As a longtime fan of the iconic CBS reality show "Survivor," Laura Alexander is well-versed in the nuances of games people play. After all, watching 12 years of contestants "Outwit, outplay, outlast" is a lesson in sociology.
And yet ...
"It's a lot more difficult than it looks," said Ms. Alexander, 23, a native of Hopewell, Beaver County.
When "Survivor: Caramoan, Fans vs. Favorites" premieres at 8 p.m. Wednesday in the Philippines, she and nine other newbies comprise the "Gota" tribe against 10 "Bikal" tribe members who already have played the game.
"It will be a season that most fans will regard even better than [previous fans/favorites] 'Survivor: Philippines,' " longtime host and producer Jeff Probst told Entertainment Weekly. "I really believe that. I know I've been wrong in the past, but if I'm wrong on this one, man, snuff my torch."
"Survivor," the show that kicked off the reality TV craze in America, made its debut in May 2000.
"I think I first started watching when I caught on during the very first season, and by the second season, my mom [Valerie] and I were hooked," said Ms. Alexander. "My mom and I never missed an episode. When I went off to college, we would still watch on our own and call each other to talk about what happened.
"I was busy with schoolwork and everything but I definitely managed to watch 'Survivor' every Wednesday night."
She was exactly the sort of "fan" producers sought in casting Season 26 of the show. Ms. Alexander played tennis in high school and was active in a variety of school activities. But she discovered, in making the rounds of interviews for the show, it's easy to get labeled by your past:
"Everybody keeps talking about how I was a cheerleader," she said with a laugh. "The blond cheerleader gets on 'Survivor.' "
After graduating from Boston University -- majoring in international relations with a focus on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and minoring in Arabic -- Ms. Alexander began working as an administrative officer for a Washington, D.C.-area chamber of commerce that deals in Middle East trade.
It is a tenet of "Survivor" that if you are particularly brainy or even a really good athlete, it's a good idea to keep it to yourself. At least at the beginning, when the Survivors are dumped onto some picturesque but mosquito-infested locale, like an especially good-looking troupe of characters from "Lord of the Flies."
"Going into the game, I had a sort of strategy that I would be cautious about how much I tell people about my background," she said. "Right off the bat I just wanted to be in a majority alliance ... I had seen in previous seasons where a line is drawn, and if you're not on the right side of the line, you're in trouble."
On occasion, "Survivor" contestants have been cast away wearing only the clothes on their backs. She said wary contestants know that dressing for success can be summed up in one word: layering.
Ms. Alexander joins a long tradition of Pittsburgh-area reality show contestants that includes former "Survivor" winners Amber Brkich and Jenna Morasca, as well as Ian Terry on "Big Brother" and Hines Ward on "Dancing With the Stars."
In preparation for being on the show, which taped last spring, she made sure she could start fires from scratch, worked on different kinds of puzzle-solving and, of course, hit the gym.
"But I think it was really difficult to wrap my head around the fact that I was leaving. In some ways I didn't really believe it until I was actually on the plane."
Things got even weirder.
"It was a such a surreal experience for me when I first met Jeff Probst because I'd seen him so often," she said. "I remember being so nervous at first, to be sitting next to him."
Although filming began near the end of the local rainy season, reports of weather-related hardships peppered the Internet. Ms. Alexander could not comment on specifics, including weather or challenges, but she said "the physicality is so much more than you would expect when watching the show.
"There are so many additional factors. It's very real when you're out there, when you haven't had food, and then you have these physical challenges."
Ms. Alexander now has one more strategy to ponder. When the show is broadcast at 8 p.m., where will she be watching?
"Ha, I was thinking 'Should I be cringing in my apartment?' No, no, I'm going to go out with some friends and we'll find a place to watch."
Maria Sciullo: email@example.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG. First Published February 10, 2013 5:00 AM