“Survivor” Champion Denise Stapley – “I’m Not Here for a Fijian Vacation”

“Survivor: Winners at War” (CBS)

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Editor’s Note: The players were separated by gender and didn’t officially know the theme of the season when this interview took place.

Another Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted across from the giant “Boston” Rob and Sandra heads at the Island of the Idols.

Winner of “Philippines” (2012)

Name: Denise Stapley 

Age: 48

Hometown: Marion, Iowa

Current Residence: Marion, Iowa

Occupation: LMHC, & AASECT Certified Sex Therapist

Gordon Holmes: I get to come to “Survivor” and do all of this cool stuff, so I have some decent stories. I’d imagine sex therapists have the best stories.

Denise Stapley: No! It’s so funny, everybody thinks I do. I deal with a lot of libido issues. That’s not exciting stuff. A lot of couples stuff where one wants it and the other one doesn’t. It’s interesting. I have a passion for it. There are a few funky stories along the way, but it’s the stuff that everyone is dealing with even if they think everyone isn’t dealing with it.

Holmes: That’s my big fear in talking to you is that you’re going to figure out what kind of stuff I’m into.

Stapley: (Laughs) Hmm…I can read it…the way he’s sitting…I’m bet he’s into that…

Holmes: And hey, as long as it’s consenting adults, I’m all for it.

Stapley: Exactly! If it’s safe, sane, and consensual, I don’t care. You can swing from the chandeliers. Whatever you want to do.

Holmes: I just don’t need my readers to know. So, if you figure something out, feel free to keep it to yourself.

Stapley: I will maintain your confidentiality.

Holmes: I’m not going to tell any of these women who you’re targeting. You don’t tell anyone about…my…business.


Holmes: It’s been seven years since you defeated the star of “The Facts of Life” to claim the title of sole survivor.

Stapley: (Laughs)

Holmes: How’ve you been keeping yourself busy since then?

Stapley: I’d love to say I did all of these amazing things, but I am a boring winner. Or, a boring person. My life is pretty consistent, and it was pretty consistent before I played “Survivor.” I knew who I was, my job was stable. I was married, I had my daughter. I’m literally driving the same car I was driving in 2012.

Holmes: A million dollars doesn’t go as far as it used to.

Stapley: It doesn’t. And it’s going to be my daughter’s car. That’s why I’m hanging on to it. But, I think what’s changed mostly is I say “Yes” to a lot more things. I’ve said “Yes” to more charity events. Malcolm (Freberg) contacted me in April…

Holmes: Whew…I promised myself I wasn’t going to get emotional when his name came up.

Stapley: Aww…I know how much you love your Malcolm. But, I got to go see him for an event in Calgary, Canada. I’d never been to Canada in my life. So, it’s things like that. That and trying to keep my bearings intact with a fifteen-year-old.

Holmes: Oh goodness, I can’t think of anything worse than being a teenager with a mother who is a sex therapist.

Stapley: (Laughs)

Holmes: My mother was a cytologist, so she had to know all about the latest venereal diseases and whatnot. I got so many lectures.

Stapley: But looking back, was that helpful or traumatizing?

Holmes: A little bit of both. But, I’d say too much education is better than no education.

Stapley: Exactly, when you’re facing this, here are some things I’d like you to think about.


Holmes: What do you think people remember about your game?

Stapley: I think everybody that is out here has a legacy that they bring to the table. I think the main thing people will remember about me is surviving every Tribal Council. And that part I’m proud of. Then, they’ll remember me and Malcolm for being on the worst tribe in “Survivor” history. I think the term has been coined “The Intentional Matsing.” Which I don’t love.

Holmes: That’s where; in a three-tribe season, you throw challenges so you’ll get to a merge or swap with less numbers and appear less threatening.

Stapley: Yeah, I’d love to not have a repeat of that.

Holmes: So, based off of what they know about you, how do you use that to your advantage?

Stapley: I think there are certain things that could go both ways. When I played the first time, there was a loyalty piece. I’m much more comfortable having that one ride-or-die. That’s why I got married. I do things once. I have one kid. I ran one marathon. I had one main ally in the game. That fits for me. I’d love to be able to find that out here. When I played in the Phillipines, I wasn’t a big, bold player. Nobody thinks I’m a big strategic player. I definitely want to lean into that. I’d love to be able to play more strategically, but I don’t want people to know that. I want them to think I’m loyal, I’m great in challenges, I help around camp. There are a lot bigger threats out here.


Holmes: They haven’t announced a theme to you guys yet. But if you had any guesses…what do you think it could possibly be?

Stapley: Gee…here’s the funny thing, I think it’s all winners. But there’s this small weird part of me, but until we’re at the start and I see ten other winners on the other side? That’s when I’ll trust it.

Holmes: So you think it’s ten winning women on an island…and that’s it.

Stapley: (Laughs) No. I’d love that though.

Holmes: A one-in-ten shot!

Stapley: We haven’t seen any of the guys! But I think there are ten men…and of all the male winners, who’s going to be here?

Holmes: OK, let’s indulge in this little fantasy of yours.

Stapley: (Laughs)

Holmes: If there are guys here, who do you think you’re going to see?

Stapley: It’s who I hope and who I think. They’ll have Jeremy Collins back. Tyson, you’ve got to have Tyson. Rich (Hatch), I’d love to see Rich. Ben and Wendell…Adam Klein. It’s kind of like the old school and the new school. It’ll be interesting to see how they split us up. I don’t anticipate it’ll start all men vs. all women. I would play with any of the women who are out here. They’re pretty bad ass.


Holmes: You’ve never played in a returnee season. Did anyone give you advice on how to handle that new dynamic?

Stapley: No. Partially because I’m a rule follower. I’m terrified of not getting the chance to come back out here. So when they said, “Don’t speak to anyone about this,” I didn’t speak to anyone. And that could be part of my downfall. But, you have to figure it out. That’s what I did in the Philippines. I call it #fitfo. It sounds stupid, but it’s “Figure it the (expletive deleted) out.” It doesn’t matter what they throw at us, take a breath, and figure it out.


Holmes: The ten women out here are all winners. Is there any concern that it’s almost a playing with house-money situation? All you can trust out here is that people will work in their best interest. But, what if they’re less concerned with winning and more concerned with putting on a big show and being a bigger personality?

Stapley: I think there can be some of that with the guys.

Holmes: If there are guys.

Stapley: If there are guys. I think there’s more ego in them. The women I see out here, there are maybe a couple who want to make their mark, but it’s serious business being out here again. The first time you have to think through the moves you make. You can be a big character, but I’m out here to win that money. I’m not here for a Fijian vacation. I didn’t go to the Philippines because I thought it would be beautiful. I’m starting a job on day one and it’s not over until day thirty nine. Everybody has different things on the line. It’s been years since Amber has been out here. She has four kids. Parvati just had a kid. Sophie’s getting married. There are things that are happening in their lives. Being a big character is one thing, but they’re here to win.


Holmes: You’re a rule follower, and in all of these returnee seasons there’s chatter about pre-season alliances. I’m assuming you haven’t done any of that.

Stapley: Correct. Even going to Canada, seeing Malcolm, I found out the day that I was flying out there that I got on. And that’s the hardest thing, keeping your mouth shut. Especially with somebody that you care about and know. But in terms of the winners? No. Sarah lives in my town, but I don’t know Sarah. I’m not super tight with any of these women. It is interesting when a text would pop up. And it’s like, “You’ve never texted me before.”

Holmes: Who’s been texting you?

Stapley: Right before I came out I got a text from Sandra. But, here’s the funny thing, I’m such a rule follower, and the way my texts come in it said, “See you soon Sandra.” No comma. So I was like, “Oh, I’m sorry. This isn’t Sandra.” And she said, “No, this is Sandra.” But, I have Sandra in my phone and this is didn’t come up as Sandra. It was a different number. Then I was all freaked out. Is this really Sandra? Is it CBS testing me? So, I was very evasive. I was like, “Hey, let’s have fun.” Danni Boatwright sent me a little Facebook message. Adam Klein sent a little Facebook message. Sarah, that was the funniest one, she said, “Hey girl, doing anything fun this summer?” Just out of the blue. I sent her back some Chevy Chase gif of him being like, “Who me?” That’s the extent of it from me. You can’t make a deal that early.

Holmes: I always ask that question. And some people will sit here and break it all down. I’m working with X, Y, and Z. And I don’t think it’s ever worked out.

Stapley: I can say to Sarah or Sandra, “Let’s do this.” But, what’s the point? We don’t know if we’re going to be on the same tribe. You just don’t know. And it takes the fun out of the game. I’m a purist.

Holmes: Are you going to keep rubbing it in that you got to go to Canada with Malcolm?

Stapley: (Laughs) Aww… I’ll tell him to take you next time.



Holmes: You’re in lockdown, but people wink…nod…etc. Are you seeing any of that?

Stapley: I think there was more of the sly stuff the first time I was out. There’s almost a weird sense of calm. I’m not catching as much. Maybe that’s bad for me and I’m screwed. If that is going on, I’m not participating in it.

Holmes: Have you seen anyone else doing it?

Stapley: Not really, we’re all just sitting there reading our books. I’m a rule follower so I sit, eat my M&Ms, and zip it.

Holmes: What kind of M&Ms?

Stapley: Caramel. So good.

Holmes: What?! I didn’t know those were a thing.

Stapley: I hadn’t either. I love candy.


Holmes: Alrighty, let’s do some classic Align or Malign. You go through these nine ladies and tell me the four people you’ll work with and the five you won’t.

Stapley: This is hard. They’re all awesome women. It’s sounds cheesy, but they’re all beasts in their own way.

Holmes: It’s a murders’ row.

Stapley: Sorry, Abi…but there’s no Abi-Marias (Gomes) here. I love you, Abi!

Holmes: Aww…I love Abi-Maria.

Stapley: There’s nobody that I get a sense like, “Oh my God, I’m going to be stuck on a (expletive deleted) island for 39 days with them.” I’m like, “Oh, I’d take a vacation with them.”

Holmes: Once a season, my mother will be like, “Ugh…I hate this player so much.” And it’s always someone I’m cool with. She hated Abi-Maria and I adore her. I have to explain that out of the game she’s a sweetheart.

Stapley: Oh, she is! She’s very sweet. I think she really is a nice person. But in the game…

Holmes: (Laughs)

Stapley: Alright…let’s do the align first. Parvati, Sandra, Natalie, and Sarah. Parvati, I’m a little bit of a fangirl. Being a fan from season one, there’s something about watching her play and watching her game change that I really would like to play with her. I think she’s a little sneakier, she’s got a little of that flirt. She’s got the stuff that I don’t have. Sandra, I think you can read Sandra. She is who she is. Her game has been pretty consistent. I think she is forthcoming. I think she’s going to be looking for people to align with because she’s going to be afraid because she’s won twice. Natalie is funny, she’s a beast. I think she plays a good strategic game. And Sarah, this is one I’m not sure…

Holmes: The Iowa alliance!

Stapley: I know. The only thing that makes me hesitant to work with her is because she’s the hardest person out here to read. And her sense of humor, as you pick up on little things, it’s a dry, sarcastic…kinda “Fargo.’ She’s a bigger target. I know she can change her game.

Holmes: Alright, let’s talk about these maligns.

Stapley: Amber seems super sweet and super nice, but I’m assuming she’s out here with Rob. I’d view them as a couple, obviously. One of them has got to go. And, they’ve got four kids, so not that that makes it better or worse, but if both parents are out here, they’re coming for blood. They’re not going to be afraid to cut me. Sophie, I just don’t know her and she’s hard to read. Kim…I think she can smile at you and stab you at the same time. She’s so good. Danni…I don’t feel much of a connection. And Michele because I just don’t know her. If I’m aligned with Danni, Michele, Kim, Sophie…they all only played once. You have to have someone bigger than you in your alliance.

Holmes: Let’s take this to the next level. Of that five, who’s the first out?

Stapley: Amber, but only because if Rob’s out here, she’s gotta go.

Holmes: OK, of your four aligns, who’s your ride-or-die?

Stapley: I’d be dumb to do it, but I’d love to take Sandra. I would vote to give her the money.

Holmes: What’s the move to beat her in front of a jury?

Stapley: If I could frame it as, “This was very intentional and the only reason she was here was because I protected her. Otherwise, the queen would have been taken out a long time ago.”


Holmes: Alright, here comes the dumbest question you’ll hear all day.

Stapley: I doubt it.

Holmes: An alien lands…

Stapley: (Laughs) OK, maybe so.

Holmes: I warned you. They’ve never seen “Survivor” and you have to show them a clip to prove to them how awesome “Survivor” is. What clip do you show them?

Stapley: Some epic part of a challenge. Like the mud ball challenge. You’re covered in mud and you’re exhausted and you’re still smiling.

Holmes: Told you it was dumb.

Stapley: (Laughs)


Holmes: Jeff decides to do you a solid and lets you pick a twist. What would you go with?

Stapley: I didn’t love Edge of Extinction.

Holmes: Same.

Stapley: Kind of anti-climactic for me. Eh… But, if there was a Redemption Island? Even though there’s a part of me that says when you’re out, you’re out. But with me out here? I’ll take any chance I can get. I don’t want to just get out there and sit.

Holmes: What about Redemption Island and you lose, then you’re sent to Redemption Redemption Island.

Stapley: No.


Holmes: OK, let’s play some Best Defense. I’ll give a reason why someone would want to vote you out. You need to defend against it.

Stapley: I like the names.

Holmes: It’s a long flight out here. OK, last time Denise played she stayed under the radar. I don’t want her to sneak to the end and then win.

Stapley: That’s BS. I was not under the radar. Under the radar is people who go to Tribal and don’t speak. People who are riding on coattails. I played the cards I was dealt. I went to every Tribal Council. There was no place for me to hide.

Holmes: Someone who can survive every Tribal Council is wily and capable of defending herself. Can’t have it. Let’s vote her out.

Stapley: Or, it could say that I really suck and all of my tribes…clearly I cursed my tribe. I probably shouldn’t argue it that way.

Holmes: Maybe not the strongest call.

Stapley: OK, I was protecting myself, but I was also protecting other people along the way in my alliance.

Holmes: She looked sweet Malcolm in his beautiful eyes and voted him out. She clearly has a heart of stone.

Stapley: (Laughs) I don’t have a heart of stone! Voting him out was the hardest thing I had to do. But, it had to be done. And technically it wasn’t just me. We’d all lose if Malcolm was still in the game. I have a heart, but I have a bigger brain.

Holmes: Well, you have to live with yourself.

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