“I ate my way to the Oprah Winfrey stage,” quipped comedic actor Ryan O’Connor when Miss Winfrey introduced him as a recent guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show. More specifically, it was Ryan O’Connor Eats His Feelings, the 29-year-old cabaret performer’s one-man show about his life as a compulsive overeater, that fed his good fortune to become one of 10 contestants on Your OWN Show: Oprah’s Search for the Next TV Star, a host-grooming reality competition on Winfrey’s new network. Eliminated February 11 just shy of making the top three, O’Connor, who’ll bring his solo act to New York’s Laurie Beechman Theatre in May, says a mouthful about his journey from severely bullied gay boy in Scottsdale, Ariz., to happily engaged West Hollywood celebrity.
Advocate.com: What was it like to watch your elimination episode on Friday?
Ryan O'Connor: Sometimes I watched the episodes with a bunch of friends, and there were certain episodes I didn’t want to watch in front of lots of people, but I didn’t even watch my elimination episode until the next day. I knew how it ended, so I didn’t need to see it right away. But I’m back for the finale in two weeks. You can’t get rid of me that easily.
How hard was it to keep your elimination status a secret?
It was tough. But we shot back in October, so the toughest part was waiting until our Oprah Winfrey Show episode aired on December 30 before I could tell anyone I was on the show at all. I had to sit on the fact that I’d met and spent time with Oprah on several occasions. That was nuts.
How did you snag a spot on Your OWN Show?
I’m a huge Oprah fan, so I’ve had Oprah on my vision board for as long as I can remember. In my one-man show, Ryan O’Connor Eats His Feelings, I actually sing a song called “America’s Queen” — written by my good friend Katie Thompson — which was an ode to Oprah and a plea for her to have me on her talk show. That song went in my show last February. And about two years ago, fans of my YouTube show, The Ryan O’Connor Show, started an online petition to get me on Oprah, so this has all been in the works long before Your OWN Show was even created. When Oprah’s 25th and final season was announced, I knew it was crunch time, but I had a feeling in my gut that it would still happen. When Oprah announced this hosting contest in May, I knew that’s how I was going to make it on her show. So I uploaded a video application on the last day of eligibility, and the casting team saw something in me they liked. They narrowed down the submissions to 65 finalists, producer Mark Burnett narrowed us down to 20, and Oprah chose the final 10. It was an incredible twist of fate, but also the power of the law of attraction.
Oprah saw your musical shrine and wasn’t scared?
That was my fear: that I was so obsessed with being on Oprah, they’d think that having me on the show would be like inviting a stalker over for tea. [Laughs] Oprah saw our audition videos and videos of the pitch meetings we had with Mark Burnett and OWN executives. In one of those meetings, they had me sing “America’s Queen” to the camera as if I were singing it to Oprah, so she’s definitely seen it.
What’s the root of your Oprah obsession?
I didn’t have a lot of friends when I was young. I was severely bullied, and I struggled with my weight and my sexual identity. When I’d come home from school, I’d watch The Oprah Winfrey Show because my mom was watching, and there was something about Oprah’s success against all odds that inspired me from a very young age. When you’re bullied as a kid, you have a tendency to grow up really fast. She’s black and I’m gay, so we have different minority struggles, but we both battle our weight. She dealt with her weight issues so publicly that they became America’s weight issues and therefore mine. Oprah probably didn’t realize that she was talking to more than stay-at-home moms, but she was also talking to a young, heavyset gay kid just trying to get by. Something in her gave me hope. I also responded to the fact that she used the power of words. My defense for bullies was always the most clever wordy insult I could think of.
When did you come out?
Well, I struggled so bad in middle school that my mom ultimately pulled me out of seventh grade and put me in a home-school situation for about a year and a half. Right before I was about to go to public high school, a charter high school opened up called New School for the Arts, which was for performing and visual arts. I was one of the first people accepted, and suddenly everything that used to make me weird made me popular. So I came out at 15 and eventually became prom queen.
Before you shot Your OWN Show, did you think about how much being gay would be a part of your on-air persona and shtick?
I have never in my life thought about how gay I was going to act in any situation, but on the very first day of shooting, Oprah told us that the only thing we could do to stick out in the competition was to be honest and authentic. I took that very literally.
As the sole gay contestant, did you feel a responsibility to represent the community?
Definitely. Wanting a talk show is not an uncommon career goal for gay men, so I felt extreme pressure that I was the only gay person Oprah chose to be a part of the competition. In addition to being myself, being funny, and showing that I could do a variety show, I felt I also had to stay socially conscious. I didn’t want to be another gay stereotype, so I was very anxious. Then, as soon as we sat down to start taping the first episode, our hosts, Nancy O’Dell and Carson Kressley, walked out on the stage. When I saw Carson, I felt a huge relief. I knew that I didn’t have to carry the gay weight all by myself, and I also knew that I’d have an incredible mentor who would create a safe environment for me to be myself.
Your bio on the Your OWN Show site quotes you as saying, “This country needs a gay best friend, and that’s where I come in.” Had you won, how would that statement have translated to your variety-style talk show?
I should’ve said “a gay male best friend,” because America does have a gay best friend in Ellen DeGeneres. There aren’t as many openly gay men in the red states, so Will & Grace got huge ratings there, despite the political views. When Will & Grace went off the air, half the housewives across America lost their gay best friend. So my talk show goal has always to be the go-to gay man that American women could tune in and relate to — a nonthreatening male presence who could give them pop culture tips and witty banter. I also like to think I’d be able to establish that without isolating a male audience. Gay personalities can sometimes shut out the straight male audience, but that doesn’t have to be the case.
You definitely added a vocal gay presence to Your OWN Show. During the makeover challenge, you quipped, “I’ve never felt this much gay responsibility in my life.” You brought up gay marriage in your one-on-one interview with Vera Wang, and you even told celebrity chef Curtis Stone, “I have such a crush on you.”
It was less about making a gay statement and more about me being myself. If I have a crush on Curtis Stone in the moment, I’m not going to not say that because America’s not ready to hear it. They caught up with Rosie and Ellen, so they’ll catch up with me. As far as being an example or an advocate, the best thing I know how to do is to represent my life honestly and authentically. That Vera Wang question came from the fact that Graham — my boyfriend at the time and now my fiancé — and I were headed toward a proposal and a wedding. Gay marriage isn’t just a political statement; it’s also as big a deal as straight marriage in the world of wedding planning.
Congratulations. When’s the big day?
He proposed in December, and we’re getting married this coming December in Palm Springs. A lot of people ask, “Is it going to be legal by then?” I don’t really care. I’ll take Gandhi’s quote and say, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” which is the same law of attraction stuff that got me on Oprah. I’m going to plan my wedding as if it were legal, but if it’s not, we’ll still have a great party and then a second reception when we do it legally. I’m not going to wait for someone else to give me permission to plan my dream wedding.
How did Graham propose?
It was amazing, but he’s given me very specific instructions to keep that private. I have a tendency to tell everyone everything about my life, so I’m honoring his request. But I will say that he proposed in Palm Springs on our one-year anniversary.
You move fast.
People say that, but I don’t know how to do it any slower. When you know, you know. I probably would’ve said yes three months into the relationship. We met online, which I say loud and proud. It’s 2011, people, so get online if you’re lonely — as long as you’re honest about who you are and what you want.
I heard you two had cute Halloween costumes.
Yes, we dressed as Mitch and Cam from Modern Family. It wasn’t much of a costume for me, frankly. I just wore my own clothes and put a baby around my neck.
Looking back on the Your OWN Show experience, what was the highlight of your journey?
Appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show was probably the peak of the whole story. It was symbolic of how far I’d come and how no dream is too big.
And it was on that episode that Oprah herself plugged your one-man show, Ryan O’Connor Eats His Feelings.
That was the most surreal thing ever because it was even more than I had wished for. It’s one thing to be on Oprah, but it’s a whole other thing to be on Oprah with a product to promote, especially when that product is my creative baby and my most personal professional achievement. Whenever I do Ryan O’Connor Eats His Feelings from now on, I get to put a little button in the corner of the poster that says, “As Seen on Oprah.” That’s priceless. I’m actually bringing it to the Laurie Beechman Theatre in New York this May.
Have you updated it to reflect what’s happened in the past six months?
Yes, the show has been renovated. I’ve rewritten the Oprah section to tell the story of this crazy journey. There’s also a new concept that highlights my Your OWN Show experience in a very musical way, and I’ll be doing a live talk show segment with a different Tony nominee every week.
Besides selling more tickets to your solo show, how are you using your newfound notoriety?
My plan to get my own talk show didn’t start on Your OWN Show, so it doesn’t end there. That will stay the goal. I already have some show ideas in development. In the meantime, I’m acting, I’m doing charity benefits, and I host a lot of different events around town. I host and produce Musicals Mondays every week with Scott Nevins at Eleven in West Hollywood, but I’ll be me wherever anyone will let me. Hand me a microphone, I’ll talk, and you can pay me for it.
You’re also set to play gay porn director Chi Chi LaRue in an upcoming Joey Stefano biopic. Just how “method” will your preparation be?
[Laughs] I recently met with Larry Paciotti — Chi Chi — for the first time, we talked for four hours over coffee, and now he’s arranging a time for me to come watch him work on a set. I’ve never been much of a porn guy, so that’ll be interesting. We’re hoping to shoot the film this summer. It’s definitely as far from the Oprah brand as you can imagine. But so was Beloved, so I think I can go for it.