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[WARNING: Spoilers ahead from Sunday’s Season 23 finale episode. Read at your own risk!]
Host Jeff Probst presented the 22-year-old medical student with a $1 million check during the live finale.
Clarke beat runner-up — and three-time contestant — Benjamin “Coach” Wade and third-place finisher Albert Destrade to take home the title of “sole Survivor.”
After the finale, the top six finalists — who also included three-time competitor Oscar “Ozzy” Lusth, winner of the $100,000 fan favorite award; Rick Nelson; and Brandon Hantz — shared secrets of the 23rd season with The Hollywood Reporter. Among the tidbits gleaned on the red carpet:
— Hantz was hurt by his uncle Russell Hantz’s harsh criticism of his game play. Russell Hantz — a three-time competitor who has been called one of the show’s most devious villains — said during the live finale that he thought his nephew “did everything wrong” while playing the game of Survivor. The younger Hantz says he “disagreed” with his uncle’s assessment but admitted his words were “disheartening.” “I still love my uncle, but I’m proud of the way I played.” he says. He added that when he tried out for the show, he mentioned in his audition video that Russell Hantz was his uncle and believes that gave him a leg up in making the final cut. As for Probst’s suggestion that the duo come back and play Survivor again on different tribes, Brandon Hantz is all for it. “I look forward to seeing Russell on the island and seeing who is the bigger Hantz in the family.” He added that his uncle is “strategically the best player who’s ever played the game, but morally I didn’t agree with the way he played.”
— Lusth and Wade had only days to decide whether to compete in the show. Lusth got the call from producers about three weeks before filming started, while Wade received his invitation only a week and a half before. For both, it was a no-brainer to sign up for a third go-round. “There was no hesitation,” Wade says. Meanwhile, Lusth — who is opening a restaurant in Hollywood and wants to open a brewery in L.A. — thought he might “possibly earn a big chunk of change” to pursue those endeavors by competing once again. Would either come back for a fourth try at the $1 million? “Never say never, but right now I don’t think so,” Lusth says, while Wade is spending his time focusing on a reality show he has in the works — “my own show” — but he declined to give more specifics other than to say it could be on the air by fall 2012.
— Wade wasn’t really the mastermind behind all the strategic movies. So says Destrade, who claims that he and winner Clarke were the ones controlling the game the whole time. “We spoon-fed him the strategy, and he was just the mouthpiece for it,” Destrade says.
— Nelson applied for the show 14 times. The player, who was nicknamed “Cowboy” by some of the contestants, says he’s a huge fan of the show and actually had made it pretty far in the audition process three previous times that he applied. Viewers of the show have noted that he didn’t get a lot of screen time, but Nelson claims that was part of his strategy, to keep quiet and maintain a low profile. Meanwhile, the player will probably be most remembered for groping his wife’s behind during the family visit episode. Of the incident, he says, “My wife didn’t even think a thing about it because I do it all the time.” For the record, they have been married for 31 years.
— Wade was devastated at coming in second. His exact words? “Gutted, eviscerated, emacerated. Nobody goes to the national championship game to lose.” While he said his fellow finalists also “deserved to win,” he still thinks he should have taken home the $1 million prize. “I feel like I won,” he says. Still, he does think he “connected with the audience like never before. The first time I played, I was a character. The second time, I was sensitive, maybe too sensitive. This time I went out there to play.”
— Despite coming in second and fourth, respectively, Wade and Lusth both felt like they had targets on their backs from Day 1. Don’t assume returning players have it easy, despite their top four finishes, they say, and you can blame “Boston” Rob Mariano — who ruled last season by dominating his tribe to win the game — for that, Wade says. Lusth has some advice for future Survivor contestants when it comes to returning players: “We should have been gone sooner. The tribes should have cut us.”
— Clarke isn’t a fan of the “Redemption Island” twist. The twist, introduced in the 22nd season, sees contestants voted out heading to Redemption Island, where they have a chance to get back in the game at a later date. “It’s a bad twist,” she says. “The whole show is about getting those you had a hand in voting out to give you the $1 million. It’s about breaking bonds, but Ozzy [who spent several nights on Redemption Island] didn’t have to go through that. It’s stressful as a player, and I don’t like it.” As for how she plans to spend the $1 million? To help pay for medical school.
— Despite calling her a “spoiled brat” on the show, Lusth is friends with Clarke now. The two have even hung out together since filming ended. “There’s no bitterness,” Clarke says. “We clashed because we’re actually very similar; we’re both confident competitors, but there can be only one alpha dog in this game.”
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