Denise Stapley says it was an understated yet very calculated strategy that propelled her to victory in Survivor: Philippines, the reality show's 25th season.
"I think I just played a very quiet but smart game," the sex therapist from Cedar Rapids, Iowa said in a conference call Monday, less than 24 hours after she found out she was the winner of the show's million-dollar top prize. "As long as votes were going the way that I needed them to go or the way that [was] beneficial for me, there was really no need for me to be the bull in the china shop and make a lot of noise. So I just was able to continue to maneuver as I went from tribe to tribe and that was it. That was my strategy."
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Stapley, who found herself in the top three along with returning contestant Michael Skupin and former Facts of Life star Lisa Whelchel after voting against her onetime ally Malcolm Freberg, said she made it a point of telling the jury during the final tribal council that she had survived every tribal council in the game thus far.
"That was the No. 1 thing I knew I had to really close that speech out with, that would completely separate me from both Skupin and Lisa," she said. "I think that was ... what kind of clinched it."
Still, Stapley said she refused to let herself get too confident after the final council. Even if every jury member had called her in the five months between the final vote and Sunday's finale to say they had voted for her, "I still would not have believed it until last night," she said. "As much as I wanted to hope, I never let myself truly believe that I had done it."
In fact, Stapley said, she had actually typed out a two-page strategy for herself on her computer before the competition began and was able to follow it nearly to the letter.
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"The game that I actually got to play is almost identical to the game I wanted to play," she said. "Ultimately, it ended up almost by the book to how I laid it out, just with the building of the relationships and knowing what I needed to do. At the end, if that alliance that I really wanted to take to the end wasn't willing to do it, I knew that I needed to cut his throat. ... It really played out the way that I had envisioned."
As for severing her ties with Malcolm, Stapley said it had to be done. And, she added, watching the episodes as they aired, she was surprised to find out that he had considered abandoning their alliance weeks before she did.
"It didn't necessarily go wrong," she said of their partnership. "Truly, right after we got to that final four, I was trying to really kind of shore up, you know, is Malcolm going to go forward? What are his thoughts on going into the finals with me? And he just never could give me that confirmation. I gave him ample opportunity to do it, and I would have taken him. And when I didn't get it, I went to Plan B and thank goodness it worked."
One question on every viewer's mind: which was more difficult, playing the game or surviving on the island for weeks with the much-loathed Abi?
"Honestly, living on the island with Abi," Stapley said Friday. "I have a really high tolerance for lots of things, and I was able to get through the rain and it was miserable and it was horrible. But ... you have more hope that the rain's going to end and unfortunately with Abi, it just didn't end. That was probably harder than the elements for me, truly, was trying to keep my patience and not create so much of a stir that could have gotten a target even more so on my back."
Stapley, whose husband and daughter were in the studio audience Sunday when the results were revealed, said she doesn't have any specific plans on how to spend her winnings as of right now.
"So many things are going through my mind, but the first thing we've already talked about doing is, we just need to breathe," she said. "We just, as a family, have to breathe and take it in. We've got a 9-year-old daughter that, we just want to make sure that her future is taken care of. We've got nieces and nephews, so we just want to be a good steward. It's just an incredible gift that Survivor literally just hands you. So, we just want to take our time and figure it out."
"But," she adds, "a nice vacation someplace that's actually warm and sunny minus rain, in a shelter, would be great. I'd love that."