Emaciated Waitress on 'Survivor' Sparks Speculation, Debate

Courtney Yates, the tough, but emaciated New York waitress who has fought her way to stay on the reality TV show "Survivor," has fans asking: Will she die of malnutrition before the season finale?

Images of the waiflike blond in a bikini have popped up on the Internet with bloggers wondering whether the 26-year-old is anorexic.

"If she makes it past today, I don't see how she's going to live 30 days," said one blogger on a Web site devoted to the topic. "Light as a Feather, Thin as a Rail." "I've seen anorexic girls with more meat on their bones than this girl has."

"What will the producers of 'Survivor' do if Courtney falls down and dies?" asked another.

CBS News has fueled the anorexia speculation on its Web site by featuring the photo of a bikini-clad Yates with links to what viewers think about her weight loss.

Good publicity, indeed. But, according to those who know Yates, there's not a shred of truth.

"It's complete nonsense," said Tom Connolly, who taught Yates in three English classes at Suffolk University in her hometown of Boston. "She looks exactly the same now as in college."

Easy to Lose Weight on Show

CBS was concerned about Yates' weight when she auditioned for a part on the 7-year-old series, according to Colleen Sullivan, vice president of publicity at CBS.

"We are confident she is not anorexic," said Sullivan. "She came into the game alarmingly thin, and we went through a whole process with mental and physical tests, and she passed every one."

Sullivan admits the demands of the show take a toll on all contestants. "It's the real deal," she said about foraging for fish, boiling water and chopping coconuts for sustenance.

Former contestant Sean Kenniff, who appeared on the first season in Africa, says he lost 32 pounds in 36 days on the show.

Healthy and Back at Work

Attempts by ABCNEWS.com to reach Yates were unsuccessful. The contestant is prohibited by contract from talking about the show until after the season finale, according to Sullivan.

Filming for "Survivor China" ended Aug. 16, and rest assured, said Sullivan, Yates is now healthy and back to work.

Casting Yates "wasn't an easy decision for us," according to Sullivan, who said television executives eventually believed the contestant's claim that skinniness was in her genes. "Don't judge a book by its cover."

Connolly told ABCNEWS.com that he can confirm her body type runs in the family.

"I've met her mother, and they are clones," he said.

"She was a brilliant student," he said, "completely different from the image you might see on TV."

She has been described as "honest" and "cruel," "sarcastic" and "bitchy," and "tough as nails."

But, said, Connolly, "She is literate and articulate. She is as perfectly comfortable with the Renaissance in Venice as Jewel, the singer and songwriter. She named her cat after the Latin poet Catullus."

[Catullus -- say Latin scholars - means "puppy."]

As questions about Yates' health bubble across the blogs, media watchers wonder whether images of ultra-thin women like Yates contribute to a rise in anorexia nervosa.

The biologically based disorder affects 10 million women and 1 million men in the United States, according to the National Eating Disorder Association.

Dangers of Anorexia

"It has the highest death rate of any mental illness," said association CEO Lynn Grefe.

Michael Lowe, a Philadelphia psychologist who specializes in eating disorders, said while weight loss is usually the first sign of anorexia, the vast majority of diets "do not spin out of control."

And, for those predisposed to anorexia, images of skinny fashion models and television stars can have a "devastating effect" on young girls.

In the case of television shows like "Survivor" and "The Biggest Loser," where contestants can experience large weight losses, anorexia could "theoretically happen," said Lowe. "Anyone running a show where weight loss is a part of it, it increases the responsibility and they need to manage the risk."

CBS said it has a "tremendous track record" monitoring its contestants, taking their blood pressure and gauging their health.

When things go wrong, viewers see it on camera. In 2006, Gary Stritesky was medi-vacced out of Fiji. In Australia, contestant Michael Skupin blew out a fire, inhaled the smoke and fell into the flames, requiring medical attention.

But, Geoffry White, media psychologist and consultant to reality TV producers, told ABCNEWS.com that the network has no responsibility for cast members who put their health in danger.

"The cast signs a consent agreement acknowledging the network will be held harmless for pretty much anything that happens to them," he said.

Still there can be an insidious pressure to stay on a show, despite suffering health effects. The network must allow contestants to leave the show, but few do, White said.

"We know from 30 years of psychology research on conformity that practically no one will leave or 'disobey' the implicit pressure," he said. "They're psychologically trapped. It's a little like being in a cult. The celebrity pressure is enormous."

Of course, weight loss on a show like "Survivor" does not always signal anorexia, according to Edward Abramson, a California psychologist and diet specialist.

"There may be stresses associated with competition and other psychological variables that are quite powerful, but they don't meet the criteria for body image issues," he said.

Depression and anxiety can also cause weight loss. Yates may be "responding to the stress of participating and being on television," he said.

Wrong Message?

Abramson, too, worries about the message that fitness shows like "Survivor" send to young girls struggling with their body images.

"Clearly the overemphasis on a slender physique as prerequisite for success in dating, marriage and life is really kind of ridiculous," he said.

Suffolk University, which graduated Yates in 2003, is proud of its thin, but tough alumna.

"Courtney is very popular," said public affairs officer Tony Ferullo. "We appreciate what she has done for the school. It's a very difficult challenge for these people and the fact that she's gone this far is a credit to her perseverance."

Suffolk University Poster Child

The school featured her in its alumni magazine and has fed progress reports to local newspapers. Now, a month away from the Dec. 16 finale and a shot at the $1 million jackpot, Yates is looking like the college's mascot.

"Courtney represents our alumni well," said Ellen Solomita, director of the university's alumni association. "She's hardworking, pull up your boot straps, and that's who we are."

It also helps to have a fast metabolism on a show like "Survivor," said Solomita. "You don't have a bag of Doritos right there with you."

"She is a survivor in a positive, not a pejorative, sense," said her English professor Connolly. "She has developed a good strategy."

So, too, has the television publicity machine.