THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

'I'm not a liar. I'm just a human being.'

After a gaffe on live TV, Denise Martin must play survivor all over again

Email|Print| Text size + By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / January 9, 2008

DOUGLAS - Denise Martin stood in the doorway of her home and smiled weakly in response to a friend's solicitous query about her return to work at a local school: "You doing OK? How did it go?"

Martin gave a thumbs-up and replied "Good." Then she admitted the more complicated truth that was already evident on her face: "It was kind of rough."

An understatement, that. It has been a wrenching and tumultuous few weeks for the erstwhile "lunch lady" of "Survivor: China" fame, who was thrust into a national spotlight - and then got burned by its glare.

During her stint on the CBS reality show, Martin became something of a folk hero in this small Blackstone Valley community. Residents eagerly tuned in week after week to watch one of their own - a 40-year-old, blue-collar, mullet-wearing mother of three - compete with younger, sleeker, and yuppier con testants on her way to an eventual fourth-place finish. In Douglas and nationwide, viewers accustomed to the deceit and double-dealing of reality TV responded to Martin's underdog grit and straightforwardness.

Then last month she uttered a few ill-chosen words on the "Survivor: China" live reunion show, and it all went kablooey. Martin erroneously suggested she had been demoted by school authorities after completing her "Survivor" run, when actually she had been promoted before she took part in the show and had returned to that position.

"It was just an honest mistake," said Martin, her eyes watering slightly as she sat in her kitchen with her dachsund (named Tedy Bruschi) on her lap. "But some people have lost respect for me. They think I'm a liar. . . . I'm not a liar. I'm just a human being."

You could call it yet another parable about the perils of reality TV. It is a genre, after all, that confers a temporary celebrity on unknowns that they may not be prepared for, with consequences they cannot anticipate.

But Denise Martin, with her spiky individuality, resists abstraction. She is a native of Revere who now lives in what she affectionately calls "the boonies." She is a devoted mother of three girls who made daily three-hour round trips for four years to a karate studio so she could earn a black belt.

During a 90-minute conversation at her kitchen table - strewn with letters from around the country offering support and even jobs - she alternately expressed dismay, defiance, bewilderment, and remorse at the uproar caused by her remarks.

Whatever her mood, though, Martin made it clear she does not want pity. She'll settle for understanding.

Small-town scandal

That, however, could be a while in coming from some quarters of Douglas (pop. 8,400), a close-knit community near the borders of Rhode Island and Connecticut. "A lot of people are upset with her," Brenda Dautrich, 19, said from behind the counter of a local sub shop. "They think she made our school system look a little bad." A few feet from Dautrich lay a copy of the Dec. 28 edition of the Blackstone Valley Tribune, with the headline " 'Survivor' scandal strikes Douglas" stripped across the top of the front page. Down the street, a woman in the local library barked one word when asked about Martin: "Scam!"

Yet there are also substantial pockets of sympathy for Martin in town, from people who recall her kindness as a cafeteria worker at the Douglas Intermediate Elementary School, where she was known to slip an extra cookie to a child now and then. "I was very proud she achieved what she did," said Peggy Lemay, 43, who wrote Martin a letter of support. "I don't look at her any differently, and I hope other people don't, either." Standing in near-zero temperatures outside the school, reading specialist Laura Cordani said her heart goes out to Martin. "She is not one that would purposely deceive," said Cordani. "Watching it, I thought, 'Oh, I didn't think that was what happened.' "

By "it," she means the live broadcast of the "Survivor: China" reunion show on Dec. 16, when Martin made one crucial slip.

All along, the "Survivor" producers - ever on the lookout for catchy nicknames - had dubbed Martin "the lunch lady." She became so popular with viewers that when Martin went to Los Angeles for the reunion show, cars slowed down on Hollywood Boulevard and drivers rolled down their windows to shout at her: "Hey, you're the lunch lady!"

That mirrored the reaction Martin had been getting back home in Douglas for months. "At Wal-Mart, at Shaw's, people would circle around, looking at me," she recalled. "It was crazy."

Why did she become so popular? "I was just being myself," Martin replied. "More Americans are like me than are like that skinny waitress chick [26-year-old Courtney Yates, originally from Melrose]. Most Americans can relate to a person who has a family and works hard and tries to get by."

On the reunion show, host Jeff Probst asked Martin about returning to her "lunch lady" post. Martin replied that school officials "didn't give me my job back" and that she was working instead as a janitor.

"I clean the toilets, I wash the floors in the bathrooms, I vacuum the kids' rugs," she told Probst. "Yeah, I miss dinner with my family. I haven't been to a field hockey game yet. You know? I'm missing out on a lot more than I originally planned on doing."

'People started freaking'

One of the millions of people watching the broadcast was Nancy Lane, the superintendent of schools in Douglas. She was floored by what she heard. Lane knew that Martin had actually transferred, at her own request, from the $7.35 an hour cafeteria job to a $17 an hour custodial position before she went to China for the show. It was not easy, Lane says, sitting in front of her TV set and "watching a community that had supported someone being cast in a bad light when they didn't deserve it."

"Who knows why someone says what they say or thinks what they think?" said Lane. "But the woman transferred from a part-time position to a full-time position with a significant salary increase six weeks before she left, and then returned to that same position."

The reaction to Martin's televised complaint about her apparent demotion was immediate. During the broadcast, Probst announced that "Survivor" executive producer Mark Burnett was going to give Martin $50,000 to help "get her life back." Meanwhile, the Douglas school district was about to be on the receiving end of mass venom, Internet-style. The day after the broadcast, says Lane, "we were bombarded with e-mails, nationally and internationally" that denounced the school.

So why did Martin misrepresent what happened? She says it was a case of getting nervous and failing to make herself clear.

Martin said she transferred from the cafeteria job last spring because of a clash with her supervisor. But the custodial position involved working nights, and she missed seeing her children. In August, after returning to Douglas from the six-week "Survivor" taping in China, she asked a supervisor if she could return to a cafeteria job, despite the pay cut it would entail. But her request was denied, she said. (Lane, the superintendent, said there are no job openings in the cafeteria.)

In any case, Martin knows she erred. "Instead of saying 'my old job,' I said 'my job,' because I still think of myself as a lunch lady," she said. "It didn't come out the way I anticipated. It's live TV. I should have said 'I tried to get my old job back'. And people started freaking out."

Martin and Lane appeared on the CBS "Early Show" on a split screen two days after the "Survivor" reunion show, and Martin confirmed Lane's account. Within 24 hours, Martin asked CBS to donate the $50,000 Burnett had promised her to the Elisabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.

So now Martin is back in Douglas, coping with the fallout from her gaffe. Lane, the superintendent, says her focus now is on "moving forward." Her final words on the subject? "As far as I'm concerned, it's good night 'Survivor,' " said Lane.

Martin, though, is determined to hold onto the positives from her rocky ride on the reality-show whirlwind. "I don't want people to be sorry for me," she said. "I want people to be happy for me. I got the opportunity to do things that most people never get to do."

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

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