Las Vegas Sun

July 22, 2014

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Mother: Contestant a true ‘survivor’

It's down to four.

Tonight an estimated 40 million viewers will tune into the last CBS "Survivor" show (airing at 8 p.m. on KLAS Channel 8) to watch as the final four of the original 16 cast members brave the elements, nature and each other.

The object of the show (for anyone who has managed to miss the summer's hottest hit), is to be the last remaining castaway after 39 days marooned on the deserted island of Pulau Tiga off the coast of Borneo in the South China Sea.

Among the final four is longtime Las Vegas resident Kelly Wiglesworth, who now lives and works as a river guide in Kernville, Calif. She has become a national celebrity as "Survivor" topped the country's television charts for the past 12 weeks, according to the weekly Nielsen ratings.

Tonight's finale will cover two hours. Two of the remaining four contestants will be voted off, then the winner will be determined by a panel made up of the previous seven contestants to be cast out.

At the end of each program throughout the summer, contestants have been required to cast a vote banishing a rival member off the island. In each installment participants compete in contests to earn temporary immunity from being voted out.

The sole survivor will win $1 million. Whether Wiglesworth, who returned to work in May after her stint on the show, will be the winner has been a tightly guarded secret. A legally binding gag order has been placed on all 16 contestants, who could be required to pay CBS $5 million if details of the show's outcome are revealed. Wiglesworth has declined to speak on the record about her island experience until after the final episode.

But Wiglesworth's mother has spoken.

On a recent weekend afternoon Susan Smart talked with the Sun about what her 23-year-old daughter experienced among the island survivors as she packed up her home in Henderson for a move to Southern California.

Smart said she was very proud of her daughter's achievements on the island.

"She is a survivor," Smart said. "She is a very strong girl."

But Smart became worried, as a mother would, when insect larvae and grilled rat were mentioned as some of the foodstuffs available to contestants.

"I thought I was sending her to a place that, we were told, had lots of fish and fruit to eat," Smart said. "I never thought my daughter was going to eat rodent."

Her daughter's emotional state upon her return was another surprise.

"It was almost like being with someone who had come back from the war and had post-traumatic stress," Smart said.

Since returning from her island experience, Wiglesworth is more introspective and more concerned about her future, Smart said.

To prepare for the challenge, Wiglesworth diligently practiced Tae Bo, an aerobic exercise, in front of the downstairs television to get in shape. She also maintained a strict diet of fruits and vegetables to acclimate to the island fare.

"She has a lot of self-control," Smart said. "She proved to herself she can do anything."

However, Wiglesworth wasn't prepared, Smart said, for the cast members' sleazy tactics and back-stabbing in an effort to win the $1 million prize. Wiglesworth watched the season premiere at her mother's home and after the first few minutes, she ran up to her room, fell on her bed and cried.

"That was the hardest part for her, the people part," she said. "It was really hard for her to watch the things that happened."

Surviving the newfound fame has also been difficult, Smart said.

The family, including Smart and her four daughters, take an annual summer trip to Disneyland. This year they chose Hawaii instead, although visiting another tropical island wasn't Wiglesworth's first choice.

"She didn't want to go at all," said Whitney Wilson, Wiglesworth's 13-year-old sister and the youngest of Smart's four daughters.

And for good reason.

While there, children would approach Wiglesworth and ask, "Are you that girl?" from the show, Wilson said. "We started calling her 'That girl.' "

But Wiglesworth warmed up to her new role. She became more flirtatious, writing to one little boy who pushed a pen and paper in her hands, "Don't break any hearts. Kelly."

"I thought she'd like the notoriety," Smart said. "But it's been hard on her."

As the show's popularity soared, so did Wiglesworth's.

Last month Wiglesworth, along with her mother and sister, were shopping at a Ross Dress For Less clothing store in Henderson and she was surprised by a man who shouted "Kelly" as the trio browsed through dresses. Wiglesworth cringed at the attention.

Later that night Wiglesworth wore a stocking cap to help hide her features when the family dined at a local restaurant.

It took more than a simple coverup to hide her past, though. As her 15 minutes of fame tick away, arrest records from Wiglesworth's youthful indiscretions surfaced.

In July 1997 a then 20-year-old Wiglesworth was charged with biting the nose of her former husband, Rene Esteves, during a domestic dispute. The charges were dropped and Wiglesworth later divorced her husband of five months.

"It hurt her a lot," Smart said. "She obviously cared for him or she wouldn't have married him, but she knew that's not the way she wanted to live. Again that proves she is a strong person because she was not going to live in a volatile situation."

A 1995 warrant for Wigleswroth's arrest was also revealed during the show's run. Wiglesworth is alleged to have forged a signature on a credit card used at an Olive Garden restaurant in South Carolina. Smart said Wiglesworth was an innocent victim and plans to return to South Carolina to clear up the charge.

These past run-ins with the law belie the true nature of her daughter, Smart said.

"That is totally out of character for her," Smart said. "She is a very caring person with just a big heart for people, especially her family."

Wiglesworth has not been ignored by the show since her return. CBS has called many times to inquire about Wiglesworth's physical and psychological well-being. Network representatives sent her a gift basket full of her favorite bath soaps, gels and other items smelling of her favorite scent, Rain. Included in the overflowing basket was a box of Uncle Ben's white rice (an island staple), which the family keeps in a cupboard as a joke.

Despite the outcome, Wiglesworth -- like most other "Survivor" members -- will likely entertain offers for product endorsements.

Stacy Stillman, a San Francisco attorney, has signed with the Reebok sports apparel company. Jenna Lewis, a mother of twin girls, was offered (and turned down) a reported $750,000 to pose nude for Playboy magazine.

Smart said she thinks Wiglesworth will go ahead with an offer from the Got Milk? ad campaign, but doubts her Mormon-raised daughter will show more skin than she did while wearing a bikini on the show.

"I've always told my girls they can do anything they set their mind to," Smart said. "The only person who keeps them from doing what they want to do is themselves."

Or, in Kelly's case, a jury of her island peers.

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