By Dalton Ross
December 19, 2019 at 10:00 AM EST
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He brought the bling to final Tribal Council, but even with an idol, a fake Legacy Advantage, and a note from Boston Rob and Sandra, Dean Kowalski could not win over the jury on Survivor: Island of the Idols. Why did he come up short? What votes surprised him? And what could he have done to change the final result? We chatted with Dean after the finale to get his take on the 39-day journey, and he revealed his one big fatal flaw in the game.

Robert Voets/CBS

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, congrats on making it all 39 days. Not many people have done that.
DEAN KOWALSKI: Yeah, thank you. I appreciate it. I wouldn’t say it came easily. It was a little bit of luck, a little bit of strategy, a little bit of Survivor gods and yeah, very thankful that I made it that far. It was awesome.

We saw you targeted very early in the game and yet still made it all the way to the end. How were you feeling about your chances when you first walked into that final Tribal?
Walking into final Tribal Council, I, to be honest, felt very good. I was really, really confident. I had points I wanted to make, rebuttals I knew that I was going to come for Tommy about. So, I was feeling really good. Leaving final Tribal Council, how did I feel? Not as confident. Tommy did an amazing job of calling me out and saying all my bling was just souvenirs I was going to take home in my pockets, and he had a lot of good rebuttals that I kind of bit my tongue at. So hats off to Tommy for that. But going in, very confident, coming out, not so much.

Obviously, they edited it way down for what we see, but what we saw was you guys both punching and counter-punching very well. Why do you think the jury ultimately didn’t respond to all that bling you brought?
I think someone said it was like four or five hours and it was a battle. It was me versus Tommy. We would pat each other on the back afterward because some of the zingers we had were amazing. But no, it was really good. Why they didn’t ultimately go with me? To be honest, I think I was playing from behind the moment I stepped foot into that final Tribal Council. I think it was a little too late from the gameplay perspective. But also relationship-wise with the folks on the jury, I was already down by three. I mean, there were folks on the jury, literally, at that final Tribal Council, who I didn’t talk strategy with at all. And how do I expect to go into final Tribal Council and win already down three to nothing?

You said when you walked into final Tribal you are feeling pretty good. So who are some of those votes you are hoping for that you didn’t get? I’m guessing Missy is on that list.
Oh, yes. Missy tells me to this day she was somewhat last-minute about it and there was like a very specific thing, I don’t know exactly what it is, at Tribal that I said that tipped her the other way. But yeah, I thought it was very split very by Tribal lines. And that’s how a lot of the Vokai people were on Tommy’s side, and I was fighting for my Lairo folks — especially Aaron, Elizabeth, Karishma, and Missy. I felt pretty good about them. Elaine was the fifth one who I felt like she and Tommy got really, really close and she’s just close with anyone. But I felt if I could win Elaine back and then maybe get one of the early guys like a Jack or a Kellee, that maybe didn’t know the full story, or that I swapped with at the one point — then I could squeak out a six-four or something like that. I felt I was playing from behind, but I felt like I had a lot of ammo, so I was feeling pretty confident. I was hoping I could swing one or two over from the other guys.

Let’s just say you don’t win at fire. Let’s say Lauren beats you. The finals are Tommy, Noura, and Lauren. Whom do you vote for?
I vote for Tommy. Just cause my perspective in the Lauren-Tommy relationship was obviously very Tommy-heavy. And obviously coming from that perspective, my truth is that he ran that partnership. Obviously, I don’t know from the other side. Perhaps Lauren was close with Janet more than Tommy was, who knows? And maybe they see it differently, but I was definitely going to vote for Tommy. So with that said, going into Tribal Council I thought I had a better chance against Tommy than I did Lauren.

I was going to ask how you thought it would have been if she had swapped in for him, but you think that she was looking pretty solid, huh?
Yes. And the specific reason why is, like I said, I was fighting against Tommy for my Lairo people. I felt Lauren had better relationships with some of the Lairo folks, specifically like Missy and Aaron, than Tom did. So, therefore, I had a better shot against Tommy and I think they both played a solid game.

What do you think your best move of the game was? Sitting here on my couch, I would say probably the duplicate fake legacy advantage you made was pretty genius. But what do you think it was?
I think the jury is still out on that one, right? Some people think I’m my absolute idiot in telling everyone that that was real. So I think there’s that side. Then the other side of Sandra saying it was brilliant. Those words she said, it wasn’t sarcastic coming out of her mouth, are obviously things I’m proud of. My best move? Well, it’s not a flashy move, but I think my best decision all game was when I decided to not stick with Kellee on that initial vote. Obviously, she stayed with me. And I owed her a lot, and there were actually a couple of nights in a row right after she did that when we were at the merge, where once everyone was sleeping, she and I would be in the woods and discuss what are we seeing on both sides. And we’re trying to work this secret alliance.

If I kept going with her, I felt I was going to be on the bottom of that alliance of Janet-Jamal-Kellee, coming over from the swap and I would just be dispensable. Me making that move brought me back with my Lairo people and then put me in the middle with Tommy and Lauren and Dan at that time. So I had a lot of flexibility right after that, because I was so on the bottom right before the merge, it was like my final deep breath and I was like, all right, now I’m out here as a free agent. I think that was the best decision I made all game.

What about your decision when you told Tommy he was being targeted? I was curious what the impetus behind that was. Was it because you still wanted the shield, or was it because Noura was just too unpredictable and you couldn’t trust her as an alliance partner?
Yeah, it’s a good question. There’s one I contemplated all day. Tommy and I were working together and were talking a lot. And it was funny because right before Tribal he came up to me and he admitted, “Dean, I’ve been contemplating all day if I should tell you or not, but we’re going to split the votes and this is how it’s going to go down.” And I expressed to him like, “Hey, I already know this from Noura.” But him coming to me and really trusting me and not keeping it from me obviously built more on our relationship. However, we had to go on lockdown right there right before travel. We couldn’t discuss it more. So literally the first time I could talk to him was when we sat down in the stools as a Tribal. So I tapped him on the leg.

The other layer is I felt if we did vote out Tommy, we’re at seven and I absolutely believe that Noura was going to go flip back with Lauren and Janet. So it had been Lauren, Janet, Noura, Dan, and then me, Elaine and Karishma on the bottom, with Elaine now first cause they were coming for her. Then I would just be out because I didn’t really have a good relationship with Noura and Janet. So I absolutely felt I made a good decision there as well. But perhaps a more cautious long-term decision which ended in how I expected it to end as it did tonight, as opposed to if I shook things up there, it would have been more risky for me, but maybe I could’ve squeezed out a more attractive final three for me.

If you could go back and change one thing to try to get a different result, what would it be?
It would be to go and forge relationships with all, even if I’m not strategizing with them. Like again, I think my biggest anvil is having non-relationships with folks on the jury, which set me back. So even if I’m not meaning to strategize with them till the end, be open to them, build relationships, and maybe even lie and talk about strategy with them, even if I don’t need it. So, that’s what I would change.

I guess drinks are on Tommy for the rest of his life, right?
They absolutely are, yes. I hope he listens to that. He promised me already, but we will see.

Watch an exclusive deleted scene from the episode above. Also make sure to read our episode recap, and finale interviews with winner Tommy Sheehan, Noura Salman, Lauren Beck, Janet Carbin, and Kellee Kim, and scoop on next season from Jeff Probst. And for more Survivor intel, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

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