In our one-on-one chat with Varner, he dished the dirt on lots of topics from his issues with Tasha Fox to his excruciating toe injury that ultimately caused his disappointing early elimination. Plus, find out which other previous Survivor seasons he was nearly picked to be on.
SheKnows: The hardcore Survivor fans, including me, are really disappointed that you were voted out of the game this early. What is your response to the fans who have reacted so strongly in your favor?
Jeff Varner: Oh my God. I wish every tweet and every Facebook message and text and email was a dollar bill. I’d be a happy camper [laughs]. It’s all over the place. There’s a whole lot of love. I feel it. I see it. I spent this entire journey trying to connect to all these people who voted for me, and are pulling for me. Every time they email me, I try to respond to everybody. It’s been an exhausting journey. That went out of hand last night. I haven’t even been able to touch what’s sitting in my inboxes at the moment. I will take some time and give some effort into getting back to all of them. That’s important because this was America’s season. They picked me to be there. It was important for me to deliver. It really was. I played more for the viewers and voters than I did for my own family. I don’t regret it.
SK: When you were eliminated, you leaned forward and called Abi-Maria a “little bitch.” Was that a you-got-me kind of comment or did you really feel she was a bitch?
JV: [Laughs] This is network TV, I couldn’t really use the C-word, which is what I was thinking. I’m kidding. No, I knew what she was doing. I knew the way the vote was gonna go and there was nothing I could do to change it. It was all for the fans. I’m there at the end. It’s official. I’m going home. That’s it. I just wanted to make sure I shook Woo’s hand, Savage’s hand. I held my nose and hugged Tasha, which was work. Abi, I just wanted to hug and not be bitter. Try to leave with some grace and some class. It was over, there’s no point in being a dick.
SK: So you think Tasha is worse to be around than Abi?
JV: Yes. Yes. You just don’t see the Tasha that I saw out there. I’m not sure where her story is going, and what it’s gonna be. She didn’t like me from the get-go. She let it be known. She was so mean to me. Nasty is a word to describe it. She was rude, oppressive and there was not one single second I shared with that woman on that island that I enjoyed. When you see her sitting with Abi and she’s rolling her eyes, that’s a little peek into the bigger Tasha that I saw there every day. I don’t know if it was me specifically. I don’t know. I’m not quite sure what it was. Then getting home and watching her game and her strategy of using her church family, and using God as a tool to play this game as a scapegoat. She uses Jesus as a scapegoat to justify her evil in this game. I just have such a fundamental problem with that. I don’t want to go too much into anything. I’m hoping that over the next few weeks as you watch the show play out, I’m hoping that her game just gets nastier and other people see the person I saw and it comes back to haunt her in ways it helps her grow like I’ve grown in the show. To realize that’s just not how you should roll. God is not happy with Survivor as a game. He can’t be. If you read the Bible, it’s full of it. Romans 6 is very clear about abusing God’s grace. You just don’t do it. For her to be a Christian, and to talk her big Christian talk and then go out there to use God as a scapegoat, I don’t know. Right now, Tasha is a big hypocrite to me. I really want this to be an experience that helps her not be so much.
SK: Would you label her this season’s biggest villain instead of somebody like Abi-Maria?
JV: Yes. Without a doubt.
SK: So you knew you were being voted off, but how?
JV: My injury was so much more intense than the editing showed. I couldn’t walk. My foot was all swollen. The toe was blue. They all knew how bad it was. That injury really messed me up for weeks after. My toenail just fell off last week. It was really a lot harder than you saw in the show. They didn’t have a choice. We were losing and losing and losing and losing. They’ve got me and they’ve got Woo. Which one is gonna contribute in a challenge more than the other? The answer to that is clear. I knew going into that Tribal that I was gone, but that did not hamper the fact that I fought until the last second. I’m sitting there, and I know I’m going home, but I also know there are millions of people watching this moment who voted for me to get in here and play for them. I’m gonna swing 1,000 percent. I couldn’t believe the way Woo was matching me argument for argument. I wanted to turn to him and be like, “Now you decide to start playing this game? It’s day 11, and you’re talking. Shut up!” I was really impressed with Woo. And mad at him. I couldn’t say a word without him countering me. I loved it. It was like defense attorneys one-upping each other.
SK: I still think your argument was much stronger than Woo’s.
JV: It was. I appreciate you noticing that [laughs].
SK: If you had not been hurt, would you still have been voted off?
JV: I would like to say no because I would’ve been in a different place. I would have been able to work a little bit of magic. I had been very fortunate up to that moment of being able to talk myself out of situations and move myself in a different direction. When I came back from that challenge, I couldn’t walk. The pain was a lot. I just had to get off my feet. I was on my back most of the time with my foot elevated. They don’t show all this in the editing, but I was really done. I couldn’t strategize. I didn’t have a leg to stand on, pardon the pun.
SK: What was the biggest difference you noticed going into this season compared to Season 2?
JV: From the process of getting picked, to the preparation of going into it, the whole process of everything, it’s so much more of a production now than it was then. We were all just sort of feeling our way through it, figuring it out. Nobody knew what they were doing. We were making it up as we went along. Now, it’s a machine that cooks. You just sort of step into the wheel and when it’s your time to get off, you get off it. That’s just the way it is. The location was vastly different. Australia is a dry heat. Cambodia is a thick, wet heat with no breeze. The challenges are much more difficult, and much more intense. The game moves so much faster. Back then, there were probably three of us that understood this was strategy. Now, there’s probably three people out there who have no idea how to play strategically. It’s vastly different. You have to play it differently. You have to approach it differently. You can’t approach the new-school game with an old-school strategy. It just doesn’t work. That was the problem for Terry and Kelly in the beginning, and me, because I was aligned with them. I had to grab them by the neck and shake ’em to get them playing, get them alive.
SK: How do you feel you played this season differently than you did on Survivor: The Australian Outback?
JV: I was strategic the first time, but this was strategic on steroids. I had no choice. When you’re on a tribe with Shirin and Spencer, you have no choice but to move at their pace. I was very fortunate to fall into their laps on the first day. It all just worked out. I did the same thing I did in the Outback, I just did it a lot faster and a lot harder. I had no choice. All of that was just to keep up. I didn’t really realize how well it was working until I saw it on TV. When I saw it all play out, wow, that was working better than I thought.
SK: Take us back to last May. How confident were you that fans had voted you back to play the game again? It almost seemed like a no-brainer to me. Did you feel the same way?
JV: No. I wasn’t confident that I was getting picked at all. There were moments where I felt confident. I’d come in and out of it, but I didn’t want to relax and rest on the thought that I’m a shoo-in. I campaigned hard from the beginning to the end. This has been quite an invested journey, I can’t even begin to explain to you. I campaigned all the way to the end, giving 1,000 percent. I’m here today about to pass out. I’m just exhausted from it all. I kept telling myself I’ll sleep when it’s done. Hopefully I’ll be able to get that nap soon. It just won’t be today [laughs].
SK: Was Season 31 your first real opportunity to play again, or had you been approached before?
JV: No, I have been approached a couple of times. I’ve also been a news anchor for 14 years. I was under contract and the timing didn’t work out. When it did work out for me, the show went in a different direction. It’s been a back-and-forth and a back-and-forth. I think that helped contribute to all the emotion and all the energy that was going down out there. It has been 15 years of trying and flirting with the idea. Having the opportunity there, and then I didn’t make it. I did make it, but then they pulled the plug. Finally, I’m here and it’s like I can’t believe I’m here and this is actually happening. It just was a great experience all the way around.
SK: Which seasons you were nearly picked for previously?
JV: I was in the mix for the first All-Stars. I was in the mix for Season 23, I think it was. I don’t know what they were planning to do, but it turned into a Coach vs. Ozzy season. I’ve gotten calls throughout the time, but I wasn’t able to do it because I was under contract. Those are the two seasons that I was able, and it just didn’t happen. I think now they’ve learned it was a massive mistake [laughs]. They could’ve had me out there a long time ago.
SK: I think you might get called back for another round. Would you go back and play again?
JV: Yes, sir. I will.
SK: You didn’t say “I would,” you said “I will.”
JV: I will, yes. I hope I can do better.