Had Sandra not given her the idol, the Queenslayer says it may have been Tony who was voted out.

By Dalton Ross
May 14, 2020 at 11:55 AM EDT

She pulled off the signature move of Survivor: Winners at War when she took an idol from Sandra and then essentially voted her out with it, and while she may have come into this season known as Denise Stapley, she leaves it as the Queenslayer. But Denise never got a chance to see how her big move got to play with the jury when she was voted out in sixth place on a revote after votes against Natalie and Ben were both nullified due to immunity idols.

What does Denise have to say about taking out Sandra? Plenty, it turns out. And she reveals that the Queen may have saved the newly crowned King by giving the Denise the idol. Otherwise, Denise may have taken out Tony instead, and his epic run would have never happened. Why did Denise vote for Tony to win and how did this experience compare to her winning one in Survivor: Philippines? We asked the Queenslayer all that and more when we spoke after the finale.

Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

ENTERTAINMENT WEKELY: First off, I'm a little worried. Do you think Malcolm Freberg has stopped crying yet since you didn't win?

DENISE STAPLEY: I'm not sure. He has been such a huge fan for me and such a huge support all season. But I am a little worried. So I need to check in with him after this.

You better. Listen, I know it's the thing that everyone wants to ask you about and I'm no different. When she handed you that idol, did you immediately know what you were going to do with it, or did you have to let it marinate for a bit and then realized what a huge move it would be?

It's funny. I definitely had to let it marinate for a few minutes, but I can tell you, there was never a moment when Sandra offered me that, that I thought, "Oh, this is great, Sandra's on my side." If you're somebody who's watched the game and you've seen how the Queen fights, you just doubt those intentions. And you know that her modus operandi has always been “As long as it's not me.”

So I had this doubt 100 percent in the back of my mind, and then she was offering that kind of, "Hey, you can use this. And as long as you vote out Jeremy, or, hey, you can even vote out Tony." And as soon as she mentioned Tony, I thought, "Oh, wait a minute. This is definitely not just for my benefit. This is for her benefit." So I think the seed got planted, and it took a little while, but luckily I took the bait and I ran with it.

And you already had an idol, so you were already safe. I love playing Survivor What-If. It's my favorite game in the world. So let's say Sandra never walks up to you and you two never have that conversation and she never hands you her idol. Where do you think you would have placed your vote then?

I think I probably would have placed my vote obviously on either Tony or Sandra, one of the two. It would have depended on who I felt the most comfortable with. At that point, Tony rarely had strategized with me. I was trying to stay strong with Jeremy. I was trying to build an alliance with him. So it would have either been on Sandra or Tony. I'm not sure which one. And I definitely, probably would've played my own idol on myself instead of Jeremy.

And that’s so fascinating to hear that because if Sandra doesn't walk up and have that conversation, maybe that's where Tony goes out. And he doesn't have this dominant, epic run for the rest of the season and he's not a two- time winner. He obviously is, and you voted for Tony to win. Why did you give Tony your vote?

I have thought about this over and over. I don't think there was any option for me not to vote for Tony. Tony, for me, epitomizes what Survivor is all about. He is the strategizing, chaotic, conniving player who's still able to have these social relationships in the midst of it all. I tried to explain this to Jeff after the game. And the only thing I could compare it to was being on the island with a bunch of serial killers, and you don't know who is the killer, but they're all like Ted Bundy. And he was like Ted Bundy. And he could talk to any one of us and then stab you at any point in time and you'd still love him to death.

I think Tony is just incredible at this game, and so for me looking at that final three, for me, there was just no question. Part of it is relationship, part of it is strategy, part of it is just looking at does he represent what I considered the Survivor brand for me, especially for the 40th season.

Denise, remember a minute ago when I told you how much I love playing Survivor What-If? We're going to play another round right now. After telling me how great Tony was, and after telling me you had no choice but to give your vote to Tony, let's say Sarah beats Tony at fire. And let's say that that final three is Sarah, Natalie, and Michele. Then what do you do with your vote?

Oh, Sarah, 100 percent. Absolutely. If it's Sarah, Michele and Natalie, 100 percent Sarah. Again, it's kind of those moments that are a no brainer for you. That is no brainer for me. Again, Sarah with her alliance with Tony and being able to drive votes and the way that she was able to navigate through the bend, she is an incredibly bright and strategic player.

Michelle and I, we've talked about this a lot. Michele and I felt like we were constantly scrambling. It's like being on the bottom of the barrel and going, "Oh my God, I just want to get to the top to get a breath of fresh air. I just need a breath of oxygen to keep going." And those two were always on the top of the barrel and Michelle and I were always down in the dredge.

When Michele won immunity, we saw a lot of arguing between Tony, Sarah, and Ben in terms of whether Natalie had an idol. But we never heard from you. Were you part of those conversations and did you think she had one?

I was. We all talked about that, and we quite honestly mistakenly believed in the 40th season, there was no way that they would let somebody come back from the Edge with an idol. There was no way that they would let that be what happened with the Edge of Extinction. And so we were all, clearly other than Tony, thinking that. We were like, “There's no way they're going to let that happen.” And clearly, that was a set of blinders that we desperately needed to take off.

And then at that Tribal Council, Michele's won immunity, Natalie plays her idol, Tony and Ben play their idols — basically, it's coming down to you or Sarah. Did you think that there was any chance they might take out Sarah after those other votes were nullified or did you know you were toast at that point?

I knew. I'm pretty much a realist and a pragmatist. I knew the minute that it was down to Sarah and I, I knew that that alliance was much stronger with the three, and I knew that even if you look at the résumé for both Sarah and I at that point that it would be harder to keep Sarah than it would to keep me and just the loyalty piece there. I remember saying, "Yeah, it's going to be me. And it's okay. This is my time." If I have to go out, I would love to go out this way where it's a forced choice rather than any other way.

How do you compare this experience to your previous one in season 25, Survivor: Philippines? You went to every single Tribal Council that season. You won that season, but now you get all the way to the final six against incredible competition. How do you compare the two experiences?

It is incomparable. I struggled. It's so funny, Dalton. I actually struggle to describe this season. The first season that I came back, I was like, "Hey, this is what I took away, this is what I've learned, these are the struggles," and I came home this time and I was just mentally, physically just exhausted, tapped out. And so the comparison was, this was just such a different caliber of gameplay, and it just put every single one of us out there 100 percent to the test.

Watch an exclusive deleted scene above, and make sure to also read our full finale recap as well as finale interviews with winner Tony Vlachos , runner-up Natalie Andersonfinalist Michele FitzgeraldSarah Lacina, Ben Driebergen, and host Jeff Probst. And for more Survivor scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

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