Andrew H. Walker/Getty
Steve Helling
May 14, 2017 10:45 AM

In the ten years since he won Survivor: Fiji, Earl Cole has had his share of ups and downs. Soon after taking the million-dollar prize, he was named one of PEOPLE’s Sexiest Bachelors. That bachelorhood ended in 2010, when he married his longtime love Shelley Lee in Kauai.

But the winner has also had his share of struggles. His mother, JoAnn Kendall, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease; she died on March 2 at the age of 73.

But now, things are on the upswing for Cole. “My beautiful wife is pregnant with our first child,” says Cole, 46. “She’s due in November. We couldn’t be happier.”

Earl Cole

Life After Survivor

Cole was already a successful advertising executive when he entered the reality TV world. During a dinner out with then-girlfriend Lee, a casting agent approached the couple to compete on the Amazing Race. She wasn’t into it; he was. A week later, the casting agent called him again and asked him to do Survivor — a show he hadn’t watched and wasn’t familiar with. “I went in there and just reacted to whatever happened,” says Cole. “And look what happened. I became the first unanimous winner!”

Cole won the show on May 13, 2007. He invested the bulk of the money until his 2008 taxes were due. “I wanted to walk away with the full million after taxes,” he explains. He gave some of the money to his mom — he offered her half, but she wouldn’t take that much.

He worked with the University of Kansas Medical Center to establish the Perthes Kids Foundation (Earl Cole Fund), a charitable foundation for children with Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease, a rare hipbone ailment that Cole suffered from as a child. The organization sponsors two camps — one in America, one in Australia — for children ages 7-15. “I overcame a lot,” Cole says. “And I want to help other kids do the same.”

Those camps have kept Cole from competing on the show again; he’s been asked many times to return. “I’ll do it when it works in my life,” he says. “But the timing just hasn’t been right yet.”

FROM PEN: Former Survivor Contestants Share Their Favorite Rewards From Their Time as Castaways

In Memory of His Mother

Cole tells PEOPLE that none of his success would be possible without his mom. On Saturday, the city of Kansas City honored JoAnn Kendall, just 3 days after what would have been her 74th birthday. 

The Alzheimer’s Disease robbed Cole of the last years with his mom. “She had slowly gone away,” he says. “It’s a terrible disease.”

To honor his mother, Cole has made a documentary film, LADY J: The JoAnn Kendall Story, which he premiered at the event. “I worked with an Emmy Award-winning Editor, Michael Griffin, to create an endearing, entertaining and educational film,” he says. “It really documents what Alzheimer’s does to people and their families. I hope everyone will love the film and can learn from it.” 

As he starts lining up showings of the documentary at film festivals, Cole’s now looking forward to expanding his family. “I’m really excited to be a dad,” he says. “Who knows? This could be the first of many!”


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