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Exclusive: Jeff Varner talks outing Zeke Smith as transgender on 'Survivor' -- "If he wants to take some swings at me, I will hand him the bat"


By Elizabeth Kwiatkowski, 04/13/2017 

Jeff Varner was eliminated from Survivor: Game Changers after he outed Zeke Smith as being transgender during Season 34's sixth episode Wednesday night on CBS.

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The Nuku tribe sent Varner packing -- without even taking it to a vote -- at Tribal Council on Night 18, just before the merge. The tribe was in agreeance Varner, a 50-year-old real estate broker and former news anchor from North Carolina, needed to go, not only because he was the outsider of his tribe's majority alliance but also because everyone was angry he publicly revealed Zeke's personal history.

"I offer my deepest, most heart-felt apologies to Zeke Smith, his friends and life allies, his family and to all those who my mistake hurt and offended," Varner wrote on social media Wednesday night as part of a larger statement.

"I recklessly revealed something I mistakenly believed everyone already knew. I was wrong and make no excuses for it. I own responsibility in what is the worst decision of my life."

In an exclusive interview with Reality TV World on Thursday, Varner talked about the Zeke incident that seemingly has the whole world talking. Below is what he had to say.

Reality TV World: Hi Jeff, thanks for taking the time for this today, I'm sure last night was tough.

Jeff Varner: Last night, and this morning and the last 10 months to be honest with you. But I appreciate you taking the time to let my voice be part of this today, because I think that's important.

Reality TV World: Something viewers didn't learn last night was how you personally found out Zeke is transgender. Did he share that with you? Because it seemed like only a few people in Zeke's close circle knew about it.

Jeff Varner: A lot of people knew about it. But no, Zeke did not tell me personally. I don't even know how to really answer that question, because I feel like answering it would just be disrespectful to Zeke and others.

So, let's just call it instinctual, and Zeke never told me. When I said that at Tribal, I was not 100 percent sure I was accurate. It just was an emotional moment that just happened, and it should not have happened. I regret it and will regret it for the rest of my life.

Reality TV World: You seemed very remorseful and distraught over the disclosure. Did you meet with Survivor's psychologist after everything happened? And did you talk about it with the other castaways once you got to Ponderosa? How did you handle the situation after Tribal Council?

Jeff Varner: That Tribal went on for two hours but you saw 20 minutes of it, an edited-down version. So, the remorse, the emotional breakdown, from me -- all of that did not get adequate justice from what was shown. I'm glad they showed what they did show, but they could've shown a lot more.

I had compassion from everybody there. When I got up, everybody hugged me. I hugged each one individually and they forgave me. I apologized for offending them. You saw the hug with Zeke, but I had hugs with everybody.

When I walked out of that game, I fell into the arms of Dr. Liza Siegel, the show's psychologist who has done so much for me. And the show has been wonderful for me. When I got to Ponderosa, it was very difficult for me to tell the other pre-jury members what happened. I had to. But I couldn't speak of it.

It took me weeks before I could talk about it to anyone, privately, without breaking down. It was an emotional situation and I'm so grateful for CBS, for Dr. Liza and for the people who were there to help me. (Begins crying). Sorry, I'm getting emotional. This is difficult. They were wonderful to me. They were wonderful.

Reality TV World: As you mentioned, Zeke gave you a hug at the end of Tribal Council, so from a viewer's standpoint, you guys were okay. But Zeke recently told People magazine he's still struggling to forgive you. What's your reaction to that, and what is the status of your relationship with Zeke now?

Jeff Varner: Zeke and I have spoken several times on the phone. We've exchanged emails. We've exchanged text messages. And in every interaction I have had with him, he has been forgiving. He told me his forgiveness was genuine. He promised he wouldn't come out in the media with any kind of vitriol or anger.

I'm sure seeing that episode stirred [him up]. I have been harassed all night long from his friends, saying some horrible stuff to me privately in emails and text messages, and I think Zeke is in a different place. I understand he's calling me a bigot and talking about the hate I have in my heart, and that is so wrong, and it is so unfortunate.

But I respect it, and I give him every bit of space to have that reaction because what I did to him was horrible. And nobody should ever have to deal with what I did, and I love Zeke. I am 100 percent focused on that.

I want to make sure he's safe and he's comfortable, and I can only imagine what he and his family and friends are dealing with today. They don't know me. They don't know that I'm not a hateful person. I'm not a bigot, there -- there's not an ounce of hate in my body. It's just so unfortunate that that's what happened.

And that's the way it is. I can talk much more about the future and where I'm headed and what I'm planning on doing. There's a lot I've been up to and there's a lot in the works, but today is not about me. Today is about Zeke. And if he wants to take some swings at me, I will hand him the bat, because I deserve it and he has every right.

Reality TV World: Andrea Boehlke and Tai Trang did sympathize with you a little bit at Tribal Council, saying they understood you were desperate to hang on in the game. Where was that desperation coming from? Was it about the money, your love of the game, or maybe something even deeper than that, like maybe you felt you had something to prove?

Jeff Varner: There's no -- I could give a sh-t about the money. I don't care about the money. I love that game; this is my third time playing. I've never made a jury. This was the night before making the jury. There was desperation there.

I had been on my own in that group for several days, so it had been a buildup of, you know, me being lied to and blindsided. And it's an awful place to be, when you're the only one out there on my own. (Begins crying). It just creates some awful stuff and awful feelings, and I just was not myself.

Survivor is a manufactured environment, and in order to just keep my head on, I was focused on making it through that night. Real life didn't exist. Nothing at home existed. I wasn't thinking about the repercussions of anything.

I was just thinking, "I have to stay here. I can't play this game for the third time and not at least make the jury." When I left [to play], that's the one thing everybody said to me: "Make the jury this time."

When I got back, that's all I heard: "I hope you made the jury. Please tell me that you made the jury." All of this just added such a pressure that played into it. It was just really a perfect storm of ugly that manifested into this ugly moment that I will regret forever.

Check back with Reality TV World soon for more from our exclusive Survivor: Game Changers interview with Jeff Varner, who previously finished 10th on Survivor: The Australian Outback and 17th on Survivor: Second Chance.


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