CHICAGO - Once she was the first lady of Illinois. Now Patti Blagojevich is gagging down bugs and crawling through tropical slime in a race to be named Queen of the Jungle on a reality TV show.
Impeached Gov. Rod Blagojevich's wife has survived Week 1 on NBC's "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!" Some say her emergence as the plucky, well-liked mom of the group could help erase the image of the "foul-mouthed Lady MacBeth" who spewed profanity on secretly recorded FBI tapes in her husband's corruption case.
"She is trying to put the bacon on the table, and she's shown a lot of strength and fortitude," said Thom Serafin, a Chicago political analyst.
A tearful Patti Blagojevich introduced herself to viewers by explaining that her family had been going through a hard time. She later told her supportive castmates she and her husband had lost their jobs and she was doing this to support their daughters.
"For the last few months of our lives it's been pretty difficult, so in some ways - ah, I'm going to cry," she told an interviewer, looking upward, "after that, the jungle doesn't seem quite so scary."
Rod Blagojevich has pleaded not guilty to charges that he schemed to sell or trade President Obama's former Senate seat and used the muscle of the governor's office to get campaign donations. He was ousted from office in January.
NBC had wanted the former governor on the show, in which viewers vote the quasi-celebrities out of the steaming, bug-ridden jungle camp. The network did get publicity shots of him hoisted in the air by a harness, flapping his arms and legs like a bird.
But U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel, who is presiding over Blagojevich's corruption case, refused to let him leave the country, so his wife joined the cast instead. She is cited on one FBI tape as urging the firing of newspaper writers unfriendly to her husband, but she has not been charged with wrongdoing.
In the first episode (the show airs four nights a week), the former Illinois first lady got carried away by rapids and ate a tarantula. For the rest of the week, she avoided castmate catfights and won immunity from the men in camp, who had to pick one woman to save from the public vote.
But she's got a few weeks to go, and at least one jury expert questions her surprising move to join the cast.
Philip K. Anthony, a Los Angeles-based jury consultant, said while memories of the show may fade, any juror who searches the Internet for Blagojevich's name will find images of Patti Blagojevich crawling on her hands and knees through muck.
"I think it hurts him because for a lot of jurors it will cause him and his family to seem disrespectful of the system ... This occurred because of bad behavior and they are flaunting their celebrity status to the world," Anthony said.
Veteran Chicago political consultant Don Rose said Patti Blagojevich might look good "in contrast to those other goofy people on the show."
But the Chicago-style wisecracks are inevitable.
"After living with Rod Blagojevich, eating a tarantula should be no trick," Rose chortled.
The winner is named King or Queen of the Jungle. Contestants also make money for their favorite charities.
Patti Blagojevich's one big misstep so far was her charity choice.
Bear Necessities, a cancer charity she originally chose, turned down the contribution because it is a partner of Children's Memorial Hospital. Rod Blagojevich is charged with using an $8 million state grant to the hospital to shake down its chief for a $50,000 campaign contribution. She eventually chose another cancer charity.
Meanwhile, the former governor has stayed home, delivering a daily radio commentary on the proceedings and caring for their two daughters.
In her first week, Patti Blagojevich not only ate the tarantula, but pleaded tearfully that her husband had been treated unfairly because he fought "special interests down in that entrenched state capitol." Her castmates supported her, with former model Janice Dickinson telling her: "You need to set the record straight, and we're glad you did."
Things got surreal as Blagojevich clasped hands with MTV reality villain Spencer Pratt from "The Hills" and his wife, Heidi, who led a prayer that in Blagojevich's federal racketeering and fraud case "the truth will be revealed."
Still, later in the week when Dickinson got crabby, Blagojevich showed that the tarantula wasn't the only one in the jungle with bite.
"My husband had this campaign where he was running against this woman who was a little bit like her," she told former NBA star John Salley. "And he thought of her as like a crazy old aunt. That he had to kind of like suffer and kind of just like roll your eyes at. Like she's the kooky old aunt."
Former state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, who was Blagojevich's Republican opponent when he ran for his second term as governor, wasn't laughing.
"That kooky old aunt - she had three terms in the treasurer's office and never misplaced a dollar and returned $230 million in unclaimed assets and made a profit," Topinka said. "Maybe former Gov. Blagojevich and his tarantula-eating wife ought to have thought of doing some of the same things and they wouldn't be in such trouble."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.