‘Survivor’ champ talks about his experiences

Yul Kwon LAW ’00 has certainly stepped off the typical Yale Law School career path.

“You may think Yale Law School is a place for nerds,” Law School Dean Harold Koh said in a Thursday. “But in fact, People Magazine voted Yul the sexiest man of 2006.”

Yul Kwon LAW ’00, Survivor champ and People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man of 2006,” speaks to students Thursday.
June Torbati
Yul Kwon LAW ’00, Survivor champ and People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man of 2006,” speaks to students Thursday.

Kwon won the 13th season of the reality TV show “Survivor,” which was set in the Cook Islands, in 2006. In a talk at the Law School yesterday, Kwon spoke about how starring in “Survivor” was an opportunity for him to change Americans’ preconceptions about Asians.

“I went on the show to present a positive image of the Asian American man,” he said. “I wanted to change stereotypes.”

In his talk, Kwon delved into stories from his childhood growing up in a South Korean immigrant family, when he would watch television while distractedly aware of the absence of Asian American role models. Asian men were portrayed as caricatures, he said, as either Kung-fu masters who could not speak English or computer nerds who could not find a date. Kwon said he saw himself in the latter category.

Even today, Kwon said, many images of Asian Americans in the media are negative, as when American Idol contestant William Hung was made a laughingstock by the media. Additionally, Kwon said, many Asians are portrayed in American films as speaking in broken English. More recently, he said, the coverage of the Virginia Tech gunman has focused on his race, which has spawned unjustified threats against the Asian American community.

At the beginning of his “Survivor” experience, he confessed, there were difficulties. Kwon said he struggled to convince his conservative parents that the show was not literally about surviving, with the losers facing death. Then, the night before the show began, he discovered that the “Survivor” crew was going to dividing the teams along racial and ethnic lines.

“I thought I made a horrible mistake,” he said. “I could not understand how a major TV network would do something so socially irresponsible.”

But Kwon said he did not quit because he realized the influence he could have on the outcome of the show if he made the right impression.

During his time on the show, Kwon said, he tried to play the game without the underhanded backstabbing typically expected of the winner. Instead, he relied on building trust and cooperation within the group.

“People have this notion that leadership is static,” he said. “But it has to be fluid, changing with different contexts.”

Kwon said he also applied this lesson in his professional career, which has included serving as a clerk for the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals and working as a consultant at McKinsey & Co. Over the course of that experience, Kown said, he realized that the most effective teams were diverse and interdisciplinary in nature.

At this point in his speech, Kwon suddenly went off-script and tried to bestow his wisdom on the crowd of predominantly law students.

“Make the best of it,” he said. “Think outside the box.”

Robin Tang ’08, a fan of “Survivor,” said he admired Kwon for breaking the stereotypes associated with Asian men.

“He acted natural and showed the American audience that there’s nothing different about being Asian,” Tang said.

In the next phase of his career, Kwon will work for CNN, covering political news in the broader context of youth and people of color.

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