Malibu mom to compete on CBS series ‘Survivor’

Kristina Kell spent every day for four months running and pumping iron to prepare for the new season of the reality show.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

When the long-running CBS reality series “Survivor” premieres its twenty-second season Feb. 16, one of its contestants will be a familiar face. Malibu mom Kristina Kell is strapping on her boots and loading up on mosquito repellent in a bid to join 17 other hopefuls for a chance to “outwit, outplay and outlast” everyone and win $1 million.

The phenomenally successful series’ format has remained essentially unchanged: a group of urban professionals, some athletically inclined, some not so much, gather in a remote jungle wilderness and endure a couple of months of survival-of-the-fittest. Learning to sleep outside, without any of the most basic creature comforts, and eating whatever you can dig up, trap, net or pick is the program. One by one, contestants are “voted off” the island by a jury made up of previous contestants until the winner emerges.

Kell spoke with The Malibu Times after the season’s taping and was unable to discuss much about the actual competition prior to the show’s airing. But she said she had plenty of time to prepare for the ordeal.

“I have watched every single episode of ‘Survivor’ since it first started,” Kell said. “I watched it while I was giving birth!”

Kell grew up in Southern California and attended USC, majoring in Italian Renaissance and Language. She worked at Paramount for 10 years as an executive assistant to a producer of the “Star Trek” series before moving to Arnold Shapiro Productions, part of a team that won an Oscar for the film “Scared Straight” and an Emmy for a series on teen issues. She is now a third-year student at the University of La Verne College of Law.

In early 2000, she got hooked on “Survivor,” avidly following the gradual elimination of contestants until she thought, “I’m athletic. I could do that.”

In 2002, she submitted an audition tape to CBS and went through the interview process. Eight years later, she got a call from their production office, asking if she would still be interested. They were going to be filming in Nicaragua.

“I played high school varsity tennis and was in pretty decent shape,” Kell said. “But I knew I was in for a grueling process. Even people in the best of shape crumble. I knew I had to get ready.”

To train for the filming, Kell spent every day for four months running and pumping iron. She hit the beach with her dog. She trained one-on-one with Charlie McCurdy at Malibu Fitness.

“Kristina couldn’t tell me exactly what it was she was training for,” McCurdy said. “When she said that it ‘might’ involve swimming and ‘might’ involve mountain climbing, I figured it was some kind of eco challenge. So we started on building a foundation of flexibility. The best athletes are sort of like reeds that bend in water. They can take floods, as long as they’re flexible.”

McCurdy likes to design training regimes for new clients based on the activities they enjoyed as children, saying it gives him insight into how they move naturally. But his biggest challenge was divesting Kell of “head games.”

“We worked on limbering her up and endurance,” McCurdy said. “But core strength comes from being able to challenge your head games. It’s where all our weaknesses are. If you think something’s too hard, you can’t do it. But Kristina was very determined and a lot of fun.”

But apparently even crunch time at the gym couldn’t prepare Kell for the reality.

“Being and living down there was a hundred times more difficult than it shows,” Kell said. “You try to prepare mentally, but the vegetation, the air, the water-or lack of it-is all different. Even the humidity was a huge factor. I used to sit in a sauna to prepare, but believe me, it’s a different thing when you’re in the midst of it.”

Also difficult for Kell was being away from her husband, Justin Kell, and her two sons, students at Point Dume Marine Science Elementary School. But her mother came out to stay with the family during Kell’s absence and her husband supported the escapade one hundred percent.

When asked what she felt was the biggest effect of the whole adventure, Kell was unequivocal.

“My sense of gratitude for the paradise we live in,” she said. “Our markets are full of good food. We live in relative peace. Our communities have so much. It really was life changing. The poverty in Central America was shocking.”

So profound was the experience, she is making plans with her husband to take their boys down to visit, in hopes of giving them a different perspective of true abundance.

Meanwhile, while she wouldn’t say what kinds of unspeakable things she might have had to eat during the competition, she said she was happy to return to special-occasion dinners at Nobu and Sunset Restaurant.

“We have so much here,” Kell said. “Being on ‘Survivor’ gave me a new set of glasses.”

“Survivor: Redemption Island” premieres Feb. 16 at 8 p.m on CBS, channel 2.

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