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[whitespace] Lex van den Berghe
Photograph by Stephen Laufer

Reality TV Bites

'Survivor' Lex returns from Africa determined to use his celebrity for a good cause

By Sarah Phelan

FIRST, A CONFESSION: I don't watch TV. Which is why I never witnessed local resident Lex van den Berghe firsthand on Survivor 3: Africa.

But I Lexwatch vicariously, via the Survivorholics at my office. Linda delivers the physical scoop: "Punkish-looking with spiky hair, piercings, tats and great green eyes."

Emily describes his personality.

"At first, I thought he was just another Santa Cruz dude, but he's down to earth. Smart. The best player. He's got the best personality."

"Which is why he's doing most of the narrating," Linda adds.

When Lex wins the Chevy Avalanche, Linda and Emily rave about how he and host Jeff Probst loaded up the truck with medical supplies and drove it to a hospital.

And when Lex gets voted out, they rant that he should have won.

Though I haven't watched a single Survivor episode, I agree. Hell, Lex is from Santa Cruz, the least affordable housing market in the U.S., so you bet he's the ultimate survivor.

When Emily tells me that a recent tribute for Lex, featuring his recently signed band Luckydog, sold out, I'm glad. Like Mr. Twister, Lex has put Santa Cruz on the map. For that alone he deserves our support. When she adds that the event benefits the Santa Cruz AIDS Project, I'm impressed. But when Emily announces that Lex is going to personally sign over $10,000 to SCAP, I decide it's time to meet him in the flesh.

Coming Home

I catch up with Lex at SCAP's homey templelike office. On the wall hangs an award from Congressman Sam Farr. And there in the hallway is Lex, talking to SCAP's staff. His green eyes are startling, his body leaner and lankier than I imagined. I can see why the camera eats him up, I think, as Lex presents SCAP with a $10,000 check.

Timothy Maroni, SCAP's director of education and prevention, beams.

"This is wonderful and great," says Maroni." It's been a hard year for everyone, so we appreciate the generosity of this town. You've supported the right thing."

According to Maroni, SCAP helps 5,000 people per quarter and has about 300 clients who are HIV-positive or living with AIDS.

"We estimate 600 people in the county are HIV-positive or living with AIDS, but 200 of them don't know it," he says.

Finally, Lex re-emerges from SCAP with longtime friend and local DJ Adrian Cavlan, who helped set up the Luckydog event.

"It was to celebrate Lex, but also to benefit AIDS. We want to thank people for throwing down their money," says Cavlan, who along with Lex is carrying an African potted palm--presumably a gift from SCAP.

"The African potted palm," says Lex, "is one of the oldest plants in the world. It's what the dinosaurs ate. Mind if we stash it in my truck?"

Just then a passing woman driver yells, "We love you, Lex!"

He smiles and waves back.

"Yesterday, I finally caved in and bought a cell phone," he says, "and this group of teenage girls in Capitola Mall mobbed me."

He stops alongside a beat-up gold 1970 Chevy pickup.

"So, where did you stash the Chevy Avalanche?" I ask.

"I still haven't seen that truck," he smiles, his outer calm belying an inner unrest that resurfaces whenever talk turns to Survivor: Africa. "That game, excuse my language, was a mindfuck, but the hardest part was coming back," he says, noting that CBS provided counseling before, during and after the 39-day ordeal.

Illustrated Man

Later, Lex removes his jacket, revealing tattoos that snake down his arms to his wrists.

"I'm running out of real estate," he says, lifting up his shirt to reveal his latest inkspot--a Dia de Los Muertos-style butterfly, featuring a skull, roses and two dice, each with five dots.

"I got it for my 10th wedding anniversary and my wife got a matching one on the back of her neck," he explains.

Recalling that he kept his tats hidden beneath long-sleeved shirts for the first six years he worked for Adobe, Lex says he hopes never to return to the corporate world.

"I did it so my wife could stay at home with the kids and we could buy a house in Santa Cruz," says Lex, who even kept on the long sleeves during a conference in New Orleans, where the temperature was 120 degrees.

"It would have been career suicide to take it off, given that Adobe is a staunchly conservative corporation," he says.

Then Lex took the plunge, joining a startup, only to get laid off 10 months later, "when the Internet economy went to the shitter." After he'd looked for work for three months, his wife encouraged him to apply for Survivor.

"I guess she knew I needed the ultimate challenge," says Lex, adding that he'd already got his adventure and travel rocks off once by going on the road with Luckydog before he joined Adobe.

"If you took the Beatles, Johnny Cash, the Meat Puppets and the Replacements, you'd have Luckydog's 'Y'all-ternative Rock' sound."

Ultimate Test

"People in Survivor, regardless that it's TV, are given the chance to test themselves in situations you could never reproduce in civilization," says Lex. "Imagine you and 15 other contestants were dropped in the middle of nowhere for 39 days, with almost no food, fending for yourself, physically, psychologically, socially, where everyone else is trying to get rid of you. It's the ultimate game. It was so much fun. I left feeling pretty good and confident and came back with all that confirmed--plus feeling there's not much I can't do."

The worst part of his Africa experience?

"For almost two months, I couldn't write to or talk to my wife. And I couldn't tell my boys, who are 9 and 7, where I was going, because they were too young to keep a secret. So I wrote them a bunch of letters, which my wife gave them at timely intervals. But she had nothing, except taking care of the house, kids, dogs and cat. And she couldn't tell anyone where I was, because CBS made us and a few of our closest friends sign a disclosure agreement. She was unbelievably strong."

Taping Survivor: Africa took Lex away from his family for seven weeks, starting July 3, 2001.

"Africa is the cradle of humanity. There's so much life there. It's so different. It has the hugest skies and the most incredible vistas. TV didn't come close to doing it justice," he recalls. "People say it looked harsh and thorny and hot, but it was incredibly beautiful and exotic, with all those elephants, zebras, giraffes, baboons, lions, leopards and antelopes running around."

The people and culture also left their mark, because Lex reminisces about Africa's spiritual roots, the hospital where he met the Italian doctor treating AIDS patients, and a Samburu rite of passage he attended.

"When they filmed it, I prayed, 'Please don't let this look cheesy!' It was an incredibly spiritual experience."

When Lex returned to Santa Cruz, he had to keep everything related to the outcome of the game from his wife.

That part was really brutal, because we've never kept secrets from each other," Lex recalls. "She didn't know if I'd been voted out first, or about the $45,000 truck until she saw me win it. And when me and 15 other people came back, we were still mentally in Africa and were constantly wanting to call each other. It was bizarre to go through the most intense experience without my wife being part of it."

Lex also returned determined to focus on AIDS.

"With more than 75 percent of the people with AIDS living in Africa, I'd got the idea of the severity of the situation. And I wanted to do something to give back to Santa Cruz. Whatever we did had to be grassroots, something that would make a difference." Which is when Adrian Cavlan mentioned SCAP.

A Santa Cruz resident for nearly four years, Lex hopes to build a career in entertainment.

"l'd like to do some work in TV, movies or hosting," he says. "And I have a voice and platform from which to help charitable causes. In the past I was concerned with them. Now I can actually make a difference. I see Survivor as a doorway, a springboard. I don't want to wear it as a badge of recognition. I don't want that to be my only claim to fame."

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From the February 6-13, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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