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Gay Survivor
Spills a Reality Secret

Gay Survivor
Spills a Reality Secret

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Twenty-nine-year-old Charlie Herschel, who makes his reality-TV debut on Survivor: Gabon Thursday night, was a confidant of Clay Aiken's before Aiken decided to come out of the closet this week. Here, Charlie talks to The Advocate about their friendship, impending television fame, and how he managed to take seven weeks leave from his New York law firm to film in Africa.

It's a big week for Charlie Herschel. Forty-eight hours before his big debut on the 17th season of Survivor, the 29-year-old New York-based corporate lawyer is finding out with the rest of the world that his online chat buddy of two years, American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken, has announced on the cover of People that he's gay. The two started chatting on social networking site Connexion.org during the whole Kelly Ripa hand-over-the-mouth hubbub, and those early chat fests developed into a casual friendship while Aiken was in New York starring in Broadway's Spamalot.

"There was a point when I was in law school that I was on IM almost every day, so we used to IM almost every day," says Herschel, who has maintained a friendship with Aiken ever since.

Then Herschel got the call to partake in the experience of a lifetime, packed up his life, and flew halfway across the world to Africa, putting those IM chat sessions momentarily on hold. He left his swank New York law firm behind to rough it in Gabon with 17 other reality-star wannabes. And as with past seasons of Survivor, the production pretty much guaranteed that Herschel was separated from the outside world for almost two months, so he missed all of the media attention paid to Aiken's baby, born August 8 through a surrogate, and the gossipy banter that followed.

Now that Herschel's back in New York and awaiting the media firestorm that is sure to greet his big reality show debut, the strong but unassuming marathon runner is about to get a taste of what it feels like to be openly gay and in the public eye -- something he can now share in common with his fellow reality-star friend. But Herschel says he didn't pursue Survivor for fortune or the gay media fame that is so often bestowed on attractive reality show grads. His reason for doing the show was simple -- it's something he's dreamed of since season 1...and if it helps him find the man of his dreams, all the better.

The Advocate:Was auditioning for Survivor something you'd actively pursued for a long time, or was it a spur-of-the-moment decision?Charlie Herschel: I'd been a huge fan ever since the first season, but you just read about the tens of thousands of applicants, so I never threw in an application because I thought it would be a complete waste of time. Then I was twiddling around one weekend at my desk, procrastinating, and I was like, I'm never going to get this experience unless I at least try once to apply. One thing led to another and I finally got cast.

So basically, you're telling me your boss has your procrastinating to thank for him losing you to Survivor? Exactly.

How does one tell his boss, "Um, I need to take several weeks off to go live in the middle of nowhere and film a reality show"? I went to my boss... I was very nervous. I work at a big corporate law firm, it's one of the three biggest law firms here in New York. I was just completely honest with him. I said, "This has been a dream of mine forever. I love my job and my job will come first, but I'm hoping we can work this out that I can take off seven weeks for the summer." And he was like, "Charlie, if I can help you realize your dream, this is the best day of my year so far." They were really supportive of me, and it didn't hurt that the economy is tanking, so taking me off payroll for seven weeks didn't hurt them.

You told the website Reality Blurred that you want to be the gay, white, athletic, male version of Cirie? Was that your strategy going in? My strategy going in was just to be very adaptable and flexible. I've watched every season, and you just never know what to expect with each season. You don't know who the characters are going to be, you don't know who's going to be in your tribe, so I thought that I would be able to be like the gay, white, athletic Cirie, and that would help me in that I wouldn't be the most threatening person there but I wouldn't obviously be such a weak link on the tribe that they would want to vote me off right away.

Reality shows have been criticized in the past for casting the token gay character. Did you have any worries about that? On Survivor, a lot have romantic interests out there and that distracts them from winning the game. I knew I was never going to be tempted out there because I was going to be the only gay person, so if anything, I knew it was just going to help my game. But it does add a little bit of stress being the only gay character and knowing you're going to be representing that demographic.

You're friends with someone who knows a bit about what it's like to be in the spotlight of the gay community: Clay Aiken. Well, he's not a close friend of mine. We've only hung out, like, twice. I fell out of touch with him for a little while, but there was a point when I was in law school that I was on IM almost every day, so we used to IM almost every day. But we haven't spoken since I got back from Africa, so he doesn't even know I was on Survivor. But there was a point, up through when I left for Survivor, where we were in pretty close contact.

Were you surprised then yesterday to find out that he'd come out? I was pretty surprised that he came out, just because he seemed pretty adamant about being private about that sort of stuff with the public. He's open with his family and friends and everything though.

The People cover suggests he finally decided to come out because he didn't want to raise a kid to think it was OK to lie about who you are. Why do you think he finally decided to come out? I really have no idea. I imagine it's really hard to harbor such a deep secret that people continue to probe you on in every interview that you give. If you're a public figure like that, it must be really difficult. At a certain point, coming out is a little bit easier for your life, and I think we all make that move at different points, and at a certain point he weighed those options, and I'm sure it was better for him.

Now that you're back in New York, do you plan on reaching out to him? Definitely. I came back from Africa and I hadn't read the news for two months, and he was all over the news because of the baby. So I didn't want to be one of those people who, now that he's all of a sudden back in the spotlight, would reach out and say, "Hey, what's going on?" When he was here doing Spamalot the first time, his corporate apartment was right near my office, so I'm sure he'll be nearby if he wants to hang out -- I definitely would be open to that.

Has he always seemed to you to be pretty open in his personal life? One hundred percent open.

Does he go out in New York to the gay clubs? He's just like a normal guy who was thrust into the limelight because of this reality show. This is for him to talk about, but I don't think he drinks, he's not a party animal. I don't think he has any interest in that, whether they be straight clubs, gay clubs. Hopefully now he'll be found more at gay charity fund-raisers or functions, but I don't expect to see him at Beige anytime soon.

Knowing what you know of Clay, do you think he's somebody who would take on more of a political voice or perhaps attend the big gay charity functions? I expect it. I know he's a spokesperson for UNICEF and he's really big on giving back. He has a big heart, and I think he's in a position right now where he can change a lot of people's minds and views. I don't know if we've ever seen a single gay dad come out in the public like this.

Well, now you two have a little something in common -- you're both gay reality show celebs. The whole idea of being gay while you're on the reality show, though, is a tough one. Do you worry about being compared to any past gay contestants? I was a little nervous going in that I'd be compared to Todd, who won a few seasons ago. When I was watching Todd's season in China, I really liked Todd a lot, but I never thought I was similar to him at all. Then going through casting, it seemed like people have such closed-minded ideas of gay people that you fit a gay person down to brown hair and brown eyes and they immediately assume you're the other gay person who sat there with brown hair and brown eyes. So I definitely wanted to go in there and prove that I was different than Todd.

Regardless of how viewers react, it's definitely going to open you up to a whole new fan base, that's for sure. Have you given any thought to how you're going to keep up with the endless flood of fan mail and date requests you're bound to receive once the new season premieres? [Laughs] If this helps me find the man of my dreams, then I just welcome that with open arms. I've been single for a long time, so I am not seeing that as a problem.

So, what comes next for you, once the show airs? Is it back to work, business as usual? Part of my firm being so supportive with allowing me to go on this adventure was that I agreed beforehand that I would return to work immediately, so literally 24 hours after I got back from Africa, I was back at my desk reviewing documents, back at the job that I've been at for a while now. So yeah, business as usual. It's a little distracting having all this hoopla over the show, but it's really fun. I think it's really exciting people, especially in this really awful, depressing economy. It's giving people around here something to be excited about.

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