Karine Jean-Pierre
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Why Lance Bass Opened a Gay Sports Tavern

Lance Bass

WEST HOLLYWOOD — Last month, Lance Bass sat in one of the booths inside the newly opened Rocco's WeHo — the latest iteration in a small chain of establishments that mixes a traditional sports bar with an Italian-American eatery.

However, this particular Rocco's was in the process of transforming into an additional kind of space: a dance club. A nearby technician was installing fog machines for Friday and Saturday nights, when the indoor tables would be cleared and the dance floor, DJs, and go-go boys would materialize. 

"I like the confetti and I like smoke. I love that kind of stuff," confessed the gay former pop star, one of the owners of Rocco's WeHo, as white clouds plumed around him. He said his establishment was changing with what patrons were demanding.

"We always knew that once we opened the doors, we were just going to have to see what people wanted and just kind of pivot with them," he said. "And so far, we have."

"We did not realize people wanted to dance, which I'm happy about because people don't dance that much anymore," Bass added. "I used to go out in the '90s and 2000s — you went out and you danced. Here, the dance floor, even during the day, just started going off."

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Indeed, at L.A. Pride, and the subsequent Sunday Fundays in West Hollywood, crowds lined up around the block to dance at Rocco's WeHo. The playlist makes it stand out on the Santa Monica Boulevard strip, where gay bars tend to favor songs with strong beats over too many words. Visitors on a recent Friday night heard a sampling of hip-hop, R&B, and throwbacks to music from the '80s,'90s, and '00s, including one hit from NSYNC, the boy band in which Bass rose to international fame.

His bandmates have been supportive of his new enterprise. JC Chasez attended the restaurateur's 40th birthday party, which was held at Rocco's in May, alongside other famous friends like Allison Janney and Lisa Vanderpump, the reality star who owns several restaurants just one block away. Fans of football, the other NSYNC members may become regulars on Sundays for viewing parties, Bass suggested.

Apart from its famous guests — Rocketman's Taron Egerton was spotted on the patio on a recent Sunday — Rocco's WeHo has many other distinctive qualities. Its location at the intersection of Santa Monica and San Vicente Boulevards (the building was formerly a Citibank) makes it a prime location to view the strip from a spacious outdoor patio elevated above the street. A chameleon of an establishment, it can transform in a flash from a restaurant that serves a full menu of pasta, pizzas, wings, and appetizers into a nightclub or a space for events likes the Off the Strip singing competition, which boasts a $10,000 cash prize. A burlesque performance is also in the works for the lounge area.

Naturally, sports games are nearly always being broadcast on large flat screens lining the interior — but patrons on a recent Thursday night convinced the establishment to change the channel to RuPaul's Drag Race. The crowd is just as eclectic. Any given night can see a mix of drag queens, members of a gay kickball team, and straight fans of sports and singing. 

"I think this is one of those places that you kind of visit a couple of times on your night out," said Bass, who described Rocco's WeHo as a "watering hole" where a person could pre-drink before the larger clubs and then return at the end of a night out for sustenance.

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Rocco's WeHo is also a queer space, affirmed Bass. The restaurateur has taken several measures to signal this in the establishment's decoration and architecture. Rainbow banners covered the exterior for Pride Month; the lights in its sign are rainbow; and a timeline of West Coast LGBTQ history, made in collaboration with the One Archives, lines one of the hallways. The timeline ends with a photograph from the wedding of Bass to his husband, Michael Turchin, as a celebration of the victory of marriage equality in the United States.

"I wanted to put a personal touch on a lot of this because entertaining is what I do. I love throwing parties and having a home now to be able to host those things has been a dream of mine," said Bass. At the time of this interview, he sat beneath a wall of artworks created by Turchin, including a red portrait of a bare-chested Madonna.

Bass wants to use this wall — located in the more intimate lounge space adjoining the larger communal area — as a space to highlight other LGBTQ artists. Likewise, he hopes his stage will be able to give a much-needed platform to LGBTQ musicians, which he sees as currently lacking in Los Angeles as compared to the clubs of New York.

"I want to bring that back to the strip," Bass said. "And I really will love hearing live music flow out to the streets of Santa Monica [Boulevard]. I think it's a beautiful sound and just brings the city to life."

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The sports-watching aspect of Rocco's was also a big appeal to Bass. "Football is kind of my favorite sport ever," said Bass, who lists the Green Bay Packers and the New Orleans Saints as his favorite teams. 

But ultimately, Bass said he chose to become a part owner in Rocco's WeHo because he was impressed by the management of the Rocco's in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Studio City, which he frequented. The chain, owned by Leo Amari, Alexander Manos, Roger Toussaint, and John Liska, also includes L.A.-area restaurants in Culver City, Pasadena, and Westwood.

"I saw how they treated their staff. I saw how they ran their business. I saw how they gave back to the community and that's what I wanted to be a part of," said Bass.

"I've always loved the idea of owning a bar. I love entertaining. It's been my life going out to bars and just having fun," added Bass. It also is not his first time in the food service industry. He recounted how, at age 15, he worked at a snow-cone place in his hometown of Laurel, Miss. It was "a great experience and a horrible experience at the same time," due to the late hours — it closed at 2 a.m. — "the worst boss ever," and the customers themselves.

"People love to complain. So keeping customers happy is something that I learned [from working there] and how to talk to people," said Bass. He also recalled how his boss made him feel "useless" in conversations, and he strove to do the opposite in his own approach to customer service.

"You can get anything done but also do it in a nice way," Bass reflected. "You have to figure out how to do that. And I think that really helped me at an early age, how to deal with just the public."

Bass also knows from firsthand experience about the necessity of creating safe spaces where LGBTQ people feel accepted. 

"It is so important to have those safe spaces for people to just be themselves and be around like-minded people," he said. "I'm from Mississippi, so moving to a place like Hollywood is so amazing because you, for the first time, feel like, 'Oh, my gosh, there's people just like me, you know?'"

Bass, who came out as gay in People magazine in 2006, recalled his first time visiting a gay bar; he pointed to Rage across the street. At the time, he was closeted, and he visited the gay bar with fellow singers (and gay icons) Tiffany and Debbie Gibson. "If you didn't even realize I was gay at that point — like bringing Tiffany and Debbie Gibson to Rage? I pretty much outed myself," said Bass with a laugh.

However, it was the Abbey that was the gay bar that Bass would visit as an out man — during Pride nonetheless — and the experience was transformative. "It was incredible," he recounted. "It was so amazing just to see everyone's celebrating and just having the best time and no one caring about me at all. ... You kid yourself into thinking like, people are going to hate you, and then you just come out and you get so accepted. It's a beautiful thing."

Today, Bass looks forward to giving that experience to others — and not just in West Hollywood. He plans to bring a queer line of Rocco's to Palm Springs, New Orleans, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, New York City, Las Vegas, and beyond.

But while he may have national plans, Bass's ultimate goal is to give his patrons an experience that feels personal. "My dream is for you to come here and just feel like it's your Cheers," said Bass, who praised the many different experiences a person could have with every visit to Rocco's. "It's an ever-changing place. And I don't think you'll ever get bored here."

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