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15 minutes and ticking

'Survivor' sweethearts Rob and Amber enjoy their moment of fame -- before reality sets in

CANTON -- For one fleeting moment, "Boston Rob" Mariano and Amber Brkich were America's sweethearts. She won $1 million on "Survivor: All Stars" four weeks ago. He was the runner-up and had earlier proposed to her in front of 25 million television viewers with the words: "You're the most amazing person I've ever met in my entire life." She got the money. He got the girl. CBS got the ratings. Only in America.

They are savoring their 15 minutes of fame, waiting for reality to set in. "It's incredible," Mariano says. "We fly everywhere first class, get put up in the penthouse suite, people offer us huge sums of money just to show up at places -- you would be stupid to turn that down."

America's most famous 28-year-old Red Sox fan -- or does anyone still remember "Average Joe" star Brian Worth? -- grew up in Hyde Park and Canton, and he agreed to sit for an interview with Brkich last week during a rare visit with his parents, who both work as technicians in local hospitals.

Yes, we asked, and yes, he is sleeping on the couch. Mariano hails from what he calls a "traditional Italian family," and since graduating from Boston University in 1999, when he wasn't living on a beach in the South Pacific ("Survivor: Marquesas") or somewhere off of Panama ("All Stars"), he was living at home with his parents and brother and sister.

After bagging his psychology degree, he worked several construction jobs and also poured drinks at The Place -- "a glorified sports bar where the boy-to-girl ratio is comparable to that of simians-to-humans in 'Planet of the Apes,' " according to the AOL City Guide.

More or less on a whim, Mariano submitted a jerky home video of himself climbing into a stand-up refrigerator as an audition tape to CBS in 2001. The rest is history. Six months later, he found himself on the island of Nuku Hiva, scarfing sun-dried fish innards and cracking coconuts, until he was voted off the island in the seventh episode.

Mariano and Brkich are not dummies. He is, after all, the snake-eyed "Robfather," deemed to be one of the canniest contestants ever to play "Survivor," and she's the woman who beat him. They know that it's a short drop from $10,000 fees to attend a casino event to "Where Are They Now?" status on the E! channel. For the moment, they are mired in pseudo-celebrity hell: Barely a day after our conversation, they left on a 5 a.m. flight to Las Vegas -- their fourth visit since the finale -- for a signing at the CBS store in the MGM Grand Hotel. Then Amber departed for New York to tape an interview for the Country Music Television channel's "Forty Sexiest Country Videos" show. Similar offers continue to pour in from all over the globe.

The question is: What do they have to sell? Their greatest skill is surviving on remote, insect-infested islands and cozying up to "friends" whom they will later betray. Their most marketable property is their made-from-TV puppy love and their putative wedding, which Rob told the "All Stars" audience they'd be willing to televise "if the price was right."

Network interest remains high, and "[`Survivor' creator] Mark Burnett is very interested in producing our wedding," Mariano says now. Burnett confirms this. "Obviously, the wolves are circling around them, trying to profit from young love," the producer says in a telephone interview. "They understand the dangers. If the wedding reveals them to be the funny, vulnerable, and interesting people that I know them to be, away from the Machiavellian game, then people will come to like the at-home Rob and Amber. I don't want it to be some reality television farce. I would like to work with them and protect them."

But there is just one problem. The couple isn't getting married anytime soon. "We are going to take our time and not rush into it," says Brkich, 24, who seems to be the cooler head of the pair. "We don't care about being hot."

During lunch at a local Bertucci's, Mariano continually nuzzles and kisses her in a booth, apparently intent on demonstrating their deep affection. At one point, she asks him to stop. When the talk turns to SAG (Screen Actors Guild) and AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) cards, Brkich, who has done TV commercials, turns out to be knowledgeable and forthcoming. Mariano prefers to keep to the "we're just two ordinary people having the time of our lives" script.

Brkich and Mariano are on the verge of signing with a talent agency to manage their future careers. They would like to work together, and Mariano correctly notes that they enjoy some collective star power: "The catch of having us is us."

Separately, what are their prospects? Amber is beautiful and the cameras love her. Unlike, say, Jenna Morasca, Heidi Strobel, and Jerri Manthey, she has resisted taking her clothes off for Playboy -- three times -- but has posed for lad mags such as Stuff and Maxim. "I've gone from 93 to 50 on the Maxim Hot 100," she notes wryly.

Her first appearance on "Survivor: The Australian Outback" landed Brkich some TV work for the Adelphia cable system, and she wouldn't mind being back on the screen. "I would like to do some hosting, something personality-driven, where I can be me," she says. That would take her along the path of "Survivor's" most successful alumna, Elizabeth Filarski Hasselbeck, who landed a slot on the ABC's estrogen-fueled, all-gal gabfest "The View."

But that may be a stretch for Amber. Linda Holmes, a Minnesota attorney who reviewed "Survivor" for the website Television Without Pity, compares Brkich, unfavorably, to the vapid nonentity Kelly Ripa of "Live with Regis and Kelly": "Amber doesn't even have as much personality as that. She's pretty and pleasing. But I don't remember her saying anything interesting."

What about Boston Rob? Mariano thought he was a pretty good poker player, but he lasted only a few days in his sponsored appearance at the World Series of Poker, which will be televised on ESPN next month. As the "Godfather"-quoting "Boston Rob," with the sun-faded Red Sox cap practically glued to his head, he successfully created one of the most powerful "Survivor" personas ever. Yes, Larry Lucchino, he got your letter thanking him for supporting the Red Sox, and he does plan to get back to you.

To be fair, Rob's friends from Canton take issue with the "Don Mariano" image that he cultivated on the show. "He jokes about it," says Jim Lennon, who attended Galvin Middle School with Mariano. "He's not the malicious, straight-edged guy they cut him out to be. He's got a good heart." "They started that persona in the Marquesas," says fellow middle-schooler Greg Niosi, now a corporate trainer in Boston. "He played the game very cutthroat, but that's not who he is in real life."

Mariano, who played varsity golf and hockey at Xaverian Brothers High School, sees himself possibly working in sports broadcasting or in a "Home Improvement-" type of show. Before scoring big on "All Stars" -- he won $250,000 as the runner-up -- Mariano worked as a construction foreman at several local firms.

What about dat accent? CBS occasionally subtitled his mumblings on "Survivor." Mariano doesn't see his honking Cantonese dialect as a liability: "I think it's a defining thing," he says. "It's not like he is going to be in a movie, and they'll ask him to do a French accent," Amber says.

They know there's considerable skepticism about their long-term romantic prospects, but frankly they don't give a darn. "We really don't care about what somebody else thinks," Brkich says. They way they see it, "Survivor" has given them four cars, which they won during the two shows they each appeared in, $1.25 million in prize money, and each other.

"We're starting out pretty nicely," Mariano says.

Alex Beam can be reached at 

Rob Mariano and Amber Brkich
Rob Mariano, from Canton, poses with "Survivor" winner Amber Brkich. He may have lost the game, but he won the girl. The two are currently engaged.
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