close to a dozen celebrity clients (from Meredith Baxter to Dick Sargent to Amanda Bearse) come out of the closet, and you can expect that number to climb when his one-time reality special, Coming Out, premieres on A&E during the fourth quarter of 2010. The program, which was greenlit last week, will focus on famous people going public with their homosexuality, and Bragman says he views it as “an opportunity to change the world a little.” We caught up with Bragman to ask him about his dream cast, fear of spoilers, and the criticism that his show is simply unnecessary.Over the past two decades, public-relations exec Howard Bragman has helped
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What would you say to folks who respond to the concept of Coming Out by saying “What’s the point of this show? We don’t need to know about these people’s personal lives!”?
HOWARD BRAGMAN: Oh come on, we love knowing about people’s personal lives! Look at your sister publication, People magazine! I mean, we want to know every detail, every nuance. Heterosexuals don’t seem to be ashamed about selling wedding pictures and baby pictures, and we have to start telling our stories, too. And you know what? If you don’t want to know about it, we have this wonderful thing called the remote control: Use it!
Are you envisioning this as a live show, where people pop out from behind a curtain and say “Hey, I’m gay!”? Or will it be more of a behind-the-scenes look as they go through the planning and process of coming out?
The latter. It’s going to be very documentary-esque. We’re going to be telling people’s stories, and you have to do that with a certain amount of sensitivity. You know as well as I do, none of us gets out unscathed from coming out and growing up gay. I don’t care if you’re the best looking kid in the world and go to the most liberal school and have the best parents: It still screws your head up to some extent, and we all get a little damaged as a result of it. And hence we get stronger and more creative, and lots of good comes out of it, but it’s not easy.
What’s the typical time frame for your clients, from the time they hire you till the time they actually make the announcement?
Every case is different. Chely Wright, I met with a year ahead of time. Meredith Baxter, thanks to the tabloids, we had about five days. I think of myself as a midwife: Every person who comes out is a unique and beautiful creature, who does it for whatever reason they want, and God bless ‘em. I have to say there are “wows” and “duhs.” Meredith Baxter probably qualifies as a “wow.” Clay Aiken might’ve been more of a “duh.” But they’re all important, and they’re all courageous. Because realistically, the cumulative number [of major celebs who’ve come out] ain’t that big. We’re talking a couple dozen people, not hundreds. It’ll be interesting when the show’s not needed, and everybody’s out, but we’re certainly not at that day.
That said, we’re at a time when Adam Lambert is openly gay and in the midst of a very successful summer tour, and Neil Patrick Harris is out and up for an Emmy playing a straight man. How big a consideration for your clients is the fear of losing work or income if they do go public with their homosexuality?
Everybody worries. Music it seems to be less of an issue, though in Chely Wright’s case, she had legitimate fears about coming out in country music. In acting, it’s an issue. But it’s all a balancing act. These kids come to me, they’re 25 and want to be the next great action star, and they’re gay, and they’re scared to death. Well, my advice is, play the odds. Odds are you’ll have a happier life if you’re out than if you’re a closeted action star. But it’s a shockingly personal decision. I will tell you, though, as I talk to people and cast this show, there’s a big difference between having my phone ring and having someone say “I’m coming out, can you help me?” and me calling someone and saying “Have you every thought of…” [Laughs.]
Have you made those calls, seriously?
I’ve done it where I have an inkling. But people have reached out to me, too, after hearing about the show.
I know this is a tricky subject, but as soon as you hear about this show, it’s hard to stop your mind from wondering, “Will A, B, C, and D be involved?” Do you have a wish list already?
I’ll tell you a couple of things. First, it doesn’t have to be the biggest star in the world to make it interesting. I don’t think Chley was the biggest star in the world. I don’t think John Amaeci, the NBA player, was a huge star, but that got tremendous publicity. It’s really about the story. And there is hope: Adam Lambert gives me tremendous hope. Cheyenne Jackson is amazing and courageous, and nobody sees him on 30 Rock and says “Oh, I’m not buying him as a love interest!” I don’t care if you’re boy, girl, or sheep, he’s sexy!
It seems like it’ll be hard to keep it a secret about which stars are going to wind up on your show. Do you worry about spoilers?
I don’t think it matters. Most of the time, these things come out ahead of time — I hope they don’t, but most of the time they do — and it just builds interest. It’s the world we live in: Blogs buzz about it for days beforehand, but people will still watch.
So if we see you walking down the street with a celebrity, and cameras are rolling all around you…
It’ll probably be shot a little more discreetly than that! I don’t think we’ll be standing at the podium at the GLAAD awards saying “Shhhh! Don’t tell anybody!” [Laughs.] It’s really an honor, though, to do something like this. There’s no greater political act than the simple act of coming out. And there’s no harder or more courageous act. And to document this really life-changing moment for people, it’s beyond what I could have imagined.
Have you thought about spinning this concept out to regular everyday people, not just famous folks?
I don’t want to look beyond what’s ahead. I want to do the first one, do it really well, take a breath and see what works and what didn’t.
The initial reports said this was conceived as a one-time special, but is there any chance it could become a series, or turn out to be something more than a one-night telecast?
I’ve been asked not to discuss that at this point.
Fair enough. Crazy question, but do you ever have the worry, unlikely as it may be, that someone might say they’re gay for the sole purpose of landing on your show — in other words, having someone play gay just to get on TV or revive their career?
That would be a great scandal! I’d love that, are you kidding? Robert Redford would end up making a movie about it. You’re talking to a publicist here, okay? That would be beyond my wildest dreams if some young, hot stud pretends he’s gay to get on the show! I hope that happens. And I hope he’s a stud and he hits on the host of the show. [Laughs.]
Seriously, though, why do this show, and why now?
I want people to understand that standing up and saying “Yes, I’m gay” is a huge deal. Right after Chely Wright taped Oprah, five days after she came out, she found out that at the little high school she went to in Kansas, three kids went to the guidance counselor and said, “We’re gay. In honor of Chely, we’re coming out. We’re dealing with it.” And the high school promised them a safe place to learn. That was huge for Chely. That made it all worth while. We have to understand what the suicide rates are for gay teens, and the damage that some of the hatred in the world does to people. We’re in a country that’s very divided on this issue, but it’s not okay to be homophobic; it’s that simple. If we change a few minds, then the show has been successful, no matter what the ratings are. You used the term “post-gay world” when you blogged about the show last week, and some people disagreed with you. But my theory is the revolution is over; we’re now in the evolution. Evolutions take longer and produce fewer results than revolutions, but we’re getting changes incrementally.