Sitting down with The Talk‘s co-hosts on Thursday, 29-year-old Smith discussed the shocking night, during which Varner outed the Brooklyn-based asset manager.
“It didn’t quite hit until I looked at Jeff Probst and Jeff Probst looked away from the tribe — and he never takes the tribe out of his eyesight — and that’s what, to me, signaled the worst had happened,” Smith said on the talk show.
Smith admitted that “there was this primal instinct in me which just said run. But I knew I couldn’t run, because I came to Survivor to confront great challenges. I took a moment to compose myself and I was really glad that Jeff gave me that moment. I think it speaks to his abilities as a host, that he allowed me to collect myself.”
Although Smith thought at the time that he was going to have to “fight” and “defend” himself, he’s grateful that his “tribemates rose up and defended me loudly.”
Asked by co-host Julie Chen if he requested that CBS not air the footage, Smith stated: “I love Survivor. And I was drawn to apply for Survivor because of the integrity in the storytelling. When I first applied, I didn’t tell casting that I was trans. That was developed later in our relationship. And I had a chat with Jeff Probst in which we agreed if, how and when I’m going to talk about this part of my life that it’s gonna be up to me as opposed to being outed by a fellow contestant being the exception.”
But in “the aftermath of being outed,” Smith says that he’s “been granted unprecedented autonomy in how I want to tell my story.”
“We started having conversations all the way back in Fiji nine months ago about the care with which this episode was going to be handled,” he added. As it turns out, CBS worked with GLAAD, a media organization founded by LGBT people in the media, in the months leading up to the episode airing. According to the organization, GLAAD’s Transgender Media Program worked with both Smith and CBS “for several months to ensure that when the episode aired Zeke would have the opportunity to speak for himself about his experience.”
“I was really proud of how I responded,” he continued. “I wanted the world to see how much I’d grown and I also thought by showing what happened, maybe it wouldn’t happen to someone else. And something good could come of it.”
Despite Varner disclosing a very personal part of Smith’s life to the world, Smith’s mission was to focus on the positives.
“I was determined to milk something positive out of that moment,” he said.
Survivor: Game Changers airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.