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Escape to Reality

Meet some of the Gators who have ruled – and washed out – on reality television

When ABC announced UF alumna Saneh Ste. Claire would be vying for the rose in the new season of “The Bachelor,” it came as no surprise to fans of reality TV. Gators have a long history of competing in – and dominating – reality elimination shows, starting in 1995 with MTV’s “Road Rules.” From NFL career rushing leader Emmitt Smith (“Dancing with the Stars”) to Warrington entrepreneur Alfonso Tejada (“Shark Tank”), here are almost two dozen memorable UF alumni who raced, schemed, tangoed, crooned or snake-handled their way to reality-show fame – or quick elimination.

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Dubbed the Godfather of Reality TV, Mark Long (BSTEL ’94) was 23 and a recent UF grad in in 1995 when MTV tapped him for the inaugural season of “Road Rules: USA.” The hit show sent five twentysomethings out in an RV, completing missions to receive a “handsome reward.” Long went on to compete in five seasons of MTV’s “The Challenge,” including “Battle of the Sexes” and “Battle of the Exes” (he won twice). During the late ‘90s and early 2000s, he acted in “Sweet Valley High” and “Even Stevens.” Now 49, he recently scored a deal to produce a reality show starring OGs from – you guessed it – “The Challenge.”

At age 29, Alachua native Gina Crews (BSA ’99, Wildlife Ecology) was a fan favorite on CBS’s “Survivor: Marquesas” (season 4, 2002), filmed near Tahiti. A member of the ill-fated Maraamu tribe, Crews refused to indulge in the show’s trademark backstabbing and was voted out on Day 18, leading some fans to wonder, do nice girls finish last? Off the island, Crews showed CBS’s “The Early Show” the watermelon-seed-spitting prowess that made her National Watermelon Queen in 1997. Today Crews (now Gina Middaugh) is married and the mother of four children. She lives in Saint Augustine, where she teaches high school biology. (Photo Monty Brinton/CBS)

In 2002, UF senior Christina Christian made it onto season 1 of ABC’s “American Idol” by serenading judge Simon Cowell with “Isn’t He Wonderful?” at her audition. The Brooklyn-born 21-year-old stood out among the Top 10 finalists for her renditions of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “When a Man Loves a Woman” before collapsing from stress prior to episode 6, when she was voted off the show (despite receiving 900,000 votes). “It was my time,” she said in a 2007 interview. “I needed to go home…. I was so exhausted.” Married post-Idol, she now goes by the name Christina Cewe and works in South Florida in the IT field.

Popular YouTube vlogger Scooter Magruder (BSTEL ‘11) got his start as a contestant on “Endurance 2” (2003), an under-18 elimination show that aired on NBC and Discovery Kids. Fourteen at the time, Magruder competed alongside partner Christa Scholtz as the Blue Team and garnered attention for his fierce competitive streak. “Somebody’s going to have to go home, and I want to see to it that I send them home,” he famously growled. Magruder later told Knight News his experience on “Endurance” inspired him to get behind the camera and carve a path for himself in media, starting with earning a degree in telecommunication from UF.

Former Gator quarterback Jesse Palmer (BA ’01, BSBA ’01) had already spent four years playing for the New York Giants when he was cast on season 5 of ABC’s “The Bachelor” (2004). Dozens of hopefuls vied for the attentions of the tall, strapping Canadian, who was chastised during the first rose ceremony for mistakenly calling out “Katie” when he meant to say “Karen.” (Both contestants ended up with a rose that episode.) Post-Bachelor, Palmer dived into a career as a sports commentator and TV personality; today the 42-year-old dishes on pop culture as the host of “Daily Mail TV.” (Photo courtesy ABC)

UF’s linguistics department yielded the season 3 winner of NBC’s “The Apprentice” (2005). Kendra Todd (BA ’00), then 26, was a successful real estate broker in Boynton Beach when she was cast on the business-talent game show. Admired for her teamwork and foresight, Todd performed solidly as a project manager, winning 3-0, and was hired by host Donald Trump to oversee the $25-million renovation of his Palm Beach mansion near Mar-a-Lago. Todd went on to host HGTV’s “My House Is Worth What?” from 2006 to 2009 and is now a real estate broker with The Kendra Todd Group, in Seattle and South Florida. (Photo courtesy NBC)

Razor-tongued Simon Cowell called her “possibly the most annoying person I have ever seen in my life,” but that didn’t stop beauty pageant queen Brooke Helvie (BSBA ’11) from securing a spot in Hollywood Week of “American Idol” (season 7, 2008). Eliminated before the live rounds, the plucky singer-songwriter then earned a degree in business administration from UF and moved to Nashville, where she released the singles “Daddy’s Money” and “Act Like You Don’t,” the latter racking up 5 million Spotify streams. Now known as Brooke Eden, she has opened for country stars Tim McGraw, Alan Jackson and Florida Georgia Line. Take that, Simon. (Photo courtesy Brooke Eden)

Running back Emmitt Smith (BSR ’96) set rushing records during his three years at UF (1987-1989) before playing 15 seasons in the NFL, but his smooth moves on the dance floor made him a favorite on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.” The tremendous leg strength that contributed to the Dallas Cowboys’ three Super Bowl championships also helped Smith win season 3 of DWTS (2006), with partner Cheryl Burke. Fans gave the 37-year-old high praise for his “natural charm” and for “making dancing look manly.” He returned to DWTS in its 15th season (2012) as an All-Stars contestant, partnering again with Burke; the pair were voted off during Week 9. The mirror-ball trophy he won for DWTS in 2006 still has pride of place in his Dallas home. “That’s always the first thing people want to see when they come over,” he told Esquire magazine. (Photo Adam Larkey/ABC)

Another Gator who pivoted to “Dancing with the Stars” fame is sportscaster and TV host Erin Andrews (BSTEL ’00). A trained dancer and former Florida Gators Dazzler, Andrews was working as a commentator for ESPN when she competed in the show’s 10th season (2010), placing third alongside partner Maksim Chmerkovskiy. After taking up with ESPN’s rival network Fox Sports, Andrews returned to DWTS as a cohost with Tom Bergeron in 2014, lasting for six years until she was unexpectedly replaced by Tyra Banks this past summer. “She can nail the smizing and the walking in gowns and heels, so good for her,” Andrews, 42, quipped to Hello! magazine. (Photo ABC)

Ten years after Gina Crews got voted off the island, fellow Gator Monica Culpepper (BA ’91) made a name for herself on the same series. On “Survivor: One World” (2012), the UF Homecoming Queen of 1991 found herself outside her tribe because of an alliance outnumbering her and the other women over 40; however, her athletic strength saved her from elimination until Day 14. She returned the next season with husband, former pro football player Brad Culpepper (BA ’91, JD ’01, MESS ’01), in “Survivor: Blood vs. Water” (2013). Monica outlasted Brad and was crowned runner-up. Brad returned on “Survivor: Game Changers” (2017), winning five immunity challenges and reaching the final tribal council. The couple live in Tampa with their three children. (Photo courtesy CBS)

Twenty-four-time NCAA All-American swimmer and 12-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte (BSR ’11) generated international controversy when he lied about being robbed at gunpoint during the 2016 Summer Olympics, but perhaps his flair for drama came from an earlier stint in reality TV. In 2013, the diamond-loving athlete starred in E!’s “What Would Ryan Lochte Do?”; the short-lived series chronicled his preparations for the Olympic Games while creating his fashion line, making media appearances and searching for a mate. Post-Olympics, Lochte helped repair his tattered image by taking to the stage in season 23 of “Dancing with the Stars” (2016) with partner Cheryl Burke. While the pair were axed early on, Lochte afterward told USA Today, “I learned a lot about myself, that I can – no matter how hard I get knocked down, I can keep fighting.” (Photo courtesy ABC)

Growing up in Ormond Beach, Liz Huber (BSBA ’12) loved baking alongside her mother. After earning a degree in business administration from UF, Huber decided to profit from her passion by opening up Cakery Creation, a specialty bakery in Daytona Beach. As a contestant on season 2 of the Food Network’s “Cake Wars” (2016), Huber walked away the winner and $10,000 richer for her 3-D pastry depiction of Po, the Kung Fu panda. (Photos courtesy Liz Huber)

College pals Brodie Smith (BABA ’10) and Kurt Gibson (BSBA ’08) chased a $1 million prize as teammates on season 28 of CBS’s “The Amazing Race” (2016). As undergrads, they won national championships in Ultimate Frisbee, strengthening a bond that would later see them through a grueling trek around the globe as they took volcano mud baths, traversed mountains, paraglided and handling live pythons in “Race.” In episode 9, Gibson revealed his earlier fight with stage 3 colon cancer, receiving an outpouring of fan support. The pair finished first in four of eight rounds before being eliminated in the 10th. Post-Race, both Smith and Gibson have gone on to achieve record wins in their sport. (Photo courtesy CBS)

Southern crooner and UF history grad Dylan Gerard (BA ’11) turned both Adam Levine’s and Jennifer Hudson’s chairs in his blind audition for NBC’s “The Voice” (2017), season 13. Hudson wasted no time and began coaching Gerard, arguing he should have sung “Say You Won’t Go” in a higher key, but Gerard went with Team Adam. The 28-year-old won his battle round, singing Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes,” but lost in the knockouts with Ed Sheeran’s “All of the Stars.” Gerard has gone on to forge a career in country music as a singer-songwriter, releasing his single “Simple Things” in September 2020. (Photo courtesy NBC)

Pasta made out of hearts of palm? If you’re dubious, you obviously can’t sniff out a winning product like the two “sharks” (investors) who put their money on Alfonso Tejada (BSBA ’09, MBA ’12), a season 9 contestant on ABC’s “Shark Tank” (2018). Mark Cuban and Lori Greiner gave the 30-year-old Warrington grad a $300k investment for a 25% stake in Palmini, a healthy pasta substitute made from this natural plant. Tejada ran out of stock of Palmini within 24 hours of the show airing, and today the low-carb noodles can be found on the shelves of Whole Foods, Walmart and Kroger, as well as online at Amazon. (Photo ABC/Eddy Chen)

To his UF professors and classmates, Boca Raton native Dariel Liakhovetski is a senior majoring in microbiology and cell science. But to season 9 viewers of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” (2014), he’s one half of the hard-rock cello duo Emil & Dariel. The Liakhovetski brothers gained legions of fans for their covers of classic rock songs like “Satisfaction,” “Purple Haze,” and “Live and Let Die” until they were eliminated in the Top 12 finals. After finding “Talent” fame at age 16, Dariel enrolled in UF’s online program so he could pursue both a musical career and academic success. “I didn’t want to give up my greatest dream of getting an excellent education and becoming a dentist,” he told UF in April 2020. (Photo courtesy NBC)

Is there a matrimonial rose in the future of double Gator Saneh Ste. Claire (BSA ’17, MS ’19)? The 25-year-old Vilano Beach-native was chosen to be one of 43 contestants vying for the attentions of former pro football player Matt James in the forthcoming season of “The Bachelor.” This past September, James, Ste. Claire and her competitors went into lockdown at a resort in Farmington, Pennsylvania, and ABC refuses to divulge how many eliminations Ste. Claire survived – or if she squashed her rivals to triumph in the final rose ceremony. Tune in January 2021 to find out. (Photo courtesy ABC)