LAS VEGAS – Two years ago this Friday, Susan Hawk became famous for being mean. Pit-bull mean. With 57.3 million viewers, practically a Super Bowl-sized audience, watching the first “Survivor” finale, Hawk verbally pummeled another contestant who had betrayed her. It was ugly and unforgettable.
As a result, the former Wisconsinite resident, now living in Las Vegas for its warm winters and proximity to TV appearances in Los Angeles, became a sub B-list celebrity.
Since The Speech, Hawk, who turned 41 Saturday, remains in demand. Not weekly. But her fame is viable and money-making.
Even a partial list of gigs is dizzying:
At least one dozen appearances at colleges. Nearly 20 guest spots on TV series from cable outlet fX’s comedy “Son of a Beach” (she played herself) to a now-cancelled Delta Burke CBS sitcom. One week on “Hollywood Squares,” sitting near Linda Blair of “The Exorcist.” Co-host “Live with Regis” when then-candidate George Bush appeared as a guest. A small role in the film “Bubble Boy.” Judge of a Madonna lookalike contest for drag queens.
Hawk drives a Pontiac Aztec, a gift from Rosie O’Donnell after reprising “Survivor’s” finish on her talk show. She has done small gigs, too. In April 2001, Hawk autographed photos at the 74th Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival in Winchester, Va.
With her husband and manager Tim, Hawk owns Juices Wild, a popular smoothie shop about nine miles from the city’s famed Strip, Las Vegas Boulevard. They work in the store daily and have no other employees. Susan breaks away only to do a TV show.
She says she receives between 15 and 20 fan letters and e-mail each week.
“I still can’t fathom that this is still going,” Hawk says. “But damn it, I’m going to go with it as long as the motor’s running.”
She won’t give specific figures, but it is likely she has made up to seven times more money than her $70,000 fourth-place prize on “Survivor.”
“If they love me, they love me the best,” Hawk says, comparing the public’s view of her to other “Survivor” first-season contestants. “If they hate me, they hate me the most.”
Preparing to close Juices Wild for the night, Tim Hawk overhears the comment, “But you’re remembered.”
“I know,” Susan says softly.
“I would let the vultures take you and do whatever they want with you with no ill regrets.”
Hawk never sought fame. She drove a truck for a living. She hunted with her husband. She adored her two dogs. The Hawks lived along a lake in Palmyra, an hour southeast of Madison.
In October 1999, Hawk, then 38, had never heard of reality TV. Few in America had.
Driving a concrete truck (she calls it “a ‘crete truck”) while listening to a Milwaukee country radio station at 6 a.m., Hawk heard about a new TV show seeking contestants. Only a couple of thousand bothered to apply with the $1 million first prize luring them.
“I never dreamt of becoming a TV star,” Hawk says, sitting amid the jungle motif at Juices Wild. “It was the furthest thing from my mind.
“I went on the show for two reasons: It was a part of the world (Malaysia) I would never ever be able to afford to go. And it would be taped in March and April and I was so tired of Wisconsin winters.”
With her husband’s help, Hawk sought and completed “Survivor’s” Internet application. Asked what person on “Gilligan’s Island” she most represents, Hawk wrote, “I’m a little like all of them except the Howells.” She taped a two-minute video of herself as each “Gilligan’s Island” member, aside from the wealthy and snooty Howells.
On Dec. 19, 1999, the Hawks entertained friends at their Palmyra home. It was a rare weeknight that Susan was awake after 8 when she had to work the next morning. The phone rang. Tim answered.
“It’s ‘Survivor,’ ” Tim told Susan.
“Don’t be (expletive)-ing me,” she responded. “Don’t be messing with me.”
Tim insisted, “It’s ‘Survivor.’ ”
Hawk was one of 800 people vying for 16 spots.
“This island is pretty much full of only two things – snakes and rats. And in the end, with Mother Nature, we have Richard (Hatch, the eventual winner) the snake, who knowingly went after prey; and Kelly (Wigglesworth), who turned into the rat that ran around like the rats do on this island, trying to run from the snakes.”
The follow-ups to the original “Survivor” still attract large audiences, but the original installment (modeled after a European show) soared to the twisted heights of cultural phenomenon.
The week before its two-hour finale aired on CBS, the final four contestants, including Hawk, appeared on the cover of Newsweek. Media nationwide guessed who would win. Hawk posed for a milk mustache ad.
When the show aired, Hawk had been voted off in the first 30 minutes after narrowly losing an “immunity” quiz about other contestants. But she wasn’t done. The million-dollar winner would be determined by a vote of losing participants, each of whom would be allowed to ask questions to the finalists.
Hawk fumed over fellow contestant Wigglesworth, a lanky and relatively shy young woman. They were close friends throughout the first 37 of “Survivor’s” 39 days. On the second day, Wigglesworth approached Hawk and suggested a voting alliance. It worked.
When Wigglesworth cut their bond and Hawk was voted out, Hawk sought revenge. Forget hurting someone’s feelings. Forget TV viewers – after all, who knew a sizable percentage of America’s population would watch the last episode four months later?
Immediately after being voted off, Hawk, an on-and-off smoker, asked for a cigarette. The next day, starving from the brutal island contest, she ate for three straight hours and endured severe stomach pains.
Before taping “Survivor’s” finale, Hawk drank coffee and smoked cigarettes from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. She walked off by herself and wrote a speech that declared her love for her husband and her sadness over a long-deceased friend. The speech wasn’t right, Hawk decided. She turned her anger toward Wigglesworth.
“I didn’t memorize nothin’,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m going to get up there and shoot off the hip.’ ”
One could hear those 57.3 million viewers take a collective breath after Hawk’s tirade, delivered in an oddly calm voice and loaded with grammatical slips. Reality TV had turned nasty. Deliciously nasty but nasty nonetheless. Can’t we all just get along? Not with $1 million at stake.
And no reality TV show would be the same again.
“Anyways, I was your friend at the beginning of this, really thinking you were a true friend … I’m not a very openly nice person. I’m just frank, forward and tell it the way it is.”
As “Survivor” soared in popularity during the summer of 2000, Hawk, who had moved from Palmyra to nearby Eagle, was recognized everywhere. A 15-minute grocery trip turned into an hour. She continued to drive a cement truck for a living. The job’s long hours caused her to watch an episode one or two days after the show aired several times.
By the finale’s airing, Hawk’s speech, known only to other contestants and a few CBS officials, alienated her from the cast.
“They all hated me,” she says.
When the 16 contestants met in Los Angeles for a live interview program immediately after the final episode aired, Hawk stood away from the others as her speech aired. A CBS executive from New York watched with her and smiled; the exec knew what viewers would always remember.
The day before, however, Richard Hatch told Hawk, “You know, they aren’t going to put your vultures speech on the air.”
“Maybe it’s better that way,” Hawk said.
Instead, CBS aired every word. Hawk says if a man gave the same speech, it would not have created a stir.
“I grew up with guys and work with guys and when you get (upset), you let them know it,” she says. “Then you’re over it.”
Not so. The Washington Post and Entertainment Weekly published the entire speech; the media went bonkers.
To this day, despite having appeared together several times, Wigglesworth will not speak or acknowledge Hawk. And the mother of Dirk Been, a “Survivor” contestant and ex-Spring Green resident, told Tim Hawk: “She made Wisconsin ashamed.”
“You’re very two-faced and manipulative to get where you’re at in life. That’s why you fail all the time.”
A native of Sussex in Waukesha County, Hawk graduated from Waukesha South High School in 1979, the same class as Sam Llanas and Kurt Neumann, members of the rock band the BoDeans. She bounced around jobs, toyed with tech school and met Tim while working at a Milwaukee-area bar. (She asked him out on their first date.)
The couple married in 1987 at the Silver Bell Wedding Chapel on Las Vegas’ Strip. Then they spent six years running an Ontario, Canada, fishing and hunting lodge. In 1993, they returned to Wisconsin. Susan gravitated toward truck driving; Tim went into real estate.
Living in Palmyra in early 2000, Hawk drove to Green Bay, one of 16 cities nationwide where 800 “Survivor” candidates were asked to gather. Her interview went well, she says, and she wasn’t surprised to be one of 50 finalists brought to Los Angeles.
After physical and psychological tests, Hawk was scheduled to meet with Mark Burnett, the show’s producer, at 11 p.m.
When she arrived at the hotel meeting room, she was told her interview would be delayed. She feared she didn’t fit the Hollywood mold when she saw another contestant.
“There’s this other chick there, this teenybopper, cheerleader and pink sweater-type contestant named Jennifer. The show’s rep seemed all friendly, ‘Hi, Jennifer!’ I thought, ‘What’s this?’ ”
To make matters worse, Hawk’s interview was delayed three hours. At 2 a.m., Hawk entered her interview, she says, “with an attitude.” It worked to her advantage. The scheduled 10-minute interview lasted 45 minutes. Two days later, Hawk learned she had a spot on “Survivor.”
“I have no questions, I just have statements.”
The Hawks live in a four-bedroom, three-bath home with a backyard swimming pool. An American flag hangs over the front porch; Tim’s mother lives with them.
Aside from one “Survivor” photo, the home’s walls resemble a taxidermy shop. A brown bear skin, shot by Tim, covers one wall. Hawk calls her two dogs “my kids.” Tim had Susan’s “Survivor” speech put on a small metal frame. It practically hangs out of view from visitors.
Photos of her with George Bush and a couple of Newsweek covers are in a shed, along with other “Survivor” memorabilia.
Hawk – who has changed her appearance little since “Survivor,” remaining deeply tan with a rugged face and athletic frame – gets recognized daily.
“Someone says, ‘I know you from somewhere.’ Or ‘You look familiar.’ It depends on how much time I have if I play around with them. If we’re busy at the store, I just outright tell them. I also get people who just freak out. They’ll come running back with a camera.”
Hawk continues. “The other day, a grocery clerk was shaking so bad when I came through the line. I said (shouting), ‘Relax! Get over it! Stop it!’ ”
Spend several hours with her at Juices Wild and her home, one finds Hawk pleasant (even charming) and outspoken (no surprise there). She has endured a lot of abuse as a result of her notoriety. In May 2001, she received thunderous boos from more than 32,000 people while performing a scratchy rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. ESPN aired the tape repeatedly. On the show “Weakest Link” this year, another contestant ripped her for a scraggily hairdo.
Despite the post-speech backlash, she says she has no regrets. Her skin, it appears, is made of rawhide.
She also chose not to stay in Wisconsin and live quietly. She wants to work in entertainment even if a contract with CBS prevented her from cashing in fully during the three months after “Survivor’s” finale aired.
CBS prevented her from appearing in a fast food ad and a beer commercial – both of which conflicted with the network’s sponsors – and on the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). The latter was nixed because CBS did not want “Survivor” associated with the WWF.
In addition, she declined to play a gay character whose partner was having a sex change operation in a goofball film “Dude, Where’s My Car?” (Rumors concerning her sexuality make her laugh; she says she is heterosexual.) Hardcore porno magazine Gallery offered her $100,000 to pose nude. She said she would do it for $750,000. Gallery countered with a $200,000 offer, and Hawk said no.
What she doesn’t mention is her charity work. Instead of cashing in on two autographed posters of “Survivor’s” four finalists, she gave them to a Milwaukee charity auction and raised $4,000. She was the featured attraction at a Las Vegas grade school’s end of summer camp event recently. And though she doesn’t golf, she gamely plunged into a tournament for charity.
“My vote will go to Richard and I hope that is the one vote that makes (Wigglesworth) lose the money.” It did.
Last week, Hawk had root-canal surgery. A few weeks before the surgery, she had to argue with the dentist’s receptionist to get the procedure done quickly due to an upcoming TV appearance that she can’t discuss.
The receptionist said the doctor who handles root canals wouldn’t be available until September. That won’t work, Hawk complained. Hawk asked about her regular dentist – certainly, she said, he can do the procedure. Yes, the receptionist said, but she will need to come in for a consultation first.
Hawk insisted on skipping the consultation and getting right to the surgery.
“They were (upsetting) me so bad,” she says with an anger that recalls her “Survivor” acid tongue. “I finally got in their face.”
The dentist office receptionist called Hawk later that day. Hawk received the surgery time she wanted.
“Sometimes you have to be tough,” she says. “Am I right?”