Shemar Moore isn't the kind of guy you'd expect to turn a girl gay.
In fact, the former fashion model, who spent much of the '90s on the steamy daytime drama The Young and the Restless is considered one of the sexiest men in Hollywood. He's more likely to be joked about as someone who could make men gay.
Yet in 2005, Moore unwittingly helped his Criminal Minds costar Kirsten Vangsness figure out that she is, as she says, "super queer." Over brunch at her favorite cafe in the Larchmont Village neighborhood of Los Angeles, Vangsness laughs as she tells the story.
"Season 1 was right when I was coming out," remembers the 39-year-old actress, who stars as Penelope Garcia on the hit CBS drama opposite Moore (as flirty coworker Derek Morgan). "It was like one of the coolest things to sit there with Shemar. I was just a guest star at first. I had two lines, and they kept making my part a little bigger. We got along famously and he was flirting with me and I remember thinking, I must be queer. I should be reacting differently to what he's doing."
Now in its seventh season, Criminal Minds was the 10th-highest-rated show on TV this spring, and at one point it's drawn 26 million viewers. It stars an ensemble that Vangsness says is like one big family, including Moore, Paget Brewster, A.J. Cook, Thomas Gibson, Matthew Gray Gubler, and Joe Mantegna. It's been such a hit that CBS did a short-lived spin off last year, Suspect Behavior. Vangsness was the only original Criminal Minds cast member to star in both shows, though she was one of many who worried that even with a stellar cast (Suspect Behavior co-starred Forest Whitaker and Janeane Garofalo) the magic of Criminal Minds couldn't be duplicated.
"That chemistry does not come every day," says Vangsness. We genuinely get along. On other sets they say 'Cut' and everybody goes to their trailers. Here everybody stays. We're all joking around and talking." The relationships extend off the set as well. "Shemar goes to every single play I've ever done ever since I've met him," she says. "All of them do, actually."
The daughter of elementary school teachers (dad was band director and an opera singer, as well), Vangsness grew up in Southern California's theater community but didn't quite fit in. "From the time I was about 7 until I was about 13 or 14, I looked like I was Pat from Saturday Night Live," she laughs. "I'm not exaggerating, remotely."
A target of bullies, Vangsness wants to do an It Gets Better video to remind kids that being different is okay -- and so is letting your "freak flag fly." Vangsness says she developed her own unique sense of style: "I dress like a 7-year-old space pilot. I have clothes that I still wear regularly from high school. My mom would give us $20 and she would send us to the thrift store, and I would [buy] a faux fur coat with a pimp-daddy collar and some sort of nature scene polyester dress."
Now that she's on red carpets -- and can afford stylists and couture -- the actress is still hands-on with her threads, sometimes to the chagrin of fiancee Melanie Goldstein. "Melanie always says, 'I know we're ready to leave the house when you've pulled out the scissors.' I'll be like, 'I want to wear that jacket, [but] I don't like these sleeves.' And I'll just take scissors to things."
Vangsness describes her on-screen persona as "geek chic, the-smart-is-sexy" kind of girl. "There's the size thing, the nerdy thing, the I'm going to dress like this, I'm not going to play dumb. [Penelope's] sexuality comes from her sense of self, and I love that about her. I sort of borrow from her because she's comfortable."
Stylists on the set of the CBS series have gotten a bit of Vangsness's do-it-yourself spirit as well. "They kept saying, 'Can you bring your own clothes? We don't have anything in your size.' Because in Hollywood they have size zero and size 22," says Vangsness, who is a size 12. "But if you lie somewhere between the 12 to 16 range...they keep trying to put you into a size 4. It's the strangest thing. What ends up happening is they buy four size 2 Marc Jacobs dresses and make one size 12. Then someone out in TV land watches it and is like, 'I can get that dress.' No, you can't because you don't have a seamstress that will alter exactly to your body. I feel for everybody."
Still, Criminal Minds has given the idiosyncratic actress the kind of acceptance she feared she'd never receive. Vangsness says she auditioned only as a favor to a friend; both were sure she'd never get the part, which was originally meant for a Latino man.
"I knew I wasn't going to get it so I didn't really dress for it," the actress recalls. She had a basic audition outfit -- leggings, white blouses, all plain but feminine -- she'd used at previous auditions. Her slightly punk, super-queer DIY aesthetic never made it to auditions with her until then. "It's all so amazing to me that everything started to take off when I was exactly who I am. I really thought that you had to fit. And I don't fit -- I would be afraid if I fit. That would be a scary day."
Although Vangsness has played Penelope for seven years, she doesn't worry about getting pigeonholed in the role, because "if you had to get typecast as somebody, she's like the funnest, coolest, neatest kind of person. If it was like, 'OK, you're going to play weirdos the rest of your career,' I'd be fine with that."
There seems little chance of Vangsness being stuck in one role, though. After all, the actress is a fixture in the Los Angeles theater scene, and she won raves for her turn in Neil LaBute's Fat Pig.
This summer she starred in best friend Phinneas Kiyomura's play The Little Darling, at Los Angeles's famed Theatre of NOTE. She calls the production a "Douglas Sirk lesbian weird '50s love story thing" about two women named Betty. Now she's hard at work on Kill Me, Deadly, a film noir spoof written Bill Robens. "I'm convinced it's going to be the next Young Frankenstein." It was originally a play, but she and Robens are turning it into a film with a little help from their friends. Backstage called Vangsness's role in the stage version "a damsel-in-distress who's as helpless as Attila the Hun" and Variety said the production, set in 1947 Hollywood, "has great fun with the genre stereotypes, including a tough gumshoe whose secretary is a much better detective than he is."
It has a setting straight out of noir classics: when a millionaire widow is murdered and her prized possession goes missing, Charlie Nickels goes in search of the killer and encounters a beautiful heiress, brutal hoodlums, corrupt cops, and "the most dangerous woman he's ever met: Mona Livingston."
Vangsness, who serves as a producer on the film, plays that Mona. She and her friends (including Robens, Darrett Sanders, and Dean Lemont) are producing the film out of sweat equity and some savings from the day job with a "sort of theatre aesthetic. We come from that punk rock, 38-seat, there's a leak in this roof theater company and we usually do unproduced work -- and we're all kind of misfits."
At least two Criminal Minds stars (Mantegna and Moore) show up in the film, too. In her other spare time Vangness is starring in two hit web series': the hilarious pageant-centric Pretty, and the popular cross-genre Vampire Mob. In addition to her theater work, she's appeared in a handful of films including A List and the upcoming courtroom drama, The Chicago 8 (though she says her role in the latter may be too small to be memorable).
"I love what I do and I do have this thing well if I lost my job tomorrow, they can't take this away from me."
Though Vangsness calls herself "as queer as a purple unicorn singing Madonna," she admits that coming out was slightly awkward. "I never wanted it to look like I was [attention seeking]. I didn't want that 15 minutes of fame moment like, 'Oh, she said she was gay."
But after Criminal Minds was nominated for a People's Choice Award in 2006, she took a beautiful female friend to the cast party, made it clear to the woman that this wasn't a real date, but told her, "You have to act like my date. You're going to hold my hand." Vangsness says, "I thought maybe that way I can kind of let everybody know I'm [queer]."
Although it hasn't been suggested that Vangsness can't play straight convincingly, she says the argument is ridiculous when applied to other lesbian actors. "You would never argue about a straight girl playing a lesbian. Everybody still watched the The L Word. I feel like we have such great role models," she says of gay women who play straight quite convincingly, "like Jane Lynch and Jodie Foster and all these people that you don't even think about."
In her case, Vangsness playing opposite Moore is easy: "I can believe myself when I'm flirting with Shemar." Even so, Vangsness is engaged to marry Goldstein, a former assistant editor on Fox's 24. The couple have been dating for five years but aren't walking down the aisle quite yet. "There are people who place a high value on marriage and people who don't," Vangsness says. Goldstein, whose parents met on a blind date, fell madly in love, and just celebrated their fortieth wedding anniversary, feels a bit differently. "It is a big deal to her. To me, it's a fun reason to have 14 parties. But there are bigger deals to me. If I share my healthcare with you, that's a bigger deal."
The couple hopes same-sex marriage will regain its legal footing before they tie the knot, but they won't wait indefinitely. Vangsness says, "2013 is our cutoff. Regardless whether it's legal or not by then, fuck it, we're doing it."
Don't expect her or Goldstein to start popping out babies, though. A former substitute teacher who once spent 15 hours a day working in a group home, Vangsness says she's has had her share of children. "I kind of already felt like I was raising children and it makes you very aware of the state of how many kids there are that are unwanted," she says. "And it makes you very aware of the fact that people should take parenting classes before they're even allowed to put anything in their uterus. I'm not one of those people that would [have a baby] because I might regret [not doing it] later. Because I feel like I could be 60 and decide to adopt a 13-year-old. I would be delighted to do that."
Her signature frankness came up last year when Criminal Minds replaced the other two female cast members with a younger actress, and Vangsness wasn't quiet about her shock and disappointment. She told reporters that the departure of Paget Brewster , now 42, and A.J. Cook, now 33, was unjust. No matter how much the cast felt like a family, at the end of the day, someone else controlled their fate.
"You're a squatter in a house and it's a very glamorous house and you're a very glamorous squatter," Vangsness says. "But you don't have a say in what they decide to do. You don't have any control."
She didn't let the fear of losing her own job prevent her from signing a petition to bring back Brewster and Cook. In fact, she even got Jane Lynch and Helen Mirren on board as well.
"Simon Mirren -- who's one of our writers on the show -- called and he was like, 'You've got to call my aunt Helen. She loves you,'" says Vangsness. "And I was terrified. She came to see me when I did Fat Pig... I just saw this woman standing outside my dressing room and I was like, That woman's really glorious-looking. We start talking, she's asking about the fat suit that I'm wearing, and I'm explaining it to her and I look up and I'm like, Oh, sweet Jesus!"
Later, she called Mirren ("Simon gave me the queen's cell phone number and I was such a geek!") and got her to sign the fan petition. Other cast members did too. And Brewster and Cook got their jobs back.
"What's great," Vangness says now, "is...they had this heartbreaking moment where they felt like they weren't wanted. Then [producers] said, 'Please come back. Please. Please come back.' Now they're back and they have this swagger to them...and their characters have gone through this huge evolution."
It's obvious Vangsness loves her work, and even as our breakfast interview is interrupted by fawning fans, she remains in constant awe of the attention she garners by being the costar of one of the top-rated TV series for half a decade.
"I do always feel like I sort of infiltrated. I don't know the rules, and I don't want to know the rules but then I get scared like, 'Well maybe if I don't follow the rules then...they're not going to let you in anymore."
Case in point: She was recently seated at a major event next to a table full of the types of movie stars you see in the tabloids regularly. "I was so happy with my outfit. It was this prom dress that I found on clearance," Vangsness gushes. "But it looks really cute on me and I put these buttons on. I was so delighted." Her tablemates were visibly offended by her look. "It was like, You don't dress like that, you don't act like that, this is just not done."
Being a TV star, she says, "is a weird job where you get your ass kissed in the weirdest ways. You're celebrated in this way that people don't get celebrated for just going to work -- especially a job where you go to work and people hand you coffee and get everything for you and make you look pretty.
"I had this mother [whose] life goal, it seemed, was to make sure my sister and I didn't have fat heads. And now I'm so grateful for it. You have these teams of people and they tell you how you're a big deal. It's very easy to believe it. [But] you're not special. We're all universally the same brand of special."