Interview: Denise Stapley discusses her ‘Survivor: Philippines’ win

We’ve reached the end of the “Survivor: Philippines” exit interview road, which means we’ve reached the peak.
In the past three days, you’ve read my interview with popular 4th place finisher Malcolm Freberg, as well as the conversations with Mike Skupin and Lisa Whelchel, who made it to the Finals, but received only one vote apiece. 
That brings us to the million dollar winner, Denise Stapley. Calm, analytical, tough Denise, who made an alliance with Malcolm on Day One and chose exactly the right moment to separate from that alliance and stand on her own, received six of eight Jury votes to comfortably take the title of Sole Survivor. 
A sex therapist from Iowa, Denise was strong in challenges and masterfully read the competition in her confessional segments. And if she was sometimes just a wee bit too blunt when it came to taking down lesser players — Sorry, Abi — it made her look decisive compared to the wishy-washy Tandang duo she faced at the Jury.
In her exit interview, Denise discusses that Jury, including the harsh reactions from Malcolm and Jonathan Penner (who both voted for her anyway).  She also talks about the “Survivor” advantage that came from her profession, as well as the difficult journey from a struggling early tribe to victory.
Click through for the final “Survivor: Philippines” exit interview…

HitFix: So how much of the Jury vote had you already anticipated or predicted before the Reunion Show?
Denise Stapley: You know, I had replayed those votes or kinda guessed about those votes over and over. I truly wasn’t sure about any of them. There were a few I hoped, but leaving that final Tribal Council, I just didn’t know. I just didn’t know, truly, how it was going to play out.
HitFix: And the way you figured, if you were going to lose, who was it gonna be to?
Denise: I figured if I was gonna lose, it was definitely going to be to Skupin. I just didn’t think that Lisa was gonna get it. But here, they each got one, they split those votes. But I thought for sure if I didn’t, it was gonna be Skupin.
HitFix: You never know with a “Survivor” Jury how bitter or how content they’re going to be. What were you expecting and how did the actual tone of the Jury compare to that?
Denise: For the most part, I got what I was expecting outside of: One, I was expecting guns blazing with Abi and she brought it and even in last night’s show, you saw a fraction of that, but her comments on our interaction was a bit longer at Tribal Council and I completely anticipated that and knew “Be prepared” and was hopeful that somehow I could kinda smooth that. What surprised me, ones I didn’t expect, were comments from Jonathan and even the fire that Malcolm lit for me when he addressed me, so those were some of the surprising things about it for me.
HitFix: I think most people were surprised by the Penner and Malcolm moments. What did you make of those two responses?
Denise: With Jonathan, in the moment I’m like, “Where is that comment coming from, that I’d been that bitch?” but I’m pretty sure, when I think back, that that is related to… Jonathan and I had had conversations about  just how you’re gonna come across in the game and he had witnessed, everybody had witnessed, the tensions between Abi and I and how that might be portrayed, the possibility that I could come off as this woman who’s just demoralized this poor Brazilian woman and I think that’s where that came from. But it was still surprising. I thought, “Wow. I don’t know what to make of that.” And Malcolm was the same. There, I think he was ticked at being on the Jury and he wanted to light a fire under me and boy, he did a good job.
HitFix: I thought that with Abi’s question, you did a terrific job of walking a circle around an apology, without really giving an apology. [She laughs.] Having watched the season, do you maybe feel any different about that?
Denise: You know, I don’t. What I said in the final Tribal Council truly was an apology. The essence of what I said to Abi out on the island was 100 percent true in the way that she was treating people and the way that she was coming across. But I was regretful that I had basically said that she doesn’t have any of those qualities of kindness and that I should not have said in those ways. So it was a genuine apology to say, “I could have said it in a different way.”
HitFix: Were you surprised at the Reunion Show by the straw poll of the Jury that suggested you might have beaten Malcolm if you’d gone to the end together?
Denise: That shocked me because I thought for sure that had I been sitting there, and I wanted to be sitting there with Malcolm, but had I been sitting there, I thought I might lose a million bucks if I’m sitting next to him, so I was shocked to see that it may not have played out that way.
HitFix: On “Survivor,” there have always been certain real-world professions that have been distrusted out there. Did you have concerns that “therapist” would turn out to be one of those professions that might get you off on the wrong foot with people?
Denise: I for sure never told anyone other than Jonathan Penner towards the very end of the game that other than just being a therapist that I have a sex therapy certification, because I knew that one, people always like, “Oh my gosh. Therapists or psychologists, they get in your head” and I remember Abi actually howling that out at one point and I thought, “Oh my gosh.” So I knew that going in, that people might see that as this manipulative part of who I am and I thought, “Oh my gosh, if they know I’m a sex therapist, even worse, because if they know that I can get people to talk about that, they’re so not gonna trust me.” And so I chose never to share that part with the majority of the people who were out there.
HitFix: But ultimately you were, indeed, able to get into some of their heads. Do you think that’ll make things more difficult for future sex therapists on “Survivor”?
Denise: It might! They might want to come up with a different profession. It does. It’s not necessarily getting into people’s heads, but I just listen. It’s not in a manipulative way. I just pay attention and just listen to what I’m hearing and what I’m not hearing. 
HitFix: How important was Malcolm-as-Malcolm to your season’s strategy? Or do you feel like the important thing was having any tight alliance and it could have been any ally?
Denise: No, he was absolutely an integral part of me getting to the end, because we had that alliance and we just knew that there was already this person on the other side once we got split and we’d just been hoping that we would merge into a different tribe and then be able to hopefully regroup. So the hope was just all along that he’s gonna still be in this, we’ll regroup and we’ll look at where the numbers are. And he was already tight in with Tandang and there were more numbers, so he was integral, because I was willing to basically continue to build his trust that, “I’m a good ally, I’ll never turn on ya.” He thought that right to the end. I don’t think he ever thought, “Oh my gosh. Denise is gonna turn on me.” So that was vital, because right to the end, clearly, he was willing to keep me in his alliance and we voted pretty consistently. 
HitFix: You made that alliance with Malcolm almost immediately. Looking back to that Matsing tribe, was there anybody else you think you could have had even half the success aligning with?
Denise: [Laughs.] You know? No. Not like the one with Malcolm. Our personalities just meshed in terms of how he handled himself and that helped me stay awfully steady through the game. Russell, initially I thought he could have been. Had our tribe not fallen apart so early, Russell, that may have been different. But then Russell just fell apart as our tribe did and that would not have been somebody that I could have maintained an alliance with, just that volatility and up-and-down. So in terms of our tribe, Malcolm was it.
HitFix: Was there a low point out there as you guys kept losing when you really could see yourself going home that day or the next day?
Denise: I think the biggest worry was really that last Tribal Council with Russell. Ultimately, that was the lowest point in my game. It was a combination of we kept losing and it was that test of my alliance with Malcolm and “Am I going to go home? Or what’s gonna happen?” But that was ultimately the lowest time in the game.
HitFix: And even still, you guys got out of that situation and you were absorbed into the other tribes, but theoretically you still should have been immediately targeted. Were you always on your toes and cautious? And when did that feeling maybe cease?
Denise: I felt that way all the way up until we got into the Merge and far past that until the Tandang tribe started kinda falling apart. I was, I was on my toes. Going into Kalabaw, I truly felt like, “I’m a guest in their home. I’m coming in and be gracious and find out what you can do to be helpful and just wait and look.” That was the biggest thing that happened for me was probably right there, was Dana getting sick. Had Dana not gotten sick and been medivac-ed or left the game, we could be having a very different conversation, or no conversation at all. So it was huge luck and that really turned the game for me.
HitFix: Was there a certain vote at which you went, “Oh my goodness, I can actually WIN if these cards keep falling right”?
Denise: I think once we got to the Final 5. Or maybe the Final 6? We got that group of six and then you start thinking, “OK. We’ve got this group of four.” That’s when the chips really started to fall in, when we had that alliance and things had shifted and the power was no longer with Tandang. That for me, in all those Tribal Councils, once that started, the reality of, “This could happen, just stick with the plan” really started to happen for me.
HitFix: Some viewers were astounded by how long it took the other people out there A) To realize tight you and Malcolm were and then B) To even consider the possibility of breaking the two of you up. Were you surprised by those things?
Denise: No. Because we were good! You see alliances or you see couples in the game or partners and they’re so open with it. You see them always go off together. You see them always sitting next to each other. Malcolm and I, we really kept that under the radar as much as we could. Even when we merged, it was kinda like the quick huge, “Hey, hey,” OK and then kinda go away. And he kinda was in with his tribe and the younger guys and I kinda hung with the older folks. I started connecting with Michael and with Lisa. It was kinda this unspoken alliance like, “I’m still here.” We would check. We’d go get water on occasion or go walk down the beach and reaffirm that, but we always just left it so we weren’t so obvious and that’s what helped it. People had no clue for a long time.
HitFix: As a last question: You read so many circumstances so well out there. Watching back, or even when you were there, is there anything that you particularly misread?
Denise: There’s nothing that jumps out that I misread, but I think what I just didn’t see, that’s shocking or surprising for me, was realizing how early on Malcolm was ready to turn on my. I had no idea that days or weeks before, he was willing and already planting that seed, whether or not with other people, but it was very apparent in his mind of, “Yup. We’ve got this alliance, but Denise is gonna have to go.” So that was a huge surprise and I did not see that.