Stacey Stillman Speaks

Stacey Stillman may be nursing a cold, but she's the hottest topic in entertainment at the moment. The San Francisco attorney and contestant on last summer's "Survivor" has mounted a David vs. Goliath battle against CBS and the show's producer, Mark Burnett.

In a lawsuit filed Feb. 5, Stillman claims the blockbuster reality program was part of an "unlawful and fraudulent" scheme. She alleges that she was prematurely expelled from the show after Burnett pressured fellow contestants Dirk Been and Sean Kenniff to vote her off Pulau Tiga in the third episode. Stillman says this violated a federal law against game-show rigging that was put on the books after the 1950s "21" scandal. And the 28-year-old, who at this point is still representing herself, says she can prove her case. CBS and Burnett have called the allgations "frivilous and groundless."

NEWSWEEK's Ana Figueroa reached Stillman on Feb. 9 at her San Francisco law firm.

NEWSWEEK: Explain the complaint you filed against Mark Burnett and CBS.

Stacey Stillman: By injecting himself into the game in the third week, and possibly in other instances, he ultimately effected the outcome of the show. He certainly effected my outcome. The reason I went ahead with the suit is that he didn't have to do that. It would have been a great show if he had just stood back and let it happen. But he did it for the money. That's so wrong. People found the show enjoyable, but a fun fraud doesn't make it any less of a fraud.

Did you have doubts about the show's legitimacy while you were a contestant?

No. ... Although, during the show, I was surprised to see Mark in our camp as much as I did. I saw him go up to others, but I figured he was just saying the things he was saying to me. Things like, 'Good job. Keep it up.' Plus, I was so distracted with the sheer hunger and difficulty of it all that it never occurred to me. I didn't want to believe it when Dirk told me. [Stillman alleges in her complaint that fellow contestant Dirk Been was asked by Burnett to vote Stillman off the show]. I just wanted to put the experience away and move on. I just wasn't able to.

It sounds like you struggled with the idea of filing the lawsuit for a while.

Yeah. I knew what the public reaction would be. I've got many strikes against me. I am a lawyer. I filed a lawsuit. I'm the bitch lawyer from TV, and I frankly don't want to fight this [out] in the media. I'm not giving soundbites to counter CBS's little statements, which are just digging into me every day.

Have you been surprised by the public response to the lawsuit? There's been some harsh criticism out there.

Well, it's brought up some old wounds. Here's the ironic part. I never would have been able to do it had I not been reamed over the summer for how I appeared on the show. CBS itself prepared me for this. I have a strange calm now, knowing I'm doing the right thing and I have the proof. These people need to be stopped. I also think that if this had happened to Colleen or to Gretchen, people would be outraged. But it happened to me, a lawyer. It's almost as if, I dare enforce my own rights, and I'm terrible. Lawyers themselves have been writing me hate mail, saying that I confirm everything bad about the profession. I've gotten a lot of nasty emails from the public in general, calling me a sore loser. It's hard to explain in an interview that I'm not a vindictive person.

What's been the response from the other "Survivor" contestants to your lawsuit? Have you heard from any of them?

Yes. Very positive. I have a lot of support. These people are all in a tough situation. They want to make it in Hollywood. I'm one of the few who doesn't. They need to make CBS think they're on its side. Part of the reason why I did go forward is that there are a lot of disgruntled contestants. We all put on a happy face for the media. I did for a long time, even knowing what had happened. I was waiting to decide what to do. I continued to play their game and I continued to do interviews to promote the show. Finally, in October, I had enough. I cut off all interviews. I've turned down lots of appearance opportunities. I don't want to endorse the show. The one thing that sickens me about this lawsuit is that it's giving them more attention.

You are acting as your own attorney in the lawsuit. Are you hoping to find someone to represent you?

I'm representing myself because it was difficult to find an attorney who didn't have a conflict. CBS, Viacom, Paramount-we're talking about huge parties here. So all the big firms are conflicted out. Any [lawyer at a small firm] who wants it just doesn't have the resources to be buried in paper like they're [CBS] going to do to me. I knew I would have to go public for someone to step up and take the challenge. And people have. I'll be represented in the near future. This isn't an ego trip or anything. I didn't want to represent myself. But I knew that I had to do something.

Sounds like you would have preferred not to bring this lawsuit.

It's a last resort. And, it's not because I want money. I'm not actually asking for that much money.

Exactly what are you asking for?

I'm asking for restitution of out-of-pocket costs. I gave up two months of my law firm salary, plus a bonus. I spent a lot of money to keep myself in Malaysia. I'm also asking for punitive damages. And I want an announcement that the show is predetermined and in violation of law. There's a couple of federal violations in question here.

I've heard the argument that "Survivor" wasn't really a game show, so it isn't bound by the federal laws that you cite in your complaint.

Well, that's a new argument. Mark Burnett told us, "This has to be absolutely fair because it's a game show that must comply with FCC rules."

He [also] says that on camera in an interview [on a "Survivor" DVD]. And now they're changing their tune. It is a game show. It's a contest of diligence, skill, and/or knowledge, with a prize, involving members of the general public. That's a game show. Our contracts also said, "I acknowledge that it is a federal offense to in any way attempt to rig the outcome of the show, or part of the show." So, if our contracts themselves acknowledge that it was a federal offense, I don't see how they can backtrack now.

How do you respond to critics who say you're only bringing this lawsuit to stay in the public eye?

I did the show for the contest. I did it for the experience. I never did it to be on TV. People who are saying that I'm doing this to get media attention are incorrect. I never wanted the media attention. I'm certainly trying to endure it now. I've given one interview to "Good Morning America" and have spoken to a couple of publications, but that's it. People are hounding me to do TV interviews. But I have a life.