When The Advocate interviewed Richard Hatch for an October 2000 cover story, the gay, 6-foot-4 Rhode Island native had just won the wildly popular premiere season of Survivor, a million-dollar victory some fans viewed as a metaphor for a gay man’s survival in a hostile heterosexual world. More than 10 years later, the snakelike strategist is equally famous for getting bitten by the IRS for tax evasion, a conviction that landed him in prison for nearly four years. Now free to compete on the fourth edition of Celebrity Apprentice, which premieres March 6 on NBC, the 49-year-old Hatch talks prison sex and the ongoing legal troubles that threaten his alliance with the gay tribe.
The Advocate: I can’t believe this is your first chat with The Advocate since 2000.
Richard Hatch: Well, you know, that whole prison thing can get in the way.
Oh, we’ll get to that. But when you last spoke to us, you still had very little sense of what your Survivor win meant to the gay audience. How has your relationship to the gay community evolved over the past decade?
As time unfolded, I started to recognize what my being on the show and being openly gay meant to people, because they started expressing it to me more and more. It’s hard to think about having the kind of impact that it turns out I had. To this day, people still write to me to talk about their experience of seeing somebody not afraid to be who they are. As a kid, I didn’t struggle as much as the kids who contacted me after the show, so it’s been humbling and rewarding, and I’ve really come to respect the influence that I’ve had.
You’ve said that your being gay was a main reason for your Survivor victory, in part because it taught you “to interact assertively with people.” Did you use your sexuality to your advantage on Celebrity Apprentice?
I think so, yes. [Laughs] I’m always using my gay wiles, but you’ll have to tune in to see how. But I never expected that some people might not even know I’m gay.
When you first saw your competition on Celebrity Apprentice, did you immediately have an idea of whom you’d befriend? All strategy aside, the little gay boy in me would’ve made a beeline to Lisa Rinna.
I did make a beeline to her. I adore her, and I couldn’t help it. I’m totally drawn to her, and we got along really well. She’s phenomenal. I love her because she’s so real. But the strategy part of the game was very similar to Survivor for me in that I needed information before I could fully strategize. I didn’t know anyone on Survivor, and even though I might’ve known who they were, I didn’t really know anyone in Celebrity Apprentice either. You need to get a feel for people before you can decide how they’re going to be helpful.
NeNe Leakes is already making headlines for her antagonistic behavior on the show. Are you a Real Housewives of Atlanta fan?
Oh, sure. NeNe’s a character. She’s just larger than life. When I meet famous people, very rarely are they who I think people might imagine them to be, but NeNe is. I’m drawn to her because she speaks her mind, and I don’t deal well with the whole superficial, hidden agenda thing. We actually got along well.
Were you starstruck by anyone?
Starstruck isn’t in my vocabulary — I’ve never really understood it — but I’m often impressed with goodness, kindness, and realness, and I did encounter that on this show. Some people were just wonderful to be around. And some weren’t. Irrationality is very difficult for me, so maybe you can make some speculation there.
Did you encounter homophobia from any of the contestants?
No. Other than with my legal battles and in the courts, I really haven’t encountered that in my life. Now I know what it is, but I certainly didn’t encounter it on Celebrity Apprentice.
Did you get the sense that Donald Trump is gay-friendly?
I had a great sense of that from before, encountering him a number of times in a number of situations. He even invited me to sit on the dais for his roast at the Friars’ Club, which I did. He’s a good guy. He loves women, so I don’t think he could relate to my being gay if his life depended on it, but I don’t think he cares.
Mr. Trump famously fired former Celebrity Apprentice contestant Khloe Kardashian because of a past DUI offense. Were you worried that Mr. Trump might judge you on your personal legal issues instead of the competition at hand?
Oh, absolutely. Obviously we’re not that close, so I’m certain that, as with most people, he only knows as much as he can know through the media. He has to be concerned about a person who’s been charged and convicted, though wrongfully so. I’m sure there was some tentativeness and wondering there, and that’s just what I encounter as a result of what’s happened.
That hardly seems fair.
It is fair because that’s life. You can’t know who somebody is until you spend time with them and process whatever data you have, valid or not. People don’t have an accurate understanding of who I am, and most of what the media has portrayed about my situation isn’t complete or accurate, but I’m used to it. I move forward, and hopefully someday people will understand.
As we’ve discussed, Survivor positioned you as a role model for the gay community. When the media’s focus turned toward your legal woes, did it feel like you had let the community down?
Absolutely. Well, I don’t know that I felt I had personally let them down, but I felt as if I was learning how undermined we as a community can be because of our second-class status in this culture and the pervasiveness of bigotry that I didn’t know was as powerful as it is. So, yeah, given the strong guy that I consider myself to be, I didn’t expect for anyone to abuse me the way I’ve been abused. It was a disappointment.
Even with some time having passed since your May 2009 release, you fully stand by your previous statements that antigay discrimination played a major part in your conviction?
It’s incontrovertible. This court refused to allow us to ask potential or selected jurors about their feelings toward homosexuals, even when many of them had submitted questionnaires that claimed “I could never find that fag innocent,” “I hate queers,” or “not a chance I could serve on this jury” — really unbelievable, blatant, clearly spoken homophobia that I didn’t even know existed. But I don’t blame the jurors; I blame the court and the bias of that particular judge from the outset.
Though most of your sentence was served at the Federal Correctional Institution in West Virginia, which is a minimum-security facility, the first six months of your sentence were served in a maximum-security facility. We’ve all heard the same horror stories, so how did you feel going to prison as a famously gay man?
I was never afraid of being raped or of anything physical because I’m a healthy, strong guy, and I’ve always held my own. I also know that people are people, wherever they are, so I truly didn’t have the sense that they were going to be animals in prison. But it’s fascinating to me how sex is such a part of that all-male environment. In the Federal Correctional Institution, where I spend three years, there were 1,500 guys, one of whom was an in-process transsexual who was in there for prostitution. Her breasts had already grown in, so she ended up being removed from the prison after being raped. There’s also a lot more education than I imagined — access to information about how disease is transmitted, what to do if you feel threatened, etc. — but there was quite a bit of sex in there.
Were you able to connect with other gay people in prison? I want to imagine you in there like Jim Carrey in I Love You Philip Morris.
I haven’t seen that yet, but yeah, I met quite a few people in prison who were gay. There were even some gay people on staff.
Were gay staffers generally friendlier or more lenient?
No. Like with anything, it ran the spectrum. There’s as much homophobia among gay people as there is among straight people, and with gay people it’s often more damaging and destructive. Just look at our politicians. And with positions of power often come exaggerated homophobia, gay or not.
Have you maintained any of the friendships you made with gay prisoners?
Well, there are rules. Being currently on supervised release, I’m not allowed to be in contact with any felon with whom I was in prison.
You married your partner, Emiliano Cabral, in Nova Scotia in 2005. How did your relationship survive your long absence?
I’m the luckiest man on the planet. Our relationship is as strong as it has ever been. I adore him. But living in a country that doesn’t recognize our marriage is still infuriating beyond description. We’re in our eighth year now, and I can’t even begin to describe the additional torture, stress, and difficulty this has created only because we’re gay.
I assume there were no conjugal visits.
No. And for the first six months, before I was moved to the Federal Correctional Institution in West Virginia, any visit with anyone was behind glass. The system is so broken that I don’t even know how to begin. That’s an entire topic I could go on about, and hopefully I will someday.
Aren’t you working on a book?
Oh, yeah. I wrote every day the entire time I was in prison. What publishers are waiting for and what I’m waiting for before accepting the offer is for the ending to be that I’m exonerated. It’s a heck of a battle, but I’m hopeful.
As recently as two weeks ago, it was reported that you might be headed back to jail. Should we be worried?
Absolutely you should be worried. I’m worried. Prosecutors are desperate to uphold this wrongful conviction. I’ve served nearly four years in prison, my entire sentence, and I’m on supervised release, which other people know as probation. I’ve also done everything humanly possible to comply with the original judge’s special conditions. One condition was that he ordered me to get mental health counseling. Probation got me a psychiatrist who said he didn’t understand why I was even there, so probation said I’d met that condition. The second condition was that he ordered me to amend my tax returns from 2000 and 2001, but they’re still the subject of an ongoing audit. To this day, the IRS has never given me a bill, so no taxes have ever been determined to be due. You can’t submit amended returns in the midst of an audit, not that I could submit them anyway because I haven’t been given figures as to how those returns should be amended. Not knowing what to do, the prosecutors just submitted their last brief on January 31, arguing to put me back in prison for not amending the returns. It’s infuriating. Now we’re waiting for the judge to decide what to do — decide whether this is a technical violation or whether I’m thumbing my nose at the court, which I’m obviously not. I’ve been in communication with probation this entire year and a half, and I have a hundred e-mails that express my cooperation with the IRS. But I’m still worried because I’ve seen what’s happened before. It’s not always about what’s true.
Here’s the million-dollar question: Considering all the problems that have stemmed from your Survivor winnings, do you wish you’d never won the damn prize in the first place?
That would be a waste of time, wouldn’t it? As an observer of life and one who lives it day by day, it is what it is. You take what you can from your experiences. It’s been devastating to me, my family, my friends, but I’m blown away and fascinated by what I’ve learned. Hopefully I’ll be able to make a huge contribution one day. Once I’m finally exonerated, I’ll have the credibility to make a difference that will affect many peoples’ lives.