Yul Kwon, the 31-year-old management consultant from San Mateo, Calif., who led the multiethnic Aitu alliance to the final four, won the big prize on Survivor: Cook Islands last night. We caught up with the so-called puppet master this morning and got him to spill all about the season’s race-based controversies, his alleged string pulling, and the notorious hat trick.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Obviously, it was a very close vote. And yet Ozzy gave some pretty amazing speeches in that final tribal council, including that gut-wrenching story about the bio-dad who didn’t want anything to do with him. Did you think he may have clinched it that night?
YUL KWON: I honestly don’t think the final tribal council made much of a difference toward the final vote. I wasn’t sure who voted either way — Ozzy and I put our heads together and kind of figured it out. For the people who voted for me, I think their decision was made before that final tribal council.
Do you know who voted for you?
I’m not 100 percent positive. My guess on my side? I think I had Jonathan, Candice, Sundra, Brad, and Adam, and Ozzy had Rebecca, Parvati, Nate, and Jenny.
It seems like you had the respect of just about everybody on that jury. That said, who do you think liked you the least?
My guess would be Parvati. Obviously she sort of had a thing for Ozzy. I don’t think anyone intentionally disliked me. I think people felt I was a pretty good guy, but I think obviously there are varying levels of like and respect. I think Parvati respected me as a competitor but I think she just liked Ozzy a lot, lot more.
I know you liked and respected Becky, but tradition has it that only two people go into the final vote. Did you resent that Becky — or possibly Sundra — was there?
Not at all. Especially in Becky’s case, she really deserved a lot more credit than she’s been getting. She was very much a partner with me in terms of our strategizing and collaborating together. She’s not a quiet personality, she’s very strong and forceful and strong in challenges. I absolutely believed she deserved to get there. There was a fear on my part that we would end up splitting the vote. We felt the people who voted for me or her would be more similar, so we might end up splitting the vote and giving the victory to Ozzy.
Why did you offer Becky the hidden immunity idol? At the very least, that would have lost you Sundra’s vote.
There was some editing going on there. I had offered Becky the idol early on, back after the mutiny, when I honestly didn’t think there was much chance that either of us or any of our tribe would get to the end. Becky and I are very much aligned in terms of why we were on the show and what we wanted to do afterwards. We are very committed to serving our community and trying to portray a positive role model for people like ourselves. When we got to the end, Becky always had that option of using the idol. What Survivor didn’t show was that we very quickly decided that it was the wrong thing to do. We didn’t think for ethical and strategic reasons that it made sense. What would be the point? She’d get to the final three, but there was no way she’d win because people would see her as not deserving. From an ethical standpoint, we just didn’t feel good about it. We had a great story of the four of us overcoming these odds, a multicultural coalition of people working together despite individual differences. It seemed like a vile way to end that.
But she brought it up during the jury questioning in an attempt to sway the jury.
When you’re talking to the jury, obviously you are trying to present the best case about yourself. So I don’t begrudge her.
The jury — Candice especially — found you manipulative. It didn’t always seem like you were that calculating out there — more like a guy who’s trying hard not to piss everybody off. Which was it?
I don’t think of myself as a manipulative person. I came into the game trying to play a very clean game. I quickly realized I was being naïve. I never said I wouldn’t lie; I did a lot of it. I was spinning everybody at one point and had everybody believing I was going with them to the final two. I did do my best to treat people with respect and consideration, especially in my own alliance. The whole moniker of being the puppet master is not really accurate. The reason I was effective as a leader was because I really listened to what everybody had to say. I think everyone felt they had ownership.
For once and for all, did you bring Jonathan’s hat to be nice or to be manipulative?
I did it to be nice! I swear to God. I was begging the crew people to give him the hat! In general, the show is very authentic; people don’t tell you what to do. That was the only instance where I felt there was some manipulation and I got fed up. I asked the crew at tribal council and even before I left the island, please give this to Jonathan. At one point they said yes, but then left to have an hour-long discussion, and then came back and said, ”You want to give him the hat, go ahead.” I’m like, what’s the big deal? I put it on the jury box before the jury came in so no one would know and then Probst says, ”Yul makes this bold power play!” I was like, what?
Why didn’t you say to Jeff, ”You know the jury wouldn’t have known I brought the hat, had you not brought it up!”
I did! They cut all that stuff out. The truth of the matter is, even if I knew Jonathan or anyone in the game would have voted against me, I still would have gotten him the hat. There’s no reason to be mean about it.
You read the negative press that Survivor generated early on about its decision to break up the tribes down racial lines. What did you think? Were you fearful that viewers would boycott the show?
I was, but I knew how things played out. When the game started, I was very uncomfortable and I thought about quitting. I didn’t want to be involved in something that could set racial relations back 20 years. Survivor is a great show — it’s the gold standard of reality TV — but a lot of reality TV thrives on artificial conflict. There was a time when it looked like all the Raro members would eliminate all the minorities and go to the final four together. I don’t believe anyone on the show had any racism going on. But I think there are a lot of people in the country who would have drawn the wrong implications from that.
Ultimately, the twist paid off — but Survivor could have accomplished that by having fully integrated tribes from the beginning. If you had a say from the beginning, would you have done what CBS did?
I think it would be just as interesting and far less controversial if you had four different tribes made up of one person from each ethnicity. You’d still have diversity. The way this game was set up, you don’t know if people stuck together because of racist attitudes or because they happened to spend the most time with certain people because they had an opportunity to bond. I believe it’s the latter.
What are you going to do now? Will you go back to your old job?
No, I don’t think so. I feel a strong sense of responsibility to use this opportunity to benefit the community, make a difference. I’d like to spend some time working with different nonprofits that I’m passionate about.
What about going into politics?
I’ve worked with Joe Lieberman and Steve Westly. I don’t know if you believe me, but I don’t actually like being in the spotlight. It kind of makes me feel self-conscious. I know it’s ironic coming from a person who was on a reality show.
…who had his shirt off the whole time.
Honestly, I don’t know if I’d like being in the spotlight 24 hours a day. On the other hand, I want to do whatever I can to make an impact. I wouldn’t rule anything out.
Clearly you work out. You didn’t earn that spot in People magazine’s Sexiest issue for nothing.
I was pretty out of shape when I found out I was going to be on. I was so busy working in the corporate world. I had about six weeks before the show and I went crazy — I worked out twice a day. My body is the type where I don’t get super-fat when I don’t work out. So for six weeks I was really intense.