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[Warning: Spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen the Wednesday night finale of Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X.]
A new Survivor winner has been crowned.
Adam Klein was named the winner of the 33rd season of the CBS reality competition, earning a $1 million cash prize along with the title of Sole Survivor. Host/executive producer Jeff Probst announced the winner during the live portion of the show’s three-hour final Wednesday night.
The 25-year-old homeless shelter manager beat out barista Hannah Shapiro, 24, and model/single father model Ken McNickle, 33.
Klein broke down in tears during the last tribal council after opening up about the fact that he was playing for his mom, who several months earlier had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. In the end, it was a unanimous decision: He receive all of the jury votes. (Read THR TV critic Daniel Fienberg’s full recap here.)
This season was subtitled Millennials vs. Gen X and kicked off with two tribes of players each. Heading into the finale there were six players left, three from each tribe. The millennials included Klein, Shapiro and real estate agent Jay Starrett, 27; the three Gen X’ers were McNickle, police sergeant Bret LaBelle, 42, and TV writer David Wright, 42.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to all six finalists after Wednesday night’s live finale to get some answer to some burning questions. Read below to see what they had to say.
ADAM KLEIN, WINNER
You said during the live finale that when you got home, you told your mom you knew that you had won. Why were you so confident?
As soon as Dave was voted out, I had a very strong feeling that I was in the position that I had been intending to put myself in since the merge. These were the people that I wanted to go to the end with that I thought I would have a convincing argument against. And I went into tribal council strongly believing that I had played the best game. I was able to articulate why I had made each of the moves I made every step along the way. Of course, you didn’t see all of that in the final cut of the show, but I was able to go point by point and say why this made sense for me at the time. And there were times I made mistakes, but I was also able to articulate why I was able to recover from those mistakes. By the time I left tribal council, I knew I had won.
Were you surprised the vote was unanimous?
I didn’t know it was going to be unanimous, but I knew it was going to be nearly unanimous. Just from the conversations I had since then with the jury members and whatnot, every indication was there. I had reason to be confident. Enough people had told me [they had voted for me], so if there was any doubt in my mind, there wasn’t anymore.
Was Jay the only person you told about your mom being sick?
Actually, the night that Bret was voted out of the game, I had a long conversation with Ken about why it mattered so much to me because Ken is an incredible person who sees so much opportunity in the world for generosity and trust and loyalty and all those things, whereas if I were to tell someone like Hannah or Dave why I was playing, they would see it as a threat. Someone like Ken wants to bring people to the end who have strong reasons for being there. I wanted him to know, he’s playing for his daughter, and I’m also playing for someone. And if we didn’t vote out Dave, it would all be for naught. It was a good move strategically; he didn’t have to be upset about voting Dave out. He could take me to the finals and feel good about it. Either way, he was going to have to break a final-three deal with one of us. He promised it to both Dave and me.
Ken seemed surprised when you were given credit for his decision to vote out Dave.
Ken absolutely made the decision he thought would win him the game. The only problem for Ken was that he also needed to vote me out, and he didn’t see that I had such a strong relationship with the jury members. And to be honest, neither did the audience in many ways. I was making strong bonds with these people, and I think people missed that because I was connecting with them one on one. They liked me, but the group didn’t like me. I would sleep alone at night because I didn’t want them to see me connect individually with anybody. And so I think people underestimated me. A lot of people wanted to go to the end with me but didn’t realize I had a very convincing argument to win the game.
If you and Dave had been in the final three together, do you think you still would have won?
This is hypothetical because there is no way Dave and I would have been in the final three together. I would always vote for him [to be eliminated], and he vote for me. But if that were the reality, Dave beats me. And part of that reason is because on purpose, I was building him up as an amazing player at every tribal council. I made a deliberate decision to voice that as much as possible, and I also didn’t want to vote him out until the final four or five. I knew that building him up so much that anyone with any sense knew he would win the game at the end. But in doing that, I ran the risk that if he got to the end, he would win. But that was a calculated risk to tell everyone how amazing he was so that if he got to the end, everyone knew he would win.
You said you’re going to donate $100,000 of your winnings to Stand Up to Cancer. What will you do with the rest of the money?
I’m not a consumer; I’m not a big spender. I work at a nonprofit; my salary is not as high as it would be in the profit sector. This money lets me continue to pursue my passions and work on causes that I really care about without worrying about myself financially. I’m not making any big purchases. I’ll keep making money to support myself with the basic necessities and doing what I love.
What are those causes?
I work at LifeMoves, and we try to get those people that are homeless back into housing and self-sufficiency. I also work with Represent Us, and we’re trying to get the corrupting influence of big money out of politics. I think our political system is totally broken right now, and money controls everything. If we can take that power and influence away from big interests in this country, then we’re giving a voice and vote back to people, which was how this democracy was intended to function.
You and Jay are still friends and even headed to Las Vegas this weekend. Will you spend a little of your winnings there?
I’m not the bottle service kind of guy. If someone wants to offer it to me for free, that would be awesome, and I’ll tweet about it. But I want to spend my money on things that I think are important in life. My relationships with people and laughing and loving and traveling.
Would you go back and play Survivor again?
Absolutely, in a heartbeat. It was a dream come true, and I would love to do it again.
KEN MCNICKLE, RUNNER-UP
It sounded like the jury didn’t recognize all the moves you made behind the scenes.
I was making moves with Gen X from the beginning, and people from the millennial tribe have come up to me and said, “Wow, I had no idea you were doing all that pre-merge.” Post-merge, I wanted to make sure I stayed under the radar. I was still working with and coming up with ideas with David post-merge, but I knew I was a physical threat going in. The first couple of days on the island, I heard Jay and Taylor saying, “We gotta get this guy out. So what do I do? I come back from a challenge, and make my shirt into a sling, and acted like my arm was really hurt. I winced and made noises. They bought it. I was no longer a physical threat to them. But I wish I hadn’t flown so far under the radar.
The look on your face when Chris gave Adam credit for your turning on your closest ally, Dave, and voting him out of the game, was priceless.
Ah, man. It took everything in my power not to lose it on that comment, and I was tired and hungry and ready to go home and squeeze my daughter. To hear that, to know that I had almost zero respect from these people — some [jury members] didn’t even acknowledge me or give me a chance to speak out. “So Adam…. So Hannah … Why do you deserve this?” I’m like, “I’m actually here. I’m not a shadow behind them.”
Would you play Survivor again?
Absolutely. I’d go out tomorrow if I could.
What would you do differently next time?
I’d be more aggressive. I’m an ex-football player, and I know there’s a time to be nice and a time to fight. I fought about it, but I was subtle about it. Next time I wouldn’t be.
Were you surprised Dave didn’t vote for you to win?
Um, no there are a lot of perspectives about what went down and how it went down. The thing that I don’t like about it is how the jury is there for an hour or two [at each tribal council] and they’re done. But they’re together multiple hours during the day; so when a group of 10 people together, there may be four ideas that become three ideas that become two that become one. And everyone says, “OK, yeah, I agree with you.” That has something to do with it. I would like to see that system different than what it is, but I don’t run the show.
Did you have a feeling you might not win going into tonight’s finale?
I had a feeling that it wasn’t going to go my way, but I thought I had at least three people on my team: Dave, Sunday and Jess.
Jess gave you her legacy advantage. Why do you think she didn’t vote for you to win?
I think she left that behind out of respect for how I treated her. [The audience] didn’t see the times that she was dealing with migraines or feeling sick. I am a massage therapist, so I was giving her massages, physically taking care of her. I also took her out of her alliance where she wouldn’t have lasted long and put her in our alliance, with Dave and me.
You must have had a lot of ideas about what that legacy advantage was before you were able to open it on day 36 [it gave him immunity at the next tribal council].
I had no idea. I thought it might be bringing someone back, kicking someone out. I had all these wild ideas about what it was going to be.
When you first heard Hannah comment’s about how attractive she thought you were, and that she was flirting with you, what was your reaction?
I had no idea. I literally had no idea. Some people are really open and really let you know when they’re flirting with you, and she never did. But she’s a sweet girl, and I look at her like a little sister. She’s amazing. I told her, had she been open about it from the get-go, we would have blown the whole “Figtails” thing out of the water [that’s the couple nickname given to Figgy and Taylor, who formed a close (and now-over) relationship on the island]. We would have knocked it out of the park. But she never told me, so that’s on her [smiles].
HANNAH SHAPIRO, RUNNER-UP
Both you and Jeff Probst talked a lot about your transformation over the season, from at first suffering a lot of anxiety, including a panic attack while watching one of the early challenges, into a confident woman making her own decisions. What sparked that change?
It was a combination of having to be out there on my own and having to believe in myself. I didn’t have family and friends from back home, and at the same time, and somewhat in conflict with that, I found incredible humans on the island who encouraged me and I related to. I realized early on that I wasn’t trusting my gut and I wasn’t trusting myself. I thought I’d go out there and be odd and people would go, “Oh, I don’t get her.” I started to look within myself and asking, why don’t I see myself as a winner? Once I started playing my own game, and fighting for it, I started believing in myself.
Was there one defining moment that you can point to that turned things around?
I think the moment that really woke me up was the Michaela vote. I was completely blindsided, but something in my gut told me not that the vote I thought was going to happen was not going to happen. So I thought, if I even get to the end, how am I going to argue my own case. I have to trust my own gut, or you’ll just see me at every tribal council with my jaw on the floor. After that, I went up to my allies and said, “This is who I want out. This is what I want to do.” I started making decisions without them.
Did you know going into the finale that you might not be the winner?
I was pretty sure Adam had won. I don’t regret anything. I played as hard as I could. I had a strong argument in the end, but the big problem was perception of my game. I used being quirky and silly to get information and get people to put their guards down. But I realized I hadn’t shown the jury what I was doing. But Adam is a great winner; I’m happy for him. I love him like a brother.
Would you play Survivor again?
I have so many things I want to do. I have a new sense of boldness. I want to go out there and try to be a TV writer, follow my passions, grow up a whole bunch. If I follow those — I have no idea. My mind is still boggled that I played one time. But I’ve been a fan of the show forever, so of course I’d be open to going back and starving on an island for America, because why not?
DAVID WRIGHT, FOURTH PLACE
Like Hannah, your big story line was your big transformation from someone filled with anxiety to being one of the game’s biggest threats. When and why do you think things turned around for you?
I started to feel confident when I found the idol, and also when we got evacuated because of the cyclone. At that time, I was at my most neurotic and paranoid. We got evacuated, and the game stopped, and I could kind of collect myself. I felt like I was in a calmer place. I then found the idol and gained confidence knowing that I’m not going to go out next because I’m going to play my idol. I felt like I would go a little further and deeper into the game than I thought I would on day one. So it was the cyclone and the idol and my trust in Ken.
Do you now have more confidence outside of the game?
I do. I just went on a Spartan run, leaped over some flames, and my friend got me into a dance class, which I never would have done before Survivor. I’m trying to live my life a little more than I did before the game, which I never would have done before Survivor. It was the Hail May I needed to start living my life more. I’m 42, and all my peers are married and have families, and it’s time I start doing that.
Are you still friends with Ken?
Absolutely. He stayed with me a couple of nights [recently]. We’re super tight. I have no resentment towards him, and he has none to me. We are an odd couple, but we are similar too. There are no hard feelings because I do believe the loyalty and trust I had with him is real, but also we were playing a game, and he made the move he had to make to win the game.
Why didn’t you vote for him to win the game?
I really did believe that Adam played the best game. His game reminded me of my own game. We both found idols. He had a good social game. People liked him. So in writing Adam’s name down, it felt like I was writing my own name down.
As a TV writer [he’s written for Family Guy, among other shows], what did your industry peers have to say about you going on a reality show like Survivor?
The feedback has been really awesome. Everyone has been so supportive. As the premiere was approaching, I was nervous about what they were going to show [on the air]. I was remembering all these embarrassing things that had happened. But everybody has been supportive and accepting. The feedback they give me is, “That is you up there. You didn’t put on an act or anything. That’s the person we all know and love.” It’s rewarding that you can be yourself on a show like Survivor and reveal so many personal things about yourself and it not be a negative thing.
What are you working on now?
My writing partner and I have sold an animated pilot to TBS and it stars Rhys Darby, who played Murray on Flight of the Conchords. We’re going to shoot here in a few months.
What’s the name of it?
I probably shouldn’t say any more about it [laughs].
Would you play Survivor again?
In a heartbeat. It was the most fun thing I’ve ever done in my life.
BRET LABELLE, FIFTH PLACE
You lied about your profession [he’s a police officer, but said that he worked in a funeral home]. Do you think that helped you in the long run?
I have been watching Survivor since the first season. A lot of police officers don’t get far. Obviously, Tony [Vlachos, winner of Survivor: Cagayan] went all the way, but he didn’t tell them he was a police officer when he went all the way. So what am I gonna do? Follow the police officer that didn’t get a million, or follow the police officer that did get a million? I’m going to follow the police officer that did get the million. I used a profession I knew something about; I did work part-time in a funeral home. So I knew the answers to the questions [that a skeptical Shapiro was asking] even though it may have looked I didn’t. And it never came up again. People were shocked at the end when I told them where I worked [after I got voted out].
You confessed on the show to fellow contestant Zeke Smith that you are gay. What’s been the reaction from your friends, family, co-workers or strangers?
My co-workers have been wonderful. They’ve been reaching out, texting, tweeting, calling, emailing, showing their support. They’re happy for me to finally be able to be myself. People have just been wonderful. I’m so happy to work in a place like the Boston Police Department where people go out of their way to tell me how much they love me and that it’s great I can be myself.
So in a way, you really were coming out to more people than just Zeke?
I had been coming out to close friends and family, and I think other people had an idea, but no, I hadn’t said those words like I said, on a beach, in front of 10.5 million people. So that was really the first time I told everybody.
And would you play Survivor again if asked?
Absolutely. Sign me up.
JAY STARRETT, SIXTH PLACE
So, we have to talk about that fake idol. You had no idea it wasn’t real?
[Laughs.] No. I was so tired and hungry and out of it and so ready to get a grasp back on the game that the moment I saw that emblem [painted on a coconut that Dave had made in the hopes of tricking another player], I knew it was an idol and I was going to take it and put it in my pocket. I didn’t realize it was fake. It was so stupid.
Were you surprised you were voted out at that time? Did you think Adam might keep you around for one more week?
I knew I was going home. I knew it in my gut. I didn’t play [the real hidden immunity idol] all that time because of my gut. But I knew. Adam told me all the time, “Jay, I’m not keeping you,” and I’m like, “Yeah, I know, but can you at least try?” I knew for a fact he’d never keep me because I’d probably beat him.
Are you still friends?
We’re brothers. We hang out. We’re gonna go to Vegas this weekend. I love him. He’s a good person.
Is he paying for the trip?
[Laughs.] No. I’m not going to let him pay.
What was the hardest moment out there for you?
The moment my sister had to leave. I didn’t want her to go. That moment was so beautiful. I went back into the game and I was like, “OK, I gotta win,” but I failed.
Had you applied for the show before?
Yeah, I was an alternate for Cambodia, Michele’s season [Michele Fitzgerald won season 32]. They finally let me play.
Do you feel like being labeled as a millennial or Gen X’er consciously or subconsciously affected your or anyone else’s game play?
Oh, I kinda figured it out as soon as I saw everyone. I knew something was up. I knew it was going to be gnarly and sick. I love it. But I didn’t even know I was a millennial until they called me on. Bret said he didn’t know he was Gen X. When I got out there, I didn’t even think about that. I was just playing my game. It was not about being a millennial or Gen X.
What was the best thing about playing Survivor?
The challenges, man. I love them with all my heart. I wish I could play them every day. I wish that could be my workout. I only sat out one, the one with the fire pole. I saw all of them sliding down, and I’m like, “Dude, I would have just jumped off that thing.”
Would you play Survivor again?
For sure. If they want me to get on a boat right now, let’s go.
Gail Speight, Kimberly Nordyke’s mom and a huge Survivor fan, contributed to this report.
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