By Brandon Voss
Originally published on Advocate.com July 25 2011 5:40 PM ET
Last year, amid much criticism from concerned LGBT viewers, quippy hair salon manager TJ Kelly — who isn’t even an official cast member — emerged relatively unscathed as a breakout star of The A-List: New York, Logo’s reality series about upwardly mobile, haute-messy gay men in Manhattan like multihyphenate Reichen Lehmkuhl and Brazilian model Rodiney Santiago. With the second season of the glitzy guilty pleasure premiering Monday, Kelly, who turns 29 years old this week, attempts to make some sense of the backlash and defends his gay right to be a vapid queen on national television.
Advocate.com: I wanted to interview you, TJ, because, to be completely honest, you’re the only person on The A-List: New York that I’d actually want to hang out with in real life. Do you get that a lot?
TJ Kelly: I do. My positioning on the show was really good, and I think I was portrayed really well. That’s what made me relatable — because I was sort of an outsider in a way. I’m flattered that people have taken a liking to me.
When an altercation breaks out between the gang at Therapy bar in the first episode of the new season, all you care about is removing your plate of nachos from harm’s way. In a nutshell, that’s why I enjoy you.
I have priorities, and food is one of them. When stuff like that goes down, sometimes I just don’t want to be around it. I’m usually out for a good time, to have fun, and when things get that serious, it’s time to go, girl. Grab the nachos and let’s go laugh at these fools in the corner.
Let’s start at the beginning. How does a nice guy like you wind up on a show like The A-List: New York?
I was born in Malden, Mass., but we moved to Cape Cod when I was in fourth grade, and I grew up there. I moved to New York about two years ago, and it’s been a whirlwind ever since. I moved here to manage Ryan Nickulas’s salon. We’ve known each other for 15 years now. We went to high school together, we came out together, and he’s my best friend. I’m also a nail technician, so I came to New York to further my career in that area as well. Then Ryan got a call from a friend who had heard about a casting for a show called Kept. I actually went with Ryan to that casting, because I was assisting him in his daily routine. They met me, they put me on camera for the audition, we went forward with the sizzle reel, and that show evolved into A-List: New York. Initially, I think they thought I’d be in one or two episodes in the background, but I guess I’m too loud to let that happen.So you actually work with Ryan? That’s not just reality TV fabrication?
Well, you will find out more in season 2, but yes, I did work at Ryan’s salon, and that’s very much reality.
Did you have crazies wandering into the salon when the first season began airing?
I wouldn’t call them crazies, but maybe a little stalkerish at times. It was hard for Ryan and for me because the salon was clearly on television, so we were people that you could easily come to New York and find. But everyone who stopped by was so kind, and they just wanted to let us know how much they loved us and our friendship. It was really sweet. It was crazy to see how the show had reached people around the world.
The evolving dynamic between you and Ryan will be explored in depth this season.
Yes. Not only were we working together, but we were also filming the show together, so we were together a lot. We spent so much time together that a little bit of resentment began to build between us. We strayed into that really weird gray area of boss and friend or boss and employee, where lines can get blurred and things can get tense, especially with a friendship like ours. I definitely got a little lax at work. We really wanted to save our friendship, which is the most important thing to us, so we decided that maybe we should focus on that.
Is it also true that we’ll see you and Reichen travel together to Hawaii this season?
Yes, we go have a Hawai-kiki! Reichen was going there for business, to host and be a part of a big pride festival. He wanted someone fun to go with, and when he thought of fun, he thought of me.
Did you see his “uniball” — your word, not mine! — up close and personal?
Oh! [Laughs] That uniball is going to haunt me for the rest of my life. Actually, me and Reichen just had a big discussion about that, because he got a little offended I said that in the first episode. But no, I didn’t get to see the uniball up close and personal — in Hawaii, that is.
What did you really think about Reichen’s nude photo scandal?
It’s so silly. My heart goes out to Reichen, because people judge things differently when you’re in the public eye. I’d like to meet one gay man who doesn’t have naked photos of himself stashed away on his laptop. It got blown out of proportion. Given the fact that supposedly he was still with Rodiney while he was jerking off online with another man, I thought it was more scandalous that they were screen shots taken from Web-camming. The timing of it was more scandalous than the photos.
How would you have handled yourself in that sticky situation?
If it had been me, I would’ve laughed it off and made the best of it. It’s hysterical. He might have overreacted slightly, but his public response was really good.
As popular as it is, few TV shows get the gay community as riled up as The A-List: New York. What is it about the show that makes haters so vocally upset?
People say it’s a bad representation of the gay community, which I find ridiculous. I dare you to look at our cast and tell me that one of those people doesn’t remind you of a friend or somebody you know. Besides, we’re not representing anyone but ourselves. When we behave badly, we’re not acting poorly as gay men; we’re acting poorly as human beings. Because it’s the first all-gay reality cast since Queer Eye, that’s what got people going. But look at the Real Housewives, Jersey Shore — they still get hated on, and it’s really the same concept. Also, I think it’s about jealousy.
Haters are jealous of you and the other guys on the show?
For some people, yes, I think jealousy is a factor. I also think people get angry when they see something reflected on television that reminds them of themselves. Whenever I meet someone I don’t like, it’s usually because I’m seeing something in them that I don’t like about myself.
Reichen got angry and wrote a lengthy response last year when Dan Avery, an editor at Next magazine, referred to him as a “vapid queen.” Is it productive to battle that sort of criticism in the media?
No. It’s like when you have a bully — you don’t want to feed into that bullying and give them the satisfaction of knowing that they’ve riled you up. But on that note, can we honestly say that we’re not all vapid, shallow, and materialistic at times? Everyone displays those qualities at some point or another. So when a reporter calls Reichen or any of us “vapid,” maybe there’s a little truth to it. We do come across like that on the show, so to fight back is silly. I’d just be happy that someone’s fuckin’ talking about me.
If you don’t have that kind of attitude, the A in A-List: New York can be a scarlet letter that makes you an easy target for ridicule and contempt. Have you experienced that downside to being on the show?
Yes, but I have a good way of turning people around. People have definitely approached me with negativity, especially out in public, but when people take a moment to actually talk to me, they say, “You’re actually not that much of a bitch.” I also lucked out because I wasn’t one of the main characters and I never claimed to be A-list. At the same time, I think we’re all A-list in our own right. If you live a great life, have beautiful friends, and are striving to be a better person, then you’re A-list. I might live in Brooklyn with four other roommates and take the train to work every day, but I’m still A-list.
Has anything you’ve read about yourself hurt your feelings?
No. Nothing. One of my favorite blogs is TomAndLorenzo.com. Last season they did a recap of the show the day after it aired — I’m praying they do it again — and at one point they called me a “useless monkey bitch.” I’ve never laughed harder. If you can’t laugh at yourself, that’s when you’ll get hurt, and I think that’s what happens sometimes with Reichen and some of the other cast members. I don’t take myself that seriously.
Have you always had a thick skin, or have you had to develop one because of the show?
My coming-out is what helped me build a thick skin. I came out when I was 15 years old, so I had to learn at a young age to roll with the punches. Not everyone’s going to agree with my lifestyle or what I do or what I say, but that’s their problem.
How has your life changed since the first season?
Well, I’m gaymous now! People recognize me everywhere I go, and it’s such an honor when charity events or other special events invite me to be a part of them. Clubs call me to make appearances and hang out, which is fuckin’ crazy. I also launched my website, OutSpokenNYC.com, and it’s gotten a lot of attention because of my popularity from the show. So life is a little different, but I love it. I love the attention.
Have you used the attention to get dates?
The show definitely upped my getting-hit-on factor, but I have a boyfriend now. After the first season, the hard thing was finding somebody who wasn’t interested in me because I was on the show. All of a sudden, people who wouldn’t normally talk to me started asking me on dates. Then I met my boyfriend, Grant. He’s from Oklahoma, and we’ve been dating for seven months. When we met, he had no idea about the show. One of his friends mentioned that he thought I was on a TV show, but Grant didn’t put much weight in it. Then we were at Elmo for dinner one night, and someone asked me for an autograph, so he was finally like, “OK, what the fuck’s the deal?” But he’s been nothing but supportive.
Will we meet Grant this season?
There was some talk about that, but Grant didn’t want to do it, and we both decided it would be better if he wasn’t part of the show. I don’t want to open up my relationship to the public. He’s mine and I don’t want to share him.
As you’ve noted, you’re still not technically an official cast member. So do you get paid?
Yes. This season I was. No one knew how my part on the show was going to evolve. Once I got on camera, they saw that I was funny or whatever, so they started having me involved a lot more. It’s been a beautiful experience, especially because I got to do it with my best friend.
Pitch me a concept for your spin-off show.
At first I wanted it to be, like, TJ Looks for Love, sort of an I Love New York for Logo where I’m in a house with 10 guys and I whittle them down until I get one. Now, in light of the fact that I have a boyfriend, the perfect show for me would be something like what Paris and Nicole did in The Simple Life. Put me on a pig farm and watch my reaction.
What do you plan to do with your newfound notoriety?
It’s a good question, but I’ve been so busy with work and the show that I haven’t really thought about it. I know some of the other boys are off and running with product endorsements, spray-tan lines, and doing Playgirl, but I’m really happy with my life and what I’m doing. I do definitely want to get more involved with the younger gay community. In high school I used to go around to other schools to talk about coming out, acceptance, and safe sex, and that’s something I’m looking to get back into, because I think I can be a positive role model in that aspect. I have a good message to share with kids about being yourself and believing in yourself, because for every one person who’s against you, there are 10 standing behind you and rooting for you.
Does your A-List costar Austin Armacost have any business posing for Playgirl?
Austin doesn’t have much business doing a lot of things. If he has the courage to get up there and do it, he should do it. But I will not be picking up that issue.
You’ve posed shirtless on a gay magazine cover. Would you ever pose nude?
Maybe if the money was right. I’m a tall, skinny gay man, and for a while I thought about whether or not I should love my body. So I did a series of personal nude photos with a photographer, and it really gave me new insight on accepting my body and looking at it from a different perspective. I love my body now, but I don’t know if I’d want the world to see my nuts and berries.