Secret office romances can be tricky no matter where they pop up. So when former Survivor contestant Julie Berry (season 9, Vanuatu) decided to visit her new boyfriend, Jeff Probst, while he was getting ready to host the 10th season of Survivor in Palau last fall, the two were forced to do the kind of conspiring and conniving that would have made Richard Hatch proud. “There was a very private hotel several miles away, so I booked a room there anonymously,” says Probst. “Julie and I are sitting on the beach one day, watching the sunset, and then I hear [Survivor creator] Mark Burnett behind us with his kids. He was like 10 feet away.”
Thanks to a pair of baseball caps and a quick getaway plan, the two went unseen. Despite Probst’s worries about the host/player romance appearing inappropriate, he had the boss’s blessing. A year later, he still does. “Once you have a relationship you care about, the gratefulness comes out,” says Burnett. “And Jeff seems really grateful to be with someone he enjoys.”
That’s an understatement. Since going public with their relationship immediately after the Vanuatu live finale (he grabbed Berry’s hand as soon as the credits rolled), Probst, 43, hasn’t stopped gushing. “I finally met someone who could teach me about love,” he says. “Julie’s given me a sense of balance I’ve never had. It’s like fingers interlacing.”
Berry, 24, whom Probst waited to ask out until the game was over (she came in fifth), is equally smitten. “Everything is a brighter shade,” says the former youth mentor from Maine. “We complement each other beautifully.” But what about the nearly 20-year age difference? Not an issue. “You hear people talk about wisdom beyond a person’s years, and Julie embodies that,” says Probst. “She gets stuff a lot better than I do.”
The two, who spend most nights at Probst’s three-bedroom Hollywood Hills house, are learning Spanish together and have each taken up the didgeridoo—a 4-ft.-long Aboriginal wind instrument. Though Berry, who moved from Gorham, Maine, to L.A. in December, has her own apartment, she admits she only uses it to shower and change. “We call it my office,” she says.
Despite such domestic bliss, the couple remain mum when the subject of marriage is raised. “Being committed to each other—that’s the point,” says Berry. It would be the second time down the aisle for Probst, whose five-year marriage to psychotherapist Shelley Wright ended in divorce in 2001. Now, it’s his relationship with Survivor on which he must cast a vote. With his contract up after he tapes the show’s 12th edition this fall, Probst is unsure about whether he’ll renew. “There’s the inevitable point where you go, ‘Do I want to do other things?'” he says. “But like I told someone the other day, I don’t want to be the David Caruso of reality TV. I’ll never have as good a job as Survivor.”
Of course, it doesn’t help that he’d now be leaving someone behind while on those far-flung shoots. “I never thought I’d be so happy to see a car in my driveway, knowing she’s there,” he says. Berry, now earning her master’s degree in marriage and family therapy at California State University, Northridge, hopes to keep it that way. “To me, it’s the most important thing to accomplish in life, to fall in love and create a family,” she says. “I’m fascinated by it, and now I get to study it and apply it.” Adds Probst with a grin: “And I get to sit with my feet up and reap all the benefits!”
Jennifer Wulff. Cynthia Wang in Los Angeles and Guatemala.