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‘It’s a Sin’ captures joy, heartbreak in ‘80s London

AIDS saga an uplifting emotional roller coaster

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Olly Alexander in ‘It’s a Sin.’ (Photo courtesy HBO Max)

“It’s A Sin,” the UK miniseries that debuted in America on HBO Max Feb. 18, began its long gestation in the mind of out screenwriter Russell T. Davies back in 1995, even before he wrote his first high-profile gay TV drama, “Queer as Folk.” 

Following a group of young gay men (and their straight female BFF) through the early days of the AIDS epidemic in London, the series draws heavily on Davies’ own memories of the ‘80s, and of friends he knew during the era, with an eye toward delivering an authentic presentation of gay experience while providing a wide-angle view of the disease’s impact as it took its toll across various sectors of British society. Touted as the first British television drama to deal seriously with the AIDS epidemic, its debut in England proved an unequivocal success – a surprise considering it was rejected by the nation’s BBC One and ITV networks for its subject matter before it was finally taken on for development by Channel 4. Even more gratifying, its airing resulted in a boost to HIV awareness in Britain, resulting in an uptick of almost 400% in testing.

Written and directed by out gay men and featuring out gay actors in all its gay roles (including cameos by two out “big names,” Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Fry), the series has won well-deserved praise for its success in capturing both the exuberance and the heartbreak of gay life in 1980s London, and for Davies’ success in weaving together so many threads and characters without sacrificing the depth and emotional layering of his story. 

An outstanding ensemble cast, led by Years and Years lead singer Olly Alexander and aided by veteran director Peter Hoar, delivers universally excellent performances, taking viewers through the emotional roller coaster of its narrative with the authenticity that can only come from deep commitment and investment to their roles. It’s no spoiler to say that things get pretty grim, but Davies’ script doesn’t allow it to become unrelentingly mournful; instead, he makes sure that the good stuff about being young, gay, and out – the fun, the friendship, and yes, the joy – are never far out of focus. When “It’s A Sin” reaches its conclusion, despite the multiple tragedies it makes us endure alongside its characters, the impression it leaves feels more like a celebration than a lament.

Unsurprisingly, as with any show covering a subject that casts such a shadow over an entire generation, there have been objections. Some who were on the front lines of activism during the epidemic have criticized the series for vagueness and inaccuracy on the historical context surrounding the battle against the disease, and of course there are many people – queer and straight alike – who feel that LGBTQ experience has been depicted as tragic for long enough in our cultural narratives and that creators should strive instead for more positive, aspirational stories.

An issue that has raised predictable controversy with straight audiences (and due to concerns about representation, with some non-straight ones as well) is the show’s depiction of gay sex. While some have been shocked by its explicit-if-not-graphic sex scenes (filmed with the extensive involvement of intimacy coordinators to make them as authentic as possible), others have taken exception to the fact that the people in them are simply having too much fun. After all, in a show about a sexually transmitted disease that has killed millions to date, is it really appropriate to make sex look so enjoyable?

The answer, according to Hoar, is a resounding “yes.” 

The director, whose credits include the cult hit “Dr. Who” and both “Daredevil” and “The Umbrella Academy” for Netflix, told DigitalSpy, “I’m not going to worry about how people feel about it because this is our sex, and this is the way it is,” says Hoar. “And how can you show the story of men having a life they loved, and dying from it, if you don’t show that sex?

“We have to see how much fun it is.”

Those gleefully authentic scenes go a long way toward refuting and rejecting the shame that has long been so tenaciously attached to gay sex. Besides sending a refreshingly contemporary message of sex positivity, they also serve as a defiant counterpoint to the repressive homophobia and bigotry that haunts so many of the show’s other scenes – and that cuts right to the heart of what Russell Davies is ultimately trying to get across in “It’s A Sin.”

In its final minutes, the series includes a stirring monologue in which Jill (Lydia West), who has served as the emotional glue at the center of the story as well as for her circle of friends, confronts the mother of one of her fallen comrades with the hard truth that it was her own shame she instilled in her son over his own very nature, that ultimately led to his death. This is not a new argument – the idea that internalized homophobia was a factor that helped to fuel transmission has been expressed many times before.

But “It’s A Sin” does more than just tell us that. It shows us, in myriad ways we don’t necessarily connect until they culminate in that climactic speech, how the effects of all that hate become entwined into the personas of its people and manifest in their choices and behavior. We see gay men who deny their sexuality even while having furtive sex with other men, who endure sexual harassment from closeted bosses for fear of being exposed, who resign themselves to the vitriolic hate hurled upon them by random strangers on the street; we see gay men lose their jobs with no explanation, rejected and bullied by their own families, and locked away as outcasts or prisoners simply for being sick; most to the point, we see gay men so used to being demonized that they greet a killer disease with disbelief and denial, who end up becoming infected and then go on to infect others, simply because they are more afraid of being found out than they are of dying.

So, when Jill offers that searing indictment at the end, she is not just speaking about social theory. She is testifying as a witness to the things we have seen for ourselves. And while it might be oversimplifying matters to explain such a complex bundle of issues with a single unifying thread, no matter how profound, it might just as easily be overcomplicating them not to acknowledge a patently obvious connection.

Whether or not “It’s A Sin” makes a convincing case for its equation is up to the individual viewer, of course, but what is hard for anyone to deny is the show’s success at creating an infectious and emotionally satisfying saga that manages to both engage and uplift us while still honoring the weight of its subject matter. Intended as neither a documentary nor an activist’s-eye view of social injustice, it is instead popular entertainment at its best – the kind that seeks to enlighten and inform with just as much passion as it puts into its sex scenes.

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Meet Vladyslav Mitin, artist performing aerial gymnastics, acrobatics

Celebrity BEYOND transatlantic cruise: Interview with the aerialist

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Vladyslav Mitin (Photo by Peter Rosenstein)

I first met Vladyslav Mitin when I went to check in at my muster station when first boarding the beautiful Celebrity BEYOND in Rome for a transatlantic cruise. He is an attractive young man, and I introduced myself. He said he was a crew member, and told me he was an entertainer. That of course intrigued me, and I asked what he did. He told me he was a gymnast and acrobat and he and his partner would be performing in The Club and the Eden lounge.  He also told me he was from Ukraine. I told him I had met and written about two other aerialists from the Ukraine who I had met on the Celebrity APEX, the Bilak Brothers, and asked if he knew them. He told me he had met them in Miami at the Celebrity studio. I kidded there must be something in the water in Ukraine that breeds such talent. I then asked if he would be willing to meet with me when he had time during the cruise so I could interview him. He graciously agreed.

On the third day of our cruise a friend and I took the tender from the ship to VilleFranche-sur-mer and Vladyslav was also on the tender. We all walked along the harbor together. He told us he had to be back on the ship early as he had a show that evening. So, we connected on WhatsApp, and I told him I would get in touch to set up a time to meet. That evening at 10:45, along with a huge crowd, I headed to the Eden lounge for the show in which he and his partner, Vladyslav Kuzerenko, were performing. They were mesmerizing, gracefully swinging above the crowd and doing hand-to-hand movements on the floor. They are special artists, being able to perform not only aerial gymnastics, but hand-to-hand acrobatics.

Then on day seven of the cruise I had the chance to sit down and chat with him. He said his friends call him Slavik, which is what he uses on his Instagram account.  Slavik turned out to be a fascinating guy. 

He told me he was born in the Kherson region of Ukraine. When he was four years old his parents started him in gymnastics which was the beginning of a life-long passion for him. At a young age he and his first coach would go to Kiev and basically lived at the gym while there, watching the older boys train and compete, while he would continue to practice with his coach.  Unfortunately, his first coach died when Slavik was only nine years old.  He found another coach and when he was twelve, his parents let him move fulltime to Kiev to train. Slavik continued to train as a gymnast, along with learning to be an aerialist. He would win his first competitions with routines in what is called sports acrobatics. He would become expert in hand-to-hand gymnastics, doing amazing flips in the air, with his partner catching him on his hands in the air. He became a Master of Sports at the age of 15. 

Slavik would go on to compete in a European, and two world championships in sports acrobatics. He and his partner at the time, would place high in the world rankings, finishing 6th in the 2016 world championships held in China, when he was just 17. 

Slavik continued to perform and to train, now also as an aerialist. He has worked with several partners, both men and women. Then in a few years the world faced first the pandemic, and then Slavik and his fellow countrymen would face the war. As he said to me, no one who hasn’t been in war can fully understand what it means. To be on your balcony and see rockets fly overhead, and then your whole apartment shakes. To see those you know go to war, his god-father is in the military, and to see death and destruction all around you. While Slavik was not in the military, he was a volunteer, and served in that way. His parents had moved to Poland, but his cousins and their families are still in Ukraine. 

Slavik and Viktoria (Photo via Instagram; courtesy Slavic)

Slavik was lucky, and extremely talented, and had an agent who managed to get him a contract with Celebrity Cruises, who have been particularly kind to those from Ukraine. They have been generous to their crew and opened places to live, and jobs, for the family of crewmembers.  Slavik had gotten to Poland to join his parents, and then with his friend Vlad, their agent got them that contract with Celebrity. They then headed to Miami to the Celebrity Studios, to be part of a group working on a new show.  

Now one of the Celebrity stories not always told, is Slavik had a girlfriend, Viktoria, also an aerialist, and he had her join him on Celebrity Beyond. When they got to Mykonos, he proposed, and then when they were in Livorno, Captain Kate married them.  His wife, who is also incredibly talented, is now hoping to get a contract with Celebrity as well, so this story will continue. To see and learn a little more about Slavik, go to his Instagram account, @acro_slavik.

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Meet the ‘CEO of Everything Gay’ who just bought the Abbey

Tristan Schukraft, who owns Mistr, takes over iconic LA nightclub

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Tristan Schukraft with equine friend at the Varian Stable in Newmarket, United Kingdom in 2019. (Photo courtesy Schukraft)

WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Tristan Schukraft laughs when I suggest he’s building a gay empire, but he doesn’t deny it. 

When it was announced last month that the owner of the iconic Abbey and Chapel nightclubs in Los Angeles had entered into an agreement to sell the business to Schukraft, it seemed like a strange move for the jet-setting tech CEO. 

But the portfolio he’s building – founder and owner of the telemedicine app for gay men Mistr, owner of the queer nightclub Circo and Tryst Hotel in Puerto Rico – appears to be bent toward Hoovering up more pink dollars by getting involved in an ever wider section of queer life.

The Los Angeles Blade spoke to Schukraft at The Abbey during its annual tree-lighting fundraiser for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation about what he plans to do with the storied nightclub, and how he became one of America’s most visible gay moguls.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

BLADE: Why the Abbey? 

SCHUKRAFT: Well, I wanted to make sure it stayed in the hands of the gay community. You know, it’s an institution. It’s a cornerstone of West Hollywood gay life, but more importantly, it’s I think it’s a cornerstone of the gay community far beyond West Hollywood, right? 

BLADE: Looking at your background in tech companies, your recent shift into the nightclub and hospitality industry seems like a bit of a left turn.

SCHUKRAFT: You know, I’ve been drinking here for a long time. So now, after all that investment, I’m actually gonna start getting money back. I basically bought it so I can get free drinks. 

You know, at the end of the day, I’m an operations guy. I’m a technology guy. I own hotels. With hotels, you have bars and restaurants, so it’s not too far off the track. It’s a little off track. Why not? Right? 

You know, after watching “The Birdcage,” I always wanted my own hotel [like Robin Williams’s character in the 1996 film] and somebody shattered my dreams the other day by telling me it was a nightclub. I’m like, what? It was a nightclub? And then I watched it, and it’s true, it was a nightclub. So, now I have a nightclub. Yeah, so it all started with “The Birdcage.” 

BLADE: You’re known for being a disrupter of the things that you invest in. Is there a disruption plan for the Abbey, or for Weho? Are you planning to change things here? 

SCHUKRAFT: Not a major disruption here at The Abbey. I’m gonna put my touches on it. But yeah, it’s a pretty well-oiled machine. We’re definitely going to focus on our values of being LGBTQ. I got some ideas for new nights and I definitely want to make it an epicenter of the gay community. And I think there’s opportunities to take it beyond West Hollywood.

BLADE: Can you give any kind of sneak peek at what you’re thinking? 

SCHUKRAFT: East Coast. That’s your sneak peek right now. East Coast. 

I think you’ll see in a couple months what I’m gonna do with the Abbey. But you know as far as taking it outside of West Hollywood, I see there’s opportunities on the East Coast right now. 

I think that’s where David [Cooley, the founder and current owner of The Abbey] and I really we both appreciate the value of The Abbey brand. I think it’s world famous, right? It’s the biggest gay bar. It’s one of the longest lasting. Obviously you have the Stonewalls of the world. But this is like a bar where people go on a regular night versus a tourist attraction. Maybe for some it’s a tourist attraction, but I mean, it really is an institution. It’s a community gathering point. It’s a name that people recognize that we can bring into other communities. 

BLADE: Do you have any plans to put a hotel somewhere here? 

SCHUKRAFT: [Laughs] People are like, “Are you gonna paint it blue for Mistr?” Or, “You’re gonna make it a hotel?” But no, we’re not building a hotel here. That would be terrible to build. I mean build a hotel and Abbey would be out. I don’t think the Abbey’s ever closed in 33 years, besides COVID. Minus that, it’s never closed for construction. You know, when David did his expansion, it was always open. 

I was looking at those old photos and I’m like, oh my God, I remember the wall of candles. I’ve been coming here a very long time. 

So you’re more or less like keeping the same sort of operation going here, keeping the team in place?

The team, I mean, I think that’s what kind of really makes The Abbey unique. It’s like a place where everybody knows your name. 

When I bought the hotel in Puerto Rico, obviously I don’t know anyone. Buying here. I’m like, oh, yeah. I know Todd. I know everybody, right? Not everybody, but a majority of people. And I think that’s why people come here. Because it’s their staple. They go every Sunday. They know they have their favorite bartender. So, you know, everybody will be kept in place, no changes to personnel. 

BLADE: You gave an interview to Authority Magazine where you said you promised your partner that you wouldn’t be starting up any new businesses. How did you get him on board with jumping into becoming a WeHo nightlife impresario?

SCHUKRAFT: I broke that promise two or three times since I said that. I mean, no, I just buy him gifts to make him happy.

I work long hours, right? And he’s like, I don’t know why. 

BLADE: You’ve created and run several tech companies. How did you get started in that business? Where did that money come from? 

SCHUKRAFT: I started my very first company at 21 with a $10,000 loan. I was living in Hong Kong at the time. I think my father really wanted me to come back [to California]. My dad’s a corporate guy, not a big risk taker, but he’s like, ‘I’ll give you $10,000 to start your company.’ It wasn’t enough to start the company, so I imported 437 Razor scooters and I thought I was gonna sell out in two weeks. It was very popular at the time – this is like 23 years ago. It took me six and a half weeks. I was selling them out of my truck. I went to every swap meet in Southern California. Sold the last six on Christmas Eve and learned a couple lessons in business from that. But with the money I made from selling those scooters combined with the loan, I started my first company, which was like an Expedia for airline personnel.

And then I got into e-ticketing, and at that time, I didn’t know how to turn on the computer. So, I really surround myself with people that know what they’re doing, that are experts. So, do I know how to run a bar? No, but I’m an operations guy and I hire the talent to make it happen. That’s how I got started and I built that company and others along the way. 

BLADE: Other than that first $10,000 loan from your parents, you’re basically self-made then? 

SCHUKRAFT: Yeah. You know, I looked for investment. I did end up raising $18 million for my second company, but I put in a lot of money. I mean at 25, my first company was going really well, and there was this e-ticketing mandate and I said, oh there’s a real opportunity here. And I had a home and was doing good for a 25-year-old, and I kind of leveraged it all. And I thought, “Oh my God, what did I do? I just fucked up my whole life. Why did I do this?” Anyways, I got that first investor, got that first client, and it just kind of took off from there. 

BLADE: And now with Mistr, The Abbey, your Puerto Rico clubs, are you starting a gay empire? 

SCHUKRAFT: The CEO of Everything Gay, yes. I have a few more things. You know, all the businesses are very complementary, right? So, you come to The Abbey, then you go to the Tryst Hotel or Circo in Puerto Rico, and obviously all of the people that come here or the Tryst, they’re all perfect candidates for Mistr. So yeah, so it looks a little weird. But it is very complementary to our various business units

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The ultimate guide to queer gift giving

Perfect presents for everyone from roommates to soulmates

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Searching for special deliveries for that special someone? Consider these elf-approved, consciously curated presents perfect for everyone from roommates to soulmates. 


Star Wars Home Collection

Movie nights in bed get a comfort upgrade from the Force – for those who uphold Jedi code in the streets but embrace the Dark Side in the sheets – with Sobel Westex’s Star Wars Home Collection, five- to seven-piece twin, queen and king sets suitable for either alliance. Cop a bootleg of the infamous “Star Wars Holiday Special” (legal copies don’t exist, nor has it been rebroadcast since its one-and-only airing in 1978) and settle in for a snacky screening with premade Johnson’s Popcorn (a Jersey Shore staple) or Pop ’N Dulge’s DIY gourmet kits. SobelAtHome.com, $350-$390; JohnsonsPopcorn.com, $27+; PopNDulge.com, $23


Bird Buddy Smart Feeder

Avian enthusiasts get up close and semi-personal with feathered friends thanks to the Bird Buddy smart feeder that allows safe viewing via a solar-powered, app-enabled camera, along with adorable add-ons like a suet ball holder and three-in-one nutrition set to keep the neighborhood’s population happy and healthy. MyBirdBuddy.com, $299-$415


Jewelry – but make it an experience. That’s the premise behind Link x Lou, a quick-fitting accessory service providing recipients with in-person appointments for custom-linked, clasp-less 14-karat white- and yellow-gold necklaces, bracelets, anklets, and rings that wear until they’re worn out. Money’s on ’em lasting longer than the situationship you’ve got goin’, but may the odds be ever in your favor. LinkxLou.com, $55-$500


Orttu Shelton Puffer

Guess who’s coming to dinner? It’s you as an alt-timeline Tom of Finland in Orttu’s fully quilted, oversized Shelton Puffer comprised of double-layered high-sheen fabric and press-stud fastening that results in a slick style statement vers-er than you are. Orttu.com, $203


Winter Discovery Mini Scented Candle Set

Apotheke takes the guesswork out of choosing just the right ambiance-inducing aroma with its Winter Discovery Mini Scented Candle Set, featuring six fragrant two-ounce tins in seasonal smells that include birchwood apple, black cypress, blackberry honey, cardamon chestnut, charred fig, and firewood (with a combined 90-hour burn time), and packaged in a nostalgically illustrated gift box accentuated by festive gold detailing. ApothekeCo.com, $64


Polaris General 1000 Sport

Resort communities across the country have adopted golf carts as a preferred mode of transportation, and you can establish yourself as a local baddie in Polaris’ General 1000 Sport – in ethereal colorways like ghost gray – equipped with a four-stroke DOHC twin-cylinder engine, 100 horsepower, 1,500-pound hitch-towing capacity, and enough street cred for Boomers to shake their fists at. Polaris.com, $17,500+


‘Arquivistas’ Crystal Book

Brazilian crystal devotee Tatiana Dorow has curated an impressive collection of more than 1,000 rare and exquisite minerals – ranging from one ounce to over 5,000 pounds – the comprehensive record of which is now compiled in the sizable coffee-table tome “Arquivistas” (Portuguese for archivist) that’s sure to satisfy, delight, and provide endless holiday-party talking points to the New Agers in your life. (You know they will.) ArtAndAnthropologyPress.com, $350


Bovem Globe Trimmer 2.0

There are plenty of manscaping tools on the market, but perhaps none are designed with your delicate bits in mind like the handsome second-gen Bovem Globe body and groin trimmer with its ergonomic textured grip, powerful 6500 RPM with low vibration, varying guards, and replaceable TrimSafe blades that tidy you up without cutting skin or pulling rough hair. Deck the halls! – no more bloody Christmas balls. Bovem.co, $60-$87


Lexington Glassworks Decanter Set

Pour one out from Lexington Glassworks’ hand-blown whiskey decanter, each one individually crafted in the company’s Asheville, N.C., studio and detailed with an elegant crackle finish that lends an air of sophistication to any home bar cart. Pair with a set of LG’s complementary rocks glasses, in the same distinguished style, for a cherished gift. LexingtonGlassworks.com, $280


Joule Turbo Sous Vide

Your fave chefs’ autopilot cooking technique hits home countertops in Breville’s sleek Joule Turbo Sous Vide stick, which cooks seasoned-and-bagged meats and veggies to a faster-than-ever optimal internal temperature (unattended, no less) before a lickety-split sear and serve results in restaurant-quality dishes deserving of at least a couple Michelin stars for your minimal-mess kitchen. Breville.com, $250


Outlines Shower Liner System

Holiday hosts can practice responsible replenishment amid our planetary plastic-waste crisis when you gift Outlines’ thoughtfully designed Shower Liner System that provides users with a machine-washable cotton top piece and fully recyclable bottom to replace when it’s time to ditch the grime. Set it and forget it with three-, six- or nine-month auto-deliveries. LivingOutlines.com, $50


Barbie Perfume

Fight the patriarchy doused in Barbie’s sweet-and-fresh fragrance that, from top to bottom, features notes of strawberry nectar and red cherry, peony and pink magnolia, and sandalwood and soft musk for an extraordinary scent that’s more than Kenough. DefineMeCreativeStudio.com, $65


AiRROBO Pet Grooming Vacuum

Posh pets enjoy salon-style luxury in the comfort of their homes when treated to a grooming session by the AiRROBO vacuum (think Flowbee for cats and dogs), a five-tool, one-stop solution for keeping furbabies’ hair, dander, allergens and mites to a minimum. The portable pamperer includes an electric clipper, crevice and de-shedding tools, and grooming and cleaning brushes housed in a space-saving, HEPA-filtered capsule. US.Air-Robo.com, $110


Aura Smart Sleep Mask

What does the future of total relaxation and deep sleep look like? Blackout darkness and complete serenity in a dream-state sanctuary when you spend your nights in the Aura Smart Sleep Mask with built-in speakers for guided meditation and snooze-inducing ASMR, zero-pressure eye cushioning, and light and sunrise therapy to help you wake rested and refreshed at home and (especially) away. Indiegogo.com, $190


Mikey Rox is an award-winning journalist and LGBTQ lifestyle expert whose work has been published in more than 100 outlets across the world. Connect with Mikey on Instagram @mikeyroxtravels.

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