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Love, Latin
American style

Love, Latin
American style

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Gays pilot a new culture-crossing entertainment phenomenon--telenovelas.

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 Cafe 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 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."

Bo 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 America. 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 Galan, 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

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."

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