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‘Survivor’ Winner Ben Driebergen and Final 5 Break Down the Game, That Controversial Twist and More (Exclusive)

The tribe has spoken. Ben Driebergen took home the million-dollar prize and title of sole Survivor during the season 35 finale of “Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers.”

The marine vet, 34, won in a 5-2-1 vote against Chrissy Hofbeck and Ryan Ulrich following a crazy idol play that found Dr. Mike Zahalsky getting his torch snuffed and a controversial twist that sent Devon Pinto packing.

We caught up with the final five to talk about their respective strategies, that final four challenge, whether they’d play again and more:

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Ben Driebergen is crowned Sole Survivor on Survivor
Ben Driebergen is crowned Sole Survivor on SURVIVOR 35, themed Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers.

How did you feel leaving final tribal council?

Ben: Right after final tribal, I felt pretty good about it. But as the weeks and months went on, you start really questioning yourself. And then the show comes on and you start looking at edits, which is weird. I honestly thought Chrissy had won while watching the finale and while we were up on stage. I thought she won.

Chrissy: It was a toss-up going and I felt like it was a toss-up coming out. I thought there were a few people, who my mind, had already made up their opinions. And were specifically going to vote for me, Ben or Ryan. I did feel there were a couple people who could have gone any way because they weren’t necessarily tied to any of us. Specifically, I’d say Lauren [Rimmer] and Desi [Williams]. I just didn’t know which way they were going to go. So coming out of it, and certainly for the last six months, I thought, “Who knows what’s going to happen?” It was while watching the final episode, I thought, “Well, Ben’s winning this thing.” Good for Ben. He played an awesome game. I wasn’t really all that surprised when Jeff [Probst] actually read the votes. But I don’t think it was in the bag for anyone.

Ryan: I agree with Chrissy. Honestly, it’s just don’t go to the end with Ben. That was the thing. I think Mike would have gotten votes. I think Ashley [Nolan] would have gotten votes. I think Devon would have gotten votes. I don’t think any of those players would have beaten Ben. And unfortunately for me and Chrissy, we ended up sitting next to Ben. But I think Chrissy is right. Desi was kind of a swing. Cole [Medders], Lauren … a couple others in there. And then you have the complete other side of the spectrum where I don’t think anything that would have been said by me, Chrissy or Ben could have swayed people’s minds. I was just happy that final tribal was over. It was so long. We kept going at each other and just would not stop. I was just happy it was over. I never thought that Ben didn’t win. I always thought the dude would find a way to win this friggen game. And he did. He’s a great guy. He played a great game.

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How locked were the votes before final tribal council even began?

Mike: I think the votes changed actually. I think going into final tribal, people were not sure if they were voting for Chrissy or Ben. Ben ended up pulling it out. I think, partially, Joe [Mena] and I were like, “Ben, you have 10 minutes left of this game. Give us a better speech for why you should be winning here.” Then he got his head back in the game. He got that ferocity again and I think some people changed their votes.

Devon: It was for sure up in the air. I don’t think anyone made their decision until everyone had their final say. It’s only what’s fair.

How do you feel about Ben’s win?

Devon: Ben definitely deserved to win. The right person won. I think he played the best game. Even though I didn’t write down his name doesn’t mean he didn’t deserve it. That was a promise I made to Ryan on day 1. That I would never write his name down unless it was the final three. And vice-versa. He would have done the same for me. I just had to stay true to my word there.

Mike: I think Ben is one of the best players of all time. He deserves it. It just depends on how you look at the game and the point you’re looking at in the game. I thought I voted for the wrong person many times watching this game back. But while living it, there are real emotions and real strategy. Ben found three idols and Chrissy won four immunities. Ben went from the top to the bottom. Chrissy went from the top to the bottom back to the top. It doesn’t mean Ben wasn’t an incredible Survivor player. Chrissy was an incredible Survivor player too.

Ben, how did you feel about the final votes?

Ben: Lauren was my biggest surprise, that she voted for me, honestly. After she was on the jury, she definitely gave me dagger eyes every night at tribal. And Joe was obviously a fan of me at that point, but I didn’t know. JP [Hilsabeck] was close with Chrissy. It was all up in the air. I was never confident about it.

Were you surprised by Ashley and Mike voting for Chrissy to win?

Ben: Absolutely. I think those two were kind of oblivious at some points. That being said, Chrissy was right in making them feel comfortable. I think my social game lacked in Ashley and Mike’s eyes where Chrissy’s didn’t. I think in that final three, any of us could have won, which made it scary going into it. We all made mistakes and all played really good games.

Ben Driebergen and Devon Pinto at Tribal Council on the finale of Survivor
Ben Driebergen and Devon Pinto at Tribal Council on the finale of SURVIVOR 35, themed Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers.

What surprised you most while watching the show back?

Chrissy: I’ll say that I was totally surprised by Devon. In his preseason interviews, he said his plan was to act like the laid-back surfer bro, but playing this mastermind game behind the scenes. Truthfully, I thought he was this laid-back surfer bro. So I’m watching these confessionals and he’s just so brilliant, totally analyzing the game. I loved watching Devon. He was a huge surprise for me and that was fun for me to watch.

Ryan: I didn’t know how close Lauren and Ben were. I didn’t know about that Yawa five. I had no idea that was even a thing. So I think Lauren … that’s why she thought me, Chrissy and JP were so strong. Because coming out of the swap tribe, she had such a strong bond with Ben. I really had no idea how close they were. I thought me, Devon and Lauren had much more of a close bond. But I don’t think it compare to any bonds that Lauren and Ben had. That was shocking for me to see them at the merge, to see them making that decision together. I just had no idea.

Chrissy: I totally agree with Ryan. When they did the JP blindside — until I watched the episode — I had no idea who masterminded that plan. And that’s mostly because after the game was over, we didn’t really talk about it again. We didn’t care. But I was super excited to watch that. Every time we asked — between Lauren, Ashley and Devon, who came up with the plan — all they would say is, “You’ll find out when you’re in the jury and we’re in the final three. It’s confidential and we’re not telling.” They ended up on the jury and we ended up in the final three, so we actually never found out until we watched it back. That was super fun to find out how that went down.

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What did you think of the final four twist of the fire-making challenge?

Ben: I hated making fire at camp. That’s the irony in this. I would stay up all night and me and Lauren would take turns on fire duty, making sure it was going all night. I did not like making fire at all. As far as, is it fair? Yeah, it’s 100 percent fair. Devon had just enough opportunity to make fire as I did, if not a better opportunity since he knew about the twist and he practiced. Yeah, it’s fair. The game changes. Of course there’s going to be a dilemma about it because it’s something new. And Devon was a good player. For Devon fans, I’m sure it’s probably unfair. But for Ben fans, I’m pretty sure it’s fair.

Ryan: Yeah, I mean … it definitely wasn’t beneficial for me, Devon or Chrissy. Look at it from all of our perspectives, Chrissy won that challenge. That was a 40-minute challenge. Chrissy pulled it out and that was an amazing win. And she was going to be the one who put Ben on the jury. But now with the fire-making challenge, now Devon is going to be the one to put Ben on the jury. And he doesn’t even win the fire challenge. You got me in the middle being taken to the end and that’s not a good look. It worked out for Ben because he was able to make that fire in like two minutes. Survivor is an ever-changing game. Look, a lot of us benefited from idols and twists. At the very end, we didn’t benefit from the advantage or twist. You have to be adaptable in Survivor.

Chrissy: Ultimately, I thought that the twist was cheap, but Survivor is a game of twists and this is the game we signed up for. I know there’s a huge outcry on the internet about production getting involved. I just want to be clear: I don’t even think that’s Ben’s fault. Poor Ben. He’s getting a lot of backlash about this whole thing when it’s really not even his fault. But historically, 34 seasons, the final four is just a pure vote. In our case, it didn’t fall that way. Would we have played differently had we known? Yes, absolutely. I think season 36, knowing in advance what’s going to happen, will absolutely play differently. But that’s the game we signed up for. That’s just how it played out.

Devon: It doesn’t matter if it’s fair or not because nothing on Survivor is fair. It’s a game. I thought it was a cool twist. I like it. It brought back the roots of Survivor and what it’s really about. I think that’s a very important part of Survivor. I thought it was awesome and eager to participate.

Mike: I think [as a concept], the fact that you have to make fire to go to four to three is great. That’s fantastic. Now that being said, it would have been nice to know about it. My vote definitely would have been different at the final five. It would be a completely different game.

Ben Driebergen is crowned Sole Survivor on Survivor
Ben Driebergen is crowned Sole Survivor on SURVIVOR 35, themed Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers.

Chrissy, you got some backlash from other players who suggested you didn’t want to play with the other women. Do you have a response to that?

Chrissy: Those comments are absurd. I think that scapegoats have happened for hundreds of years and I think I was the scapegoat for some recruits who didn’t know the game as well, or who were maybe a little bit embarrassed by the timing they went out. Not that they should be embarrassed because we got to play this game. But even some of the people who came out after said that a lot of that was unfounded. I had some of the cast call me as those exit [interviews] were coming out, saying, “We have no idea what that’s based on. We don’t agree with that. That’s just creating drama.” I think at some point, they will look back and feel bad. I think Ali [Elliott] even sent out a tweet that said, “Hey look, I never said that. This is what I said, this is what I didn’t say.” So I think even Ali, at this point, wants to almost come to my defense. That was sort of a story that grew legs of its own. Not that there weren’t comments made, but I think people may feel a little bit regretful of things that were said in the moment. Jeff Probst even said in his cast assessment that the reason I was cast on the show was because I have done so much work for women … that was the reason I was even cast on this show. For people who don’t even know me to come up with this carefully-crafted story is kind of absurd. I really don’t want to give weight to it.

Devon and Mike, had you made the final three, do you think you had a chance at the win? Who did you want in your ideal final three?

Mike: Definitely Ryan and Chrissy. I wanted to go to the final four with Devon, but Devon played a very, very good social game. What people don’t necessarily appreciate out there is that you have to earn the respect of the jury. I think that’s a big part of it. When Devon talks about going to back to the basics of making fire, who goes on Survivor and doesn’t learn how to make fire beforehand? I’m not convinced that … it would have been an interesting fire challenge if Chrissy and Ryan were against each other.

Devon: Ryan and Chrissy.

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Will you play again if asked?

Ben: I would love to come back. I would love to. I love Survivor and either way it would have went, I would have still loved Survivor. It’s amazing and I would love to come back. It would depend on what the season is. I played like it was my second time. My cards are on the table. Everyone knows Ben now. I think in an all-winners season, I might have a fighting chance. But if it were something else, I don’t think I would do well. But I would definitely try.

Ryan: Yeah, I mean, you know … it was a great experience. I love Survivor and it was a perfect time to do the show, to have this experience and to get to day 39 and have a chance to plead my case in front of the jury, you can’t ask for anything more than that. If I went back, would I get to day 39 again? Probably not. It’s tough. I’m proud of everything I did. If they called me, I would always talk to them and see where I’m at in my life.

Chrissy: For me, I feel like most people go back to improve. I made it all the way to the end. I’m super proud of my game. I’m not at all ashamed of coming in second place. I think I would have definitely gone back, if I had won, and done an all-winners season. But for now, I’m happy how I did. It was an awesome experience. I don’t know that I need to have it again. I would love to have a different experience, maybe playing The Amazing Race or something like that.

Devon: For me, the only way I’m playing again is if I play with my mom and get her on the show.

Mike: My goal is to win Survivor and I haven’t won Survivor yet. So I could see myself playing again. But I would have to talk to my wife. I have a kid who is about to start high school. So I have a thin window of playing again, but who doesn’t want to go out there? Plus, it’s a good diet. I lost 17 pounds.

Survivor will return for a new season on CBS February 28, 2018.

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