CBS Local – CBS aired Season 34, Episodes 11 of Survivor: Game Changers, and we had the chance to interview the most recent castoff, Zeke Smith. Zeke turned into this season’s breakout star after he was outed as transgender during a previous episode. Here’s his unique perspectives (as told to CBS Local’s Adam Bloom) on being voted off and the aftermath of being outed during the game.
Castoff: Zeke Smith
AB: Let’s jump right in. When Andrea won that challenge, did you immediately think you were in trouble?
Z: No, I didn’t. I like to think of Survivor as a game that’s played in four quarters. The first quarter is the beginning to the swap, then the swap to the merge, then the merge to the loved ones visit, and then the loved ones visit to the end. Players usually use these quarter breaks to stay together, and that six, I thought I was voting with, had agreed to stick together until the loved ones visit. I just thought that that made sense. I was blindsided. I truly did not know that I was going home. Part of that also has to do with, there was one person I could trust during the game and that was Sarah, and I knew that, either she was telling me the truth or I was going home. There were no two other ways about it. My game rode on her coat tails. That’s all I could do-trust Sarah. I was going home or I wasn’t.
AB: Did you recognize that when you were bonding with Brad at the reward, did you think that that would get you any trouble at the time?
Z: Well, I would be nice to people when I was on Survivor generally. So, I didn’t. I mean, I was trying to bond with him over football and whatnot but I also saw, what we also saw, was Aubrey and Andrea bonding at the reward. We knew we weren’t’ going to stick together, and were making our separate plans. No, I wasn’t imminently aware that talking football with Brad was going to get me in such trouble.
AB: If you could go back would you still want to gun for Andrea in the game?
Z: Yeah, I still think I made the right decision by coming after Andrea when I did in the second merge votes. It wasn’t something I randomly decided to do, it was a decision I made with Sarah, who was my closest ally. We had decided that we no longer trusted Sierra and Andrea because they were, sort of, running off into the woods and having conversations and coming and reporting back. So, the decision on flipping on Sierra and Andrea was made collectively. Andrea wasn’t a name I picked, it was a decision that we came to, Debbie, Sarah and I. What I think I didn’t anticipate was that Debbie had no interest in playing with me. But I didn’t flip alone, I flipped with Sarah. And Sarah does become part of that six that votes out Ozzy, I was just not included in that vote because Brad and Sierra didn’t trust me, even though I was on the up with them.
AB: The way people play Survivor seems to change ever season. Do you prefer the old way, where people stick to alliances until the end, or the new way, where the block voting kind of changes every week?
Z: I think there is no bigger proponent to the new school way of playing Survivor than me. I love it when the deck gets reshuffled. I love voting with new people every single time. You know, Survivor has so much down time, it’s pretty boring, and I’m a frenetic individual, so I like it when it all gets mixed up. I think, in fact, when I’m just trying to be a part of an alliance and stick with everyone else, I would end up getting in trouble. I do my best when things are in chaos.
AB: Going back to tribal council a few weeks ago – I can’t imagine being in a situation in which you knew your story would make national headlines, but you couldn’t share that with anyone.
Z: Yes, I had a date and time as to when my life was going to be flipped upside down. It was a pretty surreal experience.
AB: Looking back, what was that time like and the emotions that you went through as you knew that this would be a national story.
Z: A lot of elements of my Survivor experience are very unique and I think that chief among them is that Survivor continued to present me challenges, even when I was long gone from the island. I approached the last nine months very systematically. The first thing I did was really gathered around me those people I loved and trusted. And I had to learn to be vulnerable with them and to be open with my feelings with them in a way that I had never really done with anyone before. This was really scary, trying to trust people after playing two seasons of Survivor. It brought me so much closer to my friends and I really feel tremendously loved in a way that I don’t know that I’ve ever felt before. There was that personal component. Then, I’m very fortunate to have worked with GLAAD, in particular, Nick Adams, the director of GLAAD Transgender Media Program. He’s really a rock star. He’s the guy who, not only trains media outlets and works with networks and studios on how to best represent transgender people in the media, he also holds the hand of trans people entering the public spotlight. He worked with the Wachowski siblings, Chaz [Bono], Caitlyn [Jenner], and Laverne [Cox]. I was totally thrown, like how do I do this? Now I’m gonna be on television for a year. And Nick had been there, he taught me how to begin to speak about this part of my life. The third part, the part I’m most thankful for, how closely Survivor and CBS have held me in their hearts over the past nine months. We worked, in concert, to come up with a plan to tell my story and they have given me tremendous latitude. Jeff Probst promised me, nine months ago back In Fiji, that this would be handled well and that he would never leave me hanging and he never has. I feel really honored to have gotten the chance to meet Jeff Probst.
AB: We’ve asked this question to a number of other players, it is a little bit random. But – dreaming at night, a lot of players have had very vivid dreams. Do you recall any of these? Do you dream of being on the island or at home?
Z: The thing I always remember is, every day I was on the island I woke up expecting to be in my apartment in Brooklyn. It was almost like I was in half consciousness and I could feel the sun coming in from my window and feel my pillow and my comforter, and then I would wake up and it would take me a second and I’d be like – nope, nope, you’re still on Survivor. Then, when I got home, I would wake up thinking I was on Survivor and I was home in Brooklyn. It was crazy.
AB: When you came to that realization when you were on the island, that you weren’t at home, did this huge grin come upon you when you realized you were actually there? Or did it feel like – ah, I’m still here.
Z: Oh no, I loved it, every time. I remember in Millennials/Gen X, Michaela in particular was always laughing at me. She was always like, “We’re dying in cyclones and the mud, we haven’t eaten in a week, and you have this dumb grin on your face, like what’s your deal,” and I just loved Survivor and I loved every minute that I was out there. It didn’t matter if I was hungry and tired and that people were coming after me. I just loved it.