'Survivor' 's Zeke Smith Reacts to the Flip That Sealed His Fate

Survivor airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS

Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen. X
Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS via Getty

On Wednesday’s episode of Survivor, Zeke Smith went from the center of the game to out in the cold.

After weeks of leading the strategy on Millennials vs. Gen X, the affable Brooklynite found himself in the sights of rival strategist David Wright — and at the mercy of 18-year-old superfan Will Wahl, who openly weighed the pros and cons of flipping alliances so that he could start racking up leadership bona fides heading in to the season’s final days.

Smith, 28, tells PEOPLE what he thought his odds were heading into his final tribal council, opens up about his biggest regrets on the show and shares some never-before-seen-on-TV insights from the island.

You were very composed when you were voted out. What was going through your head?
I knew walking into that tribal there was a 50 percent chance I was headed home. The decision rested on Young William’s shoulders. I knew to expect my name and planned what I wanted to say as I left. Playing Survivor with a group of people who loved the game was an honor. I was proud of the season we were making and wanted everyone to keep playing hard.

Did you know Will was going to vote you out?
I was very aware that Will flipped. I attempted to convince him to flip back, and felt about 60 percent sure I’d swayed him. Clearly Adam was concerned enough that he played his “Penis Idol” as security.

Did you have any idea Adam had an idol? Do you think he made the right call by using it?
I had no idea Adam had an idol! I think it was the wrong move to play the idol. A secret idol is a powerful tool, and Adam himself was in no danger. Additionally, by playing the idol, you release a new idol into game and risk someone else taking possession of the idol to, potentially, use against you.

Sunday and Hannah seemed to give you and Bret a really hard time about the things you were saying about David at the tribal where rocks were drawn. Watching it back, do you think they were justified or was that all fair in the game?
Gosh, that was terrible. It was an insanely tense tribal and I said something really stupid in the heat of the moment that I sincerely regret.

It was never malicious. Dave and I shared a very self-deprecating sense of humor and we often would kid each other about our shared trials with anxiety and depression. And they were shared. Dave speaks about it and I don’t because I’m profoundly uncomfortable being vulnerable. He’s much more evolved emotionally than I.

Jokes about crying or, say, my being fat were always on the table around camp. You’ll notice at the loved ones visit we all shout “you loser” at Bret when he starts crying. I think if you were to ask Dave about Bret and my comments, he’d tell you he wasn’t offended.

I think some see Dave speaking openly about his anxiety as him being affected by it. And while I don’t doubt that he felt it, from my vantage point, he played through it, overcoming what might otherwise hold him back. I have a whole hell of a lot of respect for the man.

Why do you think Will had such a different mentality after the reward challenge? Was he right to feel he wasn’t being appreciated?
Will, like me — and like a lot of us out there — is a massive Survivor superfan. I think he saw his window to make a mark on the game closing and wanted to act. I understand where he’s coming from because I had the exact same impulse.

It’s funny; no one saw Will as just a “kid from New Jersey” until that vote. That voice alone ages him! He’s a very smart, evolved guy. But announcing that he wanted to stack his résumé showed his youth.

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What were you surprised to learn watching this season at home?
I was most surprised seeing how the hidden immunity idols were hidden! I spent so much time combing the beach and looking in trees. I feel so foolish seeing where they were planted because I walked by those spots a hundred times.

Anything important about your game play that we didn’t see on TV?
I wanted to force rocks at last week’s tribal. In order to get four people I previously blindsided to go to rocks for me, I had to get them emotionally fired up. I prepared them for rocks but might’ve neglected to mention that I didn’t have to draw a rock in the case of a tie. I prepared everyone with Ken’s name as a decoy in order to get the idol misplayed. Sunday executed perfectly!

Given the chance to play again, would you do anything differently?
While I excelled at creating relationships, I think didn’t solidify certain bonds — for example, with Will and Hannah — because I lacked the ability to be vulnerable. That’s really where David out-maneuvered me. He showed his human side, and I think that drew people closer to him. So, were I to play again, I’d want to show more feeling and connect with people emotionally.

How did you feel when Bret came out to you?
I was so touched that Bret would share this experience with me. Coming out on national television is a tremendous feat, and I feel very privileged that Bret chose me to accompany him on this journey.

I am so proud of Bret. We’re still drinking buddies. Find us at a gay bar near you.

What did you learn about yourself while out on the island?
I learned I’m a much stronger person than I ever knew. I walked into the game trembling with fear, but the moment I put that buff around my forehead, the anxiety and self-doubt I typically carry melted away. Survivor allowed me to find the best version of myself.

Survivor airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.

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