It was perhaps one of the most aggressive winning performances in the history of Survivor, but Tony Vlachos, the 39 year old police officer from Jersey City, NJ, was named the Sole Survivor of "Survivor: Cagayan" on Wednesday night. I spoke to Tony today, less than 24 hours after the votes at the Live Reunion Show revealed him to be this season's winner.
It was the unlikeliest of wins, judging by the way the season began. Tony seemed early on to be that player who was just playing too hard, too fast, but he was instantly one of the players that stood out from the crowd. He lied about everything to everyone on his Brawn tribe and his often-time hilarious confessional interviews made him a player to watch. Who builds a "spy shack" where he can snoop and listen in on other players? Who names it a "spy shack" anyways?
Being on the outs early on, Tony bonded with fellow outcast Trish and it would become this year's power duo. Early victories by the Brawn Tribe extended Tony's stay in the game and after the tribe switch, Tony bonded with former Beauties LJ and Jefra to create this year's majority alliance. All the while, Tony would eventually find and possess three hidden Immunity Idols, including the "Special Idol," without even having a clue.
Although he was loyal to Woo and Trish for most of the game, that didn't stop Tony from creating several different deals for himself and swearing on everything from his wife and child, to his father's grave, to his badge with fellow cop, Sarah. Ultimately, he made moves against even his own alliance, voting out LJ and Jefra, but still was somehow able to keep his core alliance believing in him. Down the stretch, it looked like it was Tony's game to lose, as he created a lie about his "Special Idol" and when he could use it in the game, and the bluff worked. But a late twist - finding out that this season was going to be a Final Two and not an Final Three like in several recent seasons - Tony's fate came down to Woo deciding to keep him in the game over the unlikeable (in the eyes of the jury, anyways) Kass. Somehow, someway, Tony was able to appeal to Woo's sense of honor and integrity and Woo brought Tony with him to the Final Two, in a move that is being referenced as Woo's "million dollar mistake." Tony himself told Woo that his decision was much more than Tony had ever done for Woo.
In front of a bitter jury, Tony took a drubbing and it appeared that Woo may have actually had a chance. But in the end, eight of the nine jury members (everyone except Tasha) awarded Tony the much-deserved win and the title of Sole Survivor.
Here is my exclusive interview with Tony Vlachos:
Tony Vlachos: Hey, hey, hey! What's up Tom?
Tom Santilli, Survivor Examiner: Tony! Congratulations man! You were awesome, you really made this season a great one.
Tony: Thanks man, I really appreciate that.
Tom Santilli: Last night you seemed to be very humble in accepting your victory. Has it sunk in that you won?
Tony: Yeah, yeah, it's definitely sunk in that I won. Tom, when the stakes are so high like they are on Survivor, the wounds are so deep and they scar forever. I wasn't going to jump up and down and celebrate, I didn't want to rub any salt in any wounds. I just wanted to be humble. It's a very humbling game. You hurt people, you stab them in the back and the wounds are very deep.
Tom Santilli: Now to be clear, there's no way that you take Woo with you to the Final Two had the situation been reversed?
Tony: Yeah, no way. If it was reversed I would have definitely taken Kass for the easy kill.
Tom Santilli: In that scenario, what do you tell Woo, who would then be sitting on the jury?
Tony: I would have told him the truth. I would have said hey Woo, listen, you're a very likeable person, you don't have any dirt, no blood on your hands. I definitely thought that you might beat me if I took you so I had to do what was in my best interests. It wasn't personal, it would have been strictly strategic.
Tom Santilli: So you are sitting in front of the jury, and they seemed to be very hurt and very bitter. When you left the game, did you feel like you had won the game or that you had lost the game? And has your opinion changed at all watching the season play out on TV?
Tony: Watching it on TV and leaving the game, I felt the same way. I felt that it was a toss-up. Because I was thinking to myself about the jurors. They weren't bitter, they were hurt. And that's a big difference. They just lost their chance at a million dollars because someone like me had betrayed them and backstabbed them. So I knew they were hurt and I knew they needed to vent. So when they vented their anger, when they sat back down, there was like a sigh of relief. Like they had just let it all out and now felt a bit better. They all told me how they felt and I could just see how their facial expressions had just changed after they vented. So at that point, I just figured that was what they needed to do, they needed to let me know how they felt, and I definitely get it.
Tom Santilli: Spencer really went to bat for you during his jury speech. Did that surprise you at all at the time and do you think that his speech had any real affect on anyone's final vote?
Tony: It definitely did surprise me. I do know that Spencer is a super-fan of the game and that he respects players. That's what I was. I was a player. I didn't do anything maliciously, I didn't do anything personally out there, it was all strategic. Everything I did was strategic and Spencer definitely saw that. He saw every move I made and saw why I needed to make them and he appreciated that. I do think he had an affect on the jury because he had the last say and he was like hey guys, get your emotions out of the game and vote the right way. The outcome of last night's vote spoke volumes for who I am as a person. There's no way that they vote to give me a million bucks against a very likeable person like Woo. I was hurting people, and they still gave me the votes.
Tom Santilli: You mentioned last night at the Reunion Show all of the hate that you've been getting on social media and I recently saw a bit of a Twitter feud between you and Russell Hantz. You're compared to Russell a lot as far as your style of gameplay. What's your opinion of Russell as a player and do you feel that the comparisons with him are fair, other than you won and he hasn't?
Tony: Yeah, I have seen a lot of that comparison on social media and I would say that our styles are similar. We're very aggressive players, we're very strategic, we never put our guards down, we never go to sleep on the game. So in that sense, yes. But the truth is, the difference between us is who he is as a person and who I am as a person. I'm a very humble person, I knew that I had to get my hands dirty in this game, but not necessarily bloody. So I went in doing what I needed to do to survive. It appeared that Russell got pleasure out of voting people off, putting it in their face that hey I'm better than you and that's why I voted you out. That's not who I am and last night's vote spoke volumes to that.
Tom Santilli: Your bluff with the Special Idol - about how late in the game you could use it - to me goes down as one of the greatest lies ever told in Survivor History. It seemed like at the time you had it perfectly planned out how to use your Idols to assure yourself a spot in the Final Three. But then all of a sudden you find out its a Final Two. Did that throw you off your game at all at that point? And how seriously did you consider voting to keep Spencer over Woo?
Tony: So when Spencer was talking to me about the Final Two and all my options? There was a zero-point-zero-zero chance that I was keeping him. I listened to everything he had to say because I didn't want to disrespect him, but there was no chance at all that I was going to allow Spencer to stay in the game any longer. I'm very self-aware, I'm very socially-aware with what's going on, and anybody who goes up against Spencer in the end loses hands down. And I knew that. There was no way that was going to happen. And me finding out about the Final Two, Jeff threw a curve ball. But Survivor changes all the time just like the wind changes directions. You have to be ready to adapt and that's exactly what I did at Final Three. I didn't have any protection, I just used my skills with Woo to try to convince him to take me, because that's the only thing I had left.
Tom Santilli: Now many people agree that to win Survivor, it takes skill but also a great deal of luck. How much luck, if any, was a part of your game? What moments do you look back on and recognize that you may have gotten a bit lucky?
Tony: I would say honestly that to win Survivor, it's about 60% luck. And it starts more with who you are playing the game with. For example, chemistry is huge in a social environment. Myself, Trish and Woo has such a strong bond because of chemistry. That has nothing to do with how you play the game, it just has to do with luck. So I was lucky in who I played the game with, that's one. Number two, I was lucky enough to find the clues inside the rewards before anybody else. So I did work hard to find them, so there is skill involved, but I was lucky that I was able to find them before other people did. The black rock at the auction, that was one hundred percent luck...actually I take that back, it was 60% luck and 40% me holding back at the auction until I had the chance to possibly get a clue to an Idol.
Tom Santilli: Everybody asks you what you plan on doing with the money, so I want to ask you that, but also, do you still plan on staying on as a police officer?
Tony: Oh yeah, definitely. A million bucks after taxes is something like $600,000, that's $590,000 more than I have in my account right now. It's definitely a blessing but it's not enough to stop working or anything like that. After watching Spencer give that beautiful speech at Tribal Council, I was like wow. I can't talk like that. That's pure education, the way he was talking like that. And I said to myself in that moment, if I win the million dollars, I'm definitely dedicating a whole lot of it for my kids' college education. Education is key. I'mwalking around with a high school diploma in my hands and there's no way that I could ever talk like Spencer talked that night and that definitely inspired me to make sure that my children do have a college education.
Tom Santilli: That's awesome. So people who win Survivor often feel like they have nothing more to prove in the game, especially players that are big personalities like you, who usually become huge targets when they play again. So the question is, would you play Survivor again and if so, what more do you have to prove?
Tony: Yes Tom, I would definitely play Survivor again, I love the game. Moreso, I would love trying to win a million dollars again. This was my rookie season, I believe the second time around I would play a little bit harder, a little bit faster and a little bit stronger.
Tom Santilli: Wow, holy crap...what does Tony playing the game harder look like??? Is that even possible?
Tony: We'll just have to wait and see (laughs).