“Truth or Dare”
Monday, Sept. 12
8633 Colesville Rd.
Silver Spring, Md.
“Madonna: Truth or Dare,” the landmark 1991 documentary (aka “In Bed With Madonna”) is widely remembered not only as an eye-popping memento of the singer’s legendary “Blond Ambition Tour,” but also as a gay cultural touchstone.
In some ways, it’s the gay equivalent of classic rockumentaries like “Gimme Shelter” or “The Last Waltz” but it’s more than that, too. Not only because it captures Our Lady at the peak of the zeitgeist, but also because its depiction of Madonna’s back-up dancers (of the seven, only Oliver Crumes was straight) being so matter-of-factly out that it felt almost otherworldly to the gay boys who lapped it up in Peoria and everywhere else.
In honor of its anniversary — it screens twice in the coming days at the AFI Silver — we caught up with Salim “Slam” Gauwloos, one of the “Blond Ambition” dancers whose onscreen kiss with the late Gabriel Trupin is one of the film’s most memorable moments. His comments have been slightly edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: Before we get to “Truth or Dare,” tell us a little about “Strike a Pose,” the reunion documentary you’re in with the other “Blond Ambition Tour” dancers. When will we get to see it in Washington?
GAUWLOOS: It’s a great movie, you’ll enjoy it. They’re working on a U.S. theatrical release early next year. Before everybody downloads it. You’ll see it soon. It’s a beautiful movie. They did a great job.
BLADE: But it has already been on the festival circuit, right?
GAUWLOOS: Yes. We mostly go out in twos, only in Berlin and Amsterdam they flew everybody over, but mostly just two of us to wherever. I went to Colombia, to Tel Aviv. It takes a lot of time always, but it’s fun. Almost like being on tour again.
BLADE: How did they pitch you on “Strike a Pose”?
GAUWLOOS: They approached me in 2013. I was doing a job, this big dance festival in Vienna and they contacted me. I said, “OK, I’ll meet with Reijer Zwaan,” one of the directors. He came to meet me in Vienna and we must have talked for about eight hours. It just felt right, I don’t know. I think the directors, Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan, these directors from Holland, they’re amazing storytellers. I did kind of think, “Do I really want to throw myself out there again to be judged really in some kind of way, I want to be careful about that,” but I had a really good feeling about it.
BLADE: Did you talk to the other dancers before agreeing to it?
GAUWLOOS: No. I think the last one to jump on board was Jose (Gutierez). I felt it really should be all the dancers. Of course Gabriel (Trupin), he passed away a long time ago, but his mother represents him in the movie and that’s really beautiful. It wouldn’t have been the same without all the dancers so in the end, we all agreed and started shooting in 2014.
BLADE: Had you seen the other five any since the “Truth or Dare” premiere or kept in touch with them at all?
GAUWLOOS: No. For example, Carlton (Wilborn), Oliver (Crumes) and Kevin (Stea), I hadn’t seen for probably close to 25 years. Maybe 24 years. And Luis (Camacho) I’d seen a little bit here and there but that was probably like 12 years. Jose (Gutierez) and I both live in New York so I saw him a little bit here and there but with most of them, I’d had literally no contact at all. It was so amazing to see them all again after 25 years.
BLADE: What was different about this project?
GAUWLOOS: We’ve been approached so many times but in the end, it’s just mostly about Madonna but these guys really wanted to know what happened with us during the tour and what was happening with us right now, 25 years later, what we were up to, so that was really nice.
BLADE: You said recently that Reijer Zwaan was almost like your psychiatrist. How so?
GAUWLOOS: You probably know I was diagnosed in 1987 as being HIV-positive and I wanted to be out with that for a long time. It just felt silly to not be. So then along came Reijer and we talked for eight hours and it just all came out you know, crying and it was really the first time I sat with somebody I didn’t really know and told them, “Yes, I’ve been HIV for 29 years,” 27 at the time. I was like, “Oh my God, I feel like I’ve just been to a psychiatrist.” I’ve never been to a real one. Maybe I should (laughs).
BLADE: Madonna made a surprise appearance at a “Truth or Dare” anniversary screening a couple weeks ago in New York. What did it feel like when she walked in the room unannounced?
GAUWLOOS: It was surreal. We were just sitting there and we’re thinking, “OK, why isn’t the movie playing?” and boom, she walks in. It was like the whole room just gasped for air. You couldn’t believe it was real. She just sat down, watched the movie and left. But it was amazing.
BLADE: Had you seen her at all in the last 25 years?
GAUWLOOS: I hadn’t seen her in a long, long, long time. People on social media were like, “Oh my God, did she talk to you guys?” but we were in the front row and she was more in the back. Jose and I should have gone up to her but it wasn’t really the right moment. When she walked in it was just like, “Whoah, I’ve never felt that kind of energy in one room.” It was interesting watching the movie with her. It’s a good film. Very funny.
BLADE: How does it strike you seeing it now?
GAUWLOOS: I watched it a few years ago before we did “Strike a Pose.” When I see it I’m like, “Oh my God, my hair.” Me and my hair, it’s the only thing I can look at. I can’t stop flipping it, you know. It’s like I was so busy with my hair always. I’m just happy to have been part of such a big, iconic moment. If you look at the concert footage, it doesn’t look dated. The whole thing is just amazing. The least annoying thing for me is the kiss, the most important gay kiss in history. That I don’t have a problem watching but some of it I’m like, “Oh my God, no I did not just say that.” It’s like going back in time. It was a good experience.
BLADE: Wasn’t your hair sort of annoying at that length always falling in your face?
GAUWLOOS: Well when you dance, your hair flies around so it has more of an effect. I liked having longer hair and swinging it around.
BLADE: Speaking of hair, why did Madonna change her hair halfway through the tour? That ponytail look was so iconic for her but then she did the curls, which became kind of a trademark look too. It feels odd to me watching “Truth or Dare” because she’s always backstage and it’s supposed to make you feel like she’s walking out into the concert footage but it doesn’t match because she has the different hair.
GAUWLOOS: It was just like one day she had the ponytail and then she just went to the Shirley Temple curls. I don’t think there was any specific reason for it. With the ponytail sometimes it would fly around in your face so I think the curls were easier. Personally I liked the curls more.
BLADE: I’m sure you got wacked in the face with that ponytail a few times.
GAUWLOOS: Yeah and as a girl dancing with a ponytail, it’s like a delayed slap and it must have been difficult for her too.
BLADE: But it wasn’t that her hair was falling out from too much bleaching or pulling up or anything?
GAUWLOOS: No. She had strong hair.
BLADE: Do you feel she’s a bit aloof with you guys or do you think that’s just the way any major star would pretty much be?
GAUWLOOS: I don’t know. After 25 years, you know, it’s a long time. People go on with their life and deal with things in different ways. I mean I just knew sitting there she wasn’t going to run up to us and be like, “Oh my God,” you know? I knew that was not going to happen. It’s not really in her character to be like that. But who am I to judge? You know how you don’t see other people for many years and people react all different ways, so I don’t really judge that.
BLADE: Is it true (“Truth or Dare” director) Alek Keshishian said all the hundreds of hours of outtakes got accidentally deleted?
GAUWLOOS: Not deleted, but nobody knows where it is.
BLADE: I thought it was lame when the Blu-ray release came out a few years ago they didn’t put like 20 minutes or a half-hour of outtakes on it as bonus material. That would have been fun to see.
GAUWLOOS: Supposedly all these people claim not to know where it is. It’s lost.
BLADE: I’m sure it will surface maybe for the 50th anniversary or something.
GAUWLOOS: I know, right? Of course it will. It always does.
BLADE: Was there any dance move or routine that was especially tricky to learn for the tour?
GAUWLOOS: Well I had to learn to vogue, but it wasn’t particularly difficult. The only people who knew what that even was before were Luis, Jose and Madonna, who hired them. Being a classically trained dancer, it wasn’t really a challenge but it was one thing I had to learn. I think it came pretty naturally for everybody. The rest was just hard work. A lot of rehearsals. That’s how we got a really tight show together like that.
BLADE: Is it true you did like two weeks of twice-a-day run throughs before it premiered?
GAUWLOOS: Oh definitely. We were in the studio like 10-12 hours then at the end there were tech rehearsals at night too. It was a crazy, crazy schedule but you know, we were so young, talented and hungry so we didn’t care. We were all in it 100 percent.
BLADE: By the end, were you drenched in sweat and exhausted or were you in such great shape that you weren’t?
GAUWLOOS: People always think the numbers I was featured in like “Express Yourself” or the Dick Tracy part would be the most exhausting but those were the ones you could enjoy more. The most exhausting number to do was “Like a Prayer” because we had this whole big number while she’s changing for the next number. That you were like, “OK, now I can’t breathe.” (laughs)
BLADE: Do you have any mementos from the tour? Any costumes or anything?
GAUWLOOS: I did but I lost all of them, just having moved so many times. When we started shooting “Strike a Pose,” they were like, “Show us some pictures” and I was like, “I don’t have anything.” It’s kind of sad. Only in my head.
BLADE: So you don’t have the rosary Madonna gave you?
GAUWLOOS: No, I definitely don’t have it. I should just buy one and say it’s the one she gave me. (laughs)
BLADE: Some of the choreography was so gay but you were kind of the straight hunk too in some passages. Did that strike you as ironic?
GAUWLOOS: No, it’s like being an actor. Some passages I was acting as a straight dance partner for Madonna so I was acting straight. Not every dancer could do it. But it mostly came natural and from just doing it over and over.
BLADE: Did you bulk up for the tour or were you always kind of built like that?
GAUWLOOS: Starting out in Antwerp, Belgium as a dancer I was really skinny. Then I came to America, I got a little bit bigger. For the tour we were supposed to go to the gym but of course we never went. It was just the cruel rehearsal schedule that kind of got everybody in shape. It’s like 10 hours of dancing, how can you not be in shape from that? That’s how I got bigger and more muscular. I definitely didn’t look like that when we started, definitely not.
BLADE: Did you see “I’m Going to Tell You a Secret,” the “Truth or Dare” sequel?
GAUWLOOS: I saw a little part of it, not the whole thing. I heard the dancers did not get as much of a part. No kissing, in other words. Not X-rated. (laughs)
BLADE: Did you grow up Catholic?
GAUWLOOS: No, not really. My mom would say she was Catholic but we never went to church. It was just kind of like, “Well, we walk by the church.” But definitely not. My father was Muslim. I’m half Moroccan. He was from Morocco but he passed away and was only in my life a couple years and then he disappeared. I’m a little bit of everything but I don’t go to church or practice.
BLADE: So did all the religious imagery in the show resonate with you at all?
GAUWLOOS: No, it was more of a theatrical thing for me with the crosses and the lights. I never felt like, “Oh my God, this is sacrilegious” or anything. I just saw it as a show. I was probably the least knowledgeable about how controversial and taboo it was for the time.
BLADE: The “Vogue” VMA performance with the Marie Antoinette costumes, was that after the tour?
GAUWLOOS: Yes. That was nice because we were all sad when the tour ended but we knew we’d be going back in a few weeks to do that and we’d get to see each other and dance together again. We worked like a week and a half or two weeks getting ready for that just with the costumes and the girls had the fans and everything and just to make sure it was really tight. I think it was like a month or two months after the tour finished.
BLADE: Carlton was on “The Girlie Show,” Madonna’s next tour. What were you doing by ’93 and was there any discussion or possibility of any of the rest of you touring with Madonna again?
GAUWLOOS: No. The ride was over after everything was done with Madonna and I realized I had my own reality to deal with being HIV. I was just going through life really. I really partied so I didn’t have to deal with being HIV and it was like a really dark period for me for like six-seven years.
BLADE: How did you get through it?
GAUWLOOS: When I really got my shit together was in 2000. I met my husband and fell in love, that was it. That changed my whole life around. But before that, I’d been diagnosed in 1987 and then I ended up in the hospital in 1997 with a really bad pneumonia. I didn’t do any treatment for 10 years, I just couldn’t deal with it. So I ended up in the hospital and that was really a reality check and a wakeup call. I don’t know, this is awfully personal, but I also had some issues with my working papers too. I was HIV-positive so I didn’t want to go to the hospital and get deported. That’s one of the reasons I never went. That’s also why coming out with my story, I’m sure there are a lot of people in my situation. They’re HIV and illegal aliens and afraid to get help. I ended up in the hospital almost dead before I realized there are so many organizations out there that can help you get free medication and they don’t deport you and all that stuff.
BLADE: Tell me about your husband.
GAUWLOOS: He got my heart, you know? His name is Facundo Gabba. He’s from Argentina. He just came into my life and blew me away. When I was diagnosed it was still the ‘80s and people were dropping like flies. You can’t imagine what it was like to have some guy come in and telling you this with your mother sitting there. They said, “You have the HIV virus and you’ve probably got about five years.” So the first thing was like, “Oh my God, I’m 18, what did I do wrong?” It was a really dark, dark, dark thing. Thank God the whole Madonna experience happened because I needed something to hold onto. … You think, “Who’s going to love me?,” but you can be HIV and find love. That was the biggest thing for me to learn.
BLADE: What do you do now?
GAUWLOOS: I teach at Broadway Dance Center, a very nice school here in New York City, on a regular basis. I also do fashion shoots. When they approached me for “Strike a Pose” in 2013, I had just finished working on Longchamp. I did that for two seasons so mostly teaching but also doing a lot of fashion productions.
BLADE: Did you go to Gabriel’s funeral?
GAUWLOOS: No. I didn’t know right away that he’d died. But since “Strike a Pose,” I’ve been in contact with his mother, Sue, who is really nice. It’s almost like being in touch with Gabriel. She’s such a sweet woman. We talk and it’s been a great experience going to her house in San Francisco. I get to find out more about Gabriel. It’s really beautiful.
BLADE: Have you followed Madonna’s career? Did you ever go see her other tours?
GAUWLOOS: I never went to her shows, but I’d watch her on YouTube here and there if she had new stuff. I liked “The Girlie Show” and I thought “The Confessions Tour” where she came out of the disco ball and had all the Steven Klein stuff with the horses and everything was beautiful.
BLADE: You have to get tired of being asked about Madonna, no?
GAUWLOOS: Yeah, it gets a little tiring here and there but at the same time, it’s OK. Especially with this new movie, they do ask Madonna questions but there are also questions related to us, so it’s really nice. I’m happy it happened. Especially now, we’re all in the spotlight again so it’s OK. I’ll take that with it. I don’t mind.
BLADE: You said once you were also really into Janet Jackson back in the early ‘90s too, right?
GAUWLOOS: I was really into Janet Jackson and also Paula Abdul a lot, too. I know a lot of people didn’t really like Paula Abdul, but I liked her because here was another singer giving a lot of dancers work and it was real dance. You had to be a real dancer. So I think that’s where that comes from. Did I like their music more than Madonna’s? No, I don’t think so, but I liked the whole moving thing, the whole “Rhythm Nation” thing, I was into that too.
BLADE: One thing that came up when Oliver, Kevin and Gabriel sued Madonna over “Truth or Dare” was a claim that they didn’t know it was going to be made into this big thing and so on. But you guys saw Alek and his team around constantly. Wasn’t that claim somewhat naive?
GAUWLOOS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I don’t know what all they sued for. They all sued for different things. What wasn’t clear was that we were not going to make any money from “Truth or Dare” and we didn’t. At the end of the day, that’s what it came down to. To this day, we’ve never made a penny from “Truth or Dare.” I’m not saying that to be shady or mean, it’s just a fact. Did I sue? No, no. If it’s that important to somebody, I don’t know. I’m just not a suing person I think, especially for something like that.
BLADE: Did they ask you if you wanted to be part of it?
GAUWLOOS: No, no, no. That last time I saw them was in L.A. I saw them on some talk shows talking about the lawsuit but we all knew they were taping. I just think we didn’t know we weren’t going to make any money, which would have been nice. A lot of us could have used the money.
BLADE: Niki (Haris) and Donna (DeLory) toured with Madonna a lot in subsequent years but with a few exceptions, she mostly gets all new dancers for each tour. Why do you think that is?
GAUWLOOS: Probably just so she always had a new look, a fresh look, you know? I think with backup singers, Niki and Donna were the perfect backup singers for Madonna. They could move, they could sing, they looked nice, they had all the qualities. It’s probably a lot harder to find all that, so they were like a perfect match. With the dancers, I just think it’s her thing. Aside from Carlton and maybe a few others, it’s just like her schtick to hire new dancers each tour.
BLADE: Have you ever met any of her other dancers? Any of them ever come up and say hi?
GAUWLOOS: No. I won’t speak to dancers of other tours. No, I’m joking. (laughs)
BLADE: Aside from your work with Madonna, what are you most proud of?
GAUWLOOS: Ugh, that’s a tough question. I don’t know. I think the most proud thing would be being a dancer and still to this day, always having a voice and not really changing my belief system of dancing and everything. As an artist, I’ve always believed in myself. I may ask other people for advice, but at the end of the day, I’ve always listened to myself first.