EXCLUSIVE: Inside Jeff Varner's Decision to Out Zeke Smith at Tribal Council, What Viewers Didn't See
By Jennifer Drysdale
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"It was a last-minute emotional decision," but one that will follow Jeff Varner for years.
The three-time Survivor player outed fellow contestant Zeke Smith as transgender during tribal council on Wednesday's episode of Survivor: Game Changers, in a backward attempt to save himself from elimination.
Now, 10 months after the episode was filmed, Varner is speaking out about his decision to out his tribemate, and revealing what the viewers didn't see.
"I had not planned that at all. There's no way I could have planned that," Varner told ET during a Skype interview on Thursday. "What you don't know by watching the show is that that tribal council was two hours long."
Instead, what fans saw on Wednesday was roughly 10 minutes of the ordeal. "There is deception here. Deceptions on levels, Jeff, that these guys don't even understand,"
Varner said on the episode, looking at Smith. "Why haven't you told anyone that you're transgender?"
Varner's tribemates immediately and passionately chastised him for revealing that piece of information, while Smith sat there stunned, before giving a moving speech about metamorphosis, and seemingly forgiving the soon-to-be voted-out Varner.
"There was a conversation I had with another player before we went to tribal, where they revealed to me a secret alliance, so when I'm arguing, 'deception, deception, deception' [during the episode], that's where my mind is, and that's what I'm thinking of," Varner told ET. "I'm trying to show, 'You three are being deceived by these three, so vote with me,' and it was an argument I was making and I knew I was right, and I knew it was the right thing to do and the good thing to do."
"[Then] Zeke pops up, which you don't see in the show. It was edited out, but he makes a statement about deception, [and] out it comes, and it's just, that's what it was," he continued. "That's what it was and that's where it went, and it went on for an hour and a half, and it was, I'm over it. It was awful, and I'm sorry."
In a Survivor Facebook Live recap hosted by ET's Brice Sander, Varner revealed that he started to suspect that Smith might be transgender throughout the season -- but didn't speak with Smith about it until outing him at tribal council.
He also shared that his opinion that Smith was "deceptive" came from him not seeing his gameplay in the previous season, Millennials vs. Gen X. Varner had assumed 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.
"[Not having seen Smith's season] immediately heightened my investigation into who [he was] and why [he was] there. I thought immediately about Russell Hantz ... who was just evil and hateful, and everything we know Russell to be ... so, in my mind, Zeke immediately became Russell, and I knew there was a story there," Varner explained. "Whatever I was doing, Zeke was in all the conversations, and that just fed that whole perception I had that he was an evil player... I had such the wrong impression, and you know, Survivor is a manufactured environment."
Regardless of the "manufactured environment," Varner said his conclusion that Smith had already come out as transgender publicly was a "logical assumption" to make.
"I thought everybody knew. I thought his family knew. I thought his friends knew. I thought the people who just watched Millennials vs. Gen X knew ... I thought Zeke was probably already a news item. So, when I say, I thought everybody knew, I'm not talking about the six people there. I'm talking about everyone at home," he continued on Facebook Live. "It never crossed my mind that I outed him, ever. Who comes on a show like this with a secret like that? And expects it not to come out? I think it was a logical assumption to make, as wrong as I was ... to find out he wasn't, it just hit my gut ... I had an emotional breakdown."
In his interview with ET, Varner revealed that he has been seeing a therapist the past 10 months to deal with the fallout.
"I wasn't trying to gain or prove anything by doing this. This just happened [and] I can't explain how it happened," he told us. "I just know that it organically happened, and I've been working for months to try and work through whatever it is in me that makes that happen when it happens. I had no hope, I had no strategy, I had no plan, I had no reaction to how people would react [because] it wasn't part of the plan for me, it just happened."
"And unfortunately, the editing connects dots that don't really connect and things happen that, you don't get the full situation there," he continued, before adding that at the end of the day, the situation was "portrayed accurately" and that Survivor has been "wonderful" to him throughout his three seasons on the show.
"I've been with this show long enough to know that these are manufactured situations, and this is a manufactured environment, and editing puts facial expressions to comments that don't necessarily go there, so I've learned to watch the show in a way that it's just not authentic in a lot of ways," Varner explained. "But I think CBS did a really beautiful job. And just not knowing how it would be portrayed and not knowing how it would be."
"I'm just grateful for CBS, that they made the effort to include this in the show. I know they're catching a lot of flack today about outing him to millions of people, but they've been wonderful to me, they've been wonderful to him, and I fully support Zeke," Varner said. "He's a wonderful human being, and my focus today is 100 percent him."
"I make zero excuses and I defend myself none," he confessed. "It was horrible. It was reprehensible, and I can only say it was a mistake and I am profoundly sorry and I will move forward. I have changed so much."
See more from ET's interview with Varner in the video below.