Most real estate agents would consider reality television good business — but as Jeff Varner learned last week, sometimes putting your face (and words) in front of millions of viewers can backfire in a big way.
Anyone who’s been following the hit reality television series Survivor for any amount of time is used to drama, but what happened on last week’s episode was unprecedented in a couple of ways: a gay cast member outed a transgender cast member against his wishes, and then after getting kicked off the island, the “outer” (Varner) lost his job with real estate brokerage Allen Tate.
The premise of Survivor, if you somehow haven’t yet seen even one episode despite it stretching for 17 seasons, is to plop a group of strangers in a deserted location, where they need to obtain the basics for making it — food, water, fire, shelter.
In each episode, they compete in challenges to earn immunity from being voted off the island — which also happens to one contestant in every episode. The last person standing on the island wins the grand cash prize of $1 million.
Varner is a former contestant who come back for another shot; this season’s theme, “Game Changers,” includes a full cast of former contestants who were considered remarkable in some way.
After losing immunity in the challenge last week, Varner made a mistake while negotiating for his safety, and it got him voted off the island.
He alluded to a “deception” before turning to fellow contestant Zeke Smith and asking him, “Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?”
When Varner realized that Smith wasn’t publicly “out,” he apologized, but the damage was done. His fellow tribe members voted him off the island.
Varner said in a “day after” video that he was happy with his performance on the show overall — but he thought he went out in the worst possible way, and he isn’t proud of how it ended. “I misread a situation drastically that really had this horrible thing happen,” he said.
In a tweet posted April 12, Varner said, among other things, “I offer my deepest, most heart-felt apologies for Zeke Smith, his friends and life allies, his family and to all those who my mistake hurt and offended.”
— Jeff Varner (@JEFFVARNER) April 13, 2017
On Thursday, Varner was fired from real estate brokerage Allen Tate.
Varner relayed to Entertainment Tonight (ET) that he’d told his bosses that there would be backlash from the episode. This was disputed in a statement to Inman from Allen Tate CEO Pat Riley:
“The Allen Tate Companies were built on core values of honesty, integrity and respect. 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,” Riley said.
“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.”
Varner indicated that he was on the hunt for a new brokerage and was taking his clients with him. “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,” he told ET.
“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,” he said. “I think the response from the tribe, as it so often does, mirrors what the vast majority of society will feel. You just don’t do that to someone.”
Probst added that he’d spoken to Varner and “it was clear he was upset and the realization of it all was still washing over him. I do believe he wishes he could take the entire event back.”
Inman has reached out to Varner for comment.