From the moment he landed on the beach for Survivor: Ghost Island, Domenick Abbate played big. Really big. But in the end, the 38-year-old construction supervisor from Long Island wound up losing the season by the tiniest of margins.
After the jury deadlocked with five votes each for Domenick and Wendell Holland, the third person in the final three — Laurel Johnson — had to cast the deciding vote, and that million-dollar vote went to Wendell.
How haunted is Dom by being so close to the million dollars and title of Sole Survivor, only to fall short? Which jury votes surprised him? Does he regret not taking on Wendell at the fire-making contest himself? We asked the runner-up all that and more and here’s what the Domfather had to say, including why he thinks it is now a BAD move to win the final immunity challenge. (Read through both pages for the entire interview and also make sure to read our Q&As with Wendell, Laurel, Angela, Donathan, and Sebastian as well as our finale recap, finale Q&A with Jeff Probst, and interview with Probst and Mark Burnett about NEXT season.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How soon after Jeff revealed it was a tie and that it would all come down to Laurel did you know you had lost?
DOMENICK ABBATE: First, I’m trying to get over the fact that we just made Survivor history with the first tie ever. But as soon as that moment dissolved, I think it was maybe a total of four seconds where I said, “I just lost this game”.
And just be real with me for a minute. How much does it hurt getting that close, and how much has it hurt over the past 11 months? Because I’m not sure I would ever get over it.
You know, it’s definitely disappointing. There’s no question in my mind, I know I left it all out there. I know I put my heart into my game and the problem is you have to remind yourself that there is the possibility that you’re not gonna win. Most people don’t win this game so it sucks, it’s not the outcome I wanted it to be, but at the end of the day I can’t say I’m not proud of my game. And life is still good with me. It’s not like I’m in a hole anywhere. I still have my wife, my children, everyone’s healthy, and I had a great time doing this game, playing this game, and winning a few bucks. Everything’s good, I’m doing alright.
Which vote that you did not get either sort of hurts or confuses you the most?
Well, if you look at who voted for whom, the first five at Ponderosa went for me and then the second five that were voted out went for Wendell. And those last few vote outs were a really confusing time for me because, for whatever reason, Kellyn and I just really stopped meshing and she was kind of giving a more aggressive attitude towards me, and the things I did. And I think also the Sebastian vote. I think that’s what killed me because that move I made was great and all those things are great, that I pulled off this amazing bluff, but the process in which I did it left a lot of people salty.
And I really thought that it was important for me to articulate in final Tribal what it was I was trying to do and that I wasn’t trying to be aggressive or mean to anybody, but I was just trying to sell a story. And I just think they weren’t having it, and that, to me, really bummed me out. I really thought that they were gonna look back — even Sebastian, the person who became a victim of the bluff — I was really hoping that I could just show him what it was I was trying to do. Just say, “Look, man, you were coming after me so I had to flip it on you” but you don’t know what’s really gonna trigger someone in the jury and you just do the best that you can.
How seriously were you actually considering giving up your final immunity win and taking on Wendell in that final four fire making contest?
Anyone with a brain is not gonna risk going to final three to put themselves out there to do a fire-making challenge that they don’t even have to do. The problem is that we’ve never seen this fire-making challenge before. We’ve heard that season 35 did it, but we never actually saw it on TV at that point because he hadn’t seen it on television. So I really tried to work with Laurel and Angela in an effort to see if they could pull this off and take him out of the game, but when I started to see how little effort they were putting into trying to make it happen, I realized that the only person that’s gonna get it done was me. And I pondered the thought about doing it for quite some time but I think in the back of my mind, I always said to myself “I played a better game than him, I really don’t need to take this risk”. But going back, maybe I should have.
Well, how do you think you would’ve done? He builds things with his hands for a living. You work as well with your hands. Who wins that?
That’s the question, because everything Wendell and I did in this game was always a head to head battle. It was always very close. I mean, obviously he excelled in some challenges better than I did and vise versa, but this is one where it would have been interesting to see because, like you said, he’s a furniture designer but I’m in construction and I work with my hands and tools all day as well, so that was the issue.
I didn’t know, I’ve had a couple of great practice runs with the flint when I was practicing at camp, but I also had a couple of not great attempts at it. So it was like “What’s gonna happen when I get there? Is it gonna be a good run or is it gonna be a bad run?” and ultimately I didn’t take the shot. And that’s the one thing that really sticks with me that man, I really should have did it.
You can’t take the shot. I mean, obviously because you didn’t win you think you should, but I think probability-wise you did the right thing. Did you ever consider saying to Laurel — and this is completely unenforceable obviously — but did you ever consider saying to her, “Look, I’ll bring you to the final three, I won’t make you do fire. But if I do, it’s under one condition: You have to promise to vote for me in the case of a tie?”
I think that’s where I fell short, because I really did not anticipate a tie. I’ve seen every season of this game and it’s never happened. And I really should have because Wendell and I were playing a match for match game and I should have said to myself, “You know what, this could be a possibility.” And that was where I dropped the ball because I was overconfident for the first time in the game. I haven’t been overconfident at any point, I kept playing this game with fear, and fear, and fear, and the first time I stopped being fearful and I went into final Tribal saying “I’m gonna articulate my story better than he’s gonna. I speak better than him. I think I have this thing wrapped up. I’m not taking that risk, I don’t have to have a conversation with Laurel about in the event of a tie because there’s not gonna be a tie.”
NEXT PAGE: Why Dom thinks winning the final challenge is now a disadvantage
What was your best move in the game, what was your worst move in the game?
You know, best moves don’t necessarily have to be flashy big moves. It could literally be having the ability to read someone. When Michael’s trying to sell the story about him having an idol and I’m like, “He absolutely does not. He’s not pulling the wool over my eyes, I have the ability to see this. You don’t see it, I do see it.” — those couple of reads that I have that were good for me I’m proud of. I’m very proud of the Sebastian bluff, even though it came off more harsh than I wanted it to. And just to say about that Sebastian vote also, if Wendell didn’t start pulling his jewelry out, it wouldn’t have appeared so much like a bullying team-up situation. I’m not really sure why he pulled all the stuff out. I wasn’t expecting that. It threw a monkey wrench into my plan, but ultimately I was effective in what I was trying to do, which was to get Sebastian to turn his vote or not use his extra vote on me.
But another underrated move that I’m most proud of is getting rid of Bradley. Because no one knows it because they didn’t really show it so much in the show, but Bradley and Kellyn make the merge and this game is 100 percent different. Because those two were really tight with Wendell in the beginning of the season and I know it looked like Wendell and I were best friends from start to finish, but we weren’t in the beginning. I was on the outs of Wendell, Bradley, and Kellyn. So going into the merge, if Bradley, Wendell, and Kellyn are back together, I’m not making any decisions in this game, I’m basically doing everything they ask me to. So that was a moment that was not shown. In the [merge interview] we did I explained how it was so important to me that I threw that challenge and that was, to me, the defining moment in my game.
They’ve had this fire-making wrinkle for two seasons now and both winners have gone through fire. Is the winner of that last immunity challenge now cursed? What’s going on, dude?
The advice to anybody in the future that plays this game is when they get to the final four immunity challenge, just lie down. Just lie down and throw the challenge, because what ended up happening with me by winning it, I was so proud that I won the final four immunity challenge, but then look what I ended up doing. In front of a jury, I sent Angela out to her death. And it made it look like a slaughter and Wendell look like a hero doing it. So I’m over here thinking I’m in great shape that I get to make this big decision, but in the process of doing it I boosted Wendell’s résumé while hurting my own because it looked like I was just discarding Angela. So, for me, if I can go back, I would just lie down at the final four challenge and let Wendell win it.
Yeah. I basically wrote in my recap how if you win the final four challenge now, you’re kind of punishing yourself in a way.
Yeah, it’s not advantageous to win the final four anymore, so the question is what would be the point of doing it and will they keep the fire making twist around? And if they don’t, I gotta tell you I’m gonna be pretty bummed. That’s being me and Chrissy Hofbeck as the only two people who would’ve probably wrapped this game up if we could have sent the person home that we wanted to.
Well, I can tell you that they are keeping the fire challenge.
And I will say one thing to that affect. As much as it was a disadvantage for me, the final four fire making twist, I still support it. Because I do believe that it will make for a better final three. So if you’re asking me if I ever had to play this game again would I want to see it? Absolutely I would because I think it’s better for the show. I really do. I do support it.
I know a lot of people hate it, they think it’s ridiculous. But I keep going back to the Millennials vs. Gen X season, and I say to myself, “It would have allowed David Wright to be in there and it would have been a much more exciting final Tribal” and look what you got? You got a great one last season with Chrissy and Ben going at it, and you got a great one this season with me and Wendell going at it. So I think they accomplish what they were trying to do by making this final Tribal more exciting. Problem is, they need to figure out a way to do it so that fighting for immunity at final four still exists. Because at this point, I wouldn’t even go for it again.
Speaking of again, I have no doubt whatsoever in my mind they will ask you to come back and play Survivor a second time. So what do you say when that call comes?
Well, I appreciate your vote of confidence on that. There’s no way I would ever say no, but at the same time, I would certainly appreciate if they gave me a little bit of time to get back to my family so I can kind of give them the attention that I wasn’t able to give them in this last year. But I mean hands down, yeah, of course I’d go back in a second.
Also make sure to read our Q&As with Wendell, Laurel, Angela, Donathan, and Sebastian as well as our finale recap, finale Q&A with Jeff Probst, and interview with Probst and Mark Burnett about NEXT season. And for all the Survivor scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.