Woo Hwang came into this season of Survivor with a lot of baggage.
When the 31-year-old martial arts instructor played in Survivor: Cagayan, he made a colossal mistake in taking eventual winner Tony Vlachos to the finals even though he may have had a better chance against Kass McQuillen, who had rubbed some of the contestants the wrong way.
That choice cost him the game.
During his second chance, Hwang’s game never really got off the ground. He went to nearly every tribal council and watched as his allies were voted off.
He was voted off on day 16 – partially because of his perceived closeness to contestant Andrew Savage.
Hwang tells PEOPLE what went wrong – and how he would play the game differently if he had another shot.
You didn’t make it as far as everyone thought you’d make it, Woo. Were you surprised?
I never thought that I’d be voted off so early. It was a very discouraging, numbing feeling. It was tough to deal with.
So it was a true blindside?
It was. I didn’t have one flippin’ clue that I was going to be voted off. I was actually excited to vote off Spencer.
Okay, let’s get this out of the way: You have a reputation in the Survivor community of not having a lot of strategy and being a follower. Is that accurate, or do you have a strategy that no one gets to see?
People don’t realize that the game is a lot tougher than what you watch on TV. There’s a lot of talking and planning behind the scenes. Everyone has different strategies, of course. Some people go into the game with the strategy that they’re gonna run the show, but sometimes that doesn’t work your way.
Sometimes you have to be a team player, to roll with the leader, with the team. My season in Cagayan, that was the case: I had the numbers, I was on the good side. There was no reason to jeopardize any of that by trying to proclaim myself as being a Survivor player and doing something unorthodox.
This time around, I realized that a big reason why I didn’t win the first time around, was because they didn’t respect my game. For me, the toughest thing was to be more cutthroat, to be a little more vicious and be okay with backstabbing. In season 28, that’s just not who I was.
This time around, I tried to play a more aggressive game. But my time got cut short, and I wasn’t able to enforce that.
Okay, so let’s talk about why you got voted off. Kass was shown as being the swing vote, but Abi still held a grudge that you had written down her name twice. Do you think that had anything to do with it?
I think that had something to do with it. She also considered the numbers that were coming her way: Ciera, Kass and Spencer came up to her and said, “We want to take out Woo.” So she stuck with the numbers, which was a smart move.
She probably had it out for me because I had written her name down twice; that’s a given. But it was an obvious choice for her.
Okay, what about Kass? You voted her out in Cagayan; she must have held some sort of grudge towards you.
Yeah, of course. Kass and I have come to good terms. She understood why I took Tony over her; I’m sure that was tough for her to deal with, but we did a lot of talking, and I felt that we mutually squashed it. But it’s easier for me to say. I’m sure it was still lingering in the back of her head. So she decided to take me out, I feel like that had a big part of it.
But in her defense, I get why she’d vote you out. You took her out of the game before; I’m sure she wanted to return the favor.
I feel like if I had gotten a chance to play with Kass, we could’ve worked well together. But I don’t have any hard feelings against her. It sucks, but that’s the game. Strategy-wise, she made the right move. She knew I was close with Savage and Tasha.
Speaking of that closeness, did it bug you when Savage kept telling people how close you all were?
Well, we really were close! [Laughs]
But everyone didn’t need to know that!
Yeah, exactly. [Laughs] Kass talked to Savage, and he said, “Tasha, Abi, Woo and I are so locked in.” And Kass was probably sitting there thinking, “You guys are locked in? Then where the hell am I?” Savage was way too honest and candid.
That probably ended up costing you. When did you realize that you were screwed?
When Jeff was reading the votes. Spencer’s name came up first. No big deal, right? We knew he was going home. And then my name came up, and I was like, “Wait a minute. I’m pretty sure we discussed Ciera as the decoy for tonight, not me.” And then the second vote for me came out, and I’m like, “Aw, s—.” [Laughs] That’s when I knew. This is not gonna end well for me. I just braced for the end.
When Jeff turned the last vote around and it was me, it hit me like a Mack truck. Yep, I was blindsided.
What could you have done to survive this tribal council? What was your move?
If I had any clue or idea that my name was potentially going to be written down, I’d go after everyone. I’d go after Savage and be like, “Hey, instead of me, let’s take out Savage.” I would have fought to the end.
Want to hear more from Woo Hwang? Check out the audio interview below to hear his exit interview with two-time Survivor contestant Rob Cesternino!
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Survivor: Second Chance airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.