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‘Survivor’ Jeff Varner talks about his road to redemption after ‘horrible’ decision

Jeff Varner, back row at right, explains how he regrets outing Zeke Smith, middle row on left, as transgender. The two, along with other ‘Survivor: Game Changers’ contestants, appeared in a live finale from Los Angeles on Wednesday night.
Jeff Varner, back row at right, explains how he regrets outing Zeke Smith, middle row on left, as transgender. The two, along with other ‘Survivor: Game Changers’ contestants, appeared in a live finale from Los Angeles on Wednesday night. CBS

The “horrible, horrible” decision that Jeff Varner made on an island in Fiji – outing a fellow “Survivor” contestant as transgender – left him “living in shame for a year,” he says.

But now, the Greensboro man says, he’s ready to overcome the mistake. And he hopes to help others who’ve made a similar very big, very public error in judgment.

“I’ve always been taught to stand up and admit your mistakes and own them and turn them into something positive,” Varner said Wednesday night in the finale of “Survivor,” which aired live on CBS from Los Angeles. “And I did that every minute of every day.”

The recent season of “Survivor” – known as “Survivor: Game Changers” – brought back players from former seasons of the reality competition who were known for making big, game-changing moves. Varner, 50, had played twice before but never been a finalist.

This season’s episodes were filmed in Fiji last summer. That’s when Varner, in danger of being voted off the show, turned to fellow contestant Zeke Smith and asked, “Why haven’t you told anyone here you’re transgender?”

Smith, a 29-year-old asset manager from New York, had not mentioned that he was transgender to anyone else, though producers knew. Varner’s announcement brought immediate condemnation of him from the other contestants – and later from viewers and social media once the episode aired in April.

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Zeke Smith, middle row at left, talks of the overwhelming support he has received during the ‘Survivor: Game Changers’ live finale on Wednesday night in Los Angeles. In the back row, at center and right, are North Carolina contestants Sandra Diaz-Twine and Jeff Varner. Sarah Lacina, front row at right, won the competition. Monty Brinton CBS

“Survivor” host Jeff Probst, on Wednesday’s finale, called the outing “a worldwide cultural moment.” Smith received an outpouring of support, while Varner was labeled a villain.

Smith, on the live show, talked about the overwhelming positive response. “There’s so much love in my life,” he said.

For Varner, though, things were “ugly for a while.” He got off social media for several weeks and had some of his friends go onto his accounts to remove negative posts and block those who made them. “I set the gladiators loose,” Varner said Thursday in an interview with The News & Observer. “When I went back to social media, it was a lot more sanitized than it had been.”

The former TV journalist turned real-estate agent was fired from his job with the Allen Tate Companies. (He called that decision “cowardly” on Wednesday night.)

Varner, who is gay, also had to discuss what he had done with family and with his own transgender friends, which “did not go well,” he wrote in a column for ET online.

But the ugliness changed in recent weeks, Varner said. Probst, producers and viewers have lauded the way he owned up to the mistake.

He was hired by a new company, Keller Williams Realty.

Varner, a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, said he even is working on a book about the experience, “Surviving Shame,” to aid others who may be trying to get past a bad decision.

“The book grew out of reach I’ve done and people I’ve talked to about shame,” he said. “Part of my therapy has been writing.”

Neither Varner nor Smith ended up as a finalist for “Survivor’s” $1 million prize. Varner was ousted the very night he outed Smith. Smith was voted out a few days later.

The season was won by Sarah Lacina, a police officer from Iowa, who edged out former NFL player Brad Culpepper in the final vote. In the finale, she talked about how Smith’s outing was ultimately positive in helping people such as her and her family learn about and discuss transgender issues.

North Carolina’s other contestant this season, Sandra Diaz-Twine, also was voted out early. But don’t feel too bad for her. She’s won before – twice – the only “Survivor” player ever to do so.

After Wednesday night’s show, Varner was staying on the West Coast for a vacation. “Today begins a new chapter,” he said Thursday.

Thad Ogburn: 919-829-8987, @thadogburn

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