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An Ode to Florian, GLOW's Lost 'Gay Icon'

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There was a lot of drama on display this season of GLOW — Netflix's Emmy-nominated series inspired by the real-life heroes of women's wrestling, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. In and out of the rink, the ladies grappled with a Russian kidnapper, a #MeToo moment, and an uncertain future for their show.

But out of the limelight, two of the male characters quietly grappled with their own drama. (Spoilers ahead.) Sebastian "BASH" Howard (Chris Lowell), a producer of the wrestling series, goes in search of his best friend and butler, Florian (Alex Rich). The search uncovered the secret life of Florian, who apparently frequented gay bars. As it turns out, he died in a hospital in San Francisco of an AIDS-related illness.

To resolve a few of the unanswered questions left by this shocking development, The Advocate spoke with Rich (Genius: Picasso) about the life and tragic end of his character, who has been declared a "gay icon" by fans.

The Advocate: First off, congratulations on the Emmy nominations for GLOW and your other series, Genius: Picasso. What was your reaction when you heard the news?
Alex Rich: Oh, man. Thank you! The Emmy nominations still feel like melatonin-induced hysteria. To be trusted with roles of any size in such an impactful project is already surreal and for the [Television] Academy to recognize the incredible passion the cast and crew poured into both shows' is mind-bending. As for my real-time reaction, I woke up to the news, rolled onto the floor, and texted about a million excited emojis to people because I couldn't find the words.

We're sorry that your character passed this season. What will you miss most about being on the show?
The people. 100 percent. Our showrunners, casting directors, and everyone else responsible for assembling the team did a fantastic job of creating a collaborative and supportive family of talents in both the cast and crew. Florian was my first recurring role and I'll be forever grateful for how welcome I felt on set. The camaraderie you feel when watching is a pure reflection of the reality behind the scenes.

What will you miss most about playing Florian?
The cut-off jorts and tailcoat combo. If you can find me a homie that pulls off that epicness in real life, I'll bring you a family pack of Lucky Charms. 

Where did the idea for the tuxedo/jorts ensemble come from?
I love that look. Beth Morgan and the brilliant costuming team dreamt up that iconic and insanely cool combo. I wish I had the creativity and style sense to create something so hilariously character-defining. I can't imagine Florian without that element. 

How did you initially prepare to play Florian?
Oh, wow, the initial prep feels like a million years ago. I remember the audition being a bit intimidating because I didn't feel so comfortable in the comedy space and had to navigate this incredible script and tone. Florian, though, always felt like a transplant from my high school friends so I tried to revert back to that culture. Meeting with the costuming department was also extremely helpful in figuring out who Florian was and how much fun he could be. 

Your character has a lot of queer fans. What are some memorable messages you’ve received from them?
Florian's queer fan base has been one of the most rewarding parts of my journey with GLOW. The day after the first season aired, I had a young fan reach out expressing how inspired he was by Florian, how hard it has been for him growing up, and if I had any advice about the pursuit of acting. Another fan [created] an impressive GIF naming Florian a "gay icon." The conflation of the actor and the character can be delicate and intimidating, but I'm so humbled by the outpouring of love and the queer audiences' identification with Florian. 

Why does Florian inspire such love?
Florian and Bash's relationship is so charming, loving, and uncluttered that I think their dynamic is refreshing and underrepresented on TV. They feel real, supportive and connected in a way that we don't often see. To be able to craft a relationship that is so light-hearted, fun, and simple without losing the ups and downs that make intimacy human is a true testament to the writers' brilliance and Chris Lowell's generosity as an actor. Florian feels like a puppy; the wide-eyed and loving optimism, sky-high curls, and hilarious style make him really hard to hate. 

When did you first know your character was queer? 
I had a hunch that Florian might be queer when I read the initial [script] for the audition. I couldn't think of another logical reason for this young Malibu surfer dude to be a butler in his friend's house. Throughout the entire first season, I felt like we were teetering on the edge of those definitions and that dynamic and that process felt very exciting and genuine. I half-expected a twist in Florian falling in love with one of the Gorgeous Ladies, but I love that we explored the duplicity and subtlety of his queer identity. 

When did you first know Florian was HIV-positive?
I could never have expected that Florian's arc would have taken that turn. HIV was such a tragic and important part of 80s queer culture, and I applaud the writers [for] bringing those stories to the forefront in such an emotional and soul-crushing way. The moments where Bash looks for Florian, giving us a glimpse into 80s queer culture, and hears about his death, through which we see the hysteria around HIV, were so evocative. I'm not ashamed to say I destroyed some tissue boxes — well, toilet paper rolls if I'm honest — watching those scenes.

Describe Florian’s relationship with Bash.
Florian and Bash exist in that strange, charged space I think we all know too well. We never see them cross the line, but there seems to be an electricity between them and a familiarity that makes their dynamic so human and relatable. They've known each other since they were kids, live together, and clearly love each other very deeply, even if the nature of that love is up for debate. 

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Fans have interpreted a homoerotic subtext to your relationship. How much of that was intentional in your acting?
The intention was definitely there, but the complexity and reality of their relationship comes from the subtlety and lack of clarity with their dynamic. 

You were only in one scene this season. But Florian’s disappearance was a major plot point. Why do you think Florian left Bash during a time he clearly could have used a friend?
In the 80s, the HIV epidemic was terrifying, isolating, shameful and tragic. I think that Florian left Bash to spare him the details of his gruesome death sentence. While losing someone is tough, watching someone disintegrate and wither away is much tougher. Also, coming out as a gay man with HIV was an impossible mountain to overcome in a time that was unsure about the disease and still closed-minded in its acceptance of a queer lifestyle. Florian would have had to overcome all of those obstacles by staying. In leaving, he avoided the added heartbreak of burdening his closest friend. 

We learn Florian, like many gay men in that time period, died alone in a hospital of an AIDS-related illness. Why is it important to hear that story today?
In showing the isolation and stigma through a lonely death from AIDS, the viewers understand the emotional weight of that diagnosis. We also see how far the community has come and how rampant and tragic that time was for the queer community. Florian was such a vibrant, loving, hilariously excitable character; the juxtaposition of that brightness and the concept of a dark, solitary death with no friends around and no one to even take the body highlights not only the sadness that underwrote that time period but also the importance of destigmatizing HIV today and boosting up the positive population so that no person suffers that horrible an end. 

As a viewer, did you blame Bash for abandoning his friend’s body?
Bash is a growing, developing individual, struggling to make his own name outside of his mother's shadow and has lived a truly coddled lifestyle. I think Florian's death was too much adulthood for him to process, especially in the rollercoaster of potentially losing the one thing he has built for himself in GLOW. I think that his reaction feels real. It's much easier as a human to avoid that deep of a cut and sad reality than to entertain it and let it in. I don't blame Bash, but I do think the timing, the time-period, and the lifestyle that made him incapable of processing that information is unfortunate. 

What would Florian have wanted his friend to do?
I really don't think Florian would have wanted Bash to see his downfall. If he did, though, I imagine he would've just asked for comfort. In the 80s, people knew so much less about HIV and AIDS than we do now and I'm sure that Florian would have felt contagious and ashamed; he would have hated the concept of putting Bash at risk and hurting him physically or emotionally. 

Do you think Florian’s death may have factored into Bash’s impulsive decision to marry at the end of season 2?
Absolutely. The depression and loss of someone he cared about so deeply must have left him reeling. Bash has all of the love in the world to give and is so buoyant. When he saw Britannica struggling against the concept of marrying Cupcake, I'm sure he would have seen nothing but the opportunity to help. He also needed to fight against the confrontation of his identity and wanted to rebel against the life he had seen Florian live when he went to the gay bar with Macchu Picchu and Britannica. 

How much has HIV stigma changed between then and now?
Immensely. With the advances made in medicine, the general increased acceptance and tolerance of the queer community, and the research done to develop a better understanding of the illness, HIV seems a lot less terrifying today than it was in the 80s. I think we still have a very long way to go in destigmatizing the HIV-positive community, but we've moved leaps and bounds above where we were in the 80s when the disease was still largely a mystery. 

There are still so few HIV-positive characters on TV. As an actor, how does it feel to have been a part of this representation?
It's an incredible gift to be able to present an underrepresented and extremely difficult portion of society. HIV is still a huge problem, both in its contraction and stigmatization. The more we can bring the reality of an HIV-positive experience to light, the more tolerant people will be of the struggles associated and I think that that movement is extremely powerful and important. The way Florian and Bash's struggle has been handled in this season is extremely relatable, and when people can identify with an HIV-positive character on TV, I really believe they'll be more compassionate to the struggles in real life. 

What does heaven for Florian look like?
Malibu waves, GLOW bots, party snacks, Bash, and Lucky Charms' marshmallow clouds. 

Is Barb from Stranger Things there?
I feel like they're doing the running man under a rainbow. 

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Tags: television, HIV

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