Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Dean Kowalski on why he didn't beat Tommy Sheehan
With season 41 of Survivor delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, EW is reaching back into the reality show's past. We sent a Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire to a batch of former players to fill out with their thoughts about their time on the show as well as updates on what they've been up to since. Each weekday, EW will post the answers from a different player.
Dean Kowalski's endgame on Survivor: Island of the Idols was pretty legit. He won two immunity challenges. He successfully used an Idol Nullifier. He prevailed at the final four fire-making. So why was he routed by Tommy Sheehan in jury votes at the end?
"I needed to be closer to people than Tommy was," says Dean. "I did not spend much time deepening relationships, while Tommy did a wonderful job of doing so by strategizing with the majority of players still remaining in the game. All in all, I was happy with my execution of getting to the end, but I ignored what it took to actually get the win: deep relationships with the majority."
Now the Island of the Idols runner-up looks back at his time in the game and what life was like once he returned home - including the especially arduous task of picking up a toothbrush. It's time to commence DKchillin as you sit back, relax, and enjoy the Dean Kowalski Quarantine Questionnaire!
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you've been up to since appearing on Survivor.
DEAN KOWALSKI: Since Survivor... seems like a while ago now! The pandemic has seemingly somehow compressed and sped up time simultaneously. Nonetheless, our season aired 9/2019 - 12/2019 and that was an absolute whirlwind. My family does not shy away from a party, so every Wednesday we hosted viewing parties - some in N.Y.C., some in N.J. There were two very memorable ones: The premiere party had nearly 200 friends and family at Mustang Harry's in N.Y.C. (near Penn Station for easy access). It felt like what I imagine my wedding will be like - saying "hi" and "thank you" to everyone without a second to catch my breath. I am grateful for that incredible love and support - and very happy I wasn't voted off that episode in front of all of them :).
The other memorable party was the episode before the finale. This was at the Grayson in the East Village - a cramped sports bar known to get a little spicy, complete with a live DJ to keep the patrons hyped during commercials. With the help of Tommy Sheehan and his motley crew of Irishmen and Long Islanders, as well as celeb guests Adam Klein, Michele Fitzgerald, and Andrea Boehlke, we had the place packed wall to wall. As those who watched know, this episode was somewhat my coming out party - I visited Rob and Sandra at [Island of the Idols], won the controversial coin flip to get the Idol Nullifier, and won an immunity challenge (finally). The energy in there was very, very fun to kick off the Tommy/Dean rivalry and head into the Finale in L.A. Our time in L.A. for the finale was, of course, a joyous experience getting the whole crew back together.
Since airing though, life has been somewhat back to normal - minus the uplift in IG followers, the occasional odd DM or sidewalk sighting, and Cameo requests. As I was before Survivor, I continue to live in NYC and work at Google helping companies manage their digital ads on Google Search and YouTube. Like all, the pandemic threw a wrench into normal life. Given the work from home environment, I was lucky enough to get out of my small studio apartment in NYC, spend some time with my family in N.J., become co-working pals with Myla, the family German Shepherd, who lays bedside while I work, and teach myself how to juggle.
Additionally, I was able to live out some snowboard/surf-bum fantasies of mine by living in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Mexico. Since May, I am fully back in N.Y.C. and very excited for this summer as friends move back, vaccinations continue to roll out, restaurants reopen, and life gets back to normal (fingers crossed!). Go Knicks!
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
Winning the final four fire challenge. I remember vividly being so dialed into my fire I never once looked over to monitor Lauren's progress. When the fire burned the rope and flipped up the mini flag, I recall being overcome with a wave of relief and pride. Playing team sports my entire life, Survivor was one of the first competitions in which the entire onus was on me. Solidifying my spot in the final three via fire was my proudest moment.
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experience?
I can honestly say I do not have any regrets from my Survivor experience, as I am extremely proud and grateful for the way I executed my incoming strategy. That said, when you get so close to winning without bringing home the bacon, there are of course some things I must've been able to do better. Namely, I needed people to want to give me the million dollars. I needed to be closer to people than Tommy was. That was clearly not the case. Though I like to think I was a genial and cooperative soul around camp, it was deliberately in my strategy to not be the most social, popular guy around.
For this reason, after mapping out a way forward, late into the game I did not spend much time deepening relationships, while Tommy did a wonderful job of doing so by strategizing with the majority of players still remaining in the game. All in all, I was happy with my execution of getting to the end, but I ignored what it took to actually get the win: deep relationships with the majority.
What's something that will blow fans' minds that happened out there in your season but never made it to TV?
Not sure it's very mind-blowing, but here's something I'm sad did not make it: After having only won one reward challenge with Lairo (the second challenge of the season, for which we received a spice rack), the next reward challenge I won was not until post-merge! This was a special win because it was my 29th birthday! We celebrated beachside on a beautiful Fijian day with cheeseburgers, cold beers, and my absolute favorite - cookies dipped in peanut butter. It was magical. I'm still attempting to get a copy of that film.
Actually, another memorable string of events that never made it to TV followed another reward challenge. This one was probably with six or so people left in the game. Tommy won the individual reward challenge and selected Noura and I to go with him to the spa reward (thanks again, Tommy!) Of course, the shower, soap, towels, and massage were fantastic, but it was always the food that stole the show. We pigged out. I remember returning to camp to an immediate food coma.
Later that night, however, I can confidently say I had the worst night of my life. It was pouring rain and I did not sleep a wink. My stomach was in incredible pain, and I was out of the shelter every five minutes to, let's just say, use the bathroom. The next morning, while everyone went about their day as normal, cooked breakfast, etc… I remained in bed. I stayed there until one of those I.O.I. boats pulled up and everyone forced me to come down to read the message.
This is when I was then randomly selected to go visit Rob and Sandra. If you look closely in this scene, you can see me in the background in pain as my name is selected. My stomach issues and bathroom trips continued while on the journey to I.O.I. It wasn't until I ate Rob's fish when I started to come alive again.
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
I laugh to myself thinking about the edit. Again, I am very grateful with how it all ended up - the DKchillin to DKvillian story arc was a fun time, but boy did it take us some time to get there. Not only did I need to continually convince my friends and family that I was actually on the show and talking to people as I barely got any screen time in the initial episodes, when I did finally get some screen time early on, I was presented as a big goofball. My primary introduction to America was me tripping over a log on the beach (out of the hours of footage they have they selected this?!) immediately followed by me sharing aloud my thoughts to "split the vote" in front of the entire tribe! Only slightly embarrassing. :)
In the end though, I cannot complain about the edit as the last couple of episodes highlighted much of my late-game run. It was a wild ride. I do wish they were somehow able to show more of Final Tribal Council, however. That was a four-hour ordeal with a lot of juicy back-and-forths that I feel were omitted.
What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
This was a tough transition. Instead of returning immediately to N.Y.C. and my job, I proactively scheduled a week in between to readjust. I spent this time at my parents' house in N.J. Here I remember eating six cupcakes in one seating (shoutout my sister in-law) directly after a huge diner meal off the pickup from the airport. The eating and no exercise persisted for that entire week as I attempted to gain back the 20 pounds I lost. Even the no teeth brushing persisted out of habit for a couple of days.
I also remember being fascinated by utensils and towels. I was also very sad that I wasn't welcomed by a stream of Happy Birthday text messages upon getting my cell phone back. I eventually researched that the non-WiFi messages cease to go through after a couple weeks of failed reception. Once I did get back to N.Y.C. and work, I recall being VERY unmotivated at work for a couple of weeks - after living life so primitively, I did not see the significance in working a day job for money any longer. With time, all heals, however, and I was fully back in the swing of things within a month or so.
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?
Yes. Every time it would rain. We were freezing, not sleeping, no fire, not making rice, wet clothes. I hated it. I could be at home, or, better yet, at work eating free food and an endless supply of Peanut M&Ms, I would think to myself. Never did I seriously contemplate quitting, but those rainy times were not the most fun, that's for sure.
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your season?
Tommy! That's my boy. We had some good bro-bonding near the end of the game and with our proximity (N.Y.C. to Long Island) we're able to see each other here and there and have a good time. My mom and his fiancé, Nicole, also quickly became friends on the family visit so we get our families involved sometimes too. It's a hoot. Other than that tall, lanky, pale, red-headed guy, I keep up with Elizabeth. with whom I was close with from very early on in the game - we recently were able to cross paths and snowboard together in Park City, Utah.
Jack, Elizabeth's boo boo is an amazing guy with whom I love spending time. Chelsea, the second best Survivor showmance of all-time (some say), is always a joy to be around and we were able to make some new, non-romantic memories this past summer as she was in N.J. for some time during the pandemic. Elaine is always a good random FaceTime away. I was honored to officiate her and Tonya's beautiful wedding this past September on their Kentucky farm. Karishma, despite our on-screen tension, is a helluva time, we get along very well, and exchange some "I miss you" texts every now and then. And Jason - it seems the tides have turned that he's all busy with a newborn now. I just want to be friends!
Do you still watch Survivor, and, if so, what's your favorite season you were not on and why?
Still watch, of course! I feel like it's my duty moving forward. Only season 40 has aired since mine and I watched that with my family during the pandemic. Good times.
Who's one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
Chris Daughtery. I see a handful of similarities: The odds he had to overcome to win his season, I feel, mirror the way in which I maneuvered my way to runner-up. I respect and value that level of perseverance and feel like we could hit it off because of that - in addition to being generally laid back. I think we'd make a fun and powerful combo and I would most definitely learn a thing or two from him to improve the mental aspect of my game. Also, I wouldn't mind hanging on an island with my early Survivor crush, Brenda Lowe.
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
With all respect to those who have persevered time on the Edge of Extinction (and similar), I do not think there should be a function of the game that involves granting someone who has been voted off the island an opportunity to return to the game and win. The goal of the game is to survive 39 days on THE island without getting voted off - even if by chance, a coin flip, or a wacky turn of events (part of the game to be dealt with is luck).
If there is a final 3 involving someone who outlasted the 39 days next to someone who has not, it just doesn't feel right. In a similar vein, the Fire Tokens rubbed me the wrong way in a Teeny way. The Tokens were gifted by recent vote-offs to folks still within the game. Often times, these gifts benefited players who were on the bottom, and disadvantaged the players who orchestrated the vote-off of the actual player. In my mind, this goes against the organic nature of the game: to vote out threats to your game.
Finally, would you play again if asked?
Yes. Call me, Jeff. I mean, why not?! It's such a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I would feel guilty if I were to turn it down!