February 16, 2011

Maine's down-to-earth 'Survivor' contestant getting chance at dream

Ashley Underwood, who grew up on a pig farm in Benton, hopes her adventurous spirit inspires others.

By ZACH DIONNE Special to MaineToday Media

Every Mainer tuning into "Survivor: Redemption Island" tonight has a home team to root for. Her name is Ashley Underwood.

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Ashley Underwood, a nurse and former Miss Maine pageant winner who grew up in Benton, is one of 18 castaways competing in “Survivor: Redemption Island.” The 22nd installment of the Emmy-winning reality series begins airing tonight at 8 on CBS stations.

Courtesy CBS Television Network Inc.

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Zach Dionne is an entertainment editor at AOL’s PopEater.com in New York City. He is a graduate of Messalonskee High School in Oakland and the University of Maine.

She's our state's stake in this televised tropical quest for $1 million. A 26-year-old Cony High School and University of Maine grad, Ashley grew up at Underwood Strawberry Farm in Benton.

And though she's traveled the world playing pro basketball and found pageant success as Miss Maine 2009, Ashley remembers her roots.

In "Survivor" press leading up to this season's premiere, Ashley reminisced about getting her hands dirty when the family farm raised hundreds of pigs.

The swine were before my time. I was raised in Oakland, but my family moved a quarter-mile from the Underwood farm when I headed to UMaine. I can recommend the farm's fruit and fiddleheads firsthand.

Today, I'm a pop culture journalist in New York City, and "Survivor" remains appointment viewing for me – one of the few shows I continue designating as such. Attending the "Heroes vs. Villains" finale last May for GQ magazine, I was sure my "Survivor" career had peaked.

But writing a Maine column on Ashley's quest to become a "Survivor" winner is more significant. Something about that small-screen link to home – a Mainer trying to outwit, outplay and outlast the best of them – is compelling regardless if one's backyard is Brooklyn or the Kennebec.

In a recent interview, she told me, "I love representing Maine because I think there are so many great people who get overlooked. I just think Mainers are down to earth, love the outdoors, not afraid to work hard."

Underwood's outdoorsy upbringing was a sure fit for a "Survivor" hopeful. The self-described tomboy said pageantry didn't come until she was 23. She hoped to "try something new" after scoring a UMaine basketball scholarship, earning a nursing degree and playing professional hoops in Switzerland for one season.

That "something new" came and went; Underwood became Miss Maine in 2009 and went on to the Miss USA pageant, failing to place in the top 15.

What next? Friends had often told Ashley she was "cut out" for "Survivor," that she'd be a natural. "I'm a huge 'Survivor' fan, so I was kind of obsessed," she said.

After unsuccessfully gunning for a spot on "The Amazing Race" with a close friend, Ashley found her "Survivor" obsession paying off. She was chosen to compete in the 22nd season.

"I felt so lucky to be one of the 300-and-something people who have been chosen to be part of the show," Ashley said. "I was literally shaking when I found out that I actually made the cast, I was so excited."

Until the cast was announced in January, Ashley, who still lives in Maine, was sworn to secrecy about her participation in the show.

Only her boyfriend and immediate family knew she had been chosen to compete. "I had to lie to my grandmother for cryin' out loud," she said. "I felt really bad about all of that."

Ashley remains contractually committed to silence concerning her placement in the competition, but enjoyed being able to at least acknowledge she'd gone to Central America and taken a shot at $1 million. "It's so nice that it's out in the open now, I don't feel like I have to lie anymore," she said.

Starting tonight, all will begin to be revealed. While steeling herself for this TV experience of a lifetime, Ashley's sense of adventure carried her.

"There's so many people that, maybe because they're from a small state or small town, they don't have the courage to go out and do things," she said. "I wanted to never be afraid to pursue what I want to do.

"If I can encourage people to pursue what they want, to get out of Maine and see a little bit. I just hope by what I'm doing, people will realize some of their dreams they haven't pursued have just been because they're holding back."

Zach Dionne is an entertainment editor at AOL's PopEater.com in New York City. He is a graduate of Messalonskee High School in Oakland and the University of Maine.


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