A winner of Survivor. A Hollywood Week contestant on American Idol. And a chef in grueling Hell’s Kitchen. This trio of locals earned spots on some of TV’s most popular reality shows, doing the Alamo City — and themselves — proud. For Kim Spradlin Wolfe, 30, the end of a painful marriage motivated her to send in a video audition to Survivor — a show she’d watched since high school. The athletic Alamo Heights bridal shop owner wanted to prove who she was in the most difficult environment. In doing just that, she won the $1 million prize in May 2012, concluding the Samoa-based season. Now happily married a second time, she and her new husband aim to make a difference in San Antonio and the world. “We want to do things that matter,” she says. For Nedra Harris, 24, working under the fearsome Gordon Ramsey in Hell’s Kitchen helped the tell-it-like-it-is chef to get past personal insecurities. “I didn’t learn how to cook while I was there, I learned about me,” she says. “I tapped into Nedra. It was like a retreat and like boot camp all at the same time.” For Victoria Acosta, 21, her third audition was the charm when American Idol came to San Antonio last summer. After trying out in Houston and Austin previous years, the mariachi-singer-turned-pop-singer finally got a ticket to Hollywood Week — along with the inspiration to continue pursuing her dream of performing live music. “An artist should touch people’s souls with their own,” she says, citing advice from the judging panel’s Keith Urban, who urged her to be more vulnerable during performances.

Critics may decry reality TV as fluff, but the true reality is this: The characters who make it onto such shows bear plenty of weight — their past, their expectations, their strengths and weaknesses. It takes courage to put themselves out there like these women did. And when the cameras move on to the next crop of reality stars, they are left with memories and lessons they will carry with them the rest of their lives. Find out how this trio of San Antonio women fared, what they learned and what living through a reality show is really like.

Kim Spradlin Wolfe:
Sole Survivor

Kim bounds into the Local Coffee on Broadway, energetic despite feeling a little under the weather for an interview. But the woman who spent 39 days on a remote Samoan coast, outlasting and outwitting 17 cast mates to win Survivor: One World, says she’ll power through the conversation. She didn’t earn the title “Sole Survivor” for nothing. Survive she did. “They gave you a machete and four tablespoons per person of rice a day,” Kim says. She subsisted on that meager supply, along with crabs she caught and coconuts.

No one in the coffee shop seems to notice the statuesque, long-haired blonde who captivated the Survivor audience and dominated the game. She won by a vote of 7-2, as revealed in the show’s final “tribal council” at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City in May 2012. “That was one of the most difficult weekends of my life,” she says, remembering the dynamic among cast members she’d lived with, befriended and voted against during the show, not to mention wondering if she’d won the cool million. With the competition down to three finalists, she had no idea how the vote would go. These days, the owner of bridal boutique Bella Bridesmaid doesn’t mind being out of the spotlight, but after navigating alliances among cast mates, losing 16 pounds on the show and winning four immunity challenges that meant others couldn’t vote her off the island, she’s grateful for the experience. “It made me feel alive again,” she says, sharing how her divorce made her ready to take on a new challenge. So complete was Kim’s victory that she even found and held on to a secret “immunity idol,” which would have protected her during a tribal council — if she had ever needed it. More than the million dollars she won, she values “knowing who I am. I am fully validated just by being me.” Described as a quiet leader, Kim was determined to forge her own fate on the show. “I didn’t want to be a sidekick. I wanted to go and make things happen,” she says. “The whole thing is so grueling — spiritually, emotionally, physically.

“It’s a game, but it’s people’s lives,” she adds, noting that the dilemma of determining authentic relationships on the show is almost as tough as the physical challenges. She had two alliances among the women, one with the men, and used all of them to achieve the win. Her “nemesis” on the show, Troy, is now a good friend, she says. Two of the younger women in one of her alliances came to her wedding last spring in Mexico, when she married Bryan Wolfe, a native of the Valley in South Texas, who works at USAA. Kim started dating Bryan just before heading to Samoa, but contractual obligations prohibited her from telling anyone where she was going. She even had to concoct a story to tell family and friends about helping the children in Colombia, where she would be unreachable for many weeks — a forerunner to the kinds of subtle deceptions she would have to perpetrate to win the show. To weather the physical toll, she credits her dad, a high school football coach, with fostering a love of athletics in her and her sister, Beth: “He treated us like boys. He would say, ‘It’s not teaching you not to quit sports. It’s teaching you not to quit life.’”

In Samoa, she didn’t quit. She drew on years spent as a whitewater rafting guide in Colorado. And she relied on a deepening relationship with God, too. “God has become absolutely everything,” she says, adding that there’s nothing peripheral about her relationship with him now. On the island, as she dealt with her immediate circumstances and the emotional aftermath of her first marriage’s demise, she focused on finding peace. “Peace had been huge for me,” she says. “I was like a peaceful presence amid the chaotic experience. I think it drew people to me.” Today, with her faith in God and a strong support system that includes her new husband, friends, her parents, sister and a brother, she’s enjoying life after the big show. And she hasn’t changed much. She even drives the same old Volkswagen Jetta “that needs a new timing belt.”

She used the $1 million she won — plus the extra $100,000 she got for being voted “Player of the Season” by the show’s fans — to pay bills and to invest in the bridal boutique. She and her sister also helped rehab an old San Antonio convent used as a safe house for women getting out of the sex-trafficking trade. Though reluctant to promote the charitable work she’s embarking on, she’s eager to help with causes she believes in. “I love to go from thing to thing to thing,” she says, adding that she used to wonder if that was to her detriment. Now she knows she’s just adventurous. Instead of “thing to thing,” she views her ambitions as going from “adventure to adventure.”

Next up? After selling her Austin bridal shop, she wants to sell the Alamo Heights shop, too. She’s managing a redo of the 1948 home in Monte Vista that she and Bryan recently bought. And she’s pondering having children someday. “I recently told a friend, ‘I’m trying to think of something else to do,’” she says. Whatever it is, she’ll have the peace she brought to Samoa as castaway and carried, like a secret immunity idol, all the way back to South Texas.

Nedra Harris: To Hell’s Kitchen and Back with Chef Gordon Ramsay

Over chips and salsa at La Gloria, chef Nedra Harris leaps up in her stylish navy maxi dress as ducks waddle toward the table. She shrieks. She squeals. Almost as dramatic as her reaction to having to catch and cage a wild turkey during a culinary challenge on the current season of Hell’s Kitchen. A fan of living, breathing wild life Nedra is not. But give her some raw lamb chops on a stage in Las Vegas, and she’ll wow the toughest of critics — notoriously hard-to-please chef Gordon Ramsay. “I was the first girl to earn a point [on the show],” she says. Despite the nervous stomach she calls “bubble guts,” Nedra turned out honey-glazed rosemary-grilled lamb chops with a double-grilled baked potato and bacon vinaigrette for the first live episode. Worried about time constraints, crafty Nedra doused her chops in piping hot honey glaze at the last minute to help finish cooking them and held her breath as Ramsay examined her plated food — perfectly cooked.

That first encounter with Ramsay came after a roller coaster-like ride with flashing lights that turned unsuspecting contestants onto a Vegas stage in front of a live audience and the series taskmaster. Vegas brought other surprises, too: a Caesar’s Palace suite, where Celine Dion serenaded the contestants before they enjoyed front-row seats at her concert. It was quite a contrast to Nedra’s typical evening in San Antonio, where she works as sous chef at Tower of the Americas Chart House Restaurant and where she was recently named banquet chef, as well. Despite Ramsay’s surly reputation, Nedra claims kinship. “Can I tell you a secret?” she asks, now safe from the ducks and back in her seat at La Gloria. “All chefs are like that. I have a brigade of, like, 60 chefs. Each cook has a different problem,” she says, adding that if something’s not right, she can be just as tough as Ramsay. Her run on the show ended with her elimination on Episode 13 last May, but she has no regrets. “I didn’t cry. I didn’t cry at all. I got sabotaged,” she says, explaining that her voluntary switch to the all-male team resulted in a power play against her. “They were, like, so happy that I was gone. It’s a game that has to be played, and I was a threat.”

Proud that her direct banter and humor garnered the TV audience’s attention, she notes that she even trended on Twitter at one point. And she enjoys checking out the blogosphere to see what people say about her. Some say she’s hilarious, others, that she should start her own TV show. Building off such national exposure, Nedra has several projects in the works — a cookbook, her blend of 20 spices called Pootie Spice™, and even a potential line of supportive bras for well-endowed women. Her ultimate goal? To be a chef for celebrities. She laughs when reminded that she herself is already a celebrity of sorts, and she recounts her humble beginnings. Raised in Detroit, Nedra taught herself how to cook as an eighth-grade latch-key kid. Tired of her mom’s tuna casserole, she found chicken in the fridge and cooked it — along with almost everything else in the icebox — for friends. “I got in trouble that day. But everybody loved the food, so I thought, ‘Hey, I want to do this,’” she says. After high school, she graduated from the School of Culinary Arts of Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago, where she worked part-time for famed chef Wolfgang Puck for some catering events. She interned at Walt Disney World Resort. But she’s long had an eye on Hell’s Kitchen. Her first year in culinary school, at age 17, she called about auditioning, but was turned away because of her age. With almost seven more years of culinary experience after following her parents down to South Texas, she auditioned again when the show came to San Antonio last year. This time, she got invited to audition more than once in L.A. — including a call-back during the week of her twin sister’s wedding. As maid of honor, Nedra went anyway and must have impressed the judges, if not her sister, who has since forgiven her for barely making it back in time for her wedding day.

As she worked on the various challenges Hell’s Kitchen sent her way, she clung to her philosophy about food. “You eat with your eyes first. The smells are next, and then the taste,” she says. “I love to design.”

But beyond the artistry of food, she takes food safety in a restaurant seriously. “Our job is like a doctor’s: People’s lives are in our hands,” she explains, adding that those with severe allergies and women who are pregnant can be severely affected by raw food or other mistakes in the kitchen. She notes that chefs are on call like doctors, as well. If something goes wrong in the kitchen, her cell phone might ring. When she’s not working, this chef’s favorite restaurants around town aren’t fancy: Magnolia House, Mi Tierra Restaurant & Bakery, Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers and Max’s Wine Dive for chicken and waffles. The one thing she can’t sample in San Antonio is seafood. She’s allergic to shellfish, even though she loves to cook with it. As the animated Nedra talks about her run on Hell’s Kitchen, she grows reflective. “I always looked at myself as mediocre. I am afraid of a lot of things,” she admits. But on Hell’s Kitchen, she “just kept reaching a different plateau.” With a new confidence, she says: “If I can do this,” gesturing with her hand, “I can do this,” moving her hand up a notch.

And though she exited early, the fires of Hell’s Kitchen turned out to be a blessing. “If I had to do it all over again, I definitely wouldn’t do it once. I’d do it 10 times,” she says.

Victoria Acosta:
Going to Hollywood

Strutting in glittering gold sequin shorts atop black patent stilettos, American Idol alum Victoria Acosta punches the air to the beat of cover band E7. As she shares vocal duties tonight for renditions of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean and Lady Gaga’s Poker Face, this gig on the Stonewerks patio at The Rim is just part of the plan Victoria has for making music the focus of her life. Raised in San Antonio and steeped in the tradition of mariachi music, the dark-haired, petite star-in-the-making also fronts the Austin-based band Los Bad Apples. She helps write the group’s songs, such as the ballad My Heart Says Yeah, exclusively released to local Tejano station KXTN last June and later on iTunes. Watching tonight’s performance at The Rim, Victoria’s mom acknowledges she and her husband introduced Victoria to mariachi music at an early age, but says their daughter grew to love it herself. At age 8, Victoria won best in show at a 2001 mariachi competition for elementary-through-college-age singers. And that success and skill got her noticed during her Idol audition last year.

The producers picked her to profile during the audition show, showcasing her lifetime love of mariachi as she wore a traditional costume along the River Walk in mini-profile for the national viewing audience to see. At her San Antonio audition, she sang Fergie’s Big Girl’s Don’t Cry, but it left the judges wanting something more. She gave it to them when they let her sing a mariachi number, too, revealing the passion that the panel of Randy Jackson, Nicki Minaj, Mariah Carey and Keith Urban were looking for. “When I went into the room, my mouth got dry,” she remembers of her third attempt to get that golden ticket to Hollywood. “It’s shocking the presence the judges actually have.” During her Hollywood adventure, with her parents watching from the balcony, she sang Killing Me Softly with His Song for the a cappella solo audition, but she had a tough time with the group audition. She fell in with a group of girls who insisted on singing Good Girl by Carrie Underwood. “I’m not a country singer,” Victoria says. The gang stayed up late working on harmonies and choreography, but Idol didn’t feature the group prominently on the show. “None of us went through [to the next round],” she says, adding that she doesn’t begrudge the process. “It’s about endurance. You have to have the ability to step up to the plate.”

Though she tried her best and turned heads as an early Latina frontrunner, she found herself back in San Antonio. “I wish I would have given a little more of myself,” she says. But Keith Urban’s advice resonated long after her California dreams faded. He told her to break down the wall she unintentionally puts up during performances. “I’m really trying to find places in myself that will express what the song means to the audience,” she says. And she may have another shot to demonstrate what she’s learned: Auditions for Idol’s 2014 season come to Austin this August. She and her little sister, who sings, plays four instruments and already goes by the stage name Rayne Katz, may audition then. “I’m so proud of her,” she says. She acknowledges the show honors perseverance, but whether Victoria auditions or not, she’ll be busy. Working part-time as a bank teller, she plans to enroll this fall at the University of the Incarnate Word to study pharmacy like her father did. She’ll work on songwriting — a passion for this lover of English literature. After all, “Lyrics are poetry,” she explains. She’ll keep performing with E7 and Los Bad Apples at hot spots in San Antonio and Austin. And she’ll hold on to her dream.

“For the judges to send you to Hollywood there’s something special about you. Out of the thousands of people, I was one of the people who went,” she says, flashing that audition-ready smile. “I just have this confidence now [that] I can deliver what the audience wants. No matter what happens, I’ll never have any regrets, because I’ve continued to pursue my dream of music.”

by Jennifer Chappell Smith