June 03, 2002 12:00 PM

If you thought CBS Survivor contestant Vecepia “Vee” Towery showed grit and cunning during her 39 days on the remote island of Nuku Hiva, just watch her make her way through a thicket of clothes in a secondhand store. “She’ll pick something out and wear it, and you’ll think it came from Neiman Marcus,” says her husband, Leander Robinson, 44, an electrical supervisor. Hence his nickname for her: Frugalicious.

Now that she’s survivalicious too, the 36-year-old office manager from Hayward, Calif., can splurge: Towery walked off with the $1 million prize on the May 19 Survivor: Marquesas finale. This time (have we really been through four of these things?) the Tribal Council assembled in Manhattan’s Central Park, with host Jeff Probst reading off the 4-3 vote that made Towery the victor over Neleh Dennis, a 22-year-old psychology student from Layton, Utah. “I was so excited, I fell backwards,” says Towery, whose first name is pronounced ve-SEP-ia. “I was beating on the ground, saying, ‘Thank you, Lord.'”

The 15 other Survivor contestants who struggled along with Towery on the few calories nature had to offer—she dropped from 139 to 119 lbs.—know about her faith in prayer. (She worships at the Jubilee Christian Center near her home.) Towery’s faith in herself is equally unwavering. Last spring, “after I sent in my application for the show, I took a Post-it and wrote, ‘I will be a Survivor’ and stuck it on my computer,” she says. “Once I found out I’d made it on the show, I rewrote it: ‘I will be the ultimate Survivor.'”

To do it, the Portland, Ore., native, daughter of a nurse’s assistant and a merchant seaman, followed the dance steps laid down in the sand by Survivor‘s original choreographer of deceit, Richard Hatch. She started with a basic scheme—”Get rid of the strongest people”—and stuck to the principle that alliances are made to be broken. Although Towery is described as “a compassionate, loving girl” by runner-up Dennis, “she wasn’t afraid to deceive,” says Probst. “At the end she said, ‘I deceived some of you. And I’m sitting here and you’re not.'”

So she’s complicated. And physically disciplined, thanks to six years active duty in the Air Force. In Turkey during Operation Desert Storm, “there were times when I had to sit in a foxhole with someone I couldn’t stand,” she says. “But you learn to do what needs to be done to take care of the job at hand.”

Now she needs to manage her winnings. Some will go to completing the 600-sq.-ft. addition she and Robinson have been adding onto their three-bedroom home. Says Towery: “We ran out of money about a month and a half ago.”

Problem solved.

Tom Gliatto

Fannie Weinstein and Mary Green in New York City and Lauren Comander in Chicago

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