How a 'farm girl' from Wisconsin landed on 'Survivor' three times and became a host for red-carpet events
Andrea Boehlke was made to be on "Survivor."
Sleeping outside with bugs crawling on you? Count her in. Making fire? No problem. Building a shelter made of bamboo to survive for nearly 40 days on a remote island? Sign her up. Add in the competitive nature and social dynamics that the reality TV show offers and a chance to win $1 million, and that was more than enough to hook this small-town farm girl from Sheboygan County.
"I always loved it, kind of envisioned what it would be like playing," said Boehlke in a phone interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ahead of the 40th season of "Survivor" this week. "Never thought it would actually be reality."
It in fact has become a huge part of her life.
As the show enters its 20th year on television, Boehlke, 30, is now one of the most well-known and successful "Survivor" players of all-time. She has appeared on the show three times — all during the previous decade — and has since established herself in the hosting business working for People in New York City.
"I never imagined playing the game three times," Boehlke said. "But every time they call me it's always an absolute yes, because it's the most surreal, epic thing you could ever do. It's crazy. You're out there, you're starving. It's the biggest highs and biggest lows I've ever experienced in my life. To get that chance again and that chance at a million dollars is so worth it."
Her family's influence
But without a nudge from her mom, Linda, a retired art teacher at Campbellsport High School, we might never have seen Boehlke on the show.
Though we could have seen a different Boehlke. Andrea's parents, Linda and Royal, big fans of the show, actually applied for the show years earlier. They never heard back from CBS.
"You need to have a certain type of personality," Linda said.
It turns out, Andrea Boehlke was the Boehlke "Survivor" was looking for.
While home from college at 20 years old, Boehlke and her mom were discussing her future, and Linda brought up the idea of sending in a video to "Survivor," which at that time had already been on air for 10 years.
No matter what they were doing, the Boehlke family after a long day of work on their 2,000-acre family farm in Random Lake would always sit down for a night of "Survivor" and host weekly "Survivor" parties.
"I remember as a little girl always watching 'Survivor,' " said Andrea, a 2007 Random Lake High School graduate. "And my family doesn't watch a lot of TV, but 'Survivor' was our main show."
It also had to do with Jeri, Andrea's younger sister, who died in 2004 from injuries sustained in an auto terrain accident. Jeri had always encouraged her mom to apply to the show, so when Andrea was selected she said she knows Jeri would have been "really happy."
"Whenever I play 'Survivor' I always think of (Jeri) more than ever because I know this is what she would have wanted and I just feel close to her when I'm out here," Andrea said in a 2016 interview on the island. "In a way a show like this has kind of kept my family together. We've always rallied around our times together."
When Linda appeared on the show in 2016 for the family visit after Andrea advanced far enough, she told her on TV "it's all because of your sister (Jeri) that we're really here."
Boehlke spent most of her childhood with Jeri and her other two sisters tending to horses, beef cattle and pigs. She was in 4-H and her family trips typically involved fishing, camping and hiking.
So it was only natural that in her application video, Boehlke "definitely leaned into the farm girl Wisconsin aspect" where she was riding her horse and catching pigs — a VHS tape her parents still have.
Her family helped her prep for the show by working with her on fire-making skills.
Given her family's involvement and love for the game, it's no surprise that Boehlke views her favorite "Survivor" moment as the family visits when she survived long enough on two of her seasons.
"To see my dad out there was incredible," Boehlke said of her first season filmed in 2010 near San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. "And then (in the third season) having my mom come out there to Fiji was one of the top moments of my life because it was her dream to be on 'Survivor.' When you're playing 'Survivor' you're so deprived of family and that love. When you see your mom and dad it's next level. It's so emotional you cherish them more than you ever have before. It was a really cool bonding moment."
From newcomer to fan favorite to game changer
Boehlke has had plenty of memorable moments on the show.
It started with her first season when the then-21-year-old won her way back four days after being voted out during "Survivor: Redemption Island." The eventual winner — Rob Mariano — realized Boehlke was a big threat to win the game and was voted out next.
Boehlke's fellow castaways on her ensuing seasons also recognized her strong strategic mind, leading to her eliminations when she returned two years later on "Survivor: Fans vs. Favorites" and four years after that on "Survivor: Gamer Changers." She actually holds the record for most votes cast against her in "Survivor" history.
"It feels nice that people recognize you as a threat," Boehlke said. "However, it doesn't help in my experience. In the game, it's definitely a burden."
Boehlke said she felt working on the farm helped her develop a "strong work ethic," that she utilized in the game around camp and to build relationships.
Linda said watching Andrea on the show for the first time "was a little scary." But she quickly realized the show was a perfect fit for her oldest daughter.
"She's such a competitor," Linda said.
Boehlke, who is just one of six Wisconsinites to ever appear on the show, is in select company with her "Survivor" resume.
She advanced to the jury portion of the game every time, has lasted 103 days over her three seasons, seventh-most ever — something she admits has a lot to do with luck — won three individual immunity challenges and even a hidden immunity idol.
Boehlke found that hidden immunity idol on the "Fans vs. Favorites" season, which featured 10 fans of the show playing alongside 10 returning favorites. The idol would have kept Boehlke safe from the vote but she didn't play it and instead joined the jury after 33 days.
Nevertheless, she had a nice memento to remind herself of the game and maybe what could have been that season. It was with her for many years in her New York City apartment until last year when she lost it coming home from a "Survivor" watch party.
"Who loses a real idol in real life?," Boehlke said. "It was my most prized possession and I lost it."
Watching the seasons she played in on national TV has never been her favorite part.
"Everyone that plays 'Survivor' you have this idea of how it went," Boehlke said. "Everyone's the hero in their own story, but when you watch it back and you're not the main character it feels so weird and unsettling because you realize your reality wasn't the reality."
'Survivor' going big for Season 40
Millions have watched Boehlke and the other 589 contestants on the show since 2000.
While ratings have decreased over time — it was once the top-rated show on television — "Survivor" is still averaging around 10 million viewers in recent years and is among the top shows for its Wednesday primetime slot.
The Jeff Probst-hosted show kicked off a phenomenon in 2000 when 16 Americans, including two from Wisconsin, set out to the South China Sea on a remote Malaysian island to play a game that is all about outwitting, outlasting and outplaying your fellow castaways in a quest to claim the title of sole Survivor. It was that season when Palmyra native Sue Hawk delivered a final tribal council speech that is still remembered two decades later after she compared the final two castaways to a rat and a snake.
"Survivor" is going big for Season 40. Twenty of the show's former winners are playing for a $2 million prize.
"It all boils down to a social experiment with strangers," Boehlke said of the show's longevity. "When you study human behavior, there's some good things, there's some bad things, and I think it's a really cool experiment. And I think that's why it stays fresh this many years. There's always going to be new people, new personalities, new dynamics, new twists and you never know what to expect. You can't really write it."
However, that behavior can sometimes cross a line.
Last season, a player was removed after he inappropriately touched female players and later also allegedly touched a crew member's leg. It was the first time a player has ever been kicked off the show.
As a veteran of the show, Boehlke said "last season was tough" since the show is meant for families.
Boehlke said she would have preferred to have seen that player removed earlier than he was, but she hopes new protocols "Survivor" and CBS have put in place are effective so the show can "move forward and grow from it."
Hitting the red carpet
When Boehlke isn't watching or playing "Survivor," she's sometimes interviewing guests about the show for her job, including Probst last week where he called the upcoming season the best-ever.
Boehlke, who has a bachelor of fine arts in acting from University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, moved to New York City after her first season and four years ago landed a job for People, where she hosts a daily entertainment show called People Now. It streams on the magazine's website and social media platforms. She said her time in front of the camera on "Survivor" helps with hosting because "it's personality driven."
Boehlke has interviewed a who's who of celebrities including Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Kevin Hart, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Aniston, Olivia Munn and Scarlett Johansson.
Her favorites are Brad Pitt and Jennifer Lopez, whom she has interviewed on red carpet events. She has worked the Primetime Emmy Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards and Academy of Country Music Awards.
Despite her love for her job, nothing beats coming home to Wisconsin.
"I miss it because being in New York there's not a lot of land to roam free," Boehlke said. "I love going back in the summer."
She would also love going back to experience "Survivor" one more time.
"You never know," she said.
Wisconsinites to play "Survivor"
- Dirk Been of Spring Green: "Survivor: Borneo" — Season 1
- Sue Hawk of Palmyra: "Survivor: Borneo" — Season 1; "Survivor: All-Stars" — Season 8
- Leann Slaby of Kansasville: "Survivor: Vanuatu" — Season 9
- Tina Scheer of Hayward: "Survivor: Guatemala — Season 12
- Erinn Lobdell of Waukesha: "Survivor: Tocantins" — Season 18
- Andrea Boehlke of Random Lake: "Survivor: Redemption Island — Season 22; "Survivor: Caramoan — Fans vs. Favorites — Season 26; "Survivor: Game Changers — Season 34