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Gay SF 'Survivor' player plots return

by Matthew S. Bajko

Tai Trang, left, and Zeke Smith talk during the<br>just-concluded season of "Survivor: Game Changers â€" Mamanuca Islands."<br>Photo: Courtesy CBS
Tai Trang, left, and Zeke Smith talk during the
just-concluded season of "Survivor: Game Changers â€" Mamanuca Islands."
Photo: Courtesy CBS  

Having landed in fourth place his second time out on the CBS game show "Survivor," and believing he had a path to victory, gay San Francisco resident Tai Trang is ready to compete a third time on the long-running show. He told the show's producers and host Jeff Probst they should invite him back during the 34th season's recent live finale and reunion show.

But just not right away, Trang clarified in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter May 26, two days after "Survivor: Game Changers â€" Mamanuca Islands," which was filmed in Fiji, had crowned police officer Sarah Lacina the million-dollar winner.

"I need some time off, one or two years off to give me some perspective," said Trang, 53, a gardener for the Port of San Francisco, speaking by phone from Mexico. "This game we taped nine months ago; watching it again psychologically does a lot of trauma to you, to your psyche. In the middle of the night I wake up thinking of all the decisions I made."

Other former contestants have warned him that, for years, he will be thinking about what he should have done differently in order to win.

"Be careful if you go on 'Survivor,' you will think about it forever," Trang warned anyone thinking about applying to compete on the show, which will return this fall for its 35th season.

 

Contestant outed

One moment from this past season that created a cultural firestorm was the outing of contestant Zeke Smith as transgender by Jeff Varner, a gay real estate agent. The show was criticized for airing the outing during a tribal council, though it worked with LGBT advocates in advance of showing the episode, with Smith granting several interviews and penning a personal essay about being outed.

At last week's live finale show Smith, who now writes for the Hollywood Reporter, said the experience helped him find the "courage and boldness" to be a transgender spokesman, especially for young people. Varner, who was fired from his job and said his life became "very ugly" for a time after the outing episode aired, announced he had a new job and was writing a book tentatively titled "Surviving Shame."

Trang, who immediately denounced Varner at the tribal council for outing Smith, told the B.A.R. there was no way for the episode not to air. He noted that the remaining contestants all verbally said they would vote Varner out that night, making it unnecessary for them to go through with the normal secretive voting process.

"Survivor is real, it happened. I am not wanting that to happen and Zeke to be outed, but when it happened look at what positive things came out of it," said Trang. "There is positive international dialogue on what it means to be trans, what it means to be outing somebody. The best thing came out of it."

As for how he was depicted in his second season, Trang felt the audience didn't get to see as much camp life this time because the returning 20 players kept upping their game play. He was happy to see his streaking at camp made it into one episode.

"So many things happen in this season. Don't have time to show everything," he said.

Trang became a fan favorite playing "Survivor: Kaoh Rong," which aired last spring, and made it all the way to the final round that season. Although he came in third place and didn't win the $1 million prize, he was awarded $50,000 by the singer Sia for his promoting animal rights on the show and protecting a chicken from being slaughtered for food by his fellow tribe members.

Initially Trang, a vegetarian, and his partner, Mark Philpot, 57, who works as a nurse in the Tenderloin for the city's public health department, had applied to be contestants on another CBS competition show, "The Amazing Race." They didn't make the cut, but a casting director suggested Trang apply for "Survivor."

During his first season, Trang proved adept at outlasting and outplaying the other competitors, particularly due to his knack for finding immunity idols and other life-saving advantages in the game. Asked to come back for this season, with its game changers twist, Trang again found several hidden immunity idols and several times dodged being voted out by the remaining tribe members.

This season Philpot, whom Trang plans to marry "sometime soon," was flown to Fiji with the relatives of other players in hopes of getting to spend time with his partner. Even though Trang lost the reward challenge, and they only had five minutes together, the visit was still spirit lifting.

Tai Trang, right, gets a hug from his partner, Mark Philpot, during a quick family visit on "Survivor: Game Changers â€" Mamanuca Islands." Photo: Courtesy CBS

"It does make you feel a lot better after the family visit," said Trang. "You have a shot of energy."

In the end, Trang's turning on his allies led retired pro football player Brad Culpepper to lose trust in him and opt to take Lacina to the final three. Nonetheless, Trang said he feels "real good" about how he played a second time.

"I had fun playing it even though there was a lot of drama toward the end," he said.

At the reunion show, a survey of the 10 members of the jury found they would have split their votes between Trang and Culpepper, giving the tie breaking vote to this season's third-place finisher Troy "Troyzan" Robertson.

While Robertson said he would have chosen Culpepper as the sole survivor, Trang told the B.A.R. he believes he could have secured the jury's votes if he had made it to the final three.

"There was a good chance I could have won this season," he said. "A lot of people were advocating for me."

It is sure to keep him up at night for months to come.

 

Contact the author at m.bajko@ebar.com.

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