Jeff Probst is opening up about his reaction to Survivor castaway Jeff Varner outting fellow tribe member Zeke Smith as transgender during the tribal council on Wednesday’s episode of Game Changers.
“In 34 seasons of Survivor, I have rarely, if ever, personally commented on what is said or done in the game. But this is a unique situation that falls outside the normal boundaries,” Probst told Entertainment Weekly on Wednesday. “I cannot imagine anyone thinking what was done to Zeke was okay on any level, under any circumstances, and certainly not simply because there was a million dollars on the line.”
During the controversial tribal council, Varner — who had previously admitted that he had a feeling he was going to be sent home — made a last-ditch effort to save himself by revealing Smith was transgender.
The attempt backfired almost immediately, with most of the tribal council reacting in outrage and disgust at Varner’s actions. He tried to defend himself, protesting, “I argue for the rights of transgender people every day” and saying that he would “never say or do anything to hurt anyone here,” but was ultimately sent home unanimously by his tribe.
“I think the response from the tribe, as it so often does, mirrors what the vast majority of society will feel,” Probst shared. “[Which is], you just don’t do that to someone.”
While Probst has seen a lot in his tenure on the long-running CBS reality competition series, the 55-year-old host said the moment left him reeling and in a state of shock.
“I wasn’t certain I heard what I heard. My brain had to rewind and play it back,” Probst recalled. “It was one of the most surreal moments I’ve ever encountered on the show. From the outside, it looked and sounded like a regular tribal council, but in reality, it was one of the most raw and painful studies of human behavior that has ever happened on Survivor.”
Following the tribe’s decision, a still-shaken Smith left Varner with a hug, and said that he hoped the incident would be a learning experience that could “lead to a greater good.” Probst admitted that he was “blown away by how he handled the entire situation.”
“[I was] very impressed with the compassion Zeke showed Varner,” he said. “I found his ability to still find some level of humanity for someone who had just injured him so severely, maybe his crowning moment.”
While his fellow castaways didn’t know that Smith was transgender, Probst said he was told before filming Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X, the 33rd season of the show which Smith also competed in.
“We agreed that if his story was to be told, he would be the one to decide when, where, and how,” he said. “As for someone else bringing it up, Zeke was fully aware someone might suspect it or bring it up and he said, ‘I will deal with it as it arises.'”
Probst said he’s also spoken with Varner following the incident, and explained, “I do believe he wishes he could take the entire event back.”
“I hope Varner is able to take this moment and turn it into something positive,” he said. “People make mistakes. Granted this happens to be a pretty severe one, but as you saw even with Zeke — there is hope that something good can come from this.”
Survivor: Game Changers airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS. Check back to ETonline on Thursday to see our interview with Varner. For more on the controversial tribal council, watch the video below.