Pop Crave caught up with Survivor 44 champ Yam Yam Arocho following his historic win to discuss what it feels like being the series’ first Puerto Rican male and queer POC winner, how his relationship with Carson and Carolyn has grown since filming wrapped, chatting with Survivor queen Sandra Diaz-Twine, and more. Keep reading for the full exit interview!
Congratulations, Yam! You seemed to have confidence in your ability to win, but how does it feel knowing that you actually accomplished this dream of yours?
It was crazy. I cannot believe it. I knew after the final tribal council, when the jury was over and they were starting to vote, that I had won. I had that feeling. But after Heidi won that fire-making challenge, I really thought she had it, so I had to prepare myself. I didn’t sleep that night. I was just thinking about every vote that I did, who I talked to, why I talked to them, what was my motivation, where were they, where was I, all so I could justify my moves throughout the game.
You are the first Puerto Rican male winner ever and the first queer POC to win the game. What does all of this mean to you?
Wow. I hadn’t heard it like that. It’s really cool. Anybody can do anything in their life. We have the power to manifest anything we want and be able to do it. And me doing that, I did it as a fan; I played as a kid. I’m in love with the game, and I love the game, and I did it. But hearing those words—they mean a lot. And I hope I get to inspire people and show kids and young people that look like me and sound like me—even people that don’t look like me but like who I am—that anything is possible. There’s not a limit. It’s limitless.
The thought of a personality like yours having to keep the secret of your win for so long is hilarious to me. What was it like having to hold that in all this time?
That was the worst part of the game. It was heavy. It was heavy. It’s not fun to not tell your family that that big thing happened. So I’m really relieved that it’s over—the secret part of it.
You will be remembered as an icon of Survivor moving forward; you realize that, right? Whether you won or lost, your personality is one of a kind. How does it feel to know that you are being regarded among some of the greats like Sandra?
If I’m being compared with Sandra, what else is there to do? Like, hello? She is the queen. I called Sandra yesterday after everything was done and was like, “Sandra, I’m freaking out! I’m freaking out.” She goes, “Once you get that check, you’re gonna stop freaking out; don’t worry.” I am who I am. It took me a long time to be comfortable with who I am. So to play the game 100 percent me and to be accepted and thought of as an icon, girl…
Pop Crave: You are, though!
Yam Yam: Stop! [laughs]
The trajectory of your game was so fun to watch. You dominated the early days of Tika, stumbled a bit after the Sarah vote and during the split tribes twist, then really kicked things into high gear with Carson and Carolyn at the merge. What was it like having to adapt your gameplay to all of these different scenarios?
Well, I’ve always been grateful. I was always grateful for every single minute I was on the island. And I was never sour when stuff didn’t go my way. I tried to tune it out. Like, you’re on an island. We have no food, we have no music, we have no comfort, we have no communication, and we have no internet. Nobody wants to be next to somebody that’s bitter. So I always knew that if I made it a non-issue, maybe people could get past it. Obviously, when you see the confessionals, I know what’s going on. But I never confronted them in a way that they were not pleased with my presence. So every day was a new opportunity. Every conversation was a new opportunity. And it worked out.
The final tribal council felt edited in a way that made your performances feel pretty equal. How do you think everyone did?
My performance at tribal council was exceptional. That was my impression. Heidi and Carolyn’s final tribal council that I experienced… we were so exhausted. Their energy was not there, and their answers could have been more clear to what the jury was asking. But we were so exhausted. The thing is, I love to talk, right? So they were exhausted, and I was, like, full of energy. They edited that tribal council very nice for everyone, but it was not.
The relationship you’ve built with Carson and Carolyn is absolutely precious, and it was so fun to watch throughout the season! How has your bond with them grown since filming wrapped?
We talk every day. We talk every day, multiple times. We’re not talking right now because all of our phone notifications are off, but they are my family. The amount of joy I get from talking to them and being with them is real. And this is something I explain to people who say, “But how can you become friends so fast?” I’m like, “We had nothing. You go on an island, and you have nothing. You have a bag with three shirts and three pants. That’s it. You only have each other.” So it’s a feeling that I cannot describe. They’re my family.
I’m honestly still in awe at how solid Tika remained throughout the entire game. How do you think you were all able to avoid being voted out for so long, even after certain players caught on to your game?
People did not see us as a threat at all. They underestimated us, and we knew that. We also played a game of understanding everybody’s motivation and picking which motivation was better for us. We always knew what everybody was doing because they saw us as this little fragile lamb that needed help. But information is power, and they were giving it to us.
I’m curious what your perception of Carson was, considering how set you were on targeting Carolyn. Why did you target her over Carson, who most players felt was the stronger player?
Because Carolyn and I played together the whole time. Carson moved to Ratu for a little bit of the game, so I felt like I knew more that Carolyn was playing a good game. I was playing a better game than her, but the thing is that I knew how she messed with people in terms of, like, using her emotions to make people think that she’s not 100 percent what she is. And I was so sure she was gonna get to the final tribal and turn it on. She would be like, “Here it is, guys! This is all me, all of that.” Blah, blah, blah. But it didn’t pan out like that. I thought that was gonna happen.
What was your ideal final three?
When I was over there, I thought Heidi, Jaime, and I would be an ideal final because I wanted votes on the jury. And I can guarantee Carson and Carolyn would vote for me if I did that. But Jaime became a bigger target in my head because she was always thinking so hard about the game—counting votes and doing the numbers, doing the numbers, doing the numbers. In her face, you could see it, and I was so close to her. I was like, “If she can get to the end and convince her Ratu people to vote for her, I have no choice.” I’m so flexible, I could have either one [laughs]. But it is what it is; like, somebody asked me, “What should’ve happened? What could’ve happened?” Blah, blah. I was like, “Well, you’re asking the wrong person. I want everything to stay the same.”
Last question, and it’s a more serious one. I know representation means a lot to you, and you’ve made that known on the show and across social media. What message do you have for queer fans who may feel ostracized by society in the current state of our country?
What’s going on in America right now in terms of some states being against trans people, queer people, and drag queens? What’s the message? Move to another state! I don’t know. It’s gonna get better. It has to get better. Be strong. Be yourself. Don’t hide who you are. The only way we can make change, and the only way we can be happy, is if we’re 100 percent who we are at all costs. The moment we start changing ourselves because of something or someone pressuring you, that’s when we lose. The only power we have is our magic of being queer. It’s like being a magic being. It’s like, “Hey, who doesn’t want this? Hello?” Don’t get down because of anyone. It’s not worth it.
Survivor returns for its 45th season this fall on CBS.