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I won almost $5m on 'Squid Game: The Challenge' but lied to my family about it for months

I won almost $5m on 'Squid Game: The Challenge' but lied to my family about it for months
  • Mai Whelan, 56, won the first season of "Squid Game: The Challenge."

  • She won $4.56 million but had to keep it a secret from her family for months.

  • Her daughter didn't know the truth until she watched the series.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Mai Whelan about her experience on Netflix's "Squid Game: The Challenge." The following has been edited for length and clarity.

I was the first winner of "Squid Game: The Challenge."

In January 2023, I was one of 456 contestants who competed in "Squid Game" themed games and social tests over the three weeks the show was filmed. I never thought I would win, especially since I came last in the first game, "Red Light, Green Light."

And then came the next challenge — what would I tell my family and friends who knew I was filming the show?

I had signed an NDA, which meant I had to keep the details of the competition and my win a secret until the series was released in November 2023. The only person the producers allowed me to tell was my husband.

During those 10 months, I told the rest of my friends and family that I didn't want to discuss the show because it was stressful. That was not enough for my 36-year-old daughter, Catherine, who kept asking whether I had won the competition.

Mai Whelan had to play a game of "Rock, Paper, Scissors" against Phill Cain to win the prize in "Squid Game: The Challenge."
Mai Whelan had to play a game of "Rock, Paper, Scissors" against Phill Cain to win the prize in "Squid Game: The Challenge."Courtesy of Netflix

"I got eliminated very early," I said, and let Catherine think I left the competition in episode three.

When the series finally premiered, Catherine was confused when I wasn't eliminated by the third episode. But she still believed that I didn't win the competition — until she watched the season finale.

Catherine, my other daughter, my granddaughter, and the rest of my family were completely surprised when they found out I won.

Here are the major moments in the final days of "Squid Game: The Challenge" that led to my victory.

My friend, TJ Stukes, showed his true colors when he saved me twice on the Glass Bridge stage.

TJ Stukes and Mai Whelan at the 'Squid Game: The Challenge' Celebration in November 2023 and in "Squid Game: The Challenge" filmed in January 2023.
TJ Stukes and Mai Whelan at the 'Squid Game: The Challenge' Celebration in November 2023 and in "Squid Game: The Challenge" filmed in January 2023.Joe Scarnici / Getty Images for Netflix / Netflix

Some games in "Squid Game: The Challenge" relied on teamwork; in other tests, you had to fend for yourself. This meant you had to be careful who you trusted since people could pretend to be your ally and betray you later.

That's why I started to doubt player 182, TJ Stukes. TJ was hanging out with a group of contestants who had been accused of bullying one of my friends, Dash Katz. I confronted them, and they denied it, but I still felt uneasy about the group, making me question TJ's character.

I made one tiny comment to Chad van Horn, player 286, about not trusting TJ, but this was blown out of proportion by the series' editors to make it seem like I didn't like TJ.

Mai Whelan during the Glass Bridge voting stage.
Mai Whelan during the Glass Bridge voting stage.Courtesy of Netflix

TJ quickly proved his loyalty soon after this conversation. In the next challenge, contestants could vote to save one person from elimination, and TJ picked me. In the following challenge, contestants had to choose jerseys and give them to another competitor, determining the order for the Glass Bridge game. Again, TJ saved me by giving me the number 20 jersey, the best position you could have in this game.

I was lost for words that he saved me twice and cried on-air after the first vote. I never got to repay TJ since he was eliminated quickly in the Glass Bridge round, but I am very grateful.

I made many good friends in "Squid Game," such as TJ and Chad, and that was a stronger bond than any of the alliances in the show. You need friends to overcome the mental challenges of being in that dormitory for weeks.

I felt isolated during my final days of 'Squid Game.'

Mai speaking to Ashley in episode nine of "Squid Game: The Challenge."
Mai Whelan speaking to Ashley Tolbert in episode nine of "Squid Game: The Challenge."Netflix

Unfortunately, my friends were eliminated before the last games, and soon, I was surrounded by competitors I didn't trust. One was Ashley Tolbert, player 278. She showed she was not a team player when she didn't step in to save Trey Plutinicki, player 301, during the Glass Bridge challenge.

In the challenge, contestants had to cross over a bridge made of glass tiles and avoid the hidden trap doors. Although we decided as a group to take one turn and let the person behind us take over, Trey was forced to take two extra steps because Ashley didn't step forward. He stepped on a trap door on his third leap.

That's why I tried to eliminate Ashley in the next game because I did not trust her and did not want that type of person in the final group. That put a target on my back as everyone saw me as the team's traitor, somehow forgetting Ashley's actions in the last game.

Although I reconciled with Ashley, my final days felt very isolating, with few friends and everyone thinking I was a ruthless competitor.

I was very emotional but decided to push forward in the competition. I had to think smarter because nobody was watching my back.

We had to reshoot the final game after I accidentally tossed the winning key.

Mai Whelan and Phill Cain with the prize money in "Squid Game: The Challenge."
Mai Whelan and Phill Cain with the prize money in "Squid Game: The Challenge."Pete Dadds /Netflix

I was relieved that Phill Cain, player 451, was my final opponent because I thought he would be a kind competitor. I was even more excited when I learned the last game was so simple, "Rock, Paper, Scissors."

Each time a player won a round, they would collect a key that could open the safe at the end of the room. The first player to find the safe's key would win $4.56 million. It could not be any easier.

I was quickly able to work out how Phill thought and guess his next move, meaning I won most of the games. Whenever I picked up a key, my hands shook because I didn't know whether it would be the winning one.

Finally, I picked up a key with a circle on the handle and thought it must be a sign from the heavens. When I put it in the safe, it only turned partway, so I tossed it.

Key in the sand in "Squid Game: The Challenge."
Key in the sand in "Squid Game: The Challenge."Courtesy of Netflix

That's when the game was stopped while an adjudicator rewatched the footage. Minutes went by, and the adjudicator came into the room, retested the key, and this time, the safe popped open.

"Oh my god, that just happened right now," I said, completely in shock.

I had won.

I then had to rerecord the safe's opening, the clip shown in the final episode. I didn't want to be too celebratory as I knew Phill was there and he missed the prize. So I asked if he could celebrate with me, and fortunately, he agreed.

To this day, I try not to let the win get to me. I have given the prize money to charity and invested it in my future nonprofit organization, a sanctuary for animals and people with mental illness. I've always wanted to help animals and underprivileged people, so I plan to buy a farm and rescue and raise animals, and those animals could, in turn, help people.

I also plan to write a memoir about my life to raise money for the nonprofit organization, focusing on the challenges that led me to "Squid Game." I'll save the behind-the-scenes story of "Squid Game: the Challenge" story for book two.

Read the original article on Business Insider