Happiness is a Warm TV

A week later, Jeff Varner’s ‘Survivor’ actions remain a heated topic

Jeff Varner plots strategy with fellow ‘Survivor’ contestant Sarah Lacina in the episode that aired last week.
Jeff Varner plots strategy with fellow ‘Survivor’ contestant Sarah Lacina in the episode that aired last week. CBS

A week after he was shown on national TV outing a fellow “Survivor” contestant as transgender, Greensboro’s Jeff Varner is still the subject of much social media conversation.

Varner, 50, who had played on the CBS reality show twice before this season, turned to castmate Zeke Smith on the episode that aired last Wednesday night and asked, “Why haven’t you told anyone here you’re transgender?” The other contestants did not seem to know, though Varner said he had picked up on the fact because he has friends who are transgender.

Varner, a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate and former TV journalist, has been apologetic in numerous interviews since last week. “It was a horrible, horrible decision, and I make no excuses for it,” he told The News & Observer.

Jeff Probst, the longtime host of “Survivor” and a producer of the show, told Katie Couric in an interview for Yahoo News that he has known Varner for 17 years, since his first appearance on the show in Season 2. “I would never have predicted Jeff would do or say something like this.”

Probst said Varner’s response and reaction has been to “own” his mistake and try to make something good from it.

“He can do his part to say this is what can happen when you make a careless remark that you didn’t think much about ... the damage it can do,” Probst said.

Varner, now a real-estate agent, was fired by Allen Tate Companies after the episode aired last week.

In a statement this week, Pat Riley, president and CEO of Allen Tate Companies, said, “The Allen Tate Companies were built on core values of honesty, integrity and respect. Those fundamental beliefs led us to end our relationship with Mr. Varner, a real estate agent who had become affiliated with our firm just 17 days earlier.

“To be clear, at no time before the airing of the Survivor episode on Wednesday evening was our management aware of his actions on that episode,” the statement continued. “We make all decisions such as this one with careful consideration of our clients, employees and our agents.”

Varner had previously worked for the Tyler Redhead & McAlister real-estate firm, which touted his reality TV celebrity. But he had left that firm for the job with Allen Tate about three weeks ago.

Smith, a 29-year-old asset manager from New York, has received near unanimous praise for how he handled Varner’s bombshell, both on the episode and in interviews last week. He has received support from Caitlyn Jenner and many others.

This season of “Survivor” was filmed in Fiji about 10 months ago but is just airing now. It comes on at 8 p.m. Wednesdays on CBS.

Asked last week whether he would ever consider appearing on a future “Survivor” season if asked, Varner said the answer for now is a definitive no. But he acknowledged that this could change in a year or two.

“I could never be done with ‘Survivor,’” he said.

Thad Ogburn: 919-829-8987, @thadogburn