'Survivor' Winner on That Fiery Controversy: "I Never Gave Up and I Never Quit"

SURVIVOR 35 - Million Dollar Night -Pinto, Zahalsky, Hofbeck, Ulrich and Driebergen  -Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of CBS

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for the season finale of CBS' Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers.]

Credit where it's due: Mike Zahalsky called his shot.

In the days before the season began, speaking into a microphone in the middle of the Fijian wilderness, just as the sun was poking up over the horizon, the man who would become the last Healer standing identified the most dangerous person on the Survivor battlefield: Ben Driebergen, or "the guy with the tattoos," as Mike knew him then.

"Honestly, I think he's the biggest threat in the game," Mike said on that faraway day in Fiji. "Although he doesn't look it, he's very charismatic. He's very charming. He's very easy to talk to. People congregate to him. But he also has tattoos all over his body. And I believe that tattoos tell a story, and that his story from his tattoos are not necessarily the same story as the guy [who has] the nice little child on his arm tattoo."

The other guy with tattoos, for what it's worth: Joe Mena, the bombastic player who often feuded with Ben, but ultimately awarded the Heroes Tribe veteran with a vote for the million dollar prize — a prize Ben was more than happy to seize.

Joe's ballot was but one of the five votes that cemented Ben's status as the newest Survivor champion, a feat he accomplished only after finding and playing three hidden immunity idols in a row, and then finally benefiting from an eleventh-hour twist: a fire-making challenge at the final four, with the winner moving on to the final Tribal Council. Consider it yet another stroke of good fortune for Ben, whose game looked all but derailed three votes earlier. Instead, he walks away from Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers with the million dollar prize, the Sole Survivor title and a big smile on his face.

Read on for our conversation with Ben, conducted on the red carpet at the live Survivor finale, with topics ranging from the surprise he received onstage to the controversial way in which he wound up in the final three and much more.

How are you feeling? You seem like you're on fire right now.

I'm on fire. I'm nervous. I'm shaking.

It's just us! We're okay!

Okay, I can calm down. (Laughs.) It was awesome. This was awesome. Such a great feeling. Great cast. Great competition with Chrissy and Ryan at the end, and Devon? I wouldn't want to go up against anyone else in fire in the end other than Devon. That was amazing. For the jury to see through some of my shenanigans and cockiness and whatever, and still award me Sole Survivor and a million dollars for my kids? I can't thank them enough.

You received five of the eight jury votes — do you know which ones you earned?

I saw Lauren's vote. I don't know the others. I'll have to go and rewatch the tape. [Editor's note: Ben's other votes came from Joe Mena, JP Hilsabeck, Cole Medders and Desi Williams.] Lauren voting for me was a huge thing. I took her out in a one to nothing vote, and I thought she would hold that against me. But we had such a big and tight bond together. I thought she was going to be a little bit bitter, so I can't thank her enough.

What was that night like for you, at Final Tribal Council? It seemed like you were shaken up. Did you feel on edge the whole evening?

Yeah. Yes. I wanted to go in feeling humble and not aggressive. The last three Tribals, I was dropping all of the "Ben Bombs," and making scenes. I really wanted to go in there and pump the brakes. I didn't want to go in there and act like a fool. I wanted to slow my game down and talk to people on a personal level. That's something I've worked on forever. Especially when you put a million dollars on the line ... it makes people do things they normally wouldn't do. It was a good feeling.

You started this season playing a very measured game, and somewhere along the way, there was a shift. Can you sense where the shift took place?

Going into the game, I wanted to stay ... not under the radar, but wanting to have a grasp on my game without being a dictator. I hit the beach [with the Heroes Tribe], and we're able to come together: Alan, Chrissy, JP, Ashley and I. We were all leaders, but none of us wanted to lead. We had an awesome shelter, but no one wanted to take on leading the shelter. I was fed, too. I had some extra pounds on, which was nice. Then I [swapped] over to Yawa and linked up with Lauren, and our goal was simple: Win challenges, win challenges, win challenges. We needed to keep [Cole Medders, Mike Zahalsky and Jessica Johnston] motivated so they wouldn't throw a challenge. We needed to keep ourselves in the game. We were on the bottom. Lauren and I fought together and kept those three comfortable and encouraged them to win. They could have thrown a challenge and gotten us out at any point. At the merge, Joe labeled me "King Ben," and everything like that...

That really seemed to bother you. Did it bother you because it was true, or did it bother you because he was painting a target on you?

It bothered me because it was true and he was painting a target on me. It was so easy to suggest things to some of the other castaways, and they would give feedback. I wasn't a dictator all the way. They would give feedback, and I would talk through options. When those options were announced, they would say, "Okay, that makes sense." With the whole undercover thing that happened [in which Ben acted like a spy with Ryan Ulrich and Chrissy Hofbeck], I had to slow my game down. Chrissy was telling me I was acting like a dictator, so I had to slow it down. Devon came up with the plan for the whole double-agent idea, which was perfect, since I had to slow down anyway. It worked perfectly with Ryan and Chrissy, because they had just thought of me as a dictator.

Coming back from the vote against Joe, your status as a spy was revealed, and things got testy between you and Chrissy very quickly — which seemed pretty bad, honestly. Can you talk me through why things escalated to that point?

Right. When we came back to camp after the Joe vote, and I love Chrissy to death, but whenever she was out of the loop on anything, she would try to pester you and make you feel like you had to tell her — like she was entitled to that information. I'm really not saying Chrissy is entitled or anything; I love Chrissy to death. But I felt I told her that Joe's gone, and that's that. I didn't feel I needed to tell her anything else. After talking to her, I knew that bridge was burned. I went down to the beach and spoke with Ashley, Devon and Lauren, and they weren't having it. They were talking with Doctor Mike already, and something was in the works with him. I knew my number was up. I had just burned my bridge with Chrissy, then walked down to the beach and there's Mike with Devon, Lauren and Ashley. 

Which takes you into the world of "Ben Bombs," playing three idols in a row in order to stay in the game. The one that caught the most chatter was the idol you played before the votes were cast. What was the thought process there, and was there ever any debate as to whether it was even doable?

The idol I played before the votes were even cast, Devon had called me out: "I don't think Ben has an idol." He's pushing my buttons. I pulled the idol out, and he goes, "Ben's not even going to play that idol." I told him, "I'll play it right now." And he goes, "No you won't." And I go, "Jeff, can I play this?" And he goes, "Bring it up here!" So I brought it up there and that's when I said, "Jeff, I'm making it into the final five." He took it! It wasn't even me trying to make a Survivor first. I wanted to blow these five up on themselves. I knew going into Tribal it would be a three-two split between me and Ashley, just because of the way they were working Mike along. When you see me trying to work with Ashley, and pulling someone else along, she hit a brick wall. She turned to me at that point [for help]. The reason I voted her out was because I knew I had to go back to camp and try to patch things up. You have to think about the game 24/7. When you slip, that's when things start happening. It's easy to get complacent, but the more you can focus on the game, the longer you stay in it.

You play three idols in a row. The final four immunity challenge occurs, which you lose, and it looks like you're dead to rights. And then there's a twist: a fire-making challenge to make it into the Final Tribal Council. As much as you can take a bird's eye view on it, what do you think about the twist? It certainly benefits you tremendously, but what are your thoughts on it as someone who watched Survivor long before you played?

My thoughts on the twist as a fan ... in traditional seasons, the big players who are making moves and leading the tribe and playing the game hard get taken out at six, five and four. You saw it this year: After Lauren, they tried to get me out at seven, six, five and four. Having that twist in there adds more drama and a little bit more intensity to the game, instead of having three people who have just pulled each other along to the end and voting three to one at the final four. How many times has that happened?

It's a controversial twist, just looking quickly at the reaction online. What do you say to those people who think about the twist's impact on your victory — getting to the final three with this twist as the mechanism to put you in that position?

I guess I would have to say that regardless of what happened, I still had to work my way into the final three. It was a fire challenge between Devon and I. It very easily could have been Devon who won. And he had practice! He was out there breaking flint. Just because I was able to find my idols, and just because I was able to make fire ... from the top looking down, I can see it. But I played the game. I got up early. I never gave up and I never quit. I was always looking for idols. It was on the paths everyone was on. Everyone walked along these places.

And were any of them following you?

Ryan was! When the three of them — Devon, Chrissy and Mike — went to the reward, Ryan literally followed me all day long. I had to act like I was looking for an idol, so I just looked at him and went, "Dude! You're like a little puppy! Go away and let me look for an idol!" (Laughs.) And he was like, "Come on. You know I can't do that!" The whole time I had it and was trying to make sure he thought I was still looking. When Chrissy came back with that [fake] idol, or whatever it was, I was actually really relieved because I was so tired of looking for fake idols. (Laughs.) It was awful, and then it was awesome. It was awesome.

We spoke in the pregame about the life you lived in the years leading up to shipping out for Survivor. You were a man of America, traveling around the country from job to job. Tonight, friends of yours, your fellow former soldiers, surprised you onstage — on top of winning the million dollars just a few minutes earlier. What does a night like tonight mean for you?

Oh, gosh ... (Pauses.) To have my buddies coming out like that? Seeing them all bearded and dad-bodied like me? It was like seeing my brothers all over again. We lost some good friends out there and we had to rely on each other. Those guys are my brothers for life. I hadn't seen them for 12 or however many years — and it was like we had never left. It was an emotional moment for me. I'm sure it was an emotional moment for them. I know they're proud of me. It was crazy. Really.

I ask this question a lot, and somehow I feel I already know the answer: You would play this game again, wouldn't you?

Oh, totally. Kelly [Ben's wife] told me I could go back out and play again, definitely. At this point, I'm just waiting on the call from Jeff [Probst].

How do you like your odds on round two?

Not too good. (Laughs.) I don't think so. Unless it's an all-winner season. If you put some other good winners out there, I might have a chance. But otherwise ... anything other than that... 

Why do you feel that way?

Because I put my heart out there. I played like it was my second time. Doing that on your first time, I would probably have a very big target. I would change my game up, but we'll just have to wait and see if it happens.

Watch Ben congratulate his future self for winning, from all the way back on the day before the game began:

Follow THR.com/Survivor for more coverage of the Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers finale, as well as the inside scoop on what to expect from Survivor: Ghost Island.