Michaela Jae Rodriguez
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Love, Latin
American style

Love, Latin
            American style

Openly gay
Angeleno Carlos Portugal left his home in Cuba as a boy so
his family could begin a new and better life in the
United States. But he gets nostalgic and craves
things, like coffee with the scent of a woman.

Actually,
that’s Café con Aroma de Mujer, and
it’s not a locally brewed
Cuban beverage—it’s the title of a
telenovela, a type of soap opera as tightly woven
into the cloth of modern Latin American cultures as,
say, chorizo, beans, and mojitos. And today, Carlos
Portugal is a key figure in remaking
telenovelas in English for the U.S. market,
specifically an NBC offering for 2007 titled Body of
Desire.
It's a trend that has already received
media attention thanks to ABC’s hugely successful
ratings juggernaut Ugly Betty, and Bo Derek and
Morgan Fairchild’s bitch-slap high jinks on
MyNetwork’s campy Fashion House in 2006. But
what hasn't received so much press to date is the fact
that it’s so gay. Muy, muy gay.

Garrett Swann and Tony Tripoli from Fashion House | Advocate.comGarrett Swann and Tony Tripoli on Fashion House 

Like elsewhere in
the nooks, crannies, and master soundstages of the
Hollywood entertainment business, gays occupy prominent
positions behind the scenes as producers, head
writers, and directors, infusing these shows with
campy sensibility, cheeky (and very American) irony, snappy
dialogue, and a revival of Dynasty-era
over-the-topness. They’re also representing LGBT
people onscreen with a diversity and breadth lacking
in today’s dry TV landscape: a pair of sassy
designers on Fashion House, a fey preteen on
Ugly Betty, a lesbian psychic on Body of
Desire,
and a closeted assassin played by
heartthrob Casper Van Dien on Watch Over Me. 

Characterized by
limited runs rarely lasting more than a year, and
ranging from mushily romantic to socially aware and topical,
telenovelas bring Spanish-speaking households,
families, and friends together daily in Latin
America, Spain, and even the Philippines. They
also represent audiovisual comfort food for the
growing ranks of Latino immigrants to the United States who
miss the familiar language, situations, and
characters.

Out author
Eduardo Santiago’s 2006 novel Tomorrow They
Will Kiss
involved a trio of Cuban-American women
united by telenovela fever; Ugly Betty's
out creative executive producer, Silvio Horta, is also a
fan. "Growing up as a Cuban-American in Miami, I had
to watch them when I came home from school,”
Horta reminisces. “We would make fun, but we were
also addicted to them.” Telenovelas aren't
completely alien to Americans: They've long been a source of
wide-eyed fascination and amusement for channel
surfers who land on Telemundo or Univision during a
pivotal moment. “I would switch over occasionally
because they'd have people with no shirts on,” admits
out Fashion House actor Tony Tripoli.
“And that’s the extent of my Spanish:
hot guys with no shirts on.”

Twentieth
Television senior vice president of programming,
Stephen Brown, is one of the gays who led the charge.
During July 2005 he and other big network executives
noticed an unusual spike or glitch in the ratings that
elicited a “Caramba!”: Other
networks' prime-time ratings were being eclipsed by
Spanish-language network Univision. What was
responsible for tilting the seesaw? Telenovelas. It
triggered a mass epiphany that went something like,
Were we to appropriate the telenovela
format and translate or remake these shows, we
could draw in a burgeoning population of first- and
second-generation Latin Americans thanks to the
familiarity factor, plus a whole new
English-speaking audience as well.
 

And so Brown and
20th Television president of programming Paul Buccieri
accelerated the development of U.S. adaptations for daytime
syndication.

A professed fan
of Knots Landing, Dallas, and other iconic
prime-time dramas—which he watched during their
heyday at West Hollywood, Calif., gay bar
Revolver—Brown was determined to adapt equally
engaging and fun yet contemporary programs. After combing
through rights catalogs for prospects and reading
hundreds of synopses, he found Salir de Noche,
a Cuban telenovela that revolved around an
iconoclastic fashion-house matriarch.

“It seemed
like something exciting,” Brown recalls, “and
a guilty pleasure that would make for a good story
right off the bat.” The endeavor was first
labeled a “translation,” reportedly in part to
sidestep the Writers Guild of America’s demands and
requirements, but those issues have since
been resolved. The adaptation’s title
became Fashion House, and a number of gay
talents were enlisted to participate, including staff
writers Richard Andreoli and Ted Koland and director
Jeremy Stanford. (Desire's gay staff included writer
Kyle Buchanan and director P. David Ebersol).
“We have gay writers and directors, I’m
gay, and my son is gay,” Brown reveals.
“He’s 23, and I fly things by him all
the time. When we cast Morgan Fairchild and Bo Derek [in
Fashion House] he was freaking out and loved
it.”

Morgan Fairchild and Bo Derek in Fashion House | Advocate.comBo Derek smashes Morgan Fairchild's face into her own
wedding cake on Fashion House.
 

As to why gays
were so well-suited to constructing Fashion House,
Brown responds that it’s all about the
sensibility. “In Fashion House there’s
this way of looking at the world,” he says.
“It’s a little tongue-in-cheek, a little
camp. There are twists, turns, and high drama that we
all revel in, and that quick, smart, witty banter—out
gay writers bring that to the table because
that’s the way we interact with each other.
Like the show’s line, ‘Next time you're going
to kiss my ass, make sure you're wearing a decent
color.’ My ex watched every night, and when
there was a funny line he texted it to his best
friend.”

Brown also wanted
to incorporate queer characters, so designers Hans and
Harold—played by out actors Tripoli and Garrett
Swann—were created. “One of the things
we decided first off was that all these stories needed to
have a sense of inclusiveness,” Brown notes.
“It wasn't a necessarily conscious effort that
we needed to have gay characters here or there.
That’s just the way life is, and it needs to be a
reflection of the way life is because that’s
what telenovelas do, albeit in a heightened
sense.”

In fact, gays
have been represented in telenovelas for decades,
including Mexico’s Tierra de Pasiones and
Mi Segunda Madre, and Brazil’s
Torre de Babel and América. The
latter’s climactic episode, which was expected
to feature a gay kiss between its handsome young
leads, ignited an international stir in 2005. The kiss
didn't make it to air (though it was reportedly
filmed), outraging Brazilian gay activists and
inspiring numerous “We want to see the kiss”
demonstrations (and if you saw the actors, you'd throw
a tantrum too). Still, like most queer representations
of yore, these depictions have largely been negative
swishy stereotypes and diabolical villains.

“They were
completely over-the-top, very effeminate men used for comic
relief,” Portugal recalls. “And there were
some characters like butlers who were never married,
never had an interest in women, and would always
be fawning over the handsome lead. It was never stated
that they were gay, but if you read between the lines,
they were very frustrated homosexuals.”

Fashion House and Desire debuted September 5
on MyNetwork, a Fox-owned entity created to fill the
vacant channels left when UPN and the WB merged to
become the CW Network. It was a case of serendipity: The
shows, initially developed for daytime syndication, found a
prime-time platform of their own, and the network
gained an identity. Each 65-episode show aired over 13
weeks and was immediately followed by another
brand-new 13-week-long production. This continuous stream of
fresh original programming gave MyNetwork a leg up in the
ratings, especially during the other networks’
winter and summer rerun doldrums.

Upcoming
MyNetwork products are decidedly campier and even more
attractive to the queer eye thanks to the superior ratings
of Fashion House in comparison to dark melodrama
Desire. MyNetwork’s second wave of
programming, which started December 5, included
Wicked Wicked Games, with Tatum
O’Neal as a twisted woman bent on revenge, and
Watch Over Me, in which Casper Van Dien plays
Andre, a closeted gay assassin. Andre's story sees
another gay character, Ryan (played by Omar Avila),
urge him out of the closet. Lesbians figure into the
third wave’s Saints & Sinners in
March, with bonus cat fights and pop-culture points from
stars Robin Givens and Maria Conchita Alonso. Also in
that season there is camp to the nth power
in The Heiress, starring Theresa Russell.
“It’s Romancing the Stone meets
Dynasty with more cat fights than ever,” Brown
promises, adding that gay characters feature prominently in
one of June's as-yet-unannounced titles.

2007 could prove
to be a zenith for telenovela fever and gay
characters with the addition of NBC's Body of Desire
to the party. Having worked on U.S. soaps like All
My Children
and One Life to Live, Portugal
was tapped by Galan Entertainment's Nely Galán,
whom he touts as one of the most gay-friendly folks in
the industry, to head up Body of Desire's
writing staff. “I was excited,” he says,
“because it’s a formula that worked
around the world but not in the United States.”

Tatum O'Neal in Wicked Wicked Games | Advocate.comTatum O'Neal in Wicked, Wicked Games 

Adapted from a
Colombian telenovela, Body of Desire concerns
a wealthy elderly white man in Palm Beach,
Fla., who dies, is reincarnated as a strapping
young Latino immigrant, and seeks revenge on his unfaithful
former wife. “The immigrant doesn't speak a
word of English,” Portugal says, “but when
the old man takes over his body he suddenly speaks perfect
English. We’re having fun with all that stuff.
Like with Ugly Betty, they have a sense of camp
and humor, and we think that would be a funny
twist.”

In adapting the
show, Portugal—who also makes his feature directorial
debut in the upcoming East Side Story, about a
gay Latino in a rapidly gentrifying Los Angeles
neighborhood—took a pathetic gay character that
assisted the show’s main villain and
reconceived him as a straight, jockish personal trainer
and chef. He also added several brand-new
representations of LGBT people, including a
lesbian couple, one of them a John Edwards–style
psychic, and a gay Latino artist. “I will
always be involved in projects where I can have Latino
and gay characters,” Portugal says.

Alas, a downside
to the telenovela format is that once a season
is over, the whole show is over—no sequels.
There’s one happy exception to this rule:
Ugly Betty, which Silvio Horta emphasizes
is a “serialized one-hour dramedy” merely
inspired by its Colombian source material and characters and
not an adaptation per se. Horta says that more gays
will appear—it’s set in the fashion
world, after all—and we could even see the
show’s sassy preteen, Justin, emerge as an
openly gay swan.

“We call
him a fashion-fabulous prodigy,” laughs Horta.
“He’s so young, and his interests, the
things he finds pleasure in and is fascinated by, are
very different than what most boys his age are into. People
will take from it what they will, and there’s a
lot of fun to be had with a boy who loves fashion,
especially playing off a fashion disaster like
Betty.”

Regardless of
what the telenovela revolution leads
to—cultural connections and a pro-gay utopia,
anyone?—Portugal feels our TVs could use the
jolt that this trend provides. “Telenovelas
take you back to what is really primal,” he
says. “The big themes like love, passion,
revenge—they’re very visceral that way.
How many more lawyer or doctor shows can you watch? We
love to see happy endings and bad people getting the
punishment that we don't witness them getting in
the real world. These shows are not only guilty
pleasures but wish fulfillment.”

Tags: World, World

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