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 facade 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 naive 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.
Weirdly, it’s kind of unprecedented for an alliance to stick together until the very end. Why was the Aitu 4 so strong?
That was something that I really spent a lot of time thinking about because we had this wonderful underdog story – four people who had basically been abandoned, most of us from different ethnicities, and it looked like we had no chance of getting to the end. But because we stayed really tight with one another, and worked well together as a team, we were able to overcome the long odds and get to the end together. And for my part, I was really concerned that we would end up having an ending that required things to degenerate into backstabbing and deceiving which is something that I didn’t want to see happen.
So, in our case, I was really happy and proud of the fact that we all stood true to our principles and didn’t resort to turning on one another, and I think the reason for that was we had forged a very strong bond after the mutiny and I think all of us really cared about one another and would have been happy to see each other win the game at that point. I think the thing I’m most proud of from this whole season was the fact that we were able to forge an alliance consisting of people from different backgrounds and ethnicities and stick together in a way that has never been seen before on Survivor.
What do you think, if anything, this season of Survivor said about race relations. Was it too small of a sample size to really have any meaning, or do you think there was a message?
I mean, obviously, it was a small sample size and things could have turned out really differently with a different group of people. I’d like to think that in some small way though, there are some positive implications that can be drawn from this experience and applied to society at large. I think it was compelling that the tribe that had different ethnicities and a diversity of backgrounds was the tribe that was really able to work together well as a team, as an integrated team, to overcome long odds. I think that actually speaks volumes for what could be achieved on a larger scale in the rest of society and it’s a testament to the fact that difference doesn’t mean less, but diversity can be a source of strength.
After watching the season, is there anyone you think received a negative edit? Was someone portrayed worse than they really were or far more positive than they really were?
Um…yeah. I definitely…the actual experience of the show was very authentic. The producers and the crew didn’t tell you what to do. There’s only one instance where I felt like I was being very fragrantly manipulated, and that was regarding Jonathan Penner’s hat when I brought it back to him; I felt that I was basically set up at that point. But, besides that one experience, I felt that it was very authentic. The editing, though, is another story.
There’s definitely a lot of, I think, manipulation of the footage in order to paint the story and to paint people in a certain light. I think some people were painted in a more negative light than was actually warranted. I think an example of this might be J.P. Calderon, the pro volleyball player, who was shown as being very arrogant and lazy, when in reality he’s actually an extremely nice and considerate guy. But, you know, it made for a more compelling narrative to have him portrayed as being this lazy, tyrannical, despot on his tribe. Another person, Becky Lee, who I think was a very strong player and a huge part of the reason that our tribe got to the end, was just not seen or given a very visible role over the course of the season. And I think that’s a disservice to her.
Were there any actions or things you said that you regret after looking back on the season?
No, I don’t really think so. I’m not one of those people who don’t believe in having regrets. I think you have to have regrets when you make mistakes, otherwise you don’t learn from them. But, looking back on this season, I played pretty much the way I wanted to play and I don’t think I made any huge mistakes or errors and I don’t think I did anything that I’m ashamed of. So, overall, I feel like I’ve been very fortunate. I played the game that I wanted to play and, fortunately, it allowed me to get to the end and win.
How long was it between the end of filming on the island and the live finale? How excruciating was that wait?
Yeah, we got back in early August, the finale was December 17th. It was probably about a four month time interval. The wait wasn’t too bad for me. I knew I had gotten to the finals and I thought I had a good shot at winning. I had gotten much further in the game than I had ever thought I would, so I was really happy. I had a lot of fears, anxieties, and trepidations coming into the game about whether I would embarrass myself, my family my friends, whether I would do something that I would regret. But, you know, none of that came to pass. I felt that I played a good game, I played with as much integrity as the game allows, and I’d gone much farther than I had ever expected to. So, at that point in time when I stepped off the island, I was happy. And if I won, it was just icing on the cake.
During that wait, did you have any sort of sense as what the final vote would be?
I had an idea of how people were likely to have voted, and I felt that I had a good shot at winning, but certainly it wasn’t anything close to a certainty.
Are you still in contact with anyone from the cast?
Yeah, absolutely. I’m actually friends with a lot of people from the cast. One of the pleasant surprises for me was I came into the game expecting to find a lot of evil, nasty people. But, the reality is that most of these people outside of the game, in real life, are actually really nice, wonderful people. So I’m still close to all the people from my alliance. I’m actually very good friends with Jonathan Penner and Candice, close friends with Brad and J.P., and I’m on good terms with everyone else, so I’ve got to say this has been a wonderful experience in terms of making new friends.
What are you up to now and what are your future plans?
Right now, I’m still trying to get settled back down. I feel like I haven’t even had a day to really decompress and take stock of things. After the finale I was going around doing a lot of interviews and after that it was the holidays – it was almost like I woke up and realized it was Christmas and I hadn’t done any Christmas shopping…and of course there were all these expectations of people to get really nice Christmas gifts because I won a million dollars.
After that I’ve just been taking a lot of different meetings and phone calls with different people. So, I’m trying to sort all that stuff out. I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to do going forward. I’d like to do something that allows me to set a good example and to be a positive role model for people of my community, and also to continue changing perceptions about minorities in mainstream society. How I’m going to do that still remains to be seen. But, for sure, I want to spend a lot of time doing a lot of charity work and helping out different organizations and advocating for causes that I’m passionate about.