Becoming a television star and being chosen as one of People Magazine’s "Sexiest Men Alive" may seem glamorous, but for San Mateo resident Yul Kwon, it meant a broken nose, infected wounds and intestinal bleeding.
On Sunday, Kwon, 31, a two-year resident of San Mateo who grew up in the East Bay, became the "Sole Survivor," after outwitting, outlasting and outplaying 19 other contestants to win the $1 million prize.
But unlike previous winners, who have hosted television shows, starred in movies or been arrested for tax evasion, Kwon said he wants to focus his new fame on charity work, including advocacy for bone marrow donor registration.
The choice of cause is a personal one for Kwon, who helped organize a bone-marrow-donor registration drive at Stanford University 10 years ago to help his best friend, who later died of leukemia.
Asian American Donor Program Executive Director Carol Gillespie said the Alameda-based group would love to partner with Kwon to deal with the high demand for Asian marrow donors. According to the AADP, the odds of finding marrow matches for many minorities can be lower than one in 1 million donors.
Gillespie first met Kwon during the Stanford registration drive, and even then she wanted him to speak on behalf of their organization. She said she recognized his name on "Survivor," but didn’t recognize his face because he had grown up since his time at Stanford.
"I had tried to call him because I wanted him to speak at some universities, because his story is very inspirational," she said.
Kwon, who has been taking time off since returning from the Cook Islands in August, said he was also honored to have the opportunity to represent his family and culture on television. This season, "Survivor" was accused of racial insensitivity because it began by dividing the contestants into white, black, Hispanic and Asian groups.
"I was very disturbed when I found out that they were going to divide it on racial lines," Kwon said. "I was very close to quitting, because I didn’t know that I wanted to be part of something that sent back racial relations for 20 years."
Ultimately, Kwon said the contestants overcame any racial barriers and formed an alliance of people from each ethnic group.
Kwon’s older brother Paul, a Danville resident, said he isn’t surprised his brother wants to use his money, time and fame to help people. "I think the ideal thing would be for him to get into some sort of work with public policy or public service," Paul Kwon said.