Squid Game: The Challenge winner reveals why she felt ‘guilty’ about winning

Exclusive: The Netflix show’s winner, who is now a millionaire, revealed a tidbit that might change how you watch the climactic showdown

Jacob Stolworthy
Tuesday 12 December 2023 22:26 GMT
Squid Game: The Challenge trailer

The winner of Squid Game: The Challenge has revealed an eye-opening detail about their moment of victory that will change the way you watch it.

Netflix released the game show version of its hit Korean blockbuster last month and, what started with 456 contestants was whittled down to just two for the final challenge.

To win the show’s record-breaking jackpot of $4.56m (£3.57m), Phillip Cain (Player 451) and Mai Whelan (Player 287) had to play a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Whoever won the round was given a chance to select a key that could open a safe. Inside the safe, was a credit card loaded with millions.

After several attempts, Mai, 56, picked the key that successfully turned in the lock, with the immigration adjudicator ultimately taking home the prize.

However, speaking to The Independent after the release of the final episode, Mai revealed that her victory was not as plain-sailing as was shown in the episode: it actually took 30 minutes to ascertain whether she had really become a millionaire.

“At first, my key... maybe I didn’t do it hard enough, because it turned but the door didn’t open. I was like, ‘Maybe this is not the right key.’ So they had to call in an adjudicator and security – it was a big deal. It took about 30 minutes to validate it was the key to open the safe.”

Mai said her opponent, Phill, “was stressing like, ‘Did she win? Did she win?’”

The victor also said that her reaction to winning, which was shown in the series, was actually a reshoot, adding: “Then, of course they, reshot the scene [where I was] like,’ Oh, the credit card!’”

Mai admitted to feeling “guilty” about taking home the jackpot over Phill, who described himself in the show as “living from paycheck to paycheck”.

She said: “It was emotional, because I’ve come to love Phill very much. He is so humble and so grounded, and to play with him was like an advantage for me. I’m older and, not wiser, but I’ve experienced life more than he has, so that formula – everything about it is to my advantage. And when I won, I felt glad but at the same time, I felt guilty.”

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‘Squid Game: The Challenge’ finalists Phill and Mai
‘Squid Game: The Challenge’ finalists Phill and Mai (Netflix)

Elaborating upon her reasoning, Mai said: “I’m 56 - everyone who’s in there was like my daughter and son, and for a mother to take something away from their kid, it’s like, ‘Oh no!’ Especially Phill – he was so sweet. If it was Bryton (aka Player 432), I would have been like, ‘Get out of here.’”

During his time on the show, Bryton, perceived to be the “villain” of the series, was called out by viewers for being a “bully”. The player addressed the response to his character in a recent interview, in which he said: “Them calling me a villain, I kind of knew it was going to happen, so I wasn’t that surprised. I wasn’t hurt by it.”

Mai said that winning over younger and more outwardly confident contestants such as Bryton made her victory sweeter, stating: “I don’t like the appearance or the projection that they put out in the dorm. It was like a Mafia group. They were trying to intimidate people because they’re strong, and it was like, ‘Oh please.’ It’s about skills and mental challenges; it’s not about being physical. I thought, ‘If they haven’t grasped that, they will be losing.’”

Mai also defended criticism levied against the game of Rock, Paper Scissors being too frivolous to decide who won such a large amount of money. According to Mai, “it was a great idea for that game” to be the decider as “it threw everybody off”.

Mai won the show in February, and has had to keep her victory a secret from her friends and family. She was permitted to tell just one person – her husband – whom she said was the one who initially informed her of the show’s application process.

‘Squid Game: The Challenge’ winner Mai Whelan
‘Squid Game: The Challenge’ winner Mai Whelan (Netflix)

Upon arriving in the UK to film the show, and being stood in a room with every contestant, Mai said she did not think she stood a chance of reigning supreme as the percentage was “very low” and felt like “winning the lottery”.

She said: “I was like, ‘Take it just one day at a time,’ and my thought was to get to know people as they would hold the decisions to your destiny and your fate in the game.”

Now Mai has been inducted into the annals of game show history, it seems likely that casting directors might want to tap her up for a forthcoming season of The Traitors US; the American version of the game show features past contestants from reality shows. However, Mai said she would reject the offer.

“I think this is my first and last. I don’t want to be on any more reality shows. I’ve checked it off my bucket list. I’ve overcome the challenge, and this is history. It’s the first show! I’m glad that for my sex, height and age, I’ve really inspired older people to go out there and to not be reserved. Just take risks – you never know what’s on the other side.”

Squid Game: The Challenge is returning for a second season, and the applications are open now.

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