On Sunday night's nail-biting Survivor: Cook Islands finale, Yul Kwon narrowly beat out tough competitor Ozzy by one vote to emerge as champion. The Stanford and Yale grad, who was often called "the puppet master" or "Godfather" by fellow players, was happy that his strategic game paid off and that he was able to pocket the million-dollar check. TVGuide.com spoke to Yul in the wee hours of the morning after his big win to find out how he's planning on spending his winnings, and why he looked so shell-shocked after being announced the sole survivor.
TVGuide.com: Good morning, how are you doing?
Good. I'm still sleep-deprived, but I'm living the dream.
TVGuide.com: You looked stunned throughout the entire reunion show.
I am sure you are being charitable. I was probably looking scared s--tless.
TVGuide.com: Why were you so scared? You'd already won the money.
I'm not really used to all this attention. I tend to feel self-conscious very easily. Just having all these people looking at me and hearing what I am saying and knowing that it was going out live to millions of people was kind of a scary thing for me. I can talk the talk, but inside I always get very anxious.
TVGuide.com: Going into the live finale, did you think you had a good shot?
Going into the final tribal council, I thought I had a good shot. I knew it was going to be between me and Ozzy, and I thought it would be a toss-up, which it ultimately ended up being. I don't think I could say I deserved it more than he did. I think that with any other season or any other group of jurors, he very well could have won and would have very much deserved it. I think it came down to people's preferences: Do people appreciate the strategic game play and the social side of it, or the physical-challenge side of it? In my case, just barely a majority ended up favoring the strategic side.
TVGuide.com: They kept calling you a puppet master and a leader, traits that usually get people voted off much earlier in the game.
[Chuckles] I don't feel that the "puppet master" or "Godfather" monikers were appropriate, or completely accurate. Honestly, I think I was an effective leader, and the way I influenced my tribe was not through manipulating people and being a dictator who told people what to do. The reason that people listened to what I had to say and respected me was because I tried to listen to what they had to say, and I tried to build consensus. That was one of the reasons why our alliance was so tight. People felt they had a lot of voice in what happened.
TVGuide.com: We never heard you raise your voice or demand anything from them.
That is not really my personality. I think everyone had a sense of ownership and, because of that, they never felt threatened by my leadership. The funny thing is that externally, the perception was that I was this puppet master. I tried to disavow it, but it was firmly implanted in their minds that I was manipulating things and pulling the strings. The more I tried to distance myself from it, the more people would think I was lying. I figured, if that is what they think, I might as well embrace it and use it to my advantage.
TVGuide.com: And you did!
Ultimately, it worked out for me. If you asked anyone in my tribe about the whole puppet-master thing, they would have been like, "No, that's BS. He never ordered us around."
TVGuide.com: Everyone keeps focusing on your excellent strategic game, but you were quite the physical player, too. Are you mad you don't get credit for both?
No. I have watched enough seasons to realize that if you are too much of a threat, you get voted off quickly. Before the mutiny happened, I tried to stay a little under the radar. I then had a lot of influence in setting the direction and pace and the vote order from behind the scenes. I was able to deflect attention away from me and to Jonathan as the evil manipulator. Everyone believed that. Ozzy was very strong in challenges, and I was more than happy to let him play it up so that other people would think he was the main physical threat.
TVGuide.com: Though arguably your physical strength was what landed you on Exile Island while you were with the Puka tribe. That worked out well for you, though, since that's where you got the hidden immunity idol.
[Laughs] That did work out. But once that happened, I realized that I had to go under the radar instead of being the strongest member of the strongest tribe. I realized that it was kind of a do-or-die situation, and I worked really hard in all the challenges. Ozzy and I worked really well together. He is probably the best challenge competitor to ever be on Survivor. After the merge happened and we flipped Jonathan, I kind of went back into "under the radar" mode. From a strategic standpoint, it didn't make any sense to win any of the individual immunities. I didn't need it, and the more Ozzy kept winning, he became the threat.
TVGuide.com: I've got to know: Were you just being nice returning Jonathan's hat, or was that part of your master plan to get him to vote for you?
[Sighs] In general, I feel that Survivor is very authentic, that they [the producers] don't manipulate things. But that was the one instance where I felt like I was set up.
TVGuide.com: So you were just trying to do a nice thing....
[Laughs] Yes. And then it was like, "Where the hell is this coming from?" Even if I knew he would never vote for me, or if someone who hated my guts had asked for it, I would have given them the hat back because there is no need to be mean about this kind of stuff outside of the game. I tried to give the hat to one of the crew members when I was on the island, and they went off for an hour and came back and said, "We're not going to give it to him, but you can do whatever you want. You can give it to him at tribal council." I didn't want to do that, because that's weird. So I put the hat in the jury area before the jury members came in, and then Jeff Probst goes, "Yul makes a bold play for the jury by giving Jonathan his hat back." I'm like, "Well, if you hadn't just told him.... " That was frustrating for me, and that cemented my image as someone who was playing to the jury. A lot of things I did in the game were [because I was just] treating people the way I would want to be treated, but after that point everything I did was held in suspicion. That was upsetting to me.
TVGuide.com: It did work out, though.
It did, so I can't complain. But at the time, I was thinking, "This could be really, really bad."
TVGuide.com: What are you plans for the million?
I had been trying not to get ahead of myself. If you do and then don't win, it is sort of a disappointment. My parents immigrated here and had that classic immigrant story. They didn't have a lot of money, but they made a lot of sacrifices to provide for me and my brother to get a good education. I'd like to take care of my parents, I'd like to invest for my financial future and for my own family, and I'd like to spend a lot of time and some of the money helping out a lot of nonprofit organizations and charities that I feel very committed to. I am not going to go crazy and buy a Ferrari. I feel so lucky to have this and be in this position right now. There are so many other people out there who are deserving, or more deserving than myself, so it wouldn't feel right to me if I went and bought an expensive car.
TVGuide.com: You had credited Becky during the game as basically being your sounding board. Do you feel like you owe her something, perhaps a really nice dinner?
I owe her more than that. Honestly, I would have been genuinely happy to see her win the game, and I think she feels the same way about me. It was never a question that we wouldn't be friends for life and wouldn't want to work together to advance a lot of the causes that we feel strongly about. I hope that she sees it this way, I certainly do. Regardless of who won, it was a win for both of us.
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