SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols

Warning: This article contains spoilers about Wednesday’s season finale of Survivor: Winners at War.

He won the war.

Tony Vlachos turned in a dominant performance in Survivor: Winners at War. Going up against the stiffest competition the show has ever seen, the cop from New Jersey and Cagayan victor excelled in every facet of the game — social, strategic, and challenge — and he did it all while perched in a freakin’ Spy Nest. Whether he was winning four immunity challenges, finding a hidden immunity idol, overcoming an extortion by getting people from different alliances to give him tokens, or dramatically flipping the vote at the last second for a shocking blindside even his biggest ally did not see coming, Tony set a new standard for excellence in the game. Nobody cast a single vote against him all season. And nobody held it against him when he voted them out. He is the champion of champions. The second two-time winner ever. The king to stand beside the queen.

How confident was Tony that he had the votes at the end to win the game? And how weird was it to have those votes naming him the $2 million winner read via webcam due to a pandemic? How does this win stack up to his Cagayan victory? And what can he tell us about what we didn’t see this season on TV? We asked the newest face on the Mount Rushmore of greatest Survivor players ever all that and more.

Tony Vlachos
Credit: CBS

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congratulations, Tony on an epic outing.

TONY VLACHOS: Oh my God. Thank you so much, Dalton. Oh my God. I just finished watching the show. It is so epic.

Were you feeling pretty confident when you walked off that Tribal Council set 10 months ago that you had won?

You know how I am. I'm never confident until I see the final result. I'm always, always thinking. My wheels are always spinning. I'm always keeping myself on my toes. So, I'd never just let my cards down. So I can never say I'm confident. I'm always giving some kind of doubt in my head. So I just don't slip on anybody and get caught off guard.

Well, I'm sure you're doing the jury math in your head, and then they showed the votes on the episode, and we see that Tyson, Jeremy, Ethan, and Parvati all voted for Natalie instead of you. Any votes that you were surprised you either got or did not get?

I'm disappointed. I'm disappointed in Parvati actually because I know Parvati respects the game, and I'm not knocking Natalie whatsoever. She did amazing. I watched it on the TV, but just because she did great in the game for the last five days, I did great for 39 days. So I was kind of upset. If the votes weren't going to come to me, I think Michele deserves to get the votes, because she played 39 days in the game, dodging bullets. It's a war, and she had to be there dodging landmines, and the game is part of a strategy, influence, and goals. It's a lot to do with that.

Natalie did crush it on the Edge, and that's a whole totally different game as far as I'm concerned, but I was shocked that Pavarti did that. Ethan again, for no fault of my own, I never got to meet him. So he, like, how's he going to vote for me? He never even got to talk to me or say hello to me. But I wasn't surprised that Jeremy, I know why he voted for Natalie. I definitely understand that. Natalie's like family to him. So, family comes first.

He told me before the game that winners shouldn't vote for someone from the Edge.

Yeah, but I forgive him because I put myself in his shoes and I'm saying, “What if Sarah had made it to the end?” I don't care if she was a goat. I don't care if she was dragged in. I don't care if she did nothing to get there. I would have still given Sarah my vote just for loyalty. And that's how it is. You got to understand that. You got to respect that, I guess, right?

How does this win — beyond the money, because obviously you got double the money this time — but how does this win stack up for you compared to your previous victory in Cagayan?

Oh man, let me tell you about that. I mean, it still hasn't even settled in that, like, I'm watching myself on TV and I'm like, "Oh my God. How was I that patient in the beginning? Oh my goodness, how did I do that? How did I do that? How did I avoid getting any votes on me?" And for the first time in my Survivor career, that Ben blindside was the first time that I was not included in the vote. That's the first time in my career that I was ever blindsided by a vote. Most, every single vote off, or person that got booted, I was always involved in it or I knew where the votes were going. That was the first time. And I'm like, "Wow!" So this time, this season, I just went through everything. I went through the social game. I went from winning challenges that I'd never done before. I got blindsided — that never happened to me before. I built a Spy Nest. So, there were a lot of firsts for me this time around. It was insane.

Having watched you for three seasons, I know you're always up to something, but when you have 20 winners out there and the Edge of Extinction and all this stuff, there's only so much they can show on TV. So hit me up with some things that happened out there that you wish had made it to air?

Oh, man, where do I begin, man? There's so many. Even from day one. Sandra, as a matter of fact, she stole my Spy Bunker! I was building it with her because I trusted her. And then I wind up finding out she was ratting me out to Kim that I was spying by the well. It was just so many things.

Me and Nick and Wendell and Sandra formed an alliance and we called ourselves the Justice System. And then when Sandra tried to blindside me, we said, "Uh-oh, the system is corrupt! We have to find another way of getting by the game." I was out every single night, every single night, I was out making fires, looking for idols, searching the jungle, making fake idols. I was doing it all, Dalton. I did not sleep.

You made a fake idol? What's the deal with the fake idol?

All right, so I made a fake idol and I showed it to Nick, and that's another reason why a lot of people watch it and they comment on Twitter. I've seen it. "Oh, Nick is dumb. He helped people." No, Nick wasn't dumb. Nick was playing it safe. He was a little bit afraid. Because I told them I had two idols. I showed him two idols! I woke him up in the middle of the night when he was a bit disoriented. And I said, "Come with me." And I showed him the fake idol. And he thought it was real because it was late at night. He was in the middle of his sleep. And I said, "I got you. I got your back, Nick. I got your back. Anybody tries anything, I got your back. And if they try anything on me, I'm going to use my idols." So there were a lot of things that people were confused about because they didn't show it. But there's a lot of things that went on.

The most impactful moment of the entire finale was you and Sarah after battling at fire. Have you ever felt lower in this game than after securing your place in the final three, which should be your happiest moment, but at the expense of your partner in Sarah?

Watching that back right now, I was in full tears, man. I usually try to act tough in front of my kids and my wife. I tried to hold back tears, even though they want to come out. But, this time, I couldn't even hold it. I couldn't hold back. Man, I was balling like a baby, man. That was so impactful. I can't believe that. That hurt me so bad. I mean, it needed to be done in order for me to win, I guess, so I'm happy with that, of course. But that hurts so bad, man.

Our dream — Sarah and I, we would always say, "Imagine Cops ‘R’ Us at the end." But now thinking about it, Sarah would have kicked my ass at the final Tribal. So, I guess it worked out perfectly for me, but it was so hurtful, man. That was the worst, that was the worst feeling in the world.

If Sarah beats you at fire, how do you think she does against Natalie and Michele?

I would hope Sarah wins. She 100% gets my vote. I don't know for sure, but I truly believe Sarah would win. I mean, you've seen, there was plenty of opportunities to try to break up me and Sarah, and Sarah was vulnerable while I was protected and nobody even wanted to get her out. That was her social game. I seen it with Kim. I seen it with Sophie. I seen it with Ben. I seen it with Denise. I seen it with everybody. So she's great at what she does. I mean, she's a great Survivor player. And I think she learned from the best! I think she gave me credit for my Cagayan game.

At any point, over 39 days, did you ever feel like you were in serious danger in this game? We never saw your name written down once. I'm sure you got nervous and you were worried as anyone would be out there, but did you ever feel like you were in serious doo-doo at any point in this game?

Honestly, I don't think there was a point where I really thought that I was endangered like that. I don't remember being in like panic mode, like, "Oh my God, this is my night. I'm going home tonight." I never felt like that. And that's mind-boggling to me how that happened in the game. But I guess it all just goes down with me being goofy. Me just making everybody laugh. Me keeping my shoulders shrugged down. Me hunching my back over, keeping my arms down, never crossing them, talking to people from a lower ground, so they could look down at me when they talked to me, instead of me looking down at them.

It was just all those little things that make it count where it makes you look like, I just own people that way. They're like, "Okay, okay. He's not that threatening." I was never in their face. I was like, "What do you think? Okay. Okay. This is what I think. Okay. That's what you think? I'm with you, whatever you want." You know like, it was just crazy. The little things that counted, that meant so much in the end.

Your final words at that final Tribal Council were, "I know it's a big, huge, Super Bowl season of Survivor. And I tried to be a great player for the season." That's a pretty, savvy, calculated attempt to appeal to the pride of these jurors as winners, right? Like they should want to have a big, epic winner?

Absolutely. When I go to a final Tribal Council, like I did in my first season, I'm always cautious of what words to use. I choose my words wisely because I don't want to trigger any flashbacks of me being a villain in Cagayan. I didn't want to trigger any words that might turn the people off. So, I didn't want to say, "You guys need to vote for me because this is a season that you want to be represented by the best. And I am the best. I don't think you should vote for Nat." I couldn't talk like that.

So again, just like I played my whole game, I chose my words wisely. I was very cautious of what I said and dropping those little subtle hints, like, "Hey guys, just think about it for a second. This is the biggest season of Survivor. You guys are all involved in it. What more could you have asked from me? I won challenges. I won a fire challenge. My social game was on point. My strategy was on point. I created blindsides. I built a Spy Nest. Like, I did it all. There's nothing more I could have done in the game." But I'm not going to throw it out like that, you know? But they got the point. My game spoke for itself.

You just literally minutes ago won the $2 million. How weird was it to have Jeff Probst give you those $2 million over a webcam?

Oh, man, I don't care how he gives it to me, as long as I get it! $2 million, that is huge, man! Oh my God.

And this time you got to have your family with you when you won.

Oh, what a blessing. This whole season's been a blessing all around. Just from the family visit, all my kids. It's just, it's just amazing. And I got to share it with my family on my sofa in my house. It's just so epic.

Tony, you've now played Survivor three times. You've won twice. You're on the Mount Rushmore. You are the king. Will we see you back on the island for season 50?

Oh, absolutely. The Seniors edition. Survivor Seniors Edition!

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

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SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols

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