Zavion Kotze made a splash this year as only the second-ever openly gay male contestant on Survivor South Africa. But his sexuality – and blond good looks, of course – were not the only reasons why he stood out.
Zavion is a man of many talents. Born in Joburg, he grew up in KZN where he played for the Sharks’ Sevens under 21 team, before turning to athletics. He also has an artistic bent; having played a variety of instruments and singing in the choir Olympics.
He came into Survivor with four SA Student Decathlon Champion titles under his belt and a thriving career as a wedding planner.
His sexuality only became an issue on the show when fellow contestant Altaaf Sheik made a homophobic comment about Zavion’s failure to confront him about an incident around the camp fire. “Maybe because he’s gay he didn’t have the balls to come and say it straight to my face,” Sheik said on camera, but not to his competitor’s face.
In the show, Zavion defied gay stereotypes with his successes in the physical challenges. He became a serious contender to take the Survivor prize, before being forced out and leaving behind just four competitors to battle for the top spot.
Now, he’s ready for another challenge. Zavion’s announced that he’ll be taking part in the Gay Games in Cleveland, Ohio next month and plans to compete in an impressive 15 track and field events.
He spoke to Mambaonline about his Survivor experience, his blossoming new love and his impressive ambitions.
How gutted were you that you didn’t win survivor after you came so close?
To be completely honest, I wasn’t gutted at all. I was rather relieved that it was done and there was nothing I could do about it. I found myself looking at the people around me and realising that some could use the million more than I could. I voted for Sivu to win because he could have made such a profound difference in his family’s lives.
Did you ever feel that your sexual identity hindered you in the game?
Not once. I’m a strong believer in that “just because I’m gay doesn’t mean that I’m not capable of something a straight man can do.” No one ever made me feel uncomfortable or different because I never gave them the opportunity to. Behind my back is another story.
Do you see Altaaf’s comment as homophobic?
Yes it was. At the time, emotions and feelings are extremely heightened and we are starving. People say things and do things that they would never do in real life. This, however, doesn’t diminish what he said; it was uncalled for and very untrue. Altaaf is an extremely nice person and he phoned me immediately when it happened on the show to apologise. I told him it was just a game but that I accepted his apology.
Did you find it difficult to live without modern luxuries on the island?
[Laughs] Well, I must be honest in that I’m a roughing it kind of guy. I like doing adventurous things. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t miss luxuries but I didn’t have a huge issue with the state we were living in; we all went through it together. There are times where you break down and can’t handle it, but you quickly realise why you are there and what you need to do.
Did Survivor change you in any way, and would you do it again?
It had a huge impact on my life and changed me profoundly. Being placed in such an extreme circumstance makes you think about what you have in life. Cherish your loved ones. Be grateful for the luxuries you have and the life you are able to live. Think about the people around the world that don’t have three meals a day. Live like it’s the last day of your life. I would do Survivor again in a heartbeat!
Were you always athletically inclined?
I’ve always been talented on the sporting field. My family are sporting people and I played sport from a very young age. I just seemed to have a natural flare for it.
How important was it for you to challenge the stereotype of the physically weak gay man on the show?
It’s one of the main reasons why I did the show. I wanted to show South Africa and whoever watched, that being gay doesn’t define your abilities. It’s a ridiculous stereotype and one that I truly hope will fall away someday. Contrary to popular belief, we are just as physically capable as straight guys.
Zavion posed for heat magazine in February (Pic: Lourens Reyneke / heat magazine)
I train about six hours a day. The three different training sessions are broken up between gym, the track for technique and the track for fitness and training. My gym is amazing; they really have helped me in the last year and a half to turn my strength and athletic ability around and I do Olympic lifting with them. It truly is the highlight of my training. It’s awesome.
What do you think drives your athleticism and desire to succeed?
I’ve always been a competitive person because of my extremely competitive family. Never play any kind of board game with them or any kind of friendly sporting match! [Laughs] I like to challenge myself and to prove people wrong; that I can be gay and achieve anything I set my mind to.
At what age did you realise that you were gay?
I was born gay, but I only came to terms with it when I left school. I knew that there was no other way for me and that I needed to be true to myself and what makes me happy.
And coming out to friends and family?
I came out just after my 21st birthday. My dad got diagnosed with cancer and I wasn’t prepared for him not to know who is son is; who I truly am. He survived and has been in remission for four years. Coming out and being honest about who I am has been the best thing that I could have done. It was one of the best experiences of my life.
And why did you decide to be open about your sexuality in the show?
Why should we hide who we are? There is absolutely nothing wrong with me, so why hide who I am?
Did being in the show with your shirt off and posing in the buff for heat magazine bring you a few more advances from guys?
More women than men hit on me to be honest. [Laughs] The heat shoot was fun. It was a fun day. I hadn’t ever done stuff like that before.
Are you single or involved?
I’m involved in a loving and amazing relationship. Another reason why I did Survivor is that earlier in the year I went through a horrible break up with someone that I had been with for three years. After that experience I found it hard to trust someone again. But someone truly special came into my life again. We were at primary school together, and I truly am the happiest man alive.
What kind of qualities appeal to you in a man?
I appreciate someone that’s kind and has confidence in a room full of people. Someone I can chat to about anything and who listens to what I have to say without undermining me as a person. He should be active and have good family values. Funny and charming… I could go on forever, but couldn’t we all?
Are you a marriage and kids kind of guy?
Yes, yes, yes! I’m a bloody wedding planner! I love kids and will have my own one day. I cannot wait to be a dad!
And speaking of marriage. How did you end up becoming a wedding planner?
Giving people the best day in their lives is what drives me. My parents own a wedding venue in Muldersdrift, and I helped them with everything to get it going. I worked there for about two years and at the end of 2011 I made the decision to start up my wedding planning company. I haven’t regretted it a day since.
So tell us about the Gay Games…
I want to represent our country and even our continent to show equality in sport and our ability. I’m putting my hand up for South Africa and I will make sure that we are counted on the sporting field and as a destination for people to visit where people are equal.
You’re competing in 15 events!
[Laughs] I love being an over-achiever.
How does it feel to know that you might well end up being the only South African or African competitor in Cleveland?
A lot of pressure. I hope I can make everyone proud and come back with couple of gold medals. I’m also very proud. I would be so grateful if I had the whole nation backing me and showing their support.
Do you plan to speak out on African LGBT issues at the Games?
I do plan on doing that. We all know that as a continent we are faced with LGBT issues and I hope to create awareness and start a movement of change.
Joburg’s lesbian soccer team has struggled to get to these international sporting events. Should some sort of funding be established to help LGBT South Africans take part?
That would be amazing! Maybe when I go I can create the awareness that’s needed for us to send a team over for the next one.
Where do you see Zavion Kotze in five years time?
In a beautiful home surrounded by family and friends. I hope that my business would have made leaps and bounds in the industry. I see myself continuing to break stereotypes about gay men. I see myself having competed in the 2016 Olympic Games and training for the 2020 Games. I see myself making a difference in people’s lives – no matter how small it may be – and continuing being involved with the wonderful foundations and charities that I am.
Bar/Club: Anywhere that’s fun
Restaurant: Ghazal Indian restaurant
Holiday spot: Durbs
City: Cape Town
Fashion designer: F. Wilson Fashion Design
Store: Abercrombie and Fitch
Actor: Ryan Reynolds (Yum!)
Music icon: Katy, Gaga and Britney
Exercise: Olympic lifting