"I was dominating that game," Mai tells EW. "You never know, it's a chance game ... it was stressful."
Warning: This article contains spoilers for the season finale of Squid Game: The Challenge.
Despite what some salty Squid Game: The Challenge contestants may think, Player 287/Mai Whelan went into the season wanting to play as fairly as possible. It got her into some hot water when others didn't agree with her style of gameplay, but in the end, her strategy, intelligence, and integrity earned her the $4.56 million prize.
"What I'm most proud of is that I didn't compromise my integrity to win the money," Mai tells EW. "I came into it to challenge myself as a person, because I love challenging myself, and for me to finish that is a feat and accomplishment that I'm very proud of, and that at my age, I can do anything if I put my mind to it."
Below, Mai breaks down her "dominating" win in Rock, Paper, Scissors, what fans didn't see in the finale, her controversial beef with Player 278/Ashley Tolbert, what she spent her winnings on, and so much more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congratulations on winning! What was the first thing you bought with your $4.56 million?
MAI WHELAN: I bought my dress that I wore to the [finale] event last night and my shoes from Jimmy Choo. That's it, that's the only thing I wanted to buy to splurge on myself.
After the steak dinner, why did you step up to push a button first? What went into that decision for you?
I wanted to go first because you have better chances. It's not a 50/50 chance; the chances [of elimination] are a lot lower. And also I want to control my destiny — throughout the game, I kept telling myself that. That gave me leverage instead of picking left or right. I think I did the right thing by going first.
What was your reaction when the button you pushed turned gray?
I kind of felt relieved but yet, at the same time, I'm still vulnerable, because somebody can pick green and then I get eliminated because Phill and Sam have the strong bond. I was afraid that I'd get eliminated if anybody picked the green one.
That made your decision to go first even smarter, because you had the best shot of getting green yourself.
Right. I'm so glad I did what I did.
What was it like in the dorm after Sam’s elimination, and it was just you and Phill left?
It's surreal but yet I think it calmed my nerves because I knew it's coming to an end. It was very sentimental and nostalgic to see all the beds removed and just me and Phill. It was mixed emotion. The intense moment is still to come, but yet at the same time, it's going to be relieved in a matter of hours.
What was your reaction when you learned the final game was Rock, Paper, Scissors, and not Squid Game?
I knew that it's not going to be a physical game because throughout the whole show, it's all about mental challenge. So when I saw the safe I was like, "What can this be?" Then when they announced Rock, Paper, Scissors, I felt so relieved. [Laughs] I've played all my life, even adulthood, when you come to a tie, everybody wants to play Rock, Paper, Scissors to break the tie. And I just learned from that and collect all that statistic when I've learned, between men and women, kids too. I used my memory bank from what I've learned from the past to play with Phill in the final game.
About how many rounds did you end up playing?
I'm sure there are over 35 keys in there, so we probably played a lot. About 30 rounds. We had to take a break because it went back and forth, back and forth. It was long.
How many did you win? Because it looked like you were dominating that whole game.
I was! And Phill can say that. Yeah, I was dominating that game. Even though I'm dominating, the moments when he received a key to open, it was still intense. Because you never know, it's a chance game of selecting the right key. It was stressful.
When you ultimately chose the right key and opened the safe, at what point did you realize you won?
Actually, when I picked the key, I think I maybe didn't turn it hard enough. I was like, "Oh, it turned, but the safe door didn't open. Huh, maybe I didn't win." So they had to call out the adjudicators and they had to call a lot of people out just to make sure the safe is working and the key is working. And I could tell Phill was like, "Oh gosh, is that the key?" I could feel his anxiety. We had to reshoot that scene again and make sure that the safe opens so I picked up that same key, come up to the safe, and open it. And then voila, the credit card! [Laughs] It was only a prop [credit card].
What happened after you finally opened the safe and realized that you just won $4.56 million?
I just lost it. When it started hitting me that I won, I didn't know whether to cry or to laugh and celebrate, but then I told Phill I couldn't have been here without his great play as an opponent. Without him, I wouldn't be winning, so he could celebrate with me. I didn't want to be the only person that wins this, he also wins with me.
Earlier in the game, what did you think of how everyone seemed to forgive and forget what Ashley did on Glass Bridge, but then held a grudge against you for how you targeted her in the dice game?
When you come this far into the game, the top 12, I don't understand why would they do self-eliminations. I know everybody has something inside of them to eliminate another person because you just can't have that alliance all the time. It's going to break one way or another. During Glass Bridge, I found my opportunity to get the game rolling. I saw it wasn't teamwork when everybody's taking chances [and Ashley didn't at first]. And I saw that and I was like, "That's not a good team player. What if, in the next game, I rely on Ashley to save me?" I couldn't rely on her. So I found that opportunity in the dice game to get her eliminated, so that way I feel a little bit better of not having her be a risk for me.
How did it feel seeing everyone hold a grudge against you but not against Ashley in that moment?
Yeah, it's okay. Everybody's entitled to their opinion. I just stick to my guns, and I want to make sure that it's played fairly and not just be a martyr of, "I will self-eliminate." I worked too hard to eliminate myself. I even said that in the game. That's not a challenge that I signed up for.
That moment has really stuck with the fans who have rallied around you and wanted to see you get justice and come out on top.
I don't have social media platforms, and so all these comments about Ashley and me, back and forth, I'm glad I'm not part of that and [I don't] read any of the comments. Because that is just a detractor. Everybody forms opinions and that's fine, but I just don't want to be in that realm of fighting back and forth on a person's opinion.
You also handled it as well as you could in the moment, having those conversations with Sam and Ashley and apologizing to de-escalate the situation regardless of your personal feelings on what happened.
Right. I'm the kind of person that I don't hold grudges, and if I do something wrong, I will approach that person. "It's my bad, maybe I've misperceived you in a certain way. So I want to apologize." Just to mitigate the tension, because we only have nine people in there so it's not wise to go in there with self righteous[ness]. You have to be apologetic and just be more humble.
Did you ever confess to Roland that you were the one to get him out during Circle of Trust, or did he find that out when he saw the episode?
No, because the finale three didn't get a chance to talk to nobody. Roland, for the last 10 months, was thinking it was Sam that put the coffin on his table. I just got to talk to him when he went to the event [last night] and of course we've made up. I feel so bad, just apologizing to him constantly, like, "Roland, I am so sorry, but I had to do this!" [Laughs] But he's a good sport, saying, "It's okay, it's a game. If the [situation] was reversed, he would probably do the same thing. I admired him for playing the game fairly.
Why did you decide to lie to Phill and Sam about who you eliminated?
Because I knew Sam and Phill are buddies and I'm by myself. If I were to tell that, because Roland is a very friendly guy, he knows a lot of people, and I don't know Sam and Phill enough and their relationship with Roland, so just to be on the safe side, I'd rather not say anything.
What didn’t we see in the finale or during any other episode that you want fans to know about?
It was very disheartening when I saw the episode showing the ugly side of me where I say, "I distrust TJ," and all that. My comment of distrusting TJ was way before the bridge. It was during the voting game that he said he had my back but he hasn't shown me that he has my back. And he also hung around with a group that was very judgmental and so I saw that as, if he is the leader and he hangs out with this group, I don't know if I can trust him because of that clique. I made that comment to Chad and of course he saw it too, so it's not like I was disloyal with his friendship, but I saw that character or that side of him as an entertainer. So I just learned that lesson and I told Chad I just don't trust him. And they used that after the Bridge and I was like, "Oh no!" I was so mad. But I am glad it's over and that TJ and I are still friends. It's just a game.
What was the most difficult part of the whole experience?
The personal hygiene that people lack. I was just very startled with that. [Laughs] I am a neat freak and I think I'm OCD sometimes but to go into that, oh my gosh. I'm much older and all these kids are in their 30s and 20s, and I was like, "Come on. You guys are old enough to know better." [Laughs] It's the mom point of view.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Squid Game: The Challenge season 1 is now streaming on Netflix, and will return for season 2.
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