By Dalton Ross
April 01, 2020 at 10:00 AM EDT

Wendell Holland was the dude everyone loved. Viewers, other players, members of the press that met him on location — everyone dug the furniture builder from Philadelphia when he showed up to Survivor: Ghost Island. And the jury — with the crucial help of Laurel Johnson — loved him enough to award him a million dollars. (His victory denied his island BFF Domenick Abbate a chance to compete on season 40, which Dom discussed at length right here.)

But viewers have seen a very different Wendell on Survivor: Winners at War. The edit Wendell has received this time around has focused on his former romantic relationship with fellow champion Michele Fitzgerald — and that focus has often centered on Wendell’s seeming mistreatment of his ex, both off the island (Michele says she was “wronged”) and on (several super awkward interactions). Not only that, but Wendell has appeared to come off as cocky at Tribal Council, and tribemates Yul Kown and Nick Wilson also complained about him showboating and talking trash at the last immunity challenge, which they inferred caused the tribe to lose.

How does Wendell feel about what has transpired and how he has been portrayed so far this season? We caught up with him to be the subject of EW’s traditional in-game merge interview, and Wendell reveals there was actually a method to the madness when it comes to what we have seen in season 40. According to the shelter-building master, there was a strategy involved to make he and Michele seem much less close than they actually were — a strategy that seems to have worked on viewers as well. Read on as the man on the receiving end of season 40’s villain edit attempts to set the record straight.

Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Obviously, we have seen a lot of you and Michele this season, so let’s start here: How worried were you going into the season that the fact that you two had dated would become a big storyline on the show?

WENDELL HOLLAND: Foolishly, I wasn’t too worried. I figured we’re adults, everyone has a past, and others were much more connected than Michele and I. We casually dated while Ghost Island was airing, and a little after. I was under the impression that we’d downplay the fact that we dated and play up that we don’t particularly like each other (which couldn’t be further from the truth, I adore Michele and her whole family). I thought that would be good enough to make our past not really a focal point. Man, oh, man was I wrong.

What was your initial reaction when you saw that you and Michele were both going to be on the same tribe?

I was very excited to be on the same tribe as Michele, but I had to play it cool. That’s where the conversation comes from when we first get to the beach and I say something to her like, “Did you expect me to run right up to you?” Because I knew we couldn’t appear as if we were close.

Before the season even started, we both knew we were going to be out there, we talked, we’d been friends ever since we used to kick it, and I was fully prepared to work with her on the low. And that’s what I believe happened on Sele 2.0. I still believe that we were on the same page every day on that beach. But there’s only so much time in each episode, so I think the Survivor gods decided to focus on other things than us working together.

We’ve heard from Michele a few times how you wronged her in your relationship. What’s it like to sit there and watch that message go out to all of America?

I was surprised and confused. We weren’t in a relationship, so for her to use terms like “relationship” and “boyfriend”— it caught me off guard. Also, from my understanding, we were good friends from when we dated all the way through to when we touched down in Fiji. We’ve hung out a bunch of times with no awkwardness, and nothing but love. Now, she could have just been playing the suuuper long game, knowing Winners at War was coming years prior, and actively buttering me up ever since — acting like we’re cool and friendly all the way up to when we landed on that beach. Shoot, by the looks of things now I wouldn’t put it past her! But I just thought we were good friends about to play the greatest game on the planet. Fool me once...

So for me to see and hear all of that was new to me, and seemed one-sided. Where was my side of the story? I saw a lot of imagery of her saying things in confessionals and to other castaways, but I don’t recall telling much of my side, or seeing my side told. If this was real life and not a reality show, I might have some qualms. But I understand that in each episode a story must be told with enough suspense to not give away the boot, but enough content to justify the boot. And I guess showing her speaking about our past was enough to make her look so disgruntled with me that a viewer would think I’m being voted out.

Lastly… maybe Michele was really running with the whole “we can’t be seen as a pair, so we should act like we had a bad falling out” thing. And maybe I just didn’t lean into it as much as she did. Or maybe, unbeknownst to me, I actually did hurt her, and she truly believed we were in a relationship. If that is the case, then I’d like to publicly say to Michele Fitzgerald that I apologize for hurting you, and I apologize for being dismissive, arrogant, and smug on Sele 2.0.

Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

Yul contrasted how you were receptive to him after he raised concerns about your Tribal Council performance and yet talked down to Michele when she did the same thing. Now, obviously, there was strategy involved in Yul pointing that out to her, but how did you feel about that comparison?

If I’m not mistaken, Yul had that conversation with me and told me that Michele was taken aback by the way I carried myself. So either he suggested to me that I apologize, or I told him that I would. But I thought Michele and I were acting like we weren’t cool with one another. So of course she’d tell him she’s not comfortable with me and how I handle myself. Just like of course she’d tell Parv that I’m so cocky, arrogant, and smug. We’re creating distance between ourselves, all the while where both still in the game, despite going to Tribal. So how do I feel about Yul suggesting that I apologize to Fitz, just so he can try to then use it against me?  The man is brilliant, it was a great strategy, but Fitz and I were locked in.

But, I admit, I did communicate differently with Yul, Nick, and Michele out there. Just like I communicated differently with Dom and Laurel on Ghost Island. With Dom, our game talk conversations were quick, short, and direct. “Chris Noble is gunning for you, here’s what we’re going to do, boom.” With Laurel, I’d have to sit with her and give her many assurances that I was with her, and willing to protect her to the end. Sele 2.0 was similar in the way I’d code shift depending on with whom I was speaking. I’d listen more around Yul. He spoke a lot, and always had interesting insights to share, about the game and about life. I’d be a bro with Nick, that’s my bro, we chillin’.

With Michele, I talked to her like I talked to Dom. We have a past, no need to really sugar coat things with her, so I was direct, sometimes too direct. I almost think that my apology to her was me just going through the motions to appease Yul (because I was under the assumption that Fitz and I were locked in, thus, she knew that whatever tirade I went on in Tribal was just theatrics, and wouldn’t change my vote). Couple that with the fact that I already speak direct and succinct with her (similar to how I spoke to Dom), and ultimately, I really sounded bad. I sounded like I wasn’t making a genuine apology, and maybe I wasn’t. But, if I took that tone with Dom, nobody would blink an eye.

You offered to Parvati to vote her way if she gave you her Fire Tokens. Is there any scenario whatsoever where you would have actually done that, or was it all a big bluff?

Oh, Parv. When we got to Sele 2.0, Parv and I went to get water. There, I told her all the breakdowns of Dakal 1.0 — who was with who, who was gunning for who, who I’d work with, why people were voted out, etc. I gave her the run down. I also told her I was a big fan of hers, and that I travel to Atlanta a lot, so I’d love to hang out and meet John and their daughter one day (she was living there before filming). When I asked for the tea about Sele 1.0, she very plainly listed who remained and said she’d work with all of them. So, I realized Parv wasn’t going to give me anything very early, and wasn’t going to work with me. Furthermore, she was connected with Michele, Yul, and Nick. But I was working with them. And they all continued to tell me Parv was gunning for me the whole time we were out there.

Because of that, and the fact that she is one of the best to ever play, she had to be my number one target if we went to Tribal. But I told her to her face that she never gave me any info in any of our conversations, and that I knew she was gunning for me. I kept it real with her (hence, the “I’ll stab you in the front” line at Tribal), while everyone else on that beach was lying to her face and concocting a plan to get her Fire Tokens.

So when she came to me moments before Tribal, I knew she was blowing smoke, so I gave it right back. “You can buy my vote for two Fire Tokens.” I put the ball in her court, and she didn’t shoot it. Then, later at Tribal, Probst gave me the ball again. He said, “Is that a current invitation?” So, again, I tossed the ball into her court when I said, “It’s a current invitation.” But again, she didn’t shoot. She didn’t come talk to me or anything. She didn’t scramble.

Would I have sold Parvati Shallow my vote for some Fire Tokens, only for her to vote me and my newly acquired Fire Tokens out? I think not. But, if I were in her shoes, I’d have done what Parvati Shallow has always done — I’d have used everything in my arsenal to stay in the game. She had three Fire Tokens and an Idol Nullifier in her war chest, she could have used those to barter with anyone on Sele 2.0.

Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

Nick and Yul complained about you trash-talking and showboating at the last immunity challenge you all lost, but all we really saw on TV was you calling for Jeff Probst’s attention— something you did NOT do in a challenge last season and may have lost because of it. Was there something else — beyond the quick response to Jeff’s commentary as you were carrying the saucer — we didn’t see during that challenge where you were putting a little mustard on it, or were they just overreacting?

No extra mustard. They were overreacting, but I think it was all game. They knew that me talking to Jeff wasn’t distracting me, and didn’t take any time away from the challenge. But I think Yul wanted another reason to put a target on me. And sometimes when you speak something into existence, when you put it out there, others latch on to it. So we then heard Nick’s confessional where he was complaining about me talking trash and “showboating” in the challenge.

Yes, I speak to Jeff in challenges. That’s nothing new. And I sometimes talk trash when I compete. I’ve played sports my whole life, talking trash is part of the game. But there is a difference between talking trash, showboating, and calling Jeff over to see our puzzle when we finish it at the last second of a challenge. Trash talking is usually taunting or disparaging comments to an opposing team to throw them off their game. I do that sometimes in Survivor, but more so in a polite, fun way.

In Ghost Island we were doing a slingshot challenge, and I looked over and saw my buddy Dom. I said something like, “How ya doing over there, Dom?” just to get in his head a little bit. But I still don’t remember really doing much trash talking in Winners at War. Showboating is showing off — up to this point, I was never really in the position to show off. Even when we won, I tried to be graceful. Further, I won a whole lot on Ghost Island, please tell me when I was showing off. I actively try to minimize my winning celebrations so as to not put a target on me. I believe I saw my buddy Gervase over-celebrating during one of his seasons and that rubbed the others the wrong way. [ED NOTE: “Don’t let that fool you!”]

So I actively try to not over-celebrate. Look at the block challenge that me and Parv finished this season. Check out the four-piece pyramid puzzle I finished in Ghost Island at final 5. No big celebrations. Yes, I called Jeff over last challenge just before we completed the challenge. But that was neither showboating nor talking trash. That was me having the presence of mind that two years prior on that very island I lost a challenge because Jeff was watching someone else, so I made it a point to get his attention. That’s all that was.

Credit: Robert Voets/CBS

You made it to the merge! What was the feeling like of making it to that point in the game, knowing the competition was so steep?

It’s a great feeling making it to the merge, especially on the season of all-winners. The merge is a milestone, and comes with the merge feast which we’ve all been looking forward to. I was excited to get back to talking with some of my Dakal 1.0 folks, and I was very excited to finally be on the same beach as my Survivor idol, Jeremy.

Finally, I’ve saved the most important question for last: In a challenge a few weeks ago, you swam in the ocean, pulling your team’s boat behind you. Then, on the dock at the end of the challenge, your ever-present toothpick was magically back in your mouth. Where did you put said toothpick while swimming?

I’m a magician with that toothpick, Dalton, what can I say? And a magician never reveals his secrets. Let’s just say we have a great working relationship, that toothpick and I. I think Michele might have been jealous of how close I was getting with it, that might explain our “tension” out there.

For more Survivor scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter and Instagram.

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