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Survivor's Zeke: "I Knew I Was a Goner" After the Varner Tribal

Does he have any regrets?

Liz Raftery

Zeke Smith was voted out on Wednesday's episode of Survivor, but says he saw the writing on the wall several days prior.

Zeke unwittingly became the headline of the Game Changers season a few weeks ago, when he was publicly outed as transgender by his tribemate Jeff Varner at the Tribal Council where Varner was voted out.

"I knew I was not long for the game," Zeke tells of his feelings after that tribal, adding that he did briefly consider quitting the game after that night.

Read our full Q&A to find out more of his thoughts on the Varner incident, his reaction to Andrea's big move, and how difficult it was to play back-to-back seasons of Survivor.

How were you feeling going into last night's Tribal? Andrea was clearly still angry at you, but were you surprised to see your name written down?
I was. There was only one person I could trust in the merge, and that was Sarah Lacina, and I knew my game hinged upon her. I accepted long ago that I either knew where the vote was going to be or it was going to be me. And I kind of had to compartmentalize my stress, so I tried not to worry about it too much. ... I was definitely blindsided. I did not expect it. But, you know, I think it was the right move for Andrea, because I certainly was coming after her.

Survivor's Jeff Varner fired from his job after outing fellow contestant

I was surprised to see Michaela burst into tears once the votes were read. Can you offer any insight into why she did that?
Yeah. First of all, Michaela and I share a very special bond in that we played Survivor back to back. We left on March 28th thinking we were going to play one season, and then threw all caution to the wind and agreed to play another season. We were in Fiji for four months, for a third of the year -- which is a pretty crazy wrench to throw in your life. We definitely bonded in the merge over having made this insane life decision together. And Michaela - you see it earlier in the game - had some trouble integrating with the group socially. But when we got together, we made friends pretty fast, because we started this adventure together. And, even though she voted for me three of the four Tribals we were at, we were always friends. I think she was sad to lose her buddy.

Screen Grab, CBS

Tell me about that decision to play back-to-back seasons. Physically, how much harder was this season, having just played one not too long ago?
Well, the decision to play... look, I got my torch snuffed in Season 33, and I did my final interview to camera and looked over my right shoulder, and Jeff Probst was there and said "Come here," and asked me back. I had about 48 hours in which to make that decision. And I thought, I'm probably not going to get better at Survivor. In fact, you might not even do as well as you did the last time, but you've got to take it. There's no way you can turn this down. So I said yes and tried to do what I could to study up on returning players and figure out what I'd done wrong and what I'd done right. I think physically, the game was never super taxing on me. It was always more of a mental thing, because I'm more of a cerebral player. So I spend a lot of time trying to analyze relationships and run scenarios, think of all the possibilities. And towards the end of it, my brain was not able to do the same computations it once was. I think part of that is, after the Varner incident, I made the decision to keep playing and to sort of buck up and forget what happened to the best of my ability, and just focus on playing. But I think I expended a lot of gas that night at Tribal. I was expending some energy trying to stay focused, and I just didn't have all of my faculties that I usually had in my hand in that merge. I tried to do the best I could, but clearly I was not making awesome decisions.

Survivor's Jeff Varner: "Zeke has every right to hate me"

I do want to talk about that Tribal, but first, you mentioned studying up. Was there anything about your strategy that you changed up this time around?
Well, actually, interestingly enough, I did take from 33 that I sort of started swinging for the fences too early. So I told myself, "Whenever you feel the itch to make a big move, don't scratch it. Wait a move." But then, after the Varner stuff, I just knew that I really didn't have much of a shot to win. I felt it could have been me the first vote of the merge, the second vote of the merge. I love to play Survivor. I thought, you're not playing to win. You're playing for yourself at this point. And you can sit on your butt and get voted out, or you can play and get voted out. And I'll always play. Always play.

Flipping on Andrea really came back to bite you. Do you regret that move, or does it tie into what you just said about making big moves?
Well, I think it does relate to wanting to make big moves. I also think Andrea's rage towards me colors that story. There were two people who flipped on Andrea: me and Sarah Lacina. Sarah Lacina was my closest ally, and Andrea, Sarah and Ozzy and I had played the entire game together. Quickly after the merge began, Andrea and Cirie stopped having strategy conversations with me. I would just see them in the woods, and then they would come back and, like, report marching orders. Neither Sarah and I felt comfortable with Cirie or Andrea any longer, and we went to Debbie and said, "We want to turn on them. Who do we pick?" Andrea was selected because she seemed to be playing harder and was more of a threat to win individual immunity. I don't know where it got lost in translation with Debbie, but when I go to Sierra Dawn Thomas to talk about the Andrea vote, that was supposed to happen after Debbie had laid the groundwork. Like, Debbie was supposed to tell Sierra I was going to come talk to her. But that didn't happen. Debbie sort of set me up. So, I get the flack for flipping on Andrea, but it was a collective decision made between me and Sarah Lacina - who did ultimately not vote with that group.

Were you surprised Andrea turned on you so harshly? Have you guys smoothed things over?
Oh yeah. Andrea and I are great. We're both New Yorkers. We're good friends. We hang out together. All of the anger confessionals come from Andrea. They don't come from me.

Do you have any regrets about your game this time around?
I don't have any regrets. Look, it came down to that decision. I was going to quit or I was going to play. When the chips were down and the cause was lost, I never stopped playing. Andrea got me and it was smart. She should have, because I was coming after her. I was re-forming relationships with Brad and Troyzan and Michaela to come after her. The thing I'm most proud of my Survivor experience is that I never stopped playing. I never let what happened affect my core belief as a Survivor player, which is that you should be taking big swings every vote.

It sounds like they gave you the option to quit the game after the Varner incident?
Oh, no. I knew I had that option. I never really considered it. It was like, all right, what are you going to do? It was like, well, you could not play anymore, but you're not gonna do that. So, suck it up and go play, bud.

So, let's talk about that Tribal. Was there any part of you that thought what Varner did would impact your chances of winning, and make people not want to take you to the end because you'd be a shoo-in for the million dollars?
Yeah, I felt pretty instantly that my shot to win was toast, precisely because everyone knew that if I got to the end, I would have a compelling story. And I think it's not just that I would have a compelling story. I think if I sat on my tushie and didn't do anything and just was like, "Well, this thing happened," I don't think I would have won. But that's not who I am. That's not the kind of player I am. And I think we've seen two strong strategic players in Jeremy and Adam, who also were able to have compelling stories [and won]. I think that was at the forefront of everyone's mind. So, yeah, I felt pretty instantly I was a goner.

Varner told me that you guys had spoken several times after the game and that you had forgiven him, but your interviews and writing in the days after that episode aired painted a different picture. Have you forgiven him?
Zeke: I would say that my tone of forgiveness has never changed. I think I presented sort of a nuanced understanding of what forgiveness is in my Hollywood Reporter article from April 12. And look, I sincerely believe that we should embrace those who've expressed sincere regret, as he has. That's how we encourage people to change and turn adversaries into allies. I would say our relationship, it's a work in progress right now, and probably best to not play it out in the press.

Survivor's Zeke Smith was outed as transgender in the worst way possible

Did Bret reach out to you at all after that episode? You guys had such a nice bonding moment the last time you played.
Yeah, Bret called me almost immediately. Bret and I are really good friends. That day on the beach when he came out to me, we said we were going to go take a trip to Provincetown, and we did. A couple of weeks after I got back from Season 34, we went out to Provincetown. I love Bret. I think he's a hell of a guy.

Is there anything else you want to say about that Tribal?
For me, I think what continues to stand out is the reaction of my tribemates. In Survivor, it's not always the smartest thing to defend people when bad things happen. But the air was so apparent that it was really touching that everyone responded so quickly and so forcefully. And I think it just speaks to the really incredible people that were there that night, and also about the shifting attitudes towards transgender people in the country. So for me, I think you can look at that Tribal as sort of a dark moment in Survivor history, but I don't. and I think that's because of my tribemates and because of Jeff Probst. You know, I had a lot of fear about what would happen if something bad did happen to me on Survivor, but everyone from my tribemates' instant reactions, Jeff Probst's reaction that night, to his continued partnership with me and CBS' partnership with me over the past nine months, I'm really grateful and honored and humbled to have been part of this conversation.

You and Hannah seem to have a great offscreen relationship. Can you say anything about the project you're working on?
Well, I think if you follow #Heke then you know that we've got a wedding in the works. That's all I'll say about that.

Would you play Survivor again if asked?
Gosh, I don't know. I've been doing Survivor nonstop for like a year and a half, and it's really opened my life up. And I'm excited to embark upon new adventures, and maybe Survivor's part of it down the line, maybe not. I can't say right now.

Any final thoughts on this season?
Just that the people who make Survivor are really incredible. They've been the most impressive part of this entire experience. I originally applied to be a Dream Teamer several years ago, to like work on the show, and was rejected twice. I loved being a player, but it really made me wonder about that alternate timeline when I got to be on the other side. And I'm just so impressed with all of those people who make Survivor. They're pretty incredible.

Survivor airs Wednesdays at 8/7c on CBS.

(Full disclosure: is owned by CBS.)