From March through May, Plainview middle school teacher Tiffany Seely was half a world away, competing for $1 million as one of 18 contestants on "Survivor" season 41, premiering Wednesday (8 p.m. on CBS/2). And while she since has acclimated to everyday life following her adventure in Fiji, she says she consciously put her home life aside and tried to remain in the present while she was there.
"I was focused so heavily on what I was doing and being in the moment," says Seely, 47, speaking by phone from her home. Her two children — Lucas, a sophomore at Michigan State University, in East Lansing, and Sean, a junior at Bethpage High School — "are pretty self-sufficient, so I wasn't so much missing them, because I knew they were fine. And I wasn't really missing food because I had mentally prepared myself that that was something I wasn't going to be seeing a lot of. But I'm going to tell you: I missed my dog," a Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier named BlackBerry, like the old phone.
"This is the weirdest thing," Seely reflects. "I missed kissing my dog on her nose. I think maybe that was a comfort thing — sitting on my couch at night with my husband," Steve Gonzalez, 48, a supervisory special agent with the FBI, "and watching a show that we love and having my dog jump up to be with us. That was the type of thing I was missing."
Seely had been an alternate for this season, waiting in the wings like an understudy until learning in March that she had 24 hours to pack, prepare and be on her way to the South Pacific archipelago-nation of Fiji, where she and her fellow contestants quarantined for two weeks as a COVID-19 precaution. Afterward, they went by boat to Fiji's Mamanuca Islands, a resort destination of about 20 isles, where "Survivor" has been based since season 33 in 2016.
A video promo for the season shows Seely informing her husband she had been picked, and spontaneously jumping into his arms. "The reason I had that video was because my husband was out having a run when I got the phone call that I was cast. So I quickly put my phone on record when he came in from the run so that I could capture the moment and tell him, because he's a super fan. And you know, it didn't look fake because it wasn't — it nearly killed him when I jumped up on him like that!"
Seely was raised in Forest Hills, but had been born in Vienna, where her paternal grandfather had a textile business. When she was 4, the family moved to the United States, where the maternal side of her family lived. Seely and her sister Lauren suffered tragedy early in their lives when their mother, Shevi Reiss, died of ovarian cancer at age 43 in 1990 after a three-year struggle with the disease.
"I was in my senior year of high school," Seely recalls, "and once my mom passed, I had this idea I was alone in the world." Her and Lauren's father "needed to go forward in his life, and my sister and I were not OK with that at the time. Now we're one big happy family, but there were a few years of not talking until I had my first son."
Having worked as a camp counselor for many years, she felt teaching was the right career. Seely graduated from SUNY Cortland in 1995 with a degree in elementary education, followed by a stint at Brooklyn College and a master's degree in educational leadership and administration in 2003 from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. She now teaches English Language Arts at the Jamaica Academy at Queens Alternate Learning Center.
She moved to Plainview 15 years ago with her first husband, to whom she was married 11 years and who remains a friendly co-parent to their two boys. Her second husband, being an FBI agent, "is usually the talk of the town" because of his storied profession, Seely says. "But now," she adds puckishly, "it's my time."