Survivor: Game Changers, Zeke Smith

CBS

Zeke Smith has no regrets coming out of Survivor: Game Changers.

He was voted out on last night's episode in a total blindside led by Andrea, three weeks after the episode that featured Jeff Varner cruelly outing Zeke as transgender in a last ditch attempt to save himself. 

While Zeke was unanimously supported by all of his tribemates (and the general population), in a way, that tribal council sealed his fate. He wasn't going to win, because everyone on Survivor knows that you can't sit on the final three in front of a jury with anyone more deserving or with a better story than you. 

It was really just a waiting game to see how long it would be before Zeke landed on the jury, and how many moves he could make before it happened. In last night's episode, he thought he was solidly a member of the majority alliance and safe for the week, but the immunity-charged Andrea wanted revenge for his attempts to vote her out two weeks before, and even his BFF Sarah wrote his name down. 

Survivor: Game Changers, Zeke Smith

CBS

Zeke, however, doesn't blame anyone, and doesn't even hold a grudge against Sarah. E! News got on the phone with him to talk all about his elimination and life since that controversial episode aired. 

E! News: Did you have any idea you were being voted out last night?

Smith: Oh no, not in the least. I mean, my game, I was ride or die with Sarah Lacina. She was the only person I could trust, so I either knew I could stick with her or I was going home, and I didn't think I was going home. They hid the blindside really well, but I also knew that going forward, I would see my name written down every tribal council, so I had come to a place of acceptance that it could be me any time.

Survivor: Game Changers, Zeke Smith

CBS

Probst did an interview with EW where he said that after what happened with Varner, you were never going to win because it was too good of a story to get to the final three with. Was that part of your strategy after that tribal council?

Well, I mean I felt that pretty instantly. And it wasn't even like a secret. After I had my fireside chat with everybody, no one had a problem with me being trans, but that I had this compelling story made me pretty…not a great partner to sit next to at the end. And you know, I was the decoy vote against Haley, and people told me I was, and they told me the reason why. And you know, I felt it out there. People were a little bit cagier with me strategically, people who were allies were just not as close anymore.

I knew I was dead man walking, so I tried to think about how do I best want to use my time out here, knowing that I could go home anytime? I don't want to go home just sitting around. I want to go out and play and make a move and live up to that name game changer.

Survivor: Game Changers, Zeke Smith

CBS

What do you think was the move that got you sent home last night?

I don't think a compelling story in and of itself is enough to get you sent home. I think I made it abundantly clear that I wasn't going to be sitting on my butt, that I was going to go and play hard. And I did. I played as hard as I could every day, ‘cause that's how I believe you should play Survivor. Like I think it would be disrespectful to the game and to the amazing people who make Survivor to go and sit around and not give it your all. I think I overplayed my way out of the game just like I did in season 33.

Do you have any regrets at all? Did you do everything you wanted to do?

I have no regrets. I mean, did I want to find idols and win individual immunity and win the game? Oh sure, I would have loved to do all those things. But you can only play the hand you're dealt, and I'm very proud of how I played Survivor, and just tremendously grateful that I had the chance to play not just once but twice, and that was my dream. My dream wasn't just to be a player, it was to be a returning player. And I got to do that, and I just feel so humbled that I was allowed to fulfill that dream.

Survivor

CBS

Since the outing episode aired, how have things been for you in the real world as opposed to the Survivor world?

It's been…you know, it's taken a few weeks to get my bearings. For nine months, I prepared for this 15 minute tribal council to air, and I didn't know what the reaction was going to be, so I prepared for the worst, but really got the best. I've been really amazed by how positive the response has been, and really touched and overwhelmed. I'm still trying to make sense of it, but I hope—I hope—that the way I was received into the public arena is the way trans people will be received going forward. That the era of sort of sensationalist, exploitative headlines and drudged up photos from the past and trans people being victimized in the public eye, that that can end, and that people will be treated with the respect and dignity that I was going forward.

Survivor, Zeke Smith

Jeffrey Neira/CBS Entertainment

There were a lot of columns posted after the episode saying it shouldn't have been aired or should have been handled differently, or they focused on the wrong reactions. Are you happy with the episode that aired and how it was handled?

Absolutely. I mean, I think the episode was done masterfully. Joe Lia was the supervising producer on that episode and he led the incredible Survivor editing team. I don't think that there was a better way that episode could have been constructed, and you know, it never crossed my mind that it shouldn't have aired. I certainly never asked for it not to be aired.

I started having conversations with Jeff Probst two days after I got voted out about the care with which it would be handled, and about his commitment to me telling my story on my terms. And you know, Jeff Probst is the most phenomenal leader I've ever witnessed in my entire life. Like I'm really in awe of that man. He's pretty incredible. He made a lot of promises to me and he kept every single one of them, and CBS has followed his lead.

I've been granted unprecedented autonomy on how I want to speak about what happened, and you know, I think that for me, I always felt it was important for the world to see how my tribemates reacted, to see how quickly and passionately they came to my defense, because it's just a case study in how you should respond to injustice. And I really give those five people all the credit in the world, because they turned a dark moment into something really beautiful.

Survivor, Andrea Boehlke, Oscar "Ozzy" Lusth, Tai Trang, Jeff Varner, Sarah Lacina, Zeke Smith and Debbie Wanner

Jeffrey Neira/CBS Entertainment

After all that happened, it seemed like everybody went back into gameplay pretty quickly. Did it surprise you at all that it wasn't a huge deal?

Not at all. You know, we were in the merge of Survivor: Game Changers, and there was a million dollars on the line, and I think people just followed my lead. And I woke up the next morning and I said I'm fine, let's keep playing, and I sat everybody down and I said let's go, game on. I'm not going to pump the brakes, and you shouldn't pump the brakes either. And I think it again, goes back to this idea that people sort of followed my lead, and yeah, I think I was there to play, and I wanted to play, and so did everybody else.

Survivor, Zeke Smith, Jeff Varner

CBS

Did you get to watch the episode beforehand, or were you able to watch it at all?

Yeah, I watched it that night surrounded by my good friends, and it had been crazy, because you don't remember a ton of what happens on Survivor. You sort of have little flashes and bursts of memory, but you certainly don't have the cohesive picture that you get in the episode. So it was a wild thing that this basically two hours of my life totally changed the course of my life, but I had no memory of it. So I got to watch it that Wednesday.

Survivor, Zeke Smith

CBS

Would you play again?

I don't know. I feel like Survivor has really expanded my horizons, and I'm excited to embark upon adventures that I didn't know were in the cards for me. So I'm not in the mood to play anytime soon, but who knows what the future holds?

You didn't have very much time in between your seasons, right?

No ma'am, I had two weeks.

Survivor Game Changers, Season 34

CBS

So when you got off the show, were you just exhausted? How did you recover?

So I was asked to return about 20 minutes after I got my torch snuffed in season 33. So I never came down from that heightened Survivor mental state of observation and paranoia. I sort of stayed that way at Ponderosa, and then I came home to New York and basically just locked myself in my apartment and ate sushi and watched Survivor and got ready to go back to Fiji. It was pretty wild. And by the time we were at the tail end of season 34, my brain, I think I taxed it quite a bit. I put it under so much stress that it was starting to play tricks on me.

Survivor, Zeke Smith

CBS

I know you were on the jury so you know who makes it to the end, but who were you rooting for when you were eliminated?

Well the person I had the strongest connection with from the beginning was Sarah Lacina. We really hit it off as people and I loved her dearly. I mean I loved her so much that after it was clear that I wasn't going to go very far in the game, I released her from our final two deal and said, you know, I want to play with you and you want to play with me, but don't get yourself in trouble trying to protect me. You're going to have to vote me out at some point, and I'm not going to hold any grudges. You do what you gotta do.

Jeff Probst, Jeff Varner, Survivor

Jeffrey Neira/CBS Entertainment

Since you guys are so close, did you love that they featured her reaction so much after the outing?

I do. I do, because I think we both made an impact on each other, and I think that's one of the coolest things about Survivor is that because you go out there and you're forced to work together and you set aside things like politics and religion and what divides you, you really get a chance to know who people are, and I think the best way to get a sense of a person is to see what they laugh at, and Sarah and I laugh at the same things. And that's what bonds us. I don't know that I would have ever run into her or been her friend in the real world, but I'm very honored to be her friend today.

Have you talked to Varner? Has he reached out at all?

You know, our relationship is sort of in progress at the moment, and it's best played out privately and not in the press.

I loved that you got a fantastic reward to leave the show on. How great was that resort?

Oh man, Tokoriki was amazing. We had this meal in the owner's villa and then we got put up in our own bungalow and each bungalow had its own infinity pool, and you know, we had so much food and so much wine and booze and we're in these super soft beds. Everyone was naked because they didn't want to put their dirty clothes on in the bed, and none of us slept. We all just sat in these comfy beds in the air conditioning unable to sleep all night. So you'd think we got a great night's sleep but we didn't. We actually stayed up.

Survivor, Zeke

CBS

Do you have anything you really want to say after people have seen you get voted off the show?

I do, and that's that Survivor has endured 17 years and 34 seasons because the people who make Survivor are really incredible to a person. They're really phenomenal individuals who work on that show. They're led by Jeff Probst, who I think if I say one more nice thing about him, his wife's gonna come after me. And all the way down to the assistant camera guy who carries 50 pounds of gear on his back while walking backwards in the sand under the blazing sun. They're a great group of people, and I'm really honored that they had me be a part of their lives for two seasons.

Survivor: Game Changers airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on CBS.

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