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For many people, Zeke Smith is a new quantity. The mustachioed Brooklyn-based comedian and writer found himself at the heart of a national conversation three weeks ago, when he was outed by a fellow competitor as transgender in the seventh episode of CBS’ Survivor: Game Changers.
But for dedicated Survivor fans, Zeke was already front-of-mind for the better part of a year. He burst onto the scene with last fall’s Survivor: Millennials vs Gen X, playing an instrumental role in some of the season’s most strategically riveting moments, including an incredibly rare tie-breaking rock draw that he helped engineer. He was voted out shortly thereafter, and within 48 hours of his elimination Zeke had already signed on to return to Fiji a mere two weeks later for a second shot at the million-dollar prize, putting him in the rare tier of Survivors who have competed on back-to-back seasons, sight unseen.
Looking out at the field of returning players on Game Changers, Zeke found himself in the company of some legitimate icons of Survivor lore — people he once loved from the other side of the screen, and people he would now have to befriend and betray in his quest for the Sole Survivor title. Of course, he fell short of that goal by more than a few placements, but he nonetheless walked away with a powerful and unique view of the show he loved for years as a fan before setting his feet on the beach as a competitor.
In a sprawling interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Zeke dives into his Game Changers experience in vivid detail, covering his earliest days on Nuku beach, the two subsequent tribe swaps, the real life and in-game fallout from being outed by Jeff Varner, his explanation for why he was voted out and what happened next, and much more.
How are you feeling, Zeke?
I’m feeling great. It’s a little insane that the ride is over. Well, it’s almost over. There’s still the finale. But I’ve been doing Survivor non-stop since Halloween of 2015. Every day, Survivor has presented me with a new challenge. It’s a little nutty that this ride has come to a close.
Let’s start there, with the ending. What’s your best explanation for how you were voted out of Survivor this time?
After what had happened with Varner, my life in the game was pretty short. It became abundantly clear on the first day of the merge. My name started getting tossed around, and the reason why is that nobody wanted to sit next to me in the end, because I had a very compelling story. The biggest sign was that I had a lot of great relationships with a lot of people, and all of the sudden, nobody was coming to me to talk to me about anything. The events of what transpired at that Tribal Council were really never spoken of again, after I had the fireside chat with everyone after the merge feast. I would chase people down and we would have conversations, but they were very surface level. Even with people I was tight with, like Andrea and Cirie. We went from a ride-or-die final three deal to saying, “Let’s lock in a really great final seven.” I knew it was over.
What happened at that Tribal is probably the meanest thing that’s ever happened to me, and there was no calling my best friend or hugging my dad or even having a night alone to process. I made the decision on the way back to camp that you’re either going to quit or you’re going to play, and if you play, there’s no crying, no woe is me, no sitting around moping. You suck it up and you play the bold and reckless way you play. When I saw that I didn’t have a shot to win, that my time would be so immediately cut short — I knew it could come any day — I just said, “You gotta go out swinging, man. You have to swing your sword while you have a shot.” Maybe if I wasn’t on the tail end of a second season, and really running out of mental gas, maybe I would have had more patience. But where I was emotionally … I had been in Fiji for a long time. I agreed to do a second season within 48 hours of being voted out the first time. My life back home was already a question mark, and when [the outing] happened, I knew it was going to turn my life completely upside down. And my game life was in total chaos. So, dear god! What do you do?
Well, I couldn’t stop playing. Trans people report violence and hate crimes on a daily basis. Ninety percent of trans people report being harassed or discriminated against in the workplace, and often the result is depression or self-harm or suicide. I felt I was in a position where it was very important to model resilience. No matter when I went, I needed to go out swinging. Sure, I did not play well in the merge. I did not make great decisions. I’ll give you that. My options were limited. I wouldn’t do anything differently. I was proud that when I was backed into the corner and the cause was lost, I never stopped swinging my sword.
Were you feeling burned out from playing two times back-to-back, even before the incident with Varner?
I think I was. There was a secret scene where I talked about losing a love for the blindside. I love Survivor. The first time you play, you don’t know what it’s like to get voted out or harbor regrets. I was having a pretty profound life experience in Fiji. I expected to get voted out third last season, and here I was now facing my second merge, finding new depths of myself. I was coming alive again out there. I saw that in my compatriots in 34. They weren’t just pawns to be shot down; they were people to whom Survivor meant as much as it did to me. I was losing a bit of that edge. I don’t think it negated that I wanted to win or play hard. I think I got a little less joy out of seeing people’s torches snuffed.
Let’s take it back to the start of the season. You’re a Survivor super-fan playing on an all-star season. You’re one of very few people to compete on back-to-back seasons, sight unseen. Coming into Game Changers, and seeing that you’re up against some titans of Survivor lore, how do you reconcile your place on the season?
I remember being in the airport and seeing [former winners] Tony Vlachos and Sandra Diaz-Twine. I’m getting goosebumps now remembering it. You have to believe you belong there. Whether or not you’re as good as they are, you have to believe you are, that you have a shot. For me, I knew I was going to enter this game with a hurdle. They were going to think I was [notorious Survivor villain] Russell Hantz, [the first player to compete on back-to-back seasons, sight unseen]. So what’s the thing I can best do to counter this, to explain why I’m here? There wasn’t really a superfan here. I could fill that archetype. I was going to go with being the gay guy, but there were two other gay guys, and I think that added some suspicion: “Hm, there’s a third gay guy …” So I thought the best thing I could do to neutralize whatever threat level existed was to be super friendly and super excited. To a person, I could cite something they did in their previous game or a reason they were a Game Changer. I was just excited to see everyone and act as non-threatening as possible. I could have been an early target, but I never really was past those initial hours. I neutralized that threat pretty quickly.
You were part of the original Nuku, a tribe so strong that they are only now starting to vote each other out. What were those early days like?
It was very much boys versus girls. The boys immediately bro’d down and started fishing and building shelter, while the women were waiting on the outskirts. Everything was friendly. The camp was amazing. We had so much food from the marooning. The beach was beautiful. We had so much firewood. There were all these cool goats running around. Those were some of the most miraculous days on Survivor. Cirie and Andrea were quickly on the outs, but they were the two I was tightest with. Sierra Dawn Thomas and I found each other in the middle and the question was, “Do we go with the boys or the girls?” I think we would have gone with the boys and voted out Cirie, and Andrea if we had to subsequently, but we never had to test those relationships. The most meaningful connection I formed was with Sarah Lacina at Nuku. We immediately connected. We both liked to roll our eyes at Brad Culpepper’s stories. I was glad I got to play the entire game with her.
You reach night six. The tribes are getting reshuffled the next day. Did you know a swap was on the horizon, and if so, what were the conversations at camp like?
Mana lost two challenges. We had 10 people. We knew we were swapping, and we felt good that we would have the majority in a couple of tribes. We were “Nuku Strong,” and we stayed that way through the entire pre-merge. The original Nuku never turned on each other, until Ozzy, who was the first to be done dirty by a fellow Nuku. I think that Brad, Sierra, JT and Debbie all felt solid together, but I felt that I knew where I stood with the Culpepper alliance. I knew they were wary of me. I had stronger relationships with Sarah, Andrea and Cirie, who were on the bottom of the tribe. I didn’t feel “Nuku Strong,” but the way the swap worked out, it made sense to stay that way.
The swap occurs, and Mana and Nuku are split into three new tribes. You wind up at Tavua with Cirie, Andrea, Sarah, Ozzy and Troyzan. Was this the best case scenario for you?
I was with everyone I wanted, plus Troyzan, which was fine. No particular thoughts about him at that time. But we had to rebuild our camp. We never actually built a new shelter. We were in Fiji in the winter and it was very cold, and you have to sleep by the fire. Ozzy was the one who had to control it. He was very dictatorial about how to control it. We had to have all these holes that were eighteen inches by nine inches, and we had to find just the right pole in just the right way. It took forever. You couldn’t build anything without him and he goes fishing for whole hours a day. One time, we had a mutiny. The best way to build the roof is to lay a bunch of palm fronds on top of each other. No one knows how to weave them. But that’s what he wanted us to do. We were sick of it, so one time when he walked off, we filled in the roof. The one time we did sit under the roof when it rained for thirty-minutes, it worked!
Just to explore Ozzy further for a moment, one of the catalysts of Varner’s explosion at Tribal Council was his belief that you and Ozzy were a tight pair. Was there truth to that?
Ozzy and I did have a strong relationship, and I did not want him to go home. I wanted him to stick around for a while. But it was hard for me to know exactly where my trust was with Ozzy. The quintessential Survivor skill is the ability to make others feel comfortable, and he doesn’t have that ability. I felt like Ozzy should trust me. I have an unknown strategic threat aura about me, and Ozzy is Ozzy, so we should stick together. But I still didn’t know if he trusted me. That’s why he was eventually voted out. No one knew where Ozzy stood. That’s important. It’s important to have options, but people need to have a sense of where you stand. I think Ozzy would play for a fifth time, and that would be the one piece of advice I would give to him. Let people know where you stand, bro.
Tavua never needed to attend Tribal Council, but what would have happened in that case?
Cirie would have gone home. She was the first person I bonded with in the game. We were cuddle buddies, every night we were on a tribe together — except when Ozzy went home, and Andrea and Cirie yelled at me, and I was a man without a country and I just slept alone on a sliver of a tarp. Oh, those eleven days. (Laughs.) Two or three days into Tavua, I hear from Sarah and Andrea that Cirie no longer trusts me. I don’t know what changed or why she no longer trusted me, still. Sarah never felt a strong connection with Cirie, and Sarah was my ride-or-die to the end. I was developing a good relationship with Troyzan, and so was Sarah…
Any suspicion that Troyzan and found an immunity idol?
No suspicion. He could have hidden a lot of things in that pouch of his, and no one would have any suspicion. It’s very impressive. Hard to look away from. (Laughs) But Ozzy, Cirie and Andrea were treating him like he was on the outs. I never let the low fish dangle. Sarah and I saw the game similarly in that way: you have to have relationships with everyone and make everyone feel comfortable. I don’t think there’s any question that Cirie would have gone home.
You swap yet again, and you return to Nuku beach, with four original Nuku and two original Mana. At that point, only one original Nuku member had been voted out of the game. What was your view of the pace of the season at this point?
It was hard to know because I hadn’t been to Tribal Council yet, so I felt the game was very slow and boring. Really, until you go to Tribal, you don’t know where the lines are. You’re not really playing. You’re making sure you’re good with everyone and that you know where the vote is in case you have to go to Tribal. The pace was super slow for me. I wanted to get it amped up, because I like to play. Survivor is very boring when you’re out there and not going to Tribal. But with the swap, we were in a position where we had four original Nuku and two original Mana. When you’re that close to the merge, that’s when people start reigning it in. There’s no reason to do something stupid and not make the merge. You can look at Survivor as a game played in quarters, even though this one doesn’t fit the model, because we had two swaps. But I see it as pre-swap, post-swap, post-merge, and post loved ones visit, which is something people leverage in the game: “No need for a Final 3 deal; I just want to make it to the loved ones visit.” That’s what marks the fourth quarter. Of course, I have never made it to the fourth quarter! But when those milestones start approaching, people pump the brakes a little bit.
How are we supposed to forgive you for voting out Sandra, the only two-time winner in Survivor history?
I paid for it, didn’t I? If anyone did penance, it was me! (Laughs) Here’s what I would say about Sandra. We met her, and she was the coolest. As a haughty fan, I was one of those people who felt Parvati should have won against Sandra in Heroes vs Villains. That changed immediately when I met Sandra. She knows exactly what she’s doing. She’s pretty incredible. We saw that, and that just underscored why she needed to go. If you release Sandra into the merge, I think there’s a 75% chance she becomes a three-time winner. Even if she doesn’t win, but she makes it to six or four or five? If you let her get past you, you’re going to kick yourself that you didn’t take the shot when you had the chance. You did feel like you were part of Survivor history, but it was out of respect.
You wrote extensively for THR about what happened next: Varner outing you at Tribal Council. What has life been like for you in the three weeks since “The Episode” aired?
I’m still making sense of everything that happened. The way I approached it was, I have nine months to prepare for this thing, to bolt the furniture to the ceiling, because my life is going to be turned upside down, and I didn’t know what was going to happen past April 12 at 8:48 PM on the east coast. I just knew I would control everything I could control. I wanted my version of events out there in a couple of different forms, and we’ll just see. There was no way to plan for what happened next.
I was surprised at how overwhelmingly positive the reaction was. How well reported it was by the media. Everything reported it well. I was prepared for salacious headlines and dredged up photos from my past. I was prepared to be re-victimized. That the outrage was all toward the wrongdoer and the sympathy was towards me, and that people went out of their way to not even call me the trans Survivor player, but Zeke the Survivor player who is transgender — using the long way of writing about it — I was really overwhelmed. It was a unique moment in the way trans people are handled in the public eye. I’m very humbled and still awestruck at what happened.
I also can’t believe how wide it went! I was in a gas station in Los Angeles, and TMZ came on, and I heard the words “Tribal Council,” and somehow, it was great. Holy smokes, there’s even a Breitbart article that was well-reported and quoted GLAAD in a non-ironic way. I didn’t anticipate how much love I received. I would say there was maybe a slim one percent of negativity that was almost not even noteworthy, because there was this outpouring of love, and people wanted to share their stories and tell me about conversations they were having with their kids or their parents or LGBT people who reached out. I don’t know. I’m a goofy guy who wears dumb shirts and has a ridiculous mustache and doesn’t get haircuts often enough, you know? I went to go run around in my underwear on a reality show. That all of this happened? I still don’t know [how to process it].
Some people openly wondered whether CBS should have aired this moment. What are your thoughts on this, as the person at the heart of the matter?
I spoke about this on The Talk the day after the episode aired. I very much wanted it to air. First, I didn’t go on national television unprepared for the world to know that I’m trans. I was ready, should that part of my life become part of my Survivor story. But I wasn’t crazy about the way it happened. It never crossed my mind that it shouldn’t air. Ever since it happened, I felt it was important for the world to see. The way my tribe mates reacted, and the way Jeff Probst reacted, is a case study in how you should respond to injustice. It also marks a moment in the way trans people are accepted in this country, that everyone knew what he did was wrong, immediately. Even people who aren’t well-versed in trans issues, like Sarah Lacina, knew what he did was wrong. They overwhelmingly rebuffed his actions. That was important for the world to see.
You’re being a negative nancy if you think it’s a dark moment or a mar on Survivor history. It certainly started in a dark place, but the conduct of my tribe mates and the masterful conducting of Jeff Probst definitely made it into something great. We have to tie this conversation with how trans people are represented in media. There’s no greater example than how I was treated by Survivor and CBS. From the minute I approached them [to play], they told me that they wouldn’t sensationalize or exploit anything. When it did happen, they always said that I was going to lead them. I had no say in the editing or how the episode went down, but they told me I was going to lead them in how I wanted to handle the reaction. All the way back in Fiji, Jeff Probst and I had conversations about how those nine months were going to go down…
And when did these conversations start? After you were out of the game?
Yeah, about two days after I was voted out. One of the things he made clear is they were not going to tease it or promote it. They weren’t going to treat me with kid gloves. They weren’t going to lionize me. He said, “There are people who are going to want to exploit you, and I am going to fight them. That’s what I promise you. And I also promise that if you want to hide in a hole, or if you want to lean into it and use this to help others, then I will be with you every step of the way fighting with you.” Jeff Probst has kept every single one of his promises. I have usually found it true that you should not meet your heroes. Jeff Probst is a bright, shining exception to that. He promised me: “I am never going to leave you hanging.” And he has never let me hanging. The commitment he has led with was modeled by CBS and the Survivor crew. Joe Lia, a fantastic filmmaker and storyteller who was the supervising producer of the episode, has been a friend. He’s always been a phone call away. I’ve called him in moments of crisis. He has always wanted to listen, to understand the significance of what went down, the history of words like deception. He wanted to do this right. Everyone did. That’s something trans people have long desired: to be listened to and to have their stories told. This is how you do it.
After this incident, you reach the merge. The first vote is fairly straightforward, and then the next vote is where you part ways with Andrea and Cirie, two of your closest allies from the start of the game. Why was this the right time to make that move?
Aside from Sarah and Debbie, no one really wanted to be seen with me [following the Varner Tribal Council]. I had a tight relationship with Andrea, and I kept seeing Andrea and Cirie walk off and have conversations, and I was not included. Eventually, I would see Aubry involved in those conversations. She was supposed to be part of the Mana tribe not being spoken to at the time. I saw that threesome connecting, and nobody was coming to me with information. With the Ozzy vote, even without me, even without Debbie’s extra vote advantage, they still had the numbers to get out Ozzy. What I was doing was going to Sarah and Debbie and saying I want to vote with the Brad and Sierras of the world, because Andrea and Cirie are infinitely more dangerous strategically. What I was pitching was Andrea should go, as she’s the most dominant challenge threat for individual immunity. And they didn’t know this, but I had been blindsided by Andrea before, and you never forget the people who blindside you.
Can you elaborate?
Andrea and I knew each other before we played Survivor together. Well, I guess we met playing Survivor together — Survivor: Brooklyn, a daylong game of Survivor that’s played in a park. It’s where I met Andrea, about three years before we would show up on an island together. I became friends with her and a handful of other people. There were two guys, Mikey and Alex, who were huge Survivor fans and friends of mine, that Andrea and I shared as friends. We ran in similar circles. I hosted a game of Big Brother: Brooklyn in my apartment, which Andrea played. She did pretty well! We were at a Big Brother viewing party in the summer of 2015 when Andrea said, “You know, if you applied for Survivor, you would probably get on.” I never really considered it, but that was the impetus.
A couple months later, I made a video, and the rest is history. I met with Andrea before casting to talk about casting strategies. We talked right before I went out to Season 33. We worked out together a handful of times. I knew that she was in casting for Season 34 before I went out for Season 33. During 33, I would joke with the producers that they were going to ask me back for 34. So when they did, and when I got home from Fiji for the first time, the third person I texted when I had my phone back was Andrea. I said, “What’s your pre-game situation look like?” She said, “Not good.” I said, “It’s about to look a little bit better.” But I don’t think Andrea and I had long term plans for each other in this game. I think we both knew it would go until the final six or seven. I don’t think we intended to enter this game playing together; we were hoping to find each other at a swap or the merge. But when we both ended up on Nuku and felt we were in bad positions, that bond mattered.
The complicated thing with Andrea, the reason she’s so upset at me, is because we were friends. In my defense, I went through something pretty traumatic, and Andrea is someone who I had known for three years, who had been to my apartment, who I had shared friends with … and that she didn’t pull me aside and say, “F–k the game. How are you doing? Are you okay?” That that wasn’t something that was happening made me feel particularly anxious about Andrea, that she must really have written me off. Maybe I read that right, and maybe I didn’t. But like I said before, a quintessential Survivor skill is the ability to make people comfortable. No one was willing to make me comfortable, except Sarah and Debbie.
Andrea didn’t even get votes that night. I got votes that night. And I was completely left out of that vote. I was trying to put on the best brave face that I could, but you know, maybe I wasn’t the happiest camper at that time. I was struggling. That Andrea tore into me, when I was left out of the vote and she voted for me… doesn’t that even the score? She and Cirie really tore into me. Cirie is the only person who has ever wagged a finger in my face! (Laughs) It was really hard. But we’re fine now. She came to my Christmas party. We’re buds. After the game was over, we kissed and we made up. But America got to see a little bit of a personal feud playing out on national television!
One of the main critiques of your move here is the optics — that since you were with Andrea and Cirie for so long, why would you think Sierra is going to trust you to turn against them? What’s your response to that?
I didn’t go to Sierra Dawn Thomas out of the blue. I was tight with Sarah and Debbie. They both had tight connections with Sierra and Brad. Andrea was selected democratically; it wasn’t just that I was going to go after her. I had a long talk with Debbie and asked if she had laid the groundwork for me to go and talk to Sierra and Brad, and she said that she had. Debbie certainly has her outbursts and kooky moments, but there are also moments where she has a super strong social game. Like I said, only two people made me feel comfortable [in the merge], and Debbie was one of them. I went to Sierra expecting that someone laid the groundwork for our conversation.
Turns out, not so much.
Which was immediately clear during the conversation. And I was just like, “Well, f–k.” I had a perception problem. There was a perception that I was going to beat everybody, because I had this compelling story. I felt if I had any chance in going anywhere, maybe it would be by squandering all this good will by pissing everybody off. If everyone was mad at me — if it’s “eff you, Zeke Smith” instead of “eff you, Brad Culpepper” — then it could help. I was just throwing stuff at the wall to see what would stick at this point. I think it was a bright move from Debbie to let me hang myself there. I wasn’t making great decisions. For me, personally, it felt better to go out and play, than sit around camp and do nothing.
You, Andrea and the others came back together the very next round to vote out Debbie. How were you able to put your differences aside for this vote?
Because Debbie pooped on the bamboo in the middle of camp.
There was a pile of bamboo in the middle of camp, and one night, Debbie woke up and pooped on it. She blamed a cameraman, but we all knew Debbie pooped on the bamboo.
How are you so certain?
You can’t wake up in the night without waking people up. We all knew Debbie pooped on the bamboo. It’s not why Debbie was voted out, but it’s a fun Debbie story. (Laughs) But I epically apologized to Andrea a few times. It’s Survivor, so the gloves are off, and you make the moves you think are in your best interest. I was also right, that we were not in the numbers. I wanted to go with Sarah, and she wanted to go with the numbers. So Andrea and I healed, we were able to vote together, and the truce was to the loved ones visit. We were going to stay six strong until then.
So much for that.
The votes were there to get me out. It was clear I had loyalties to nobody. I was going to keep playing. I started palling around with Brad, Troyzan and Michaela. I think it was very clear that I wasn’t just going to sit around and be cool. I knew I was on the rocks and in a tenuous alliance. So, sure. Makes sense to vote me out.
Did you feel it coming? Was it a true blindside?
Here’s the thing: Sierra Dawn Thomas threw in the towel. She wanted to go. She was done, after the Debbie vote. She was tired, she was hungry, and ready to go. That six, led by Debbie, that voted out Ozzy, was so snooty and huffy and walking around like they had it all locked down. Sierra was someone who had wielded power earlier in the game, and I think it made sense that we would want to come for her. I thought that was the plan for that vote. We were going to vote for Sierra, and we told Brad, Tai, Troyzan and Sierra to vote for whoever they want. It’s what I told Brad and Troy: “Vote for whoever you want. I would recommend Sierra or Tai. And then it’s the three of us, the three amigos, until the end.” I remember thinking Brad and Troy weren’t lying to me, so they’re not involved in any alternate plan. Sarah has always been my ride-or-die and has always told me the truth, and she’s my lynchpin, so either I’m voting with her, or she’s voting me out. And that’s it. I got to a point where managing my emotions was the most important thing I could do. You just have to let go at some point. At a certain point, you go, “It’s either Sierra Dawn Thomas tonight, or it’s me. And if it’s me, I’m going to get my torch, I’m going to tell them to keep fighting, and I’m going to go get drunk.” I was really running on fumes. I made it to Day 29. I don’t know if I had ten more days in me. I don’t know if I had three more days in me. I was running pretty low.
In its own way, then, was it a relief to get voted out?
It was a bit of a bummer, because I felt I was so good with Troy and Brad, and it was the first time in the merge where I saw a glimpse of light. Enough people are mad at me. I think I made a good case to Brad and Troy. I think they’ll trust me over the girls. It was the first time I thought maybe, just maybe, there was a way to get to the end. That was a little disappointing. But in many ways, it was good that I wasn’t out there anymore.
At what point did you realize who had voted you out?
At Tribal, Brad and Troy looked very shocked, so I believed they weren’t part of it. What confused me was that Michaela was crying. We were never particularly close; I always tried to be as nice to her as possible in both seasons we played, but I never thought Michaela really liked me. But when Probst started reading the votes, I saw my name and knew it was me, and Michaela was crying. I didn’t know it was because she was sad that she voted me out. It confused me.
Did you feel personally betrayed by Sarah, your closest ally, since she helped to vote you out?
I didn’t. We were very close out there. You see it in the Varner Tribal, when she says what she had to say. Sometimes, you meet people out on Survivor and they have an impact on your soul. I remember after the Ozzy vote, when Sarah left me out of the vote, that I pulled her aside. I had told her earlier we would be in the final two no matter what, and at this point, I told her, “Sarah, do not lose a million dollars because you’re trying to protect me. You are released from whatever deal we have. Don’t think I’m going to hold it against you.”
You pulled a Rafe!
I did, but look. I love Sarah as a person, and she’s smart enough to not feel beholden to me by any means. But I wanted her to know. “Let me go. It’s fine.”
After you’re voted out, you’re sent to Ponderosa as the fourth member of the jury. What were those final days of the season like for you?
It started pretty wildly, because I was voted out the day before the loved ones visit, and my father was in Fiji. Ozzy told me that night that I was going to see my father the next day. The next morning, I woke up and was taken to a different resort in Fiji and my father and I were given a bungalow and an open bar tab and a day to spend with each other. It was an infinitely better loved one visit than you normally get on the show!
And for those who don’t remember, you and your father connected very powerfully during the loved ones visit on your first season.
Yes. My dad called me his hero. He never said anything like that to me, ever before. My dad did not know what had happened, and so I told him. He was really upset at Varner, and was very glad that I was okay. It was great to spend the day together in Fiji. We ran up that bar tab. And then I went back to Ponderosa. I think I had two very unique Ponderosa experiences, because the first time, I had to make an immediate decision on whether or not to return [for Game Changers] and I stayed in game mode and started working out and figuring out what to do next. And this time? You know.
And I have to say, I don’t know what I would have done without Ozzy. He was such a great dude at Ponderosa. We were roommates. He didn’t ask a lot of questions. He didn’t want to talk a lot. He was just there. We watched Game of Thrones together. It was great. There’s something I can’t talk about on record, but it really made Ozzy shine in my eyes. He was my quiet buddy who was there and made sure I wasn’t alone and made sure I felt like I had a friend. It’s so insane. Cook Islands was the very first season of Survivor that I watched. [It was also Ozzy’s first season as a competitor.] I was gaga over him. The fact that I not only got to play with him, but that he became a friend and became instrumental in my Survivor time… it feels pretty special.
You applied for Survivor because you loved the show. As you mentioned, you competed in Survivor simulations in Brooklyn. You went out for your first season, and did well enough to get the call back for the very next season, in which this life-changing incident occurs. Where are you with Survivor now, as a fan?
I would never have chosen this to be my Survivor experience. In fact, if you would have told me that this is the Survivor experience I would have had — if I could peek into the future — I wouldn’t have done it. I wouldn’t think I was capable of doing it. But what Survivor strengthened in me was resiliency and adaptability. Those muscles grew quite strong, so that when I did encounter something that I did not want to encounter, I knew I had it within me to turn something dark into something very positive. Although I wouldn’t wish what happened on anyone, I am very proud of the man that Survivor forged. Without Survivor, none of this happens. I’m not the guy who responds the way I did at that Tribal. I’m certainly not the guy who can stand pretty tall today. As complicated as it is, I will forever be grateful to Survivor for turning me into the person that I am today.
Your story transcended Survivor. It became international news. There are very likely eyes on this interview from people who have never watched an episode, or have no idea that this show is even still on. With an opportunity to address those people, why is Survivor still relevant and resilient, 34 seasons into its run?
It begins and ends with the storytelling. There’s a great integrity to the storytelling. The people who create this show are truly incredible, to a person. There are maybe one or two people who are not spectacular and are part of the Survivor team, and I could tell you who those one or two people are because they stand out so sorely — not on the record. (Laughs) The cameramen, the sound guys, everyone, and led by one of the greatest leaders I have ever witnessed in Jeff Probst. I did not think that highly of him before I met him, and now, I’m in awe of that dude. Survivor is a reality show and goofy stuff does happen, but it’s an experience that calls out to people. The idea that you go out there and test yourself and do the hardest thing you can do aside from going to war or weathering a terminal illness or something along those lines, it speaks to the best part of you. It can speak to the worst part of you as well, but for the most part, Survivor brings out the best in people, and that’s what you get to see. You see people finding their best selves, and you see that experience being put in the hands of amazing storytellers who get to bring that experience to the world.
So, when are you going back out there for round three? Season thirty-seven? Season thirty-eight? Season thirty-never?
Who can say! I’m excited to embark on new adventures because of the worlds Survivor has opened up for me. Who knows if another romp in the sand is in the cards.
You’re not closed off to it?
Not anytime soon. But who knows.
What’s next for you?
I have a few irons in the fire, and a few passions. I have always been a queer history nerd. The people I have met over the past few months, and the worlds I have been introduced to, remind me how excited I am by figures in the LGBT world that are badasses and you would not think they’re badasses. There are so many great figures in LGBT history who were not recognized in their time, because this movement has happened so fast and so quickly. I think a lot of young LGBT people are not as connected to our history, and I think it’s really cool. If I can help connect them to that history, and give people who are so instrumental in making it a chance to speak before it’s too late? That’s what I would really like to do next.
Sound off with your take on Zeke’s Survivor experience in the comments section below, and keep following along at THR.com/Survivor for weekly interviews with host Jeff Probst, recaps from Dan Feinberg, and more.
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