A promising contestant cut right before semifinals on season 2 of American Idol, Josh Strickland swung back into the national spotlight in 2006 as the loinclothed lead in Disney’s Tarzan, a critically maligned musical that ran for more than a year on Broadway. Strickland currently suits up as the main male vocalist in Peepshow, Jerry Mitchell’s popular burlesque review at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas. Thanks to Strickland’s friendship with Peepshow costar Holly Madison, the 26-year-old South Carolina native now appears in the Playmate's Girls Next Door spin-off, Holly’s World, which premieres June 13 on E! Opening up about his Idol journey and controversially trim Tarzan torso, Strickland shares a peep into his life as a proud gay man.
Advocate.com: When asked if you were gay, the search engine ChaCha — which is not where I get all my information — said, “Although I am unable to find an interview where Josh Strickland states that he is gay, the consensus around the Web is that he is.” Before now, have you never spoken openly about your sexuality to the press?
Josh Strickland: Probably not. I think the reason I never talked about it before is because I was playing Tarzan, one of the most masculine characters on Broadway. I never really hid it, but I was never asked about that in interviews because I guess most people just wanted to talk about me playing that iconic character. But recently, and especially now, I’m not going to hide any of that. I think it’s really important to be who I am and true to myself.
During Tarzan there was a lot of speculation about your sexuality on various blogs and Broadway chat rooms. Were you aware of that?
I did know that was going on, but I tried not to look at blogs because some of it was so nasty. It’s fine that people were talking about it, but I was never asked, like, “Are you gay? How does it feel being gay and playing a character like Tarzan?” It never came up. Now I’m happy to be open and out about it. If people are going to speculate anyway, why not wash all that speculation away? I am who I am.
There were rumors floating around that Disney tried to keep your sexuality a secret by preventing you from speaking too much and by limiting your interviews.
Disney’s one of the best companies to work for, and I never had any complaints. What they did for me was put me in a class for media training. They gave me talking points about the show, but they didn’t tell me what I couldn’t talk about. I was never held back from being who I am. The questions people asked were just never about my sexuality.
At what point did you decide that you’d be honest about it if you were asked?
It was from all that speculation during Tarzan. I was really tired of people making up their own answers. I’d rather just put it to rest and be myself. Nowadays it really doesn’t even matter. You see people coming out all the time, and it makes them stronger and happier. I didn’t want to be one of those souls struggling every day to fight who I am. I’m 10 times better just by being out and open about it. It makes my life so much happier. I have no regrets about anything.
What did you think of Ramin Setoodeh’s recent Newsweek article?
Whenever somebody writes an article like that, it’s just one person’s opinion. It’s just too bad it was in a big, international news magazine like that. It’s disheartening because you don’t want to go backward when you’re moving forward. Especially for people in smaller cities who aren’t used to being out and around gay people like we are, that stuff makes them fall back in the hole a bit farther.
When you were auditioning for American Idol in late 2002, did you think about how you would navigate your sexuality in the media if you made it to the finals?
Well, I was much younger then, so I wasn’t mature enough to even know what I needed to do. It was season 2, so I had seen the first season, and I just remember thinking, Oh, my gosh, I want to be a star. Of course, there was the question of whether or not I could I be out, and of course there were people around you saying, “I don’t know if that would help your career.” But now I’m older and I’ve had more experience. There are actors in their 50s who are still trying to get an original lead role on Broadway, so Tarzan helped me grow up a lot. Being in the public eye, I had a chance to think about what I wanted to do and about who my career is really for.
In 2008 you starred in the New York Musical Theatre Festival production of Play It Cool as a young gay actor rebelling against the constraints of 1950s Hollywood. That was sort of art imitating life, wasn’t it?
It was. It’s funny because when I auditioned for that part, everybody kind of looked at me, like, “He is this character.” That’s what was so cool about doing it. You see me do an audition in New York in one episode of Holly’s World, and I actually sing a song from Play It Cool.
Let’s talk about Peepshow, which I’ve also seen. You’re a good-looking guy in a burlesque show, yet you keep your shirt on the whole time. What’s the deal?
[Laughs] Because Vegas is all about the women. Obviously there are the Chippendales and the Australian stripper guys, but Peepshow was about bringing back the old-school female burlesque.
But Peepshow was created by out choreographer Jerry Mitchell and inspired by Mitchell’s Broadway Bares benefits, so there are some shirtless guys and a gay sensibility. I assumed that maybe you’d had enough of being shirtless after wearing nothing but a loincloth in Tarzan for so long.
That was in the back of my mind! I spent so much time with practically just a diaper on, so I thought I’d just hang out in a suit for a while and let the beautiful girls do the job.
Being sexually objectified on a nightly basis in Tarzan must’ve been great incentive to stay in shape.
Absolutely, but I still got criticized. Everybody thought I was too skinny or whatever, but [the creative team] didn’t want me to be like the cartoon character. In the book Tarzan eats berries, so he’s not going to be a gigantor! I was slim and toned. It would’ve been easy to go to the gym every single day and get pumped up and big, but they didn’t want that. They wanted me to stay lean — and also hairy, because he didn’t have a razor out there either.
I could never get past those Crystal Bowersox-y dreads.
I know! [Laughs] Oh, believe me, I couldn’t either. I mean, come on, I had to wear that every day.
Do you play up your masculine charms for the females in the audience at Peepshow?
Absolutely, but that’s just part of being an actor. I enjoy interacting with the audience. You get the couples who come out, and I think they know I’m gay, but everyone’s walls come down for a night because it’s a very sexual show. The women are looking at the men, the men are looking at the women — and maybe the men too. People come to let their hair down and relax.
You met Holly for the first time when she joined the Peepshow cast. What were your preconceived notions about her from seeing her on The Girls Next Door and Dancing With the Stars?
We just knew Holly was a gorgeous Playboy model, so we thought she’d fit really well into the Bo Peep character. Most people might say she wasn’t the best dancer when they watched her on Dancing With the Stars, but she’s worked very hard in our show. She’s amazing. She’s been in the show for about a year now, and she continues to get better and better each week. We were hoping somebody cool would come in, and luckily she did.
Little did you know that you’d befriend her and get on a reality show.
It’s funny how it all happened. Holly was very quiet and reserved at first, but then we spent so much time together putting her into the show, so we just got to know each other and clicked. I wasn’t originally supposed to be a part of the pilot, but I was around whenever they were shooting because we had became such good friends, so it worked out.
What kind of trouble do you, Holly, and Holly’s other pals get into on Holly’s World?
It’s all good trouble. We’re all big personalities, so there’s bound to be tons of laughter and silliness when you put us all together. But every family has tension, there are always miscommunications between friends, and things can get out of hand. I’m just lucky that the drama is actually real and that nothing is scripted.
How up-front are you about your sexuality and dating life on Holly’s World?
Well, the show is about us individually, but it’s really about us as a family. It doesn’t go too deep into our personal lives. I’m not tied down, so I’ll talk about guys and say “he” because I’m not hiding anything, but there’s also a certain level of security you want to keep for yourself. You don’t want everyone to know everything about what you’re doing and who you’re dating. When you’re being filmed, you do have to think, Do I want that on TV? If I want something on national television, it will be. Will I regret it later? We’ll see. But in our first episode, I get heckled [for being gay] by some people — grown men — on our last night on vacation in Mexico. It becomes something that I hope people learn from, because there’s so much unnecessary nastiness out there.
So now that you work for E!, do you get to hang out with the Kardashians?
Not quite, since our show hasn’t aired yet, but I’m very excited to be a part of the network. Holly knows everyone there because she was on The Girls Next Door for five seasons, so it’s become her family. She trusts everyone, which was important for me. If Holly trusts them, I know it’s all right.
You clicked with Holly, but why didn’t you become BFFs with former Peepshow castmate Aubrey O’Day?
[Laughs] Oh, my. Um, OK, here’s the deal: We really tried to be friends with her. We’re not mean people. We got snubbed the first time around. The second time around, we got snubbed again. It’s like, how many times can you try with someone who just goes into their dressing room and doesn’t speak to you when they’re walking in the hall?
There were rumors last year that Lindsay Lohan might also join the Peepshow cast.
I think that was just a publicity stunt. If she had, I don’t know if we’d still be open.