Interview: Reichen Lehmkuhl on life, love and reality TV

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Since winning The Amazing Race in 2003, Reichen Lehmkuhl has forged a successful career in television and print. The US Air Force veteran and model made worldwide headlines in 2006 when NSYNC’s Lance Bass publicly came out, naming Lehmkuhl as his boyfriend. Most recently, Lehmkuhl has returned to reality television, starring in the first two seasons of Logo’s The A-List: New York. Laurence Watts caught up with him as he finished filming the second season.

When we last saw Reichen on The A-List: New York he was appearing off-Broadway in the play My Big Gay Italian Wedding and dating Brazilian model Rodiney Santiago. Their relationship proved to be the source for much of the first season’s drama.

“I had a lot of reservations about doing the show,” says Lehmkuhl. “Rodiney and I had been dating for less than two months when we started filming, but I knew this was a great opportunity for him. He’d been looking for work here in the States so I decided to put the scary thoughts to one side and just do it. In the end it was kind of a disaster.”

The disaster he’s referring to occurred midway through the first season when Rodiney read text messages on Reichen’s mobile phone and concluded he was seeing someone behind his back, an accusation Lehmkuhl strongly denies. It actually happened. The most shocking revelation of this retelling for me is that reality television is just that: real.

“It has to be produced to some extent so some things are reproduced as they happened before, but when they put it together it’s pretty real. My goal for the second season was to do my best to avoid that one little piece of drama that production’s going to focus on.”

Only time will tell whether he succeeded. Even the show’s stars only see each episode a few days before it airs. With season two almost complete (the first episode was broadcast last night) Reichen will continue writing the second instalment of his biography.

“I wrote my first book in the name of fighting Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. The new one will pick up where that story left off, so from leaving the Air Force until now.”

A lot has happened to him in that time. After being honourably discharged from the US Air Force in 2001 he fulfilled a long-held desire to change his name. His life changed dramatically almost as soon as he had.

“When I was little my family called me Rick. On my first day of first grade my teacher called me Richard and then scolded me for not answering. I came home and told my parents who informed me my name was indeed Richard. I told them I hated the name and didn’t want anyone to ever call me that name again.”

So, many years later and with his parents blessing, Richard became Reichen. Not too long after he was approached by casting director in a club to appear on the fourth season of The Amazing Race. He went into CBS the next day and of course went on to star in and win the series and the million-dollar first prize.

For a short time after winning the show he could do no wrong for the gay community. They couldn’t have wished for a better or more easy-on-the-eyes spokesperson. When the press began to poke around in his private life however some of that unconditional support evaporated. Reichen is now resigned to the fact that there will always be people who don’t like him.

“No matter what I do or how many charities I support there’s always someone who thinks I shouldn’t be in the public eye. Some of my biggest detractors are gay men. When I told this recently to one of my friends she told me all they can do is hate me because deep down they hate themselves.”

One of Lehmkul’s detractors was blogger Perez Hilton. I ask him if there’s been a rapprochement between the two of them since Hilton turned over a new leaf and renounced his mean old ways.

“He’s done like a general apology,” says Reichen, “but you know I don’t really accept it. He was so mean to Lance and I when we were dating. We didn’t deserve the name-calling and the things he said. It was horrible. I don’t understand how someone can say, ‘Oh, now I’m a good person,’ without going to each of the people they attacked and apologising.”

Lehmkuhl’s haters would have you believe his romance with Lance Bass was a calculated, publicity-seeking move on his part. It’s an accusation that still stings.

“Lance and I met in the middle of a real estate deal. His friends invited me out one night and we began to hang out more and more. I really liked him. I found him fascinating not just because of what he’d done and where he’d been at such an early age, he was just a very smart guy. He made me laugh and I really fell in love with him. In the end I think I bolted. Lance and I were torn apart by a lot of publicity and stuff that I just couldn’t handle.”

I ask Reichen what the future holds for him. A book, obviously, but will be doing more TV? Where he would like to be in five years time surprises me.

“My dream would be to be retired. Right now I’m working so hard all the time. I would love to be building a 5,000 sq ft cabin on a lake in Maine. I want a boat and a dock, to fish and chop my own wood to stay warm at night. I would love to have a partner that I adore. That’s my dream. What I’m doing now feels like a means to and end.”

This isn’t what I expect. Isn’t he supposed to say he’d like his own chat show or something? He laughs.

“I would love to have my own TV show but only because it would bring my dream that much closer. My goal is to be comfortable and happy. I was brought up and raised around a trailer park and I never want to go back there. All the stuff I’ve done has been motivated by an underlying fear of going back to that life.”

I ask him about the hypothetical guy he’ll retire with up in Maine. He’s had famous boyfriends in the past and has seen relationships suffer under media attention. In spite of having lived a life on and through reality television I get the feeling he’ll settle down with someone far removed from the world of entertainment.

“The guy in Maine? I’ll be happy if he’s just wants to chill out and be away from all that. He’ll be done, because I know at some point I’m going to be done too.”

The good news for fans of Lehmkuhl is they still have a few more years to stare at him on their televisions. The better news is that he’s smart enough that one-day he really will just call it a day and head on up to Maine.