Closets of the Rich and Famous
As anyone who knows me can tell you, I’m a big fan of stories. I write fiction, I subscribe to a theatre, I host a podcast about old movies, and I’ll talk your ear off about Severance, the best show of 2022 (where is the second season??!), if you’ll let me.
Mostly, I’m devoted to fictional stories. They’re a little tidier than real life, which is complex enough most days. I will make an occasional detour into nonfiction. These usually take the form of celebrity memoirs and showbiz documentaries. I’ve read the life accounts of Prince Harry, Jeannette McCurdy, and Billy Porter in the past year, and more recently watched two great pop culture docs, Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed (Max) and Wham! (Netflix).
Rock Hudson was, at one point, the biggest male star in Hollywood, best known in his day for Giant (co-starring Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean) and Pillow Talk (alongside Doris Day). He was a classic Hollywood dreamboat: suave, debonair, and impossibly gorgeous. As described in the documentary, he was a man that women wanted to marry, and men wanted to be. Honestly, put me down for a little bit of both.
By contrast, Wham! was a pop group that quickly came and went in the early 80s. Comprised of childhood friends George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, the duo became famous for songs like “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and “Careless Whisper.” Their faces adorned the bedroom walls of teenage girls everywhere, and they were the first Western pop group to be invited to mainland China to perform.
Both documentaries were full of interesting trivia about their subjects. For instance, I had not known that Rock Hudson didn’t like James Dean much, and the feeling was mutual. I didn’t realize that towards the end of his life, Rock reached out to old friend Nancy Reagan, who was first lady at the time, to obtain help receiving admission to a French hospital when he was dying of HIV, and that his request was curtly denied. Perhaps the most surprising information was in what people didn’t say: to a person, everyone from co-stars to friends to ex-lovers said that Rock Hudson was one of the kindest, most decent people in Hollywood.
Likewise, I had not known that George and Andrew met in primary school. I didn’t know that George first recorded “Careless Whisper” in Muscle Shoals with producing legend Jerry Wexler, but hated the result and scrapped it. And I wasn’t aware that much of the music video for “Last Christmas” featured George, Andrew, and their friends drinking real wine until they were all completely smashed.
Obviously, the one thing that Rock Hudson and George Michael had in common was that they were gay. Huge stars, household names, and deeply closeted for most of their careers. Both came out before their stories ended, but neither did so willingly. Rock Hudson was outed when news broke of his AIDS diagnosis in 1985, and George Michael when he was arrested for lewd conduct at a park restroom in 1998.
In Hudson’s case, being in the closet was understandable. Homosexuality was officially a mental illness in the 50s and 60s, and there were no openly gay actors in Hollywood. All the same, his sexuality was an open secret in Hollywood, and he clearly harbored no shame about who he was.
Michael’s story was a little more nuanced. There were a handful of openly gay pop stars in the 80s (Jimmy Sommerville, Boy George), but many more in the closet. Still, upon realizing he was gay, he was initially ready to tell anyone who cared to know. Then, his best friend and bandmate reminded him that this meant telling his father—a conversation the 19-year old George wasn’t up for yet. So, he kept it a secret, and in the meantime became a household name, trapped by the kind of fame he never expected.
Watching both films in quick succession, I was suddenly struck by our community’s obsession with coming out. If someone is openly gay, we are quick to celebrate them, but if we suspect someone of being in the closet, the claws suddenly come out. It never occurs to us that maybe, like Rock, they’re out to everyone in their lives, but not out to People Magazine. Or perhaps they’re like George, unbothered and unafraid by the press but just not ready to tell dad. Perhaps, like both, they’re good, generous, gifted people, who have a lot to share with the world.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m still an advocate for coming out if the person is ready. It’s good for the LGBTQ community, and (in most cases) good for the individual, who no longer has to keep a secret from the world. But sometimes, perhaps it’s more important to be kind and brilliant.▼
Eric Peterson is Interim Managing Editor of Amble Press, a novelist (Loyalty, Love & Vermouth), and a diversity, equity, and inclusion practitioner. In his spare time, he hosts a podcast, The Rewind Project.