Survivor Champ Yul Kwon Takes on a New TV Adventure With America Revealed
Winning 2006's Survivor: Cook Islands was pretty tough for Yul Kwon — he beat out Ozzy Lusth! — but it wasn't nearly as stomach-churning as his new hosting gig on the four-part PBS series America Revealed (premiering Wednesday at 10/9c). Based on Britain From Above, the spectacularly filmed show takes a mostly birds-eye view of the U.S. as it tracks the systems that provide the U.S. population with food, energy, transportation and other stuff that makes the country run. "I'm scared of heights and I'm claustrophobic, and I also get severe motion sickness on planes so half the time we were filming I'm scared out of my mind," Kwon says with a laugh. "But it was worth it. This is a big epic series about America." We spoke with the Yale Law School grad, one of the most popular Survivor champs, about his new series, what he's been up to, and whether he'd give the reality show another chance.
TV Guide Magazine: You've had quite a diverse resume since Survivor.
Kwon: I spent a lot of time doing charity work for bone marrow transplants, because my best friend died in college of leukemia. He was Chinese-American and it's difficult for any ethnic minority because the registry of people is so small. I worked for the Obama campaign and then I was as the Deputy Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs bureau at the Federal Communications Commission.
TV Guide Magazine: So how and why did you sign on for this series?
Kwon: I was approached out of the blue to do this show for PBS. I have a special place in my heart for public television, because when my parents immigrated from South Korea and were too poor to put my brother and I into day care, we learned English by watching Sesame Street. PBS shows gave me the motivation to work hard in school and try to make something of myself. And this series sounded awesome! In Stanford, I majored in symbolic systems — the study of complex systems — and America Revealed is about the systems and networks that we don't really understand but we're dependent on every day.
TV Guide Magazine: For example?
Kwon: Food. How does the food we eat usually get to us? There's a number of things that have to fall in place for the Domino's pizza, say, to come to your door at the time when you want it. Energy. We'll take you back through the chain that has to happen for a light to switch on. There are all these amazing things that need to come into place to make our modern lives possible. This will show you how that gets done all over America. A series like this wouldn't have been possible even a few years ago, because we didn't have the technology to make these systems come alive. Now we do.
TV Guide Magazine: There are some very cool ways you show this to us, for instance, amazing aerial photography.
Kwon: To see these systems function, you have to take a big picture perspective. That often means going up in the sky and looking down at the ground to see how these things work. People ask me what was harder: being on Survivor or being on America Revealed. It's no comparison, because the only thing I had to climb on Survivor was a coconut tree! On America Revealed, they had me jumping out of airplanes and rappelling down the blade of a 300-foot wind turbine to get the best shots. We have this sophisticated computer animation. We put a GPS tracer on every Domino's pizza delivery boy in Manhattan. You can see them over the course of the night, how they're spreading all over the island.
TV Guide Magazine: Is the show optimistic about the future of all those systems?
Kwon: We found a basic belief that this is the best country in the world. My hope is that people will watch the show and think it's a lot of fun, but at the same time they'll really start thinking about what decisions and choices we'll need to make now to make sure our kids grow up with the same experiences we had.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you still watch Survivor?
Kwon: I do. A couple seasons ago I watched because of John Cochran — he was actually my intern at the FCC. I really liked him a lot so I kind of took him under my wing, became his mentor, and then after he left he got on the show.
TV Guide Magazine: What did you do with your Survivor million bucks?
Kwon: The first thing I did was pay my taxes. I didn't want to follow Richard Hatch's example! But then after I won I got a call from the FBI, and it totally freaked me out. It turned out they were using Survivor as a case study on human behavior, so they asked me to come in and do a presentation on how I won the game and was able to work with different people. I donated a chunk of the money, and then basically invested the rest. I didn't blow it on drugs or booze.
TV Guide Magazine: Not even a fancy car?
Kwon: Not even a fancy car! I didn't want it to change me. I was really happy to win, but it was 15 minutes of fame and I didn't want to get so caught up in it that it changed my life. A lot of people on reality shows are addicted to that spotlight, and then when it slowly starts ebbing away they do crazier and crazier things. So I was very committed to staying grounded.
TV Guide Magazine: Lots of top players have returned to Survivor, including Ozzy. Not tempted at all?
Kwon: I feel sort of conflicted about it because we had the whole racial team element. When they told me before the game first started, I was totally shocked and I thought about quitting, because it seemed to me that there's so much potential for this to just go in a really bad way. I was worried about doing something that would reflect poorly on my [Korean-American] community or doing something that might exacerbate racial tensions. I played a good game, I think, but it wasn't a lot of fun. I felt like I had to be really PC. I would love to go back and have a lot of fun, but I also feel like I've moved beyond that. I won't say never, but I've just gotten back into my parents' good graces. They're delighted that I'm now working with PBS.
TV Guide Magazine: Something special came out of Survivor, didn't it?
Kwon: Of all the things that came out of Survivor, the thing I'm most grateful for is I met my wife. We got set up by Brad Virata who was one of my tribe mates and we fell in love. Now we have an 18-month-old daughter!
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