Survivor's Newest Millonaire
East Bay–raised Yul Kwon scored a $1 million payday from Survivor: Cook Islands, thanks to his strategically perfect play on the hit TV reality show. We caught up with the 32-year-old onetime Northgate High valedictorian to tap into his 15 minutes of fame and to talk about the controversy that kicked off this season of Survivor.
What were you doing before you went on Survivor?
I went to Stanford and Yale Law School. I practiced law for four or five years, then went into management consulting.
What did you think when you found out that the Survivor teams would be assigned based on ethnicity?
They told us the night before the game started. At first, I thought it was a bad idea. I didn’t have confidence that a TV show, much less a reality show, was the best forum for that, and I thought it could degenerate into a lot of racial squabbling. It was really important to me to set a good example to anyone watching. Growing up as an Asian American, I rarely saw Asian Americans portrayed in a positive way. Overall, I think the show worked out well for society at large—especially Middle America. It shows that people’s individual values, not ethnicity, make up what kind of people they are.
A lot of the show’s fans were amazed that all three finalists were able to play fair and be good sports on a show that’s well-known for double-crosses and catfights. Like I said, I wanted to portray a positive example. I was pleased that we were able to get to the very end with integrity and not fall to those temptations to stab each other in the back.
How long was the wait between the last day on the island and the live final show? About three months. It’s been pretty weird. I very consciously decided to take a break from work and spent a lot of time with friends and family. Survivor takes a big toll on you. My dad wanted the family to take a vacation together and suggested Hawaii.
I said, “No, no islands.”
Is winning Survivor anything like when you were Northgate High’s class of 1993 valedictorian?
[Laughs] It’s kind of the same thing but on an exponentially different scale. I don’t want any of this attention to make me lose my head; I’d like to stay the same person I was before Survivor.
I spoke with your high school calculus and philosophy teacher, John Gishe. He said that you were one of the most multitalented intellectuals he had encountered in his 36 years of teaching.
I should get in touch with Mr. Gishe! He was an influential mentor and an inspiration for me as a student. He had a deep appreciation for philosophy and got me thinking on an abstract level about our world. It’s so weird how it all culminated on a reality show on an island.
Sorry, but I have to ask: What are you planning to do with the money?
I want to use the money wisely and responsibly—by supporting charities that I believe in and, of course, providing for my family. One cause that’s been close to my heart is [encouraging] minority bone marrow donors. My best friend in college died of leukemia. If you’re a minority, your chance of getting a bone marrow transplant is abysmally low.
What was it like being featured in People’s Sexiest Man Alive issue?
I honestly thought it was a practical joke when I first heard about it. It’s surreal to think of anyone thinking of me as sexy. I’ve heard that I’m most popular with older viewers—grandmothers who say that if they were 30 years younger, they would want to date me. It’s flattering to hear that there is some cross section of society that finds me attractive.
Your birthday is on Valentine’s Day. Any special plans this year?
[Laughs] This should be an interesting birthday. Then again, most of my friends are in relationships, and I still don’t have a girlfriend, so it could just be another long, lonely Valentine’s Day.