It reminds me a bit — but only a bit since the circumstances are obviously wildly different in other regards — of when Jonathan Penner used his Philippines final Tribal Council jury speech to reveal to everyone that Lisa Whelchel had been a successful sitcom actress on The Facts of Life. As I mentioned, it was obviously different because Lisa did purposefully hide her career because she worried that information would hurt her in the game (“Why should the rich TV star get the money? She doesn’t need it”). But still, when Penner did that, it struck me as very mean-spirited. Yes, it made for great television, but Penner was already out of the game, so putting that info out there did him absolutely no advantage whatsoever, and all it did was prejudice the jury against Lisa for something that had absolutely nothing to do with her gameplay! (In fact, if anything, she should have been commended for keeping it under wraps the whole time.)
It also brought to mind when Brenda made Dawn take her fake teeth out at the Caramoan final Tribal Council. I defended Dawn’s actions (even though I think it was a strategic mistake) because you should vote out whoever you think gives you the best chance to win, no matter what your personal connection is and what they have done for you on that level. But when Brenda did that, it served no function or purpose whatsoever other than revenge and meanness.
And here’s the thing: I like Brenda. I like Penner. And I like Varner. I’ve come down pretty hard on him in this recap, and I will not back off that one bit. What he did was horrific. It was a horrific display. But I don’t think Varner is a horrific person. He made a MASSIVE miscalculation in about a million different ways and then his initial follow-up made the problem even worse. I’ve spoken to Jeff a few times over the years and I have found him engaging, intelligent, funny, refreshingly candid, and yes, a little unhinged at times. We spoke out in Fiji right before the season began and he kept stressing what a good place he was in compared to Second Chance the year before. “I’m not emotional like last time,” he said then. “I am ready. I am focused. This is my time… because in Cambodia, I was a basket case. I’m not at all a basket case now. I feel like a million dollars. I’m walking around Ponderosa in pre-game like I’m on a cloud, like nothing matters.”
Ah, but that was before the game. Then you get in there. You get hungry. You get tired. You start losing challenges. You watch your alliance members get voted out. You know it’s your third time playing and most likely your last, so you want to scratch, claw, and fight to stay. You’ll use anything you can — only problem is, there really is nothing you can use. So you try something that you really shouldn’t try. My best guess is this is what happened with Jeff Varner. He has never struck me as a malicious person. But desperate people do desperate things — regrettable things.
And I am pretty confident Varner regrets what happened out there in Fiji in June of 2016. You could already see it in his final words. “Nobody on this planet should do what I did tonight — ever,” he said. “And I am so sorry to anybody I offended, especially Zeke, and his family and his friends. I can’t talk. I’m sorry.” And then the bawling began. I can only imagine that night has been torturing Varner for the past 10 months, knowing what happened and knowing that he would have to live it all over again when the episode aired. I can’t even comprehend having to watch that back on TV from his perspective — it sounds like watching a horror movie where you know the killer is coming but are powerless to stop it.
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Jeff is going to have a very tough day on Thursday when he speaks to me and other members of the press (the very first place you can hear from him is on EW Morning Live on SiriusXM channel 105 at 9:40am). My full expectation is that he will be remorseful and contrite and horrified by his own actions.
But what Varner did is, thankfully, only part of the story. The other part is how everyone reacted to this nuclear bomb of poor taste that was detonated at Tribal Council. I want to save Zeke until the very end, so we’ll get to him later. Let’s start with his tribemates. As appalling as what Varner did was, I was incredibly heartened to see how everyone else at Tribal reacted. And I mean everyone. Immediately after Varner attacked Zeke, Andrea and Tai began a mixture of yelling and crying. “You f—ing just outed him! Nobody have the right to out anybody!” screamed Tai. “What’s your goal in doing that?” asked a clearly distraught Andrea. Meanwhile, over on the other side of Tribal, Debbie was serving as another voice of reason. (Yes, I just used the words “Debbie” and “voice of reason” in the same sentence.) “It was for Zeke to decide,” she told Varner. “It was for Zeke to discuss when he was comfortable discussing it.”
Even the folks who originally appeared to be quiet on the matter eventually spoke up with very strong language. “Jeff, you should be ashamed of yourself,” said Ozzy. “You should be ashamed of yourself for what you’re willing to do to get yourself further in a game for a million dollars. It’s like, you’re playing with people’s lives at this point.” Ozzy’s comments really stuck with me because they were said not with anger, but disappointment. We often say things in anger because of the heat of the moment. We may say them but don’t really mean them — at least not to the full extent. But the matter-of-fact calm nature in which Ozzy said this made his comments hit home that much more.