By Brett Ashley Hawkins
After 21 seasons and over ten years of competition, CBS’s reality behemoth Survivor has cast its first contestant who’s also a current Long Beach resident, for its 22nd season, Survivor: Redemption Island. The chosen applicant is 26-year-old Stephanie Valencia, a distribution manager for a Signal Hill-based tequila label, Marquez de Valencia.
In recent years, Survivor has cast competitors who once went to school in Long Beach. Jaison Robinson of Survivor: Samoa (the show’s 19th season) graduated from Wilson High School; and Na Onka Mixon of Survivor: Nicaragua (the show’s 20th season) graduated from Long Beach Polytechnic High School. Valencia, however, is the first contestant cast by the show living in Long Beach before and after her appearance.
Valencia was born in Westminster Hospital but lived in Long Beach the majority of her life. She cites long-winded bicycle rides around Bixby Knolls and California Heights and spending time in Hughes Middle School’s On Campus Suspension as the most memorable times of her life. She attended high school at Long Beach Poly and made her mark as the president of SCARABS– an underground Poly sorority now required to operate under the school’s student organization guidelines as “the Duck Club.”
“My senior year at Poly was very typical… [but] very memorable and extremely active,” Valencia said. “Planning [the annual Sweethearts dance,] a school dance that is bigger than prom [was] no easy task, but I had a blast doing it!” Valencia also held jobs in the past few years at Long Beach establishments such as Jongewaard’s Bake ‘N’ Broil and the Yard House in Shoreline Village.
In late 2009, Valencia sent her audition tape in to the casting associates of Survivor, who were reviewing applicants to cast the 36 contestants who would appear on the show’s 21st and 22nd seasons. “My audition experience was stressful because I kept thinking to myself, ‘they’re going to think that I don’t care enough about playing the game because I wasn’t considered a Survivor fan,’” Valencia said. “I wanted to stand out, so I thought, ‘how can I get the most attention in the smallest amount of time?’” She then opted to add flair to her audition by donning a bikini for her one-take video.
Though selected among the thousands vying to compete for a spot on the show, Valencia admits she wasn’t a big fan of the show until after she was cast. “My experience as a viewer of the game prior to actually being on the show was minimal,” she said. “Of course, I knew what Survivor was and I knew who [first-season winner] Richard Hatch and [second-season contestant Jerri Manthey] were, but I wouldn’t consider myself a true fan.” Once cast though, Valencia watched every season of the show twice and soaked herself with as much game-related knowledge that she could before filming began in Nicaragua in summer 2010.
Of the numerous skills she’s assembled throughout her life, Valencia’s local upbringing helped prepare her for the competition, she says. “Being raised in Long Beach absolutely gave me a leg up on my competitors. I feel it’s contributed to my ‘scrappiness,’” Valencia said. “Long Beach is a very diverse city, so I’m used to seeing people from all walks of life already. Plus, I’ve been raised never to judge a book by its cover.” She did however fear that her bossiness would be quickly detected by her fellow teammates, as she believes it’s a trait most people discover about her when an initial impression is made.
This season on Survivor, Valencia is one of 18 contestants competing for the million-dollar prize. The way the game is played involves the show’s contestants voting off one of their fellow players until only two or three players remain. Then, a jury consisting of no more than nine eliminated players votes for one of the remaining eligible players to win the million dollars and the title of “sole survivor.”
“Who doesn’t need a million dollars nowadays?” Valencia said. “The best thing I could do is invest it in our family business. I know that I’m going to be working my entire life– and not because I have to, but because I like to keep busy. So why not invest in building a career that I’ll be more than happy doing the next 50 years of my life?”
The prize won’t be achieved easily though, for Valencia will be competing against the other 17 competitors. Chief among her competition are: past contestants “Boston Rob” Mariano and Russell Hantz; former NFL players Steve Wright and Grant Mattos; and Miss Maine 2009, Ashley Underwood.
Another twist this season, aside from allowing two former contestants to compete again for the prize, is the concept of “Redemption Island,” an aspect of the game used in the Israeli, Filipino, and Serbian incarnations of the show. The twist provides contestants voted out in early rounds the possibility of re-entering the game. When a contestant is eliminated, he or she is taken to the secluded area. There, the recently eliminated contestants will continue living as they were while in the game by preparing their own food, water, and shelter.
When a second player is eliminated, that player is also sent to “Redemption Island.” The two eliminated players will then participate in a head-to-head duel challenge in which the winner remains an occupant of the island while the loser is eliminated from the game, this time for good. The surviving player will then wait for the next eliminated player to arrive for the next duel challenge. The eliminated player who survives the duel(s) on Redemption Island will return to the game at a pre-determined point and reunite with the other players still eligible for the prize.
Upon returning home from filming in Nicaragua, Valencia dove head-first into her work at Marquez de Valencia. In January, she appeared at GBK Productions’ 2011 Golden Globes Gift Lounge as a vendor with her sister, Sara Valencia. The sisters presented several attendees, including actor/comedian George Lopez, with tequila samples such as a peppermint “teaquila” recipe created by them. Other celebrities who enjoyed the tequila that evening included Melissa Joan Hart, Eric Stonestreet, Martin Short, Catherine O‘Hara, Janet Jackson, Dennis Quaid, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Dule Hill, Raven-Symoné, and Ernie Hudson. “[It’s] the best job I’ve ever had,” Valencia said. “We just launched our new website. One of my main goals is to get Marquez de Valencia in every single location where I like to drink and dine.”
Survivor: Redemption Island premieres Wednesday, Feb. 16 at 8pm on CBS.
Photo courtesy CBS