TV star Cheyenne Jackson pulls back the curtain on being out in Hollywood, his struggles with addiction, and the joys of being a father
Why life is no longer scary for the American Horror Story star
Standing in the grounds of a magnificent mansion located high in the hills of West Hollywood, Cheyenne Jackson playfully poses with a hosepipe, spurting water into a waiting swimming pool. “This is pretty phallic,” he smiles, before flicking his wrist and sending a fresh spray of droplets into the air.
Why, yes, yes, it is.
Not that the brooding American actor and singer is a stranger to being asked to bring the sexy. His Attitude cover photoshoot is positively prudish compared with his activities in brilliantly bonkers TV hit American Horror Story, in which he has a recurring role. Not many people can put “being felt up by Lady Gaga” on their CV!
Now that would jazz up a job application form.
The pause- rewind- repeat moment lifted 2015’ s “Hotel”, the fifth chapter in the series, and saw his character, bisexual fashion designer Will Drake, dive beneath the sheets with Mother Monster’s blood- sucking countess. “It was my first nude scene,” Cheyenne reminisces. “I was on my stomach on this bed and we were enticing a third person to join us.”
“Gaga, or Stefani as she wanted us to call her, is very nurturing. I remember she was scratching my back, butt and legs with her long nails — it wasn’t a sexy thing, but at the same time, it really was,” he laughs.
“[ AHS creator] Ryan Murphy popped on to the set and he was so nonplussed by it all, he just came up to us and asked: ‘ Hey kids, how’s it going?’”
I ask Cheyenne — pronounced shy an — if he’s aware that his Gaga- gripped buttocks have since been screen- grabbed and turned into a gif.
“She was the first person to send it to me! She wrote something like, ‘ I’ll laugh for a hundred years’.”
The show, now in its eighth outing, “Apocalypse”, is perhaps the only programme where cast members don’t mind being killed off. “I’ve died six times already, twice this year… I’ve had my eyes pecked out, my throat slit, and been burned alive,” he exclaims. “It’s been renewed until season 10 or 11, and we never know if we’re going to come back or not. But I always say I’m available.”
Spending his childhood years in a tiny town in northern Idaho — “I grew up in the woods with no running water, it was rural to say the least” — Cheyenne caught his first big break 13 years ago, making his Broadway debut in the Elvis Presley- inspired musical All Shook Up. Soon after, he attracted even more attention when he made the bold move to publicly come out as gay during an interview with The New York Times. “I was 29, but I’d been out of the closet [ to my family and friends] since I was 19. I was kind of the hot guy of the moment, so I felt a pressure maybe not to. No one specifically said, ‘ I wouldn’t do that’, but you could read the room. It was different back then. I just thought, ‘ What am I going to do, use unspecific pronouns and sneak around? No way’,” he recalls, with a shake of his head. Cheyenne, who lists “bad- ass” George Michael as one of his idols, only briefly entertained the idea of keeping his sexuality under lock and key.
“I thought about it for half a second, but, no, I’m a very open person. I’m what my friends lovingly refer to as a ‘ goldstar gay’,” he chuckles, “meaning I’ve never been with a girl and I’ve never wanted to.
“I’ve always known who I am and what I’ve liked.”
Going on to craft a stellar stage and screen career, with other knockout turns in 30 Rock, HBO’s Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, Glee and the Will & Grace reboot, not to mention recording three studio albums, he insists he has no regrets about laying his cards on the table so early on.
That being said, Cheyenne, now 43, believes the decision has cost him some roles. “I’m sure. Probably. Most likely.
But I have no proof of that,” he shrugs. “I’ve always looked at it like, if I’m not best for the part then so be it. Ho wever, if you’re truly not casting me because I’m gay then I don’t want to work for you anyway.”
Although Hollywood is far more accepting compared with the scary place of yesteryear (“They’re coming out young, it isn’t just character actors over 45”), Cheyenne predicts that we still have a wait on our hands for a closeted A- lister to finally fling open those doors.
“We’re not there yet, but it takes just one. Unfortunately, it boils down to marketability: are people going to buy him with a woman if they know he’s married to a man and has kids? A lot of studio heads and decision- makers, generally speaking, don’t give audiences enough credit for being able to suspend belief. I mean, when I watch an actor, do I imagine him with his wife? No, you’re watching a piece of art.”
Throughout our chat, sitting in one of the envy- inducing mansion’s many nooks and crannies, Cheyenne comes across as a man who wears his sexuality with the same comfort and ease as someone dressed in a pair of silk pyjamas. But that, he tells us, hasn’t always been the case. Shifting slightly in his seat, he revisits a painful chapter in his past, as a devoutly religious teen terrified of being shunned by both his parents and the Church because of his attraction to other boys. “It was a really hard time. I was ensconced in the Church. It was a big part of our lives, my parents and siblings. From the time I was 10 or 11, I had an inkling I was gay but it didn’t come into focus until I was a teenager.
“I was on a mission trip in Mexico. It was my 17th birthday and everybody had got me a blue cake. I blew out the candles, then they started singing worship songs, cake all around their mouths. They were praying and praising God, crying,” he continues.
“I just thought, ‘ Uh- uh, this doesn’t feel right, this doesn’t feel real’. I knew I was gay and that these people were going to reject me. That was the turning point.”
And he was right to worry. “I knew that my parents would
be devastated, and I knew that the Church would reject me. Both of these things happened. It was horrible.”
But time, as the old adage goes, proved to be a healer when it came to Cheyenne’s relationship with his beloved parents Cherrie and David.
“My parents didn’t know what to do. They had to mourn the idea of what they thought my life was going to be,” he explains. “To their credit, we took a little sabbatical, we did our own thing for a year, took time away from each other, then got back together as a family. They’ve supported me no matter what.”
Singling out the special bond he shared with his father, who died last year, Cheyenne adds: “He actually took it better than my mum; I thought it would be the opposite. You would look at him and think ‘ Yikes!’ because he was such a manly man, but he was amazing.”
However, when it comes to religion, no bridges could be rebuilt and Cheyenne has completely severed his ties with the faith.
“I believe in a higher power for sure, but I don’t believe in Jesus like I was raised to. It isn’t really because of the way I was treated. It was something that I always felt. I went to this Christian camp when I was 12 and on one of the nights we had to speak in tongues.
“When I say had to, there was no option. I would always fake it. I never bought it,” he maintains.
Many of us will also be able to relate to the demons that Cheyenne has battled over the years. Learning to accept his sexual identity in and around the time of the Aids crisis, he was bombarded with the notion that being gay amounted to little more than a death sentence.
“The only image I saw of gay men were on TV and they were either the really flamboyant neighbour, or the guy dying,” he said. “My memories as a 17 and 18 year old, those are the images, and I would think: ‘ That’s my future, great, I’m not going to be able to get married and I’ll probably die — that’s the way it seems it’s going to go’.”
Refreshingly honest and open, the barriers didn’t come up when I then touched on Cheyenne’s now- conquered addictions to alcohol and drugs after submerging himself in the intoxicating showbiz party scene. “My biggest thing was booze, but I definitely liked cocaine and [ other] party drugs [ such as] ecstasy. I was in that world and it was what you did. You were at a party and there would just be a pile of coke there. It got out of hand. My life became unmanageable.”
There was no rock bottom, he reveals — it was more of a gradual slide that he managed to halt before it was too late. “I didn’t have a ‘ thing’ where I lost my job. I was never drunk at work. It was simply getting too much.
“I couldn’t even go out to dinner, or have a moment with friends, where I wasn’t thinking about drinking, and the drinking always led to ‘ Let’s get some coke’,” he adds. “It was an unhealthy pattern and I’d seen too many friends fall deeper and deeper, losing everything. I wasn’t going to let myself do that. I didn’t go to rehab, I just started going to meetings and got my shit together.” Putting his finger on why substance abuse is, as the stats show, more prevalent among the LGBT+ community, Cheyenne says: “There are so many things that we deal with in gay society, and drugs and alcohol are such [ an effective] way to numb it, for a moment, for a night, to make us not think about being an adult, real life and consequences. But then you wake up and still have the same shit, just now you have a hangover — and, ooof, my hangovers were rough.”
Celebrations were in order earlier this summer when he marked his fifth year of sobriety and, as life currently stands, he could not be more f ulfilled, especially with his relatively new duties as a dad.
Over the course of the shoot, Cheyenne talks about his adorable two- year- old twins, proudly showing off photos of Ethan and Willow, born via surrogacy. Cheyenne shares parenting duties with husband and 41- year- old fellow actor Jason Landau, and his face lights up at the mere mention of their names.
“We both wanted to have biological children, and we had a lot of friends who had gone through it and had wonderful experiences. Being there while your children are born, immediately having skin on skin…” he beams. “If you’ve ever seen yourself as a mother or father, you want to see yourself
“I went to a Christian camp and had to speak in tongues”
in your kids, and you want to see your mum or dad in your kids. We didn’t consider adoption, but that isn’t to say that we won’t some day.”
Turning the other cheek, meanwhile, is a tactic
Cheyenne, who was previously married to physician Monte Lapka, employs when I wonder aloud whether he’s ever experienced homophobic abuse since starting a family. “Aside from the occasional anonymous comment on social media, which I don’t respond or give a second thought to, no. I’m focused on my marriage, my sobriety and my fatherhood, just trying to raise good people.”
Parenthood hasn’t been a walk in a park, in fact it’s meant navigating more twists and turns than an AHS script. “It’s the most love that you’ll ever experience in your life, but also the most exhaustion, anxiety and fear. You’re constantly afraid that they’re going to die. You’ll never sleep the same, you’ll always sleep with one ear open. That’s how it will be until the day I die. Nobody can prepare you for the weight of it.”
I reassure him that he still looks mighty fine despite the sleepless nights — then again, I’ve always been a fan of daddies.
“I kind of like how I’m looking, even with the wrinkles and grey hair,” he replies. “I’m looking more like my dad.”
The heartthrob hasn’t always been so content with his appearance, or rather, the ageing process, and based in La La Land, where there are as many cosmetic surgeons as Starbucks outlets, he gave into the temptation of trying to turn back the sands of time ( she is a mean bitch, that one).
“I’m an actor, I’m vain, so was definitely aware of what I look like. You are up for parts against people who are younger than you. There is always someone younger coming through. You definitely get caught in that trap, and I did for about three years,” Cheyenne admits.
“I had a little Botox between my eyes and then I thought, ‘ Great, I look more awake’.
“This was eight or nine years ago. I got a bit in my forehead, more around my eyes, and pretty soon I was getting it all over my face.
“Then I started getting fillers because my doctor was like, ‘ Your nasolabial folds are getting saggy’. I went to this event and I had gone too far. I looked waxy and frozen.
“My manager took to me to one side and said: ‘ I need to have a rough conversation with you — you’ve got to cool it’.
“I haven’t done it in years,” Cheyenne says. “I [ actually] never think men who have stuff done look good; it feminises your face. Lips on men, no, uh- uh.”
But his rougher- round- the- edges looks could help him bag his dream role: playing Rock Hudson, the Hollywood heartthrob who lived in the closet and became one of the first high- profile victims of HIV/ Aids.
“I’ve always been drawn to that story and I have a little time to pull it off, I believe. I understand his struggle in Hollywood and what that felt like. There have been little pockets of interest [ in a potential biopic] along the way.”
Before that, we should be seeing more of Cheyenne’s impressive bod after he confirms that he will be starring in the much- mooted stage adaptation of Steven Soderbergh’s male stripper film Magic Mike.
“I’m not allowed to confirm or deny that,” he pauses, lips curling into a cheeky smile, “but yeah.”
Better start stocking up on those dollar bills, girls. Winding down the interview, I warn him that I have saved my trickiest question until last: who his pick is to snatch the crown in RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 4?
“That’s Sophie’s Choice!” screams Cheyenne, who has previously served as a guest judge on the series.
“I can’t even answer that because I know a lot of the girls. I love Manila Luzon, she’s classic and I don’t think we’ve seen all she can do.”
But he reckons he could give the queens a run for their money, having dragged- up in the past. “I was beautiful… from the neck up,” he laughs.
“I’ m an actor.
I’ m vain, so was definitely aware of how
Cheyenne wears tank top, by M& S, jogging bottoms, by Gucci at MR PORTER
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