By Ronald Sklar
photos by Eugene Gallegos
Reichen Lehmkuhl (yeah, pronounce it like this: rye-kin lem-coal) turns heads for more than just his good looks. Since he bolted out of his modest starting gate in Cincinnati, Ohio, he’s crafted a unique resume as an Air Force pilot / actor / model / author / political activist / entrepreneur / physics teacher / public speaker / reality TV star and even a tantalizing subject for gossip blogs.
The year that put him on the map was 2003, when everyone and their lover were earning their fifteen minutes of fame on reality television. Reichen, however, was determined to stretch that quarter hour into a marathon stretch. It was that year that he and his then-partner, Chip Andt, busted their asses on an around-the-world televised competition called The Amazing Race.
Broadcast on CBS and amassing amazing ratings, the show won an Emmy for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program. Even more importantly, Reichen and Chip won two other things: the race itself and the racing hearts of millions.
Reichen and Chip crossed more than just one finish line that year: they were the first out gay couple to win a reality show contest. And at that time, gay marriage was not legal in any state in the union. Of course, since then, courageous strides have been taken, but the end of the race is nowhere in sight.
“Gay marriage in this country is a broken piece of glass,” Reichen tells me today. “It’s so fragmented. Some states have it; some don’t. Some have civil unions; some don’t. Some states want it but don’t have it. Some have it but they don’t really want it. It’s taking us so long as a group of citizens to just say one thing: ‘I don’t deserve any more rights than any other citizen in this country.’ That’s what it really comes down to. If you really don’t think that two people who love each other should be able to get married, what you’re really saying is, ‘I believe that I deserve rights that you don’t deserve.’ How can anybody say that? That’s so un-American. It’s so arrogant. It’s like the epitome of bigotry.
“It’s also like a perverse form of racism. It can be considered racism because if we’re in fact born this way, which I believe we are, then maybe we are a race of people who are being discriminated against. We are considered lesser human beings because [it is believed by some] that we don’t deserve those same rights.”
These are strong words from a man who has been embarking on an amazing race of his own all of his life. These days, he brings his views of gay marriage to the boards, starring in a timely off-Broadway production of My Big Gay Italian Wedding (St. Luke’s Theater, 308 West 46th Street). A portion of the proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to Broadway Impact, a grassroots organization of the theater community mobilizing in support of marriage equality.
Although he did play Kenickie in his middle-school production of Grease, this is his first venture into big-boy theater.
“I never thought of theater as being a livelihood for me,” he says. “I’m used to TV or film where I study my scene and then I go on and just do it. But here, I have to memorize one-hundred pages of dialogue. Every day, half the day is rehearsal of dialogue, and half the day is choreography.”
Although dancing may be new to him, the accepting of a challenge is not. And here he gets a little help from his friends.
Of his fellow cast members, he says, “I love these people, and I‘ve only known them for about three weeks. It’s amazing how close you get so fast when you do something like this. The talent in this play is amazing. All of them have gone to incredible schools with programs for acting and dancing. I am humbled to be among these people. I know that they are that good and that professional, because they are so patient with me. They get it. And I am the only one who sings in the play, and I have two solos! They hired a voice coach for me. I didn’t even know I had a voice. This vocal coach brought my voice out in me.”
He first found his voice as a writer, when he penned his 2006 memoir Here’s What We’ll Say (Carrol & Graf Publishers). The groundbreaking book explored his experiences as a gay man in the Air Force while wrestling with the infamous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
It’s the nickname for the guidelines stated within Defense Directive 1304.26, issued in 1993 by President Clinton. It allows gay people to serve in the military as long as they don’t state that they are gay. Designed as a compromise to avoid military witch hunts, the policy still bars openly gay men and women from joining the military, and expelling those openly gay people who are already serving.
“It’s so overdue that this policy gets changed,” he says. “Thousands of people are trying to do what I’m doing: spreading awareness that this policy exists, that it’s legalized discrimination, that it’s really going to continue to ruin morale.
“Some people feel that if we let gays in, it would ruin morale, but we are actually ruining morale by keeping gays out. There are already millions of gay people serving, especially overseas. It’s estimated that over two per cent of our fighting forces are gay. That’s a lot of people. So it’s time.
“I’m really disappointed in the reactions of [President Obama] since he took office. I think he swept it under the rug. No question. I know he wants Congress to pass a law, but he could have at any point signed an executive order to change the law. He didn’t want to do that because it seemed [perhaps] too overbearing. He could have signed an executive order just to stop the discharges. But now, every day, two more people are getting kicked out and losing their careers and their jobs.
“When you get kicked out of the military, you don’t just get kicked out. You go through humiliating mental evaluations. There are court martials, and military-tribunal-type interrogations. And tax dollars are paying for it. It’s turning into a factory of just ruining people’s lives.
“We’re only making progress on the outside. We have all of our ducks in a row now to get this policy taken away. We begged the President to sign the executive order; he’s not doing it. It’s such a political game and he’s really exposed himself to me as just a big politician.”
Aside from his stint on The Amazing Race, Reichen is no stranger to games and those who play them. His well-publicized relationship (and eventual breakup) with ‘N Sync singer Lance Bass resulted in a field day for gay bloggers.
“As soon as you start getting some kind of success, [the bloggers] just hate on you,” he says. “It’s been both the heterosexual and homosexual media community who have been overwhelmingly supportive of me. The only lack of support I’ve had is from gay bloggers. They just want to attack me and attack me. I have to build a thick skin, but I can only do it very slowly. I still haven’t completely built it yet. I’ve always just meant well and just wanted to follow my dreams. But then I’m called [by bloggers] a fame whore – every name in the book for just wanting my dreams and then getting them.”
The dreams which first propelled him into the sky as a pilot and then onto the small screen as an actor were not easily achievable. His parents divorced when he was five, and he spent the majority of his youth in a trailer park with his mother. His ticket out was the Air Force Academy, where he trained to be a pilot. He was then stationed in Los Angeles, where he stayed on to pursue his goal of acting. Between auditions, he taught physics at a private school for celebrity children.
“I would do little runway shows, local commercials and tiny theater showcases,” he says, “but I couldn’t get an agent. Then, once The Amazing Race happened, BAM!”
It was like a gun went off and Reichen, once again, blasted out of the gate. He had played Niles Crane’s “long-lost son” on Frasier, as well as a package delivery guy on The Drew Carey Show. He then made appearances on Days of Our Lives and The Young and the Restless, and on to Dante’s Cove for the gay-themed Logo channel.
“It went on and on,” he says.” It was like a dream.”
Still, he had to reconcile his very public life with a yearning to actually have and enjoy a private life.
“I just have to rely on my friends and my relationship,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of relationships go sour because I didn’t feel the protection from it. I’ve even thought that maybe they were a little glad to see me going down a little. I need someone who is protecting me and telling me that they believe in me.”
That answer may come in the marble-like form of Rodiney Santiago, the Brazilian model who will co-star with Reichen this fall on Logo’s upcoming reality show A List TV. This series, among other things, will examine and observe their relationship as they relocate, live and love in New York City.
“Every time I have the public eye on my relationships, it’s been a strain,” he says. “but Rodiney and I have had a lot of talks about it. We know what to expect. I’m way more prepared than I ever have been. Our relationship isn’t perfect, and no one’s is. [This new reality show] will show all the parts of our relationship, but we are trying like everybody else and we are decent human beings.
“I want this series to show all aspects of gay life. I know that the other people cast for the show are nothing like me and nothing like Rodiney. There is a spectrum. I know there is a part of gay life that is all about crazy nights, party nights on Fire Island, and then there is a part of gay life that is professional. There is every kind of gay, just like there is every kind of straight person.
“I think a lot of our gay organizations put pressure on the gay community not to show certain signs of gay life, like the seedy side, because we’re supposed to be ashamed of those sides and straight people may not give us rights. But we really shouldn’t do that. We should really demand our rights no matter who we are or what kind of people we are. There are straight people who are into S&M, but they have all the same rights as other straight people. Why do we need to apologize for any [type of gay subculture]? Why do we need to apologize for effeminate gay men? We don’t. I’m proud of the kind of gay that I am, but I don’t think that I’m right or better or more deserving of rights than someone who might be a different type of person.”
With work on a second book and acting plans in his near future, we will be getting to know Reichen even more intimately than even reality TV can allow.
“I want everybody to see that I’m vulnerable and thin-skinned about a lot of things,” he says.” I’m just a human being. I don’t think I’ve had a chance to let that be known.”
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Copyright ©2010 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: May 21, 2010.