The Road to Success
In the early days of AfterEllen.com, I couldn’t find any established actors willing to talk about being gay, even when everyone knew they were.
Out musicians were also hard to come by. Although Melissa Etheridge and k.d. lang had bravely come out a decade earlier, when they were relatively well-known singers, few musicians — high-profile or not — had followed their example.
In 2003, I published a profile on AfterEllen.com of an openly gay up-and-coming musician written by someone who wrote for me occasionally, only to wake up the next morning with voicemail from the musician’s publicist threatening to sue us if we didn’t pull the the article down, because it was sending hundreds of lesbians over to the musician’s message board, where they were posting comments thanking the musician for being out.
Apparently, she wasn’t that out, after all.
Although I don’t think the musician and her publicist handled that particular situation very well, I understood where the fear was coming from: true stories abound of talented female musicians being told by their labels not to come out or they’d drop them.
In 2004, I had a conversation with a very well-known publicist in the industry who represented more than one high-profile gay actress. She turned down my (very polite) request for an interview with one of her clients by telling me flat out, “I advise my clients never to talk about their sexuality.”
The publicist herself is a lesbian, and she was just doing her job. Actors, comedians, musicians, and (to lesser degree) novelists have historically had a much better chance of becoming a proven success by staying closeted.
In fact, until recently, staying closeted was arguably the only way to achieve career success as it’s traditionally defined.
Ellen DeGeneres was already fairly well-known by the time she came out in 1997, and she still paid a heavy price for it, because she was one of the first high-profile women on TV to come out.
Comedian Wanda Sykes and TV journalist Jane Valez-Mitchell both worked their way up their respective career ladders before coming out publicly, as did Suze Orman and Cat Cora, although they all handled it in different ways.
Comedian Wanda Sykes and Chef Cat Cora
But signs have emerged in the last few years that this model is no longer the only path to success in entertainment and the media.
Rachel Maddow was offered the MSNBC hosting job despite being openly gay for years. Actress Clementine Ford came out in the last year, and was subsequently offered a role on the CBS daytime drama The Young and the Restless. Out actresses Portia de Rossi, Sarah Paulson, Cherry Jones and Jane Lynch have all been offered prominent roles on television in recent years, and relatively unknown actor Jasika Nicole was out in her first interview with The New York Times when Fox’s hit show Fringe became a hit.
One of the most high-profile young actors, Lindsay Lohan, continued to land acting roles after she publicly confirmed her on-and-off relationship with Samantha Ronson in 2008 (although her career has suffered due to other personal issues). During one of their off-periods, she even filmed a satirical online dating ad that referenced her bisexuality.