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Pop Crave got to chat with Survivor 44 fifth-place finisher Lauren Harpe following Wednesday night’s finale to talk about why she thinks she could have won had she made it to the end, her biggest regret in the game, how she managed to make it to the final five with zero votes cast against her, and more. Keep reading for the full exit interview!

Congratulations on such a fantastic run on the show! How fulfilling has this journey been for you, knowing you made it as far as you did?

It’s been so fulfilling because, at the beginning, they ask you the question when interviewing you, like, “Are you here to win a million dollars or is it more of a journey?” And I was definitely there to win a million bucks, but the journey for me was just so amazing, and I felt like it was inspirational for others as well. I think that was my main purpose—to just go out there and be an inspiration of some sort, to have someone’s [journey] connect with mine, and to show my kids and my students that they can fight and that they can have that grit and perseverance and succeed. So overall, it was great for me, and I was able to show the world that anything is possible, especially for someone who looks like me.

What ultimately influenced your decision to vote for Yam Yam over Carolyn and Heidi?

They were all phenomenal final contestants, but Yam played the best social game, and he kept those relationships going. I was very close to Yam out of the three, and he had the best jury management. He was so genuine of a person, and like I said, I had a relationship with him. With Heidi, I loved her story and what she stood for. She’s just a phenomenal human being, but there was some tension there. I kind of ruffled some feathers just by voting her off all those times as a split vote. She’s very close with Danny, and Danny and I weren’t jiving the whole time. And then with Carolyn, she’s such a force, such a dynamic player, and very, very brilliant. But there was no social relationship between her and I, so I was most connected with Yam. I just think that he played the best game overall.

Courtesy of CBS

How much of an idea would you say the jury as a collective had on who they thought was playing the best game going into the final tribal council?

So a lot of them went in with their minds open. But for me, I think I went in kind of knowing, to be honest. I think Yam played the best game. He’s the one that I had the closest relationship with, and if the other women could articulate that [winning] game to me or articulate their ideas to me, then they could have possibly swayed me. But Yam, I knew his game. I had a relationship with him, and I didn’t hear what I needed to hear at the moment from the other ladies. So yes, I went in knowing that, and unfortunately, I wasn’t swayed.

In last night’s episode, Carson voiced being afraid of you making it to the end for a multitude of reasons. After speaking with the jury at Ponderosa, do you think you would have had a good chance at winning?

Oh, most definitely. That was my strategy to get to the end—just connect with them. And I knew I did a great job with my jury management and building those relationships with the people that were going to be on the jury. I think I could have gotten Kane, for sure. Also, Brandon, Jaime, and I think I could have reeled in Frannie. It would’ve been a little bit of a tough one if it was between me and Carolyn, but I think I could have reeled her in, in addition to Danny and whomever else was there. I think I would have probably had the votes just based off of those social relationships that I built with those connections. So for sure. Carson, I don’t know if I could have beat him. But just based on the jury, I think that was an advantage I had amongst other players.

Courtesy of CBS

We were rooting for you to find that idol in the final five! What was your reaction to watching the episode and seeing how close you were to it while searching?

Man, oh, my God, that was the death of me. I was searching for that thing! I felt like it was an eternity, but I think it was maybe 30 minutes. I can remember sitting down, and they didn’t show this shot, but I sat next to Carson, and I just couldn’t even speak to him. I was like, “I know, you’re gonna vote me out. I don’t even want to look at you right now.” But I was sitting there; everyone was sitting. I was like, “I’m gonna go look. I can’t give up. I know something is out there. I don’t think anybody has it.” I was looking everywhere, but unfortunately, I didn’t get it, so it was heartbreaking to watch, knowing that I could have gone further. And I think I would have had a great chance, but I’m a big believer that what’s for me will be for me. And obviously it was not for me.

Going back to the beginning of the season, your name came up frequently after coming back from your journey and receiving the Bank Your Vote. It really seemed that your days were numbered out there in the pre-merge! How were you able to come back from that and build such solid relationships on Ratu?

I think my relationship with Brandon really saved me. He was a shield for me, but then also, he had my back. So anytime he heard someone talking or saying my name, he was like, “Nope, not voting for her.” And then I think it was a plus for us for Jaime to go [to Soka], because even when she came back, we were able to see… I know that when they went to a feast for an award or something, Brandon asked a question, and Jaime and Brandon were kind of on the same page with the lie that they were going to push forward, so we knew that connection was still there. I came clean about [the advantage]. I couldn’t say anything else; I mean, Claire already gave me away in that challenge. So I came clean, and I think since I came clean and didn’t try to continue to lie and lie and lie, that that kind of saved me a little bit. And just trying to build connections with people and be vulnerable. But I kind of lucked up there, too. So it was some strategy, but then it was a lot of luck.

Courtesy of CBS

You absolutely crushed it in the immunity challenges, tying for most individual wins with Carson and Frannie. What has this experience taught you about yourself and what you’re capable of in life?

Before going into the game, I didn’t know how to swim. I didn’t work out as much. So I worked out, I learned how to swim, and I’m thinking, “I’m tough,” you know? I’m going in, and I’m like, “I’m not as strong as the other people here, but I know I have it in me.” So it’s taught me to just believe in myself and give myself some credit because I can go and be super insecure and say, “I can’t do that” or “I’m not good enough for this.” But I really outdid myself, and I really surprised myself because, at the beginning I was sucking, okay [laughs]. Like, you see me fall off the platform. You saw me struggling on everything else, like the swimming and the puzzles. Man, I thought I was so good at puzzles. My grandma used to vouch for me when I was little, and she was like, “Lauren is the puzzle queen. Watch Lauren do this puzzle so fast.” Not out there, okay!? So I wasn’t as great. But in the end, I think I kind of showed myself in those endurance challenges, so I found my strengths.

I also have to mention that you received zero votes up until your elimination. Very impressive! How do you think you were able to achieve that?

I mean, man. By being vulnerable or connecting with people, I think that’s the name of the game out there. It’s all about social relationships. So you’ve got to get people on your side so that whenever your name does come up, they are deflecting or directing it somewhere else. And I felt like I could be an asset. I had connections with the Tika members; I had connections with the Ratu [members]; and then, even through Frannie, I had connections with her up until, you know, the vote out [laughs]. But I kind of tried to stay in line with everybody and be in all the conversations.

Jaime spoke a bit about an alliance between herself, you, Carson, and Yam Yam. What were some of your other cross-tribe allegiances like? I really wish we got to see more of that from you!

I know! It was just mostly with Carson and Yam. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a relationship or true alliance with anyone on Soka, and I think that was my biggest downfall in the game. That’s probably my biggest regret—not forming a true relationship or alliance [with any of them]. I had the opportunity with Frannie when she took me to the family dinner. That was like a main point where I could have connected with her and Heidi, and I think that probably would have taken me further. But I kind of got into my head and was like, “She’s a beast. She’s a force; I will never beat her and win challenges if she’s still here.” So I think that was my biggest downfall—not connecting with Soka. But yeah, the only other ones were with Yam Yam and Carson.

Courtesy of CBS

Survivor returns for its 45th season this fall on CBS.