How Yamil ‘Yam Yam’ Arocho Won ‘Survivor 44’ With Kindness: ‘I Played the Game Just Like I Do Life’ (Exclusive)
The winner was also the first queer person of color to outwit, outplay and outlast on the reality show.
By winning Survivor 44, Yamil "Yam Yam" Arocho is the proud owner of a lot of firsts. He's the first queer person to nab the title of Sole Survivor since Survivor: China's Todd Herzog in 2007, the first queer person of color to ever win the show and the first person from Puerto Rico to ever even compete in the series' 44-season history (and, of course, win it all). And even in victory, Arocho's hallmark positivity and kindness are on full display.
"It's such a big title, oh my god! Such big responsibility with it," he exclusively told The Messenger, less than 24 hours after his historic win. "I just want people to know that you're just enough. You don't need to change anything about yourself. You just have to love yourself as you are, and as long as you can do that — and I know it's not easy; it took me a while to do it — anything is possible."
Of course, it wasn't a smooth road to get here. After nearly getting voted out pre-merge, the quick-witted, fast-talking hair salon owner was in the minority alliance alongside Carson Garrett and Carolyn Wiger. But, through careful maneuvering, some wholesome fire-making tips and a little touch of the Yam Yam curse (everyone who wrote down his name was quickly voted off the tribe), Arocho battled his way into the final three, ultimately winning in a clean 7-1-0 sweep.
Below, Arocho spills on his ability to make 'em laugh, his most effective jury argument and the status of the Tika trio's found family.
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On his ability to be brutally honest but keep people laughing...
It's something that I allow myself to do because I don't think I can hold anything in. It doesn't always comes across as super amazing, but most people appreciate it. ... People are dishonest, or can be dishonest. Not everyone. But they appreciate my honest truth. Yeah, I never was gonna sacrifice that for anything or anyone. So I played the game just like I do life. I lead with humor. I laugh about myself so other people can laugh.
On what he decided to hold back...
When I started I didn't say I own my business. Like I said, "I work with my family." And like, that was like my only little like, white lie. Everything else was true. But yeah, I was very frank and real with people about what I thought of them. But they were so amazing, I couldn't think of something that's offensive about them because I loved them so much
On choosing Carolyn and Carson as allies...
I love all my Tika people — Helen, Sarah, Bruce, and Carson and Carolyn, of course. ... When I first saw the tribe, it was like, "Oh my God, I don't match any of these people! They're all gonna get together and put me out, right?" ... I could see the girls being very tight and me not being able to crack that. But Carolyn and I had an understanding that we were a little crazy and out there and we were there to have fun, and if you're gonna be without food, without shelter, without communication from home, at least have fun.
On shenanigans he wishes had made the final cut...
I wish they showed more of us when we were off of the boat. I wish they showed like how much laughs we had around the campfire. Like one day, Carolyn was taking forever in a confessional, and she was so mad that we voted Frannie out, and she was crying. And I said, "Oh my god, poor guy that's interviewing her. Oh my god." And then everybody just started laughing, and Jamie, like her laugh is so contagious. We would just look at each other and say, "Poor guy," and we were laughing around the fire. It was like a good 20 minutes of laughing, nonstop.
On the decision not to vote out Carolyn...
I honestly saw Carolyn as the amazing player she is, and Carolyn and I understand each other on another level that people do not see right away. So I saw her as a huge threat. Like, I swore she was gonna get to the final Tribal Council and take the mask off and say, "And this is why I'm so amazing and did everything I did." It didn't happen like that, but I knew she was a great player, but nobody else saw that. And I tried to get people to do it, but because Carson didn't want it, I couldn't live without Carson because then the next day Carson would have probably flipped against me if he didn't go with me the first time. I could get everyone else, but I couldn't get Carson.
On how he felt walking into the final three...
I was so scared of Heidi's fire-making move. Like literally my heart sank. Everything was like, "Oh my gosh, this is over. Why are we here? She's gonna win" — which is what fired my game, like it fired me up. And I didn't sleep that night before the final Tribal Council, and all I did in my head was go vote by vote, where I was, who I was with, who they talked to, how they included people, what conversation I had. So when I got to the final Tribal Council, I could tell every jury member where I was in everything.
On why he helped Carson practice fire...
It came because of our relationship. Carson is the most amazing young man. He's 15 years younger than me and Carolyn, and like, what, 23 years younger than Heidi. And he was exceptional at everything he did, especially at a young age. We were in awe of how amazing he was. And to see him break down, I was never going to allow that to happen. Like, I'm not about taking people down for me to be good. I will vote you out — don't get me wrong. It's a game about voting people out. But never in a nasty way. Like, that's not my style.
On finding out about Carson's 3D printing preparation...
I was so in shock. I literally find out he works in NASA at the reunion at the after show. And I had to call him like a week after we came back, and I was like, "I need you to tell me who you are. Because it's like, I don't know if my friend is my friend." And he was like, "That was the only thing, that was the only thing, blah blah blah." But it plays with your head. It plays with your head a little bit.
On whether Carson was coaching Carolyn during the final Tribal Council...
Carson is our biggest cheerleader, and I think he was just really excited to see stuff. It was very hard for Carolyn in the Tribal Council because she was so exhausted. Like, I would tell her, "Do you want me to answer first so you like have more time to drink water and you know, like, pay attention." It was so hard. We were so exhausted. That Tribal Council lasted more than two hours, and then Jeff, at some point, said, "Guys, you need to like start making more concise questions because these three guys are very tired."
On his most effective argument to the jury...
I definitely felt like most of the stuff I was saying, like it was getting perceived the right way. Like it was landing how I intended it to be. But definitely the argument against how I used the emotions in the game was it was a question really targeted to Carolyn, for her to say how she used her emotions in the game. But I used it to say like I used people's emotion to read them. Frannie's reaction and other people's reaction of my answer was very reassuring.
On the current status of the Tika trio...
I love them. We talk too much every day. We talk every day nonstop. We're still like living through the episodes being aired. I hope it stays the same way. I know it will. But the support we bring each other, it's very important for us, and it's an important part of my life right now. Just like I talked with Jamie a lot and I talk with Heidi a lot. But Carson and Carolyn, because we did it together and it was perceived that way and we did it in a way that was very successful for the three of us, I think that's why we're still so close. Carson has been in Puerto Rico already in January. Carolyn couldn't make it because her flight was changed. It was going to happen, but she couldn't make it. We need to do a three stooges vacation.
On how he'll use the $1 million prize...
I don't know. It's been a secret for so long that I don't even know what I'm gonna do with it. You know? I couldn't talk about it. I didn't want to have the pressure of people knowing because I couldn't say anything. But now I'll guess we'll talk about it. I'll definitely make a copy of this check and put it on my fridge so I can see it every morning.
On business at the salon...
My clients are my family. They're my friends. I love them. I definitely get a few visitors that are coming just because of the show. But it's a party. If you've you've seen me on the show, it's basically like that.
On Survivor's enduring relevance...
It's a good question. I honestly think it's because of the cast and the people. People like this challenge, and people like testing their abilities. It's such a dream. It's such an adventure. It's so much fun. These past few years, the people that are playing it are so different and diverse and so cool and like different aspects of life. It's funny because when we're hanging out together in the big groups, like maybe 12 of us or 18, people look at us weird, and they're like "Why are all these people friends? They don't look like each other, not at all." And that's beauty of it, and I think people find that really interesting.
Survivor is returning for Season 45 this fall. All 44 seasons of Survivor are available to stream on Paramount+.
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