Interview: Pricking the bubble of Hollywood celebrity
“What child would want to be Graham Norton when they are older?” asks Paul Burston.
“No offence to Graham, what he does is great, but he is not the image you aspire to. When you are a young gay kid, you want to be gay but normal.”
And he ought to know.
Cultural theorist, nightlife journalist and author, Paul Burston has chronicled gay popular and club culture for more than 14 years, and this month, sees his second novel re-released to critical acclaim, notably from glossy women’s magazines.
“There is this thing with gay fiction, which is not applied to other
fiction: people assume that unless they are gay they cannot read it,
whereas I read The Colour Purple in 1984 but I’m not a black
woman. Why should who you are affect what you read?
“There is this feeling that if you read something gay you will get
tainted by it.
“I think the interest from glossy magazines may be because I don’t
just write gay male characters, Shameless and Lovers or
Losers have women who are the main characters.
“When Shameless came out, I was forever being stopped by people in the street or in gay bars who insisted their female friend was the character.
“That’s great because I base characters on people I know or have
observed, and I managed to hit upon something which is a bit more
universal and people feel affection for the character.”
“In the last ten years, gay life in Britain has changed beyond
recognition in terms of civil liberties. But the lack of gay role
models to children is still hasn’t changed,” he told PinkNews.co.uk.
“There are more gay people on television, but they tend to be of a
certain type: camp comedians. John Barrowman in Torchwood and
Doctor Who is the only one I can think of that I would have
looked up to as a role model.
“It’s never a bold, happy and confident gay character, in TV, and if
they are they have to be camp like the barman in Coronation
“There still is a resistance to writing well-rounded gay characters on television, partly because there’s no drama in a well-adjusted gay couple.”
Consequently, gay children still have to hide their sexuality: “The
recent Stonewall survey of anti-gay bullying in schools was horrific.
“Gay is still used as a term of abuse in the playground, and you have arseholes like Chris Moyles encouraging this.
“But it has changed. When I was ten, my sexuality was an issue for
another ten years where nowadays it’s an issue for four years until
you’re fourteen or fifteen and become like Nathan and Chris in
Queer as Folk, and find somebody.
“When I was young there was no way I would have dreamt of anything
like that, I was terrified,” the 41-year-old says of his childhood in south Wales.
“It’s still difficult once you are out of the major cities to live a
safe and civilised gay life. Just because you have had societal
changes such as Civil Partnerships does not mean homophobia has gone, just because it is outlawed does not mean the prejudice is not there.”
But he argues there is hope, and it comes in the form of pop culture
defying prejudice: “I used to find the gay clubs oppressively full of cruisers, which wasn’t relaxing.
“No club owner ever failed to get rich giving men the opportunity to wave their dicks at each other.
“I always used to prefer what they now call poly-sexual clubs. The
early 80s were very ghettoised and in the late 1980s, certainly in the club scene, that changed mainly because of ecstasy.
“Suddenly you had a shared interest that wasn’t sex. Gay and straight people would go to the same venues and this was a seismic change in society.”
Which brings us to Star People: on the surface, a shallow revisiting of Pretty Woman, and delightfully seedy noir, but beyond that, an examination of gay Hollywood and celebrity.
It examines the fall-out when Billy, whose job as a hustler is all
about his sexuality, falls in love with Matt, whose primary
preoccupation – aside from starring in artistically irrelevant
blockbusters – is hiding his.
Star People, released in 2006 as a trade paperback (the cost of a hardback without the actual hard back), is being released in
paperback from this month.
“It’s the darkest book I’ve done,” said Paul.
“I’m a frustrated romantic; of course I wanted a happy ending. But
Hollywood doesn’t give Hollywood endings to those types of characters.
“Chances are it would be quite nasty, so it was set that it had to
become quite dark.
“I came out of a long relationship myself just at the beginning of
writing this book and I think that shaped my sense of how destructive love can be.”
The book is populated by a parade of Hollywood stereotypes: the junkie porn addict; the tart-with-a-heart; the alcoholic journalist; the homicidal, self-hating queen; the alpha-bitch agent…
“I wanted to write a book about people that weren’t obviously
lovable,” said Burston.
“The only character that I think is particularly lovable at the
beginning is [tart-with-a-heart] Billy, although I hope [addict] Casey redeems himself by the end.”
With titillating references to any number of Hollywood rumours about
suspiciously vocal scientologists, closeted star Matt is not your
typical self-hating closet case.
“How does he justify his existence? How does he live with himself knowing he is living a lie? It’s more interesting, for me, to have a character which I can learn to explore myself as I write the book. The story then answers why the character is like that.
“That is why I deliberately don’t let you meet Matt until the end.
“We all form impressions based on the mediated images of celebrities.
“We don’t know them: I’ve never met Madonna, but I have an impression of what she is like.
“I wanted the reader to be in that situation, where they are
projecting onto this character who they think he is, and it not until the end that you actually get to meet them and you get the sense that there is a bit more to him than this ruthless actor.”
The most illuminating passages in the book explore what keeps Matt in the closet.
“There is always this form of conservatism with big money, big money is always worried about making more money, so it is, by it’s nature, averse to risk taking, and I think having an openly gay leading actor is perceived as a risk.
“We already have a few openly gay actors whose work hasn’t been
affected by them being out, but I don’t think people care if Ian
McKellen or any of these old knights of the theatre are gay.
“They’re not marketing them as sex symbols, they’re character actors.
“You get gay actors playing camp roles on the sideline of the story,
like the gay best friend, that kind of nonsense. To actually have a
gay actor playing James Bond and that not being part of the story is a long way off.
“It did happen to an extent, to George Michael in America: after his
outing his sales went right down in America, so it is a legitimate
Much of the book is based on interviews Burston conducted while researching a Channel 4 documentary about gay Hollywood.
“I was overwhelmed at the amount of closeted gay people in the
industry that work against the gay community.
“It’s often gay casting agents that tell gay actors that there isn’t a job for them, because they don’t want to be seen as being associated with that person.
“There are a lot of people who have a vested interest in keeping the
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closet firmly locked and that includes gay people in the industry.
“The only way this can change is if people take a stand because
otherwise it will be like this forever.
“The irony is that despite being closet for years, George Michael has moved the debate on more than anyone because he has been more
Star People is on sale now priced £7.99