Originally posted Thursday, September 26, 2019 by RODNEY HOemail@example.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog
Decatur native and Wesleyan graduate Missy Byrd has the type of story any reality show casting director would salivate over: a literal survivor of a brain tumor wanting to check off a bucket list item by winning the reality show “Survivor.”
Not surprisingly, within five minutes of the debut of the 39th season of this enduring CBS show Wednesday, the editors cut to Byrd. She told her story of being a basketball player at the U.S. Air Force Academy who almost died from that tumor.
By minute 22, Missy showed she was not going to be just the tall, athletic girl considered a physical threat. She was watching the other players and absorbing information on her Lairo tribe of 10.
“I try to be the most observant in this game,” she told the CBS cameras. “Looking around at the other players, I like the girls. It seems all four of the other women are not going to be subservient. They’re not going to do what people expect them to do. They’re going to do what benefits them. At this moment, what benefits the girls is forming an all-girls alliance.”
Dead serious. she told the other women that she hated that women are often cut early on the show, a sign that she knew the game.
Although Lairo’s team lost the first team immunity challenge, Missy was not a target at all thanks in part to her strategic game play.
In an interview from her parent’s home in metro Atlanta this week, 25-year-old Byrd - now a Seattle resident - provided some savory details about her life so far and how that might impact her stay on the show. This season also features two of the show’s best players - Sandra Diaz-Twine and “Boston” Rob Mariano - as secret mentors on a separate island.
From public to private school: As a sophomore, she transferred from Columbia High School in Decatur to a private Wesleyan School in Norcross. Her family was not wealthy. She needed scholarship money. Fortunately, she could play basketball.
“I knew I had a better shot of going to college going to Wesleyan,” she said. “The big thing was price. I needed the scholarship so my family could pay a discounted rate.”
And she was able to adjust from a world where she only saw black faces to a world of mostly white ones. “It was totally life changing,” she said.
Air Force bound: She also sought a free ride for college and was able to get into the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. “It was the best education of all the schools offering a basketball scholarship. And it had a guaranteed job afterwards. I wanted to travel and learn a foreign language. For me, it was a no brainer.”
Then the tumor came... Her first two years at the academy went great but she started acting strangely her junior year and had no idea why. She started getting bad grades and behaving erratically. She stopped menstruating. Then she started lactating. She was not pregnant. She lost her spot at the academy and was moved to an Air Force base in Seattle. There, she finally learned she had a brain tumor, which caused her body to think she was having a baby. “It was like a case for ‘Grey’s Anatomy’!” she said. “I need to call [creator] Shonda!”
Good news! “I went into the MRI convinced it was cancerous and I was going to die.” Instead, “it was non-cancerous, which was super dope!” She took pills that dissipated the tumor into nothing and she has since recovered completely. She also made a list of things she wanted to do: see Beyoncé in concert, buy a jeep and get on “Survivor.” (She’s done two out of three so far, save for the jeep.)
Going into the game: She planned not to say anything about her her brain tumor to fellow players, figuring it would make her more of a target. The tumor, she noted, is the type of sympathy-tugging story you wait to reveal during the final Tribal Council when seeking votes to win the $1 million. She also tried her best early on to keep her head down and not make waves. During the first episode, she succeeded.
The Boston Rob/Sandra twist: She was a huge fan of both players and said so numerous times during casting, which certainly didn’t hurt her chances of making it on the show. And small world: she worked on the same Air Force base as Sandra. “I loved how she played. She said and did what she wanted and people still voted to give her the money twice! That gave me hope that I didn’t have to filter myself so much.” Her plan was to vent about the other players in the confessionals, not to their faces or to others.
Her military experience: She met a huge diversity of people and she thinks that can’t possibly hurt her on “Survivor.”
Loving the outdoors: “Living on the island was the best time. It was often chill. I like to live a simple life. I can go backpacking for three weeks with two changes of clothing.” In fact, she had just gotten out of the Air Force and used savings to backpack with friends through 12 countries in Europe with a final stop in Thailand over 90 days.
Late “Survivor” bloomer: She only discovered the show in college and then binge watched all the seasons.
Pressure? What pressure? The challenges could drive starving people nuts and having Jeff Probst making snarky comments doesn’t help. But Missy felt her athletic background enabled her to focus better and block out distractions.
“Survivor,” 8 p.m. Wednesdays, CBS
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.