Sean Patterson: Hollywood's Gay Best Friend
The fashion industry elite knows Sean Patterson best as the president of Wilhelmina Models, one of the largest, most successful model and talent management agencies in the world. Reality television fans may know him better from VH1’s The Agency, TV Land’s She’s Got the Look, and guest appearances on America’s Next Top Model. The Advocate readers also know him as the lucky guy that Fergie recently fingered as her “gay BFF.” Joining a panel of judges that includes Candy Spelling, poker pro Vanessa Rousso, and Melody Thornton from the Pussycat Dolls, Patterson now gives away cash to the most deserving dreamers on Bank of Hollywood, a new E! game show from executive producer Ryan Seacrest. Patterson speaks exclusively to Advocate.com about his high-profile pals, his Andy Cohen-ish self-promotion, and his recent decisions to deny funds to LGBT hopefuls.
Advocate.com: What makes you qualified to be on the Bank of Hollywood judging panel?
Sean Patterson: When Ryan Seacrest and the other producers offered me a spot on the panel, they were looking for someone to be a grim dose of reality that only an agent can deliver. They wanted me to be the guy who says, “Look, it’s all nice and flowery what you’re saying right now, but this is the way life really works.” As an agent, people are constantly pitching me things, and we’re also pitching our talent to clients, so I can smell when something’s fishy. Basically, I was there to make sure nobody ripped us off.
In the first episode you chose not to give a drag queen, Latrice Royale, the money to compete in the 2010 Miss Gay USA at Large pageant. Even so, I was happy that there was at least one gay person up there weighing in on the decision.
Before I worked at Wilhelmina, when I was at NYU, I was a club promoter. And now I work in a very gay industry, so I have lots of friends who have had the same uphill battles and who have gone through the same sort of discrimination that Latrice has gone through. So that was a very complex decision for me, because as much as I wanted to make a statement by helping somebody who was an amazing gay performer, there was some baggage that came along with Latrice — she’d gone to jail and had some other things in her past that I thought were a little questionable. We had the ability to do so much good with the money, but it wasn’t infinite, so we had to be careful to only give it away to the most deserving people.
You also refused Maya Jafer, the Indian trans woman who wanted money for facial feminization surgery.
Well, that concerned me because it’s a very painful, very dangerous operation, so I thought we needed to give serious thought to giving somebody the money to go do something they may regret or that could kill them. Because money won’t solve some of these people’s issues; for some it’s more of a psychological issue than it is a material issue. But I still think I was a strong voice for gay and transgender people, and you’ll see that in an upcoming episode when I make a dramatic statement about the discrimination that gays go through. I’m not going to give it away, but I actually stopped the show at one point because I felt like we were potentially heading down a road I was not comfortable with.
Does the money you give away really come out of your own pockets?
It does because of the fact that our fees for appearing on the show are what we give away. So if we don’t give the money away to the hopefuls, it’s ours to keep.
Couldn’t you just take it all out of Candy Spelling’s check? She certainly doesn’t need the money.
I know, right? The last night of shooting we actually had an impromptu wrap party at Candy’s place, which you know is the most expensive house in America, and it was the most surreal experience. I never believed that I would ever be drunk at Candy Spelling’s house. A lot of the crew and producers on the show were gay as well, so it was almost like a tea dance at Candy’s.
Did you see the doll collection and the gift-wrapping room?
Are you kidding? Of course I did. The doll room was one of the first parts of the tour. We also bowled in the bowling alley, and I was not sober when we were bowling. It was, like, midnight on a Wednesday and we were still getting tanked at Candy’s. That was a reality show right there.
Did Tori show up with the kids?
No, but I had spoken to Candy briefly about all that while we were filming, so I was very happy to hear that she and Tori had reunited afterward. I didn’t know what to expect going into the show, and I was probably fearful that she’d be villainous because of the way she’s sometimes portrayed with her daughter, but I have to tell you that Candy is one of the most elegant, amazing, down-to-earth women that I’ve ever met. We talked about everything under the sun, and she can get off-color too, which I love. She told me one story about a dinner party when Tori was a kid that’s so off-color I can’t even repeat it. Candy’s also got one of the most unbelievable art collections you’re ever going to see. You know that famous painting of dogs playing poker? She has the real one, right in between her bowling alley and her doll room.
What was it like to work with executive producer Ryan Seacrest? His banter with Simon Cowell on American Idol can come off as a bit homophobic, so I’m curious how he interacted with you.
I’d met him out before socially with Fergie at Chateau Marmont about a year ago, and he actually took some gay fashion tips from me. I had one of those scarf things wrapped around my neck over a sweater or something, and he was like, “How come straight men can’t wear a scarf like that and make it look good?” So I ended up giving him my scarf and showing him how to wear it. I know a lot of gays hope that he’s secretly gay, but he’s not. He’s totally straight, but he’s not a homophobe at all. He’s just a cool guy running an empire, and he’s one of the most hands-on producers in the world.
Speaking of Fergie, she told me that you sent her flowers after you read my interview with her in The Advocate.
Yes, I did, and I called her right after I read it online and said, “It’s so sweet that you told the world I was your gay BFF!”
How did your friendship blossom?
I started to represent Fergie a few years ago when her management team brought us on board to help build her brand and explore deals for her in the fashion industry. Dressing her for red carpet events and working with her to evolve her style was an amazing opportunity to spend time with one of the most generous artists that I’ve ever worked with. I’ve been around the world with her working on various projects, and it just makes life so much more enjoyable when you’re with someone you really care for. She’s fun and she’s real — as you already know from your interview — but she’s also so people-smart and gives the most amazing advice. She could be a shrink.
Gossip columnist Cindy Adams in the New York Post reported that you recently walked into a Broken Embraces screening with Fergie and announced, “Hi, I’m her gay BFF. And she’s not doing interviews.” Is that true?
Yes, that was our little inside joke because of your damn interview! [Laughs] Cindy asked Fergie, “Who’s this strange man? Why aren’t you with your husband?” And I’m like, “Cindy, come on. First of all, could I be any more gay?”
You worked your way up from a junior agent to president of Wilhelmina. Did your being gay hurt or help your career trajectory?
There’s obviously this really fun, gay component to the industry, but there are also some very straight, conservative banker and lawyer types you have to deal with. I felt early on that if I was going to be successful, I would need to be able to communicate with both worlds. Now I’m at a level in my career where I’m confident enough to know that discrimination can’t impact me, but it was a fear of mine coming up for sure. Ultimately, we want people to see our work and not whether we sleep with men or women. Honestly, not that people should ever be ashamed to be openly gay, but I don’t fault people who take into consideration who they’re dealing with in business and don’t play up being gay. Sometimes it’s better to take that off the table.
The way you’ve moved from behind the scenes into the spotlight through reality TV appearances reminds me a bit of Andy Cohen at Bravo. Have you always craved fame?
I don’t think so. I mean, most agents are hams and like to hear themselves talk, but overall I just look at these reality shows as a great branding mechanism for Wilhelmina. Because people in the fashion industry know that Wilhelmina is a gold-standard brand, but people on the outside may not have known us before The Agency and She’s Got the Look. Now Bank of Hollywood is taking it in a slightly different direction, but this is where pop culture is going right now, so Wilhelmina is going along for the ride. Andy Cohen is a very smart man who’s done great things at Bravo, and he should be on TV because he’s got a talent for it. If people think I’m interesting enough to put on a show, that’s cool, but I love my job running Wilhelmina.
When does promoting Wilhelmina become self-promotion?
Well, for starters, you’re the first interview that I’ve given for this show and you’ll probably be the last. I was asked to do a bunch of them, but I was really only interested in speaking to you because The Advocate’s a gay publication. I’ll only do something if I feel it’s helpful to Wilhelmina, and I’d never do something if I felt like it would distract me from doing my job. You know how long it took to shoot Bank of Hollywood? Four days. I’ve been at Wilhelmina for 17 years, so I feel like it’s my home.
As someone who helps celebrities land endorsement campaigns, do you think Tiger Woods’s sponsors were justified in dropping him?
We put people on pedestals too much just in order for them to fall. I understand why brands have to be protective over their companies and distance themselves from Tiger for the time being, but were we lauding Tiger because he was a professional athlete excelling at his sport or were we lauding Tiger because he was a family man? At some point later this year, people are going to remember that he’s still an incredibly gifted athlete, and there will be sponsorships for him again. As much as this nation tears down its idols, we’re a very forgiving society when people apologize, make amends, and show that they’ve learned something.
From a strictly business standpoint, would you have any hesitations in taking on an openly gay client?
That would never be a problem for me with a model, an actor, an actress, or a musician. Now, it becomes a little trickier from a marketability standpoint if it were an athlete, but I’d still take on a gay athlete because it’s the right thing to do. Again, we need to look at a celebrity’s merit and not who they sleep with. Like, I don’t think Adam Lambert’s sexuality needs to be addressed in his marketing. He doesn’t need to do all these omnisexual performances and videos. I’d rather him just come out as a heartthrob and let men, women, or whoever fall in love with him. Why does he have to be surrounded by people in bondage gear? I have a problem sometimes with how gay talent is packaged.
How do you advise that your clients handle gay rumors?
Look, if there’s a gay rumor about a client, they’re doing something right, because it means people are interested in talking about them. It’s kind of like what Kathy Griffin says about how people only spread gay rumors about people like Tom Cruise. She says, “You never hear the queens saying, ‘Ooh, let me tell you about Miss Gene Hackman!'” It’s totally true.