The full Paige

As the most flamboyant character on Showtime’s Queer as Folk, out actor Peter Paige has given a lot of thought to the show’s impact on gay lives—and on his own career and long-term relationship

BY Michael Rowe

June 01 2001 11:00 PM ET

Peter Paige is
not Emmett, and he wants you to know that. Their
differences are worth noting, if only because the contrast
between the actor and the character throws each into
sharp relief. In person, Paige is surprisingly
broad-shouldered and sinewy. He’s handsome, his face
wide and frank, and there is a solid middle-American
masculinity underlying his demeanor that stands in
sharp contrast to the willowy confection he plays on
Showtime’s Queer as Folk. Paige has
arrived at Café California, a restaurant on the gay
strip of Toronto’s Church Street, kinetic and
flushed from a morning workout, dressed in jeans and a
bulky-knit blue sweater. As he takes a window seat,
he’s oblivious to the covert attention
he’s attracting from the other patrons, gay and
straight, who, with typical Canadian reserve, are far too
polite to officially notice.
Paige quickly makes it clear that whether
he’s noticed or not matters very little to him
personally. He does, however, want people to notice
Emmett. “I pray to God that people are relating to
Emmett,” Paige says, “and that men who
are effeminate see a champion in Emmett. I love the
fact that he’s effeminate and not
self-loathing.” He recalls a family photograph
taken of him as a child, arms akimbo and wrists on wide
hips, an awkward, girlish pose that made him wince for
years every time he saw it. “I like to think
I’m a masculine guy,” he says, “but I
think that it’s when I made my peace with the
part of me that can be feminine—that was girly,
that is sensitive, that cries at romantic comedies and
Hallmark commercials—that I came into my power as a man.”
Yet even the best argument that Emmett honors
the feminine side of gay men will not satisfy those
Sunday night armchair sociologists who debate, often
querulously, whether Queer as Folk is “good
for the gays”—whether the show’s
portrayal of drug-taking, sex-seeking, flamboyant club
puppies paints an oversimplified and negative picture of
gay life, one that doesn’t accurately represent gay
people. The counterargument, that the show tells
secrets about a very real element of urban gay life,
only turns up the controversy to a fever pitch.
Not surprisingly, it’s a subject on which
Paige has a passionate response: “What I think
the show portrays is flawed, human, fully sexualized
gay people, which is something we’ve never seen
before on television. So hell yes, I think it’s
good for the community!”
There’s back story to that answer,
however. Paige’s journey from struggling actor
to flamboyant poster boy has included careful
consideration of what impact Queer as Folk would have
on viewers and on his career. “I read the
script and was alternately thrilled and horrified by
it,” he says. “I was totally captivated by the
writing, but there was a part of me that asked,
‘Are we really going to tell people this? Are
we really going to tell these stories?’ ” His
manager, also openly gay, called him before his final
audition with his own reservations. “He said,
‘I don’t think you should do it. The level of
sexuality in this piece is such that I don’t think
I’m going to be able to take you somewhere else
after this.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s a
really valid concern. Let me think about it.’
So I thought about it,” says Paige.
Ultimately, the character proved irresistible to
Paige, and the thought of someone else playing Emmett
was more than he could bear. “I don’t
think I could have lived with that,” he says.
“I knew I had something to offer this project,
and I’d rather risk it. And if the gods of Hollywood
dictate that this is it for me, so be it. I’ll move
on to other pastures. I wasn’t going to turn
this one down out of fear.” He still wrestles with
the specter of future typecasting but says frankly,
“I wasn’t willing to go into the closet
or create some bullshit PR smoke screen. I mean, here
I am playing this big queen, and I’ve never felt more
masculine or empowered. It’s ironic.”

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