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Drama queens

Logo’s ‘A-List’ returns Monday; cast dishes on Reichen’s full-frontal pics, ‘evil’ Austin; Crews follow cast six days per week

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The cast of Logo’s ‘A List: New York’s’ second season, which returns Monday night. From left are Rodiney Santiago, Mike Ruiz, Ryan Nickulas, Austin Armacost, Reichen Lehmkuhl, Nyasha Zimucha, Derek Saathoff and TJ Kelly. (Photo courtesy of Logo)

It’s the show gays love — and love to hate. But many, of course, end up watching anyway.

TV’s gayest, guiltiest pleasure — even its creators embrace the “guilty pleasure” label — is back. “A List: New York’s” second season debuts Monday at 10 p.m. on Logo. The entire season one cast returns for 11 new episodes, this time with a gal pal in tow. The Blade spoke with the cast and crew to get the lowdown on the new season, find out what it’s like shooting the controversial series and ponder the show’s appeal.

The reality show, from the same people (True Entertainment) who brought “Real Housewives of Atlanta” to the air, debuted last October and follows the lives of five gay (and one bi; six total) men in New York who claim they’re at the top of the Manhattan social totem pole through their lives, loves and career ventures. Reality show vet Reichen Lehmkuhl (he won the fourth season of “Amazing Race” and formerly dated Lance Bass) unofficially heads the cast. A central theme of the first season was his tempestuous relationship with Brazilian model Rodiney Santiago, with troublemaker Austin Armacost never missing an opportunity to keep their social pot stirred.

It was a hit and helped, along with “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” put Logo, which debuted in 2005, on the pop culture map. The channel, owned by Viacom’s MTV Networks, won’t release ratings for the show but says it’s the second-highest rated show in the gay channel’s history (after “Drag Race”). A Dallas-based spin-off is planned for a fall debut.

The show’s reception has been wildly mixed. Some reviewers and fans say it’s great to see a gay-centric reality show instead of a mainstream show with token gay characters. Others have been appalled at what they say is a superficial and stereotype-laden cringe fest. Still others agree with that assessment but admit it’s well constructed and addictive.

Executive producer Dominic Pupa, who’s gay, says the show is “absolutely” a guilty pleasure and says the critical drubbing doesn’t mean it’s not successful at what its creators are aiming for.

“People roll their eyes all the time, but it captures people’s attention because it’s three things — people with means and access who live in New York. That trifecta of factors means it’s fascinating to watch. There’s something fun about people who are of means and do have access and discovering their lives can be just as exciting, dramatic and disappointing as yours. Plus it’s an ensemble show and people love ensembles because they can pick their favorite and tune in to see how they’re faring. Even the ones people hate — I hate to say character because it’s reality, but in the sense of being a dramatic narrative, they do sort of become characters — you still love to watch the ones you hate.”

Reichen, during a gym break (it’s legs-and-shoulders day; he goes seven days a week), says he learned early on to let go of the naysayers. It was also hard, he says, watching the first season and seeing how much was left out that would have added context to some of the less-flattering scenes.

“I used to read the blogs but then half way through, I stopped. I got rid of my Google alert and I have become a much happier person,” he says. “I kind of live in my own world. There were so many comments about my relationship with Rodiney, they said I didn’t care about him, I just brought him here and dropped him, but the truth is I made sure he had everything he needed and every opportunity he wanted and you know got him on his feet so he could pursue the stuff he wanted to do. It was such a slap in the face to watch this kind of play out in a very one-sided way … Rodiney knew it too. He was like, ‘Oh my god, he tried his best and Reichen’s not like that with me at all.’”

Letting go of the negative energy has centered Reichen in other ways, he says. It helped him shrug off the full frontal nude photos that surfaced recently of him. He admitted the photos — shot from the neck down — are of him.

“If that had happened five years ago, I think I would have shut myself into a mental institution,” he says. “But now my skin is so thick, I knew as soon as they surfaced, there would be every possible reaction. People would make fun of me, they would hate me, some people would like them — you just get to a point where you can deal with it whether it’s good or bad. It totally sucks that they surfaced without my permission — it was supposed to be a private thing, not something I broadcast for the whole world … but I wasn’t gonna pull an Anthony Wiener and lie about it. I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s me, go ahead and start shooting your arrows and let’s get it over with.’ I did mention that a lot of gay men do this kind of thing. I don’t feel I did anything immoral or illegal. It just so happens that because it was me, people cared.”

Rodiney agrees the show complicated their dating life and admits he was naïve about what he was getting into when he signed on.

“Last year was not easy for me,” he says. “It was very intense. It’s like I do the show and I forget I have the cameras with me but it’s who I am and they’re shooting me. There were a lot of difficult people who liked to create drama in my life. I’m the kind of person who just wants to live my life and not worry about somebody else’s life.”

Reichen Lehmkuh (left) and his then-boyfriend Rodiney Santiago in a scene from the show’s first season. (Photo courtesy of Logo)

The couple broke up in November, shortly after the first season started airing. Rodiney admits the show was a factor. Might they still be together without “A-List”?

“I’d say it was half and half,” he says. “The show helped us to break up. We started to date and moved to New York together just six months into the relationship. It was very stressful for us. I can’t handle that.”

Reichen says he and Rodiney are now “friends in the best way possible” and says the second season has been much easier to shoot since he’s not in a relationship.

“It’s been more focused on my business ventures,” he says. “When it comes to the drama, I’ve been off the pedestal in the best way possible.”

New this season is 25-year-old Nyasha Zimucha, a straight entrepreneur and mega-achiever who runs her own business, hair-and-wig shop Embrace Your Hair. She was previously a judge on Little Miss Perfect. She’s a native of South Africa and came to the United States in 2001. She’s been in New York three years and knew “A-List”-er Mike Ruiz before joining the cast.

She says her presence adds an interesting punch to the new season.

“I think you’re going to be very entertained at how some of these relationships develop, both positive and negative,” she says. “It’s an interesting mix. Here you have this straight black girl with these six white, very handsome, very accomplished gay men. I think it’s historic because there’s really been nothing like it on television. You’re going to see not just the fights but the fun too, and I think that will be fun for the audience.”

The second season is still taping even as its first episodes are set to air. Three are fully edited and in the can. Pupa says he doesn’t know how long they’ll shoot — until he feels they have enough footage to bring the storylines to a sensible conclusion.

So how organic or contrived are the scenarios and does editing, obviously a necessity, sometimes distort the narrative?

“Like on any show, we like there to be a beginning, a middle and an end,” Pupa says. “You want to see the cast members start somewhere and end somewhere else. For each one it’s different. Last season we were still shooting until 10 days before the last episode, which is really unusual for this type of show … but it’s a lot more real than people think. They think it’s all very planned out but it’s really not. We ended last season with an argument between Austin and Reichen. That happened less than two weeks before it aired.”

None of the participants were contractually obligated to return for the second season. And the producers don’t tell them they have to meet with certain people or attend certain events. They take suggestions, though, and say they want to do their part to make the show as compelling as possible.

“It’s a nice relationship with cast and production,” Reichen says. “We all understand the result is trying to create something that people will want to watch.”

Camera crews follow cast members six days per week for about 10 hours each day when the show is shooting. Pupa says the cast does its best to schedule things more likely to be interesting when the show is shooting and save the boring stuff — like meeting with lawyers for their business ventures — off-camera. Reichen, for instance, says he traveled much of the six months between the two seasons, though he did see all the cast members at least once during that time, most often at charity events, which he says draw little media attention. He guesses he was only in New York for about 60 days of that six months. He’s been busy prepping a new book and getting ready to launch a fragrance line.

Often the best moments happen when the full cast is together.

“That’s when we have the greatest dynamic,” Pupa says. “Everybody loves Ryan. If he’s throwing a party, you know the whole cast will be there. If Austin throws a party, we don’t know who will walk through the door.”

And what about Austin — is he really the troublemaker he seemed to be from season one?

Reichen says there’s “some stuff” between them that goes down in season two. “You’ll just have to watch,” he says.

Rodiney has a tougher assessment.

“I don’t trust him and we cannot be friends,” he says. “He’s the kind of person I want him far away from my life. He’s evil and he does crazy stuff and I don’t want him part of my life.”

Pupa says Austin is reality’s answer to characters like Alexis and J.R.

“The golden rule of docu soap TV is that just because someone is hated doesn’t mean they’re not watchable,” he says. “It’s a Joan Collins thing for sure. Sometimes you don’t want to admit to liking Austin, but you love watching him.”

Nyasha says the title is a bit of a misnomer and says the show ultimately works because it’s real and people from all walks of life can relate.

“What it’s really about is interesting, dynamic people living in New York,” she says. “Some have great careers and some ain’t doing nothing, but it unfolds as great TV because it’s honest. Even a young straight woman can relate to this or that. Some might think, ‘I don’t relate, what the hell am I doing watching this crap?’ but any level of negative is part of the drama of any relationship and there’s not one person who doesn’t have some level of drama. If there is, give me their number. … It’s just heightened because it’s on TV.”

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PHOTOS: “Portraits”

The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington performs at the Kennedy Center

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A scene from "Portraits," as performed in a technical rehearsal at the Kennedy Center on Saturday, June 15. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington performed “Portraits” at the Kennedy Center on Sunday, June 16.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Theater

Sophie Zmorrod embracing life on the road in ‘Kite Runner’

First national tour comes to Eisenhower Theater on June 25

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Sophie Zmorrod (Photo courtesy of Zmorrod)

‘The Kite Runner’
June 25 – 30
The Kennedy Center
$39-$149
Kennedy-center.org

Newly single, Sophie Zmorrod is enjoying life on the road in the first national tour of “The Kite Runner,” Matthew Spangler’s play with music based on Khaled Hosseini’s gripping novel about damaged relationships and longed for redemption. 

“It’s a wonderful time for me,” says Zmorrod. “I’m past the breakup pain and feeling empowered to explore new cities. A lot of us in the cast are queer, so we figure out the scene wherever the show goes.” 

What’s more, the New York-based actor has fallen in love with the work. “I love how the play’s central character Amir is flawed. He is our antihero. He has faults. As a privileged boy in Kabul, he bears witness to his best friend’s assault and doesn’t intervene. He lives with that guilt for decades and gets that redemption in the end.” 

“He does what he can to right wrongs. For me who’s regretted things, and wished I could go back in time, it resonates. Watching someone forgive themselves and do the right thing is beautiful.” 

Via phone from Chicago (the tour’s stop before moving on to Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater on June 25), Zmorrod, whose background is Lebanese, happily chats about sexuality, ethnicity, and acting. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Looking at your resume, I see you’ve been cast in roles traditionally played by men. And have you played queer characters? 

SOPHIE ZMORROD: Oh yes, both. Whether or not they’re written on the page as queer, they sometimes turn out that way. And that holds true for this show too.  

With “The Winter’s Tale” at Trinity Rep, I played Leontes — the king who banishes his wife — as a woman. So, in that production it was about two women and touched on the violence that women sometimes inflict on other women.

And there was Beadle Bamford in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” also at Trinity Rep; I played him as a woman who was masculine and wore a suit. It was a great opportunity to explore myself and gender expression. That was a really good experience. 

BLADE: Are you an actor who’s often be called in for queer roles? 

ZMORRAD: Not really. I’m what you might call straight passing. Sometimes I’ve had to advocate for my queerness. To be a part of something. 

Similarly with my ethnicity. I’m called in to audition for the white and Arab roles. It gets tricky because I’m not the exactly the white girl next door and I’m not exactly Jasmine from Disney’s “Aladdin” either. 

This is one of the reasons, I really want people to come see “The Kite Runner,” Audiences need to experience the reality of the wide diversity of Middle Eastern people on the stage. We’re all very different.

And not incidentally, from this 14-person cast, I’ve met some great people to add to those I know from the Middle Eastern affinity spaces and groups I’m connected to in New York.

BLADE: In “The Kite Runner” what parts do you play?

 ZMORRAD: Three characters. All women, I think. In the first act, I’m an elderly eccentric pomegranate seller in the Afghan market, waddling around, speaking in Dari [the lingua franca of Afghanistan]; and the second act, I’m young hip and sell records in a San Francisco market; and at the end, I’m a buttoned-down American immigration bureaucrat advising Amir about adoption.

BLADE:  Your training is impressive: BA cum laude in music from Columbia University, an MFA in acting from Brown University/Trinity Repertory Company, and you’re also accomplished in opera and playwrighting, to name a few things. Does “The Kite Runner” allow you to flex your many muscles? 

ZMORROD: Very much. Playing multiple roles is always fun for an actor – we like malleability. Also, there are instruments on stage. I like working with the singing bowl; it’s usually used in yoga as a soothing sound, but here we save it for the dramatic, uncomfortable moments. I also sing from offstage. 

We are creating the world of the play on a very minimal set. Oh, and we do kite flying, and I’m able to use the some of the languages I speak. So yeah, lots of challenges. It’s great. 

BLADE: It sounds like you’re in a good place both professionally and personally.

ZMORROD: It’s taken a long time to feel comfortable. My being gay was never something I led with. But I’m on the journey and excited to be where I am, and who I am. 

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Out & About

Orioles to host Pride night on June 27

Baltimore faces off against reigning World Series champion

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The Baltimore Orioles host the annual Pride night Thursday, June 27. (Washington Blade file photo by Kevin Majoros)

The Baltimore Orioles will host “LGBTQ+ Pride Night” on Thursday, June 27. There will be a live DJ at Legends Park before the 6:35 p.m. game against the reigning World Series champion Texas Rangers.

The event, co-sponsored by the Washington Blade, will feature Pride-themed activities such as Pride face painting, a 360 photo booth, Pride temporary tattoos, and more. All these events will be in the Bullpen Picnic Area. In addition, the first 10,000 attendees receive a free Pride jersey.

For more details, visit the Orioles’ website

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