May 20, 2009 10:57 AM by Ryan Haidet
At just 24 years old, James Thomas Jr. — better known as simply JT — became the second contestant in Survivor history to win the game with a unanimous vote (Earl Cole from the Fiji season was the first). JT was one of the hardest workers during Survivor: Tocantins — The Brazilian Highlands and also the fan favorite, which nabbed him an addition $100,000 in addition to the $1 million prize for winning the game. After the live finale on Sunday in New York City, RealityTVMagazine‘s Ryan Haidet chatted with the humble winner on the red carpet. JT discussed many things including how excited he was to win, his relationship with Stephen and the moment when he lost his tooth during an early Immunity Challenge.
Surprised By Votes
Shortly after winning the top prize during Survivor‘s incredible 18th season, JT was thrilled with his victory. “It’s amazing,” the cattle rancher from Samson, Alabama, said. “I had no idea I would win the $100,000 on top of the $1 million — that’s incredible. Not in a million years did I ever expect that. And to see a unanimous decision in the jury votes is amazing.”
The final votes were actually sealed in early December after the last day of filming in Brazil, and were kept secret until the live reveal earlier this week. With plenty of time to think about the possibility of winning or losing, JT said he wasn’t really certain if he had won or not despite Stephen’s poor argument at the final Tribal Council. “I never felt I had it in the bag. Never, because I know the person Stephen is. And I thought everyone else did, too. I wish they did. Stephen is a very good dude. I feel like he hurt his self at Final Tribal.”
The Country Boy & City Kid
Even though Stephen was his prime competition in the final two, they became the closest of friends despite the vast differences in lifestyle — the farm boy and the city kid. “Stephen and I have a lot of goals in mind,” JT explained of their common bond. “Our characters are very similar. We grew up in different parts of the world, so we tackle things differently. But all throughout the game we taught each other, and relayed strategies and checks and balances. … We’re very much alike business-wise. It shows. It’s hard for some people to see because we’re so different. Our lives are so different, but our characters, our hearts are in the same place. He’s an excellent guy.”
It’s for that reason, JT hopes he and his runner-up can spark some business together. “Stephen and I are definitely going to be working together down the road. We’re too good together, obviously. We work very good together. I love him like a brother and I’m sure people stay in touch, I’m sure you’ll see Stephen and I very soon.”
He and Stephen had formed that Tom-and-Huck-like friendship back on Day 2. Throughout the game, they held high hopes they would be the last two standing so they could share the final day together and celebrate with a big breakfast. They got their wish after JT won the final Immunity Challenge and Erinn was voted off. “It felt so good. That was the best food I’ve ever ate in my life because we cooked it ourself, in Brazil, on the fire, in the sense of victory over everyone else. And being there together, enjoying our glass of champagne right there where we had been living — in the dirt and the mud — to have that, it was better than I ever could imagine. The food was so good, we were starving. So it was incredible, man.”
Tight With Taj
Another player he formed a tight alliance with was Taj. But when it came down to the final four, both he and Stephen swapped on their alliance and voted her out. As her torch was snuffed, the looks on their faces showed how difficult it truly was for them to cast that ballot. “That was the toughest vote. We love Taj. We really love Taj. She’s a great woman. The only reason I had to get rid of Taj is I was worried she may beat me or win the Immunity Challenge. And I knew that she would probably take Stephen to the final two. I didn’t feel like Erinn could beat me in either. I had to do it strictly strategically.”
But Taj’s demise came much later in the game than many may have expected — especially after she admitted her wealthy husband is former NFL star and Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George. But JT says her background wasn’t a factor. “I actually believe with all my heart, no matter how much money you have or where you come from — if you win that game, you deserve it. If you’re out there that long and you survive the wilderness the emotions, the whole task, no matter how much money you got, you need that much more.”
JT was no doubt the most physically dominant force this season, who won many challenges for his team and himself. In one of those challenges, his drive to win resulted in the loss of one of his teeth during the physical competition. But JT said television made the incident seem much worse. “It’s a crown on my front tooth I’m missing — the whole back half. You couldn’t really see it, (but) there’s a slight chip in the front. It wasn’t really bad, but the back of my crown broke off. Fortunately it was not sensitive, so I was very fortunate that I didn’t have tooth pains and things like that out there. It was just a freak accident. It hurt for like 10 minutes. I wasn’t worried about it at all.”
Applying & Advice
And fans will be happy to hear that JT was one of the few contestants this season who wasn’t recruited. “I filled out an application — this is my very first Survivor application ever. It was a long process, but I never gave up. My mom encouraged me and if you really want something, pursue it with all you got.”
And for the 18 contestants about to pack their bags and head off to Samoa for the next season, JT had a bit of advice. “If you want to go to Samoa, you better fill out the application and prepare yourself, ’cause it’s going to be 10 times harder than you ever think it will.”
Red carpet images taken by Ryan Haidet. All other images courtesy of Monty Brinton/CBS.
Stay tuned in the coming days for exclusive red carpet interviews with Stephen, Erinn and Taj.
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Have you ever wondered what it’s like to sit in the audience during a live Survivor finale? Stay tuned for a special report, which will discuss exactly what the in-studio audience experiences from start to finish.