*Warning this contains spoilers for Squid Game: The Challenge.
When it dawned on player Mai that she had won the $4.56million (£3.61m) jackpot, she wasn’t elated but had mixed feelings.
The 55-year-old from Virginia, US, in a series of gruelling physical and physiological challenges and spent 16 days hunkered down in a basic dormitory to be eventually crowned winner of the reality show.
After facing off against Phill in the final game – rock, paper, scissors with a twist – she told Metro.co.uk she didn’t experience pure joy when she beat her opponent and instead reflected on past players, most of whom were savagely eliminated.
‘The moment that I won, it was all of the mixed feelings,’ the immigration adjudicator recalled. ‘To be the number one player out of 456 players, it was very emotional but there were a lot of friends lost.’
Mai has been somewhat haunted by the players since leaving Squid Game, admitting in the immediate aftermath she would frequently have eerie dreams about unidentifiable players.
She revealed: ‘When I finished the game, I had dreams about the players because that’s what affects your emotions, rather than the game itself. You worry about what people think. You worry about who you eliminate. I dreamt a lot about the players.’
Mai said she mostly dreamt about her close friend Chad, aka player 286, who she hasn’t seen since his elimination but plans to reconnect with, and then ‘random faces’ of players she didn’t recognise.
She continued: ‘It lasted for a few weeks but it was sleep deprivation. So my husband and I took a week-long break and I just slept and slept and slept.’
While she relished the opportunity to decompress after the intensity of Squid Game, Mai said she hasn’t been able to celebrate her win just yet.
The reason why she has been popping off the champagne is that she hasn’t received the cash to keep the outcome of the show a secret and was sworn to a strict NDA.
Mai wasn’t even allowed to tell her daughters, friends, or other loved ones – except for one person, her husband – she was a millionaire until today.She simply told them she had been eliminated if they asked.
What was their reaction when they discovered the truth? ‘My daughters just texted me. I haven’t talked to them yet but I will probably see them at the weekend. But they’re happy for me and very proud,’ she said.
While it was tricky concealing her success from her friends and family, Mai said she has been living a ‘normal’ life and ‘laying low’ over the past 12 months and isn’t planning to change that anytime soon.
Rather than splashing the cash on fancy cars or a mansion, Mai plans to spend the money helping others, namely causes to support the environment, wildlife, and the underprivileged.
And, no, none of the Squid Game players have reached out for a handout. Yet, anyway.
Throughout the reality programme, Mai was a fan-favourite for her wisdom and ruthless yet brilliant strategy, including lying about who she had picked in the game Circle of Trust to avoid arousing the suspicions of her opponents.
Mai, though, insisted she had no regrets over her tactics. ‘I don’t think I have any regrets over my decisions in the game at all. In the moment I felt I had to do what I had to do to, to move forward with the game,’ she added.
Some criticism has been levelled at the final episode for being anti-climatic and the games didn’t allow the likes of Mai to unleash her canny strategy.
Mai said she ‘understands their point of view’ but revealed playing the final game was in fact ‘stressful.’
‘But it was fun at the same time,’ she continued. ‘I’m glad that they did the last game that they did because it was a fun kids’ game.
‘I’m sorry that some viewers didn’t like it. But it was good for us just to relax just for a bit.’
She was pleased Phill, who she described as having a ‘good energy’, was her final opponent and revealed what happened when the show finally drew to a close.
‘Phill and I passed each other in the hallway after the game and Phill was sent home right away, while I stayed in a hotel for a few nights to decompress.
‘I had wanted to sit down and just have dinner with him outside of the show, but that wasn’t possible as he was flying back to America.
‘We didn’t stay in touch for a year and just recently when Squid Game debuted on November 22, that’s when we started connecting.’
As for more Mai on TV? Sadly, for her fans, more shows are highly unlikely.
She said: ‘I don’t think TV is for me now that I have seen behind the scenes.
‘I like [being out of the limelight], just running my charity.’
Squid Game: The Challenge is available to stream on Netflix.