Wendell Holland won Survivor by the narrowest margin in the franchise’s history when he needed a tiebreaker vote to defeat Dominick Abbate on Survivor: Ghost Island. But the other players would be foolish to equate that razor-thin result as a non-dominant performance. Wendell is one of the most complete winners the show has seen — boasting strong social, strategic, and challenge skills, which makes him a formidable foe heading into a season filled with them in Survivor: Winners at War (premiering Feb. 12 on CBS).
Whom does Wendell see as his main competition? What’s his biggest weakness? And what sort of advice did he get from the man he defeated for the million-dollar prize in season 36? We sat down with the champ the day before filming began on season 40, and he told us why he needs to chill.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, how much is it just killing your buddy Dom that you’re here now, and he’s not? It’s killing him, isn’t it?
WENDELL HOLLAND: [Laughs] I don’t know. Dom gave me some good advice for this season.
What was that?
He told me not to think too hard about the jokers that are pre-gaming and whatnot. He told me to get out there and play my game. He also said, “Don’t be as friendly, and build as many things too early.” On Ghost Island, I built a million things. He said, “Play it cool.” He said, “Lay low, until the merge, and then turn things up.” But, is it killing him not to be out here? I’m sure Dom will get his time to come back out here, soon.
He probably wants the credit if you win. He’s not here, but he’s here through you.
Yeah, Dom is going to be living vicariously through me while I’m out here for this season.
It seems like you were just out here, practically. You won the million dollars. You did it all. Why come back?
Yeah, why come back? First and foremost, I’m a huge fan of Survivor. People, after their season, you wait on the call. It’s like, man, you’re just waiting for the phone to ring. As far as I’m concerned, I feel like CBS has done a lot for me. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to go on this show, and live this dream out, and ultimately win. I laid a lot of groundwork. I did my thing out there, but CBS provided this venue, if you will. So, I feel like it’s my duty to go out here and try to do it again. They called me. They want me. So, I’m going to go do my thing.
You’re out here before the game with nine other men. Whom do you want to work with from these guys you’ve been sitting here at Ponderosa with for a few days?
There are a couple schools of thought. I’m a new winner, so you think, maybe work with the new winners to kind of get rid of the old school people, or get rid of the Mt. Rushmore — the Boston Robs, Tonys, Tysons, Jeremys, et cetera. But, then you think, there might be more of the old school players than the new school players, so maybe I want to work with them, or give them pitches to get rid of people that we mutually want out of the game. So, maybe I can work with a Jeremy to get rid of a Rob, or work with a Rob to get rid of a Tyson.
I think there are things that I can learn from the old school players. So, as much as I want Boston Rob out of the game, I think I want to have some conversations with him, and even try to work with him for a certain amount of time, so I can learn some things from him. This will be his sixth time coming out here, so, maybe I can work with the big dogs, and say, “Hey, let’s be meat shields for one another. Let’s get rid of the little guys.” Or, I could say, “Hey, new guys, let’s get rid of the old guys.” I have pictures designed for pretty much everybody.
Well, you mentioned that Dom was telling you to not get caught up in sort of the pre-game talk. Obviously, calls are always going out in between people, and emails or texts. Tell me what that whole process was like, and how much stock you put in it.
You hear rumblings. You see lists of who’s on this season, whatever. You hear, “Oh, it’s going to be all winners.” So, then you think, if there will be 20 people out here, if I’ve only seen the 10 men, and I’m assuming that there are 10 women, then you think back to Heroes vs. Villains, and you’re like, man, there might be four villains out here. You think to Cagayan, man, there might be Tony and Sarah Lacina out here. You think to Jeremy’s season, when he was out there working with Natalie. You think to all these seasons. You think of players that have returned and played again with people.
So, you think of all these relationships. Then, you think, man, there might be sour relationships. I don’t think it’s too good to put too much stock into the whole pre-game thing. I think it’s best to come out here with a clean slate, and play your own game. But, you never know, because you also hear rumors about past seasons, where there’s been a lot of pre-gaming.
As someone that was a big fan of the show, coming out — I remember from talking to you before Ghost Island, and you knew your stuff — are you finding yourself a little star struck, at all, when you see some of these guys?
Yeah, the first time I saw them, I was star struck. I can’t lie. Straight up. When I first meet these Survivor alums, I’m still star struck. It’s funny, because I hear these alums saying, “Oh, it’s so good to meet you,” talking about me. I’m like, “No, man. It’s good to meet the alumni.”
So, when I first saw this group of people, I’m just like, man, this is my first time seeing Boston Rob in real life. He’s a real person! Oh, my goodness! He looks a little different than when he played, but he’s a real person. This is my first time meeting Tony. I’m best friends with Brice Izyah, and he talks about Tony all the time. He got to play with Tony, and I’m actually out here seeing Tony in real life. He’s a little shorter than I thought he was, but he’s still Tony. You see Jeremy Collins. I’ve met him a few times, but every time it’s like, man, that’s big bro. I’m nervous and excited to go up against him. I can’t wait to compete against him, but geez, he’d be difficult to sit next to, at the end.
You see Tyson. He’s a cool dude, but man, he’s a scary player. He has that dry humor. You know he’s going to say some things, and then maybe go in the confessional and talk trash about you. So, he’s a scary player. There’s some scary players out here. So, yeah, it’s nerve wracking, but I’m ready for the challenge, and yeah, I’m still star struck.
So how do you think the others see you?
Yeah, it’s going to be very important to be self-aware in season 40. I guess I shot myself in the foot with this, because since I won, I’ve been very visible. I’ve been on social media a lot. I’ve been posting a lot. I’ve been going to a lot of Survivor functions. Because, as a big fan, you want to be involved, and I just love meeting everybody. The Survivor family is what you make of it. So, I’ve just been out there, and they’ve seen that, I assume.
So, they’re probably like, “Man, a lot of people like Wendell, and we saw how his social game can get him far, and even win the game for him.” So that, might make me kind of a threat out here. Also, I’m not bad at challenges. I could step into leadership roles. So, I will have to tone that back a little bit when I get out there.
What’s your biggest weakness in the game? Do you have an Achilles heel?
Well, there are a couple. I’m actually pretty petrified of heights. I remember seeing a challenge in Cagayan, near the end, when they were standing on what seemed to be a telephone pole, in the middle of the water, and I think Tony said something like, “Do you feel that?” And, the wind was actually blowing them, and they had to throw something down, and get water, and pull it up. I would be terrible at a challenge like that. I’m not good at heights.
I’m not good at eating things. You saw in Ghost Island, as soon as I picked up that fish, I kind of launched it. It didn’t even get anywhere near my mouth. Finally, I need to learn to shut my mouth. I need to not try to always put a smile on people’s face, and try to joke with people, and be that guy. I need to just be able to chill and observe, because I like to talk, and I like to crack jokes, and I always have some kind of input. Sometimes, people don’t like a loud mouth. So, I need to chill with my mouth.