By Jill Smolowe
December 22, 2003 12:00 PM

A few hours after Melana Scantlin chose student Jason Peoples over wealthy stock trader Adam Mesh, she and Peoples were spirited away to Baja California. There, the couple match-made on NBC’s Average Joe spent five idyllic days in a coastal house, enjoying the views, a nearby lagoon and, of course, each other. “We’d sit in the master bathroom, in our tennis shoes and our sweatshirts, because the house was really cold, and talk for hours,” says Scantlin. Talking was pretty much the extent of it, though: Attended by chaperones, she got the bedroom and he slept on a couch downstairs. “It takes time for couples to get to that comfort level, but we didn’t really need that time,” she says. “It felt like we’d been together for five years.”

But then they were separated for seven months. After their post-Joe getaway last May, NBC permitted Scantlin, 26, and Peoples, 27, only two brief visits before the Dec. 8 airing of the show’s finale. To continue the romance, they spoke weekly by phone—but gave each other carte blanche to date others. “It’s been difficult,” Peoples says of their time apart. “So I’ve certainly been dating. Nothing serious.” Scantlin, who also saw other people, explains, “It kind of builds a trust and a confidence.”

Reunited, Scantlin seems giddy around Peoples—and comfortable enough to reveal herself as an obsessive groomer. “I plucked his eyebrows,” she confesses. Says Peoples: “She’s all, ‘I can just clean that up for you.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t want it to look all feminine.’ She’s like, ‘No, it’ll be fine,’ and she basically pinned me down.” After asking Peoples on the show if he was bisexual, Scantlin says with a laugh, “Then I knew he wasn’t gay, because he didn’t pluck his eyebrows.”

Despite the easy intimacy, the final choice wasn’t easy for Scantlin. “Jason is an average Joe,” she says. “His looks are going to fade. My looks are going to fade.” Moreover, those chiseled looks, which were expected to give Peoples an edge, did not impress the ex-beauty queen initially. “He’s not even my type,” she says. “I usually go for taller guys, like Adam.” But on their first TV date, after Peoples proved to be a sympathetic listener at the end of a particularly grueling day, they locked lips—and everything changed. “It wasn’t even like a physical attraction,” says Scantlin. “It was just ‘This is it.'”

Even so, she says, on the morning of the last elimination round, “I woke up and didn’t know what I was going to do.” She regarded her choice as a no-lose proposition—except when it came to the show’s 17.4 million viewers. “I was thrown into a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. No matter who I picked, it was either ‘She’s a gold digger’ or ‘She’s shallow for picking the guy who’s better-looking.'” In the end, she says, “I picked who I had the best connection and chemistry with. I went with my heart.”

The choice surprised many in the Joe entourage. “I got no sense of what Jason’s like,” says Kathy Griffin, the show’s host. “I think basing a relationship on looks is about the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of.” At an L.A. pub, where six rejected Average Joes gathered with friends to watch the finale, Scantlin’s decision provoked cries of “She picked the wrong guy!” The runner-up bears no hard feelings. “Jason is a good guy,” says Mesh, 28, who watched the finale at a Manhattan bar with 500 fans, friends and relatives. As for Scantlin’s decision, he says, “I really think it wasn’t about looks or personality. I think it took a lot for her to pick the person she liked the best.”

Now that Scantlin and Peoples are free to see each other, “We’re going to see, privately, where our relationship goes from here,” says Peoples. Logistics could prove a challenge. As a halftime emcee for the Kansas City Chiefs, Scantlin leads a peripatetic life. Peoples continues to work as a waiter in Irvine, Calif. (“I have to pay my rent,” he says), and aims to complete a business and marketing degree at California State University, Long Beach. “Melana always wants to talk about it. ‘What do you want to do? How can we get you there?'” he says. “She’s what I need, a kick in the butt.” Wherever Peoples’s studies may lead, Scantlin says she’s certain of one thing: “Jason and I are best when we’re together.”

Jill Smolowe. Brenda Rodriguez in Los Angeles and Kathy Ehrich in New York City