'Survivor' winner Yul Kwon talks about his new show, and whether he'll ever head back to the island
After winning the racially charged Survivor: Cook Islands in 2006, Yul Kwon made an interesting career choice. He went to work for the Federal Communications Commission (where he met a certain future Survivor contestant with an affinity for his own last name). But now Yul is back on TV hosting a new series for PBS called America Revealed, which premieres April 11 (check local listings). It seemed like a good time to catch up with the 37-year-old reality show champ to find out all about his new show, how he used his hidden immunity idol to get a wife, and whether he’d ever dare to play Survivor again.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your new show is titled America Revealed. That could mean anything, so why don’t you explain what it is exactly.
YUL KWON: Yeah, I guess America Revealed sounds like it could be about laser hair removal or male pattern baldness. The idea behind the show is that we’re surrounded by these massive systems that make life easy for us – by feeding us and giving us lots of neat stuff like planes, electricity, and toilet paper (coincidentally, all the things you don’t get on Survivor). But we often take these systems for granted without understanding how they work or what happens when they fail. So our goal is to reveal these hidden systems to the audience using cutting-edge aerial photography, computer animation, and — at least for me — some panic-inducing stunts. From a visual perspective, the show is pretty mind-blowing.
Are hidden immunity idols involved at all?
Sadly, no. I wanted to incorporate them, but the producers thought it wouldn’t be a good idea for me to blindside the people I had to interview.
Tell me the coolest thing you learned while making this show.
I learned loads of really cool stuff. For example, it turns out that the huge blackout we had back in 2003 – which left 40 million Americans in the dark – happened because someone forgot to trim a tree. I learned that due to a historical quirk, planes often zig-zag to their destinations instead of flying in a straight line. I learned that school buses move more Americans everyday than any other form of public transport. And I learned that people think I’m a lot shorter in real life than I look on television. One other thing I learned is that Jeff Probst is amazingly good at what he does. He just makes hosting look easy.
What are people going to learn about you from the show that they didn’t learn by watching you starve on an island?
I’m terrified of heights. It’s funny, people assume that competing on Survivor must have been harder than filming America Revealed. But Survivor was a lot easier — the tallest thing I had to climb was a coconut tree. On America Revealed, it felt like half the show was shot from the sky or on top of tall buildings, which meant that I spent a lot of time curled up in a fetal position. When you see me screaming on the show, I wasn’t acting.
John Cochran from Survivor: South Pacific worked as an intern for your department at the FCC. Did he ever reveal his fear of colored rocks to you?
Shockingly, no. Nor did he reveal the 99% of his body that had never been exposed to sunlight. But I really enjoyed watching him on Survivor. He’s a wonderful person and a terrific lawyer, even if he couldn’t chop a coconut to save his life.
Do you keep up and watch Survivor?
It really depends on the season. I enjoy watching smart, strategic gameplay. I’m not so much into the screaming and the yelling and the crazy talking. I get enough of that when I visit my family during the holidays.
Any regrets at all about appearing in a Survivor season that started off as a battle of the races?
Not at all, I feel incredibly fortunate to have been on the show, and winning gave me a platform for supporting causes I care about. I also met my future wife, Sophie, through my tribemate, Brad Virata. I know it sounds really cheesy, but I gave her my hidden immunity idol to show her that I loved her. When she didn’t laugh in my face (well, at least not more than a few seconds), I knew she was the one.
Okay, million dollar question: Would you come back to play Survivor again?
I’m happy I won Cook Islands, but I can’t say I had a lot of fun that season. The racial theme made me feel like I was under a microscope and that I had to be super politically-correct all the time. So I’d love to play again without the pressure of representing my community, and to have the freedom to just be myself and have fun. But whether I’ll ever be invited back — or whether my parents could survive another heart attack — I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.