[SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched the finale of Survivor: Ghost Island.]
Wendell Holland did not get the most jury votes at Survivor: Ghost Island. Yet the 33-year-old furniture builder still won a million dollars and was named Sole Survivor. That’s because when the jury deadlocked with five votes each for Wendell and Domenick Abbate, the third person in the final three — Laurel Johnson — was forced to cast the deciding vote, and that vote went to Wendell.
How shocked was Wendell by the tie? Did he know he had Laurel’s vote? And what would he have done if he had won the final immunity challenge and had to decide whom to send to the fire-making tiebreaker? We asked the newest Survivor champion all that and more just minutes after the reunion show was over. Here’s what the champ had to say. (Read through both pages for the entire interview and also make sure to read our Q&As with Domenick, Laurel, 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, first off — congratulations!
WENDELL HOLLAND: Yeah, it’s feeling good man. It’s feeling good.
I bet it is. So, let’s get into it. I’m sure you were doing the math in your head heading into that final Tribal Council. Where did you think you stood with the vote heading into Tribal and then as Tribal continued?
Heading into Tribal, I thought that it would be a close vote. There were people that I thought would vote for me that ultimately ended up not voting for me. But there were people that I was like, alright Dom could get this person, or Laurel could get this person. So, heading into the vote I thought it could be close, but I’m just gonna fight like a dog in Tribal.
I asked Dom and he said it took him four seconds to realize he’d lost after Jeff revealed it was a tie. How long did it take you to realize you’d won once he told Laurel to go up and cast a vote?
Yeah, as soon as I knew Laurel was going up to cast the vote, you can never be too sure in Survivor, but I was fairly certain that she was gonna write my name down. We had a brother-sister relationship out there. We have done so much for each other and been there for each other out there that I was pretty sure that she would write my name down instead of Dom’s, although they had a great relationship out there too.
Not great enough, apparently. The first five people out in the jury voted for Dom. The last six people out or in the finals — in the case of Laurel — voted for you. What does that say?
To me it says that either my game was turned up a notch towards the end, or it said that whatever happened amongst that first five, maybe they were talking, maybe someone was politicking for Dom or whatever. There was a point at which the remaining people from the jury started having a conversation about my name. It speaks to some part of my endgame, I think. So I was very thankful for that shift. And it’s crazy how that happened, but I think it shows that I did what I came out there to do, play a game that’s low-key, but still be a powerhouse and then really turn it up at the end when I had to.
Do you think Dominick was really hurt by that Final 6 Tribal where I guess he was really going after Donathan, maybe even more than we saw on TV?
Yes, I think that Dominick had an objective at that point. He wanted to play a fake idol and he wanted it to seem real and for no one to question it. So he used a lot of smoke and mirrors and he was loud and he was right at Donathan’s neck. And, from my standpoint, I had been watching Dominick make all of these big Tribal moves and big moves and I’d watched his game and I was like: Man, this guy, he’s putting on a show, and that can win people the game.
So, that’s when I thought I should put the fake idol that I made on top of the immunity that I just won and then bring out Erik’s idol and throw that on it also. I just thought, Man maybe I should start making these big plays. And I’m regretful for that decision because that’s not the person I am. And I apologize to Donathan all the time for it because I shouldn’t have tried to flex on him like that. And Dom, I think he regrets doing that, although that was part of his strategy to make that fake idol of his work. So, good idea, not the best execution.
He was also coming after you a little bit at that Final Tribal. Did that surprise you?
Not at all, I appreciate it’s his job to come right at my throat, to come right at me and to try to get me out of there. Yeah, we’ve been friends, but no, we got to kill each other now. I would have fought Dom at that point. We’re fighting for a million dollars and we knew that we’d played so hard together, but we also know that we both want to be the Sole Survivor. We both want that million dollar, so it’s not surprising.
And I knew that season was full of happy, friendly people, and Dom had to curtail his game to that. But, in a more cutthroat season, I’m sure Dom will be able to compete with those kinds of players. So, I knew Dom had it in him to go at me and talk about the game that I played. And I just had to prepare myself for that and stand up for the game that I played. And I thought that I did that all right.
So, did Angela make the biggest mistake of the game by agreeing to switch to the orange table in the fire-making contest?
[Laughs] I knew that I didn’t want to go anywhere near the orange color for anything. But Angela was willing to sit there so I was willing to go to the purple table. And I think that it just gave me a little extra edge to get that fire made. Maybe Dom should have sat next to me and put his fire making skills to the test.
What happens there? Who do you think wins if he does that?
I win. But, if he miraculously would have beaten me, then he would have had an easier final Tribal Council.
Let’s switch it then. Let’s say you win that final immunity challenge and everything’s reversed: What would you have done?
[Laughs] I would have done what he did. I would try to get him out of there, but I wouldn’t put my neck on the line. This is the second season with that final four Tribal Council fire-making challenge, and after what happened it got us thinking: Man, this ending, the game can really evolve here and, if you have two power players at the end, you might have someone risk it all and go against another big dog at making fire at the end, hand his immunity over. That is something that Dom could have done and I guess this is a learning moment that will evolve the game of Survivor. Fortunately, Dom didn’t take that necklace off, he didn’t sit next to me and we didn’t have that epic battle. And I would have won. But yeah, going forward, I think we’ll see more things like that.
NEXT PAGE: Wendell on why he almost formally contested Laurel’s challenge win and if he’s play again.
What was your best move of the game and what was your worst move of the game?
My worst move of the game? I think there were two. Early on after the first flop, the third vote out was Morgan. We lost challenge and the four Malolos that came over to Naviti didn’t go with our plan to vote out Angela. And they just put all their votes on Morgan. Now, those four votes could have went my way or Dom’s way. They could have taken any of us out.
And I knew that! I ran the numbers! I was laying in the shelter talking to Morgan and I am like, “Man, they could just pin four votes.” And she was like, “No, I have Libby 100 percent, we’re good.” And it was at that point, it’s like they blindsided us and they took out Morgan, a super strong competitor. I thought worst-case scenario, but I didn’t act on worst-case scenario. I just trusted these people that just came over that we’d just been beating the hell out of for the beginning of the game and I shouldn’t have trusted that. That was a bad decision on my behalf. If we have the numbers or whatever, you can’t trust those people. And that would have ended my game, I would have been the third boot. That was a blunder and so I learned a lot at that Tribal Council, so that was one huge mistake.
The other mistake that I feel terrible for was when I pulled out the fake idol and I had individual immunity and I was flexing on Donathan alongside Dominick at the final six. That’s not me, I’m not somebody that needs to do that to Donathan. He’s a sweetheart and he’s a good kid. And at that point, like I said before, I was just trying to do some kind of big act in front of the jury. And yeah, I didn’t love doing that.
What was your best move then?
The best move in the game? There was a time when I gave Sebastian a shell. He found a shell and he wanted to save it for a particular reason. And he hid it and I just felt like a flop was coming. And I felt like I would be on Sebastian’s tribe. So I took that shell, it was the smelliest thing in the world and game aside, I was like, man, this is my buddy’s shell. Sebastian likes little things, keepsakes — so I gave it to him and that showed him I guess where my heart was at. And from that point, we became good friends. And in the long run, it helped me. I got his vote in the long run, but also he started working with me a lot. There were a lot of conversations that I had where I had deep conversations with castmates. And made strong relationships with the players, and those kinds of moves were my stronger moves. My social moves were my stronger moves out there.
Did you ever consider formally contesting the result of that challenge when you didn’t call Jeff over? Was there a part of you that said I’m gonna contest this?
There was a part of me that wanted to, yeah. My ego wanted me to contest Laurel beating me at that moment. The competitor in me wanted to contest it, the attorney in me wanted to contest it. I didn’t hear Jeff at the beginning say, “The first person to call out my name.” No, I didn’t hear that. I heard, “The first person to finish the slide puzzle.” I finished the slide puzzle first. But my sister called his name out first and historically the first person to call it out and Jeff see it, a lot of times that’s the person that will win it. So, when Jeff said, “Hey, do you have a problem with that, you know that you got to get my attention?” I understood that.
I wanted to say something more, but at that point I had to pick and chose my battles. I knew Laurel was with me and it panned out. Had I stolen the victory from her and bullied my way into having that one individual immunity, it might have really bit me on the butt down the line. So it’s like karma, it’s like every good thing that I did out there helped me in the long run. And I didn’t have that mistake that would haunt me in the long run out there.
You’ve had almost 11 months to think about this: What are you gonna do with the money?
Gotta pay off these law school loans. And I don’t want to spend it. I want to make my money work for me — invest it, save it. But, it’s not often that you get handed a million dollar check and I don’t want to be an idiot about it. I don’t want to go buy a nice car. I have the little things that I really am thankful for. And I just want to be very smart with my money.
We’ve seen winners come back and play again: What happens if you get that call, my man?
If I got that call right now, I’d go back out there right now. I’d go back out there in a heartbeat. I’d have a big target on my back ’cause I’ve won, and ’cause I have a pretty good social game and I’m all right at challenges and I can build stuff and I’m likable. But, I’d go back out there if ever given the opportunity.
Also make sure to read our Q&As with Domenick, Laurel, 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.