Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Zeke Smith reflects on being outed as trans on the show
With Survivor filming for seasons 41 and 42 delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, EW is reaching back into the reality show's past. We sent a Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire to a batch of former players to fill out with their thoughts about their time on the show as well as updates on what they've been up to since. Each weekday, EW will post the answers from a different player.
Considering he was on the receiving end of one of the most egregious acts in reality television history, Zeke Smith would have every right to rue the day he ever signed up to play Survivor. But ask the two-time contestant if he regrets the experience — even after being outed as trans by another player on national television — and the answer begins with a simple word: "Never."
Not only does Zeke say that he got the adventure and jolt to his system he so desperately needed at that point in his life, but he was also able to turn the massive reality show negative of his outing on Survivor: Game Changers into a real-world positive. "I feel tremendously proud and humbled by the impact we had on the world," says Zeke. "We've helped parents understand their trans kids, we've helped trans people feel seen and safe to be themselves, and we provided an authentic and meaningful trans experience to stand in contrast with all the bad media portrayals of trans people."
Zeke shares a moving example of that impact in action. "One of my favorite stories is of a trans guy in the Air Force," explains Zeke. "There was a new commander, and he'd been called in to see him. He went to the meeting with dread, fearing the commander wanted to gawk at or chastise the trans person in the squadron. Then the commander told him, 'I saw Zeke on Survivor. I get it. Just wanted you to know you have an ally in me.' How could you ever regret an experience which led to that?"
Not only does Zeke use his Quarantine Questionnaire to look back at how he "went from someone who very few people knew to be trans to one of the most visible transgender men in the world," but the cheeky writer also takes us behind the scenes on the Millennials vs. Gen X and Game Changers seasons to offer up some hilarious anecdotes about what happened out on the island. He also talks about the biggest mistake he (and many other players) made in the game: talking too much to Jeff Probst!
Slap on your brightest floral-print shirt and dig into one of the most insightful and entertaining Quarantine Questionnaires to date.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you've been up to since appearing on Survivor.
ZEKE SMITH: After Survivor, I moved to Los Angeles. In the year following my seasons, I got awesome opportunities to write and speak about my Survivor experience at companies like Raytheon — where I gave a talk about diversity and inclusion next to a model of a nuclear-powered submarine; Whirlpool – who sent me home with a limited-edition Kitchenaid stand mixer; as well as little known institutions like Stanford and Yale Law.
While I had fun dressing business casual and giving serious talks to serious people, I'm a goofy goober at heart and have returned to my calling: writing fart jokes for film and television. My writing partner Chris Burns, who some may know by his popular Insta handle @FatCarrieBradshaw, and I have a half-hour pilot that's starting to get some traction, so if you're a studio exec, give us a holler!
I was a creative consultant and contributor to the documentary Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen which you can watch on Netflix.
But most importantly, I fell in love! About three years ago at the GLAAD Awards, I met my boyfriend, actor Nico Santos. We just bought a house and are mired in the domestic bliss of choosing paint colors, figuring out where exactly that draft is coming from, and replacing appliances that were just fine during the inspections!
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
Making fire with bamboo on day three of Millennials vs. Gen X. I cannot understate how much our first night kicked our young behinds. We had no shelter, were huddled in the mud, freezing our Buffs off, as we got pelted with rain. It was one of the hardest nights of my life, and it was only day one.
I really started to doubt how long I would fare. Frankly, thank the Survivor gods we got evacuated and had a dry place to sleep the next night because I don't know how we would've endured another night in a cyclone.
I, personally, needed a win. We, as a tribe, needed a win. When it was my turn to attempt the fire with bamboo, I was an animal. My arms ached, I wanted to stop, but I couldn't. Then the smoke appeared, and Jay and I coaxed that little ember into a flame, and hot damn… I made fire on Survivor. I was elated. Transformed. It was those very moments of pushing past limits and finding another level to myself which was exactly why I played Survivor.
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experiences?
This one is easy. During Game Changers, I regret how much I talked to Probst. As I'm sure most fans know by now, Tribal Councils are much longer than shown, and so are the little chit-chats we have with Probst before a challenge or at a swap. Look, I am and always have been the guy who tries to be teacher's pet… or in Survivor's case, Probst's Pet.
I knew part of the reason I was brought back is that Probst liked the way I talked about the game, and the expectation was that I would continue to deliver. Not then savvy enough to think about the impact my monologues would have on my tribemates' egos, I soliloquized and Jeff beamed, and the rest of the cast glowered.
Probst had a major crush on me. He called on me constantly. There was one post-merge Tribal where, I swear, he called on me every other person. I spoke half the Tribal.
The person he called on the least? Sarah. That woman knows how to play, and part of playing to win is keeping your trap shut around Probst. I just can't help myself. I see those baby blues and those dimples, and my mouth just falls open.
What I've learned is that I do not have the right personality to be a successful Survivor player. I like to shine all the time, and winners need to be able to control their shimmer.
What's something that will blow fans minds that happened out there in one of your seasons but never made it to TV?
While on the Millennials Tribe, I made a fake idol as a decoy, in hopes that other people would stop looking for the idol, so I could continue looking. This A.) did not work and B.) in the spectrum of fake idols was crappier than the Stick — it was a piece of sea debris I wrapped in the ubiquitous Survivor canvas and tied with twine. It was a beauty on the outside, but rotten on the inside. Anyway, it was a fun gimmick for 20 minutes, then it was useless, so I stashed it in a bush and forgot about it.
Game Changers rolls around, and we get swapped to... er… the name escapes me, but we were the green tribe, and I ended up back on Millennials beach. Ozzy, Sarah, Andrea, and I tore up the jungle, looking high and low for the idol that was already securely stuffed down Troyzan's boxer briefs. We looked for days. We were so frustrated. And then one day I hear Ozzy holler, "I found it!" I hustled over, saw him reach into the bush, and pull out my fake from the season before! They were all disappointed, but I thought the connection from one season to the next was pretty nifty.
And let me take this moment to give a plug for Ozzy. I got to meet a lot of my Survivor heroes, and some of them really disappointed me. However, Ozzy, like Queen Sandra, is just as incredible as you want him to be. In Game Changers, I lived my Survivor fantasy watching him fish and climb trees and just be good at everything. He has a knack to find food — not fish and coconuts — but real food. One day, he conjured a can of orange soda, on another, a bag of cookies. And to his credit, he always shared. Ozzy is a good dude.
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
My edit made me seem FAR more wholesome than I actually am. I'd often watch episodes and think, "Who is that guy?" We even came up with a nickname for my character on Survivor: Little Dude.
Sure, the guy you saw on Survivor is part of me, but it's just that — a part. Survivor certainly helped me embrace the more earnest part of myself, but if you were to spend any considerable amount of time with me, I think you'd find the more dominant side of my personality — the side that is irreverent and raunchy and a tad strident — to be quite the contrast to the Little Dude you saw on Survivor.
What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
Coming home was bonkers. I played in back-to-back seasons, so I left for MvGX, played that season, and came home for two weeks in… where I essentially didn't leave my apartment. I ate, slept, bought clothes, and did paperwork for Game Changers. I couldn't tell anyone I was going back, and I was also still, as I like to say, "Down the Rabbit Hole."
My mind and soul were still in Fiji, even if I was momentarily in Brooklyn, N.Y. Fourteen days later, I got back on a plane to Fiji. And, as we all now know, a lot happened with me and Game Changers.
By the time I finally came home, I'd been off the grid for four months; it felt like I'd gained a whole lifetime of experience. To use the clinical mental health term, I came home f'ed the f up. Once again, I had trouble leaving the apartment. It slowly trickled through my friends that I was home, and a few weeks after I got back, my friend Steve finally dragged me out to do a comedy show, something I did once, if not twice a night in my pre-Survivor days. Before I left the house, I packed a bag with a rain jacket, umbrella, change of socks and underwear, protein bars, candy, and two liters of water.
I was terrified I might be wet, cold or hungry at some point. Never mind the fact that it was a hot, humid August in New York. There was no rain coming. No lack of dollar-slice spots to eat or bodegas with bottled water to drink. But I was haunted by the memory of aching hunger and bone-shaking wet chill. I carried my "go bag" with me every time I left my house for months. Social situations and my anxiety were very overwhelming for almost a year afterward.
My outing hung over me like a time bomb. I knew my life was about to radically change, but I wasn't sure exactly how, or for a long time when, it was going to happen. Needless to say, it took a while before I fully adjusted to life on the mainland.
I still get anxious when I'm hungry.
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?
Never. I went on Survivor because my life had grown stagnant. I needed an adventure, a jolt to my system… I needed to change my life… and oh boy, did I!
Did I get to live my dream of playing Survivor? Did I get an adventure? Push my limits? Grow as a person? Make new friends and enemies? Yes!
But, clearly, my outing and the attention it received, and the platform I gained radically changed my life's trajectory. I went from someone who very few people knew to be trans to one of the most visible transgender men in the world (which says more about trans men's visibility than it does about me).
I was not to the point of self-acceptance commensurate with such a position, and it was on me to do the self-love work to get there. And while finding peace with oneself is a lifelong journey for everyone, I feel very proud of how far I've come and how quickly I got there.
Beyond the personal, I feel tremendously proud and humbled by the impact we had on the world. We've helped parents understand their trans kids, we've helped trans people feel seen and safe to be themselves; we provided an authentic and meaningful trans experience to stand in contrast with all the bad media portrayals of trans people.
One of my favorite stories is of a trans guy in the Air Force. There was a new commander, and he'd been called in to see him. He went to the meeting with dread, fearing the commander wanted to gawk at or chastise the trans person in the squadron. Then the commander told him, "I saw Zeke on Survivor. I get it. Just wanted you to know you have an ally in me." How could you ever regret an experience which led to that?
Survivor led to my advocacy work, which I'm very proud of; it led to meeting Nico, with whom I'm madly in love. I've had innumerable other wonderful experiences as a result of Survivor, and one, in particular, I think you'll enjoy.
In the fall of 2019, I was backstage in the VIP room at the Creative Arts Emmys (Nico was presenting). My job in these situations is to hold Nico's purse and stay out of the way while the real celebrities network. And this was a room of real celebrities: Jane Lynch, Bradley Whitford, Olivia Munn, Liev Shriber, a bunch of Game of Thrones-ers, Patton Oswald, and Rachel Bloom to name a few.
I'm against a wall trying to make myself invisible when a man in a pink tuxedo jacket walks up to me, "Hi, Zeke. I'm Neil." I look up, and holy smokes, it's Neil Patrick Harris. I muttered back, "Uh, yeah… I know." We chatted for a bit about Survivor until he was pulled away to present an award. He was gracious and unassuming and could've talked to anyone in that room, but for seven minutes he talked to me. He even made a point to come by and say hello at the after-party. It made my year.
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your seasons?
The Millennials vs. Gen X crew is an exceptionally close bunch, so I keep in touch with a lot of that gang, chief amongst them is Bret. I do gay stuff with Bret.
No, not that kind of gay stuff — get your head out of the gutter! Or, as Bret would say, "guttah." In the before-times, he'd come out West, and [I'd go out] East a few times a year to run amuck in the local gay bars. Bret is a really special guy. He's so charming and magnetic. And I continue to feel very honored by our bond created over beers on a beach in Fiji all those years ago.
Of course, I'm close with my fiancé Hannah. Even to this day, I get asked if #Heke is real, and I'm like, "Of course! What do you think it is, some social media stunt to rake in followers and play a trick on all the adolescent fans who said mean things about us on the internet? How dare you! "
But most (though not all) of the MvsGXers are welcome to drop by my house at any time. There's something really special about our little crew. While we certainly have our fair share of narcissists (present company included), we don't have any sociopaths. Everyone at their core is good.
From Game Changers, I exchange the occasional text with Ozzy, but my main squeeze from that season is Aubry. We moved to L.A. at the same time and we're simultaneously going through our "the past few years of my life has been consumed by a reality TV show, and now I need to move on" phase. And I can think of no better companion in this pursuit than Ms. Bracco.
In true L.A. style, we did all sorts of woo-woo wellness — hot yoga, SoulCycle, sound baths in Joshua Tree, tarot card readings, turmeric margaritas, and this thing where you lay in an infrared heated sleeping bag and sweat out all your toxins — all the while weening ourselves off Survivor alumni drama. She, too, met a fella and moved out to Oregon to be with him. I am so joyed that she's found her "what's next," though I selfishly miss our vegan Mexican food dinners quite fiercely.
Do you still watch Survivor, and if so, what's your favorite season you were not on and why?
I'm not the dedicated viewer I once was. I don't believe anyone would begrudge me for characterizing my Survivor experience as complicated. For all the positives I took from Survivor, I did leave the island with my fair share of scars.
Part of me wonders if the show filmed in different locations if it'd be easier to tune in. As it is in Fiji, all I see when I watch is, "Oh, I remember our challenge we did there!" or "I looked for idols for hours there!" or "I remember being really mad at Tai on that beach, so I pulled down my pants and took a #2 while looking him directly in the eyes, like a prisoner trying to intimidate his cellmate... because I'd lost all touch with reality."
See, in my brain, Survivor memories can tumble downhill quickly, so I've had to put Survivor on a shelf. Kind of like my Rubbermaid tub of all my game clothes. It's fun to bring out every now and again and show guests my still-unwashed underwear that reek of butt and campfire. Charming for a moment, but if you leave it out too long, it stinks up the whole place. Best, I've found, for it to live in the garage and be pulled out for special occasions.
Though, I did watch Winners at War and loved it. I especially revel in watching players from before I played, because in my mind they're still beloved, distant TV characters. Give me Parvati, Tyson, Tony, and Sarah on a beach and I'm all in. Even for this weary Survivor vet, they make the game seem so magical.
My favorite season? This is a tough one, Cagayan, Heroes vs. Villains, and Winners at War are all in the mix, but I will have to go with Second Chance. Why? It's the season that put me over the top on wanting to play. I got so into the RHAP "campaign interviews," the voting players in, speculating all summer as to what was happening, reading the inaugural Josh Wigler at Parade pre-game articles, and the climax of actually watching the season.
I went to Stephen Fishbach's premiere party in Brooklyn, and remember thinking, "I will regret it the rest of my life if I don't try to be a part of this game." It all seemed like this noble quest, so much bigger than myself; dangerous and yet destined.
Who's one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
Coach. Hands down. He definitely goes into the category of Survivor heroes you meet and does not disappoint. Coach is certainly Coach, but he's far more self-aware than you'd anticipate. We've only had the chance to hang out once, but we hit it off like old pals. We both take a lot of joy in being the storyteller, in imbuing our seasons with our flights of fancy. Sure, we're a combined 0-for-5, but tell me you don't remember us!
I played with the athletic, the delusional, the pretty, and the strategic, but never with a big character… and that's the category I'd put myself in. Not the pretty, not the strategist, but the character. Or maybe I'm just delusional! Coach knows how to have fun on the beach. He knows how to make a moment, and I think we could make magic together.
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
Well, I'm not exactly qualified to comment on any game mechanics. I think whoopie cushions on the Tribal Council seats would be hilarious. But my best idea for a new advantage would be to give one contestant a Super Soaker that they can use to spray Probst with when he starts asking annoying questions. We've got drama at Tribal, but where's the comedy?
Okay, okay, my real answer is aftercare. First boot to winner, everyone comes home with a degree of trauma that no one around you can understand. That trauma is magnified when the show begins to air. You go from just another person to a semi-celebrity. You're being talked about on podcasts, you're getting followers, you're on TV, you might even get recognized on the street! And as exciting as it begins, the comments can get mean, the edit dismissive, and before you know it, the ride is over and all that being special is pulled away. It really does a number on people mentally — both the game and the airing experience.
My advocacy for universal aftercare comes from the fact that I got aftercare. Because of my outing, Survivor paid for me to be in therapy every week for a year — from shortly after I came home from Fiji until about six weeks after the finale. And, as all my friends can attest, I needed every second of it. I've seen a lot of friends who really could've used the help that I got.
Most Survivor players get a packet of advice on what it's like to adjust to going home with quotes from Thailand and Marquesas contestants. No tea, no shade, no pink lemonade to the players of seasons 4 and 5, but, as it is said, the game has changed. For example, Twitter was invented.
Twenty years in and led by the same head psychologist since Borneo, the powers that be can't feign ignorance of the psychological impact the Survivor experience has on its players. All who tread the beach deserve mental health counseling on Survivor's dime.
Finally, would you play again if asked?
No, I won't play again. I've done it — twice! I'm a person who craves new experiences and I don't believe there's anything more I could get out of playing a third time.
They say, like the pain of childbirth, that you forget how hard Survivor is, but lemme tell you, I have not. Maybe this is the price to be paid by playing back-to-back [seasons], my freshest memories are those from the end of my second season when I was really a shell of myself… just an emotionally repressed zombie who had a mind only for burgers and booze.
I used to roll my eyes at all the people who said, "I don't want to starve and live in the dirt," but now I fully agree! Especially in the era of no swimsuits (I need costume changes) and The Edge of Extinction, which by all accounts is miserable beyond belief. Survivor should only be played by people who really, really want it… and I don't anymore.
Strangers starve themselves on an island for our amusement in the hopes of winning a million dollars, as host Jeff Probst implores them to "DIG DEEP!"