Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Missy Payne spent 39 days in a Nicaraguan jungle, battling bugs, heat and the other competitors on “Survivor: Blood vs. Water.” When her friend who worked in casting for CBS told her they were looking for a mother-daughter duo, she and her daughter sent in a tape. As a star of the 29th season of the show, she pushed through injury, balanced tribal affiliations and competed alongside her daughter Baylor. She was even called a “wicked stepmother” in a now-famous speech. Payne would go on to make the final tribal council, placing third overall, leveraging her fame to help others. She took the $75,000 in winnings from the show to form Cheer 4 Your Life, a nonprofit that helps fund youth activities for those who can’t afford them. In addition, she created “The Invisible 7: A Survivor’s Guide to Awesomeness,” an interactive workbook to help youth develop character traits.

On her “Survivor” strategy: I tried to play the offense and never felt like I was backed into the corner. I was the oldest female, and my wisdom and experience helped me get to the end. What kept coming back to me, with camera crews all around, is that there were hundreds and thousands of young girls that I had taught or might teach who were watching. What did I want to model? What was the message? Strength, humility and to never give up.

Scariest moment: When I was about to shove my hand in the tree and there was a giant boa constrictor there. The producers are not supposed to talk to you, but they did that time.

A strong leader is: Badass and female. 

Why she gives back: You have to be your own cheerleader. No one is going to love you as much as you are going to love yourself. We take these kids and empower them to not give up on themselves (in Cheer 4 Your Life).

Advice for other survivors: Don’t jeopardize your integrity no matter how hard they push you and no matter how hard the game becomes. I shared my dirty laundry about being married and divorced three times. It’s about what I stand for and teach. I have no shame.

No one is going to love you as much as you are going to love yourself.

Her experience with gender discrimination: I have felt it for sure, in a lot of areas. Being a female, it has been hard to prove yourself as strong as a male, especially because of the way our society has formed us. I remember specifically on the show, there was an argument with the oldest gentleman, and all these men were so crass. Running my own business was really hard as a female. I would think, “You wouldn’t speak to a male this way.”

On achieving work-life balance: It has been a sacrifice. I have had to sacrifice my social time and outings for work. I don’t think it is forever, but this is more important.

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