Last night, Iowa sex therapist Denise Stapley outlasted returning competitor Michael Skupin and former Facts of Life child star Lisa Whelchel to be crowned the champion of Survivor: Philippines and winner of the $1 million prize. "In Iowa, you can do a lot with this," Stapley said after being named the victor by host Jeff Probst.
So what exactly will she be doing with the money? We hopped on the phone with Stapley to talk about her plans for her winnings, the final tribal council and her one regret about this past season.
Congratulations! How does it feel now that everyone knows you're the big winner?
Denise Stapley: It's surreal. It's just surreal.
What have you been doing between wrapping the show in the spring and now?
It's so funny. I came back from the island and, literally, life resumed. I went back into my office and started working that Monday or Tuesday. And life just resumed, and it was kind of like until things started up in the fall I just had to let life happen. And that's what's been unfolding until last night. It's so bizarre to be here.
Can you describe how you were feeling during that last Tribal Council?
When we were still out there, you are just overwhelmed. You're thinking, "This is it. Speak your mind. Speak it clear. Make your point." And leaving that last Tribal Council, there was that part of me that thought, "You know, I think I might have just done it. I might have just won." But then you have five months to replay it and to think and to doubt yourself. So, until last night, there was no way I was going to allow myself to think this was real.
Did you ever imagine when you started the show that you would end up here as the winner?
I think everyone likes to think, "Absolutely I thought I'd be here." Obviously that's how you go into it. But no. My gosh, my tribe was decimated. I switched tribes. I kept going down. I was like the bottom feeder working her way up like every stinking time. But each time, you get a little bit more hopeful; it's like stages. But until I was sitting in that final three, nope. I could never think, "This is really going to happen."
If you could attribute your victory to one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Honestly, I think the social game is huge. But I can't just say it's that. It's luck and it's strategy. But the social game in Survivor gets underestimated all the time. It's huge. It just is.
Last night, Lisa's famous childhood was revealed. When it happened, did you think that was going to change anything about the outcome?
I didn't necessarily think it was going to change things dramatically. The look on my face at that tribal was like, "Oh my gosh, I'm surprised!" But I wasn't. I knew who she was from the very, very start. But I think it was just that planting something about mistrust, or she didn't share this. But I knew that [Jonathan] Penner would likely bring that up in the final Tribal Council. I've even been asked, "Why didn't you do it?" It just didn't serve my benefit. There was no benefit to me that I saw in outing her at the final Tribal Council.
If you could go back and do this all over again, would you do anything differently?
The only thing—and luckily I've been able to make amends with her and make peace, is with Abi-Maria. And not about the essence of what I said; hopefully it came across very clear in that final Tribal Council. There are just pockets of time when the essence of what I was saying I truly felt it, and I still feel it, how she was in game. But the way that I said it was too absolute, in the sense that she's not a caring person. And that wasn't fair of me. That's really my one regret is, "You know, you could have worded that a bit nicer." But at the same time, that's what came out.
Do you have any plans for the money?
We do, but we are going to take some time to just breathe first. I've got a little 9-year-old girl, and we want to make sure her future is secured for college and moving ahead. We have nieces and nephews. We really want to take some time to say, "What can we do as really good stewards of this gift that Survivor just handed us?"
Would you do another season of Survivor if they asked?
Without a doubt. As much as I can say I've had my full Survivor experience, I love the game. That's why I applied in the first place. I truly love the game. I'd like for my daughter to be a little bit older, but no, I would not hesitate.
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