Denise Stapley became the 25th person to win Survivor on Sunday night, taking home the million dollar prize after miraculously surviving every single Tribal Council in the Philippines outing of the CBS hit reality show.
Denise started the game on the doomed Matsing tribe, sticking out as her tribemates went home one by one, finally leaving only her and her alliance-mate Malcolm. She later joined the Tandang tribe, and managed, somewhat miraculously to hang on until the merge, when she was reunited with Malcolm and seemed to have a renewed shot in the game.
Denise, a sex therapist from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, says of her strategy coming into the game, "I remember laughing -- I wrote out a two page strategy. It looked a lot like I live my life outside the game. Build relationships, and keep building them. It's part of who I am. That was vital because of having to be the bottom feeder."
Denise says of surviving her first Kalabaw tribal council, "That was luck. I won't even mince words on that one. The luck of the draw for me was Dana getting sick. ... Had Dana not been sick, I would probably not be talking to you." She says that since Kalabaw members Katie and Dawson struggled physically, she was able to look "for the cracks."
Denise proved small but mighty in the physical challenges, and says, "I didn't know what to expect. I'm really happy with the way that I was able to perform in challenges. ... I work out six days a week and swim and do a little bit of jogging. ... The game just brought out this part in me that I don't even know I had. .. The first thing I did when I came home was do my first gladiator [event]."
In terms of whether her relationships with fellow members of the final four were real or for strategy she stresses, "That was completely genuine. ... People won't ever believe that, but we know. ... We slept next to each other for weeks and would have conversations about our kids and our families and things in our lives and the game. It was 100% genuine and real."
Denise also reveals that she recognized Lisa Whelchel as a celebrity on day one, and actually was the one who revealed it to Jonathan Penner. "From my understanding, Jonathan had a sense that he knew Lisa from someplace… my telling him was a confirmation," Denise says.
Penner later told Denise during the final tribal council that she had come off as a "bitch" on the show. Denise says in reaction to that, "It was mean. It was really, if anything, it was shocking. You can see it on my face, it's like, wow! Ouch, that hurt! … I'm pretty sure that was coming from a reflection of how I might be seen. ... It was coming, I believe, from the [clashes in my] relationship with Abi, and how that could be portrayed.
Of what went down between her and Abi, Denise says, "[Watching it on TV] just doesn't translate how bad it was out there with her. ... Therapist or not, I'm human, [and] it was shocking to me that she'd never experienced any feedback about her being this way. ... In the game, that's who she was, it's not a bad edit, that's who she was. ... I think she was just shocked, just, to have me challenge her. For her, it was like coming out of left field."
Of what she plans to do with her winnings, Denise says that she and her husband "plan first to breathe, just breathe and take it in." She says that they want to put some aside for their nine-year-old daughter's education fund, and adds, "We've got some big decisions." The always level-headed competitor stresses that she and her husband want to be "good stewards" of the million dollar prize.