By Dalton Ross
May 04, 2017 at 08:55 AM EDT

Survivor

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While there was outrage across the board at Jeff Varner after he outed Zeke Smith as transgender on Survivor: Game Changers, there seemed to be a split in public opinion on how the show and network (CBS) handled the situation by airing the event. But the opinion that matters the most on that subject belongs to one person and one person only: Zeke himself.

We asked Zeke about that when he called in to discuss his exit from the game (after being blindsided when Andrea and Cirie turned the tables on him). “I’ve always wanted this to air,” says Zeke. “And I think it’s also important to say that I didn’t go on national television unprepared for the world to know that I am trans, and was ready should that part of my life become part of my Survivor story. It never crossed my mind that it shouldn’t air and I certainly never asked for it not to air.”

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In a wide-ranging interview, Zeke explains more about why it was so important for people to see that moment unfold, how it ultimately undid him in the game, and why he is “flabbergasted” by the public response since the episode aired. Of course, we also get into lots of other topics. Was he truly blindsided by his exit? Have he and Andrea made up outside the game? What was the hardest part of playing back-to-back seasons? Who was his ideal final three? And will we see him again on the show? Plus, Zeke shares some candid and intriguing words about his Game Changers castmates (“I think people weren’t having fun out there. I felt like at times that no one wanted to be there.”).

RELATED: Ranking Every Season of Survivor

It’s a must-read interview for any fan of the game. (Click through both pages to read the entire interview, and also make sure to read our full episode recap as well as Jeff Probst’s take on Zeke and his final episode.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: If you connect the dots for your ouster, it kind of seems to go back to your decision to flip on Andrea and Cirie. You were worried then that it might be too early to make a big move like that. Was it too early?
ZEKE SMITH: I want to zoom out a little more because I was not playing the same game that everyone else was playing. After what went down with Varner, I had no shot to win. I knew that. I knew that nobody wanted to take me anywhere near the end and that wasn’t a secret. I was the decoy vote against Hali and I knew it and I knew the reason why. You heard it in that episode that I had a compelling story. People were unwilling to get me deep into the game because people weren’t willing to sit next to me. So I didn’t just make that move against Andrea out of nowhere.

So I went to my closest two allies — Sarah, who I think was truly a close ally, and Debbie, who I incorrectly calculated as a close ally — and said, “Let’s make a move against Cirie and Andrea.” And I think Ozzy is also someone you can incorporate in that group. I said Cirie and Andrea and was directed towards Andrea and said “great,” and went about to make that move happen. And then clearly it imploded. You can say I made a move too early against Andrea, but what I also knew and what was true is that Cirie and Andrea did not have the numbers. I didn’t vote for Ozzy and that group was still able to vote Ozzy out. So it was a bit of a social gaffe, but it didn’t really change my position in the game. I was still going to go when I went. I was just trying to vote with the majority and I correctly identified the majority. They just didn’t decide to include me in the vote.

We’ll get into some of the other Varner stuff later, but you said you felt that after what Varner did that gave you no shot to win because it made your story too good at a final Tribal Council?
Yeah, I remember being in the shelter the night we came back from Tribal Council and I was all revved up on adrenaline and I was sleeping in between Sarah and Debbie and I remember thinking, alright, you know you’re toast. And you have two choices. You can either quit or you can play. So you can choose to play, but you have to suck it up and play. There’s no crying or moping or woe is me about it. And I also know that trans people face insanely high rates of discrimination and violence. Ninety percent of trans people report discrimination or harassment in the workplace. And it is very common for depression and self-harm as a result. And that was not lost on me out there. And what I knew is that it was very important for me to model resilience. And even though I knew it was over, I couldn’t just sit on my hands and wait to get voted out. I needed to show every day that I was the reckless, big swinging player that I had been before.

Was it great gameplay? No, it certainly wasn’t. But I wouldn’t do it differently. It was also tough because I was on the tail end of my second consecutive season and I was running out of mental gas anyway. I had been in Fiji for a long time and the last thing you want walking into a merge is perspective on life, but that’s sort of what I had. Because my life at home was now thrown into chaos in addition to the fact that I had been gone for a really long time. My game life was absolutely in chaos. The only thing I think I could do to keep my mind there and do what I needed to do — which was continue to pay hard — was just to keep making moves all the time. And I wore a buff that said “Game Changer.” It didn’t say “Butt Sitter.” I owed it to them to keep playing.

Do you think they did the right thing in getting rid of you because of that story that Varner inadvertently provided?
The next day, I woke up and I said, “Everybody, I’m fine. Let’s go. Game on. Play hard. I don’t want anything that happened to change whether you’re going to vote me out or backstab me or anything.” And I also want to say, if I were playing against me, I would have treated me the same way. Like, I would have been uninterested in letting me get very deep in the game. I don’t hold any resentment towards any players for not being on the same page as me.

It’s like when Jeremy pulled out the Val being pregnant back home thing at final Tribal Council. You can’t compete against that.
Right, and I think with Jeremy still being fresh in people’s minds. I don’t want anyone to come off bad because “We just don’t want to sit next to Zeke because of his story.” I would have done the same thing. I think it’s smart. Even though it was s—ty to be on the other end of it because I didn’t get to play, but I don’t hold it against anyone.

It’s interesting hearing you talk about being out of mental gas from playing back-to-back seasons and I’ve heard that before from other players who have done that. Do you think you would have been better served waiting a year or two before returning?
I remember when I got asked back. I got asked back about 20 minutes after I had my torch snuffed on day 33. I was asked back immediately, and I knew that I wasn’t going to have what I had at the start of season 33. I knew I wasn’t going to play as well. Because I also wasn’t really sure what I did right or what I did wrong. I just knew that Jeff Probst asked me to play Survivor again and there was no way I was going to say no. Yes, I did think I would have been a better player had I had some time off to recoup and to analyze and all that.

Were you surprised when you saw you name start coming up at this last Tribal Council? Was it a blindside?
It was. I knew to expect my name the first two times I saw it after the merge. And then I remembered during Tribal, Probst was asking these questions that typically I sort of know all the storylines he’s tracking with his questions. But he started asking questions that I wasn’t prepared for and I was like, I think I’m going home. I didn’t expect to see my name, but midway through Tribal, I was like “Yep, It’s me. I’m toast.” So yeah, it was a blindside.

Andrea was obviously very upset with you after you flipped on her, giving you the “See you never” at one point. How are you two now?
Andrea and I are great. We’re both New Yorkers. Once you take a shower and eat some food, you’re able to smile, shake some hands, and move on with your life. She’s been over to my apartment and I’ve hung out with her. We’re still great friends.

NEXT: Zeke’s thoughts on CBS airing him being outed as transgender, and fan reaction since the episode aired

Who was your ideal final three?
I would say Brad Culpepper and Michaela.

I get Michaela but why Brad?
I had this problem where nobody was going to stick with me at the end. But I felt like I was able to pitch Brad Culpepper a really good argument that I think he bought into. I was like, “Look Brad. I came into the merge with a lot of goodwill and I’ve done everything I can to squander it. My goal is to piss everybody off so that they’re going to be really mad at me.” And I felt that if I angered the entire jury, there were only a couple of people I could have beaten. Michaela was one of those people, and also, because of Brad and the way Brad talks about his money and his status, that people would be very unwilling to give him the money over me. Even if he did have a better social game than I did.

At this point when you go out of the game, what was the general perception in terms of who was playing the best game? Because I don’t know that we have a sense in terms of whom you all out thought was doing the best and running the show.
I don’t think there was a general consensus. The interesting thing when I got voted off is that there was a lot of chaos. Because nobody understood who was pulling the strings. And I think it took me about a day to put all of the pieces together that it was Sarah who was pulling all of the strings. That she was the one who was the link behind why everything happened the way it happened. But no one saw that, at least as far as I was in the game. And I think that’s what made me stand out as a strategic threat even though I wasn’t really doing anything that smart, was that I was just the one making the biggest splash. But no, I don’t think there was a strategic frontrunner at the time.

I’m not going to ask you about your thoughts when Varner brought up you being transgender because I think you’ve covered that ground pretty well already. But I will ask you what it has been like for you since that aired?
I have to say I’m very happy to report that it has been very different than I thought it was going to be. I spent nine months preparing to see all kinds of exploitative, sensationalist headlines. I thought I was going to be revictimized because that’s typically the fate of a trans person when they hit the public eye. That’s what I saw happen to Chaz and Caitlyn and Laverne and most of the people who entered the spotlight before me. But I was really overwhelmed and really touched, both by how well the media covered what happened — that the outrage was all directed toward the wrongdoer and the sympathy toward me — and the outpouring of love and support I received from the public.

I’m still struggling to make sense of it all. I received thousands of messages from people across the world sharing their stories and lending their support. I’m still a little flabbergasted and I’m touched. And what makes me so proud to be a part of this moment is that it seems like it marks a change in the way a trans story is being covered. I work very closely with Nick Adams who is the director of GLAAD’s transgender media program. He’s the guy who guides everyone in the spotlight: The Wachowskis, and Chaz, and Caitlyn. He’s the one who prepared me for this to be pretty hellacious. And when we started to see the response, we were gobsmacked. We didn’t know what to say. I just hope that this can be the model for how a trans person is received in the public arena going forward.

What do you think about the people that are saying CBS should not have aired what happened? There are a lot of people with a lot of different opinions about that, but ultimately your take is the one that matters.
I’ve always wanted this to air. And I think it’s also important to say that I didn’t go on national television unprepared for the world to know that I am trans, and was ready should that part of my life become part of my Survivor story. It never crossed my mind that it shouldn’t air and I certainly never asked for it not to air. I’ve always felt as Jeff Probst has felt and CBS has felt that this could be a great…. It’s like, there was a moment of darkness, but that it was important for the world to see how my tribemates reacted and how Probst reacted. They so quickly and adamantly rebuffed Varner’s actions. It was just a textbook example of how to respond to injustice. I think if you consider that Tribal Council a scar on Survivor history or a dark moment, you don’t have the right perspective.

Also, in the intervening months, I’ve worked so closely with Survivor and CBS and they’ve always been fully committed to me telling the story on my terms. Probst made it clear all the way back in Fiji how well this would be handled. He promised to never leave me hanging and he never has. And on a personal note, I’ve usually found it true that you shouldn’t meet your heroes, but he’s been a pretty big shining bright exception. They’ve always worked with me. It was my request to do press and writing an op-ed. The supervising producer, Joe Lia, has always held me close to his heart. He’s become a friend. He’s always been a phone call away. He really listened to understand the significance of what went down. I think our highest hope was that this story would travel far and wide and be a beacon of hope and an example of how people’s attitude towards trans people are changing. I’m really proud to have been a part of it.

Compare your back-to-back seasons for me. They say you never forget your first time, but then again, you got to play with some legends the second time around. How do they two experiences stack up?
There were vastly different experiences. I obviously enjoyed Millennials vs. Gen X much more than I enjoyed Game Changers. And I think it really has to do with the attitude of the players on season 33. They were just a really great group of people who really on the whole loved Survivor, were big super fans, who wanted to go and play, and didn’t take it personally, who understood that making a game move was making a game move, and we can all still be friends when we go back to camp. I played 33 days in season 33 and they were 33 of the best days of my life. I came home in the little time that I had and remarked to my friends, “Man, Survivor is just as beautiful as you want it to be.”

And then I think with the returning players season, I think the stakes are a little higher, the expectations are higher, the egos are larger, and there’s not that same sense of sportsmanship. It felt personal in a way that 33 never did. I think people weren’t having fun out there. I felt like at times that no one wanted to be there. I was like “What are you guys doing?! This is Survivor! This is the coolest thing ever! We’re starving, but we’re starving on Survivor! Let’s get excited about it!”

Would you play a third time?
I don’t know. I think Survivor has opened up my world and I’m excited to embark on new adventures and who knows if another romp on the beach is in the cards. I can’t say right now.

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