The Winner of Netflix's 'The Circle' Opens Up About the Victory They Never Saw Coming

They walked away with $100,000… to their obvious shock

The trick of The Circle is that anyone can be anyone else — the married man can play the Casanova; this guy can play that girl; a mom can play with her son — and Joey Sasso’s trick, it seems, is that he only ever played as himself.

Netflix’s latest reality series released its first season finale on Wednesday. The Circle saw a rotating cast of strangers sequestered in individual apartments in a building in the U.K. and forced to become friends while only interacting with each other using a social media platform in a kind of online popularity contest.

After 12 episodes, 26-year-old Sasso was named the winner of $100,000… to his obvious shock.

“I firmly had no idea it was happening,” he tells PEOPLE.

“I’m down to the final two and my hand is shaking, and my hand does not shake,” he says, sounding exactly like he does on The Circle. “I do not get nervous.”

He shouldn’t have worried: The slick-haired New York bartender and self-proclaimed “proudest mama’s boy you’re ever gonna meet” pretty quickly charmed the rest of his castmates and (to take a very unscientific sampling) a lot of Netflix viewers as well.

In a show about who ends up as the most popular, it definitely didn’t hurt that he was never really hated by anyone else.

Shubham Goel — also known as “Shooby” and Sasso’s best Circle friend — remembers “the first day when I imploded and had a breakdown of a large magnitude, Joey was completely backing me up and supporting everything I said,” he tells PEOPLE.

“Me and Joey were different in every single way, but we were best buds in there,” says Goel, 24.

Joey Sasso
The Circle. Netflix

Proudly loyal, loudly (loudly) endearing and both childlike and competitive, Sasso, like Goel, largely cruised through the season as lesser-liked players got the cut. He had to make a few tough decisions himself, such as eliminating fellow contestant Sean Taylor soon after she revealed her real identity and allowing Miranda Bissonnette to get the boot even though they’d opened up to one another and traded sexy emoji.

“I love these people, but it’s a game, which was so hard and difficult to do,” Sasso acknowledges. “I’ve always been able to read people really well. I think that helped me tremendously.”

“My thing has always been, just don’t judge me even though we’re supposed to be judging each other,” he says, adding, “My whole thing was at any point in the show, if I got blocked or go home, I just wanted to make sure I had no regrets and stayed true to myself.”

While he gushes — really, he gushes — about his fellow contestants and the time he spent with them, he admits he had to make some difficult choices. It was a game, after all.

“It’s hard for me to say what the best part was, because honestly every day was amazing and the games were great, the challenges were great, interactions were great,” he says. “However, the low point for me is so easy to remember, which was when I had to block Sean.”

“Legitimately,” he says, he “struggled, cried and went to sleep just feeling absolutely terrible,” after one of the season’s most emotional moments. Taylor had just opened up about catfishing the other players as a skinnier version of herself, then uploaded real photos of what she looked like — and received a lot of love and support from her castmates. And then she got the boot.

“I gotta protect the OGs,” Sasso explains, referring to the original group of players who all made it to the finale instead of people like Taylor, who joined midseason. “I’m just a loyal dude,” Sasso says.

And he’s not one to forget a spark — of friendship or romance. “You really hold onto these people and you really start caring,” he says.

Joey Sasso
Joey Sasso on Netflix’s The Circle. Netflix
The Circle

“We definitely all stay in touch and touch base and it’s kind of a beautiful thing,” he says. Multiple Circle players tell PEOPLE they’re planning to reunite soon in Miami, where Sammie Cimarelli lives.

And Goel, Sasso says, is “my boy, I love him… I legitimately wanted him to win.”

“Shooby, he’s just such an interesting person and his outlook on life and the way he looks at certain things and the modern world… I think that’s what makes him a really, really beautiful person,” Sasso says.

Since the show started airing on Jan. 1, Sasso has been getting a lot of questions about his relationship with Bissonnette since they shared a kiss after she was eliminated, and he vowed to take her on a date after all was said and done. They had a spark, so would they ever get together? So far, they’re both just saying how great the other is, but that will likely change. Sasso noted on Instagram that he would “finally dive into this and everything in our lives” in the days following the finale’s release.

What’s true, to hear the cast tell it, is how close they all got. “Everyone’s like, ‘Dude we’re a family, we did this,’“ Sasso says. “It’s a shared experience that nobody can ever understand. We know that, and we try to hold that bond and keep it together.”

Part of that shared experience was being alone in his apartment (with only some company from the producers). And that did make him go a little stir-crazy, “but not in a bad way.”

“The most surprising thing for me was how much gameplay there was,” he says. “Truly you wake up and it’s on, you’re rolling.”

On the finale, Sasso said he had just moved into a new apartment. He’s still bartending, he tells PEOPLE, and also going on acting auditions.

He also co-wrote and starred in the independent film The Young Lion of the West, which took years and years to put together and, now that it’s done, he’s hoping to take on the festival circuit.

Sasso describes it as a little Mean Streets, a little Saturday Night Fever; he plays a club promoter in Rochester grappling with ambition, greed and family turmoil. But he could almost be talking about The Circle.

“It’s a magical thing that happened where all these amazing, amazing people got picked to do this thing,” he says, “and it also taught me that, yes, I’ve been hurt and let down by friends in my life but I also never want that to make me feel jaded and change my trust in people.”

The Circle is streaming now on Netflix.

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