Fame is the driving force behind the success of many celebrities, but fame often comes at a great cost. In the last issue of Proud Times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brazilian model, Rodiney Santiago, who said, “…the loudest and meanest about putting others down are usually other gay people. Some people are just not happy with themselves, and take it out on others ...” Many members of the LGBT community have endured shame and hurt for a great deal of their lives. It would stand to reason that if you’ve been hurt, you would not want to project that on others. I guess the adage that hurt people, hurt people, is true. But why is the gay community so hard on its celebrities? We’ve fought so hard for presence, but we respond negatively when we have representation.
Reality Television star, Reichen Lehmkuhl, is no exception. He, too, quickly learned that fame comes at a price. Reichen asserts he has experienced “…hatred, judgment, bullying and ridicule…” from the LGBT community. I spoke with Reichen in hopes of gaining a better understanding of this unfortunate phenomenon.
Reichen, you are a former Captain in the Air Force, and performed that role during the now defunct “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy. How did you cope in that world?
I just did it and kept quiet while I was in. Looking back on those days, I can’t believe I was able to stand it while at the Air Force Academy, but when you’re at a school with such barriers to entry—Congressional Nominations and one of the most vigorous admissions criteria imaginable—once you’re in, you don’t want to do anything to jeopardize it. As an Officer, after school was over, I had more freedom, but I still felt a lot of fear about being “caught” for being gay. It was nothing like the fear I have today of being ridiculed, hated and made fun of by gay people and gay press, but it was bad.
It’s basically a dissertation on how Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) ruined an entire silenced (LGBT) section of the military, broke down morale and ultimately weakened our armed forces, and in turn, our country. I was very open about my experience under that iron curtain of DADT at the Air Force Academy. I survived a pretty violent sexual assault and watched so many others get hurt and humiliated by the policy. [I] watched them suffer in silence. My new autobiography is called It'll Be Great Exposure: How Reality TV Ruined My Life (and how I got it back). I've had harder times since winning [Amazing Race] than I ever could have imagined I'd have—in relationships, the financial world, with public ridicule, gay blogs and with friends. This book tells it all.
Reality Television has become the fastest growing television genre. You are perhaps best known for winning the grand prize on CBS's Amazing Race. How did you segue from military life to starring in reality television?
I was randomly at the Abbey in West Hollywood as a twenty-seven year- old and a casting director asked me to interview for the show. I did, and got picked, along with Chip. Then we went on it. Then we won. That was the best time of my life. Then media (mostly gay media) got a hold of me and life became horribly difficult. The gay blogs were the worst, most bullying, unfair, and awful aspect of any part of life I’d ever seen. I try so hard to stay away from it now. I don’t want anyone talking about me unless I’m giving them the information to talk about, because then it's actually accurate. The whole experience, and trying to make it in the entertainment world, something I truly regret, ruined my ability to feel comfortable in public. I’m hoping I’m not scarred for life.
Reichen, as with any celebrity, you have had your share of controversy. How do you handle it and remain true to the brand you are building?
Honestly, I’m tired of building a brand that bears my name, which I’ve been encouraged to do by the machine that is entertainment. I’ve really moved away from that—always trying to prove myself to gay people, [and] always having to prove that I’m a good person or that I’m worth someone’s respect. The fact is that I am a good guy and I had to admit that to myself and forget about what others thought. I think any “Gay-lebrity”, as many have called me, find the ridicule and microscope to be extra vicious from our community. It really hit me like a baseball bat over a ten year period to the point where I just couldn’t do it anymore. If you’re not doing something for them to hate on or make fun of or laugh at, then they’ll just make it up about you so that they can do it anyway. That’s what it feels like. I just took my website TheReichen.com down. I just don’t want to pursue it anymore. It’s not worth it for me and my mental well-being to put up with the hatred and drama to be in the public eye. I’ve come to the realization that I’m so much happier staying relatively private and pursuing things that make me happy. People who know me always say, “I don’t understand why people are so hard on you. You’re one of the most compassionate and nicest people I know, and I’ve never heard you say anything bad about anyone—unless they’ve attack YOU first.” I just nod. I really tried my best. I wrote my book and fought to end DADT. I’ve given all I can in money and time to fight for gay causes, but I experienced the most hatred, judgment, bullying and ridicule from that segment of the community. So I’ve kind of given up. I have really given up in trying with all that. It's a lesson in life. Our moms always tell us not to care what others think. The business of entertainment is 100% caring what others think. It ended up being a miserable existence for me. Ironically, I’m happier now.
You wear many hats. You are an actor, author and speaker, just to name a few. Which role brings you the most satisfaction?
I’m now in Law School in Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, and I’m the founder of a rapidly growing start-up called LeaseLock.com. We co-sign on tenants' leases for a fee. Those are my two hats right now. They have nothing to do with public exposure. Success in these endeavors is in recognition of my hard work by various mentors, advisors, professors, customers, and most importantly, me. My feeling successful has nothing to do with how good I look in the public eye, or if I'm acceptable to celebrity blogs. It's nice to do things that have everything to do with what you think of yourself, and nothing to do with what others think about the way you appear (which is 99% fabricated in the entertainment industry anyway). I go to bed every night feeling so much more rewarded and happy than I did trying to be “Reichen.com.”
Proud Times featured Reichen: The Fragrance in a previous publication. Tell us about your fragrance and how you chose it.
I created the fragrance to do something entrepreneurial and fun, and to give money back to gay charities. I created the fragrance in a greenhouse and in a lab, myself. I ordered the first round of bottles, labeling and packaging. I assembled the first hundred myself with the help of some very awesome and caring friends. Then it took off; now a factory does it all. I ended up giving money to AMFAR and to the Gay and Lesbian Centers of NYC and Los Angeles from the sale of the fragrance. I’m proud of that. Other gay charities wanted nothing to do with it because someone posted a naked picture on the internet that is allegedly me.
You surprised many people with your album, Up To The Sky. What do you want people to experience through your music?
I have written music since I was six years old. I’ve played the guitar since I was five. I brought one song of many to Reality Television. The A-List: New York made me look like a complete asshole who couldn’t sing and tried to be famous as a musician. That couldn't be any further from the truth. It's a personal love of mine that was made to look ridiculous. [It’s] amazing what reality television producers can do to get the audience talking. I completely regret EVER opening up that side of my life to Reality Television.
I’ve noticed that proceeds from many of your merchandise sales go to various non-profits. Talk to us about some of these organizations and why they are so important to you.
Aside from my fragrance, I did a jewelry line called FlyNaked where ten percent went to the organization SLDN, who was at the forefront of ending DADT. I believe you should always give back when you’re fortunate; otherwise, fortune feels kind of dirty.
What’s next for Reichen?
LeaseLock.com and Law School—hopefully when I graduate, I’ll be an attorney for some really deserving people and organizations who need help, and who understand that I actually care about them.
Thank you, Reichen, for being so honest with our readers. Reichen should be an icon of heroism and success in the LGBT community; instead, it seems he’s been vilified. If we truly want to see representation of ourselves in mainstream society, we have to support our pioneers. Bullying has no place in our community.