Interview: The inside story of gay life in the US Air Force

PinkNews logo on pink background with rainbow corners.

No sooner did Reichen Lehmkuhl become an overnight symbol of success for the gay community when he and then partner Chip Arndt took home the million dollar prize on The Amazing Race than the tabloids turned on him.

The picture of domesticity turned failed gay union, the reality show star turned wannabe actor/beefcake calendar pinup, the front burner romance with boy-bander Lance Bass that crumbled.

The negative press stung, but a tried and true survivor, Lehmkuhl had faced worse, and what didn’t kill him made him stronger.

Now, on the heels of his bestselling book, Here’s What We’ll Say, a look inside Reichen’s years as a gay service member, the actor/reality show star/model/pilot/real estate agent/activist/spokesperson opens up about his new gig on Dante’s Cove, the state of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and why the tabloid art of throwing a relationship under the bus is really nothing more than a survival tactic. I know you’ve done some bit work here and there, but Dante’s Cove is really your first sizable role. Was there any added pressure?

Reichen Lehmkuhl: I’m a person who really loves structure, so this was really the first time working in Hollywood where I had some structure, knowing what I was going to be doing for a couple months.

As far as joining the cast, yeah, I was a bit anxious and nervous at first, but I knew I was coming in with a few new people too, so once I got there, it was really clear everybody was going to take me under their wing.

GW: And there are worse places to shoot than Hawaii, right?

RL: Yeah, that wasn’t so bad either.

GW: Obviously, with Dante’s Cove, there’s the expectation that all of the actors are going to take it off for the camera.

What’s the mood on the set like before a big sex scene? You hear all these stories that it’s not that hot and there are tons of people in your face.

RL: On the set, it’s not all that hot, you’re right. No one there is all anxious and thinking they’re gonna have some hot experience or anything.

I did one actual sex scene for the entire season. It was shot for hours on end, it was very carefully handled.

It was completely choreographed, and the director was adamant about fact that if at any point I felt uncomfortable or if I was showing too much – not even just to the camera but to people around me – he would change something up so I could get through it and feel more comfortable.

GW: When you’re working on a project like this with so many openly gay actors, is the vibe different?

RL: It’s a little more family oriented. On the set and off the set you definitely have some camaraderie.

And even with the actors who are heterosexual, they were just really cool and kind of proud to be with us.

It was great, they kind of learn what’s acceptable and what’s not, what they can and can’t say.

GW: What was it like working with Tracy Scoggins – that’s a TV legend. Do you remember watching her on TV in the 1980s?

RL: (laughs) No – I was kind of kept from TV in my childhood. But I love Tracy. Some of my absolute favorite scenes of the season are with her.

Working with her is a completely different experience. She really takes the time to teach you things without taking away the feeling of being creative and being your own actor.

Some of the scenes that we did, I couldn’t believe the chemistry that we had as soon as the cameras started rolling, and she really brought a lot of that out of me.

GW: In talking to the other actors, I’ve heard she truly is the mother hen on set.

RL: Yeah, she’s not only the mother hen, she’s also the funniest person on the set.

You never know what’s going to come out of her mouth. She sets the tone of the comedy and the campiness off the set and it really gets you going when we film, so she’s definitely a leader.

GW: How much of what you do as a model and an actor is tied into your activism?

RL: I try to tie it in when I can… I have this jewellery line out called Fly Naked, and I did model for the actual campaign, and I give 10-percent of all proceeds to Servicemebers Legal Defence Network to fight the ban on gays in the military.

But it’s tough. There are critics who will say we don’t want a role model out there who is taking their shirt off and fighting for something to be made right.

But my answer to that is, when you’re a model, you do jobs where you take your shirt off, but that doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to be passionate about a cause that has nothing to do with modeling.

Just cos I take shirt off doesn’t mean I can’t do good work for something I care about.

Frankly, I’m not a role model and I don’t want anyone to consider me a role model. I’m really about doing my own thing and doing what I think is right.

That’s how I have to live my life, without living up to the expectations of people, because I’ll never please everyone.

GW: Is activism always the primary goal with you?

RL: When I’m attracting attention to cause I believe in, activism is the number one goal. When I’m attracting attention to further my career and make money, then activism is not my number one goal.

Name a person out there, besides Mother Teresa, who is not doing something on day to day basis to further to further their own career or their own survival.

You’re doing it right now by interviewing me. Sometimes I feel like, when people put role model label on me, all of a sudden I’m expected to not be like everyone else, to survive and make money and to have a drive to be secure.

I have just as much a right to do that as anyone else. I like to model and act because it makes me happy. Jenny Schmizu put it so well – there’s a part of me that craves creative attention.

I need it sometimes and for me to make a living off of it is success to me.

GW: I know so much of your work is tied into the SLDN. How close are we, do you think, to seeing a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”?

RL: We are so close. This next election is tell tale. We have what looks like the Republican frontrunner, Rudy Giuliani – at least at the moment – he has, in the past, been for gay rights, and that’s promising.

Of course we have Hillary Clinton who is definitely going to revisit “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

I’ve seen enough interviews with her to see that she knows ban and policy have to be overturned.

That’s good in and of itself, but we also have several lawsuits going through, all the way up to the Supreme Court, challenging “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

We’ve raised more money and more awareness for this issue in the past year than we ever have, and that’s something to be so proud of.

GW: Hillary Clinton, in her book, called it one of the worst compromises her husband ever had to make. How do you respond when you hear something like that?

RL: I forgive Bill Clinton for that. I remember sitting at the Air Force Academy in 1992 – I’d just entered the academy, and I remember hearing that Clinton had created this policy.

At the time, honestly, there were even a lot of gay people who thought, “Well, it’s a step in the right direction.”

No one realised that the policy was going to be abused by the top brass of the U.S. Military – the discharges went skyrocketing up, and it became apparent very quickly that this wasn’t going to solve the problem.

It was really just telling people in military to lie.

GW: That’s for sure. I know writing the book was a major milestone for you, and I remember reading it and thinking we’d seen such a different side of you. Will we see another?

RL: Yes you will see another book. It’s not coming out as quickly as I wanted it to.

GW: They never do!

RL: I just keep getting busy doing other things, and writing a book, it’s such a personal hurdle to overcome.

I am working on it, it’s partially done, and it is a sequel to last book. So when you see the hats go up in the air during graduation from the Air Force Academy, when the hats come down, that’s where this book starts, and it will be about my five years on active duty as an officer.

GW:There was a time last year and earlier this year when you were all over the tabloids. Why do you think gossip columnists are so interested in the private lives of celebrities?

RL: Oh – because the people who read those columns are interested in the private lives of celebrities. Again, it goes back to what we were just talking about.

The survival of gossip columnists. They’re going to write the things that are going to sell and further their careers and money making ability.

GW: How did you get through it, personally?

RL: I didn’t get through it very well. I tend to take things personally. I’ve definitely grown a thicker skin.

If anything I have to look at that experience and say that it happened for a reason, because I’ve learned to not look at it and learned not to care. I’ve learned to be happy with who I know I am, and that’s all you can do.

GW: Would you think twice before entering into another high profile relationship?

RL: It would definitely be a concern, but I guess you can’t help who you find yourself compatible with.

GW: So what’s next for you?

RL: The jewellery line just got picked up by Fred Segal.

GW: Congratulations – that’s great news.

RL: Thank you.

GW: I know you work with Udi and Love and Pride.

RL: Yes.

GW: He’s such a great guy.

RL: He is – he’s so awesome, and he’s so dedicated to our community, which I love. So it got picked up, and Fred Segal goes online January of 2008, so that’s exciting because we’re already selling online.

GW: Now I know, obviously, with Udi, his brain is just amazing in terms of what he can do with jewellery. How involved do you get with the designs?

RL: I was there from the ground up. I used to model for Udi for his other lines. He was out here for dinner and when the valet brought car around, Udi was waiting outside with me and he saw Fly Naked on my licence plate and he asked, “What is that?”

So I said, “Oh, in pilot training on our first solo flight, it was the dare that when you went up in the sky you would take off all your clothes and fly naked by yourself in the airplane. It’s just such a cool thing, to fly naked, and it’s so indicative of my life and sort of letting everyone know who I am and being out there.”

And he goes, “We have to do a jewellery line.”

So just a couple weeks later he asked me to send him a list of all my ideas that would describe what I see for the line, and we just started going back and forth, and those words turned into pictures and drawings.

GW: And all from a licence plate.

RL: All from a frame!

Ross von Metzke © 2007 Gay Wired; All Rights Reserved