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Former Avalon singer on coming out, getting ousted and where he is today

Michael Passons was founding member of CCM supergroup known for ‘Testify to Love’

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Michael Passons, gay news, Washington Blade
Michael Passons today. (photo courtesy Passons)

Fans of the Christian pop group Avalon always wondered why founding member Michael Passons resigned abruptly in 2003 and then seemed to drop off the face of the earth.

There was talk of a solo album but none materialized. The official word was that he was “moving on to other things.”

The group had had a wildly successful run. Founded in the mid-’90s, Avalon released its self-titled debut album in 1996 on Sparrow and four more (“A Maze of Grace” in 1997, “In a Different Light” in 1999, “Joy: a Christmas Collection” in 2000 and “Oxygen” in 2001) as well as a hits collection with new material (“Testify to Love: the Very Best of Avalon”) in 2003 racking up 19 No. 1 singles on the Billboard gospel charts, two RIAA-certified gold albums, six Dove Awards, an American Music Award and three Grammy nominations. 

Initially there was a blond male and female singer and a brunette male and female singer to round out the foursome in ways that were both visually and sonically appealing. There was regular turnover in one of the “female” slots but Passons, Janna (nee Potter) Long and Jody McBrayer formed the group’s backbone all through its early and most successful years. 

After years of silence, in September, Passons came out as gay on Josh Skinner’s “Jonah and the Whale” podcast and said he was fired from the group for declining to continue with “reparative” therapy. The podcast generated significant media buzz and was aggregated in mainstream outlets like Billboard and People.

Though candid and forthcoming in the podcast, there was more to the story. Passons, a 54-year-old Yazoo City, Miss., native, was chatty and candid in a 45-minute phone interview from his Nashville home on working in the CCM (contemporary Christian music) bubble, hiding his sexuality for so many years, why he opted to come out now and about the Dove Award he nabbed from Whitney Houston at the 1998 ceremony. His comments have been slightly edited for length.

Avalon in 1997. From left are Nikki Hassman-Anders, Jody McBrayer, Janna Long and Michael Passons. (photo by Paul Elledge; vintage promo material via Sparrow/EMI)

WASHINGTON BLADE: It was great to hear the podcast. It felt like you’d just kinda vanished. 

MICHAEL PASSONS: I understand that people would see it that way because you’re just kind of out of the public eye when you’re not making music, not putting music out and doing interviews, and I had not done any of that pretty much in 17 years. And I didn’t really expect this podcast to get the attention that it did get. It was a bit of a surprise to me that there was so much of an interest in a 17-year-old story.

BLADE: Why did it feel like now was the right time? How did it come about?

PASSONS: It wasn’t some calculated move, I was approached by a friend who introduced me to Josh Skinner who has a podcast Jonah and the Whale and said would you like to be a guest? This particular podcast deals with an underwater moment in your life and I had previously had conversations with my family just a couple months earlier, just about my life and the truth of my life so I thought, “Well now is the perfect time,” so it really wasn’t planned out far in advance. An opportunity landed in my lap and I decided to tell the story. 

BLADE: Had you been approached before?

PASSONS: Well, I’ve been pretty under the radar. I’ve been traveling the last 15 years with another Christian group, but only in the band. I play keys for Point of Grace. I wanted to keep my foot in the water … but I didn’t want to be the front guy … so I really hadn’t been approached by journalists at all until now.

BLADE: You tell in the podcast about how they came to your house for a meeting in 2003 and this all came to a head. How had they known you were gay in the first place? What led up to that meeting?

PASSONS: Well at that point I was 38 years old, I wasn’t married, I wasn’t dating, (so) rumors begin to swirl when you have that type of scenario and we had discussions about it several years before. So that’s when … they said to me I needed to go to therapy. It really was in 2002 that they wanted me to go to reparative therapy or at least go see a counselor or some guy who said his credentials were counseling gay people. So I did that to appease them but I knew it was a fruitless effort, and as I say in the podcast, that didn’t last very long. I told them I wasn’t going back to that. It had been a conversation for about a year or so before 2003. 

BLADE: Did you have a pretty good relationship with them otherwise? 

PASSONS: Well over the course of the eight years we were traveling together, I saw those people more than anyone else. Our schedule was so demanding and we toured almost nonstop. … So we did at the time have this family-type relationship but … groups often have a shorter shelf life than solo artists because there are multiple people with multiple goals and aspirations and so unless all four of us aligned, there were always going to be these times where one wants to do a solo deal or they think we should do this or go in this direction and so we kind of started growing apart in our vision. Jody and Janna wanted to do solo records and I thought that was something that was going to fracture the group and our brand and that did cause some tensions because the other two members really wanted to focus our efforts on the Avalon brand because that’s what was familiar to everyone. So over the years we became not as close and then of course you add something like this which kind of draws a line and you have to choose what side of the line you’re going to be on.

BLADE: Bear with me a sec, but I’m going to read you Jody’s quote to CCM Magazine in April, 2004 when he said: “We had a meeting at Michael’s house one day and he told us he was going to move on to other things. We sat and cried and felt like the rug had been pulled out from under us. Things had felt great with the new group and Michael seemed to get along and blend vocally with (then-new member) Melissa (Greene) really well. But Michael had been with us from the beginning and just felt it was time for him to do something else. It’s weird but since his departure, it seems everyone is looking for some scandalous thing to have happened there. It makes me just want to say, ‘Look, I’m sorry to disappoint you that we don’t have some juicy gossip or ‘Dynasty’ episode happening here.” Based on what you shared in the podcast, that was a gross mischaracterization of how it went down. Did you read that at the time? How did it make you feel?

PASSONS: At the time the record label and management held really right reins on us because they created the group, it was their idea. They wanted to find a group that was already in existence that was two guys, two girls. They couldn’t do it so they said, “Let’s just put one together,” so we never felt like we had ownership of much. … So when management and label say, “This is what you are to say,” it became kind of like a bullshit fest at that point. You just gotta stick with the story and that’s what Jody was doing, he was sticking with the story he was told to say. … That was just the way they chose to handle it at the time. … Interestingly enough, Jody reached out to me after the podcast aired and we had not really talked in 17 years other than bumping into each other in a restaurant and saying a quick hello. We met for about an hour we met at a park here in Nashville and just walked around and he apologized profusely and said his heart was broken when he was listening to that podcast. He was very sincere and I  accepted what he had to say and I feel like our relationship has actually — there was some definite closure there as far as what I’d been feeling all of these years and so that was a good thing that came out of this and I’m glad he reached out to me. 

The Blade invited McBrayer to comment. In response to the question, “Did you feel muzzled by the label?” he sent this response: “Absolutely muzzled. However I would have never ever said anything to hurt Michael’s reputation. We were asked for years about what happened and myself and my family refused to say anything that would put Michael in a bad light. We were given a statement and told to go with it. We did everything we were told at the time. … Michael knows I love him and hate how all of it went down and how he was treated by the industry. I’m so thankful he’s happy and grown beyond it all now. I will continue to protect him. He will always be family.” 

BLADE: Was there any truth to what they were saying? Had you been considering a solo album?

PASSONS: No. I know my strengths and my strength was not as a solo artist. …  I enjoyed the team mentality of a group. … I think fans and people outside the industry took the press release at face value but people inside the industry heard pretty quickly what had really happened. Gossip and rumors spread really quickly around Nashville so I just thought, “OK, I’m gonna just start life No. 3 here.” (chuckles)

BLADE: A few other big CCM artists eventually came out like Jennifer Knapp and Ray Boltz. Did you follow that or ever compare notes with them?

PASSONS: I don’t know either of those artists personally. I’ve never really interacted with them. I think we did a show once with Jennifer years and years ago but it was just mainly, “Hello, nice to meet you.” I applaud them for living their best life and telling their truth but I just never felt like mine was necessarily a story that needed to be told. I wasn’t a solo artist. I would get recognized occasionally. People would say, “Oh, you’re that guy who was in that group,” but I would say 80 percent of fans just knew me as the blond guy. So I didn’t feel like I had tons of name recognition or that my story mattered. But in the last few years, I wanted to be more truthful with my family so that’s really where all this came out of.

BLADE: Did anybody else from your CCM days reach out besides Jody?

PASSONS: I’ve received tons of texts and Instagram messages from friends from home, friends from college, fans, strangers. As far as the industry, some people that I haven’t seen in a while. It was very interesting. Amy Grant texted me and told me she listened and thought my story was beautiful in the way I told it and graceful and I appreciated that. Susan Ashton reached out and I haven’t seen her in years. She was very encouraging. She said, “You are seen and heard and loved.” Everything has been overwhelmingly positive.

BLADE: Did you get to know the other artists very well or have much interaction on the multi-artist tours you did like “Emmanuel” or “My Utmost”?

PASSONS: Yeah, we had a lot of time to just hang out, especially on the bus. You’re traveling late at night and everyone’s wired so you’re staying up and visiting. But we were really new artists at that time and we were thrown into a mix of all of these people that were our mentors, our heroes. We were fans of theirs and now we’re all of a sudden peers, just because of how Avalon came together. Our very first tour before we even sang a note on a record was “Young Messiah” in ’95. We had just come together weeks before and just had enough time to record one Christmas song so that we could sing that song on that tour and there we were next to 4 HIM and Point of Grace and Steven Curtis Chapman and Larnelle Harris and that was mind-blowing to be with all these great artists. But yes, everyone was very welcoming had lots of encouragement for us and advice and I actually really enjoyed those tours.

BLADE: I saw you guys once with Twila Paris. What was she like?

PASSONS: That was our first tour (the “Where I Stand Tour” in 1997). We did Young Messiah that Christmas and then we did our record, then we toured with Twila. We were definitely getting our feet wet just seeing how this industry was going to work … how we were gonna mesh as a group  because we were thrown on stage and we had to find our blend. Live, It’s one thing to be in the studio and be mixed and blended but to sing live, the Twila Paris tour was really just where we began to hone our craft as a group and so yeah, that was wonderful. I had many good experiences wth that tour. We dd a spring tour and a fall tour with Twila and it was a long tour but we definitely leaned a lot. 

BLADE: Is there anybody in CCM who struck you as markedly different from their public persona?

PASSONS:  I feel like everyone would be a little different than what you perceive them to be because you only see a very structured view of them by the PR department of the record label. I really enjoyed getting to know Sandi Patty because when you listen to her music, you just don’t pick up on the edge that she has. She has this great sense of humor that’s a little edgy. I don’t know, my image of Sandi Patty was that she was always walking around in some state of meditation or sitting around in a prayer circle because when you’re growing up you just think of someone in such a reverent way because you respected their music so much and she was just she a cut up, she kidded around, she invited us to her home in Indiana at that point just to hang out with her family and I just I enjoyed seeing a whole different side of her. She’s a very strong personality, a strong woman and listening and singing along with her records, it was just good to see the other side of her. 

BLADE: What have you been living on all these years?

PASSONS: I play for Point of Grace and also a friend of mine in town, an attorney and I actually work with her in her law practice and of course being friends with the boss, you can leave anytime and so I’m free to travel whenever I need to and want to so that allows me to hang out with Point of Grace and go where they go. 2020 has been interesting. Since March, we’ve only had two shows and they were very small, so it’s been really interesting year for sure.

BLADE: What denomination did you grow up in?

PASSONS: Southern Baptist. A little country church in Mississippi.

BLADE: Are there still elements of Baptist or evangelical theology you struggle with? Queer or otherwise? 

PASSONS: I’m past struggling with it. Of course, it’s something I think about often but I don’t struggle with it any longer. … I’ve definitely got a different view of spiritualism. I don’t consider myself religious but I do believe in God and so I do have a spiritual life but it just doesn’t involve organized religion and that’s just where I’ve landed.

BLADE: But do you still believe the Christianity basics — Jesus died for our sins and rose on the third day and so on or is it a broader thing for you?

PASSONS: It’s a broader spiritual thing and like I said in my previous interview, I’m just in this place of my prayer to God is show me what is true. I’m not gonna close my mind to anything, I’m not going to say, “Oh this is what I was taught and I don’t believe that anymore,” I just want to step back and rebuild all those boxes, rebuild what my spirituality is, kind of like just implode it to ground level and let’s start again. I was taught by very well-intended people. All my Sunday School teachers in that little church, they didn’t have any malice, they were well-intended people teaching what they believed. We were spoon fed, so at some point in your life you have to just decide of all that information you took in, what do you really believe? I had to get to the point where I was OK disagreeing and not believing some of the things I was taught. it wasn’t disrespectful to those people, I just have to find my own way. 

BLADE: Do you think the conservative, white evangelical world will ever become openly accepting of LGBT people? Is it a lost cause or could it be a whole different story in another generation?

PASSONS: I think there is hope. I’ve seen so much progress in Christian circles just in my lifetime that I never thought I would see. It’s pockets, it’s not widespread, but … I think there is hope. A lot of things used to be justified with scripture that they eventually came around on. (Author) Peter Gomes calls it “the last prejudice of the church.” … After I left, Avalon recorded a song called “Orphans of God,” which I thought was interesting that they were singing it because I was definitely an outcast to them. But now my friend (out country singer) Ty Herndon and Kristen Chenoweth are going to cover it for a Christmas release as a duet and they asked Melissa Greene and I to sing backing vocals on it so now it will take on a whole new meaning. It was a really nice, full circle moment. 

BLADE: Did you keep up with what Avalon was doing much after you were kicked out?

PASSONS: No. It would have put me in a bad headspace. 

BLADE: Have you had many boyfriends? Are you in a relationship now?

PASSONS: I am. I’m with a wonderful guy now and it’s going well.

BLADE: Not married though?

PASSONS: No, not married (laughs). 

BLADE: How long was it before you were comfortable dating guys? 

PASSONS: It took me a while, because when all that went down, I internalized a lot of things and I thought, “Well this is my fault,” type of thing. It really took many years for me to just work through all the junk and work through that cloud in my head and so it wasn’t like some big unleashing. It wasn’t like I left Avalon and just started living my best life, it definitely took awhile to repair the hurt that happened from those several years when Avalon was ending and all the things I went through at that point.

BLADE: Do you know of other LGBT people in CCM who are not out?

PASSONS: Yeah, I do. I feel for them because I know that panicky feeling I used to have, that someone might catch on. … But I think a lot of conservative Christians might be naive as to how many people are gay or bi in their church. You learn from a very early age to be a good actor. 

BLADE: Who was your favorite Avalon producer to work with?

PASSONS: Brown Bannister produced most of the records when I was in the group. He’s, you know, such an icon in our industry and I have so much reverence for him and so much respect, so it was an honor to work with him. He actually brought out the best in me. There was something about just his people skills and he was just so kind and thoughtful in how he spoke with you and guided you through the recording process. He just took the time, even just to find the right microphone for me, because the mic in the studio can make a world of difference. I remember going through five or six mics before we found the right one. A lot of producers are just like, “OK let’s get this going, all right that’s great on to the next one.” He just took time to make it right and I appreciated that.

BLADE: How long did it take to make those albums on average?

PASSONS: When it came time to record, we would try to just block off weeks where we would just go in there and do vocals, vocals, vocals vocals and really mainly weekdays because we would go out on the weekends and do one-off, you know, weekend dates here and there. So we wouldn’t obviously do a new record in the midst of a tour because we’d want to tour the new record but during our one-offs we would get in there and try to get in it done and probably over the course of a month and a half, two months, we would have everything done. 

BLADE: How involved were you all with the vocal arrangements? I always loved that outro and all those layers on “We Are the Reason,” for instance. How did you come up with all those intricate lines?

PASSONS: We had a great vocal vocal producer named Michael Mellett and he had been a studio singer in Nashville a long time and had toured with Billy Joel as a background singer. He would come in and help arrange our parts and he was amazing at it. And I remember he did work on our Christmas record and I remember that outro those alternate melodies that he helped us come up with, I loved that too. I felt like that really updated the song. It’s interesting because when we did it it was 20 years old and now it’s been 20 years since we did it, so it needs to be done again now. But it was my favorite song growing up. I used to sing it with an accompaniment tape at my little country church when I was a kid. 

BLADE: Yeah, I love it too. Did (songwriter) David Meece ever say anything after you guys cut it?

PASSONS: Indirectly. I think he might have said something to Brown but we heard that he liked it.

BLADE: Who’s a celebrity who would exemplify your type?

PASSONS: (laughs) My type, wow. I’m definitely attracted to someone who is confident but not cocky, someone who has sensitivity but is not overly sensitive, someone who’s just confident in themselves, that’s a big attraction to me. If I were to throw out a celebrity I see a lot of those qualities in, and maybe I’m wrong, but someone like Bradley Cooper. 

BLADE: Did you guys in Avalon have any say in choosing singles?

PASSONS: We were included in conversations but I feel like ultimately the label got what they wanted. There’s one little battle that we won and in retrospect not just one, but I just remember this instance, where the label disagreed with us about what we should call our second record and had we listened to the label, we probably would have sold a lot more. They wanted us to call it “Testify to Love” and we had no idea when we were naming the record and about to release it that that would be the one song that Avalon would be known for or that it be our biggest song ever. We thought “A Maze of Grace” was such a clever title. They disagreed but they let us do what we wanted. But who knew “Testify to Love” would become such a huge song for us? 

BLADE: Was (Sparrow president) Bill Hearn around much?

PASSONS: We would see him periodically and even his father Billy Ray, who started the company, they’re both deceased now, but they were very approachable. They weren’t always in our meetings because we were more with A&R and publicity and stylists but when they were around, they were very approachable, very hands on.

BLADE: When you win a Dove Award, did you each get one or just one for the group?

PASSONS: At the ceremony, just one is given but then they mail three more to you like a month later.

BLADE: Where do you keep yours?

PASSONS: I have a little study/office that I’m sitting in right now. I just have them on a shelf along with some pictures and mementos and things I like to keep out. The interesting story about one our Dove Awards is our first Dove Award for new artist of the year and that was in 1998 I believe, and we got new artist of the year at the 29th Dove Awards and that was the year that Whitney Houston performed with Dottie Rambo … and we were backstage after we won doing a press junket so I missed her performance and I’m a huge Whitney Houston fan, like I would rival anyone else saying they’re a huge Whitney Houston fan. (laughs) She’s pretty much my all-time favorite artist. So after the show some press people wanted to take a photo of Whitney holding a Dove Award. She didn’t have one so Jody was standing close by with his and they said, “Can we have your Dove Award for a picture,” and so Whitney took our Dove Award and had her picture made with it and of course that was the only one we got that night and our manager said, “OK I’m gonna take that to the office and hold it ’til the others come in and you all can come by and pick them up,” and so before he could get to it, I got that particular one and took a Sharpie and made a mark on the bottom of it and the day that our manager said, “OK you can come by and pick up the Dove Awards they’re all in,” I was first one in there and I picked them all up and looked for the one I made the mark on because I wanted the one that Whitney had held. So I’m holding it right now, I’ve got that one in my hand and I always think of Whitney.

BLADE: Who were your favorite CCM acts growing up? Or did you listen to more pop?

PASSONS: I listened to a lot of pop and and country. My family is from a rural Mississippi town so country music was really most of what was on the radio and I love that old ’70s country. I still listen to it just because it has a lot of good memories. But I didn’t really know there was such a thing as CCM other than, you know, like Bill and Gloria Gaither-type stuff until I was in high school and someone handed me a tape of “Age to Age” by Amy Grant and that just lit a fire in me like I had no idea this type of thing existed, this is what I want to do. And of course I’ve just been I was a fan of Amy Grant from that day on and she was definitely a huge influence in the way I would sing music, the way I would write music, I would listen to interviews of her and I would just — she was a great teacher in that respect of just knowing how to respond to questions, how to react to people, just her demeanor, how she handled herself, she was definitely a role model.

BLADE: So that must have been mind-blowing to work with her producer (Brown Bannister) all those years later.

PASSONS: Yeah, definitely. And then her text last week, yeah, that was a nice moment.

BLADE: Why didn’t the more progressive Christian denominations ever have their own version of CCM? There are a few fledgling queer gospel singers out there but nothing like the machine that CCM was. Maybe they didn’t care as much if their kids listened to Metallica or whatever? 

PASSONS: I think your theory might hold some weight, just that the conservative Christians were looking for an alternative for them and their families to listen to. One thing I think there probably wouldn’t have been a market in the liberal circles to sustain the industry, they wouldn’t have purchased the CDs and the music. It was the conservatives who made this a business and the Christian music business is a business. You have to be making money to be in CCM, that’s the dichotomy that I’ve always wrestled with. CCM depended on Becky, and I’ll tell you who Becky is. Becky is the pseudonym for their target audience. So any meeting we were in, it was always asked, “What would Becky buy, would Becky like  this song?” And Becky is a 20-, 30- or 40-something conservative Christian female and she was the target audience because she was the ones buying the CDs and the tapes and downloading the music and so I think that’s maybe why the conservative church has kind of a market on CCM music.

BLADE: Is she related to Karen?

PASSONS: (laughs) That’s funny. If they’re not related, they’re probably best friends.

BLADE: When your bandmates came to your house that day, did it feel like it was coming from a place of love and concern or did it feel like a power play? Like they were trying to oust you?

PASSONS: It did feel like a power play. There were some very complicated personalities in the group and so it definitely — I did not feel much love that day. 

BLADE: To me, it was like when Florence got kicked out of the Supremes. They could go on and do whatever they want, but without Florence, it wasn’t the Supremes. Without you, it wasn’t Avalon. The one female singer didn’t matter so much because she always changed. That was like the new season of “Charlie’s Angels,” you always knew she would change. But when you left, it was never the same.

PASSONS: I appreciate that, I’ve heard several say that and it’s always good to know that my contribution is something that was missed. 

Michael Passons (left) with his Avalon bandmates in a photo from their 1997 ‘A Maze of Grace’ album. With him from left are Jody McBrayer, Nikki Hassman-Anders and Janna Long. (photo by Paul Elledge; vintage promo material via Sparrow/EMI)
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a&e features

Hollywood’s Peter Kallinteris Agency launching LGBTQ dreams

“It’s important to me to actively participate with a platform and space for the LGBTQ community. I want to make a difference and be a leader”

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Hollywood sign courtesy of the City of Los Angeles

HOLLYWOOD – Whether they’d admit to it or not the aspiration for most actors is to be sitting in the Dolby Theatre at some point in their careers, dressed in their finest fashion ensemble at the most prestigious event of the year and hear, “and the Oscar goes to [insert their name].” Conversely also true for the Emmy awards or the Tony awards, yet for many LGBTQ artists the path to that goal is fraught with obstacles and difficulties.

In 2018, a young Black actor from Atlanta, Georgia, was given a supporting role as Ethan in the surprise hit film Love Simon. That actor, Clark Moore, in interviews with host Rob Watson, journalists Dawn Ennis and Brody Levesque on RATED LGBTQ RADIO and separately with Teen Vogue’s Shammara Lawerence spoke of the difficulty landing roles like that of Ethan, but also the conflict inherent with how the film and television industry has seen LGBTQ actors.

Answering a question by Teen Vogue’s Lawerence centered on that conflict, Moore bluntly assessed the landscape telling her; “Historically, I think the reason why there haven’t been more gay roles or more gay actors playing roles that have lots of layers to them and lots of depths to them is because for whatever reason, people think that the story is done. We’ve seen the gay character. We know what he says. We know what he thinks. We don’t need to tell that story anymore, but if you think about it, we’ve had a full canon of stories about straight white men that stretch back millennia, and so we’re only scratching the surface,” Moore pointed out.

“If we can have stories about people all the way back thousands of years ago and we can still be telling the same story now about straight white men and their journey to self-discovery or redemption, there’s plenty of stories to tell of people of color and LGBTQ people and anybody who falls in the intersection of those two identities,” he added.

Yet in the age of digital moving beyond the traditional film and television as more and more content is streamed online- and there’s insatiable need by casting agencies for a wider diverse spectrum of actors, there are still obstacles in the path for LGBTQ actors, especially trans and disabled LGBTQ actors.

Enter Peter Kallinteris, who with his broad based knowledge and understanding of the critical needs of the LGBTQ actor community decided that the time has arrived to have specialized representation for that community.

“Looking to the past, Hollywood hasn’t been very kind to the Queer community. Throughout the history of cinema gay men were either played as effeminate, weak, airheads, and lesbians as tough softball or gym coaches, who are often played by straight people,” Kallinteris said. “Within the the broader culture, there are subcultures, just as within any community. They are nuances within each that will never find its way between the pages of a table read.”

“To create an authentic moment the space has to be made for those who’ve lived that life every day. Gay, Black, White or Straight ect, our experiences of the world are different depending on how we show up. In many cases that will determine our outcomes,” he noted. “Specialized representation is so important because without the lingering trauma, and continued hatred & fear toward our community the Queer division of PKA wouldn’t exist, we’d just be accepted. We have important stories to tell and will continue to be telling them. PKA is just the begging for all to feel safe and thrive.”

In a statement issued from his offices at the Sunset-Gower Studios, the former historic home of pioneering Columbia Pictures founded in 1918, Kallinteris reflected, “When I was a young Actor being gay was career ending.”

“Today it’s celebrated. It’s important to me to actively participate with a platform and space for the LGBTQ community. I want to make a difference and be a leader because I can.”

To accomplish this he launched the Queer Division of his PKA agency. “The Queer Division of  PKA was inevitable, a natural outgrowth of my own personal evolution first by coming out as gay man, from Artist to Agent. The timing was right to make an impact with talent,” he said.

“As my Agency grew I was able to gleam that there was a space beginning to open up by which I could represent the full spectrum of Queer humanity & sexuality within the arts. Not as one dimensional static caricatures, but as beings who’s emotions run the full gamut of the human experience. This was very exciting to me, I have a opportunity to effect change. I wanted to be apart of history Pioneering a movement,” he added. 

He said that his message to LGBTQ artists is simple. “I want talent to know they will be given the opportunity to be who they are, live their truth and work for who they are without rejection, humiliation, fear, or hopelessness. People perform at their best, live at their best. And do their best when they are happiest.  PKA is not just a brand, we are the LGBTQIA community. If life imitates art, then let’s represent it boldly!”

His expectations of the film and television industry’s reaction? “My inspiration to launch the Q.D. is truthfully representing talent that reflects the current needs for the industry, and to remain a permanent fixture within the industry that continues to grow stronger. I want the industry to understand I’ve created this environment specifically for the Queer community. I’m happy & honored to be the first Agency that represents this community in this way,” Kallinteris said.

Last week, PKA, whose clients include, Justin Jedlica (TV personality), Steven James Tingus (President George W. Bush’s lead for disability research and policy for eight years), Kate Linder (The Young and the Restless), Albert Lawrence (IMDB Host), Deric Battiste aka DJ D-Wrek (MTV’s Wild ‘N Out), and Leslie Stratton (The Swing of Things, Truth or Dare), announced the launch of the Queer Division in a video.

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Julia Scotti, the movie, is just Funny That Way

Life is funny that way—not working out quite the way we thought it would. And that is ultimately the point

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Graphic courtesy of Susan Sandler

WHITING, NJ. – “You are a piece of work, Julia!” Simon Cowell blurted during her landmark America’s Got Talent debut.  Julia Scotti had just completed her audition for the show that ended not only with a standing ovation, but with the revelation that she had once upon a time been a stand-up comedian named Rick. As that news crossed the faces of the four judges, their collective jaws dropped. “I mean like you come out as the nice little granny school teacher all sweet and then you go into your routine and like WHOA. Talk about surprises – they are never ending with you, are they?” Cowell finished.

With Julia Scotti, the surprises never end.

Her latest surprise for the public is a gem of a film, Julia Scotti: Funny That Way.  It is a documentary of her journey from the days of Rick, the up and coming comic who performed on bills with Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld to Julia, who is wowing millions.

Of her transition, Julia has remarked. “It is NEVER an easy process whether you’re a public figure or not. You are essentially killing your old self and ending your old life. And with that comes the history you’ve built with friends and family. Some are very accepting, but most are not. That is why the suicide attempt rate for Trans  folk is still at 41%.”

Funny That Way does not spare us the heart-breaking fallout from the virtual “death’ of Rick Scotti.  Filmmaker Susan Sandler weaves Julia’s story, the losses and damage, to her rebirth, healing and the reuniting with her kids after a 15-year estrangement.

Julia and Susan sat down with us on the podcast Rated LGBT Radio to talk about the film.  “This is a story and like all stories, there is a beginning and a middle and an end. In the end, I want the audience to know there is HOPE. It is bumpy at times, joyous at times.  It is not just isolated to my life. You can have that in your life when you walk through that door of your own truth and come out the other side and when you look back on all you went through, you go ‘what the hell was I so afraid of?’ Look how happy I am.” Julia explains.

Susan had never directed a documentary before, but as one of Hollywood’s master story tellers, and a Golden Globe nominee, she was unfazed.  “The impetus behind this film was falling in love with Julia, her, then and now.  If you are working from a really rich, complex, compelling character –which is Julia—that is the GIFT. All of my nerve endings, my story telling, told me this was dynamic documentary, and that’s the form in which I wanted to tell it.”

Susan took five years to research, document and interact with Julia’s past.  She went through old footage of Rick Scotti’s stage acts and restored many of them so they could be used in the film. She brought on composer Matt Hutchinson for a beautiful score, and animator Sam Roth for whimsical cartoons that tie the story together.

Before the filming started, Julia had just re-connected with her son Dan, and daughter Emma.  A decade and a half ago, when Julia announced to her then spouse that she was in fact a woman transitioning, her then-wife retaliated by taking their kids away.  Dan and Emma spent their whole adolescence not knowing Julia at all. The story of that pain is told in Funny That Way.  Susan wanted to show the relationships real-time in the film as they came to reconnect with Julia. “We were just at the beginning stages of reconciling,” recounts Julia. “I did not want them feeling like I was just reconnecting with them because I wanted them in this film. I did not want to distance them even more.”

Dan and Emma were onboard, however.  Also on board, albeit only by phone, was Kate. Kate was  Julia’s last wife, described as Julia’s “love of her life”. Kate supported Julia emotionally and spiritually through out the entire transition process.  One of the most poignant moments in the film was Julia hearing Kate describe the end of their relationship.  Kate’s support was significant, but once Julia became fully Julia, it was evident to both that their relationship had changed and they had to let it go.

Susan captured many live moments of Julia’s evolving life.  She caught the very first time that son Dan ever called Julia “his mother” and the effect was pronounced.  Also caught in the film was a moment when Julia and Dan are watching Rick’s old stand up routines.  One such performance  takes Julia by surprise—it was a routine that she had not remembered ever doing.  It was a set where then Rick expressed his revulsion to transgender women in no uncertain terms.  Julia sat shocked.

“My sensibilities have been ‘woked’, I think that is the term for it.” She told me about that experience. ”Thinking back, I was going through issues and aware that something was not right internally. It frightened me to no end.  Looking at that clip, I am totally ashamed of what I did. It embarrassed me.”

“I knew it was me. I knew I was there. But I don’t feel a connection with that person.  That is the truth.”

The film does not dwell long on the past shames and regrets.  It arcs to the present where an adult daughter gets to see her parent’s comedy routine for the very first time.

Some of the greatest joy in the film is witnessing the growing relationship between Julia and son Dan. Dan is sweet and compassionate, and they both have a deep love of comedy.  Through their discussions and collaboration on things funny, we witness something decidedly not funny, the deep re-kindling love they have for each other.

The film will make you laugh, and cry, and laugh again.  New clips of Julia’s now famous turn on America’s Got Talent shows her more personal reflective moments over a life changing triumph.

The only regret director Sandler has about the film is how it will be brought to the public. “I am happy to be brining the film now for the people who have an appetite for it. For the truth, the humor, the complete emotional honesty.  But I mourn. I mourn the moments not being able to sit with you in a theater. And experiencing the film with you. It was supposed to be seen by audiences, and then give them the opportunity to go down the street and see Julia live at a club.”  But, life is funny that way—not working out quite the way we thought it would.   And that is ultimately the point.

Editor’s Note: The film was originally slated for theatrical release which was delayed then put off by the coronavirus pandemic.

Julia Scotti: Funny That Way is available now on digital platforms! That means you can rent or buy it online, at places like iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play and more.

Here’s the full list of where you can find it. 

DIGITAL

iTunes
Amazon
Google Play
Xbox
VUDU
FandangoNow
Vimeo On Demand

CABLE / SATELLITE

iN Demand Movies
Verizon
AT&T
Vubiquity
DirecTV
Dish
Telus

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Greyson Chance: A Butterfly’s Journey from Holy to Hell and Back

A decade ago there was a boy made famous by a pop song and a viral video. Today, there is an artistic, powerful singer song writer

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Greyson Chance (Photo Credit: Broderick Bauman)

HOLLYWOOD – Many want to saddle singer Greyson Chance with the label “comeback” or having a “return from retirement.”  It is an understandable mistake as the “fame to disaster” narrative IS there. The real story is about one of the most exciting new artists of today.  One that speaks to not only the LGBTQ youth of today, but of their entire generation.

Over a decade ago, there was a boy.  The boy was very gifted at the piano, and at singing. He entered a talent contest and belted out a well known pop song by one of the trendiest artists of the day.  Of course, there was a video.  Social media was itself an infant, and as such, started launching like videos into the stratosphere.  His video was one of the first to be seen gazillion of millions of times.  Then there was the Ellen show, then the record contracts and a music video where he was Ariana Grande’s love interest.

Life would never be the same again.  It would not be the same as Greyson Chance would be forever entwined with Lady Gaga and Paparazzi.  It would not be the same as when his voice changed and it all came crashing down. “The second that the momentum stopped, you know, I truly was just sort of thrown to the curb when I was 15. I, all in the same day,  got dropped by my record label, my management, my publicist, and my agent.  It was the ultimate for me, as a child musician.” Greyson told me.

The real story however, is of a fantastic singer/songwriter who hit the industry in a big way with a debut album of his own work in 2019. He emerged then as a honed artist who had already been educated on the workings of the industry, and as a professional who knew how to walk in with his own vision and make it happen.

“It is a machine and, when I when I came on the scene originally, I had this huge viral video and with that, a lot of money coming around, and big players kind of involved in the industry,” he says.  He made music their way.  He did the songs they wrote, and played the part of the person they wanted him to be.

(Photo Credit: Broderick Bauman)

He learned how to be the kind of artist he did not want to be.  The young artist went back to Oklahoma and enveloped himself in the cocoon of normalcy.  He incubated there, fell in love, and had his heart broken by someone he thought he was going to hold onto forever.  At that point, he emerged from the cocoon, with a full self-written album in hand, a musical butterfly spreading his wings.

“I’m 23 years old right now. And I started off with my first record deal when I was 12 years old. There was so much of my adolescence, in my childhood in music, where I wasn’t given the chance to not only make music that I really wanted to do, but also to be writing. I was being forced to do records,  I didn’t have a huge artistic involvement in anything I was doing. So when I came back into music, I really wanted to finally show the world that I was a songwriter, that I had a unique voice. That I had some unique things to say.   I really emphasize authenticity. These are stories that are coming from the heart. These are things that are coming from my own life. It’s not even really a choice that I have anymore.  It is honest, from a place that’s true and genuine,” Greyson states.

Greyson represented not only with a new thematic “voice”, but an actual new physical voice as well.  “It was interesting, what I went through, they always tell you that when your voice changes, it’s going to be sort of a tough go and that is such an understatement. It was so hard for me for a few years to really kind of find comfortability in my physical voice again. I mean, I really struggled through my voice change. But ultimately, I learned as a kid when I was on the road that in a way, when you’re a touring musician, you’re sort of like an athlete. My muscle is, is my voice.”  Greyson’s new voice is far superior to his belting-out-broadway boy voice.  He has a harmonic high register, and a sultry deep one. It copies no one else’s, this voice is uniquely his own.

In 2019, Greyson came out with his launch album “Portraits”.  The stories of the album gave vision to the various personas he saw of himself as he navigated an ill fated romance.  One week,  he was looking at engagement rings, the next week, out of the blue, “the man of his dreams” left him without explanation.  Greyson works each personal portrait into the prism of a beautiful, musically shiny diamond. “Portraits for me was truly my reinvention piece. And what I mean by that is, at the time before I put out that album, you know, I couldn’t even get a meeting in LA with anybody. You know, no one wanted to touch me, no one wanted to be involved in in my project and involved in my music. So I told myself, You know what, I’m going to write a record, and I’m going to write a full album. I’m going to give this one last shot, and see, see what happens. And, fortunately, it went over very, very well.”

In 2019 he filled 109 venues performing the songs from Portraits.  He publicly came out as gay in response to a fan during a conversation about living authentically.  He has also been transparent about his personal challenges, including his on-going battle with anorexia.  “It was truly very, very difficult to diagnose it. I had come off of this really bad breakup that I wrote my album Portraits about, and I was developing habits of not eating and not taking care of myself. I blamed it on the sadness I was feeling at the time. Then, as things became a little more normal, and I became a bit more stable, I noticed that I still had had this issue and things that were going on. For me, I had to work through a lot of therapy,   to get a grasp on it. I brought it public because it was so stigmatized, and still is.   I like to think that I have my life together. But here’s  the deep issue that I struggle with, and I go through. I’m  on a road to recovery, it’s never ending when you are battling with an eating disorder, but I’m doing very, very well right now. I’m staying on top of it. Through my disclosure, there was such an amazing and beautiful dialogue that keeps happening, people reaching out to me and sort of sharing their own struggles and battles with it as well.   I’m working on trying to be the best version of myself that I can be.”

(Photo Credit: Broderick Bauman)

After a forced lockdown during the pandemic of 2020, Greyson is ready to move into the next phase of his butterfly trajectory.  He has released two singles off his next EP, Trophies, and he is in love again.  The songs on the EP will be in a thematic composition.  The two first released create a spiritual arc from the heavenly rich ballad-like Holy Feeling to the high-pop danceable hedonistic Hell Boy. 

He says of the new material, “My boyfriend and I just celebrated our one year anniversary yesterday.   Trophies, is really expressing the fear of now losing love, and sort of that fear that was created in the old relationships that I’ve had. It is the desire for my fans and queer people around the world to know what  truly being in love is. We’re constantly told as, as queer people that, our relationships are always going to be rocky, they’re never going to be sort of American Dream type relationships. Because we’re different, these relationships are going to be different, because we’re inherently different. That is just absolutely BS.   Regardless of how you identify who you love, you can totally have all of this stereotypical white picket fence, you know, dog in the backyard green grass type of thing. It is so within your wheelhouse. It’s not out of reach. This record is emotionally going through all those those things, and talking about them in the music.”

A decade ago there was a boy made famous by a pop song and a viral video.  Today, there is an artistic, powerful singer song writer who sings the authenticity of his generation.  The rush you feel is the wind from rainbow colored butterfly wings taking flight, and the knowledge that the most famous Greyson Chance is the one yet to come.

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