‘Survivor’ Castaway Zeke: ‘The Day After the Varner Incident There Was a Seismic Shift in How I Was Viewed in the Game’


“Survivor: Game Changers” (CBS)

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Gordon Holmes: My mom is upset.
Zeke Smith: Oh no, moms love me.
Holmes: I get a post “Survivor” email, and she doesn’t like most people, so she tends to be excited to see them go. But with you, the header was “Darn!” That’s pretty harsh language coming for her.
Smith: Let her know I’m doing OK. It was time for me to go.

Holmes: It seems like there were some parallels between your move against Andrea and your move against David in “Millennials vs. Gen-X.” Is there a desire to make big moves or you just want to get them before they got you?
Smith: I think we have to back-up a little bit and acknowledge the elephant in the room. I walked into the merge with no shot to win. The day after the Varner incident there was a seismic shift in how I was viewed in the game. People I had relationships with like Andrea and Cirie, it was so different.
Holmes: To clarify, they were concerned about going to the end with you because you had a compelling story to tell in front of a jury?
Smith: Yes. I don’t think anyone had a problem with me being trans. Not in the least. This terrible thing had happened to me and the next day nobody made any beans about me being the decoy vote against Michaela or Hali, and the reason why is because nobody wanted to sit next to me at the end. People stopped coming to me to have strategic conversations. If I wanted to get any information, I had to really hustle people to get them to talk to me. The exception was Sarah. She was always my closest ally. And the thing with the move against Andrea was it didn’t happen in a vacuum. Sarah was my closest ally and we both felt uneasy with Cirie and Andrea. They would go off and talk and then sort of deliver orders back to us. And we also had good relationships with Debbie and Tai and Sierra. I think Sarah had better relationships than I did.
Holmes: So, there was no future in an alliance with Andrea.
Smith: I felt very queasy about my position with Andrea and Cirie. I went to Sarah and Debbie and said, “Let’s make a move against one of them.” We agreed together on Andrea. I was told that the foundation had been laid for me to have a conversation with Sierra, that Debbie and Sarah had both primed her and I was just following up. That was not the case. It did not go well. But, I wasn’t the only person that turned on Andrea. Andrea, Sarah, and I had been playing together the entire game. And Sarah also turned on Andrea. I was not a part of that Ozzy vote. I was left out of that, but Sarah was not.

Holmes: Does anyone realize how close Cirie and Michaela are?
Smith: I did not. I didn’t know how close they were. I knew they were tight, but I also felt close with Michaela. We’d both been away from home for a very long time and both of us didn’t know what our lives looked like. There’s a general nastiness across the board on season 34. In 33, whether or not you were voting with someone, we were friendly and fun. Thirty four is a lot more divided. Michaela got the brunt end of that a little bit. She wasn’t tight in any social circle. But, we hung out and were friends. Michaela voted for me three of the four Tribal Councils we were together, so it’s not like we were on the same page. But, we were friendly.
Holmes: “Millennials vs. Gen-X” had such a different tone. Everyone seemed to get along, even if you voted against them. You come into this season and Andrea hopes to see you never. Was the different mood palpable?
Smith: Oh, 100%. Thirty three you had a lot of people who were big “Survivor” fans. Smart, good-hearted people. I think they loved playing “Survivor,” embraced the hardship, and knew that it’s not personal. And in 34, I think everyone’s relationship was different. I don’t think there was this love of “Survivor.” It was personal in a way that I didn’t quite understand. After the Varner incident, I didn’t like “Survivor.” It’s not that I didn’t like “Survivor,” but my experience was a little tainted. But every day of my 62 days, I loved being out there. And the people out there in 34 didn’t love it like I did. That bummed me out. It’s the greatest thing you’re ever going to do! Get excited about it.
Holmes: How do you feel about the game now?
Smith: My love for “Survivor” runs really deep. One of the things I was impressed by was how amazing the people who make “Survivor” are. From the cameramen who run backwards in the sun carrying 50 pounds of gear. To John Kirhoffer, the guy who designs all the challenges. The producers…”Survivor” is an incredible thing and I have the utmost respect for the people who make it.

Holmes: Last night you and Sarah were discussing a five-person alliance with Michaela, Brad, and Troyzan. Was that the real plan? And if so, where does it go from there?
Smith: I think I saw that Sarah was the one who was driving the action in the game. I think Andrea’s eyes were so colored with rage that she couldn’t see that I wasn’t doing anything. I’m sort of running around like an idiot trying to play, but I didn’t have any power. Sarah was making the decisions. And so, I don’t know if I would’ve taken Sarah to five. I’d have gotten rid of her at six or seven. My final three was Brad and Michaela. My biggest problem was that everyone thought the jury wouldn’t deny me because I had a compelling story. So, the best I could do was try to squander that good will. I just needed to piss everyone off so people would think I couldn’t win. And the only people I could beat would be Brad and Michaela. Even though Brad might have a better social game than me, the way he talks about his money and his status, I think it made people less willing to give him the money.

Holmes: Word association time. Let’s start with Hali.
Smith: Beautiful soul.
Holmes: Troyzan?
Smith: Green monster shlong.
Holmes: You’re the third person to bring that up. Ozzy?
Smith: Lives up to the hype.
Holmes: Sierra?
Smith: Cowgirl.
Holmes: Cirie?
Smith: Legend.
Holmes: Debbie?
Smith: Joy.
Holmes: Tai?
Smith: Inspiring.
Holmes: Brad?
Smith: Will leave Monica and elope with James Corden.
Holmes: Sarah?
Smith: My friend.
Holmes: Andrea?
Smith: The complete package.
Holmes: Hannah?
Smith: My fiancé!
Holmes: She’s on this season, right?
Smith: Exactly.
Holmes: JT?
Smith: Good man.
Holmes: Michaela?
Smith: Fiercely independent.
Holmes: Sandra?
Smith: Queen.
Holmes: Aubry?
Smith: Goddess.
Holmes: Let’s finish with Varner.
Smith: Growing.

Holmes: How old were you during “Survivor: The Australian Outback”?
Smith: I’d just turned 13 the day it premiered.
Holmes: Were you watching back then?
Smith: I watched the premiere after the Super Bowl. I remember watching it with my dad.
Holmes: We’re a part of this weird “Survivor” family. You watch it on TV and then years later I’m hanging out with Penner on a beach in the Philippines. It’s very surreal. I imagine you felt the same thing being out there with Ozzy and Cirie. And here’s this guy that you watched on TV as a teenager who is a part of your story now. Where are you two now? Have you forgiven him?
Smith: Let’s address the forgiveness first. I’m not saying that there haven’t been days where it’s been challenging over the past nine months. But, I’ve always thought to forgive him. And I think we should embrace people who show sincere regret like he has. That’s how we encourage people to change and turn adversaries into allies. And as far as us as people, it’s a work in progress. And I think it’s probably best to not play it out in the press.
Holmes: That episode was very difficult to watch, but you handled it like a champ, I think Varner showed genuine regret, and your tribemates’ reactions were inspiring. If you had to put a percentage to the public’s reaction, positive and negative, what would it be?
Smith: I’d say 98% positive. And that 2% is from the world at large, not the “Survivor” community.

Holmes: In “Survivor: Nicaragua,” people immediately targeted Kelly Bruno because they didn’t want to go to the end with an amputee. But as a juror, I feel like I’d vote for someone based on how they played the game not their outside-of-the-game story.
Smith: I think if I sat on my butt and didn’t do anything and did what people told me to, I could’ve gone further. I don’t think my story would have been enough for me to win. But nobody thought I was just going to sit on my butt. My buff said “Game Changer,” not “Butt Sitter.” I think I owed it to the people who gave me that buff to try to change the game.
Holmes: Somewhere Jeff Probst is stroking his chin and thinking, “Hmmm…’Survivor: Butt Sitters.’”
Smith: (Laughs) It’ll be “Survivor 72.”

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