Exclusive Interview: Yul Kwon, Winner of Survivor: Cook Islands
Yul Kwon will go down as one the greatest Survivor contestants to ever play the game. His masterful planning, strategy and execution throughout the contest was a sight to behold and played a large part in Survivor: Cook Islands becoming one of the best seasons the show has yet seen.

Yul sat down with us yesterday to discuss how he wound up on Survivor, his time on the show, and his plans for the future.

Can you explain why you applied for Survivor and your expectations going in?

Sure. This season was actually different than a lot of other seasons in that most of the contestants this season were actually recruited, including myself. And the reason for that is, historically, the viewership and the pool of applicants have been predominantly non-minority. So, in light of the racial twist this season where they tried to get different tribes based on race, they had a lot of trouble recruiting minorities so they really made an effort to reach out pro-actively. And, in my case, I didn't apply.

What happened was I was coming off a project at work and planning on taking a vacation and I guess for the Survivor crew, they had gone through the regular application process and they got to their final round of people, but still didn't feel like they had the right mix. So, one of the casting agents sort of made a last-ditch effort to reach out, contacted one of my friends who recommended me. I got on the phone with the casting director that day, and she asked me, "Can you come down tomorrow? We're doing our final round of interviews and we'd like to have you participate." So I drove down, went through the interview process, and six weeks later, I was in the game.

Were you familiar with Survivor? Had you been a fan?

Yeah, I saw the first season, I saw part of the second season, and then I just got really busy with work and hadn't followed it very closely since. But, I always thought it was a fascinating program. I really enjoyed the social strategy side of it, and when the opportunity came up, I never really saw myself as someone being on TV, but I've always felt like there was an under-representation of minorities in mainstream media, and especially as an Asian-American male growing up, I didn't see a lot of people who looked like myself, people that I felt like I could look up to as role models to emulate. So, when this opportunity sort of fell in my lap, I just thought it was a great chance to try to change the way that people from my community were perceived in mainstream society.

Once you got to the island and started filming, how different was it than how you expected it to be?

It was a lot harder than I expected, honestly. I mean, I think watching from the comforts of your living room, I never really understood what it really was like. It is very authentic, they don't give you any food, they don't coddle you. And from watching the show, I thought it was mostly about the challenges, because that's what they really emphasize. But, when you're on the island, the challenges are only a small portion of the overall experience. Most of it is trying to find food, trying to stay warm, food and shelter, and it's really tough. It was much more authentic and difficult than I had anticipated.

Did the cameramen eventually disappear, blend in, or was there still a learning curve where you had to deal with all the cameras being in your face?

At first it was a little strange having all the camera crews around, but you very quickly get used to them. They're very professional. They don't make eye contact, they don't talk to you. After a couple of days, they fade into the background. You're aware in the back of your mind that they're there, but for the most part, you kind of forget about them.

Did you ever find yourself performing for the camera? Are you able to just be natural after a while?

I think you're always aware if it. Especially for a lot of the minorities on the program this season, a lot of us felt sort of this additional pressure to represent our community in a positive way. So you never quite forgot about that. On the other hand, it's really difficult to maintain a false façade 24 hours a day, seven days a week, under such stressful conditions. So, I think it's actually very difficult not to be who you are, even if you're trying to portray yourself in a different way from your true personality. Over time and under stress, the real you is going to emerge.

Did you have an initial game plan or frame of mind coming into the show and did that change at all once the racial divide was laid out?

Yes. Absolutely. My intention and approach coming into the game was to try to play as clean of a game as I could and try to, again, represent my community positively. I realized fairly quickly that I was being very naïve and that you can't play Survivor without manipulating people, deceiving, or lying. So, I definitely had to change up my strategy once I got into the game.

I think the single most important quality to have when playing the game is to be adaptable because you never know what kind of curve balls are going to be thrown at you. Over the course of the game, I changed my approach and my strategy a number of different times. From early on, I tried to go more underneath the radars so I wouldn't be perceived as a big threat. After the mutiny happened, we really had to step up our game, and our only strategic option was to win the challenges. So, at that point, I think everyone took much more of an overt role, including myself as being leader. And then towards the end of the game, I kind of got painted as being the "puppet master" or the "Godfather" and I tried to distance myself from that image, but once I realized that it was going to stick, I embraced it and used it to my advantage.

How different do you think your game play was perceived because you had the immunity idol?

The immunity idol played a huge role in the game, and if I hadn't found it, none of us in my alliance would have made it to the end I believe. Having said that, I don't think that was the only reason I did well in the game. Up to the point where I revealed the idol, no one knew I had it, except for Becky. So, I think I did a good job the first half of the game deflecting attention away from me because I was never the topic or subject of a possible boot. The idol didn't protect me up to that point in the game. And, even after I revealed the idol and we switched the numbers, I don't think the idol protected me. I don't think the reason people didn't vote me out was because I had the idol, I think it was because we had a really tight alliance and I spent a lot of time making sure that everyone felt that the alliance was acting in their overall benefit so that no one would have the incentive to out the idol, because people knew and felt that I was using it for the overall interest of our tribe.

The only time the idol really made a big difference in terms of my survival or that of my alliance, was when I used it to threaten Jonathan Penner to get him to switch over to our side. That, I think, was something that I was able to do that wouldn't have been so obvious or easily accomplished by anyone else. I really think I had to pull out all of my strategic and diplomatic skills out of the bag to really play the idol in a way that would allow it to have the maximum effect. Obviously, the idol played a huge role in my success, but I don't think it was a given that I would have gone to the end, just because I had the idol.

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Over the past few months, BuddyTV has interviewed a number of different people from all over the television industry. Thus far, we've featured an interview with CariDee English (winner of America's Next Top Model),an interview with Josh Schwartz (creator of The OC), an interview with Alfred Gough (creator of Smallville), an interview with John Shiban (executive producer of Supernatural), an interview with Mark Schwahn (creator of One Tree Hill) an interview with Hank Steinberg (creator of The Nine), an interview with David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik (the creators of The Class), and an interview with David S. Rosenthal (new Head Writer/Executive Producer of Gilmore Girls).