new name. And while home viewers saw lots of sharks, snakes and lizards at every commercial break, Stapley only once saw a snake slithering up a tree after a rain.
“That just creeped me out,” she says.
She did see plenty of scorpions and baby tarantulas hanging around the medical box, heard some monkeys, and laughs about a vocal bird on the Dangrayne Tribe’s beach. She says they dubbed it “the do-me bird,” since it always sounded like it was having an orgasm.
She’s anxious to get back to normal — or perhaps a new normal — now that her odyssey is over. But if “Survivor” comes calling for an “All-Star” season, she’d jump back in, “100 percent.”
Despite all the back-biting and alliance changes, she says she’s developed lasting friendships and even made peace with Abi-Maria Gomes, the most difficult personality in the game.
Stapley wasn’t prepared, however, for the harsh words from Jonathan Penner and her closet ally, Malcolm Freberg, during the last Tribal Council on the island. That’s where the jury of eight competitors voted off the island addressed the final three competitors: Stapley; Skupin, 50, a professional speaker, author and coach from White Lake, Mich.; and Lisa Whelchel, 49, of Dallas, who found fame in her teens as Blair on television’s “The Facts of Life.”
Malcolm dissed her for nodding her head and always trying to “appease” the others during the competition. Penner then called her a bitch on national television.
“That was a little rough — I was not expecting it — but at the same time, that final Tribal is where they’re really pushing buttons,” Stapley says. “I think that was stemming off of a lot of interactions with Abi. The jury’s trying to light a fire, and he did. He and Malcolm did a good job of lighting that fire under me.”
But at the end of the game, her torch was the only one still blazing a million-dollar flame.