Denise Stapley did something pretty remarkable the last time she played Survivor, somehow managing to go to — and escape — every single Tribal Council on the Philippines season. But she knows she is about to play alongside a cast full of remarkable players that also did remarkable things. So Denise’s return for Survivor: Winners at War (premiering Feb. 12 on CBS) is about proving that she belongs.
The season 25 champ talked before her season 40 appearance and explained what it’s like to win, wait for the call to come back, not get the call, move on in your life, and then — not unlike Al Pacino in The Godfather III — get pulled back in!
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Denise, it’s been, what, seven, eight years or so?
DENISE STAPLEY: Seven years. Seven years since I saw you.
Give Survivor fans the update: What have you been up to since we’ve seen you?
Over the last seven years or so, not a ton has changed. I still run a private practice at home where I do therapy, and sex therapy’s my specialty. My daughter’s a little bit older, so that keeps me plenty busy. I’ve got a 15-and-a-half-year-old, so dealing with all kinds of fun stuff there. But a lot has been the same, and I’ve been itching to get back out here. It’s kind of like the tank’s been emptying, so I’m ready for a refill of Survivor, so this is good.
So, you win the game in pretty epic fashion after surviving every single Tribal Council. Were you waiting for that call again and you’re like, “When’s the call coming? What’s going on here?”
I think you’re always waiting for that call, because something gets in your blood. After you’ve been out here once — maybe not for everybody, but for me — it’s like, I went home and started doing mud runs, because I needed a little bit of that taste of Survivor or something. And every year you kind of hope that the call’s going to come. And then I was talking to somebody else — it was kind of around year five, maybe — where I was like, “Okay, you know what? Maybe the call’s not going to happen, and that’s okay, and so we’re just going to go back like, fans. Like, I can sit on my couch and I can watch Survivor just with my beer, and I’m just going to enjoy it.” And I kind of went back, and then it starts building back up again, I’m like, “You know, I really want that call to come. I really want that call to come.” So, I’m pretty sure I peed my pants a little bit when the call did come, and to know that it was official. I mean, this is a huge deal to be back out here.
And not just to be out here, but for season 40. That’s a big number. You’ve seen the nine other women here, so you know that some big things are happening.
I do, and you see the playing field, and it’s a tough field. I mean, these are driven women who have done well in their social lives, their professional lives, there are some physical beasts out here. So, it is a tough field and it’s going to be a lot harder to separate yourself from that. We all won the game, and we got there in our own way, but this is a whole new deal.
Hearing the update from you, some people go through all these changes and they get married, or have kids, or get divorced. There can be massive changes. It sounds like most of your stuff is pretty similar. But have you changed as a person?
I think it’s hard to know how I’ve changed and how it will affect the game, but definitely, coming out to Survivor as a person the first time, I was 41, and I kind of knew who I was already at that time, and I was pretty settled with that and settled with my life. But I wanted something more, which was obviously why I applied for Survivor and came out, and the game changes you.
And so I left the game with this different perspective. I think I say, “Yes” a lot more. I say, “Yes” to opportunities, or say, “Yes” to doing things. It’s more “Why not?” Instead of, “Why?” And so, that may come in to the game this time around, because it’s definitely part of who I am. But there are also things that don’t change. Like, I’m still driving the same car. So, I know that I’m still the same person that I was the first time that I played, so it’s kind of unknown how that’s all going to come together.
What do you think of the group that you’ve seen? First of all, were you starstruck or excited to see anyone?
I’m totally starstruck. I’ve been a fan since season 1. We’ve watched since 2000, and we only took a little bit of a break after my daughter was born, because you’re just exhausted and, sorry, but sleep trumps Survivor in that moment. But absolutely, because some of these are players that I’ve crossed paths with briefly and know just as people. I really like them, and then there are players that I’m like, “Oh my gosh!” Like Parvati. Oh my gosh, who doesn’t love Parvati? I was a fan of hers when she played. So, there are just all these different players that, yeah, as a fan, to get the opportunity to come out here and try and hold my own against them, I’m super excited.
So, when you say Parvati, does that mean you want to work with her, or does that mean you want to get her out? Or you just don’t know yet?
I don’t know yet. We’re in lockdown, and so you’re sitting in silence, or you’re seeing faces, and I can try and strategize and I did that the first time out. Like, “Ah, I think I’d like to strategize with them,” or, “Oh, they look really interesting.” And one, you don’t know if you’re going to end up on a tribe with them, and so you don’t want to lock yourself into something. And I’m trying not to lock myself into only thinking about how they played the first time, because several of them have played more than once, you know? I’ve played once.
There are certain people like Sarah. Sarah’s from my hometown. We lived three miles away from each other. Don’t know each other, but I’ve seen her play the first time and I know how she can change her game. So I’d love to play with her, but I’m also terrified to play with her, because you just don’t know. So, I’m trying to kind of just be open to, “You know what? Let’s just see what meshes.”
Are you hoping that your tribe can actually win a challenge this time?
Oh my God, yeah. I think I have to overcome that. I’m this curse to a tribe, so if whatever tribe I get on starts losing immediately, it’s going to be like the Brady Bunch issue. There was some Brady Bunch show where they go to Hawaii, and it’s like the bad luck charm. I’m like, “I’m going to be like the bad luck charm that Greg finds.” There will be no “intentional Matsing.” I do not want to go down in Survivor history for that again. So, I hope to bring a little something different.
Well, all’s well that ends well, and it ended well for you that time.
It has been 15 seasons. You’re not super early Survivor, but it has changed even since your time. Do you think there’s going to be any learning curve? There are so many advantages out there now, and different twists, and stuff.
There’s a huge learning curve. You know, I watch at home. We’re religious Survivor watchers, and there have been times when I’ve watched and my head hurts. Like, my head literally hurts because I’m trying so hard to keep track of things, and remember who has an idol, or what the advantage was, or just to pay attention where should they be looking. It moves faster. It’s just the nature of the game. I mean, they’ve lasted this long for a reason, you know? It’s season 40 for a reason, because it doesn’t stay the same. So, there will be a huge learning curve, but luckily I’m a quick learner, and if not, I’ll figure it out, take a breath, and just kind of keep adapting.
I’m sure you’re forming your opinions of other people, and they’re forming their opinions of you. How do you think they see you?
I don’t know, because I kind of joke about myself a lot. I’m like, “Yeah, I’m just old and small.” I think they probably see me as pretty open…. There are a few out here that have a really good resting bitch face. I do not have that. I would lose that poker in a minute because I just have a lot of expression. So, I think, hopefully, they’re seeing me as open, maybe trustworthy, maybe loyal, probably a little hyperactive already because I can’t sit. Yeah, it’s just painful. It is.
This is the hardest part! You’re sitting waiting for the game to begin. You don’t know exactly when it’s beginning, and you can’t talk to each other. It’s tough.
Right. It could start today. Like, I’m literally ready. Season 40, it could start today. Who knows? I doubt it, but you never know. They have done crazy things.
I will say this: On season 7, Pearl Islands, they told them they were going to a press junket and then tossed them off the boat. That’s all I’ll say.
See! So, I’m not crazy for thinking that. So, I’m ready. This is the hardest part because you’re not talking for hours and days at end. I’m ready for the game to start!
Do you think the fact that you talk for a living as a therapist will make other people nervous? “Hey, this woman’s really good with her words. You put her in a final Tribal ..”
I think in other seasons, maybe. But there are a lot of other people out here that are going to be just as good with their words. I mean, you look at Kim Spradlin. Hello! Sophie Clarke. I mean, there are some solid, incredibly smart women out here, and they’re going to be just good with their words as I might be. So, I don’t think that’s going to have the same threat as it would. Having that therapist title or role definitely did not help me in the game out there, but I think only a few people saw it as a threat when it was out there.
What do you think your biggest weakness is then?
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more opinionated, which is not good. I’m like, “God…”
“Get off of my beach!”
Right. I know, I’m like turning into my mother. I’m like, “God.” We all do, but you know, I didn’t think I would. But it’s that sense of control that goes out the window with the game. So, I’m already working towards embracing that. Like, the day’s going to be what it’s going to be. There’s no watch. I’m literally tied to the clock at work and the 50-minute hour, like, “Hey, Dalton, got to wrap this up,” and on to the next. And so, to be out of that is really out of my comfort zone, but you just have to embrace it and roll with it.
Are you more or less nervous this time than your first time?
I was scared to death the first time, because everything was unknown. It was, how are things going to be at home? How are things going to be on the island? How’s it going to come together? But it’s worse this time because I know how bad it can be. The Philippines was miserable. We had 18 days of rain.
Oh, you guys got rained on every day, yeah.
It sucked. So, there’s part of me that knows and dreads that, but then there’s that part of me that’s like, “Yeah, but you got through it.” So, I think there is definitely maybe a little bit more of a calm this time, not because there’s not anything on the line, but just because, “Okay, you’ve been through this before. You can do this again.” Like, “You’ll get through it, like, one way or another, you’re going to. It’s a job, start to finish.”
Do you feel pressure to have a good showing or does the fact that you already won lessen that?
I think that puts the pressure on right there. Being out here with all winners for season 40, it’s kind of like I have to prove that this was my spot. Because there are winners that aren’t out here. Not every female winner is out here, and so even more so, there’s a little bit of that, “Hey I need to be able to come out here and put in a good showing and prove that I earned this spot, and I’m going to keep this spot.”
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