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Laurel Johnson just cast the most important vote in Survivor history. But she no doubt would have rather been receiving votes instead of casting them. After making it all the way to the final three, Laurel sat and watched as every single vote to win from the jury went to Wendell Holland and Domenick Abbate. And then, because there was a first-ever Final Tribal Council tie with each of the men getting five votes, Laurel had to go cast the tie-breaking decision.
In the end, she picked Wendell, handing him a million dollars and the title of Sole Survivor. Why Wendell? And how difficult a decision was it? Also, how does Laurel feel about being shut-out by the jury, not even receiving a vote from her alliance-partner Donathan? And does she now wish she had made a move against the power dup earlier? We asked the 29-year-old financial consultant all that and more after the finale was done, and here’s what she said. (Also make sure to read our Q&As with Wendell, Domenick, Angela, Donathan, and Sebastian as well as our finale recap, finale Q&A with Jeff Probst, and interview with Probst and Mark Burnett about NEXT season.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, Laurel, what does it feel like to cast the most important vote in the history of Survivor?
LAUREL JOHNSON: Oh, you know, it was not a vote that I wanted to cast, and it was gutting. To go through the emotional rollercoaster of going through a final Tribal thinking, “Okay, I have a shot at winning Survivor“, realizing that I was not winning Survivor, then realizing that I had to cast the vote between two guys who were two of my closest allies and friends in the game — it was absolutely gutting. And while I was happy for Wendell, my heart broke for Dom, because he also played a great game. And he also would have been a great winner; and I also loved him out there and considered him one of my closest friends. So, it was heartbreaking. It really was.
Why Wendell over Dom?
And I think that’s what made it such a hard decision. I felt like these guys had played virtually the same game. You know, they had a similar strategic game, they made the same moves, they’d won the same amount of challenges. I think Wendell had the edge socially, especially in the end game that I think you saw the way the jury voted. Those that were around in the endgame voted for Wendell. Wendell kills it at final Tribal Council and then just our relationship; you saw, Wendell was like a brother to me out there, so, with the game being pretty even between the two, maybe it edged to Wendell. I had to give it to Wendell.
How disappointed were you to get to the end and not receive a single vote?
It was really tough. I don’t think it comes across how hard you have to work to get to the end and how exhausting it is. And, just to kind of, especially at Tribal, get attacked and then feel your game ripped away from you. It’s a really hard feeling. And it’s something you battle with. I know the moves I made, I know the game I played, but then trying to weigh that with getting no votes and hearing the jury just rip me, its tough. It’s really hard. I don’t know how well that comes across on TV, but it’s gutting.
Were you hurt though that your biggest ally in Donathan didn’t even vote for you? That was surprising.
Yeah, I was hurt by Donathan’s vote. I thought I had Donathan’s vote. I was also hurt by Ange, I thought I had her vote. And I thought I would get 1 or 2 Malolo votes in Libby or Jenna, but it didn’t go that way. I understand why they made those votes that they did, but yeah, I was hurt and disappointed in the moment.
Even though you went wire-to-wire and made it all 39 days, which very few people in this world have done, was it frustrating watching the season play back on TV and seeing yourself passing up these opportunities to take these guys out?
Yeah, I don’t know if it’s easier on other seasons when the finalists don’t know that they’ve lost the game. But knowing that I lost the game and having to watch it back, hearing all the criticism, being like: well, maybe they were right. I don’t know. It was really tough. I felt like I was making the best decisions that I could make in the moment. I felt like I was damned if I did and damned if I didn’t. If I flipped, I’m dead on that side. If I don’t flip, what happens? I get to the end and I lose. So yeah, obviously looking back I wish I did something differently because it didn’t work out. And yeah, it was really tough watching myself make the decisions that I know screwed me over.
I mean, like, it’s sad. I was shocked that I didn’t get some of the votes that I thought that I would get, so, I certainly miscalculated there. I don’t know if I lost those along the way or if I never had them. And I think timing too, but you saw it. We had a chance to get Dom out of the game right before the end. And let’s say I win fire and can take Wendell out. I mean, the chances were there. I was kind of confused and disappointed by those that were screaming at me to flip on the guys going back to ten, or 9 or 8, or whenever it was. I didn’t see that because there were chances later in the game. Obviously they didn’t work out and so I feel like the commentary’s going to be how everyone was right except for me, but in the moment I thought I had time and it didn’t work out that way.
Alright, Laurel, let’s play a game of Survivor What-if, okay?
Let’s say at the final 4 Dom had said to you, “Hey, I’ll bring you to the final 3 and not force you to make fire if you promise to vote for me in the case of a tie.” What would you have said, and assuming the answer would be “Sure”, would you then have honored that?
I don’t know. I think what you also didn’t see was that Dom came down on me pretty hard in that moment that he was taking me to final three, so although he picked me, he ragged on my game pretty hard. So I was pretty upset with Dom in that moment. He has said something [at that Tribal Council] like; “Oh I’m bringing Laurel, I don’t think she played a strong game. She didn’t make any moves” and making that statement to the jury. So I don’t think any promise to vote for him would have helped because he’d really hurt me in that moment and I don’t think that that would have carried over. I took that pretty hard and was pretty pissed off by it, so no, I don’t think it would have changed my mind in the moment.
How would you have done against Wendell if you’d had to go to fire-making? Would you have just been obliterated?
I mean, Wendell took longer than I thought he would. What wasn’t shown was that Wendell actually coached me through fire-making. He built a fire pit that we would go and practice in every morning. So I knew how well that Wendell could make fire. Dom could make fire in a heartbeat. I knew I would be hard-pressed to beat either one of them at fire. I could make fire but I was by no means really good at it. I was not the person tending to the fire out there. That just wasn’t my role. So, maybe I had a shot against Ange, but she was also a fire tender too. These were not three people that you wanna go against in fire. So I knew it wasn’t worth risking my game for it.
What was your best move of the game or what was your worst move of the game?
Oh my gosh. I feel like everyone has, like, twenty worst moves of the game for me. My best move is I created the alliance that ran the game. I don’t think what came across either was that this Naviti strong that was going on, that was a constant Malolo pick off. And, for me, I felt like if I don’t blow this up I’m going to be next. By blowing up the Des vote, I exposed that Naviti were turning on each other and paved the way that saved Jenna and Michael for one more vote. That allowed us to get to the point where the Naviti were then going to turn on each other and I don’t think that came across either.
As for worst move, I guess not turning on the guys at one of these points. Maybe the worst one would have been at 8, but I just couldn’t turn on them at 8. I had been backstabbed by Kellyn and I’d been burned by her after saving her game at the expense of almost blowing up mine so it just wasn’t a flip I could make at that moment.
How would you play differently if you went and did this whole thing over again?
I think what became very apparent was that, especially with this jury, they were seeking big, flashy moves and I got hurt by kind of playing under their radar and playing a subtle game and having this secret alliance that no one knew about. I mean, I was playing both sides the entire game. Malolo thought I was with them. Naviti thought I was with them. And no one knew it. Donathan and I did that for every day, but that doesn’t come across the way that playing an idol does, or playing a big flashy game, or talking this big game. It doesn’t come across in the same way, so, for me, it would be getting a bigger move that I can then kind of show off with flash.
Also make sure toread our Q&As with Wendell, Domenick, Angela, Donathan, and Sebastian as well as our finale recap, finale Q&A with Jeff Probst, and interview with Probst and Mark Burnett about NEXT season. And for all the Survivor scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.