Many contestants don’t make it through even one Tribal Council. Denise Stapley made it through 13 of them and still was able to win the million.
Denise is what you may call the classic “underdog” on Survivor. Losing every single challenge, she was all alone in the game when she joined the Kalabaw tribe, but somehow, she avoided the boot. Lasting until the merge, she was able to re-unite with former Matsing tribe mate Malcolm and never looked back. A physical competitor and mentally tough, Denise played that unique game where she flew under-the-radar, but at the same time won people over with her social game. She made a few strategic moves along the way, but never had any blood on her hands. Once Malcolm was cut loose at the Final 4, Denise was able to win over the jury, with a decisive 6-1-1 win.
I spoke with both Denise today, the day after the Finale Episode. Here’s our discussion:
So you were a very strong player throughout the entire game. Why do you think the others viewed you as an underdog?
Denise Stapley: I’ve heard it described as “riding coattails” and I’ve heard it described as “flying under-the-radar,” but I think I just played a quiet but smart game. I knew I had my alliance with Malcolm that felt solid, and as long as those were going well, there was no need for me to be the bull in the china shop and make a lot of noise. I just continued to maneuver from tribe to tribe and that was my strategy.
Going to every single Tribal Council and then winning Survivor as you did is truly amazing.
Well thank you, yes it is!
Was there ever a point though, where you felt truly desperate, like you were in true danger of going home?
I think the night that it probably sunk in was the night that I saw my name written down twice, the night Jonathan Penner was voted out. I was just thinking, ah, this could be it. That night I definitely felt it and I was worried.
What was your plan with Malcolm, did you really want to go to the end with him?
It sort of sounds like a bad break-up (laughs). I went to him at the Final 4 and tried to shore up what his thoughts were going forward. He just could never give me that confirmation and I gave him ample opportunities to do it. I would have taken him. But when I didn’t get what I needed I went to Plan B and thank goodness it worked.
Early on, were you worried that Malcolm was actually going to keep Angie over you?
Day 1 or Day 2, me and Malcolm aligned and although that was always a worry, I just knew that Malcolm was a smart kid. He could have probably brought Angie along but I knew that he was looking at strength, at a more well-rounded alliance. So there was a bit of a worry, but I had a lot of reassurance from him at that point.
Malcolm mentioned in his exit interview that you were pretty much a lock to win Survivor once he left the game and that ended up being true. How confident were you once Malcolm left the game, that you had won? I’m sure you didn’t want to jinx yourself by being overconfident…
I think you used the perfect word, jinx. Leaving that Final Tribal Council there was definitely a part of me that was like, wow, you just did it. But we have like five months to replay this over and over in our heads and to recount the jury votes that you think you may have had. But every single jury member could have called me and said Denise, great game, you just won a million bucks, and I still would not have believed it until last night. So as much as I wanted to hope, I never really let myself truly believe that I had done it.
You were almost “forced” into an alliance with Malcolm, after your tribe had been decimated early on and you were the only two left. But the game that you ultimately played, how different was it from the game that you had wanted to play for yourself coming into Survivor?
The game that I actually got to play is almost identical to the game that I wanted to play. I laugh, I actually wrote out on my computer at home a two-page strategy going in and ultimately, it ended up almost by the book being how I layed out. From the building of relationships to knowing what I needed to do at the end. It really played out the way that I had envisioned.
So what was your strategy going into your final speech? What did you think separated you from Skupin and Lisa?
You know, the number one thing that I needed to make clear was that I had survived every single Tribal Council. That would completely separate me from both of them.
What surprised you the most watching everything back on TV?
Above and beyond, it was how early on, compared to when I was thinking it, that Malcolm was ready to cut me loose. That was quite funny to re-watch.
Did you ever find out what bit you on the neck?
You know, we don’t know. We assumed it was a centipede, but we’ll never know.
What was more difficult: The game of Survivor or being with Abi for 30+ days?
(Laughs) Honestly, living on the island with Abi. You know, I have a very high tolerance for lots of things. I was able to last through the rain and it was miserable and horrible. But you have hope that the rain is going to end. With Abi, it just didn’t end. Trying to keep my patience was difficult for me.
What do you plan on doing with the million?
So many things are going through my mind, but the first thing is that we just need to breathe. My family needs to breathe. We have a nine year-old daughter and we just want to make sure that her future is taken care of, we have neices and nephews, so we just really want to be a good steward of this gift that Survivor literally just hands you. We’ll take our time to figure it out, but you know, a nice vacation somewhere where it’s actually warm and sunny, minus rain, in a shelter (laughs), I would love that.
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