Zeke Smith didn't win the title of Sole Survivor, but he has perhaps walked away with something more valuable.
The two-time player was outed as transgender
three weeks ago by fellow Survivor: Game Changers
contestant Jeff Varner, who used Smith being trans as an example of his deception -- in a backwards attempt to save himself from elimination.
"There is deception here. Deceptions on levels, Jeff [Probst], that these guys don't even understand," Varner said, looking at Smith. "Why haven't you told anyone that you're transgender?"
Varner was promptly eliminated, though the media wasn't so keen to just snuff his torch and move on. In the weeks that followed, both Varner and Smith gave numerous interviews on the topic, starting a conversation about outing, transgender visibility in the media and even whether CBS was right to have aired the footage.
Through it all, Smith insisted that he was glad the network aired the controversial tribal council, declaring he was "determined to milk something positive out of that moment" -- and he maintained that stance while speaking with ET after his elimination on Thursday.
According to Smith, CBS never "pressured" him into revealing he was trans as promotion for the show -- though Varner previously explained that he assumed (having not seen his first season) Smith was touted as "the first transgender Survivor player" but was keeping it a secret from his tribemates this season in a Russell Hantz-type move.
"When I applied, I didn't talk about being trans with casting. That was developed later in our relationship," Smith told ET on Thursday. "And then the second time, I sat down with Jeff Probst, I let him know that I was trans, and he said, 'If, how and when you want to talk about this part of your life, this is up to you.' And he's always held true to his word."
"No one ever pressured me into talking about anything I didn't want to talk about," he added.
The outing was nonetheless a shock to Smith, who viewers saw was somewhat paralyzed after the revelation at tribal council -- before delivering an eloquent speech on metamorphosis. After wrapping production on the season in July, Smith returned to the U.S., and met with a CBS-provided therapist
in preparation for the the episode to air -- and for the whole country to know something he wasn't "wild about"
"I actually came out eight years ago, and that's a big difference from being outed on national television," Smith told ET, though he noted that he was "surprised" at the reaction to his outing, and expected more backlash towards him instead of Varner.
Instead, Varner saw real-life effects to his decision to out Smith on television, revealing to ET last month that he was "devastated"
to have been fired from the real estate job he just started.
Though Varner spoke openly about his relationship with Smith -- and declared that the two had essentially "healed"
their relationship before the episode aired last month -- Smith told ET that he prefers to keep any correspondence they've had private and "out of the media."
Smith's relationship with the other players on his Survivor
season is much less of a story. As other castaways have told ET following their elimination, Smith being trans wasn't much of a conversation after he shared what went down
at tribal council with the remainder of the players after the merge. "It wasn't [really talked about]," Smith said. That is, unless it involved his impressive ability to overcome the situation as a reason to vote him out before he had a chance to make it to the final three -- and possibly win the game.
Still, Smith said "there's nothing I could have done differently." The event put a target on his back, and those were the cards he "was dealt."
The Brooklyn native has come to terms with his Survivor fate since his elimination, and instead focused on bracing his family for the media storm he knew was coming.
"It was really important to bring those who love me, close to me, and I think we have all grown closer, you know, as a result," he shared. "I feel a lot more love today than I really ever have in my life."
"I was fortunate to work with GLAAD, in particular, Nick Adams, the director of [the organization's] Transgender Media Program, as well as work closely with Survivor and CBS to best tell my story," he confessed.
As for the next chapter in his story, Smith revealed he's still "figuring it out."
"I can do anything," he said.
Survivor airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.