Who Are the Gay Internet Stars of Tomorrow?

William Sledd recently made national headlines when he was plucked from amongst the racks at his local Gap store and signed by Bravo to bring his popular series of YouTube videos, “Ask A Gay Man,” to the network's online incarnation, OutZoneTV. Perez Hilton recently announced that he will be coming to TV in a series of one-hour specials starting in September, courtesy of VH1. But William and Perez are only two of an increasing number of gay men who have used the Internet to jumpstart their careers.

Notoriously underserved by the mainstream media, it seems that more and more gay men have decided that if the media isn't going to include us, we'll just have to include ourselves. The popularity of user-generated content sites like YouTube, Flickr, TypePad, and Blogspot has leveled the playing field for the gays and, armed with keyboards, webcams, digital cameras, and our own fabulous personalities, we've found that perhaps we're just what the mainstream media has been missing all along. And lo and behold, a new breed of Internet celebrity has been born.

AfterElton.com takes a closer look at some established stars of the Internet, as well as a few up-and-comers, to find out how they've managed to accomplish what they have, and where they plan to go from here. In talking to this filmmaker, photographer, pop band, vlogger, and blogging duo, it's obvious that there is no definitive template for success. Each of these men comes from a different background, and each has his own definition of “success”. But just as obviously, it takes drive, talent, and a little bit of chutzpah to achieve what each has accomplished at his respective stage of Internet celebrity.

 

Matthew Chilelli

Matthew Chilelli is a 22-year-old filmmaker from Maine who is currently relocating to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the film industry. A filmmaker for nearly 12 years, he began posting his work to YouTube two years ago. Since then, one of his videos has been the featured video on the YouTube homepage and his channel is closing in on 3,000 subscribers. You can check out his work at his website.

AfterElton.com: I've noticed that any video with gay content posted on YouTube, including some of yours, like “Gay Marriage, What's the Big Screaming Deal?” and “A Good Impression,” receives at least a few anti-gay comments. How have you dealt with that?
Matthew Chilelli
: Well, I've found it really doesn't take much to set some people off. Even just advocating gay rights was enough to get a couple f-words my way. [Pauses] Really, I've never really had a problem with it. I've never really had many people sling hate-words my way, I guess. I went to Ithaca College, which is an extremely liberal college. So I've had the benefit of a history and an upbringing where it doesn't really faze me. And to see the comments on the videos themselves, you quickly realize it really is a small minority of people who are saying that. And you know, I can live with that and really, it would bug me more if they were saying things they could back up.

That's one of the things about YouTube, you can't really say a whole lot in the comments section. So if anyone ever says anything on those videos, and I do try to look at all the comments, that I think is worth discussing, or somewhat informed, I'm gonna try to contact that person and see where they're coming from and try to talk to them. But if it's just blatant hate-speech, I don't really make a big deal of it. But I don't delete those comments either. I think it's important for people to see all sides. I think it's important to know that those people are out there too.

AE: You mention on your website that you feel it's your duty to include well-adjusted gay characters, whose sexuality isn't as issue, in your films.
MC:
I had the opportunity to intern at a production company in Los Angeles, and I did coverage for them. Production companies get a whole lot of scripts and things sent to them and the producers don't have time to read it all, so they have people read it for them and write what amounts to a brief book report about each script. Which means that I ended up reading a whole lot of scripts and not a whole lot of them included any gay characters.

But what struck me was that in a lot of the ones that did, it was always a negative portrayal. They were always this annoying character or some sort of minor antagonist. Even if they're the protagonist, there's always something wrong with them.

You look at any movie nowadays, it either can't end happily for them, or they have some sort of drug problem, or a social problem [of some sort]. And you know, I can understand where that comes from, because that's where the drama lies. But nowadays I think a lot of that is changing and I think it's a little false and it feels wrong to have every single gay character be crippled by some sort of social disease, regardless of how the author views sexuality. And it really bugged me that that was the case. Look at any other television show or film; if the protagonist is straight you can have a compelling story with an identifiable protagonist who isn't totally screwed up. But nobody really does that with gay characters.

AE: Absolutely. It seems in every gay film the lead is always defined by their sexuality; it's always something they have to deal with.
MC: Exactly, like that's why the movie was made. They're dealing with their family, and their family doesn't understand them, and they get kicked out … and I don't think that's true anymore. To an extent yeah, it still happens. But there are a lot of families nowadays that aren't traumatic. They might have a hard time dealing with it, but they certainly don't throw the kid out.

The reason I'm making such a big deal of this is because when I grew up I didn't have any exposure to homosexual characters outside of what was presented through the media, [in shows like] Will and Grace. That was my perception, and that can be very damaging. Not anything major against that show — it wasn't terrible — and a lot of people saw it as a big breakthrough. People were patting themselves on the back for having a “gay” show, but there was still a lot to fix.

But a lot of the characters on there, and not that there's anything wrong with this, were very effeminate. And that really reinforces that stereotype. From my perspective, having that as the only exposure I ever had [to homosexuality], I had a really tough time coming out because that's what I thought it meant, and I really didn't identify with that. And I think that that really sort of impeded my progress. Plus, it would be nice, even from a storytelling standpoint, to have a little variety and it would also be nice for the effect it would probably have on the people viewing it. So it's a win-win situation.

AE: Do you have a job lined up once you get out to LA?
MC:
I'm just going to kind of see what happens. I've applied to a couple writing fellowships and see how it works out, I guess. And hopefully it doesn't get to the point where I have to sell my camera. Or I can just get work as someone who types up the credits so I can just make it look like I made the whole thing. I'll get fired, but everyone will think I did everything. ‘Wow, I don't know how you did it! I don't know how you ended up looking like Tom Cruise, but apparently you did it; it says right there in the credits! Way to go!'

Gabriel Goldberg

Starting out as a writer/editor and creating Instinct Magazine with some friends in 1997 and serving as Editor-in-Chief until 2000, Gabriel Goldberg decided on a career change, only recently taking up photography (though you wouldn't know it looking at his photos). Encouraged by a friend to start uploading his work to Flickr, Gabriel's career as a photographer is taking off. You've probably already seen some of his photos; His spreads in the current issues of Pref and DNA magazines recently made the rounds of just about every gay blog on the Net. You can view his work for yourself at www.flickr.com/photos/whipflash/.

AfterElton.com: You mentioned that you were a former writer/editor; how did you go from that to photography? How long ago did you make the switch?
Gabriel Goldberg: When I started Instinct Magazine with a couple buddies, I was a one-man editorial department, so I was writing and editing the articles as well as overseeing the cover and fashion shoots. Over time, I just started getting more involved with the art direction of them. I befriended many of the photographers I worked with, and finally, around 2003, I started asking them questions. And I never shut up after that. I left my last publishing job in 2005, started at Art Center College of Design (in Pasadena, Calif.) in 2006, and have been in school just over a year now.

AE: Have you received any professional interest in your work through the site?
GG: Actually, surprisingly, yes. I've received a few emails via Flickr from several different magazines inquiring about my work. Two of which I ended up shooting stories for. Still boggles the mind.

AE: When did you land your first magazine shoot? How did that come about?
GG: I actually shot a few celebrities for LA STAGE magazine before I even started school. But I know the fella who runs the joint, so perhaps that was more of the ol' Los Angeles adage, INWYKBWYK (It's Not What You Know, But Who You Know). But the editor of the French magazine PREF contacted me through Flickr and they ended up running a few of my images in their May/June issue. That led to me pitching them a couple ideas, one of which ended up as a 10-page spread in their July/August issue. I finally got a copy of it in the mail the other day and I'm still pinching myself.

AE: You definitely seem to lean toward using gorgeous guys as subjects. Was that an intentional decision on your part, or just the way things worked out?
GG: Just the way it worked out. I actually would love to shoot beautiful women, but being a gay man, I guess I have more access to people who know people who know sexy blokes.

AE: Do you see yourself relying on the Net more or less as you become more successful?
GG: What I'm learning at school and from the photographers I talk to is that the Net is a really good tool for exposure. I think once a photographer gets his work out there into the public consciousness, and is working on a regular basis, the Net isn't as important since potential clients are seeing the photographers' work in the pages of magazines. But when you're just starting out, and looking to catch that first break, I think the Internet has become the key to the opportunity for getting your foot in the door. Now that the world is so connected, and, really, we're all just a mouse-click away from anything, geography isn't the enemy of talent anymore.

Kevin Hardy and Matt Hermstad, SlowMo Erotic

SlowMo Erotic, made up of boyfriends Kevin Hardy and Matt Hermstad, is a two-man pop-rock band out of California. Their sound is surprisingly full for consisting solely of their vocals backed by Kevin on piano and Matt on drums. Kevin's witty and often hilariously cynical lyrics (“Won't you please stop f*cking with my head? Won't you please just f*ck me instead?”) have to be heard to be properly enjoyed. Their first full album, “The HOLLA!caust” is out now and available for purchase on iTunes and CD Baby. You can get a taste at their MySpace page, and at their excellent website.

AfterElton.com: Where did the name SlowMo Erotic come from?
Kevin Hardy:
Matt and I were trying to figure out what our band name should be, and he didn't want “Kevin and Matt,” so he was telling me that one day he wanted to start a cover band and call it SlowMo Erotic. I thought it was funny; it beats people to the punch if they are going to make some gay remark about us. That's it though. Looking back, “Kevin and Matt” would be kinda … well, gay.

AE: I first discovered your band while browsing through CD Baby's list of gay artists; does it ever bother you to have that label so dominantly applied to your music?
KH: Yes and no. Matt and I both identify as gay (obviously), but neither of us are defined by being gay. It's kind of a non-issue and always has been. But having said that, it clearly is what people easily define us as. And that's OK. I mean, if it gets them to listen to the music … For the most part, I try to leave out obvious references to being gay in my songwriting, with some huge exceptions, of course. But when writing a love song or breakup song, I try to keep it as gender nonspecific as possible. I always try to write in the first person, so I say “you” instead of “he” because with some songs you don't want to focus on who I'm singing to so much as what I'm singing about. Does that make sense? Was that too pretentious?

AE: Makes perfect sense, not pretentious at all.
KH: OK good. I don't wanna be pretentious. At least not this early in our career.

AE: Have you found that by throwing gay themes into your music, even just occasionally, you've limited yourself to a strictly gay audience?
KH: No. The song that gets the best response live is actually one of the more obviously gay songs we have. Oddly enough, straight crowds seem to be a better crowd some of the time. We've played a lot of Pride festivals and some of those crowds are very indifferent. Besides, I don't write any songs that are like “We're here, we're queer, get used to it!” I think if you put it out there in a way that people can relate to or laugh at, then it's OK.

AE: How vital is having an online presence, through a website and MySpace page, in finding success in the music business?
KH: It's everything now, I think. I don't know how a band can function without it. Of course, it's possible to “make it” without an Internet presence, but why would you? It's free (mostly) and you can reach a huge community of people, people that would never hear you otherwise.

AE: Do you think it's more important for gay artists like yourself since major labels seem reluctant to take on openly gay talent, and therefore they have to work harder to find an audience?
KH:
I don't think it's any more or less important than anybody else. Major labels are becoming more and more obsolete now because of the Internet. It's all about D.I.Y. and indie labels. When there are thousands of people competing for one record deal, it doesn't matter if you're gay.

AE: Your lyrics definitely have a tongue-in-cheek cynicism to them. Where does that tone come from?
KH:
I don't know. It's just what I find interesting and funny, and it's what my friends find funny. I guess I got it from my mom.

AE: So there's no effort to avoid letting her hear songs like “C*nt”? Which, I have to say, is one of my favorites.
KH:
Oh I didn't say that … She can hear “C*nt” and she can probably hear “F*ck All Y'all” because they are funny and they are in a way that I think everyone can relate to. It's the really sexual songs that I don't want her to listen to, even though I'm sure she has. Any song where I say “contraceptive donkey punch” … my mom and I don't need to listen to together.

AE: Completely understandable.
KH:
Yeah, it doesn't mean I'm not proud of that song or that that song is any less authentic … but ya know. There are just some things…

AE: Do you have any plans to release a more mainstream album in the future?
KH:
I guess we plan on releasing more albums, and if they happen to be mainstream … then that's cool. I feel like being two boyfriends in a band, even if out music is mainstream, we're never going to be in a mainstream band, ya know? SlowMo Erotic will never be Maroon 5, even if that was the kind of music we aspire to.

AE: Since you brought it up, how is it working, as well as living, with your boyfriend? Is it ever difficult to separate work and home life, being together that often?
KH:
Since he is sitting right next to me … I'm going to say no, it's always wonderful. I mean, we live together and work together; that usually means if one of us is stressed out, the other one is stressed out. When one person is broke, the other person is broke. Besides that, Matt and I get along great … it's kind of annoying actually.

AE: Well, that's a good thing in your case.
KH:
Yeah, he's a little short, but I'm willing to overlook.

AE: One final question. What groups or musicians would you say have influenced your music?
KH:
Oh god, I'm influenced by really great singers and songwriters: Kate Bush, Diamanda Galas, Ani DiFranco; basically any girl and a piano. Matt loves Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, The Melvins. Of course together we look up to other piano/drum duos: Mates of State, The Dresden Dolls … that's about it. No Elton or Rufus really. Boys who play the piano piss me off.

AE: A little bit of self-loathing there?
KH:
Probably. Who has time to dissect that ticking time bomb? Not me.

Dan Heagney aka GDProphetXVII

Dan Heagney, a 19-year-old college student from St. Louis, has been posting video blogs on YouTube under the user name GDProphetXVII for almost a year now. Tiring of the confines of written blogs, Dan turned to the video blog format. Posting on topics ranging from politics to movie reviews to his search for a boyfriend, his videos are nearing 2,000 subscribers and over 50,000 views. In one of his most popular videos, “Yes, I'm Gay, But…,” he takes aim at gay stereotypes. His videos can be viewed at his website.

AfterElton.com: What type of career are you hoping to get into? Would you want your videos to be the start of a career in the entertainment industry à la William Sledd?
Dan Heagney:
I plan on working for a human rights organization once I'm out of college. If my videos make some headway into the entertainment industry, then great. I feel that it is just another way to spread my thoughts and feelings towards certain issues.

AE: When someone posts a film they've created, they might have to deal with negative comments about their work, but with video diaries any negative feedback is aimed at you personally – you've even received a fair amount of anti-gay comments – do you ever feel that it's not worth it to put yourself out there like that?
DH:
At first, I was really disturbed by the negative feedback. I just thought to myself "How can people be so hateful, especially to others that they didn't even know?" As time wore on, I realized that those people get on YouTube simply to put those hateful messages out there, and just learned to accept it. Most aren't looking for a discussion or a heated, respectful debate. Most just want to find a way to assert superiority over others.

Luckily, my viewers tend to get to them first and shut them up quickly, so now instead of deleting the hateful comments, I leave them up for everyone to see. I feel it makes my message even stronger when someone hits at me with the very hateful message I'm trying to fight. With every new video, I get a new set of hateful comments that, I admit, has worn down on my confidence in putting up other videos like it. However, I realize that I'm not trying to change their minds or force them into a different frame of mind and instead just putting myself out there in hopes that the thought processes of others will start moving in a more accepting direction.

AE: One of your most personal videos, and one of the most discussed, is your "Yes, I'm Gay, But…" video. Can you talk a little about why you decided to create it and what you were hoping to accomplish?
DH:
I decided to do "Yes, I'm Gay, But…" after I had a discussion with my mom about how she handles me being gay. She told me that when talking to her friends, she doesn't refer to me as her "gay son" and instead, her son, who just so happens to be gay. She doesn't make a big deal out of it, because she knows that that is not all I am. After that discussion, I realized how often I am referred to as the "gay friend" or my sister's "gay brother" and it really got to me.

So I made the video hoping to get people thinking that there is more to people than their sexuality. I just hope that after watching the video, the people who are gay think about what is driving their life, their sexuality, or their whole self. And for the straight people who watch the video, I hope they think twice about the next time they reduce their friends who are gay down to their sexuality and realize that there is so much more to them.

Josh Helmin and Josh Koll

“Josh & Josh Are Rich And Famous,” readers have been able to follow the journeys of Josh Helmin and Josh Koll (or Josh H. and Josh K. as they are more commonly known) from undergrads at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities to pursuing careers in journalism and filmmaking, respectively, in New York City. More than any other, their blog has shown the ways in which finding an audience online can do wonders for establishing a career. Check our their blog.

AfterElton.com: What motivated you to start blogging?
Josh & Josh: We started blogging in January 2005, so we've been at it for about two
and a half years. Josh and I started the blog almost as a joke when we were undergrads. We lived in the same dorm and spent quite a bit of time together, and we somehow got this crazy idea to start a blog. We had both read the blogs Towleroad, Not Only But Also, and And I Am Somebody. After a while we wondered if we could bring something to blogland.

AE: Josh K, I would imagine that a blog lends itself to establishing a writing career more easily than a career in filmmaking or graphic design, but you seem to have found ways to showcase your work, through the blog's banners and the photos that accompany many of your posts. Have you found other ways to use the blog to your advantage?
Josh Koll: I would agree. It's been a challenge for me from the beginning to find small ways to bring to the blog some of my talents as a visual artist. The TypePad interface isn't made for showcasing photography and video, and futzing with the design template is limited to changing the background color and making fun banners. More than anything, I would say that the blog has helped me develop my writing skills. Which isn't saying much, I know, but I take what I can get.

Because, truth be told, at the end of the day, writing, photography, film, and design are all used to achieve the same goal: to tell stories. As a budding filmmaker, having the opportunity to practice telling stories to a
supportive audience is valuable training you don't get outside of college. That said, I do hope to soon get my greedy little hands on a video camera so I can start posting some Josh & Josh shorts.

AE: Josh H, you've mentioned that you've recently landed a job working for a national magazine. How did that come about? Do you think that that's characteristic of a trend of mainstream media increasingly turning to the blogosphere to find fresh voices?
Josh Helmin: I actually ended up at the magazine in a somewhat circuitous route. A friend of mine who is a professional writer for a huge non-profit organization passed my resume on to a magazine editor. I met with the editor to talk about a very basic internship position, but she ended up not being able to offer me the position. It was a huge bummer at the time, but a few weeks later she got a hold of me and offered me a much better position, one that I was really excited about, and I took it. I've been there since, and I'm loving it.

I think that mainstream media is certainly trying to pluck great individual voices from the blogosphere. Gawker and Jossip, for example, have both placed former writers and editors working at publications like New York. One of the strengths bloggers bring is that fresh, unique voice, but it's also important for those bloggers to be able to show that they can actually write, too — that it's not "me, me, me" all the time, or just cute stories or solely a unique voice. Reporting and writing for magazines and newspapers is a lot about storytelling, and not just about yourself, so it's important to bring that to the table, too.

I think having a journalism background and a blogging background is definitely a double plus. The only thing that can really backfire is if the blog is a liability because it's poorly written or edited, or it's all about what the writer had for lunch and who they saw at the club the other night, or it breaks cardinal rules like dishing on workplace drama, especially when the workplace and even co-workers are named.

AE: By allowing more and more people the opportunity to get inside the heads of average gay individuals, have blogs helped gain the GLBT community more acceptance?
J&J: Any experience that someone can get with a GLBT person is likely to help humanize GLBT people in general. If a straight person comes across our site and can identify with something we're doing — graduating from college, getting our first job, trying to start a career, living in a big city, dating, surviving our 20s — it can only help, because they can see themselves in what we're experiencing at the same time. I think blogs have also helped many people who are looking for role models, or some sort of positive voice, with which they can identify. That can be enormously powerful.

AE: It seems as though the gay community has been especially good at adopting and using "Web 2.0," or user generated content sites like TypePad, YouTube, Flickr, etc. Why do you think that is?
J&J: The GLBT crowd seems to frequently be early adopters. We get to a lot of neighborhoods first, we get to a lot of fashions and cultural things first, and I think in general we're more willing to try something new. The power of the Web, though, is creating content with which GLBT people can identify. I think blogs have also helped many people who are looking for role models, or some sort of positive voice, with which they can identify. That can be enormously powerful. There may not always be voices that speak to us regularly on TV or in movies or books, but "Web 2.0" allows any group or community to have a corner of the digital neighborhood to call home, where it's familiar and safe, and have a place to go where you can be yourself.