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'Survivor' changed LI contestants' lives

Mark Anthony Caruso of Freeport,

Mark Anthony Caruso of Freeport, "Papa Bear" on "Survivor: South Pacific," returned home focused to be "better at everything I do." Credit: CBS

A parade was held in Sayville in 2005 for Tom Westman, to date the sole Long Island winner of the Emmy Award-winning CBS reality show "Survivor." But many more have departed Long Island's shores for other islands, contenders hoping to snag the $1-million prize in a competition that sends 20 strangers to a remote part of the world.

Once there, they are separated into two tribes and must build a shelter, create fire and win physical challenges over 39 days. One player eventually has to "outwit, outlast and outplay" the others.

The series, which premiered in 2000, is produced by Mark Burnett. The first "Survivor" competition was in Borneo, Malaysia. Since then, the show has traveled the world, with contestants marooned in Kenya, Brazil, Thailand, French Polynesia, Australia and Nicaragua, to name a few countries. It has remained popular in ratings, with the past season's editions averaging 12.8 million viewers ("South Pacific") and 11.7 million viewers ("One World").

Newsday caught up with several Long Islanders who are former competitors to find out how they got on the show, what the competition was like and what they've been up to since returning to civilization.

 

From magnate to island life

Dan Lembo has a new pair of $1,600 alligator shoes. Fans will recall that in 2010 his old ones were famously buried for no reason in sand and mud by one of his own tribal members, Holly, who seemed to go off the deep end only a few days into the competition. Said interment took place on "Survivor: Nicaragua," as Lembo and 19 others participated on the program's 21st season.

What the real estate magnate, who lives in the Hamptons and Manhattan, was even doing on this sort of show is a tale worth repeating. One might say he was discovered.

"I was in the bar at a Miami hotel called One Bal Harbour," recalled Lembo, now 65, his speech marked by an unmistakable Brooklyn accent. "I had had a couple of martinis. A woman named Lisa came up to me and said, 'You look like a character. Want to be on the TV show Survivor?' "

She was a casting associate for the show. Although Lembo had never really seen "Survivor," he agreed to audition for it, just for fun. With 10 cars, a Ferrari among them, he pointed out, and a lucrative business, it certainly wasn't for the money. "How could I say no to being on TV?" Lembo said.

Besides, he'd already been an extra on an episode of "The Sopranos."

"James [Gandolfini] is a great guy," Lembo said of the actor as he recalled his experience on the former HBO series. "We hung out. Met at Elaine's for dinner."

Competing in a brutal, 39-day endurance test like "Survivor" hardly compares to a brief walk-on as an extra, but that didn't matter to Lembo.

He's divorced with two adult sons, and in between three-day-a-week stops to run his Great Neck-based business, Majestic Property Management Corp., he jet-sets back and forth between the Hamptons, a tony waterfront address in Manhattan, Miami and Los Angeles.

"Dan had a great fish-out-of-water story," casting director Lynne Spillman wrote in an email. "This super tan, super buff and super wealthy man 'made it' in New York, but could his New York street smarts help him on the island?"

Indeed, before going on the show, Lembo admitted, "I never slept outdoors in my life." Despite a fundamental lack of outdoor skills, previous knee surgeries and being older than the other contestants, Lembo, who lost 37 pounds during the competition, managed to stay on the island for 31 days, remarkably ending up as one of the last five players before being voted off -- which earned him a tidy sum of $60,000.

Being on the show, he said, was a great experience. A recent face-lift has him prepped for more television appearances. He said he'd love to be on "Celebrity Apprentice," although, admittedly, he's still recognized on the street but not well-known.

 

Just start of his adventures

Mark Anthony Caruso, 48, said he gets recognized, too.

"Long Island has a lot of great fans. They are all positive towards me," said "Papa Bear," the name Caruso asked to be called when he competed last year on "Survivor: South Pacific."

"His season aired on the 10th anniversary of 9/11," Spillman, the show's casting director, pointed out.

This was significant for Caruso, because after the terror attacks the then-New York City police detective was assigned to work in the morgue for five years, identifying remains. One of Caruso's coping mechanisms during those trying times was watching "Survivor," and that's how he became a fan of the show. When he heard about an online casting contest in 2010, Caruso said he immediately submitted a video.

"I didn't win, but they liked my video so much they called me in for an interview," he recalled. That led to the tryout in Los Angeles, which included more interviews, physical and psychological tests and background checks. Eventually he was whisked to a deserted island with his cast mates.

"The food situation was terrible," Caruso said. "I lost 20 pounds in 10 days, eating only fish, bananas and coconuts. I wasn't drinking enough and was dehydrating fast. I was very dirty. You're starving, you're cold at night, hot during the day," he said of the experience.

Despite all that, he added, it was an adventure he'd repeat in a heartbeat, only the second time around he'd "work more with my brain and less with my heart."

Caruso said he would also get physically stronger by working out more at the Merrick gym he frequents often.

Caruso said he loves Long Island. Since January, he has been living with his partner in Freeport, after going back and forth from his apartment in Forest Hills for two years. He retired from the NYPD when he was 42, then attended Nassau Community College for a nursing license, but he's since retired from nursing as well. Now Caruso said he enjoys making appearances at charity events, such as the Give Kids the World annual event in Celebration, Fla. The nonprofit organization provides free trips to central Florida to children with life-threatening illnesses and their families.

" 'Survivor' really made me focus on things, like how can I better myself? I'm really at a good place, but I want to try to be better, bigger and better at everything I do," Caruso said.

He spent 10 days on "Survivor." After being voted off at his tribal council, he was sent to "Redemption Island" to compete in a special challenge with another player in isolation. But he lost his last chance at getting back into the game to Christine Shields Markoski of Merrick.

 

She's back to life as a mom

Markoski, 40, said her family watches "Survivor" together. "Mom, you could do that," her two children said one night in 2010. "So I went online and step by step filled out the application," Markoski said. "The kids helped me create the video," in which she yelled at the producers about some previous players' poor performances. The application deadline was Jan. 31.

"I mailed it on Jan. 29 and got a casting call in mid-February," she said.

Typically, "Survivor" casting officials said, the show receives about 25,000 applications per season. But when Markoski was notified that she was a finalist, she said, "I wasn't shocked. I just knew that I was going to be called. I had a feeling."

That self-assurance and conviction sealed the deal for the casting director. "We loved her big mouth and her big personality," said Spillman. "She says it like she sees it."

Unfortunately, her tribe on "Survivor: South Pacific" wasn't as fond of her spunk, voting her off after only five days. Sent to "Redemption Island" solitary confinement, Markoski had to face off with another rival every few days in a duel for a chance to return to the game. She hung on for two weeks that way, but in the end Markoski couldn't beat two-time "Survivor" contestant Oscar "Ozzy" Lusth.

Once back home, Markoski, who is Mexican-American, returned to Jackson Avenue School in Mineola, where she teaches English as a second language. And to running her household, which she'd left in the care of her husband, an NYPD detective.

Markoski said people stop her in the supermarket and ask for photographs, "which can be a little unsettling, especially if I'm in a rush, but it's nice," she said. "It's flattering. My kids love it."

A cabinet in her living room contains the clothes she wore on the show along with a few artifacts. But they're in the past. Her focus now is back on her students, obtaining a degree in business administration, cooking meals for her family and carpooling. And happily so.

The show "is a closed chapter," she said. "That was just a TV show. This is my real life."

 

 

'SURVIVOR' MUST-HAVES

 

Think you can become the next Long Island winner of "Survivor"? To apply you must be at least 18 and a U.S. citizen. And you'll have to answer some questions, like:

How much "Survivor" have you seen?

What's your highest degree of education?

What's your weight and height?

These questions and more are on the online "Survivor" application form. A video is also required. According to the CBS website, the next filming dates are tentatively scheduled for March/April 2013 and May/June 2013. To apply, go to cbssurvivorcasting.com/survivor-how-to-apply

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