Ben Driebergen wants to prove he's not just a 'lucky twist guy' in Survivor: Winners at War

"There's so much BS around it," says the Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers champ, "and it just kind of knocks you down."

While Jeff Probst has openly admitted that the twist was put into the game before the season started so that a player like Ben (who had played very hard and well) would not be voted out right before the end, it was not put in mid-game to aid Ben specifically. But the fact that the twist first appeared right as Ben was about to be eliminated, and players were not informed about it at the start of the game had fans — and even former players like season 40's Parvati Shallow — wondering out loud online if the fix was in. Adding to that social media suspicion was the fact that Ben constantly and consistently found immunity idols to save himself when all looked lost (even though he was the only one who appeared to be up all night looking for them).

So good timing with the twist in terms of the result, but bad timing as well in terms of the public perception among some. And that perception has weighed on Ben since he was named the winner of season 35, which is why the champ is looking at his return in season 40 as an opportunity to show Survivor Nation that he indeed has the goods to get it done — idols and twists be damned! We spoke to the former Marine the day before filming began on Survivor: Winners at War (premiering Feb. 12 on CBS), and much in the same way he was so candid during his last appearance in terms of discussing his personal demons after years spent in combat, the former champion had no problems opening up about dealing with fan reaction from his controversial win in a refreshingly honest chat.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So it hasn't been long since you won, but just give us the update: What's been happening since we saw you win a million dollars?
BEN DRIEBERGEN: Man, we came home and hid the money from ourselves for seven months. And just kind of went back to work, and then realized what direction we wanted to go in. Went and did some real estate, invested our money into some properties. And now I'm a stay at home dad. I get my nails painted with my only daughter once a month, and get to go on adventure hikes with my son, and look at the hawks, and the owls, and all the turkeys around the property now. And I'm just enjoying life. I get to spend more time with my family, and that's one thing that I've always wanted.

You talked a lot in your season about your demons, which was a really interesting narrative in terms of how open you were about that. How has that been since you've been on the island?
Yeah, you know, demons are… We all have our demons, right? And you can't fight them. The sooner you accept them, the sooner you get happier with your life. There's stuff that we've all been through, whether or not it's good, bad, or whatever. But stuff sticks with us. And when the bad stuff sticks, you have a tendency to kind of fall into a hole. And so, coming out here and being able to express myself — and then see it help so many people — helped me get out of that hell hole.

And it helped me be a happier man, and not live in that little dark spiral that I always went into. And so, I'm more positive now. I try to stay more positive, and thinking about the brighter things in life. And it's just a blessing that I was able to show that and help so many people.

People are always at their most emotionally vulnerable out here, because you're away from your family, your support network. You're not sleeping, you're not eating, you're getting rained on, stuff like that. So, is there any concern that when you get to day 20 out here again, that you're going to be vulnerable again?
Absolutely. That's what Survivor does to you. It's breaks you down. It's like going to bootcamp, they break you down, and they build you up. And that's exactly what Survivor does out here. We're starving, we're hungry, people are lying, and scheming, and plotting behind you. But we're still human beings out here, and our brain does switch to what is important in life, our family, what have we done in life. How have I screwed up in life? How can I make those screw ups right again?

And you've got nothing but time to think about who you're voting out, out here. But you got so much more time to think about yourself, and your future, and your past, and stuff. And living in the past, I said, it will kill you. But the future will save you. And so, I fully expect to have a breakdown out here, and it's all right. It's healthy to have a breakdown, it's healthy to cry, and I'm a man, and I know it, and I'm a crybaby too when it counts.

And so, it's all good, it's all good. It's all out of fun, it's all out of positivity. And I know when I go back home, I have my wife, and my kids, and my house, and that's all I can focus on out here. And I get emotional sometimes when I think about them, and that's okay. I's okay.

I think it's that openness that people respond to. And people like the fact that you're so open about that. But why come back and do this again? You won the money! You won the game! Why are you here again?
First off, I want to be the champion of champions. If it is what it is, I want to be the champion, the king of the kings. I want that title. I love this show, I love this game, and I love everything that we as a collective community have put into it. And it just excites me to be out here, and see all these winners out here.

Also, I have something to prove. Season 35, final seven, I kind of was on my own. And from then on, I did the whole game by myself, and that was not fun. I'm glad I got there, I'm glad it worked out the way it did, with the fire-making twist, and everything like that. But it wasn't fun. I was having fun, but I was having fun by myself. This time, I want to have fun with other people, and get to the final three, and build those relationships. And show everybody that I'm not just an idol hound, or a lucky twist guy — that I can build these relationships. And I did on season 35, and then at seven, I caught them at the well. So, I just want to be able to go out and play another game and win it another way.

That being said, I still want to win. And if I have to bull in a China shop through the final seven again, I will. I don't want to. I want to build those relationships. But I want to prove to everybody that I can do this another way. I want to prove to myself that I have what it takes to be here.  I may be lacking a little self-confidence around all these huge, big names. You got Tony, you got Yul, you got Boston Rob, you got Sandra. You got all these other people out here, and you're sitting here just looking around, and you're looking up at idols. You're looking up at Survivor Gods. And it's like, "What am I doing here? Why am I .." I need to remind myself that I won, and I do deserve to be here. And so, I think that's part of my journey now, is to help build some of my confidence back up.

How do you feel when you see people say, "He was saved by this twist"? There are people that say, "That was put in last minute, because they liked Ben." And I've pointed out a million times that that's not the way Survivor works, but how do you feel when you read that stuff?
You know, it stinks. Because, you get off the island, and you're like, "Holy cow, I just played Survivor." Now, I didn't know if I had won when I got off, but I was so happy to have played Survivor. And I did what I wanted to do, and made it to day 39 with Chrissy and Ryan, and I love them both. And then, you're watching the show, and you win, and the Ben Bombs aren't coming off as well as in your head, that you thought they were. And you're like, "I'm kind of a dick, or a jerk."

And then, all that hoopla about putting idols where I sleep? That's unreal, no one did that. So, it takes away from my game. It takes away from the fact that I was out working. While they were sleeping, I was out looking for idols. And it takes away from how I played the game. And then, all of the hate of, "I hope you die from PTSD. I hope your family gets bombed." And all this other stuff. That after you've just played this amazing game that you love, and then you actually win. But then, there's so much BS around it, and it just kind of knocks you down.

It is social media, it is what it is. But you're sitting here, looking like, "Yeah, I just won Survivor." And someone else is like, "Yeah, he was given it. He's the worst winner ever." And it's just like, I'm glad I got the money. I'm glad my family has security now. But now, it's my time to go out and show all those naysayers, and all those haters why I am the Sole Survivor of season 35, and why I hopefully will be the Sole Survivor of season 40.

When this season airs a year from now, are you going to be reading those comments? Have you gotten to a place, where you can be a little better about not looking at that stuff? Because, you know, no matter what you do out there — you could play a perfect game — and there are  going to be people out there that are going to say things on social media. Can you block that out?
I do  try to block it out, but with this whole, "Am I going to go to 40? Am I not going to 40?" You start falling back into that same trap, that all of our Survivor players, all of us contestants and castaways do, and you start looking online. And then, you got the people that are just randomly posting stuff. Like, "Vote Ben out first, because production is going to rig it for him" on everyone else's [social media]. It's like, I'm going into this thing with a huge target on my back. Not solely because of how I played, and how I was perceived on TV, but because some fans are just losing their crap, and going around and posting stuff.

And so, do these guys believe it? I don't know, I don't think so. I hope not. But they are seeing it. It's coming across their timeline. And so, any uneasiness or feeling around here, they're going to think in their head, "Well …" And so, hopefully… I know this is going to be a battle, I know this is going to be a war. But I want to go through it in a more tactful way, and maneuver my way through it. And that way, I can just be happy with my game, like I was last time, again.

It's a remarkable accomplishment, and a very small club of people that have won this game. And no matter how it happens, it's an incredible achievement. And it's interesting what you just say about how you're not sure how the Ben Bombs came off. Does that mean that we're not going to see any Ben Bombs in season 40? Is that what you're saying?
Yeah, well… maybe, no sound effects. Maybe I'll just say, "Ben Bomb!" And that's the thing about season 35 is, I never planned anything. This whole pandering to the jury deal? I didn't know I was doing that at the time. I didn't know that was a thing. I was just out having fun, and these guys wanted me all gone, they hated me at camp. They told me I was leaving, and then they were snide about their idols, and how they were going to send me home, and plant fake idols in front of me. And so, it was fun. They were messing with me, I was messing with them back. And so, it's a game.

But isn't that part of the game? We saw this with Rick Devens' performance to the jury — that's a key aspect of the game.
It is now, but at the time, I didn't even think about that. My tactful plan was not like, "Hey, I'm going to do this, into a big, open emotion, and get the jury." I was just going out and having fun. I knew I was going to go home next Tribal. Every time I did that, I expected to go home, because they told me I was going home.

You outworked people in terms of looking for those idols. Do you think they are going to let you do that in season 40?
No, no, no. And that's one of my things is I'm going to try to make sure I'm seen a lot, make sure I'm seen ones and twos, threes and fours. That I'm constantly in a group. If I'm going to get wood, I'm going to get wood with somebody. If I'm going to get water, I'm going to go get with somebody. I don't want to be out scurrying around, while everyone is awake.

I'll do it at night. Right? But I don't want to be Tony on a Game Changers and run out in the woods. I want to make sure that I'm building those social relationships, so it's okay for three of us to go out, and talk, and get wood, and stuff like that. Instead of going alone. Because I had to go get wood, and no one else would get wood last time. No one else would come with me. And so, this time I'm hoping to be like, "Hey, let's go get wood. Let's go get water. Let's go get this stuff." They didn't even want to be seen with me last time. So hopefully we can dial that in, and people will hang out with me.

You're here with nine other men. You probably have your guesses and theories as to who else you may be playing with. But whom from this group that you're with do you say, "Hey, maybe I could see myself working with these people"?
All of them, because we don't know how the tribe breakdowns are going to be. And so, if you go with this preconceived notion about, "Hey, I want to work with this person, this person, and this person." The one thing about Survivor — and I'll bring this back to 35 — my wife and I talked about how we were going to play this game. My wife and I, because we play this game [together], and it was like, "Okay, keep the marine thing out of it, and don't let anybody know you're a husband and a father." And so, 30 seconds into the game, Jeff's like, "Welcome to Heroes, Healers, and Hustlers. Man in the cowboy hat: Why would you be considered a hero?" And I was just like, "No, no, no." And I was like, "Well, I'm a dad." And I was like, "Well, I guess, I'm a Marine too." And so, that's one thing about Survivor. You can plan, you can plot, you can have all these diagrams, and everything — but once you get into the game, 30 seconds into game, it's all out the window.

And so, I think I can align personally. I like Jeremy, I like Wendell, I like Yul, because he's a smart man, he's a businessman. And that's the world that I don't understand. And I think like yin and yang. I like Tony too, because he's a big threat. I like Boston Rob because he's a big threat. Nick's a smart man. But everybody here got jury votes, and that's what it comes down to in the end. You play the game as hard as you can, and beat it. You can lie, and scheme, and plot, and do all that stuff, but at the end, it comes down to those votes. Everybody here deserves to be here, because they were voted on by their castaways to win the million dollars. So, it's unfortunate that one of us is going to go home. And it's just exciting that a winner will go home first. A winner will win twice, maybe three times. It's just unreal. And so my doors are open. I'm not going to go in with a target on anyone's back. And just know that everybody has a target on their back though.

You just talked about how you see the other players. How do you think they see you?
I don't know. A happy man, maybe. A happy man, with some demons, I guess. I got the tattoos, I got the gap teeth. I'm not a model. I don't know what they see of me. Hopefully, they see past whatever misconceptions or preconceived notions they have of what kind of person I am, and get to meet me on the island. And that's what day one is about, is being able to meet someone. And not see them on TV, but actually meet them in person. And I'm excited to do that with everybody here. I'm a fan, I'm a fanboy. And I will be getting everybody's autograph by the time we're done with this. We'll have a Fiji flag with all the winners from the season, season 40, and I will have that. Because that's just amazing, and I'm just humbled and honored to be here with all these great, great winners, and people, and you, and Jeff. This is a big one.

What's your biggest weakness, Ben? What's the biggest thing you need to work on?
Social game. Got to work on my social game. That's a fact. At the beginning last time, I had my social game. I had my alliances at the beginning. And then, I had the merge, I had great alliances. We were going good, everything was good. And then, at the seven, I caught them at the well. And so, that's a stab in the back. I literally caught them talking about, "You're going to go home." And then, I did do the thing with Chrissy and Ryan and kind of burnt my bridges there.

But I was the threat, I was a target, and I didn't know why. I thought we were moving along, chugging along. And so, I need to find out why I became the target at seven. I need to figure that out. There are a lot of social things, cues and stuff I need to be able to pick up on instead of sneaking around in the bushes, and spying on people, and finding idols. However, that did work. So, maybe a little brake. And then, if I got to gas it, I'll gas it again. But I'm going to try to keep my foot on the brake a little bit longer and hopefully, get through with more social. That's what I'm really trying to go through, this time.

For more Survivor articles, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss, and for exclusive season 40 photos and video, follow Dalton on Instagram @thedaltonross.

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