Image credit: CBS
Credit: Image Credit: Mitchell Haaseth/NBC

Image credit: CBS[/caption]

No Survivor contestant had ever come back to play after being away from the game for so long, but the 11-year absence did not hurt Michael Skupin, as the man with the most famous hands in reality TV history returned for Survivor: Philippines and made it all the way to the final Tribal Council. That’s where things went south, however, as Skupin and Lisa Whelchel were bested by Denise Stapley for the million dollars and title of Sole Survivor. In this post-finale Q&A, Skupin confirms that he thought he had won the game all the way until Jeff Probst read the final votes, and he blames peer pressure at Ponderosa (where the jury members all stay and mingle together) for his loss, even saying that one tribe member threatened blackmail by negatively impacting the jury if Skupin voted him out.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You were my episode 1 pick to win it all, so thanks for nothing, Skupin!

MICHAEL SKUPIN: Hey, I gave it everything I had, man.

EW: I know you did. When you showed up in CBS Television City last night, did you still think there was a good chance you had won?

Oh, yeah, absolutely, I totally thought that. Everybody in their mind thinks it’s gonna be them. If you went out there and played your guts out and did everything you could to make it happen, I think it’s probably a realistic expectation that I thought I’d get all eight votes. It’s just the way I played the game. I know what I did, I know what Denise did, and I know what Lisa did and I really thought in the spirit of the game — outwit, outplay, outlast — that I encompassed those three elements the best, and if I had a jury voting on the integrity of the game itself that they would have to vote me the game.

EW: I was going ask you to run votes in terms of the ones you thought you had and maybe didn’t but you thought it was going to be a clean Skupin sweep!

The part I completely underestimated was Ponderosa. I knew it existed and I knew that you always worked those votes. I had someone in this game look me in this face and say, “You can vote me out tonight because you’re the swing vote, Skupin, but if you do, I’m going to go back to the jury and I’m going to poison, rob, pillage, steal, and I’m going to make sure that you don’t get a single vote. I will lie. I will tell them what you said about their children and their wife. I will make stuff up and this game is not over.” He said, “You can beat me, but you will never win this game.” I thought, could that really be that big a part of this game? And you weigh that decision out — this is like blackmail, and you have to play this game.

So to get back to your question about the jury votes, I thought for sure I had RC. RC and I had promised to give each other our vote if one of us was on the jury. So I thought for sure I had RC. I thought out of respect for the game and the returning players that Penner would have appreciated that I had the bullseye on my back from the beginning just like him. And then I thought for sure I potentially would have had Malcolm because the closer you get to the end of the game the more the sting there is of getting voted off. And because Denise betrayed their day one alliance and he had less than 24 hours to recover from the sting of that alliance-breaking decision, I would have thought he would have given it to Lisa or me. And the last one I thought I had was potentially Jeff Kent because he said to me on day one of the merge, “Skupin, I hate returning players. But I hate Penner more than I hate you so enjoy the next three days out here. We’ll make them as comfortable as we can.” I thought that was crazy for him to say that to me because you can’t tell someone your strategy like that.

I really thought there was a chance I could have gotten all of those votes. The only person I thought that wouldn’t get a vote was Denise, and she ended up getting six! The game doesn’t lie. She ended up getting the votes because that’s the way they were feeling at that moment in time. If we had voted an hour later, two hours later, a day later, the vote could have been totally different. But at that time I was responsible for more people sitting on that jury and she hadn’t offended any of them.

EW: So you clearly think the group think and peer pressure at Ponderosa is responsible for your loss.

It’s a part of the game I’m still trying to figure out. Because on the surface anyone can figure out Ponderosa, but to understand it at its core and control something where you’re not even there. You could put seven people that love you and want to make babies with you on the jury and one person could —I’m not saying it did — but could offset the whole thing. So it’s a part of the game that is probably the most complex. I will go on record as saying there is more game played at the jury at Ponderosa than on the island itself.

EW: Well, let’s talk about someone that was at Ponderosa — Artis. That guy hates you, Mike. He hates you!

Artis and I have not spoken a syllable since we left the island. Since he left the island back in March. I looked at Artis, and I didn’t see any of the confessionals, and I thought there was a chance I could get his vote because I had an alliance with Artis early in the game, And that dude is one angry person. We were in dress rehearsals for the Reunion and he and Probst went at it! I read the interviews and he says supposedly I know what I did. I can’t imagine. He didn’t talk! Post-merge, I don’t think he said five words to me.

EW: Both you and Denise knew about Lisa’s past, but it was Penner than ended up outing her. Did you ever consider dropping that bombshell?

I thought Lisa’s game had played so wishy-washy and I had heard the comments that she had aggravated a lot of people by forming and breaking alliances and that her game was so all over the map that it was unnecessary. I thought I should stand on the merits of my game rather than try to knock somebody else off theirs. I didn’t think it would have made a difference in the jury’s vote at that time. I’m convinced every single jury member had their mind made up before they got to that final Tribal Council, and that ended up being for show more than anything else. Some of them didn’t even have questions.

EW: Which hurts more psychologically, being medivaced out, where you never get a chance to see how you would do, or making it that close to the end and being that close to winning and not winning?

I was resigned to the fact that I was never going to get to play again, so when I got the call and then got out there, and this time every single aspect of the game that Mark Burnett conceptualized I got to take part in this time around. Every single bit of it. The only part of this game that I didn’t get to experience — which I don’t regret — is Ponderosa. And thank God I never got there, because I’ve seen some of the videos and heard some of the stories and I could go to my grave and never experience. I gave this game everything that I had, and unfortunately, a hard player — someone like Russell Hantz, although I’m not comparing myself to him — is going to open himself up to some criticism. And I’ve already heard things last night that the vote would be very different six or seven months later once you’ve seen everything. And I think it would be brilliant of Survivor to just take a quick hidden vote at the live finale show to see whom would you have voted for now.

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, our interview with winner Denise Stapley, our interview with runner-up Lisa Whelchel, and our chat with fan favorite Malcolm Freberg. 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.