The third-place finisher also says he almost gave away his immunity and went to the fire-making challenge instead.
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He wanted to wear the crown, the sash, and the sparkly, shiny dress as the winner of the Survivor 42 pageant, but Romeo Escobar had to settle for second runner-up.

On the bottom of the tribe ever since the merge, Romeo secured his place in the final three when he impressively beat the field to win the final immunity challenge. Romeo then chose Maryanne Oketch to sit with him at end, which turned out to be a critical error since Maryanne was a clear favorite with the jury, taking 7 out of the 8 votes for the win (with Mike Turner nabbing the other after defeating Jonathan Young at the fire-making challenge).

What would have happened had Romeo taken Jonathan instead, letting Mike take out Maryanne during the fire competition? We asked the third-place finisher exactly that shortly after the finale aired. And we had plenty of other questions as well. Did anyone buy Romeo's fake idol story? Does he think that move helped or hurt him with the jury? And was he paranoid because he was on the bottom, or was he on the bottom because he was paranoid? Romeo weighed in on all that, and also told us how his family overseas reacted to him expressing his true sexuality on national television. Read on for more from the 37-year-old pageant coach. (Also make sure to check out our full episode recap as well finale interviews with Maryanne, Mike, Jonathan, and Lindsay.)

Survivor season 42
Romeo Escobar on 'Survivor 42'
| Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What did you think your chances of winning were like when you walked into that Tribal Council?

ROMEO ESCOBAR: I knew I was losing. I was mostly playing for second place. So going into that final Tribal Council, I felt like a winner already because I made it farther than anybody expected me to make it, and I did it on my own accord by winning that final immunity challenge. So it felt good.

But going into that final Tribal Council, I knew that I was dead in the water because one thing that I've learned with Survivor is that perception is reality out there. So the perception that people had about me was not necessarily reality, but it is what it is. I blame myself.

Did any of the votes surprise you?

No votes surprised me. I actually was surprised that Mike didn't get any more votes because I thought Mike was going to win over Maryanne. I just assumed Mike was going to win first place, Maryanne was going to win second place, and I was going to be third. So I was just surprised by the results, but I'm thrilled for Maryanne. I love Maryanne.

So you thought that you were fighting with Maryanne for second place and that Mike was probably going to win?

Absolutely. And that was the decision that I had to make in choosing who sat next to me at the end and who I sent to fire. I was basically playing for second place. I knew, unfortunately, it was too late. But again, I have no regrets and I always played the cards that I was dealt. I had to play the game that I had to play, the second part of the game. And that was at the bottom. So I did the best I could.

Let's talk about the game. People kept saying you were paranoid, so here's the question: Were you paranoid because you were on the bottom or were you on the bottom because you were paranoid?

Perception is reality out there. Immediately when we merged, I saw what was happening, and what the edit didn't show was the fact that people didn't understand why Drea, my number one at Ika, left me out of that eight-person alliance and dropped me immediately. And that's what caused me to be at the bottom. But they didn't show how close I was with Tori out there. And Drea was like, "Wait, my number one is BFFs with my nemesis? I can't work with that." So she dropped me. I was out of the eight.

But the funny thing is that she told me about the eight. She said, "Hey, there's an eight-person alliance but don't worry, you're going to be nine. Me and Rocksroy will never vote for you. You're going to be fine." Of course, I'm going to be paranoid. Duh! What am I supposed to do?

So I was paranoid. We were all paranoid at a certain point, but I was definitely paranoid because I felt like [I went from] being CEO at Ika, running crap, to being janitor at Kula Kula and being at the bottom and having to claw my way to the end. So that's what I did. Unfortunately, the second part of the game, I had to play from the bottom.

Survivor season 42
Romeo Escobar on 'Survivor 42'
| Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

Give me your feeling when you realized you had won that last immunity challenge.

It was overwhelming. What people don't realize is that when we got to the five, I knew I was going to be voted out. Not because I was the biggest threat. Lindsay was perceived as the biggest threat at that point. But they liked her so much more than they liked me that they were willing to just sacrifice me and get her off at four because they thought, "Okay, these are the four that deserve to go to the final four." And I knew that.

So my immediate instinct [was] to make it one more day. And I knew my fake immunity idol would at least get me to four. So then when we were at four, I was like, number one, I have to win this immunity challenge to make it to final three. And number two was to prove to people that nobody carried me. I sat myself in one of those final three seats.

After you won that challenge, how immediately locked in were you on bringing Maryanne to the end and sending Mike and Jonathan to fire?

It wasn't immediately. As a matter of fact, there was a time when I thought, "You know what, I'm going to give my immunity to Maryanne and then I'm going to put myself through fire." Because episode 4 was when I made fire. I knew how to make fire and quick. I practiced before going out there so my fire skills were good.

So I knew that I could put myself through fire and maybe beat somebody. I definitely thought maybe I should put myself in to prove to them that I deserve to win this thing. But then I got scared and I'm like, "You know what? I'm not going to win anyways. Even if I take myself and win fire, it's a done deal. So at least let me get myself to the final three and at least get third place as opposed to fourth place."

And then I debated whether to take Maryanne, and it became an emotional decision. Maryanne was always the most supportive to me out there. They didn't show it, but I had an alliance with her and she just reminded me of a lot of the women that I worked with back home in pageantry and I just couldn't do it. I couldn't cut her, and I felt better just bringing her. And even if she beat me, at least I was losing to someone that I could be okay with losing to as opposed to bringing one of the guys.

Who would you have taken on at fire? Mike?

Probably Mike. Because he never made fire around us. We didn't know his fire-making skills, so I probably would've taken on Mike.

Let's say you had taken Mike's advice and let him beat Maryanne in fire. How do you think you do against Mike and Jonathan in a final three?

Here's the thing: I knew that I was going to lose against Maryanne and I was going to lose against Mike. I probably would've got in second place with Jonathan sitting with me. So my thought was Jonathan, you have to beat Mike so that it's me, you, and Maryanne. Maryanne will win. You will get zero votes and I will probably get second place. And I'll take that, so that was my thinking.

At that point, I thought that Mike was going to win because I knew the game he was playing and I knew what he was doing, but I didn't realize that the jury knew what he was doing. Because I kept telling people, "Why is Mike still in the game? He's voting out all his allies and you're still trusting him! He voted out Hai's number one and you still want to work with this man? Oh, you're his number one? Well, he's going to cut you!" I just couldn't understand. And no one was listening to me.

And then the other thing was, "Do you realize that Jonathan and Mike are like this? [Crosses fingers] They're cuddling at night, they're going for walks to see the sunset, they're admiring each other in challenges." I'm like, is anybody not seeing what's going on here? So I thought that I had a better shot with Jonathan sitting there.

Survivor 42
Romeo Escobar on 'Survivor 42'
| Credit: CBS

Do you think you fooled anyone with the fake idol?

They're going to tell you no because we've had conversations and they're like, "We knew that was fake." No, you guys didn't. And this is the proof in the pudding. Well, Lindsay will tell you. She was like, "We thought it was real and we thought you were ballsy for not playing it before when you knew you were at the bottom." [Read Lindsay's response to that in her exit interview.]  

And then Mike even made me show it to him. He wanted to vote me off so bad because he had this father-daughter relationship with Lindsay. He wanted to vote me off so bad that he didn't want to believe that I had an idol that he forced me to show it to him. And he went, "Well, let me see it. I just want to see it. I want to compare it to mine. Hey, let me see it. Congratulations. I want to see it." And I'm like, "Sure, Mike, I'll show it to you later." I didn't have it.

So I had to run and take the beads off of my torch and my canteen and I quickly had to make one. I had already seen what they looked like because I had seen Drea's. So I was like, "I'm just going to make one," and I made one. These hidden immunity idols weren't that impressive this season so I could make one that looked exactly like Mike's, except mine was blue, his was green.

So I showed it. I'm like, "Here it is Mike." And he's like "Yep, that's it, that looks exactly like mine. Done deal." So he'll tell you, "We knew." No, you didn't. Because if you knew, you wouldn't make me show it to you, and I showed it to you and that bought me an extra day. I was going to go.

You really think so?

Absolutely. Even though they knew that I was not a threat and that I probably wasn't going to win and Lindsay was a threat, they were going to take the four of them because they felt that they deserved it more than me. So I was definitely going to go then.

I was wondering how that played with the jury because they got so excited when you said "Jeff…"  and then so disappointed when you revealed it was fake.

Again, perception is reality out there so they didn't understand why I was doing it. I kind of knew how people would perceive me out there and I blame myself because I was just angry out there. "How dare you put me at the bottom? Screw you people. I'll steal your rice!" But I knew that they wanted to go with each other and they didn't care too much for me, so I would've gone.

You talked a lot about family members of yours not knowing about your sexuality. What has the reaction been to you being a gay man coming out on national television?

I want to clarify. I live my life out and my immediate family knows about me. It's just my extended family, the ones that live abroad that didn't know about me. But the response was amazing. After the episode aired, they called me crying, "How would you think that we would not love you? We love you regardless." It was just amazing.

And I'll go even a step further. The response from the fans has been amazing because I'm getting messages from kids who are not out to their parents that were watching the episode with their parents on the couch saying, "Oh my God, that's me. And I can't tell my parents and you're so brave and one day I hope that I can be like you."

And then the parents were messaging me, "My God, I have this fear that my son or daughter might be gay and I don't know if I could accept it. But watching you, it just made me think twice and I'm going to love my child regardless. I never want them to feel like we won't accept them."

The most touching message was from someone living abroad in Iran. And I had no idea that they watched Survivor in Iran. Maybe he watched a clip on YouTube, but he messaged me saying, "I live in a very conservative Muslim country where homosexuality is not okay. Watching you made me feel seen and made me relate. And now I feel like I could be more brave and I can walk with my head held high." And those messages really just made me feel like I won Survivor anyways.

Look. you didn't win the game, but you made it all the way to day 26, you won the most important immunity challenge, and to have that kind of impact you're talking about it — that's got to feel pretty good.

I meant what I said out there. I felt like I won the million dollars even though I didn't. And it's just been amazing the response that I've gotten from both my family and from complete strangers that just thank me for feeling seen. That feels amazing. I never thought that Survivor would give me such a huge gift to be able to leave that island and feel just so free and be able to finally be myself to everyone — not just my immediate family or some co-workers or some close friends, but to everybody.

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