‘Survivor’ Finalist Michael Skupin: Jury Member Tried to ‘Blackmail’ Him


'Survivor: Philippines' (CBS)

Quick Note: Don’t miss out on our interviews with “Survivor” champion Denise Stapley, runner-up Lisa Whelchel, and castaway Malcolm Freberg.

Part of me thinks the reason Michael Skupin was cast on “Survivor: Phillipines” was to get me to shut up. After all, I’ve been nagging Jeff Probst about it since “Survivor: Gabon.” But, the rest of me knows he was brought back because he had one of the show’s great unfinished stories.

Is it finished now? Probably not. How do you not bring back a guy who has played twice and never been voted out?

I spoke with the accident-prone Tandangian the day after the finale to get some insight on the moves he made, the attitude toward returning players, and the odd feud he has with Artis…

Gordon Holmes: Mr Skupin!
Michael Skupin: Mr Holmes! How’ve you been, buddy?
Holmes: I’m so glad you made it to this interview in one piece.
Skupin: (Laughs) It was an act of God that I did.

Holmes: Going into this, we knew you could provide and survive based on your time in Australia. But, we didn’t know how you’d do when faced with the social and strategic aspects.
Skupin: I tell ya, the things that I got to experience from the merge on was insane. And then you talk about winning an individual challenge and the family visit, the food auction, the final three, winning that last immunity challenge where Jeff said, “You’re guaranteed a spot in the final three.” Everything that I set out to do, I did. I was thrilled with the way it turned out, except for the final vote of course. But everything that I thought I could control, I controlled.

Holmes: The game is so different now than it was before. If you were to give advice to someone who played back when you played, someone who never came back like a Keith Famie or an Elisabeth Hasselbeck, what would you say to them?
Skupin: Wow…I did this interview and the guy said, “I can’t believe how savvy the new players are.” And you know what? I didn’t find that. He said, “They know about immunity idols and the strategy.” They still make the same mistakes that they made, that I made my first time out there. They play the game with their cards face up. They telegraph every single strategic move that they make. So, being a returning player, although you have the bull’s-eye, the advantage of having played before is such a greater benefit.
Holmes: The math works out; every time new players face returning players a returnee makes it to the end. I’ve spoken with many new players before the game has started and many of them say, “Gotta get rid of any returnees.”
Skupin: I thought about that, and I thought, what are the reasons to keep me? After we got through that first challenge, we sat down in the pouring rain and Pete said, “I hope they get rid of Russell Swan.” And in my mind I thought, “I’m the Russell Swan of my tribe!” I knew I had a bull’s-eye but I didn’t know it was a day-two bull’s-eye! This new breed of players is so tired or returning players making it to the end. I thought the window for returning players had closed. Within a minute of meeting Jeff Kent he said, “Skupin, we hate returning players, but we hate Penner more than we hate you.” So you’ve got another three days, we’ll make this as comfortable as we can for you. Enjoy it.
Holmes: (Laughs) Like they’re pulling the plug out of the respirator.
Skupin: Yeah. There were more people who thought that returning players had to go than the others. I had to focus on those and fortunately it worked out and I was able to gain support from enough players that cared less. And as soon as Penner was gone, because Penner would scream from the mountaintops “I’m a returning player, let me show you how to do this, let me show you how to chop that coconut, let me show you how to climb that tree.” Until he left, the bull’s-eye was still bright and neon. When he left I never heard the term “returning player” again.

Holmes: The big question during the finale was; do you take Malcolm to the end, or do you take Denise? Can you walk me though that decision and tell me why you ultimately decided to take Denise?
Skupin: Malcolm and I had both won three challenges and he was such a master of the social game. When I’d ask Denise a question about strategy she’d say, “Go talk to Malcolm.” I thought, “Wow, she’s got no game. I’d better take her to the end.” She did have game, but it was so radically different from mine. She was playing an under-the-radar game. Stay out of making any decisions that would burn a bridge with jury members. I don’t have that game. I asked my tribe on day one, “Would you have given Russell Hantz the million bucks?” Every one of them said, “Yes.” So, I thought I could play an offensive, strategic game and they would respect that. I’m not saying that an under-the-radar game is less respectful, it’s just not my game. When I got credited with four people in a row sitting on the jury, starting with Jeff Kent, Artis, then Pete, then Penner, I thought, “Wow, that’s  a good pat on the back. Will that translate to jury votes?” Apparently it didn’t.

Holmes: I keep going back to final five when Abi was voted out. She seems like the perfect person to take to the end, especially if the alternatives are people the jury is fond of like Malcolm and Denise. Why didn’t you and Lisa pull the trigger and take out Denise?
Malcolm: From your perspective, that’s exactly what you would have thought. Two things; one, the way Abi works the jury. She winks and smiles at Artis and Pete every time coming in and on the way out. They’d wink and smile back. They made it very clear that they were still in an alliance. I thought, there’s two of the four votes there. Both Carter and Penner said in exit interviews said that they would have strongly considered voting for her had she made it to the final three. People have taken the goat to the finals before and the goat ended up winning. Even bigger than that, Malcolm had two immunities. He had a hidden immunity and he won the challenge necklace. We were just talking one day and I said, “What are you going to do with two? You’re certainly not going to take one home.” And as he was walking away he sort of flippantly said, “I’ll just give it to Denise.” I ran to Lisa and said, “Lisa, if we throw two votes to Denise, he’ll give her the idol. Why would he keep it?” So, Abi’s still going to go home and we’re going to blow up the alliance and one of us is not going to make it to the final three.
Holmes: Very insightful. That makes a lot of sense.

Holmes: During my exit interview with Artis, he seemed very upset with you. And not “I don’t like him because he voted me out” mad, more like “We have problems in real life” mad. Do you know what that was all about?
Skupin: Artis is a very angry, bitter man. After Abi found the idol, I didn’t have five words of conversation with him. And to this day, I have not spoken to Artis. I have no idea. I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone who’s ever had a bigger chip on his shoulder just about life. And, I wish I knew. He played a very subdued, introverted game. It was him, the fire pit, Pete, and Abi and that was it. He was very obvious about his game and who he was with and what he was doing. And since he won’t speak to me, I’ve sent him several text messages, before the finale I said, “Artis, let’s talk, let’s have this conversation. Let’s enjoy this. Let’s make this ride a memorable one for both of us.” All he said was, “Watch your back because if you turn your back on me at the finale, I’m coming after you.” And I was like, “Whoa!” So, I don’t know, Gordon, I wish I had a good answer for you.
Holmes: It’s always a shame when whatever animosity started on the island doesn’t stay there.
Skupin: Gordon, I had a person on there say, “If you vote me out, I will go back to Ponderosa, I will beg, cheat, lie, steal, I will make up things you said about their kids and spouses. I’ll make sure you never, ever get a single vote. You might last three days longer than me, but you’ll never win this game.” And I had to weigh that. Do I fall for the blackmail? All I could do was play full speed ahead. And I shook that person’s hand afterwards and said, “Good game.”

Note: After this interview took place, Artis tweeted that his animosity toward Michael had to do with a shelter Michael had built that collapsed. Nobody was injured during the incident, but Artis took offense that someone could have been.

Holmes: Alright, let’s do some word association. We’ll start with Malcolm.
Skupin: I would have to say…he could vote you out and you would turn and wave at him on the way out.
Holmes: Denise?
Skupin: Under-the-radar.
Holmes: Pete?
Skupin: Played with his cards face up. Good game, face up.
Holmes: Abi?
Skupin: The word I’m looking for is…short-fused.
Holmes: RC?
Skupin: Relentless strategist that lacks a social game.
Holmes: Lisa?
Skupin: Motherly.
Holmes: Penner?
Skupin: Brilliantly entertaining even at the expense of gameplay.

Holmes: When are we going to see Michael Jr. playing “Survivor”?
Skupin: Michael Jr. is the reason I got on “Survivor” in the first place. He said, “There’s this great game, they’re taking applications for the second season. You’ve got to get on it.” He went to every interview, we talked strategy when he was twelve years old. When it came time for this season we talked about him making it to the family visit. And the fact that he got to compete in a challenge was huge. And way bigger than that, he got to spend a 24-hour period with me. He gave up all of his food, we won food on that challenge, they never showed it. There was peanut butter and jelly and cookies and some kind of beverage. And the family members sacrificed their food for the starving survivors. I got to snorkel with him and spearfish and climb coconut trees. I’m telling you, it was an experience that Bill Gates couldn’t buy. It was maybe the most incredible and intense experience of my whole life.
Holmes: How would he fare in the game?
Skupin: His social game blows mine away. He is ten times more likable that I will ever be. I can teach him the strategic part, but he has a gift. He’s the most likable person I’ve ever met in my life.

Any Questions? Drop me a line on Twitter: @gordonholmes

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