Happiness is a Warm TV

‘Survivor’ contestant Jeff Varner, marked as villain, says he’s lost his job

From left, Jeff Varner, Sarah Lacina, Zeke Smith and Debbie Wanner during the episode of ‘Survivor’ that aired Wednesday night. Varner has faced a large social media backlash after disclosing that Smith is transgender.
From left, Jeff Varner, Sarah Lacina, Zeke Smith and Debbie Wanner during the episode of ‘Survivor’ that aired Wednesday night. Varner has faced a large social media backlash after disclosing that Smith is transgender. CBS

Ousted “Survivor” contestant Jeff Varner continues to face the wrath of social media after he disclosed on the CBS reality show that a fellow castmate is transgender. He says the national furor and backlash even has cost him his job.

Varner, a Greensboro resident and UNC-Chapel Hill graduate, spent much of Thursday doing interviews, many tearful, in which he talked about how much he regretted his decision to tell other players – and the television audience – that contestant Zeke Smith is transgender. The move, filmed last summer in Fiji but broadcast Wednesday night, brought nearly unanimous criticism of Varner. National media, from The New York Times to NBC News, reported on it Thursday.

“It was a horrible, horrible decision, and I make no excuses for it,” Varner said in an interview Thursday with The News & Observer. “Those people who know me and know my heart know that’s not me.”

Later Thursday, the News & Record in Greensboro reported that Varner said he had been fired from his real-estate agent job. He said he was told that he was “in the middle of a news story that we don’t want anything to do with.”

In February, Greensboro’s Tyler Redhead & McAlister real-estate firm announced with much fanfare that Varner, a reality TV veteran, was coming to work there. But he left that job about three weeks ago to join Allen Tate as an agent in Greensboro. No one from Allen Tate could be reached Friday, but Varner’s name and contact information no longer are listed on company websites.

Varner, 50, had appeared on “Survivor” twice before this season, but he had not made it anywhere close to the end of the game and its $1 million grand prize. His chances this season looked similarly bleak in the episode that aired Wednesday, leading Varner to try to cast suspicion on other players. That’s when he asked Smith, a 29-year-old asset manager from New York, “Why haven’t you told anyone here you’re transgender?” Varner was voted out of the game soon after.

Varner said waiting the nearly 10 months for the episode to air, after knowing the damage of what he had done, was tough. He said “Survivor” producers had been supportive and had provided continued psychological counseling for Smith and himself since the filming.

I have hope for Jeff Varner. I just choose to hope from afar, thank you very much.

Zeke Smith, ‘Survivor’ player, in a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter

Smith, who remains in the game in episodes still to come this season, was critical of Varner in interviews Thursday and in a guest column he wrote for The Hollywood Reporter. He said he’s struggled to forgive Varner.

“Forgiveness does not require friendship. Forgiveness does not require forgetting or excusing his actions,” Smith wrote. “Forgiveness requires hope. Hope that he understands the injury he caused and does not inflict it upon others. Hope that whatever torments his soul will plague him no more. I have hope for Jeff Varner. I just choose to hope from afar, thank you very much.”

Jeff Probst, “Survivor” host and an executive producer, told The New York Times that there was never any talk of not airing Varner’s bombshell disclosure on the show.

“Zeke never asked for that,” Probst told the Times. “Zeke’s approach has been: ‘I’m going to use this and make something great come from it.’”

Varner, who is gay, also has vowed to do that, saying he particularly wants to work in his native North Carolina on LGBTQ and transgender issues. Even though the state’s House Bill 2 was replaced and repealed last month, Varner said there’s much more work to be done.

“North Carolina has a long way to go,” he said.

Thad Ogburn: 919-829-8987, @thadogburn

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