Domenick, a 38-year-old construction supervisor from Nesconset, NY, finished as the runner-up after losing by a single jury vote. To rub salt in Dom's wounds, the one vote that put Wendell over the edge was actually a tie-breaker vote cast by the season's third-place finisher, Laurel Johnson.
After the 10-person jury split their votes right down the middle between Domenick and Wendell -- which marked the first time this has ever happened in 36 seasons of Survivor -- Laurel became the eleventh member of the jury and cast the sole vote for the season's winner. (She received zero jury votes).
Reality TV World: Heading into Final Tribal, how confident were you that you were going to win, and did your perspective change at all once the jury questioning was complete?
Domenick Abbate: Yeah I felt, well, I didn't think I had a huge edge, but I thought I had an edge. I definitely felt my game was more visible. What surprised me the most was some of the things I thought people were going to be angry at me about, you know -- and I prepared to respond to -- ended up not being what they were actually mad about.
I thought maybe Chelsea felt this or she was upset because of this reason, and then to hear her ask me a different question, it threw me off my game a little bit. I really didn't anticipate certain gripes that people had with me, so I think that was one of the things that surprised me most.
"Oh, you're mad at me for this?! Well, I thought you were mad at me for that." You know what I mean? So it's really hard for me to maneuver when you're not sure what concerns people have and what their gripes are with you.
Reality TV World: Did you ever envision you could end up with a tie vote at the Final Tribal, and were you aware of theSurvivor rule Laurel would be the tie-breaker vote in that case?
Domenick Abbate: Yeah, we watched Game Changers, Season 34, before we went out, and we heard Jeff explain the tie-break rule. So we were familiar with it.
I didn't anticipate a tie because I saw the Laurel and Donathan relationship was really strong, and I thought for sure Donathan was going to vote for Laurel.
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But I did think that was the only vote she was going to get, leaving nine votes up for grabs. And if there's nine votes, there's not going to be a tie. So, in my mind, I didn't anticipate a tie.
Reality TV World: Were you surprised to receive a vote from anyone in particular, and were you surprised NOT to have received a vote from anyone?
Domenick Abbate: I was definitely surprised Chris Noble gave me his vote. I was not anticipating that. I was pretty sure that was going to go to Wendell.
And to hear him not only give me his vote but to stand up for me -- you know, he really represented me and was like my ambassador out there -- and defend my game to the jury for me, that really meant a lot to me that he did that and was able to pull the thing that we had aside and respect the game for what it was.
That one to me was the most shocking. On the opposite side of that coin, I was really hoping to win back the love of Chelsea and Sebastian. I thought I put a lot of effort into doing that, and I was really upset that it wasn't effective.
Reality TV World: Do you think half the jury voted for Wendell to win because they really believed he had played the best strategic and social game, or do you think they were bitter against you and simply didn't want to vote for you due to personal reasons?
Domenick Abbate: I hate to use the word bitter, but it's not -- I got the five votes from the first five people voted out, and then Wendell got the second tribe. And what I think that shows you is that the first five people had more time out of the game to really absorb what happened.
And I was a huge part in the first five going home! It's not like I had nothing to do with it and that's why they gave me their votes. You know, Chris, Michael, Des, all of them! They were at the hand of me sending them home.
But what it allowed them was more time out of the game and they gained more perspective on what I was trying to do.
I think not having that additional time to absorb it made it more difficult for Sebastian and Kellyn and Chelsea to really say, "You know what? I understand what he's doing. Maybe I shouldn't be so harsh on him." You know what I mean? So, I think timing plays a lot into it.
But you know what? For me as a player, it's really my job to change their mind. And the fact I wasn't able to do that means that Wendell did it better. So, I'm not going to sit here and say it was a bitter jury. I'm going to say that I didn't do a good enough job selling my story to them.
Reality TV World: Are you shocked everyone just let you and Wendell ride to the end together? It's hard to fathom how the cast let that happen.
Domenick Abbate: It is hard to fathom that. I mean, I look back and I watch the season and I'm like, "What are these people thinking?!" Not only what are they thinking, but how is it possible that Wendell nor myself even played an idol the entire time.
Reality TV World: Right!
Domenick Abbate: (Laughs) But it shows you that we really did have an understanding of what their mindset was. If you have a group mentality where it's like, "Let's rise up against these guys," that's fine and good luck with that.
But I think the more strategic way to play this game is through one-on-one conversations.
So even thought I knew and Wendell knew the uprisings were starting to form, we were able to decipher how effective they were going to be and how serious they were by having separate one-on-ones with these people afterwards or right before Tribal, let's say.
So Laurel and I would have a conversation right before Tribal, and I'd be like, "Look, I know there was some uprising," so it's hard to explain. But if I had a one-on-one with you, I would know immediately if you were coming after me or not.
That was my thing; that was my strength out there. It was like, "Don't talk to me one-on-one because it's not going to go well for you." (Laughs)
Reality TV World: What was going through your mind when Jeff started reading the votes at the Final Tribal instead of the live reunion show? What did you think was happening?
Domenick Abbate: That was a very overwhelming moment. We've never seen that before, right?! I was totally expecting Jeff to come out and say, "We're going to read these votes back in the States," like he's done 35 prior times.
And for him to just come out and say, "Hey, let's just read the votes right now!" I didn't know what to think! I was happy, I was worried. There was just a wave of emotion that came over me.
I was obviously thrilled to be a part of history, but at the same time, seconds later, it had sunk in that I had just lost the game.
Reality TV World: Well you chose not to go head-to-head against Wendell and make fire. Were you really seriously considering that or just trying to make good TV? And do you think you would have beaten Wendell in fire had you opted to participate?
Domenick Abbate: It was not for TV; it was a strong consideration. It didn't last long in my brain, but I did realize that Laurel nor Angela were showing any enthusiasm to take him out in fire-making, and I did realize that the only one that would be able to do it would be me.
So, obviously the thought crossed my mind. It wasn't for TV. And whether or not I could have beaten him is up in the air. You know, he did it pretty well. In my practices, I had some really good practice moments, and I had some really not great practice moments.
So who knows if it would've been a good moment or not for me in fire-making. I will say that for future players, they may see this now and say, "Wait. Maybe I do need to take that risk that Dom didn't and put myself out there in a fire-making challenge against someone who's a good competitor."
So, who knows! And if I was to ever play this game again, you bet your ass I'm going out there and doing it, you know?! So it sounds crazy to have even contemplated doing it, but it really was something I did contemplate at one point.
Reality TV World: So why did you ultimately decide not to go through with the fire challenge? Was it because you were confident you could still win the game without this resume boost, or maybe the move was just too scary and risky, even for a gambler like yourself?
Domenick Abbate: Yes, it's a combination of both. It was a huge move, a huge move to do! And if it goes bad, you're going to go in the history books as one of the biggest idiot moves anyone's ever made.
And I had built up enough confidence in my own brain to say, "I don't need to take this shot. I don't need to take this risk. I played a great game! And I have the ability to articulate my story to the jury. I think I can do this well, and I'm pretty sure -- it's not going to be an easy task, but it will be one that I could overcome in Final Tribal in a head-to-head against Wendell."
So you have to look at the risk vs. reward for both scenarios. Ultimately, I think it was the safer and smarter move, but obviously in hindsight -- if I could go back (laughs), I'm definitely going to take him out with fire!
Be sure to check back with Reality TV World soon for the concluding portion of our exclusive Survivor interview with Domenick Abbate.