The following interview is part of The Advocate's "Rocky Road" series, which is inspired by the upcoming Amazon Prime Video film Uncle Frank, out November 25, and its themes of family acceptance, coming out, and revelatory road trips.
From a small farming town in Washington State to his big move to Los Angeles years ago, Ross Mathews, the affable, inspirational TV personality and RuPaul’s Drag Race judge has always been authentically himself.
“I come from a small farm town. When I left to the big city, I was going to change and come back a different person. I just happen to have lucked out and had the best family, the best mom in particular, in the history of time,” Mathews told The Advocate in a recent video interview.
“When I moved to Los Angeles and came home my first Thanksgiving, I remember wearing platforms, I think I had dyed my hair purple or something. It was just completely different," he says. "My mom, though, was just so wonderful. And I know that’s not everybody’s experience. But she was just so proud of me for being an individual. I think she saw her hard work of constantly instilling the ideology of I can do anything sort of really taking shape in adulthood.”
Above: The Advocate interviews Ross Matthews.
While he credits his family and particularly his mom with being open and accepting, he says he grew up never seeing someone who looked like him — without queer role models. Since Mathews, who jokes, “I’ve been gay since birth,” first appeared as Ross the Intern on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, it’s been part of his mission to be visible and represent for those coming up behind him.
“I remember being a kid in a farm town and realizing I was gay and then asking myself, What does a gay grown-up person look like?” Mathews says. “And then when I couldn't picture it, I remember asking myself, Can I grow up? Because it certainly wasn't in my hometown. And it wasn't on television.”
“It's something that has driven me since 2001 when I first got on television, I thought, You know, just be the example you didn't have,” Mathews says, adding that he’s happy for LGBTQ+ kids today who have more visibility than queer people of even just a generation ago.
With the holidays around the corner, Mathews, who last year spent part of the day as a field reporter for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, recalls going home for the holidays after publicly out and how he noticed the world was already expanding for LGBTQ+ people. He was in his late 20s when he brought a boyfriend home. Mathews thought he’d have to have a conversation with his 9-year-old nephew about his being out and on TV. But it didn't come up.
“I remember thinking, God, I have to sit down and talk to him because he knows I'm gay, just because, you know, I'm on TV. And it's not a secret and everything,” Mathews says. “But I wonder if he's ever seen a gay couple or something. So I really want to purposely have a conversation with him.
“I remember waking up that first morning [home for the holidays], my partner and I in the same bed and hearing my nephew in the living room. Suddenly, the door burst open and he ran in and jumped in. He was like, ‘Hi, I'm Kai,’ and he wanted to meet him. We just sat there and talked.
“And I just realized this whole, this generational shift. What he understands at 9 is not what I understood at 9. And what I accepted as normal at 9 is not what he saw. So that was a beautiful moment.”
Since March, despite having to cancel the tour for his book Name Drop, Mathews has kept busy appearing with Drew Barrymore on her new talk show and hosting his podcast, Straight Talk With Ross Mathews. He’s recently welcomed Rosie O’Donnell and Lisa Vanderpump as guests. And he’s excited to get back to RuPaul’s Drag Race, which is set to begin filming again. This year, there’s no Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade where Mathews can regale viewers with his homespun brand of sass. But he’s looking forward to a new kind of Thanksgiving.
“This year, I'm going to start a new tradition. It's the only option I have. The beautiful thing is I'm in this wonderful new relationship. I'll be in New York for the holidays,” Mathews says. “We're going to start our tradition. And I'll let you know what that is after I do it. Because I don't know. But I'm open to whatever we decide to do. It may be a Hungry-Man [TV dinner] and a bottle of cheap wine. Who knows?”
Something that won’t change is Mathews’s commitment to being a light for LGBTQ+ people. With so many folks sidelined from their families and being forced to create new holiday rituals, Mathews weighs in on the importance of being there for queer people who don’t have the supportive family he had.
“Whether you're lucky enough to have found your found family or if you are still searching for those people, they're out there. I can tell you. But I will tell you, what's most important is if you are searching for that found family, reach out, try to meet people, try to meet friends. If you have one friend and you don't want to be alone on Thanksgiving, ask to be on Zoom with them.
“I encourage people to reach out if they're feeling alone, if they're feeling like they don't have that connection with their family, or they don't have that connection with their blood family,” Mathews says.
“Reach out and our community will scoop you up. I know we can't physically be together right now. But I think we're going to be reinventing Thanksgiving on Zoom and things.”
Watch the full interview with Mathews above and follow his podcast and latest adventures at HelloRoss.com. And don't miss Uncle Frank, a new Amazon Prime Video film by Alan Ball premiering November 25, which also addresses these themes of family and the "rocky road" toward acceptance and self-acceptance.