During what was probably the most emotional finale/reunion special in Survivor history, Adam — a homeless shelter manager who was a member of the Millennials tribe — was unanimously voted the winner of the Millennials vs. Gen X season and went home with a million dollars.
Actually, make that $900,000. After tearfully revealing that his mother - who was battling Stage 4 lung cancer while Adam was playing Survivor - died within a day of him returning from the game, Adam donated $100,000 of his winnings to Stand Up to Cancer.
TVGuide.com chatted with Adam the day after his big win about all the big moments from the finale and reunion special, his reaction to Hannah voting out Bret over David, and why he decided to share his mother's struggle with the jury.
Congratulations! Is there a key moment you can point to that led to your victory?
Adam: The game can be lost in one moment, but I don't think the game is ever won in one moment. The way that most Survivor winners win the game is by building really strong relationships with the people that end up making the jury. You didn't see a whole lot of that on the show, but I had a lot of really strong relationships with people that you wouldn't even expect [me] to have them with. Even Taylor voted for me. And Jessica, you didn't see much of us talking on the show but she was probably my closest ally out there. So, throughout the entire game I was building these relationships that not only allowed me to win in the end, but allowed me to get there. Because, even people that I wasn't necessarily working with, I had good relationships with, and they were protecting me from one side while I was protecting them from the other.
Once you knew you were going to the Final 3 with Hannah and Ken, were you confident that you would win, or did you think the outcome was still up in the air?
Adam: As soon as the third vote was read for Dave, I felt very, very confident that I had a great shot to make a very convincing argument at final Tribal Council and win the game. I had managed to get to the end with the two people that I really wanted to be there with, from the very beginning. I was constantly looking over at the jury to try to gauge their reaction to different people, and to figure out what the hierarchy was in terms of the order in which they would vote for people, and that's the order in which I wanted to take people out of the game.
How did you react to Hannah voting Bret out over David? You were pretty harsh with her at the final Tribal Council about her flipping. Were you feeling a little sore about her betrayal, or was that just a play to get jury votes?
Adam: I absolutely love Hannah and she was a great ally to me and never strayed from me, and an even better friend and human being. But in that moment when she made that decision, I was totally and utterly flabbergasted. Just could not understand why she would make that move. Because I knew that she thought she would beat me at the end, and I thought that I would beat her at the end. So theoretically, we were both playing the game from the same position, in terms of the way we were thinking about the game. And I knew for me, by far, the best move was to vote out David. Because you don't want to put him one Tribal Council away from winning, and we can beat Bret pretty easily and get rid of him at four, I thought. So, knowing that she had the same thought that I did, that she thought she could beat me, I thought, there was no way she doesn't go for Dave. And she actually came to me that morning and said, "We have to get out Dave tonight." So, it was just as much her idea as it was mine. So, to see her flip on that was totally crazy to me.
Obviously me telling her about the idol was a big mistake. And I made mistakes throughout the game, but I was able to win because I was able to recover from those mistakes. And I was able to, like I said at the final Tribal Council, recover from the mistakes of my allies. Like when Ken went and tested Will, there was a conversation that I had with Will - they didn't show it on the show - that brought him back on our side, because he trusted me to go to the end with him.
Hannah insisted that she was making moves, but that the perception in the tribe was that people like you and Zeke were leading the way. Do you think that's a fair assessment?
Adam: That was a claim that she made at Tribal Council. She said a lot, "Adam is taking credit for my moves." And I don't think we saw it in the cut of what made the air for final Tribal Council, but time and time again, I said, whoa, whoa, whoa. I am not taking credit for those moves. I do not want credit for those moves, because I don't think that they were the right moves. They were moves that then we had to recover from. So, it is totally true that she made the decisions that put those people on the jury. But some of them put us in really bad positions. Like, she was instrumental in Dave and Zeke turning against each other. And so, in a way, she caused that rock draw that could have ended any of our games. So, those were the kinds of things that I was pointing out at final Tribal Council. There were two or three different times where her moves may have put us in a position where we could have been picked off, if it hadn't been for what I believe was the recovery that I was able to make.
At the final Tribal Council, the conversation you had with Jay about your mother came up and he made it sound like you didn't want to tell the others her situation. Why did you decide to talk about your mother's health in the end?
Adam: My plan going into that final Tribal Council was to not bring it up, because I knew that I had a very, very good shot of winning the game. I was very confident that I was going to win the game. And I shouldn't have been thinking about this, but I was already thinking a little bit about what the terrible trolls on the internet would say. They're like, "Oh, he only won because he got the sympathy vote" and all that stuff. And that's hurtful. I strongly believe that I played the best game out there and that I would have gotten the votes regardless of whether or not I shared that part of my life.
But in that moment, Jay had sort of already opened me up emotionally, and then Dave came up and asked about what this journey meant for us. And there was no other answer. This wasn't about my personal growth or transformation. I felt like I was the same person on Day 1 that I was on Day 39. The only answer to that was, this story was about my family. And I love the people on the jury. They are truly friends of mine. I wanted them to share in this... it's a story to the audience, but for me, it's my real life. These are actual things that I'm going through. And some people are like, "Oh, why is he always talking about it when he finds the idols? Why is he always talking about it?" Because that's what matters the most to me. of course I'm talking about it. And of course it made the air, because that's my reality. That's my true story.
Let's go back to the Tribal Council when you had to decide between sticking with the Millennials (Figgy and Taylor) and flipping to Gen X with Ken and Jessica, and you voted for Figgy. Do you think that was a turning point in your game?
Adam: If I can pinpoint any one move that I made that sort of laid the groundwork for the rest of the season, it was voting out Figgy. There are some things that happened behind the scenes that wasn't shown on air that made that an even better decision for me. Because, at that immunity challenge that day, Will, Michaela and what I thought at the time was Jay, turned to me and emphatically said, "Vote Figgy." They were basically instructing me how to vote from the other tribe.
And so, what I was able to do with that vote was make a new alliance with Jessica and Ken, signal to the other Gen Xers that I was willing to work with them at the merge, and sort of do the bidding of the other Millennials, and again, make myself seem like less of a threat because I'm just doing what other people told me to do. This wasn't my move. This is what they were telling me to do. Throughout the entire game, I was trying to downplay my threat level. And it worked. Almost everyone at the merge thought at some point that they wanted to go to the end with me.
I've heard that from a couple of people. Which is interesting, because based on what we saw on TV you were clearly one of the big threats, especially in the final weeks.
Adam: What I was doing that people didn't realize was, I had good one-on-one relationships, but then in the whole group, at night, I would sleep alone. And I did that on purpose, because you see these groups forming. The alliances sleep together and when they see me sleep alone they think, oh, he doesn't have any friends. He's not connected. Really, I did. They just all thought that they were the only one that was connecting with me, so that they could use me and they could go to the end with me, and I didn't have any other friends.
You had the advantage of being able to steal someone's reward. Do you think that's really an advantage, or does it just put a target on your back?
Adam: This is something that didn't make the broadcast, but my very first reaction when I found it was, "Ugh. Shoot." Like, I was hoping it was a clue to an immunity idol. That's what I was looking for. That's what I was excited about when I saw that, and I instantly knew that this was potentially a disadvantage. There are very few ways to play that thing in a way that helps your game. And I think I found the perfect solution — which is, I basically played it by not playing it. And I needed that reward badly, and so even just taking the chance that I wouldn't get chosen on it or that I wouldn't win it was incredibly difficult for me to do. So it was very genuine in the sense that I did not want to give it up or not play it. But at the same time, I had a very strong suspicion that if I announced ahead of time of the challenge that I was not going to play it, that it would buy me enough goodwill that whoever won the challenge would decide to take me on it. And thank God that happened, because in retrospect, I needed that more than I even knew.
What was going through your mind at the Tribal Council when Taylor and Jay were essentially trying to blow up your game? Did you think you were done for after that?
Adam: No. this is another one of those situations where, to the audience, it looked like I was in a lot of trouble. But the group absolutely stuck by[me]. I needed to defend myself, for my own character. The work that I do, I can't be accused of those types of things and not defend myself. But the rest of the group was very supportive. We went back and they were like, "I would have done the same thing with the advantage. Don't worry about it." And it never really was an issue. I wasn't targeted as a result of that, and a lot of people expected that I would be. But I knew that it wasn't that big of a deal in other people's minds.
And in fact, that blowup at Tribal Council was good for my game. Because, I knew that Taylor and Jay were just doing what they needed to do to stay in the game. I was pissed at them, of course, for doing it, but I knew that this was their strategy, their last-ditch effort to throw it on somebody else. But everyone else saw it as, Taylor and Jay hate Adam. And it wasn't like that. Besides voting out Figgy, I never betrayed Taylor. I kept his secret, and I was genuine in my offer to work with him. And he knew that. So, when he went to the jury, he remembered that.
Your love-hate relationship with Jay was one of the more entertaining aspects of this season, and it interesting to see how frank you were in conversations with him and David, your two biggest competitors.
Adam: This is an incredible group of people, and I will be friends with these people for life. Jay and I share a very special bond that brings us together as brothers. And it was always sort of that way. We always got along, but we always were a little wary of each other. We were always trying to work together, but it never ended up working out. We never actually voted together except for when he voted for Taylor, and I don't even count that. I don't know if there's any instance of two people who sort of love each other as we did out there getting as far as we did together in the game, without ever actually voting together at Tribal Council. So, it is a very strange relationship.
We talked about it as he was Batman and I was the Joker, because I kept taking away all of his closest friends and all of his tools in the game. But then, every time I did that, I was able to explain to him, like, "Look, these people are actually gunning for you." Like when they voted out Will. Will had proposed Jay's name to go home instead of Zeke at the Final 9. I said, "Will is gunning for you. He wasn't your ally." And then Sunday went home and I was like, "Hey, the only person that actually voted for you was Sunday! I didn't vote for you. I've never voted for you." So, it was just a crazy relationship.
You mentioned Dave as well, and I think I just played a very straightforward game. I was very upfront with people. Sometimes it worked to my disadvantage, but in the end, I think that kind of approach absolutely worked to my advantage in terms of jury. Because I had been straightforward with them, for the most part.
I'm sorry to hear about your mom, but it's nice that you got to have those final moments with her. Going into last night's finale, were you nervous about having to share that story with people?
Adam: I had to go on national television and talk about my mom's death live. That is not something that people normally ever have to do. Yeah, so I was really nervous to do that. And I also wanted to do it in a way that it would resonate with people and that they would want to give to this campaign. Because I feel really strongly that lung cancer is a very misunderstood and very underfunded disease, and this is an opportunity to bring some awareness and additional funds to a disease that desperately needs it. And so, if people want to make a donation like I did at the reunion last night, they can go to SU2C.org/survivor to donate.
Were you happy Adam won Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X?
Survivor returns with Season 34, "Game-Changers," in March.
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