Survivor Winner Tony Vlachos: I Never Wanted to Hurt Anyone
05/28/2014 AT 12:30 PM EDT
Portrayed as a villain, he made a lot of promises he didn't keep – swearing on his wife, baby, father and even his police badge. And things turned ugly: During the final tribal council, his closest ally, Trish Hegarty, ripped into him for his untrustworthiness.
There were consequences outside the game, as well. Vlachos, a 40-year-old cop from Jersey City, has been in the center of a local debate after a congressional hopeful said that he should be fired for lying on TV. Now that his eventful week has sunk in, Vlachos tells PEOPLE about his regrets, his plans, and how he's not as bad as you think.
Tony, you were this season's villain. Does that bother you?
At the finale, a lot of people were booing me; I don't want to be hated by people. I was playing a game. All of us were out there to try to win a million dollars, and the way you play is to ruin everyone else's opportunities to win a million dollars. But look, I'm a human being. I didn't take joy in ruining everyone else's chances. But I was there to win a million dollars for my family. That's the whole point of the game.
So is there anything you want to clear up?
I want to clear up the whole thing about swearing on my badge. I got a lot of backlash about that. I can distinguish the game from real life. Every day, I put on my badge and literally risk my life. That's how I honor my badge; not on Survivor.
What about swearing on your family?
I think my heart was in the right place, but at the wrong times. When I swore on my family, I intended to keep those promises; they were genuine. But then I would have an opportunity to reassess things. If I had kept some of those promises, I would have been voted out. So I had to make changes.
There were some people who were really mad at you, for your decisions.
I was not out there to hurt anyone, and I felt bad that I did. That was never my intention. When I was awarded the million-dollar prize, I couldn't smile, I couldn't celebrate. Because there were 17 other people who played really hard who didn't get that opportunity.
Does your family understand why you had to swear on their names?
It does seem like a grimy thing to do, but my family understands what I did and why I did it. I don't believe that they're going to get struck by lightning because I used their name in Survivor.
Now there's a congressional candidate who is pushing to get you fired.
I'm ignoring him. Everyone is ignoring him. He's trying to get recognition, and I don't entertain that.
Back to the game. You made it to the finals because Woo brought you to the final two, even though it was clearly against his best interests.
Woo is an honest, good guy who wanted to play with integrity. Of course I benefited from it, and I appreciate his choice. I think America sees his true character.
That's all well and nice, but would you have made the same choice?
No. I would have taken Kass to the finals. But Woo and I were playing different games.
So you had to face some really angry people. How hard was that final tribal council?
It was brutal. I started by saying, "Okay, I'm going to tell you all the truth. Ask me anything you want." And then they started hammering me. It was awful. I didn't get a chance to respond to a lot of it. I felt bad that so many people were so hurt, because that's not how I try to live my life. But I played an aggressive game and part of that ended up hurting people. It was hard to hear what they were saying, but it was even harder to realize how angry they were.
It looked as though you might lose to Woo. Did you think so?
I knew I had played a good game. Woo hadn't hurt anyone, he had no blood or dirt on his hands. I still thought I would beat him, but I would have guessed it was going to be 5 to 4 or something close. I didn't expect it to be 8 to 1. I think that goes to show that they respected my game. You didn't see the other 71 hours of each episode. The parts where I gave up my food to everyone else, even though I was starving. How we talked about our lives, and we became friends. You don't see that on TV, but that was part of it, too. I played a social game.
You were compared a lot with Russell Hantz, a former player who was equally as strategic as you.
He is a very strategic guy. But we're different type of people. He rubs salt into people's wounds; I don't. I think I'm pretty genuine. I was aggressive with my gameplay, but I wasn't aggressive or mean to people. I had my issues with Kass, but I really do like everyone I got to play with.
So reflect on where your head is, now that it's a few days later.
The hardest part of playing the game is to blindside people who you like, who you have bonded with. I have spoken to a lot of them now, and we're good. I am glad that I played an aggressive game. I never wanted to hurt anyone, and I felt bad when people did get hurt. So I can appreciate the experience for what it was, and I will remain friends with a lot of the people I played with.
Last question: Are you really going to buy a pink chandelier with the money?
That's what my wife wants. She can pick it out at Home Depot or somewhere like that. Maybe I'll need to buy a house to go around it.