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Top 10 pop culture moments of 2021

A gay Playboy cover boy, a Satanic lap dance, the ‘Pose’ finale, and Colton’s drama

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It was a memorable year for pop culture, as productions resumed after COVID lockdowns. Here’s our list of the top 10 pop culture moments of 2021.

#10: Lesbian nuns get it on in ‘Benedetta’

(Photo courtesy SBS Productions)

Director Paul Verhoeven (“Basic Instinct,” “Showgirls”) delivered his latest film “Benedetta,” which tells of an Italian nun in the 1600s who receives erotic visions of a nude Christ as well as stigmata before having a lesbian relationship with a novitiate in her convent. 

The title character (played by Virginie Efira) plays “a randy nun whose religious visions and lustful cravings are rolled into a single ball of blasphemy,” as the New York Times wrote. “Verhoeven might have aged, but his love of the lurid has dimmed not one bit.”

The Times also said the movie “presents lesbianism as a middle finger to church power.” 

A modest release, it gained steam on the festival circuit and screened in competition at Cannes. 

#9: Sapphic love in ‘Squid Game’

(Photo courtesy Netflix)

(SPOILER ALERT) It was subtle but the relationship between players 067 (HoYeon Jung) and 240 (Lee Yoo-mi) on the “Gganbu” episode of “Squid Game,” Netflix’s monster K-drama, was embraced by fans as a tale of doomed lesbian love.

While other teams use the 30 minutes allotted for a nerve-wracking series of marble games, the two young women spent all but the final seconds of their time telling each other their life stories. Player 240 loses intentionally, sacrificing her life for her partner’s. She expresses her love just before getting shot.

The show has been deemed Netflix’s “most watched series.”

#8: Olly’s big year

Olly Alexander in ‘It’s A Sin.’ (Photo courtesy WarnerMedia)

It was a big year for Olly Alexander, the Years & Years singer. He drew raves for his role in the five-part British series “It’s a Sin” as Ritchie, one of a group of gay U.K. men dealing with AIDS in the ‘80s. 

In March, Alexander announced that his band was now a solo venture. Kylie Minogue showed up as guest artist on a remix of single “Starstruck” in May. In October, Years & Years guested on Minogue’s song “A Second to Midnight.” A full album is expected in 2022. 

Alexander performed a sensuous cover of the Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s a Sin” with Elton John at the BRIT Awards in May. 

#7: Bretman dons bunny ears

(Photo courtesy Playboy Enterprises)

Bretman Rock, the 23-year-old Filipino YouTuber and beauty influencer known for his makeup tutorials and MTV reality show, made history as the first openly gay man to make the cover of Playboy magazine.

Aside from Playboy’s late founder, Hugh Hefner, Rock is only the second man to appear on the cover (in July, 2020, Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny was the first). 

Sporting a nipple-baring bustier and the famous bunny ears, Rock called the historic moment “so surreal” on Instagram. Sadly, the issue is digital only as Playboy suspended its print product in 2020 after 66 years citing COVID “disruption.” 

Model Ariel Nicholson became the first trans person on the cover of Vogue in September. She was featured with seven other models dubbed “Generation America.” 

#6: Ewan bends over for ‘Halston’

(Photo courtesy Netflix)

Straight actor Ewan McGregor drew strong reviews for his portrayal of late gay designer Roy Halston Frowick (who died of AIDS in 1990) in the Netflix miniseries “Halston,” which premiered in May.

Another Ryan Murphy-produced project, “Halston’s” five episodes follow the designer’s work with Liza Minnelli, booming business, drug use and comeback. 

McGregor, no stranger to screen sex scenes and nudity (he even filmed one with Jim Carrey in “I Love You Phillip Morris”), gets pounded by soon-to-be-boyfriend Ed (Sullivan Jones) in the first episode, though ultimately, the series focuses more on drugs than sex. He won an Emmy for the role in September.

#5: ‘Pose’ wraps

(Photo courtesy FX)

The groundbreaking FX series “Pose,” wrapped in June and was lauded for being the first show to center on trans women of color and cast trans actors in its roles.

The show, which depicted New York City drag ballroom culture of the ’80s and ’90s, only ran for three seasons (26 episodes) but followed the characters over the course of a decade. 

Created by Steven Canals, Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy, the New York Times called the show “a celebration, a juicy soap and one of TV’s most kinetic and dance-intensive shows.” 

Star Billy Porter told the Hollywood Reporter in May he’s been HIV-positive since 2007. 

In September, Mj Rodriguez, who plays Blanca, was the first trans actor to receive an Emmy nomination.

#4: JoJo makes ‘Dancing’ history

(Photo courtesy ABC)

YouTuber JoJo Siwa, 18, one of Time’s “most influential people in the world” last year, came out as pan (she’s also comfortable with “queer” and “gay,” she said) in January.

In September, the dancer/singer made history on the 30th season of “Dancing With the Stars” as the first contestant to compete with a same-sex partner. She and Jenna Johnson came in second. 

#3: Marvel depicts gay superhero

(Photo courtesy Walt Disney Studios)

“Eternals,” the 26th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was released in November, features the franchise’s first LGBTQ superheroes with Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), a genius inventor, who’s married to Ben (Haaz Sleiman) and father of Jack. The couple even gets an onscreen kiss.

Though the movie itself drew mixed reviews but solid box office, the inclusion was widely praised.

“Seeing a powerful gay superhero kiss his husband and feeling the reaction in that theater was a real-life example of why it is important for our stories to be told – especially in films that travel to big cities and small towns around the world,” Variety noted.

Several countries in the Middle East — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, et. al. — denied release; others only agreed to a version that edited the love scenes. 

“It made these Arab countries look so ignorant and pathetic,” Sleiman told Variety. “I have no respect for those governments.”

#2: Colton Underwood comes out — and it gets messy

(Photo courtesy Netflix)

The 29-year-old former NFL linebacker, whose alleged virginity gave him a novel angle on “The Bachelor” two years ago, came out in April on a “Good Morning America” interview. This month, a six-episode reality show dubbed “Coming Out Colton” arrived on Netflix in which he comes out to family and friends and learns gay culture. 

In November, an online petition with more than 35,000 signatures asked Netflix to cancel the series because of stalking and harassment allegations that Underwood’s ex-girlfriend, Cassie Randolph (his choice on “The Bachelor,” though they didn’t end up marrying), claimed in a 2020 restraining order. The order was dropped, but the incident as well as the docuseries raised gay eyebrows. 

“To some, that appears more like a monetized career move than an unvarnished emotional reckoning,” the New York Times wrote. 

#1: Lil Nas X scores big with ‘Montero’

(Photo courtesy Columbia)

Out rapper Lil Nas X proved he’s not a one-hit wonder when his single “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” debuted atop the Billboard Hot 100 in April.

Its video, which depicts the artist giving Satan a gay lap dance, won “Video of the Year” at the MTV Video Music Awards and People’s Choice Awards and three Grammys are pending. 

The accompanying album, “Montero,” dropped in September at No. 2 to solid reviews and featured two other Hot 100 top-10 hits.

Nas shot to fame in 2018 when his song “Old Town Road” became the longest-charting No. 1 song in Hot 100 history.

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Movies

Dorian Awards cast a queer eye on television

Netflix favorite ‘Heartstopper’ nabs three nominations

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Kit Conner and Joe Locke in ‘Heartstopper.’ (Photo courtesy Netflix)

As Hollywood gears up for the year’s second “Awards Season” ahead of July 12’s scheduled announcement of the 2022 Emmy nominations, it seems only fitting for us to bring some attention to another awards organization that has already dropped its picks for the year’s best in TV content. We’re referring, of course, to the Dorian Awards, which have been bestowed by the Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics since 2009. 

If you’ve never heard of the Dorians, that’s not surprising. In keeping with the entertainment industry’s frustratingly persistent skittishness when it comes to All Things Queer, the Dorians haven’t gotten much attention in the mainstream press – though with a 385-member voting body and a scandal-free history, they are arguably more reputable than the Golden Globes. Named in honor of iconic queer writer Oscar Wilde (as a reference to his novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray”), they are admittedly low profile when it comes to glitz and glamour, handing out their prizes at an annual “Winner’s Toast” day party instead of a formal evening affair. Nevertheless, they’ve gained traction as Hollywood’s attitudes toward LGBTQ inclusion and representation have shifted, and each of their two annual ceremonies – one for TV, one for film, held about six months apart – draw an increasing number of A-listers to participate, both as nominees and presenters; and while the Dorians may not hold the level of prestige enjoyed by some of the industry’s other awards, at least we can be sure their voting membership won’t overlook queer shows and talent as often as their counterparts at the Motion Picture and Television Academies.

That doesn’t mean the Dorians are exclusively focused on LGBTQ content. The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics – formerly known as the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, or GALECA – explicitly states that its awards are to honor “the best in film and TV, mainstream to queer+”, while calling attention to the importance of queer contribution and sensibility within the wider culture and reminding “bullies, bigots, and our own at-risk youth that the world loves the sly Q eye on entertainment.” With some state governments and the SCOTUS itself dedicating themselves an all-out assault on the LGBTQ community and its hard-won rights, that last point seems particularly resonant; with so much homo- and transphobic hate pouring its efforts into erasing us, our visibility is more crucial than ever.

Fortunately, as the slate of Dorian nominees announced by GALECA on June 22 reveals, the queer presence on television is strong. No longer segregated to a “niche” genre, the LGBTQ community has finally begun to appear on our screens as it does in life – blended, alongside everyone else, into a world that has room for us all. That’s what ideal inclusion looks like, and it’s heartening – especially now – to see that it has become the norm in so much of the industry’s best offerings.

This year, HBO leads the pack in terms of nods. Two of its heavily queer-inclusive shows, “Hacks” and “Somebody Somewhere,” received five nominations each, while “Euphoria” and “The White Lotus” snagged 4 and 3, respectively. In total, the cable-and-streaming giant got 24, with an additional 13 for programming exclusively on HBO Max, bringing the total to 37.

Coming in second with less than half that number is Netflix. Among its 15 nominations are three nods for “Heartstopper,” the runaway queer fan favorite based on a sweet UK webcomic about two schoolboys in love, and two each for Natasha Lyonne’s brain-twisting time travel dramedy “Russian Doll” and the already-award-winning Korean thriller “Squid Game.”

New series scored high among Dorian voters this year. Besides “Heartstopper” and “Somebody Somewhere,” ABC’s “Abbott Elementary,” Showtime’s “Yellow Jackets,” and Apple TV+’s “Severance” each received multiple nominations, with many other freshman titles picking up individual nods.

As for the awards themselves, the Dorians feature fewer overall categories – instead of being split into “gendered” divisions, actors of all genders compete for a single award in each category – and set themselves apart by striking a mildly tongue-in-cheek pose in the presentation of its “special” accolades. In presenting awards like Campiest TV Show or the brand new “You Deserve an Award” award, the Dorians give a tip of the lavender hat to the tradition of Wildean wit at their back – but they also assert the importance of queer perspective when it comes to taste-making and the aesthetic arts.

Nominees for the 14th Annual Dorian TV Awards (honoring shows which debuted June 1, 2021-May 31, 2022) are listed below. Winners will be revealed on Wednesday, Aug. 12.

BEST TV DRAMA: “Better Call Saul”; “Heartstopper”; “Yellowjackets”; “Severance”; “Succession”

BEST TV COMEDY: “Abbott Elementary”; “Barry”; “Hacks”; “The Other Two”; “Our Flag Means Death”

BEST LGBTQ SHOW: “Hacks”; “Heartstopper”; “The Other Two”; “Our Flag Means Death”; “Somebody Somewhere”; “RuPaul’s Drag Race”

BEST TV MOVIE OR MINISERIES: “Dopesick”; “The Dropout”; “Midnight Mass”; “Station Eleven”; “The White Lotus”

BEST NON-ENGLISH LANGUAGE TV SHOW: “Elite”; “Lupin”; “My Brilliant Friend”; “Pachinko”; “Squid Game”

BEST UNSUNG SHOW: “Better Things”; “The Other Two”; “Our Flag Means Death”; “Russian Doll”; “Somebody Somewhere”; “We Are Lady Parts”

BEST TV PERFORMANCE: Quinta Brunson (“Abbott Elementary”); Kit Connor (“Heartstopper”); Bridget Everett (“Somebody Somewhere”); Bill Hader (“Barry”); Lily James (“Pam & Tommy”); Natasha Lyonne (“Russian Doll”); Melanie Lynskey (“Yellowjackets”); Amanda Seyfried (“The Dropout”); Jean Smart (“Hacks”); Zendaya (“Euphoria”)

BEST SUPPORTING TV PERFORMANCE: Murray Bartlett (“The White Lotus”); Anthony Carrigan (“Barry”); Jennifer Coolidge (“The White Lotus”); Hannah Einbinder (“Hacks”); Jeff Hiller (“Somebody Somewhere”); Janelle James (“Abbott Elementary”); Matthew Macfadyen (“Succession”); Christina Ricci (“Yellowjackets”); Rhea Seehorn (“Better Call Saul”); Sydney Sweeney (“Euphoria”)

BEST TV MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: Beyonce, “HYPERLINK “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4aeDlZOD-B0″Be Alive” (94th Academy Awards); Kristin Chenoweth and cast, “HYPERLINK “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PmS5JIfSkk”Tribulation” (“Schmigadoon!”); Bridget Everett and Jeff Hiller, “HYPERLINK “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=As-a_bzFrl0″Don’t Give Up” (“Somebody Somewhere”); Jean Smart, “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” (“Hacks”); Cecily Strong and cast, “HYPERLINK “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dj5mJGyoYIM”Corn Puddin’” (“Schmigadoon!”); Hannah Waddingham and cast, “HYPERLINK “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4B0HktX4xqQ”Never Gonna Give You Up” (“Ted Lasso”)

BEST TV DOCUMENTARY OR DOCUMENTARY SERIES: “The Andy Warhol Diaries”; “The Beatles: Get Back”; “How to with John Wilson”; “Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known”; “We Need to Talk About Cosby”

BEST CURRENT AFFAIRS PROGRAM: “The Amber Ruffin Show”; “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah”; “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee”; “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”; “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”; “The Rachel Maddow Show”; “ZIWE” (Showtime)

BEST ANIMATED SHOW: “Arcane”; “Big Mouth”; “Bob’s Burgers”; “Q Force”; “Tuca & Bertie”; “What If…?”

BEST REALITY SHOW: “Legendary”; “The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans”; “RuPaul’s Drag Race”; “Survivor”; “Top Chef: Houston”; “We’re Here”

MOST VISUALLY STRIKING SHOW: “Euphoria”; “The Gilded Age”; “Loki”; “Severance”: “Squid Game”

CAMPIEST TV SHOW: “Diana: The Musical”; “Euphoria”; “Girls5Eva”; “Nine Perfect Strangers”; “Schmigadoon!”

WILDE WIT AWARD (to a performer, writer or commentator whose observations both challenge and amuse): Joel Kim Booster; Quinta Brunson; Jerrod Carmichael; Jennifer Coolidge; Bowen Yang

THE “YOU DESERVE AN AWARD!” AWARD (to a uniquely talented TV icon we adore): Gillian Anderson; Christine Baranski; Lynda Carter; Kim Cattrall; Cassandra Peterson

GALECA LGBTQIA+ TV TRAILBLAZER (for creating art that inspires empathy, truth and equity): Jerrod Carmichael; Margaret Cho; Russell T. Davies; Kate McKinnon; Bowen Yang

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Photos

PHOTOS: 2022 Baltimore Pride

Annual LGBTQ march held on Saturday

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Baltimore Pride 2022 (Washington Blade photo by Linus Berggren)

The 2022 Baltimore Pride Parade was held on Saturday, June 25. The march was followed by a block party and entertainment.

(Washington Blade photos by Linus Berggren)

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Theater

Queer actor on new role: ‘Playing villains is a blast’

Jaye Ayres-Brown returns as a contemptible Londoner in ‘Red Velvet’

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Jaye Ayres-Brown in ‘Red Velvet’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company. (Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography)

‘Red Velvet’
Through July 17
Shakespeare Theatre Company 
Michael R. Klein Theatre at the Lansburgh, 450 7th St., N.W.
$35-$120
Shakespearetheatre.org

After a five-year absence from the stage, actor Jaye Ayres-Brown (queer, gender fluid, non-binary, and trans-femme) returns to the boards as a contemptible cisgender Londoner in playwright Lolita Chakrabarti’s “Red Velvet” at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Klein Theatre.

Possessed of presence and genuine warmth, Ayres-Brown, 27, is playing Charles Kean, the smug and dubiously talented son of legendary English actor Edmund Kean. Charles is also the essential antagonist in Chakrabarti’s exploration of the life and career of renowned early 19th century African-American Shakespearean actor, Ira Aldridge (Amari Cheatom).  

When Aldridge is tapped to play Othello on the London stage, Charles, who’s slated to act opposite the star as evil Iago, quits the show. It’s 1833 and Charles is deeply opposed to a Black actor playing a Black lead character, and he’s even less pleased that his real-life fiancée Ellen Tree (Emily DeForest) is assaying Othello’s romantic obsession Desdemona in the production.  

Offstage, Ayres-Brown is Aldridge’s biggest fan: “He was way ahead of his time. A hundred years before Stanislavsky, Aldridge was introducing a proto naturalist approach to acting. In retrospect, it’s hard to disentangle the public’s reaction to him. He was something so different. But were white audiences reacting to his innovative acting style or were they showing their racial bias?” 

“In the play, I’m that bias,” says the New York-based actor. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Joan Crawford famously said, “I love playing bitches. There’s a lot of bitch in every woman — a lot in every man.” 

JAYE AYRES-BROWN: Oh yeah, playing villains is a blast. Ira Aldridge was such a spectacularly heroic person, an amazingly gifted and resourceful artist, he deserves a good villain to push against, a meaningful villain who makes us admire the hero even more. And Amari [Cheatom], the actor who plays Aldridge, is a great artist who deserves a strong antagonist too. 

BLADE: Are you enjoying your stay in London 1833? 

AYRES-BROWN: No, I hate it!  But my character loves it. Charles enjoys tremendous privilege – racial and professionally. He’s a cisgender white supremacist committed to the patriarchal power structure of the time. But me, Jaye as a person, is less than charmed by it.

BLADE: But aesthetically, it’s quite fine? 

AYRES-BROWN: Yes, You-Shin Chen’s sets are impeccable, and the period costumes are beautifully rendered by Rodrigo Muñoz. Sometimes, I do feel a little bit like a drag king in Charles’ attire. It’s a performance of masculinity. 

I have an expansive experience of gender in which I include masculinity and I think I have something interesting to say and a unique perspective. Language about gender nonconforming identity didn’t exist in 1833, but the people existed, getting by the best way they could. Everyone was either a man or a woman. Who knows today how any of these characters would identify? 

My objective is to cram as much humanity in the character as I can. The play is deeply considered with questions about who gets to play what roles. And I try to bring as much of myself to each role regardless of their gender.

BLADE: Charles is very far from who you are?

AYRES-BROWN: For me, the work of playing a character like this is derived largely from the racist lessons all Americans learn. The stereotypes are things that I’ve been exposed to as someone who grew up white in America. There’s the initial desire to distance and highlight contrasts, but ultimately you must mine your own experience even if it’s uncomfortable.

BLADE: How is it to be working in live theater again?

AYRES-BROWN: Like Christmas morning! It’s my first play in five years, and still my training kicks in. I re-balance on my bike and it’s like I’ve never stopped riding. But mostly, I’m trying to have as much fun as I can. 

BLADE: And how was working with young director Jade King Carroll? 

AYRES-BROWN: Wonderful! The play deals with some difficult moments, harmful language and ideas.  Jade created a space in our rehearsal room where people could be playful while engaging with that. Dealing with concepts of history requires the seriousness it demands, but there’s also a need for humor and lightness, and Jade made that possible.

BLADE:  Any thoughts on “Red Velvet” being stuck in time? 

AYRES-BORWN: No, I think this play is a shockingly contemporary telling of a lost history that feels overwhelmingly resonant as it’s related to identity politics and the push for representation. I hope the audience sees a period but appreciates the present-day dynamics, discussions, and language. It’s also surprisingly human and very entertaining. To me it’s a very funny show. Anyone interested in laughing at posh British folks being stupid might agree.

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