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She went to every single Tribal Council, including the final one that landed her a million dollars. Now, Denise Stapley talks all about her victorious run on Survivor: Philippines, revealing who is still mad at whom, and how she became the 25th Sole Survivor. (Click through both pages to read the entire interview.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congratulations. But where’s your oversized novelty check?
DENISE STAPLEY: I know! I don’t know if they do that any more. I’m quite okay with the little small one, but the big one would have been fun.
EW: I’m going to talk to someone about that. Or maybe I’ll just go get a big piece of cardboard and just write it out myself.
Perfect! Send it in the mail.
EW: How confident were you of your victory when that Tribal Council ended?
Initially after that final Trial Council, I definitely thought I might have just done this. But then there’s this other part of me going, you could be wrong. So since the end of April I’ve just been hanging on to the possibility that this was not going to happen, so last night was just absolutely surreal because I haven’t allowed myself to go to that place to think that I did it.
EW: I hate it when people get to the end and then apologize for everything they did, but watching you speak there, I worried that maybe you were being a bit too braggy at the same time about how you outwitted and played everyone. Were you at all concerned that you overplayed your hand a bit?
You know, I was and that’s why I said I outplayed some of you or most of you ,because I knew I didn’t outplay all of them and I didn’t outwit all of them, but I knew that I could get thrown under the bus if they saw me as floating through. So in my mind I knew I needed to be confident and be succinct. But yeah, I was a little worried and watching it is a little different than being there because that jury is just looking at you and they’re just pissed, so I knew, just push through it and say what I needed to say.
EW: Were you surprised that some of them were as pissed as they were, because in terms of backstabbing for a Survivor season, this was pretty minor. But people said some pretty nasty things to you. Which one was the hardest to sit there and take? I’m guessing either Malcolm or Penner.
Well, Malcolm definitely surprised me, even though I had just shanked him in the side, and Penner a little bit. Abi was not a surprise. I fully expected to have guns blazing at me. But it’s not even all the backstabbing. Everyone of us out there is so passionate about the game and wants to win so badly so even if you were voted out in the kindest of ways, that was the end of your game and the end of your chance and I don’t blame them for being angry and bitter. But oh yeah, there was a lot of anger on that jury at the time.
EW: What about on Penner’s whole speech, telling you that you were coming off as a bitch. That must have taken you back a bit.
It did. You can see the look on my face, like, Ohhh, what did I miss? Outside the game, Jonathan and I are good friends, but it did surprise me because I thought, Oooh, I may not win this. This may not work. So I was a little nervous.
EW: What were your thoughts when he outed Lisa’s past on The Facts of Life, and did you recognize Lisa and know about her past?
I did. I knew her from day one. And I confronted her with that when she was so lovingly pinning me in the mud during that challenge. We got the opportunity to talk and it was me strategizing in the mud, actually, and saying “Hey, does anyone know who you are?” And at that point she said, “No, and I’d like to keep it that way.” So I knew from the very start and then I actually told Jonathan when I went to Kalabaw.
EW: So he did not recognize her himself and it was you that told him?
He did not officially know what she had done. He knew he recognized her from something but he hadn’t placed her. So we were out on the boat one day fishing and chatting and I said, “Do you know who Lisa is?” and he went “No.” So it was actually me who told Jonathan. Michael knew from the start but Jonathan did not, and then he outed her at the end because nobody else had a clue.
EW: Did you consider outing her at the final Tribal Council as a strategy to get more votes, not that you ended up needing them?
I never did, because at that point I just wanted to continue to play the game I had been playing and I wanted to do it based on my own merits. Whether or not I would have lost, I just wanted to speak to the game that I played and there was already that undercurrent that maybe Jonathan would out Lisa and clearly he just went ahead and did that for me.
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EW: I know they cut that final Tribal Council down quite a bit. Were there any other tough moments that didn’t make the final cut?
It’s such a blur in hindsight. It was a long Tribal Council. Even my interaction with Abi was much, much longer and it was like the replaying of every single previous Tribal Council with her. That was a bit longer. But in terms of the essence of what was shown last night, that was it.
EW: You seem pretty good with everyone now. Anyone still bitter at you?
You know, I have tried multiple times to make peace with Russell behind the scenes. It’s one of those things I’m just kind of letting go. It’s a game and everybody takes it in their own way and has to take their own amount of time to just work through it and let go of it and make their own meaning of it. But Abi and I have completely made peace. Social media is a great avenue so Abi and I had made peace months ago, and RC. Everybody is in really good spirits. Even if we’re not all connected, we’re very tolerant of each other.
EW: It’s interesting you mention Russell because I know Russell has had a very difficult time processing his whole experience but I didn’t realize he had some personal issues with you. I don’t remember you doing anything egregious to him in there, except, you know, voting him out.
No, and that has been the most bizarre thing for me. I struggle to understand it. Russell just hasn’t been able to see that the person I was out there is the person that I am, and I wasn’t playing a game. And friendships that I developed out there were real and I wasn’t just talking to people out there for strategy. Which again, could have been my downfall had the game not gone a different direction. But I think there were certain things that he may have taken or thought were manipulative or trying to maneuver things, and it just wasn’t. And I think he just struggled so hard with not winning. Here’s somebody who has probably never lost at anything competitively. So I’m not sure.
EW: The fact that you and Malcolm came to new tribes as outsiders was tough because you had to find a way to survive off the bat, but once you did that do you think it gave you an advantage because you weren’t close enough to anyone where they would then feel betrayed by you?
Absolutely. And the place it made the biggest difference was coming into that merge with Tandang because I just kind of came in and could figure out where I was gong to go and they already had day after day to have their own tensions and cracks build, so when they basically turned on each other, that was the best thing ever because I didn’t have to be the one to do it. They were doing it to themselves.
EW: What surprised you most watching the show on TV and seeing the things you did not see while on the island?
I think the thing that probably surprised me the most was how quickly Malcolm turned and was ready to put the shank in me. We laugh about it and he’s like, “I was talking about booting you out for weeks!” Stupid me, I was like, oh we’re in this tight alliance. I kept thinking, oh, no, he wouldn’t do that. Well, yeah, he would!
EW: Money. Your plans. Go.
Immediately is to take a few deep breaths. We have our 9-year-old daughter and we have some future planning for her we want to square away. We have not traveled a great deal, so at some point a nice warm vacation where there is no rain and maybe a swim up bar would be lovely.
EW: They don’t ask winners to come back as much as others, but at some point they most likely will ask you if you want to do this all over again. Would you?
100 percent. There wouldn’t be a doubt. I’d be back in a minute.
Check out all the rest of our ‘Survivor’ finale coverage, including Dalton’s full episode recap, exclusive intel from the host on next season, Probst’s thoughts on the finale, and interviews with the rest of the final four. Plus, enjoy an exclusive deleted scene from last night’s finale — as well as pre-game interviews with the final four — in the video player below. And for more ‘Survivor’ scoop all year long, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.