It was lucky number 13 for Yul Kwon, who won $1 million Sunday night on Survivor: Cook Islands, the 13th edition of the reality show.
Kwon, 31, a management consultant and graduate of both Stanford University and Yale Law School – and one of PEOPLE’s 2006 Sexiest Men Alive – beat former waiter Oscar “Ozzy” Lusth in a 5-4 vote.
At the final tribal council, “I had my heart in my throat; I could hardly breathe,” Kwon tells PEOPLE. “It was a nail-biter. When they read my name I was in another world. It was just disbelief.”
With his prize money, Know says he’d like to pay for his mother and father – both South Korean immigrants – to travel the world. “They came here without a lot of money and made a lot of sacrifices for me and my brother,” he says. “I want to provide them with things they weren’t able to do while we were growing up.”
Another important goal? Helping raise awareness about the need for minority bone-marrow donors, inspired by his best friend’s death from leukemia. One probable splurge: “A big-screen TV so I can watch the season again and see every bit of dirt up close,” he jokes.
On the show, Kwon found the hidden immunity idol buried on Exile Island and was dubbed “the puppetmaster” and “the Godfather” by other castaways because he seemed to hold all the cards even when his team was down.
Not so, maintains Becky Lee, who came in third and was allied with Kwon from the beginning. “Every decision he ever had, he always talked to all of us,” Lee tells PEOPLE. “He was the most diplomatic person.”
Even Lusth had no hard feelings: “(Yul is) a really funny guy, and he’s a great dancer, too,” he told PEOPLE. “It was an amazing experience getting to know him. He’s totally honest. He’s someone I can learn from. He has a lot of integrity and I hope it rubs off on me.”
Though the show sparked controversy by initially dividing teams by race, Kwon says he hopes his example, and that of his 19 fellow competitors, will break stereotypes: “I wanted to do this show to promote a more positive image of Asian Americans – that who you are isn’t dictated by your raced or skin color.”
The single Kwon says being named one of PEOPLE’s Sexiest Men Alive hasn’t helped his dating life. “I’ve been very popular with one group in particular – senior citizens. I get a lot of women who say, ‘If I was 30 years younger …’ ”
Kwon is finally recovering from various Survivor-related health problems – from a broken nose (courtesy of an errant oar during an early challenge) to severely infected cuts to intestinal difficulties.
As for the 15 pounds he lost on the island, he quickly gained them back. “I went to Costco and went nuts,” he says. “I’d eat constantly. I gained back the weight – and then put on another 10 pounds, which I’m now trying to lose.”