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Reichen &
Chip: Reality sets in

Reichen &
Chip: Reality sets in


Presented as a married couple on CBS's The Amazing Race, they won the $1 million prize. Now anxious to use their success to talk about gay marriage and military rights, Chip and Reichen first have to face their biggest challenge yet: breaking up

Any real fan of reality TV knows that some of the best stuff happens after the cameras are turned off, after the show has wrapped, and after the contestants, houseguests, tribe members, and bachelors go home and go back to reality. Chip Arndt and Reichen Lehmkuhl are testaments to this idea. In a summer saturated with queer eyes and boys meeting boys, this "married" couple stole the show, won more than a few hearts, and took home the million-dollar prize on CBS's The Amazing Race. And they did it all while looking so hot that even the straight guys on the show were flirting with them.

But the real story came after the show and the other times their teamwork had been put to the test. Barely a month after CBS handed the couple their prize money--$620,000 after taxes--Arndt's and Lehmkuhl's lives have taken an amazing turn.

After Arndt had helped Lehmkuhl, a former Air Force captain, through the difficult years of the "don't ask, don't tell" closet; after Lehmkuhl supported Arndt when his online entertainment company was swept away in the flood of dot-com failures; and after the couple beat 11 other teams in a race around the world, they decided to break up.

Arndt, a 37-year-old financial consultant, is living in Miami, and Lehmkuhl, a 29-year-old Air Force Academy graduate and founder of the charter service Tribe Airways, is staying in Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. He recently appeared on an episode of Frasier and will appear in late October on three episodes of The Young and the Restless.

But just like all good reality shows, this one has to start with a bit of a back story:

How did you two meet?Lehmkuhl: It was actually at an after-party to a birthday party at a club in Los Angeles in January 1999. I saw Chip across this crowded room and came up and talked to him. He claims no one had ever hit on him before, but I did. We connected right away.

Arndt: I was smitten from the beginning, and I acted a little aloof. He actually offered me a drink, and I said no. I think sometimes there's a defense mechanism of What do I do? What do I say? But yeah, it was love at first sight.

Lehmkuhl: I was in the Air Force, and I was moonlighting: The only reason I was at this high-end party was because I was the Bacardi boy. I remember distinctly being really bitter [when Chip turned down the drink], thinking that all these high-powered people were looking down at me. I said, "I know what kind of person you think you are."

It sounds like you were giving each other mixed signals.

Lehmkuhl: I know. But I pulled Chip into a stairwell and kissed him. He said, "Who the fuck are you?" And that's how we met.

How did "don't ask, don't tell" play into your relationship?Lehmkuhl: When Chip E-mailed me, he never signed his name. And I would get upset if he put anything remotely romantic in an E-mail. I was so afraid of getting kicked out of the Air Force and losing everything for being gay. We had to hide it.

Could you tell people that you were dating Reichen? Arndt: I told my family and certain people whom I knew who were far away and wouldn't say anything. But a lot of people in L.A. didn't know. It was hard [in that way] because you really love the person and respect what they're doing and going through, and you want to make sure that you don't screw anything up.

Did you have to tell Chip what he could and couldn't do? Lehmkuhl: When people aren't totally familiar with the military, there's a lot you have to educate them about. It's mostly fun stuff. You fill them in on what the rank system is, what the bars on your shoulders mean, why you have to salute, and why other people salute you. The great thing for straight people is that you're actually bringing your mate into this really cool world, and it's really a great big family. Or so they say--unless you're gay. Then it's not a family. I would tell Chip about all these cool things and then have to say, "Oh, but you're not allowed to come to this function because you're a guy."

Arndt: When Reichen got pinned as a captain, we had two different ceremonies. One was the official one that I couldn't go to, and the other was the official one in my mind, with all of his friends and family and a friend in the military whom we can't name because he's still there. I think what I noticed was that Reichen had two jobs. One was being a captain in the Air Force, and the other job was figuring out how to keep from saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing so he wouldn't lose everything.

Lehmkuhl: And not just lose everything: The fear and the embarrassment of the trial. Someone dragging you into court and questioning you on your bedroom practices or questioning you on your lifestyle. I can't think of anything that would be more degrading. If this were happening in corporate America, we would all be outraged. But for some reason we're not outraged when it's happening in our military.

Are you working with Servicemembers Legal Defense Network now?Lehmkuhl: Yes, I signed on with SLDN to be their spokesperson fighting "don't ask, don't tell." I'll be either narrating or hosting a new and very powerful documentary that they're releasing very soon. This charity is so important to me and so close to my heart. When I was at the Los Angeles Air Force Base and I had officers--friends of mine--come up to me and say, "So-and-so thinks you're gay," I got very scared and had to call SLDN. They [calmed] the anxiety I was having by saying, "If something happens to you, you're under our wing now." That was very powerful.

So did that pressure precipitate your leaving the military in 2001?Lehmkuhl: Yeah, I think I left the military glad that I was leaving. I wasn't happy about getting out of the military, but I was happy to be able to be me, and that's what sucks. I had some serious separation anxiety when I left. I remember one night about a month after I left, I broke down crying at dinner with Chip. I was thinking about all the work and everything I had put into the Air Force. Had the higher-ups found out that I was gay, even after everything I did, they wouldn't want me anymore. That would make anyone cry if they really thought about it.

And how did leaving the military change your relationship?Lehmkuhl: I have so much more self-esteem now. I have a lot more strength as a person. I'm a lot more confident in myself and in my abilities. And I think that has definitely changed our relationship: I became less needy of Chip, and that was a tough transition for both of us.

How was that for you?Arndt: I think Reichen said it right: It was a very tough transition. But I think it has been a wonderful thing because it's a journey. It's wonderful to see somebody be able to do what they want and speak their own mind. That's the best thing that has happened.

And then one day you decided to meet a friend for a drink at the Abbey [a West Hollywood, Calif., bar].Lehmkuhl: Thirty seconds after I walked in, this casting agent approached me and said, "What's your name? Have you ever heard of The Amazing Race?" and "You're exactly what I'm looking for. Do you have a brother or father or someone that you could do the show with?" I said, "Well, I have a husband." And he about fell over and peed his pants. So Chip, who was in Connecticut on business, flew back immediately, and we had a meeting with CBS the next day. We kept getting called back and called back, and finally they took us. That was it: They cast us for The Amazing Race.

Were you fans of the show? Lehmkuhl: We had seen it before, but we weren't addicts. But only because we didn't have time and we didn't give it the time we now know everyone should give it.

There have been other gay people on reality TV, and even other gay people who took home the million dollars. But there seems to be more interest in you guys.

Arndt [gesturing to Lehmkuhl]: Well, look at that face.

I mean, here's a story from the Philippine Daily Inquirer, of all papers, that calls you "sexy specimens of manhood." How much of the interest is about the way you played the game, and how much of it is about the way you look?Lehmkuhl: I'm sure there is some interest from people who like the way we look, but I also think that the people who really like The Amazing Race saw how we played. People watch because they can imagine themselves running and because they identify with a particular team. They want the team to act as they would. And I think there are qualities they like to see, such as competitiveness and patience, and then also not putting up with anyone's crap.

But how do you keep the attention to your looks from going to your head?Lehmkuhl: I don't believe in it. Chip tells me that I'm good-looking, and I still wake up in the morning and say, "I feel so ugly today. What is wrong with me? What should I do? What can I do to fix this?" And he'll say, "I have no idea what you're talking about." I think it's just my upbringing. I was a very ugly child. I mean, I was ugly in the sense that I was always very skinny and my ears stuck out. I was a nerd. I'm very insecure. I don't believe that I'm good-looking.

Even when there's a [vitamin ad] billboard featuring you in West Hollywood?Lehmkuhl: Yeah, I look at the billboard and I think, Oh, my God. I hope they don't see that one thing that I can see that's really bugging me.

What is that?Lehmkuhl: I don't want to talk about it because then they'll see what I see. It's probably a disease, when you can't see yourself the way others see you. That's why Chip has been great, because I need to be in a relationship where someone's always telling me that I look OK and that I'm doing OK and that I'm not making an ass of myself.

How about you Chip? How do you keep the attention to your looks from going to your head?Arndt: Well, at this stage in my life I want it to go to my head [laughs]. Any role model or leader has to pay attention to how they look. Howard Dean is running for president. I was just talking to him two months ago, and he's conscious of looking good.

There are a lot of different dimensions that are beautiful. Reichen did a gorgeous spread in Instinct magazine that was all over the world. But let's be truthful--getting a six-pack or eight-pack or 10-pack is hard work. And when people see it, it's beautiful. So there are two things working there: It's beauty, but you also realize that it doesn't happen overnight. There is a whole other side to it--dedication, self-discipline, focus. And I think that, all together, makes us what that Philippine paper was saying.

Sexy specimens of manhood?Lehmkuhl [laughing]: That makes me giggle.

I know you were adamant about being identified as "married" on the show. Why was that important?Lehmkuhl: It was important because we had been married for almost four years at that point. Actually, we had our ceremony on February 2, 2002. When we went in to CBS together, we said we were married. And they said, "We don't know if we can put 'married' on there." But they ran it by the executives, and they decided they could. And when the Christian right reacted to it, [a CBS representative] came out and said, "They're gay, and they're married. What's the problem?" That was CBS's statement. CBS stood behind us. That was groundbreaking, brave, and right.

So this has elevated you to role models for marriage. What do you say to people about it?Arndt: The word marriage is owned by the church because that's what it says in the dictionary. If you want to give us another title, that's fine. Civil unions, I don't care. As long as we have the same overall benefits that everyone else has.

Lehmkuhl: In order to be given certain rights, you have to register your relationship with the government. This is what we're all fighting for. We can all register our relationships with God; that's no one's business. But if you have to register your relationship with the government to get these rights, then we should be able to register our relationship with the government. We're part of this government. We pay taxes to this government. We serve in the military of this government. And we should be able to have the same rights as anyone else.

You talked with about how the race strengthened your relationship. How was that?Arndt: It strengthens a relationship when you get to know somebody better and understand their weaknesses and strengths--and can still see through those things. We all make mistakes, and we all make little blunders. It's seeing through those things. The show is a comedy of errors. And I think that's where the relationship is strengthened.

The show seemed to change these two in other ways as well. Arndt--who came across so clearly as the A-type personality on the program that few viewers were surprised when he wrecked a race car and ran an SUV off the road in his "get out of my way now" determination--is now quiet. He seldom answers a question during the interview unless it's directed specifically at him, allowing the more enthusiastic Lehmkuhl to answer for them both. But when they're asked about these changes--about where their relationship stands today--they both get quiet. Arndt reaches over several times to touch the side of Lehmkuhl's head, an intimate gesture, as if he were tucking his hair behind his ear, if it were long enough to do so.

Lehmkuhl: Here we go.

Arndt: We have to go into it.

Lehmkuhl: When the show first started I think we felt an obligation to answer every question. We quickly learned that's not the case. We've also learned to value our privacy and that there are lines we don't want to cross. But go ahead and ask us questions, and we'll tell you if we can answer them.

Well, what can you tell me about the state of your relationship?Lehmkuhl: We are broken up, officially. And it's very recently that we decided that this was the case. Without going into all the intricate details of why and who did what, I think that it's a decision that is the best for both of us.

Arndt: I agree.

Lehmkuhl: There isn't anyone in the world who I think about more often in a day's time than Chip, and it has been like that since the day I met him. I totally want the best for him in anything that happens, and I know that he feels the same way about me.

Is it more difficult breaking up now that you're famous for being married, for being a team?Lehmkuhl: We were a team and we are a team and we'll always be a team in so many ways. Chip will always be on my team, and I'll always be on his. We haven't split apart from each other. We're just not intimately involved anymore. But the fact that we're split up doesn't negate that we were married for quite some time. And it doesn't negate the fact that we think people should have marriage rights. My parents are straight, but they got a divorce. And they got a divorce because it was the best thing for both of them. But that doesn't mean that straight relationships don't work. It's so hard to have people walk up to us and say, "How does it feel to be the role model for gay relationships?" Well, it doesn't feel very good because ours isn't working out. That's my answer.

Arndt: In a lot of straight relationships, when they split up, people don't stay in touch. They aren't on each other's teams. We're still in each other's lives as much as possible. We're just doing different things right now. We're supporting each other along the way. And I think if anything, it reinforces the fact that gay people might be more mature and healthy about going their separate ways while still being supportive.

Lehmkuhl: I think that that's because gay people--after being in the closet for a long time like a lot of us have--really value the right to be in a relationship. Actually, we see it as a privilege, not a right. I know I do. After coming out of the military it is a privilege for me to be in a relationship with a guy out in the open.

Arndt: When people look at us as role models and then wonder if we still are because we no longer spend every day together, I say, "Wait a second." We spent four years doing a tremendous amount of things. I was very supportive of Reichen, helping him get out of the military and making a gigantic career decision. We supported each other through my business, when I was closing it down, and when he was starting a new business. And then we did The Amazing Race together--and we managed to win. If people are looking at the success of a marriage just on a time basis, I would say that's an inappropriate way to look at it.

Lehmkuhl: I hope that you print everything that we're saying today because it's really important to us. This is the first time we've said those words: "We are broken up." Just so you know. That's the first time I've told anybody that. And I don't know if it's because I feel so comfortable with you as an interviewer or because I feel comfortable with The Advocate, because we love TheAdvocate. But we don't want to just say we're broken up and that's it. We have a lot to say.

But your relationship is what people are interested in. Do you hate that people want to know this?Arndt: Leaders, role models, whoever decides to put themselves in the limelight, have a certain amount of responsibility. Michael Jordan--when he had a gambling problem--said to himself, You know, you're a role model to kids; you'd better stop gambling. Some gay marriages don't work, just like any marriage. But we also have to say that they do work. It could be three years, it could be four years, it could be 30 years.

Lehmkuhl: They were wonderful years. I will never regret it.

Arndt: Maybe the irony here is that maybe we're the perfect role models for marriage, given that 80% of marriages end in divorce. So maybe we should be talking to people about how to disengage from a relationship in a healthy way.

So what happens now?Arndt: In the past two years I've been helping people with their businesses. And what that basically means is that I help people create financial wealth and protect financial wealth. I'm based in Miami right now because I have two clients down there that I'm going to be dedicating a lot of my time to in the next few months. I want to continue to have a presence in California and in New York as well. People who need some business advice and financial advice that they can trust should give me a call.

And you?Lehmkuhl: I want to keep acting. I have three acting coaches now, and I'm also studying in a class. And it's not because I just started acting. Everybody thinks that after coming out of The Amazing Race I started being an actor. It bothers me a little bit because it's not true. I've actually been doing theater since I was in elementary school. And now that I've won The Amazing Race, I finally have the chance to follow this dream. I was blessed with the opportunity to do one line on Frasier. And I was blessed with the opportunity to be on my favorite show, The Young and the Restless. I signed with an agent, finally, and I'm taking it very seriously. I am crossing my fingers and toes, and I'm going to do the best job I can.

And what's this I hear about a calendar?Lehmkuhl: There is going to be a 2005 Reichen calendar through 10 Percent Productions. There are also going to be some Reichen magnets and other items. I just signed that deal. So I'm very excited about that. Tribe Airways will continue too, and we are starting to do some scenic tour flights around Southern California. And yes, I will be flying some of those flights, by request.

Arndt: In addition, I would like to tell people I have been very political in the past, that this is one of my passions. So what I would like to do is put myself out there and be available to speak in schools and at corporations and help people deal with gay issues. If people want to hear from somebody who's been through it all, from Wall Street to dating someone in the military--and someone who definitely has an opinion on these things--I would love to try to educate people.

I have to know, what's happening to the money?Lehmkuhl: On the boring side, Chip and I paid off our debts. I had a lot of flight-school debt because I got my commercial pilot's license and my flight instructor's license when I got out of the Air Force. And Chip had Harvard and Yale debts. So we were able to write a check, and it felt so good. We've also both already given a tremendous amount to charity, including SLDN; AIDS Project Los Angeles; the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association; the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network; and Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.

How much went to Uncle Sam? Lehmkuhl: Thirty-eight percent goes to Uncle Sam, which sucks. But you have to look at it and say, "I thank God that I live in that tax bracket." Believe me, we're certainly not complaining.

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