Gay King Richard

He won Survivor. He won fans, detractors—and $1 million. Now Richard Hatch speaks to the gay press for the first time about the secrets of his past and how being gay prepared him for his island challenge.

BY Gregg Kilday

September 25 2000 11:00 PM ET

The tribe has spoken: Richard Hatch may not be King of the World, but after the nail-biting climax of CBS’s summer ratings blockbuster Survivor, Hatch was certainly king of the island of Pulau Tiga. The mainstream media, after dutifully noting that Hatch is gay, went looking for other reasons to explain the skill with which he played the game and won the $1 million. But his lesbian and gay fans, cheering his victory, no doubt saw something of their own lives in Hatch’s game plan. His 39 days on an island with 15 strangers (gradually whittled down to Hatch alone) was a veritable metaphor for surviving as a gay person in a potentially hostile environment. Life’s lessons had taught Hatch—overweight and something of an outcast as a child, by his own admission—to bide his time, quietly analyze the workings of the straight world, master its rules, and then beat it at its own game. It was a survival competition that was as much steely mind game as physical endurance contest.

No PC exemplar, this out single dad didn’t bother playing the good gay Boy Scout, eager to prove himself trustworthy, loyal, and kind. With his bold asides to the camera—“I’ve got the million-dollar check written already,” he confidently predicted in the very first episode—the show’s producers portrayed the 39-year-old corporate trainer as a castaway Richard III, methodically knocking off his enemies at each episode’s “tribal council.”

Yet in his fashion Hatch was the island activist, overturning more than a few stereotypes: While hetero Sean—with his smooth-shaven chest and nipple ring—stood around playing the dim twink, Hatch dived into the reef to spear some dinner, proving himself the Tagi tribe’s alpha male. While old salt Rudy griped about spending time with a “naked queer,” Hatch earned his grudging admiration and unshakable loyalty. And when finalist Kelly begged for love in the ultimate tribal council, Hatch simply demanded respect. When he won, it was as if the tormented Piggy had bested his persecutors to win the title of Lord of the Flies, while Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” played on every gay viewer’s mental soundtrack.

What of the real, live human being behind Survivor’s version of scheming Richard? With fragments of Hatch’s life story swirling through the media—his Newport, R.I., upbringing; a stint at West Point; an apparent green-card “marriage of convenience”; allegations of child abuse made and withdrawn; a half-million–dollar book deal—how could it all add up to one singular gay man? A few days after Hatch’s nationally televised triumph, The Advocate found out, meeting Hatch himself—every inch of 6 foot 4, nattily dressed, clean-shaven, and surprisingly svelte—for a celebratory dinner at Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills, along with Hatch’s mother, his manager, and a family friend.

It was the day Hatch had taped a week’s worth of Hollywood Squares episodes, the evening he had signed with Hollywood’s powerful Creative Artists Agency, and the night before he flew back to Rhode Island to rejoin his 10-year-old son, Christopher, in the home he’s busy renovating. For a couple of hours Hatch, the ultimate survivor, let down his guard and revealed that in the end he’s not quite the self-sufficient loner he appeared on Pulau Tiga: His current goal is simply to find a boyfriend.

You’ve probably been in something of a bubble for the last few days. Within the gay community, there’s been an enormous reaction to your win. Have you gotten much sense of that yet? Very little. I think maybe it’s starting to happen now. There was a guy in the audience today at Hollywood Squares who was blowing me a kiss. I blew one back. That was funny. On the night of the final show, there were a few fun guys with pictures of my face on sticks, standing up [in the studio audience]. That was fun. There was also some woman with a sign that said, “Marry me, Rich.” She obviously watched a different show. [laughs] Did you know that in the first year of the original Swedish version of the show a gay guy won it? I didn’t know that until long after I won.

How did you hear about the show and decide to go after it? My mother called and said she’d seen an article about some show that’s just right for you on some network. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought. And then a week later, another friend called and said the same thing. So I looked up its Web site, got an application, got a video together, and sent it in.

Did you have any qualms about what you might be getting into? Not in the least. I literally would have gladly paid to go. I’ve spent a month in the Talkeetna Mountains, north of Anchorage, doing the same thing. I spent a month in Canada and Maine camping. I’ve scuba dived all over the world. I just love camping and hiking and scuba diving. So it was great.

You’ve said you began strategizing even before you hit the beach on Pulau Tiga. It began when I was filling out the application. I was trying to decide what my options were, running over the possibilities. Certainly I knew I had a distinctive advantage—I’ve always been very introspective, very observant, interested in the ways personalities interact, the way they impact me, the way I impact them. I knew that basically this was a game of social skills as opposed to survival skills in the sense of living in the woods or the jungle.

In the Survivor book you say, “I think being gay is the main reason for my success,” in part because it taught you “to interact assertively with people.” But in your strategizing, how did you decide when you’d actually come out to the other contestants? How did I decide that? I never had to decide that. I never do.

But there are gay people, going into a new situation, who struggle with how to come out. Yeah, I get that, but I don’t get it. I’ve never ever wrestled with whether to tell anyone I’m gay or who to tell.

Even though you were about to play this game where anything you chose to reveal about yourself could have some impact on your fate? Perhaps it went through my head to decide how am I going to expose myself to these people, how am I going to let different people there know who I am. I probably did do some of that.

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