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Reichen's return

Reichen's return

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Winning The Amazing Race got Reichen Lehmkuhl $1 million and a measure of celebrity. But can an openly gay reality TV graduate make it as an actor? His new project may tell

Here's a new recipe: Write one horror film. Cast it with beautiful reality stars we either adore watching or hope to see disemboweled. Mix well in a house they all share during production. Simmer by filming the off-set bitch-slapping and backstabbing. Serve as a television show that will air for several weeks prior to the movie's release.

Delicious? Or half-baked? Either way, this synergizing of reality television and Hollywood product--with a built-in advertising campaign--is the basis of TV's new Kill Reality, debuting July 25 on E! The queer ingredient is handsome Reichen Lehmkuhl, who along with his ex-husband, Chip Arndt, won The Amazing Race 4 and quickly became a gay household name.

"Yes, the movie stems from a reality television world, but we're not looking to extend our 15 minutes of fame," says Lehmkuhl of Kill Reality and the movie, called The Scorned, that the show is documenting.

With Trishelle Cannatella from The Real World Las Vegas, Jenna Morasca of Survivor: The Amazon, and Ethan Zohn of Survivor: Africa along for the slashing on Kill Reality, Lehmkuhl is loaded with optimism. "We know a lot about the entertainment business, and we're all trying to go forward with that and use it," he says.

May the killing--and jokes about reality contestants trying to establish themselves as legit actors--begin!

But first let's get a reality check. It's not like Lehmkuhl is just any average game show also-ran. As this magazine's cover and the previous pages illustrate, the camera loves him. Just mention his name and the first thing fans in general (and gay men in particular) mention is his rock-hard body and handsome face. Even The Scorned's heterosexual producer, Scott Zakarin, is quick to point out, "Reichen is so smoldering that he defies sexual boundaries. It doesn't matter that he's gay--everybody's attracted to Reichen."

Sure, Zakarin and others will also mention Lehmkuhl's stint on The Young and the Restless, his having been in an episode of Frasier's final season, and his role as the deliveryman Mimi fell for on The Drew Carey Show. But what people ultimately return to are those matinee-idol looks.

So is it possible for someone with such a strong reputation for being a gay sex symbol to make that leap into mainstream acting roles?

Since he was 12 years old Lehmkuhl has dreamed of becoming an actor, and he began taking classes after moving to Los Angeles in 1996. But as with many hopefuls, years of struggling led eventually to giving up on the whole prospect and turning to other pursuits. A former Air Force Academy cadet, Lehmkuhl founded a successful charter airline business, and life went on. Then came his and Arndt's win on CBS's The Amazing Race. Lehmkuhl describes this event as "a spiritual sign for me to follow my dream," and he soon left his business; hired a manager, two agents, and an attorney; and dedicated his life to acting once more. No fool, he also cultivated a lucrative enterprise from his beefcake image. His offered his six-pack abs to sell fitness supplements, and his 2005 calendar sold out from his Web site. Such side pursuits fueled his hunky image more than his acting resume, and even Lehmkuhl admits to feeling the effects.

"It's a double-edged sword," he observes. "I can't look back and regret the things that I've done, because [being] marketed as a gay sex symbol has definitely put me in the public eye. But I don't think those are things that [will] necessarily help me be taken as a serious actor."

The sad truth, says casting director Andrew Strauser, is that even without Lehmkuhl's history as a gay sex icon, most people in the entertainment industry don't take reality stars seriously for important scripted projects. This stems from an obvious handicap: Reality contestants are cast to represent everyday people, and they find public recognition by portraying themselves, not by playing a role. It's the reverse of the usual Hollywood story, in which the public discovers a new face in a fictional role and then hopes to learn something about the person behind the screen. To break into acting, Strauser says, "it's important to capitalize on whatever fame you have, but that will only get you so far. Beyond that, you have to study, put in the work, and push your real talents. [Those who do that] are the people who last." Lehmkuhl has heard that message and continually pursues acting classes and auditions.

But he's competing for the spotlight with another set of out reality TV stars who seem to have found booming crossover appeal: the gay "experts" on skill-focused shows. Strauser points to Michael Moloney from Extreme Makeover: Home Edition; Robert Verdi, who moved from Surprise by Design to being a red carpet host for E!; and the Fab 5 from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, who have not only a successful show but product endorsements. Among gay and lesbian contestants from competitive shows, the edge for staying in the limelight may go to those like Big Brother season 3's Marcellas Reynolds, who previously worked as actor, a model, and a stylist. "He's handsome and he's a fashion stylist," says Strauser. "He's able to parlay his reality success because he has a very specific skill to draw upon." Reynolds is now negotiating to appear in an urban makeover show on BET.

Another semi-success story: Dan Renzi, a well-known gay reality TV figure since his 1996 Real World debut who recently participated in the Coming Out Party DVD. He not only has an acting background, says Strauser, he has a sharp wit, thus offering casting directors more than just a pretty face. Knowing that becoming an actor was an uphill battle, Renzi stuck to his reality roots, appearing on many subsequent MTV competitions while also building an offscreen career. He explains, "Doing TV shows just fit into what I wanted to do. It's fun, but the way I've made my money is by working as a public speaker [and] as a pop culture writer for the New York Post."

There have been plenty of other familiar gay faces on reality television who have attempted to maintain their fame beyond the end of their first show. From Brandon Quinton on Survivor and Chris Beckman on The Real World Chicago to the house of cuties on Boy Meets Boy, good-looking (and mostly white) guys have been trying to extend their 15 minutes for years. But while most have faded from view, Lehmkuhl has stuck around. He's become the proverbial big fish in a small gay pond: The queer populace has supported his iconic success (if not his acting aspirations) by requesting his presence at pride festivals, fund-raisers, and political events. That's because Lehmkuhl is out and seemingly more accessible than other queer celebrities, says Howard Bragman, a public relations consultant and founder of FifteenMinutes.com. And that, in turn, is because of his roots in reality television.

"It's one of the places where gays are equal," Bragman says, pointing out that viewers often feel as though they know a reality star's true personality more than that of an actor on a scripted show. What's even more important to a disenfranchised group like gays is that in the world of reality television we are often winners. "Richard Hatch was the first big Survivor winner," Bragman observes. "Jay McCarroll won Project Runway; Reichen and Chip won Amazing Race. Those are pop culture heroics, so these are pop culture heroes."

While fan appeal or community support doesn't necessarily make a reality TV star into a thespian, especially one with crossover appeal, The Scorned is designed to change all that. It's a major film, the success of which could lift the cast's status to that of legit actors or cult icons. Or it could be the road to The Surreal Life, the Love Boat of 21st-century reality TV.

"I'll be interested to see how Reichen is in the film," says Renzi, who auditioned for multiple heterosexual roles in The Scorned. "When I read, they were like, 'Dan, good read, very natural...now try it again and be a little less gay,' " Renzi laughs, recalling the moment. "When [Reichen] read, it was like a purse fell out of his mouth. Maybe it does help to be pretty."

For Lehmkuhl, the idea that he and his fellow cast members will make it huge isn't simply a dream--it's a certainty. "The other night we compared it to Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, who were nothing [on] The Mickey Mouse Club," he says. "We're kind of like the reality TV [version]. We're the first trendsetters that got really popular really fast, and I think that if we all stick together and use our experience and smarts, we're all going to be successful, just like [those kids from] The Mickey Mouse Club."

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