Who said I would never amount to anything?
Lots of people, actually, back in the day. But where are they now, those naughty horrid naysayers who mocked me and told me to hide my light under a bushel and go get a job at the local biscuit factory? I bet you none of them have a cute husband like mine, not to mention an extensive collection of Murano glass clowns. Even if they have a clown or two, I bet you none of them have inspired a TV show! So there!
Set your TiVo, girls! Beautiful People, the BBC 2 TV show based on my how-I-clawed-my-way-to-the-middle memoir is coming to Logo TV next week. May 26, 10.30 p.m. Six episodes.
As anyone will tell you who has ever gone into development on any kind of entertainment venture, it is nothing short of a miracle to have something actually make it to the silver or flat screen. So how did it happen? How did I circumvent the years of Hollywood dry-humping to be thus immortalized?
Let’s go back.
Remember Nasty? No recollection of it? I’m not surprised. My rags-to-sequins autobio did not exactly set the best-seller list on fire. While Entertainment Weekly loved it to bits, the Old Gray Lady dubbed it “foppish and superficial.” After anticipating that Nasty would be the smasheroonie of all time, the folks at Simon & Schuster and I were forced to cry all the way to the remainder bin.
I will not elaborate on the personal agony caused by this flop other than to say “Ouch!” and also “Yeow!”
But then, before the narcissistic injuries had even stopped bleeding, something extraordinary happened. A fab bloke called Gary Ventimiglia—he’s a major Hollywood muckety-muck who used to work for Madge at Maverick—gave the book to a sassy chick called Caryn Mandebach—she’s a legend in TV who produced The Cosby Show, amongst other things—who gave it to Jon Plowman, who loved it!
Who is Jon Plowman? Do the words Absolutely Fabulous, Little Britain or The Office mean anything to you? Yes, the ultimate comedic producing genius of all time.
’Ere long, the BBC had green-lighted my project—j’adore the lingo!—with Justin Davies co-producing and Jonathan Harvey (Beautiful Thing) hammering out scripts. Before you could shriek “Cecil B. DeMille!” shooting was under way.
How involved was I? Not very, and just as well. In order to render the show more snappy and less of a period piece—my ’50s-’60’s childhood was deemed a tad too Little Dorrit for current tastes—the action was updated to ’90s Britain, a Kylie Minogue–ish soundtrack pulsing throughout. After more than 30 years of not living in England, I did not really have much, other than the notions contained in the memoir itself, to contribute. I would not have had a clue about casting or what makes people laugh or what would be the right shoe or brooch for a particular scene. In fact, at this point in my American life, I know more about stem cell research than I do about the contemporary Brits and their brooches.
Last September I received the six DVDs of Beautiful People (deeming the original title Nasty unappealing, the BBC changed it, inspiring Simon & Schuster to do the same with the paperback, now available, repackaged, as Beautiful People) right before a trip to San Francisco. I sat through that plane ride in a daze, watching the arch of my life unfurl on my trusty laptop.
This was a vertigo-inducing experience. There I was millions of miles up in the air, watching myself, played by Samuel Barnett, mincing about in the Barneys windows as he reminisced about, amongst other things, stealing a neighbor’s nylon party frock and doing unconventional things with a Posh Spice doll. Plowman’s version of my life was deliciously comic and chock-full of singing and dancing and joyful hilarity.
While preserving the essential and gorgeous ideas in my page-turner of a book, the creators of the show took major and hilarious liberties : My blind Aunt Phyllis has morphed into a Pakistani hippie named Hayley; my childhood gay best friend, Biddie, and my sister Shelagh are tweaked and reimagined, respectively, into the high-kicking Kylie—his West Indian mom calls him “batty boy”—and Ashlene, the gal who runs after all the spotty-faced geeks in the street.
Along with many chuckles, Beautiful People also delivered for me, the originator of the underlying material, some surprisingly painful and therapeutic moments. Watching Brenda Fricker bring my lobotomized schizophrenic grandmother Narg back to life scared the crap out of me and precipitated many visits to the shrink to re-examine old childhood traumas. Watching myself getting punched in the face at school tossed me into an anxious catharsis that released long-buried feelings of vulnerability. The show was a blunt reminder of how hard it was, even in my unconventional family milieu, to be that little kid fiercely shielding his scary gay secret from the disapproving eyes of society.
My overall impression? I love it and I am very proud of what it accomplishes: By depicting, with humor, a family who support and nurture little moi, Beautiful People offers a gorgeous and heartwarming road map for any family dealing with a gay insurgent.
Is my story relevant today? In an era when young kids are still being bullied to the point of suicide because of their perceived gayness, I would say yes—emphatically yes. One need look no further than the recent heartbreaking cases of Jaheem Herrera and Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover.
When the show aired in Britain last year, I received many touching emails from lads and lasses who found validation and liberation in the show. There is no way to describe how happy and proud I felt to be cast as their role model. Finally, I have, with or without my clowns, actually amounted to something.