Zeke Smith changed more than just the game of Survivor. After he was outed as transgender on Survivor: Game Changers by fellow contestant Jeff Varner, Smith was stunned by the public’s reaction to the gut-wrenching episode.
“I spent nine months expecting my world to get upended,” Smith tells Us Weekly of waiting for the April 12 episode to air. “I prepared for vitriol and invasive questions and exploitative headlines. None of that happened.” Instead, the two-time player, 29, was met with an outpouring of love and support. “I sat in awe for a few days and tried to make sense of it all,” he says. “I’m really humbled. I hope this marks a sea change in the way transgender people are received by the media and in the public.”
Though he admits he “didn’t have the Survivor experience that I would have wanted,” there was something satisfying about the way he was voted off — with Andrea Boehlke leading the charge against him for fear Smith would turn on her — on the Wednesday, May 3, episode. “After what happened with Varner, I had this tremendously compelling story [to win the game]. But I didn’t want to be voted out just because I had a compelling story. I wanted to be voted out because I was playing too hard.”
Smith opens up to Us about everything that happened on the island — and afterwards.
Us: Did you have any inkling going into tribal that you were going to be voted off?
Zeke Smith: I had no idea. I was completely blindsided. But I had also accepted that I am not a person that you want to take very deep into this game. My game rested in the hands of Sarah Lacina. I knew I could either trust Sarah or I would get my torch snuffed. When I saw the first vote for me, I just thought, “all right, buddy, grab your stuff.”
Us: Did you know at the time who masterminded the vote?
ZS: I put the pieces together very quickly. And I have to say to Andrea: It was the right move to get me out because I was certainly coming for her that next vote. I applaud the gamesmanship there.
Us: What was your game-changing move?
ZS: I was able to repair things with Andrea [after flipping on her previously] to vote out Debbie [Wanner]. Andrea was angry with me after the tribal council [where Ozzy Lusth was voted out]. She yelled at me that night even though I was one of two people that flipped and I didn’t even vote correctly. She continued to yell at me the next morning and throughout the day. But I just sort of calmly and patiently took it and apologized profusely even though I didn’t feel like apologies were needed. I was able to create enough of a trust between Andrea and I that we did vote together at least one vote, and I think that’s probably the best thing I did.
Us: How has the game changed you?
ZS: I sort of approach the world with a lot of fear. I was really afraid to go after what I wanted in life because I thought it might be hard or I thought I might fail. I learned to take big swings, not just in the game of Survivor, but in my real life. I learned to not be afraid and to trust myself.
Us: In the tribal council where Varner outed you as transgender, were you surprised at how all your other tribemates immediately stopped “playing the game” and jumped to your defense?
ZS: I really was, and I think that speaks to the quality of the people that I was there with that night. I’m very humbled and very honored that people did come so quickly and resolutely to my defense, including [host] Jeff Probst. I’m touched by the way everyone responded.
Us: Walk Us through what happened immediately following that night. Did you have any say in the way the episode unfolded on air?
ZS: Probst and I started having conversations about it within a couple of days of me being voted off. I don’t think it crossed either of our minds that [the episode where I was outed] shouldn’t air. I certainly never asked for it not to air. I never even pondered the question. We felt like we had a moment that some could perceive as dark, but there was so much light in it. And Probst promised me that it was not going to be exploited. We were not going to promote it or tease it and I would have the chance to tell my story the way I wanted to tell it. Probst kept every single one of these promises. He never left me hanging.
Us: Who is the biggest threat left in the game?
ZS: Cirie [Fields]. You can never let a gangster in an Oprah suit get too far! She really has this finesse with her relationships. She’s tremendously smart and the way she can maneuver people is really impressive. She’s a legend.
Us: Would you ever play again?
ZS: I can’t say. Survivor has opened my world up quite a bit. I’m excited to embark on new adventures. I don’t know if Survivor will be one of those adventures. It could be. Who knows?
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