When Yul Kwon thinks back on his Survivor: Cook Islands experience, it is with mixed emotions. On one hand, he won in epic fashion, beating competition phenom Ozzy Lusth by a single vote. On the other hand, he was never able to full enjoy his experience due to the twist that season of dividing tribes up by ethnicity. That became clear when EW spoke to Yul the day before filming began on his triumphant return 27 seasons later for Survivor: Winners at War.
Yul used words like “liberating” and “full tilt” while explaining how he was looking forward to finally playing the game without having to worry about representing Asian-Americans properly due to the controversial Cook Islands theme. “I have no constraints,” says the season 13 champ. But even though Yul has long been considered one of the smartest players of the game, the game he played was considerably different when he was a castaway back in 2006. Can he adapt to the newer, faster format? And does his long layoff help or hurt his cause. We spoke to Yul about all that and more, and not only does he mount a passionate defense against those who argue he had it too easy with his overpowered immunity idol, but he also reveals an epic plan that every Survivor fan can support should he make it to very end once again.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, I’m so excited you are back. And I’m going to give everyone a little perspective on how good you are. When I interviewed you before Cook Islands, season 13, the infamous Race War Edition, which we’ll get into a little bit later. You’re the only contestant that figured out the twist. They told you guys the night before the game started about the twist of dividing the tribes by ethnicity, but you told me in the interview the day or two before then that you knew they were going to divide it by ethnicity.
YUL KWON: That’s right.
We’ll get into that a little more, but first off, just give us the update, because it’s been 27 seasons since people saw you in Survivor.
Sure. After I won Cook Islands, I did a bunch of different things. I did a lot of charity work. I worked with a bunch of different non-profits, organized a bunch of bone marrow drives, which is something that’s close to my heart. And then I ended up working on the Obama campaign, ended up getting a position at the Federal Communications Commission. So I went out to D.C. in 2009, did that for a couple years. Then I left to host a miniseries for PBS called America Revealed, which was awesome. It’s like the best job I ever had. And then I decided to go back into tech, so I went back to California, worked at Facebook for a few years and then recently joined Google.
And in between that you mentored John Cochran before he came out to play.
Yes, John Cochran was the only winner that I knew before he was on Survivor. When I was working at the FCC, Cochran was a law student at Harvard. And he was an intern at the FCC. And I remember a bunch of my interns came up to me and said, “Hey, there’s a superfan of Survivor. He really wants to meet you.” And I’m like, “Cool. Bring him up.” They were like, “Oh, he says he’s not ready. He’s too scared.” I’m like, “No! Don’t worry! I’m not going to bite him.” So that was John Cochran.
Yul, there’s so much to get into with you. How will this experience of playing be different for you, knowing this time that the tribes are not being divided up by ethnicity, because I know you had a big crisis the night before season 13, whether you should even do that season.
So, what’s it feel like now, not having to worry about that?
It feels liberating. The first time I played, I felt a tremendous amount of pressure to represent my community in a positive way. Just because you don’t see a lot of Asian-Americans, especially men, in mainstream media. So, I played really hard. I’m proud of the way I played, but I can’t say it was fun. I just felt like I had to self-censor myself, and only say certain things, not say certain things, play a certain way. The great thing about this time around is I don’t feel those constraints. I can play any way I want. I can play as hard as I want, and I can use a full range of my arsenal in order to get ahead.
I think that I, and a lot of other people, have been somewhat perplexed by you not being on the show. And obviously there were times on the show where you couldn’t come back because of career and family. But there were some other times when you could’ve, and I think it’s really interesting to talk about that process of someone who has been on the show, was very popular on the show, was very successful on the show, and then seeing other people brought back and not being one of them. Was that frustrating?
Yeah, that was interesting. So, for my season, Cook Islands, it was stacked in terms of talent. We had Ozzy Lusth. We had Parvati Shallow. We had John Penner. And we had Candice Woodcock. All four of those people have been invited back multiple times. For me, though, it wasn’t something that bothered me. I think after I won Survivor, I just kind of moved on and kind of went back to my life. One thing I really wanted to be mindful of is to not let the whole experience, and the publicity, change who I was. What I wanted to do was use the 15 minutes of fame. I had to do something positive with it. So I worked with a lot of different non-profits, and organized bone marrow drives. But beyond that, I didn’t stay a part of the community.
And so whenever someone else came on, I thought it was great to see them play. In some cases, I think people really evolved their game. Like Parvati. I knew she was strong the first time, but I think she really learned from experiences and became a really strong competitor, both on the social and strategy and athletic side. Ozzy, not so much. The guy has one way of playing, and he plays it very well. But it’s not a winning strategy.
You’re considered one of the smartest players for sure, but it’s been a while now. How do you think that all impacts you being here in terms of the eyes of the other players?
I think it’s to my benefit, actually. So, coming in, I have a lot of trepidation, because look, there are 10 men. I don’t know who’s playing on the women’s side. Of the 10 men, five of them have played multiple times. And in some cases, they’ve played with each other. Among the five one-time winners, of which I’m one, the other four all played less than three years ago. I played 13 years ago. So, coming in, I’m already at a disadvantage. There are probably connections that have already been made pre-alliance, or pre-game, to form these alliances. Or, even if there aren’t specific pre-alliances, you’ll come into the game and you’ll naturally just gravitate towards people you know. So, it’s a very good chance that there might be literally nothing I could do. I’m just not in one of these alliances. I might get booted out.
That said, if I make it past that initial phase that I think is high-risk for me, I think I have a really good chance at going far. Because what will happen is I’m generally seen as a free agent who played a clean game, and doesn’t have these prior conflicts of interest because I know other people or played with them. So, I think what I can do is hopefully get recruited into one of these other alliances, as a loyal foot soldier, ride the people who are the leaders of those alliances, like the Boston Robs, or the Sandras, or the Parvatis. So that they act as a shield for me, and in the meantime I can play my own game and come out ahead.
You were talking about all the people that have played a lot together, or hang out together outside of the game…
Yep, they play poker together.
Yeah, there are certain people that are very close, and there are other people that had a great Survivor experience, but have moved on in their life. And they’re not as close to it. You’re in that latter category. So as this was coming up, were you thinking, “Oh, I’d better start reaching out to people, getting more involved in this.” Or did you just know this is going to be a hurdle that you might have to overcome?
I think it was probably more the latter. I know a few winners, but none of them are playing. John Cochran, obviously, is someone that I know well. Earl is someone that I had gotten to know, and he’s not playing either. So, in my case, I think what I really have to do is be very, very adaptable and flexible. Like, depending on the initial tribe make-up, if I’m on a tribe where the returning players who all know each other are in the dominant majority, I’ll need to try to insinuate myself into one of those alliances as a loyal foot soldier to one of those people. Or, if I’m a tribe where the one-time players outnumber the old, returning players, I can use a fear of the fact that these returning players probably have an alliance to galvanize everyone else and vote the other people out.
You referenced this also, that it’s such a different game when you played last time. I mean, there were immunity idols, but not nearly as many of them, and they were played differently. Now there are lots of idols, lot of advantages, lots of different twists and things happening. You’re a smart guy, but is there a learning curve for you in terms of how you handle all that?
I think there definitely is. And that’s one of my fears coming in. Finding an idol seems to be a thing now, like there are idols all over the place. But, statistically, I think it’s been shown that people who find an idol are more likely to find the next idol, and so someone like me who’s never had to like dig around for an idol, besides the one I found on my season, because I had the clues. I’m probably at a disadvantage, right?
That said, I think the game has evolved in a way that benefits me, and plays to my strengths. When I played, it was still kind of that classic Survivor era where integrity, loyalty, all that stuff was kind of paramount. Now, everyone is focused on strategy. They’re just trying to come up with the strongest strategic game, and move quickly. And I think that is something that I really enjoy, and that I think I’ll do well at.
I don’t know if anyone 27 seasons later has used an idol as a weapon better than Yul Kwon. You truly weaponized that to change the tide and move Penner over.
Although, I will say, I learned for my own mental and psychological health that reading discussion boards is not a thing that’s actually good for you, so after I won, I was like, “All right. I’m cutting this stuff out.”
Now that I’ve been getting ready for this, I’ve looked at the 13 years of comments that people have made.
And that was probably not a smart thing to do. I will say, I’m struck by the fact that a lot of people seem to think that I had an easy win because I had an overpowered hidden immunity idol, which I don’t think is actually true. There was a limitation on the use of the idol then, that doesn’t occur today. Back then, you could use the idol after the vote’s been cast. But you couldn’t give it to somebody else, unless you gave it to them prior to Tribal Council. In my case, the idol was obviously very powerful, but if the opposing Raro tribe had any strategic mind at all, they could easily have picked off the other alliance members until they outnumbered us, so they could do a split vote. Then they could’ve flushed out the idol at the next round. That’s what they should’ve done. But they didn’t do it, and I used the idol to help flip Jonathan Penner to our side.
I also don’t think though that I needed the idol to get Jonathan over, because there’s a whole social element to this that was not shown on television, which is they didn’t like Jonathan. Jonathan didn’t like them. There were a bunch of comments that they made, ostensibly about Jonathan’s wife that really pissed him off. And so, in addition to those strategic “Hey, here’s a rational argument for why you should come over,” I really worked the social angle as well. Like, “Do you really want to work with these kids? Do you want any of them to have any remote chance of winning? And, by the way, if you come over to our side, I’ll go to the final two with you.” So there was a whole other series of arguments on the social side that I think got overlooked.
I love hearing about stuff like that we didn’t see on TV. As you mentioned, you’re here with nine other male winners. You don’t know who else is going to be out here. I’m sure you have some suspicions, but…
There aren’t that many female winners. It’s a small pool.
In terms of this group, who are some of the people you’re thinking, “Hey, maybe I want to work with this person. We could work out well”?
You mean among the men?
That’s a good question. I think what I’ll try to do is feel everyone out. One person I’d love to work with is Boston Rob. He’s going to be a big target, but you know, I love his game. He’s very rational, in terms of the way he approaches the game itself. He’s probably more aggressive than I am, but I think we’ll understand each other well. And we’d partner together well. Sandra … oh, just talking about the guys?
You can also talk about other people that you suspect might be out here. I will neither confirm nor deny.
I’d imagine if Sandra or Parvati are out here, I would want to work with them as well. Parvati is interesting. She’s the only other person I’ve played with. We were on opposing sides the first time and I think it would be kind of cool to be like, “Hey, Parvati. Want to play on the same side this time?” I think we’d make a pretty good power couple. So, that would be an interesting kind of way to play. Sandra, obviously, two-time winner. She is a fantastic player. I’d love to align with her. On the other hand, I would like to find other people like me, people who are either very recent winners and probably didn’t have a chance to form these strong bonds with other people, or people who’ve kind of dropped off the map. Because I think with them, there’ll be a natural alliance you can form on the basis of the fear that the returning multiple players are going to all align against us.
You talked a little bit about this, and how you’re hoping people will see you as very trustworthy. But how do you think they do see you? And it might be the same answer. You have your book on other people; they have their book on you. Flesh that out for me a little bit, and tell me how you think they see you.
My guess, in terms of how people see me, is that I’m a strong strategic competitor. I don’t know if they see me as much of a physical threat, because I was able to hide behind Ozzy for most of my season. I think people generally think of me as a fairly loyal person that hasn’t built a reputation for blindsiding people, just to make a big move, or to do it in a malicious fashion. So my hope coming into this is that people see me as a straight shooter, who’s not aligned with other people, and that they’d want to work with.
And when I go to like a Boston Rob, or Sandra or Parvati, I’ll basically say, “Listen, I won 13 years ago. I dropped off the map. I haven’t been following all the seasons. I don’t really know how it’s played nowadays. I feel like I need to align with someone who has more relevant experience. What I can offer you in return is a loyal vote.” I think I can play that up to the point where people will confide in me and trust in me. But the reality is I’m planning on playing a much harder game than I did last time. On the Cook Islands, because of the whole racial twist, I felt like very constrained in terms of how I could play. This time around, I have no constraints. It’ll be basically me, playing to the full tilt to the best of my abilities.
I also think I’m coming into this season in a comparable position that Sarah Lacina did. She played her initial season, played a clean game, got booted out. The second time around, I think people assumed she’d play the same way. She had a lot of integrity, and so they would work with her, but she was able to use that to her advantage and manipulate and deceive people in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if they’d been on guard with her. I think that’s how I’m coming into this game right now. So I think I have a lot of options, a lot of flexibility that I’ll use to my advantage.
Are you too analytical?
I don’t think I’m too analytical. I’m very analytical. The thing that I think I did the first time, though, was to expose my analytical side to other people. And I think it made them a little bit nervous. So, honestly, I think when I play this time around, I’m still going to run the scenarios in my head, do all the numbers. But in terms of what I communicate to other people, I’m definitely going to try to tone it down a little bit.
What is your biggest weakness then? I mean, you were a very well-rounded player last time.
I think my biggest weakness right now is just a lack of connection to other people and inexperience. I think all the other dimensions, I check all the boxes. Like strategically, that’s something that I consider to be a strength. Socially, I think that is actually something that was underplayed, the first time around. The reason why I got to the end was not because I had the hidden immunity idol, but everyone felt that I was going to take them to the final with me. So, they had no incentive to flip on me, whether or not I had the idol.
And then the athletic side, you know, I went against Ozzy. And I don’t think I could beat him in the majority of competitions. He’s a guy that’s just a phenom. But I also didn’t go full-tilt, because in my season, I wanted him to be the big physical threat. And if I ended up winning an immunity challenge, and I already had a hidden immunity idol, that would put pressure on me to give one of these immunities to someone in my alliance, and as soon as I did that it would fracture the alliance. So, my goal was to just kind of coast in behind Ozzy. Now, I’d love to try to go full-tilt, and see what I can do on the challenges. Can I mention one other thing?
Yeah, go. Don’t stop.
One of the reasons I am playing this time around, and that for me is a real motivator, is Jonathan Penner is one of my closest friends. Coming out of Survivor, we stayed in very close touch. I’ve gotten to know his wife, his kids, and vice versa. His wife, Stacy Title, is suffering from ALS. And it is an absolutely brutal, devastating disease. She was diagnosed about a year and a half ago, and at this point [May, 2019] she’s lost all motor function except for the ability to move her eyes. And maybe some rough head movements. And it’s just been an incredibly, incredibly difficult burden on her and Jonathan, and their kids. So, one thing I’d love to do, for me, the idea of going on Survivor and having someone win a million dollars, even if it’s me, it’s not something that’s going to make a huge difference.
I mean, again, we all want a million dollars, right? If I win, I would love to do something to really help support Jonathan Penner, Stacy, their family, and all the other people who are suffering from ALS. So one thing that I’m thinking about doing is, if I get to the end, I would love to see if CBS would be willing to do a dollar for dollar match, in which case I think I’d probably donate everything I have. All the prize money. That I think would be a really meaningful way to celebrate this particular season, but more importantly, help people who actually need the help, as opposed to another one of us who are already millionaires.
That would be an epic ending to what is sure to be an epic season. And this is why people love you so much! It’s a great idea, and it’s a great cause. And any support that can go that way is obviously welcome. For people listening to and reading this, any dollar that can be donated, obviously, makes a difference. Yul, good luck out there, man. And before I let you go: Are Becky and Sundra somewhere still trying to make fire? Is that still happening? Is that competition still going on?
I don’t know. I started to smell some smoke, but …