Jim Morton ’91: Out in the Wild with “Naked & Afraid”

Jim Morton ’91: Out in the Wild with “Naked & Afraid”

A TV producer gets down and dirty following contestants into the jungle

Jim Morton 91

Jim Morton ’91 grew up spending time in the Alabama woods with his dad, forestry major James Morton ’61, never knowing it would prepare him for his future career as a producer of hit reality show “Naked and Afraid.”

Morton says he was Auburn-bound from birth — “Ever since I was a little kid, Auburn was the place. I wanted to go there; it was home.”

Bouncing around between majors throughout his time at Auburn, Morton finally found his calling in radio and TV production classes. “I’m a storyteller at heart, and from that moment on, I was like, ‘this is what I want to do.’”

Before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and minors in psychology and business, Morton completed an internship at CNN. He worked his way up the ladder in the video journalist program, doing everything from tape editing to producing – and even sports casting.

Taking place at the outbreak of the first Gulf War, his experience in the control room during those tense times convinced Morton he’d made the right career choice.

“I fell in love with fast-paced, live TV. Talk about an adrenaline rush — you have to learn everything you can in 30 seconds, which is a lot more than you think.” After his internship, Morton moved to L.A. and began his career as a freelance producer. His first job was with production company Renegade83, never anticipating it would lead him to the biggest show in his career: “Naked and Afraid.”

Life as a freelance producer landed Morton producing shows of all kinds, toughing through some duds simply for the paycheck, but also getting to do shows he loved, like “The Benefactor” with Mark Cuban and “Only in America” with Larry the Cable Guy. He worked hard and travelled often so much that, once, he had to call the front desk at his hotel to ask what city he was in. One day Renegade83 approached Morton about producing “Naked and Afraid,” and although still unsure, he gave it a shot.

Jim Morton 91 on set
Morton on the set of “Naked and Afraid”

After rushing a contestant on the brink of death to the hospital, eyes rolling in the back of her head, he told his wife, “if I do three seasons of this, it’ll be a miracle.” Yet he is still here, several years later, getting ready for another season.

Although surrounded by nudity for weeks at a time, Morton and his crew find it easy to stay professional to keep contestants comfortable. “To me, they might as well be wearing a flesh-colored jumpsuit,” he said, “We notice the bug bites more than anything.” Ironically, Morton say the weirdest part for him is actually seeing what the cast members where in real life after the show ends.

Years on the show have taken Morton to beautiful places across the globe like Brazil, Ecuador, Belize and Panama. He even filmed a season on his family’s land in Alabama. Morton’s favorite location — also the most desolate — was Guyana, where the crew stayed in a ranch in one room without hot water or power. “It was the most remote place I’ve ever been, and it was pretty miserable, but we had a ball – we loved it.”

During his travels, Morton has seen cast and crew members with deadly bug and snake bites, and was himself once bitten by a scorpion in his sleep. He’s also eaten some unusual things – termites and ants that taste like lemons, grub worms, even iguana — a delicacy in Guyana.

He’s also met some incredible people with amazing stories, like Diego, a local expert who escaped imprisonment from rebel soldiers while in the Colombian Army and dedicated his life to jungle survival. “The people you meet are what make it really special,” he said.

Much of what Morton does isn’t in the typical job description of a producer, like testing safe evacuation routes for the cast by hiking miles and pedaling across treacherous waters. Just getting to and from the set every day is a workout; he loses an average of 20 pounds per season.

The hardest part of his job isn’t the tiresome hiking or constant heat and bugs, Morton said. It’s watching contestants make mistakes, like drinking questionable water, and not being able to help them. The one thing he can do is take on the role of coach and cheerleader, “I can’t see them, or give them water, but I can give them encouragement and make the believe that they’re going to make it.” Morton finds inspiration from the book “Lone Survivor” to tell them to make it through the day or the hour rather than looking ahead to the pain.

“The highs are super high, and the lows are super low, but I remind them they’ll get a little victory eventually.”

JIM MORTON ’91: OUT IN THE WILD WITH “NAKED & AFRAID” Alumni profile for magazine ex 3

While his job is difficult at times, the crew makes every second of it worth it. “The people that work on the show are like a big family – we love working together and everybody gets along, because you have to in such a weird situation. It’s such an incredible group of people, and they’re really dedicated to what they do.”

Throughout his travels, Morton gained a newfound appreciation for the little things in life like air conditioning and fresh water, but most of all – not having to eat rice on a daily basis. “My wife will ask me what I want to eat, and I always say, ‘Anything but rice. No rice,’” he said. The crew eats so much rice, they even joked about making a t-shirt with “Hope you like rice” on the back.

More than happy with where he is now, Morton certainly didn’t expect to be where he is today facing the dangers of nature. “Being in the woods with my dad my whole life kind of prepared me for it. Everywhere we go is hot and humid like Alabama in the summertime, with bugs and venomous snakes.” His love for Alabama brought him all the way back home to Auburn last January. “L.A. just wasn’t for me; I’m a guy from Alabama, you know,” he laughed. Morton enjoys walking around downtown Auburn with his wife by his side and taking in the town he holds so many memories of.

With little time to relax, Morton is already filming for the next season of “Naked and Afraid” in Africa. “This is my first time [going to Africa] and I’m so excited,” he said. While the specific location can’t be disclosed until after filming, Morton said that there will be armed rangers to protect them from the wild animals of Africa.

Morton always wears some Auburn clothing or hat while filming and gets “War Eagle” from people across the globe, like Colombia and Panama. With his crew by his side, the challenges of the wild won’t stop him from filming anytime soon.

“There are times when its absolutely miserable – but you have your friends, you’re all suffering together, and you make the most out of it.”

“There are times when its absolutely miserable – but you have your friends, you’re all suffering together, and you make the most out of it.”

Jesica Ahlberg ’14: From Miss Alabama to Acting to K-Pop and Back

Jesica Ahlberg ’14: From Miss Alabama to Acting to K-Pop and Back

Actor, model, professional E-Sports gamer — don’t try to define her. 

Jessica Ahlberg

Jesica Ahlberg ’14 is not your typical… well, she’s not your typical anything.

Making her name known by winning Miss Alabama in 2014, Ahlberg built a career in the acting and modeling industries, culminating with a featured role on the hit TV drama “General Hospital,” but she has done anything but fit into the mold of a stereotypical actor and model.

After 17 episodes with the show, she took a break from acting. Now a few years later, Ahlberg is getting back into the industry. However, acting and modeling were never on her radar as a child.

“I was a huge nerd growing up, and I was not considered ‘pretty’, so I didn’t even think it was a possibility for me,” Ahlberg said. The Selma, Alabama, native loved video games as a kid and was savvy on the computer, winning awards in computer graphic competitions at the Alabama Independent School Association state technology fair.

“As I started getting older, when I was a junior in high school, that’s when I started filling out and got into my first pageant.”

Winning Miss Emerald Coast Teen USA, Ahlberg loved pageants because she got to travel and meet girls from all over the state, and she continued competing when she attended Auburn. While in college, the former high school drama club member jumped at the opportunity when a friend mentioned working as an extra in Atlanta.

“The extra casting director really liked me and put me in featured roles. When I was on set, assistant directors liked me and would put me in more prominent places. I kept getting a lot of really good feedback from my work, so it got me fired up to do more and more.”

From on screen to behind the camera to the writers’ room, Ahlberg enjoys every aspect of the industry. She landed roles in USA Today’s “Necessary Roughness” and “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip,” but she wanted to step away from acting to focus on herself as the extended stay on “General Hospital” became overwhelming.

“It’s so funny because you’re stressed when you’re not working, but when you have a gig and are working, it can be stressful, too, in a totally different way. Doing one show nonstop, it kind of takes up all your time, and it’s very emotional with whatever your character is dealing with and whatever you have to bring to life on screen.”

Toward the end of her time on the show, Ahlberg began taking classes at UCLA in interior design and architecture, which was a longtime passion of hers. She was always her friends’ go-to for design and shopping advice, and she landed jobs under celebrity designers Kelly Wearstler and Nicole Gordon.

What most people don’t know about Ahlberg, however, is that she’s an avid E-sports fan and logs a good amount of hours on “League of Legends” herself. She’s become friends with some of the players, coaches and owners in the E-sports community, and she’ll be attending the League of Legends World Championship Series for the fifth year in a row.

“I think it’s kind of the future, and I just got really into it. I’ve always been a big gamer growing up. I played on the computer by myself most days,” she said with a laugh. “I’m really competitive, too. I love any type of game. And my love for computer games just continued to grow from when I was a kid.”

Jessica Ahlberg

She played around with streaming on Twitch and other popular platforms before, and she’s considering giving it a try again one day.

With more free time away from the screen, Ahlberg became increasingly interested in Korean culture and entertainment. An interest in K-pop led to an interest in Korean TV shows, which led to Ahlberg learning to speak Korean on top of already learning Chinese.

The interest grew so much that she is now in pre-production for a YouTube channel that bridges Americans to Korean entertainment, and it will be released before the end of the summer. Just like E-sports, Ahlberg sees Korean entertainment as the future, even competing with Hollywood in the future.

“The very first show I watched, it was kind of my dream show to act in. I’ve never actually had an audition for a show or movie where I was like, ‘This is exactly the content that I want to create.’ I watched one, and I was like, ‘I’m so jealous. They’re not asking me to take my top off.’ It’s just really good, clean fun. It’s got a touch of fantasy, mystery and drama.”

With an abundance of passions outside of acting, the time away has allowed Ahlberg to rekindle her passion for acting after getting a little burned out.

From acting to computer gaming to Korean entertainment and back again, Ahlberg believes having friend groups in different areas helps her develop as a person. For her, taking a break from acting doesn’t necessarily mean the skills go away.

“I feel way more advanced than I did then. I feel like I’m always growing as a person, and as a character, you can glean that to each of your roles. It’s being more comfortable and accepting of yourself. I’m excited to see what comes of it and what I can bring to my characters now.”

“It’s being more comfortable and accepting of yourself. I’m excited to see what comes of it and what I can bring to my characters now.”

Raven McCutchen ’10: Spreading Her Wings From the Nest

Raven McCutchen ’10: Spreading Her Wings From the Nest

Sometimes life itself can be a work of art 

Raven McCutchen 10

For Raven Roxanne McCutchen ’10, there was never a question that she was going to be an artist. McCutchen grew up lending a hand in her parents’ craft gallery, The Zoo Gallery, in Grayton Beach, Fla.

“My joke is that my first words were, ‘Hi, how can I help you?”

Today, McCutchen is helping children and art lovers through her work. She is a painter first, but is also creative director and co-founder of children’s publishing house Lil Bit Lit. McCutchen graduated from Auburn University with a BFA in painting. With Auburn graduates Roxie Wilson ’75 and Chris Wilson ’77 for parents — her dad was the Auburn placekicker in the legendary “Punt Bama Punt” game — this was no surprise.

While family tradition may have brought McCutchen to Auburn, Auburn brought great memories and inspiration to McCutchen through the many friends she made and people she encountered. It didn’t hurt to have her brother, Baxter Wilson ’08, by her side in the art department, either.

“What I loved most about Auburn was that it gave a lot of space to discover yourself. You had all of these different people to pull inspiration from.”

Nearly four years after graduating, she started painting professionally. McCutchen draws her inspiration from personal experiences and finds beauty in the imperfection of all aspects of life, including nature and love.

She moved from one coastal city to another, now living in artistic Charleston, S.C. with her husband, Thomas, and their rescue dog, Willie.

Brainstorming ideas for her and Thomas’s wedding announcements after getting engaged, McCutchen came up with the idea behind the “Nest” Series.

“I started drawings these bird nests, and I liked that it was messy and imperfect because I felt like that was kind of our story.”

Raven McCutchen 10

The “Nest” series has been just one of McCutchen’s projects for the last five years. In the beginning, she would go into the studio every day, pick three colors she felt drawn to and get to work. “The afternoon is when I primarily paint most,” she said, “It’s a sacred space for me.”

Soon after releasing the “Nest Series,” McCutchen began receiving photos from parents of their children drawing the nests. Those unexpected photos sparked the idea to create her 2019 children’s book, “A Raven’s Nest.”

“My book was about connecting yourself to emotions and creating a safe space.”

McCutchen’s ultimate hope for “A Raven’s Nest” was to provide a productive way for children to address, feel and work through different emotions. She certainly didn’t expect to embark on a book tour with home decor brand Serena & Lily, but she welcomed the challenge. During the book tour, McCutchen got to sit down and connect with children by drawing with them and doing an art project based on “A Raven’s Nest.” “The kids just got it, which was such a breath of fresh air,” she said.

Along with writing her book, McCutchen and a few local Charleston moms co-founded Lil Bit Lit, an art-forward children’s publishing house with a mission to inspire connectedness through books.

“I was aware that this market was hard to find,” said McCutchen. “Having these beautiful books made by artists that I really admire just sounded like a really fun and interesting project to work on. There are so many artists that I find fascinating and I would love for my child to be imprinted by them.”

Lil Bit Lit is very excited to find new artists with beautiful ideas for children, and hopes to grow their library in an authentic way, much like McCutchen has with her own work.

“I paint what I know, and the thing I know most is myself.” Another success in McCutchen’s career has been her Instagram, where she shares the intimate stories behind her work with her 31,000 loyal followers.

“Growing up in the gallery, what I learned was that people want a story. That’s the greatest tool of Instagram, giving the artist the voice to connect to people that are interested in what they’re making.”

McCutchen thinks of her success with Instagram as a mix between luck and timing. “I really just try to be honest about my work and conscious of the story I’m telling,” she said.

Her new series, the “Bird Series,” will be released on her website June 27, 2019. This series was inspired by the significance of birds in her life, and focuses on relationships. For once in her life, McCutchen doesn’t have a plan for the immediate future. Right now, she is simply giving herself space to discover what’s next. But one space she still misses is Auburn, with the wisdom of the professors and kindness of its students.

“In a way, it’s like a little nest — there’s so much security and warmth at Auburn.”

Raven McCutchen 10 at book reading

“In a way, it’s like a little nest — there’s so much security and warmth at Auburn.”

Jeff Thompson ’06: Bringing Theater to Rural Alabama

Jeff Thompson ’06: Bringing Theater to Rural Alabama

When all the world is a stage, you look for actors wherever they’re found

Jeff Thompson

Jeff Thompson ‘06 always had a love for writing and creativity, but he never imagined he would be building a model for theater to reach all corners of Alabama.

A typical day for the executive director of the Pell City Center for Education and Performing Arts (CEPA) consists of preparing the $11 million facility to host one of the center’s many events.

While he takes great pride in managing such a large facility, nothing compares to the feeling he gets from bringing his arts programs to some of the most rural parts of the state.

“I wasn’t that much of an arts guy before I came here, but after I talked to these people and listened to what they needed, I recognized that there was a real desire to do this.”

But none of this is what Thompson saw himself doing when he graduated from Auburn with a degree in journalism. Initially studying architecture, Thompson realized he needed a change after he was confronted with the impenetrable force known as physics class. Having a passion for writing, the new major of journalism sounded perfect.

“I had some great educators, who were really willing to impart incredible wisdom to me and help guide me through that in a way that would prepare me for the real world.”

When the real world came, Thompson went from an intern at The Tuskegee Times to its managing editor, meeting with Civil Rights leaders, working at the Tuskegee Airmen Historic Site and becoming heavily involved with the community.

“I wasn’t that much of an arts guy before I came here, but after I talked to these people and listened to what they needed, I recognized that there was a real desire to do this.”

But none of this is what Thompson saw himself doing when he graduated from Auburn with a degree in journalism.

Initially studying architecture, Thompson realized he needed a change after he was confronted with the impenetrable force known as physics class. Having a passion for writing, the new major of journalism sounded perfect.

“I had some great educators, who were really willing to impart incredible wisdom to me and help guide me through that in a way that would prepare me for the real world.”

When the real world came, Thompson went from an intern at The Tuskegee Times to its managing editor, meeting with Civil Rights leaders, working at the Tuskegee Airmen Historic Site and becoming heavily involved with the community.

He continued his journalism career with a few publications after a move to Birmingham, but a lot of his love for the craft evaporated as the industry evolved in a way that made it a necessity for Thompson to transition out. The transition to CEPA made all the sense in the world simply because it offered Thompson a way to fulfill the underlying passions that made him love journalism.

In addition to acting as a liaison to the city of Pell City, and the Pell City School System, Thompson is also tasked with engaging people who are interested in the arts, a mission he does not take lightly.

Realizing that not everybody has access to CEPA, one of the programs Thompson helped launch in 2017 called “Spotlight” aims at bringing theatre to every corner of St. Claire County.

After pinpointing communities with a desire for performing-arts programs, Spotlight provides funding and some structure for the different groups to start their own clubs.

Since its inception, Spotlight has grown from 50 people to 400 and went from two shows a year to now 11, totaling 24 performances a year – an 800 percent growth in its first two years.

“I’m so proud of the things we’ve been able to do from this small office just because of great partners, access to this building and a lot of support throughout this community and state.”

Spotlight was even awarded grant money from the state to continue building on the model Thompson and CEPA have laid out. The program is focused on beginning and maintaining the clubs because of how much it can impact the people in the program. Participating in theater improves test scores, helps with communication and improves necessary life skills, Thompson said.

“This is a real possibility. Your small high school in random county, Alabama, that doesn’t have art, we think that somewhere five to 10 years down the line, we’re going to be able to show you how to do it without breaking the bank. That’s the main goal here, and we’re really proud of the results we’ve gotten so far.”

Thompson believes his time at Auburn and years working as a journalist undoubtedly prepared him for the field he is currently in. From writing and communicating clearly to speaking in front of an audience and intently listening to others, Thompson has seen many journalistic skills transfer over to managing a non-profit organization.

“Auburn gave me the confidence to pretty much do whatever I needed to do within a whole world of different fields. Journalism gives you so much. Just the practice of it can open so many doors.”

Danielle Faircloth ’12: Making the Abstract a Reality

Danielle Faircloth ’12: Making the Abstract a Reality

Motherhood and food are just some of the inspiration for this artist 

Danielle Faircloth

It all started at Camp Creek Elementary with a basket of fruit.

As little Danielle Faircloth sat at her art desk scribbling away at the apples and oranges on her canvas, her third-grade art teacher came up to her and said, “Now you have some real talent.” The teacher took the drawing to Faircloth’s homeroom teacher and announced, “This is the best art student I think I’ve ever had.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget that,” Faircloth recalls with a smile.

Of course, Faircloth had always had a knack for art. Her artwork decorated her parents’ fridge. After visiting Disney World’s behind-the-scenes exhibition of Lilo and Stitch, she filled an entire sketchbook with replicas of the characters she’d watched the artists craft over and over.

“I saw the book not too long ago, and I have to say,” Faircloth admits, “it was really good.”

At Parkview Highschool in Lilburn, Georgia, Faircloth was the only girl in her architecture class. Throughout school, doodles encompassed the pages of her notebooks, a pencil always stuck to her hand. Faircloth was never not drawing.

And she still isn’t. Her artwork is still decorating space, only this time, it’s not just her parents’ fridge.

The owner of Danielle Faircloth Art, a self-run art business out of a studio in Mobile, Faircloth is a full-time artist now, selling her pieces anywhere from $50 to $1,000 across the United States and Canada. She has 10,200 followers on Instagram, has been re-pinned on Pinterest more times than she can count and has her own website for people to buy pieces, offer commissions or book an “art party.”But the Auburn University graduate didn’t always have “artist” titling her resume. In fact, if you’d asked Faircloth when she walked the Hayley Concourse if her future career involved a paint brush and a pencil, she’d probably have told you no.

“Never, ever, ever,” Faircloth says. “I actually took a test in high school, and it told me I was meant to be a truck driver.”

Yet, since third grade, Faircloth knew she wanted to do something in design or art. So, following her older brother Jason, she went to Auburn University and pursued Apparel Merchandising, Design and Production Management with a dream of moving to New York City. While at Auburn, Faircloth enjoyed lunches at Amsterdam Cafe munching on a turkey roll-up or Au Bon Pain’s macaroni and cheese, though she could never go wrong with a flatbread from the Village. Saturdays she spent watching Cam Newton bring Auburn football to national spotlight and was always the last to leave the field.

“I think anyone that went to Auburn during this time can agree that being in Jordan-Hare back then was the best time in history,” she says.

Through Auburn, Faircloth was one of six students chosen for a six-month internship in New York City to work Design Week. But after three months, Faircloth knew she and New York didn’t have a future together.

“I took too much for granted. I once went to the grocery store to get all my food for the week and realized I had no way of getting it back to my apartment,” she says. “And my boss at the time was really hard on me. I felt like I was in the movie The Devil Wears Prada. I knew I wanted to be back in the South.”

The southern girl soon found her way to Mobile and took a job as a marketing director of two Urgent Care locations. While working in Foley, Faircloth grew close to the women working the Mobile Chamber of Commerce – close enough to learn that when the Chamber’s Event Director position opened up, she took it immediately.

“Let’s just say, networking, networking, networking,” Faircloth says. “It truly pays to have those connections.”

As Events Director, the responsibilities never abated. Faircloth oversaw five major events and handled the financials, social media and marketing for each, including the Gulf Coast Hot Air Balloon Festival. But even with an assistant and two interns, the weight on her shoulders seemed to grow heavier.

“I eventually had to leave simply because the job required my attention 24-7, or at least that’s what it felt like. And I knew my family needed me,” Faircloth says. “I also was really ready to work for myself.”

In September 2016, Faircloth began turning her passion into a career. Yet becoming a full-time artist is no walk in the park. From generating ideas to branding and marketing herself to gaining a following to selling her pieces, Faircloth keeps herself busy.

From multi-color nude prints to pastel water colors of Winnie the Pooh to abstracts on paper, to her most recent collection, Spring Fever – a pastel abstraction of acrylic, oil, charcoal and other mixed materials on canvas – she maneuvers anywhere between 20 to 50 commissions at any given time, with a turnaround of three to four months. She hosts art shows and art classes throughout Alabama every month, from Fairhope to Auburn University.

A full-time artist and mother to a spunky almost-five-year-old named Brenton and a one-year-old named Jack, Faircloth knows what busy means. Juggling the two, Faircloth owes it to her faith in the Lord, her boys and her husband, Raymond.

“Anyone that says they are a stay-at-home-mom – they are the real deal and God Bless them,” Faircloth says. “I used to laugh at people like that, and now I have total respect and realize what a task that is.”

Though an unexpected dream turned reality, Faircloth’s art career continues to grow. On top of other projects, Faircloth’s newest one is a Navy collection for her new series, and her Spring Fever series is already selling out.“When I think I can’t do all this, I realize I have so much and so much to be thankful for,” she says. They are my rock, my clutch, and by far my biggest supporters I could ever ask for.

For those like Faircloth looking to make a career out of a passion, Faircloth’s advice is simple.

“Don’t allow other people to put you down or think you shouldn’t,” she says. “Make connections, think outside the box and remember to have fun with what you’re doing. If you aren’t loving your job, it isn’t what you’re meant to do.”

“Make connections, think outside the box and remember to have fun with what you’re doing.”