Jeff Varner’s outing of a fellow player on the CBS reality show “Survivor” last Wednesday may have made good television, but – for the time being, at least – it’s been not-so-good for him professionally.
As reported Thursday, the Greensboro real estate agent was fired from his job with Charlotte-based Allen Tate Companies after the TV show revealed that during the course of the game – which was filmed last summer in Fiji – he outed New York asset manager Zeke Smith as transgender. The other “Survivor” players had been unaware of this to that point, as had virtually all of the show’s viewing audience.
Varner was harshly criticized for his actions, which drew a strong rebuke from GLAAD, and told the Greensboro News & Record on Thursday evening that his employer had fired him. On Monday afternoon, said employer sent an email to the Observer addressing his termination.
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“The Allen Tate Companies were built on core values of honesty, integrity and respect,” said the statement from Pat Riley, president and CEO of Allen Tate. “Those fundamental beliefs led us to end our relationship with Mr. Varner, a real estate agent who had become affiliated with our firm just 17 days earlier.
“To be clear, at no time before the airing of the Survivor episode on Wednesday evening was our management aware of his actions on that episode. We make all decisions such as this one with careful consideration of our clients, employees and our agents.”
The trouble started when Varner – a 51-year-old former TV news anchor who graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill – seemed to be in imminent danger of being eliminated on last Wednesday night’s episode of “Survivor.” As he scrambled to save himself, he threw a last-ditch Hail Mary that he apparently thought would cause his six fellow tribemates to turn on Zeke Smith, 29.
“There is deception here,” he told host Jeff Probst. “Deception on levels that these guys don’t even understand.” Then Varner glared directly at Smith and said: “Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?” (Both men are openly gay.)
Varner told the Observer last week that Smith never confided in him with this fact, but that “there were indirect clues over the course of the three-week period we were there. ... I have transgender people in my life who I adore and who love me, and out of respect for Zeke and transgender people, I don’t really want to go into a whole lot of detail of how I knew.”
He also said that, all these months later, he’s not exactly sure why he outed Smith.
“I’m still working to figure that out, quite frankly,” the three-time “Survivor” veteran said. “I really don’t know how to answer that without sounding like I’m making an excuse, or defending myself, and there is no defense or excuse for what I did. It’s a horrible thing, and nobody should ever out another human being in any way, shape, or form.”
The news of his firing didn’t come out until after Varner’s interview with the Observer. But he told CBS-owned ETOnline over the weekend that he was let go in “what I felt was an ugly, knee-jerk reaction kind of way.”
“As I’m spending hours doing press (on Thursday), I discover I can’t access my email,” he said in the interview with ET. “Then the MLS association emails to say, ‘You’ve been terminated.’ I didn’t even find out from my company. Suddenly my real estate license was inactive and my current clients (were) left in the dark. It took hours after my press junket to get anyone with the company on the phone to tell me personally, and even longer to calm my clients. ... It was an ugly day.”
Varner told ET he warned the company that headlines might be coming, “but apparently not the people who needed to hear it.”
“I wasn’t even given the chance to explain or right the wrong,” he continued. “In the real estate world, buyers and sellers want to know they’re signing up with a company that won’t dump them or turn their backs on them in time of trial. So I’m talking to several firms now that I know will care about and believe in their employees. I have had several reach out (and) I’m confident I’ll find a better home.”