Reichen's return

By Richard Andreoli

Originally published on Advocate.com July 17 2005 11:00 PM ET

Here’s a
new recipe: Write one horror film. Cast it with beautiful
reality stars we either adore watching or hope to see
disemboweled. Mix well in a house they all share
during production. Simmer by filming the off-set
bitch-slapping and backstabbing. Serve as a television show
that will air for several weeks prior to the
movie’s release.

Delicious? Or
half-baked? Either way, this synergizing of reality
television and Hollywood product—with a built-in
advertising campaign—is the basis of
TV’s new Kill Reality, debuting July 25 on E!
The queer ingredient is handsome Reichen Lehmkuhl, who
along with his ex-husband, Chip Arndt, won The
Amazing Race 4
and quickly became a gay
household name.

“Yes, the
movie stems from a reality television world, but
we’re not looking to extend our 15 minutes of
fame,” says Lehmkuhl of Kill Reality and
the movie, called The Scorned, that the show is
documenting.

With Trishelle
Cannatella from The Real World Las Vegas, Jenna
Morasca of Survivor: The Amazon, and Ethan Zohn of
Survivor: Africa along for the slashing on
Kill Reality, Lehmkuhl is loaded with
optimism. “We know a lot about the entertainment
business, and we’re all trying to go forward
with that and use it,” he says.

May the
killing—and jokes about reality contestants trying to
establish themselves as legit actors—begin!

But first
let’s get a reality check. It’s not like
Lehmkuhl is just any average game show also-ran. As
this magazine’s cover and the previous pages
illustrate, the camera loves him. Just mention his name and
the first thing fans in general (and gay men in
particular) mention is his rock-hard body and handsome
face. Even The Scorned’s heterosexual
producer, Scott Zakarin, is quick to point out,
“Reichen is so smoldering that he defies sexual
boundaries. It doesn’t matter that he’s
gay—everybody’s attracted to Reichen.”

Sure, Zakarin and
others will also mention Lehmkuhl’s stint on The
Young and the Restless
, his having been in an
episode of Frasier’s final season, and
his role as the deliveryman Mimi fell for on The
Drew Carey Show
. But what people ultimately return
to are those matinee-idol looks.

So is it possible
for someone with such a strong reputation for being a
gay sex symbol to make that leap into mainstream acting
roles?

Since he was 12
years old Lehmkuhl has dreamed of becoming an actor, and
he began taking classes after moving to Los Angeles in 1996.
But as with many hopefuls, years of struggling led
eventually to giving up on the whole prospect and
turning to other pursuits. A former Air Force Academy
cadet, Lehmkuhl founded a successful charter airline
business, and life went on. Then came his and
Arndt’s win on CBS’s The Amazing Race.
Lehmkuhl describes this event as “a spiritual sign
for me to follow my dream,” and he soon left
his business; hired a manager, two agents, and an
attorney; and dedicated his life to acting once more. No
fool, he also cultivated a lucrative enterprise from
his beefcake image. His offered his six-pack abs to
sell fitness supplements, and his 2005 calendar sold
out from his Web site. Such side pursuits fueled his hunky
image more than his acting résumé, and even
Lehmkuhl admits to feeling the effects.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” he
observes. “I can’t look back and regret
the things that I’ve done, because [being] marketed
as a gay sex symbol has definitely put me in the
public eye. But I don’t think those are things
that [will] necessarily help me be taken as a serious
actor.”

The sad truth,
says casting director Andrew Strauser, is that even
without Lehmkuhl’s history as a gay sex icon, most
people in the entertainment industry don’t take
reality stars seriously for important scripted
projects. This stems from an obvious handicap: Reality
contestants are cast to represent everyday people, and they
find public recognition by portraying themselves, not
by playing a role. It’s the reverse of the
usual Hollywood story, in which the public discovers a new
face in a fictional role and then hopes to learn something
about the person behind the screen. To break into
acting, Strauser says, “it’s important
to capitalize on whatever fame you have, but that will only
get you so far. Beyond that, you have to study, put in
the work, and push your real talents. [Those who do
that] are the people who last.” Lehmkuhl has
heard that message and continually pursues acting classes
and auditions.

But he’s
competing for the spotlight with another set of out reality
TV stars who seem to have found booming crossover
appeal: the gay “experts” on
skill-focused shows. Strauser points to Michael Moloney from
Extreme Makeover: Home Edition; Robert Verdi, who
moved from Surprise by Design to being a red
carpet host for E!; and the Fab 5 from Queer Eye
for the Straight Guy
, who have not only a
successful show but product endorsements. Among gay and
lesbian contestants from competitive shows, the edge
for staying in the limelight may go to those like
Big Brother season 3’s Marcellas Reynolds,
who previously worked as actor, a model, and a stylist.
“He’s handsome and he’s a fashion
stylist,” says Strauser. “He’s able to
parlay his reality success because he has a very
specific skill to draw upon.” Reynolds is now
negotiating to appear in an urban makeover show on BET.

Another
semi–success story: Dan Renzi, a well-known gay
reality TV figure since his 1996 Real World
debut who recently participated in the Coming Out
Party
DVD. He not only has an acting background, says
Strauser, he has a sharp wit, thus offering casting
directors more than just a pretty face. Knowing that
becoming an actor was an uphill battle, Renzi stuck to
his reality roots, appearing on many subsequent MTV
competitions while also building an offscreen career. He
explains, “Doing TV shows just fit into what I
wanted to do. It’s fun, but the way I’ve
made my money is by working as a public speaker [and] as a
pop culture writer for the New York
Post
.”

There have been
plenty of other familiar gay faces on reality television
who have attempted to maintain their fame beyond the end of
their first show. From Brandon Quinton on
Survivor and Chris Beckman on The Real World
Chicago
to the house of cuties on Boy Meets Boy,
good-looking (and mostly white) guys have been trying to
extend their 15 minutes for years. But while most have
faded from view, Lehmkuhl has stuck around.
He’s become the proverbial big fish in a small gay
pond: The queer populace has supported his iconic
success (if not his acting aspirations) by requesting
his presence at pride festivals, fund-raisers, and
political events. That’s because Lehmkuhl is out and
seemingly more accessible than other queer
celebrities, says Howard Bragman, a public relations
consultant and founder of FifteenMinutes.com. And that, in
turn, is because of his roots in reality television.

“It’s one of the places where gays are
equal,” Bragman says, pointing out that viewers
often feel as though they know a reality star’s true
personality more than that of an actor on a scripted show.
What’s even more important to a disenfranchised
group like gays is that in the world of reality
television we are often winners. “Richard Hatch was
the first big Survivor winner,” Bragman
observes. “Jay McCarroll won Project
Runway
; Reichen and Chip won Amazing Race. Those
are pop culture heroics, so these are pop culture
heroes.”

While fan appeal
or community support doesn’t necessarily make a
reality TV star into a thespian, especially one with
crossover appeal, The Scorned is designed to
change all that. It’s a major film, the success
of which could lift the cast’s status to that of
legit actors or cult icons. Or it could be the road to
The Surreal Life, the Love Boat of
21st-century reality TV.

“I’ll be interested to see how Reichen is in
the film,” says Renzi, who auditioned for
multiple heterosexual roles in The
Scorned
. “When I read, they were like,
‘Dan, good read, very natural…now try it
again and be a little less gay,’ ” Renzi
laughs, recalling the moment. “When [Reichen]
read, it was like a purse fell out of his mouth. Maybe
it does help to be pretty.”

For Lehmkuhl, the
idea that he and his fellow cast members will make it
huge isn’t simply a dream—it’s a
certainty. “The other night we compared it to
Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, who were nothing [on]
The Mickey Mouse Club,” he says.
“We’re kind of like the reality TV
[version]. We’re the first trendsetters that got
really popular really fast, and I think that if we all
stick together and use our experience and smarts,
we’re all going to be successful, just like [those
kids from] The Mickey Mouse Club.”