Greg Louganis: Reaching for the "Stars"
Note to readers: In my three years writing columns for EDGE, I've never done an interview. But when I heard that Greg Louganis wanted to be on "Dancing with the Stars," I immediately tried to get some phone time. Mr. Louganis didn't set up any restrictions ("If someone asks me a question, I usually answer it," he said), and he didn't ask to look at the story before I ran it. He did ask ME questions and now knows more about my love life than some of my best friends. If you want to see Greg on the show, go to the link, below. The "DWTS" deadline is August 17, so show your support now.
The story of Greg Louganis reminds me of the story of my friend Barry, a man I've known since I first moved to Chelsea in 1988.
I first encountered Barry at the Chelsea Gym, an Eighth Avenue haven for hot musclemen and hotter steam rooms. Barry lifted weights in between holding court with the Beautiful Ones, a group that had no interest in an underdeveloped geek like me. My first real recollection of Greg Louganis was while watching the 1988 Summer Olympics. I fell in lust with him, just as I had with Barry the first time I saw his perfect body and perfect hair and perfect friends.
Greg couldn't speak to me through the TV (though sometimes I was almost convinced he did); Barry chose not to speak to me through the fog of better suitors at his feet. Greg was the Gold Medal diver from California who wore a Speedo the way Farrah Fawcett wore her hair. It wasn't the only attractive thing about him, but it completed the -- there's no other way to put it -- package.
I was so jealous of Greg that I almost hated him. He wasn't "out," but we all knew he was gay. He never denied it, didn't have a girlfriend, and lived with his handsome male manager. Back then, it was the equivalent of stamping an "I Love Liza!" bumper sticker on your forehead. Greg had everything; gold medals, fame, and, I was certain, any man in the world. Barry had all that too; he was legendary in the world of Chelsea Boys and won the gold every time he flexed. Both men were in their prime, Logan's Gay Run late-twenties.
Funny thing, life; you never know what you're seeing in the Fun House mirror. Today, Greg Louganis is 49 years old; Barry has magically turned 43. Steroids and liposuction have tried to turn him younger. While Greg now writes about dogs, Barry works as a waiter and pursues modeling gigs and goes to Fire Island and has an entourage of beautiful young Chelsea Boys, all going after his former gold. He's also, as I discovered later, a recovering alcoholic and sex addict and victim of sexual abuse. He's never had a serious relationship, and he stays home most nights for fear he'll drink or drug or act-out his sexual compulsion. I no longer envy him but I like him very much. Barry's story is a lesson for every Twink who doesn't realize it's a trick of the light.
Greg Louganis, after winning five gold medals in back-to-back Olympic Games and holding the title of Greatest Diver in the World, retired from the sport, disappeared for a bit, and published his own story, "Breaking the Surface," in 1995. Turns out, Greg's handsome manager/boyfriend raped him at knife-point one evening, for dating another man. The two were not exclusive at the time, nor were they living together (yet), nor was he Greg's manager (yet). The next morning, Greg apologized; somehow, the death threat and no condom and an act of violence were all Greg's fault. The Official Olympic Handbook does not assure you that Gold Medals will provide self-esteem.
Greg tested Positive for HIV before he went to the 1988 Olympic Games; when he returned to America, a champion on everything but the Wheaties Box (they didn't want him), the boyfriend, who he later found out was also a prostitute, was dying of AIDS. Greg suffered from severe depression, abused drugs and alcohol, and pretty much hoped and thought he'd never see 30. I was beginning to build my biceps in the hopes that someday I'd be just like Greg.
Today, Greg Louganis lives in Malibu with his partner, Daniel, who he met online (hmm, maybe that really was Jake Gyllenhaal chatting me up on Manhunt the other evening), four dogs, a pool with no diving board, and, from what I gather, a lot of life inside of him. The reason for our interview was simple: Greg wants to be on "Dancing with the Stars" this Fall, and, I think I speak for every homo who coveted Greg's Speedo photos the way straight men coveted Farrah's Poster, when I say, "and I want him, well, back on board!"
Greg's expressed an interest in being a contestant since Mario Lopez danced to Second Place on Season Two. (Lopez played Greg in the TV version of "Breaking the Surface.")
"I think it would be a lot of fun, and it's the kind of thing my mother would have loved to see." If selected, he's even picked Cheryl Burke as his first choice for partner. "She's a spitfire," he says. "She looks like she would kick my butt! In a good way."
He's been considered before; the first time he was submitted, the message relayed back to him was that he had "too much dance experience." Last January, he was told he didn't have enough "star power." Since former winners like Kristie Yamaguchi have, most likely, taken a few dance classes along the way, and since nobody much besides "Playboy" magazine readers knew who Brooke Burke was before she took home the trophy last year, and since Lance Bass didn't cause a ruffle in ratings when he was cast, I have my own theory. I think Greg's HIV status scares the people at ABC. I believe they're worried about how parts of America will feel about him sweating with a partner. He could also get injured, leaving blood on the dance floor, and her.
Greg's response was typical of the kind of person who thinks life's too precious to worry about "what if."
"I don't read my press; I don't get caught up in that stuff," he says, sounding a little puzzled by the question. "I'm always pleasantly surprised if someone knows who the hell I am." On further prompting, he even added that when "DWTS" first aired, "they seemed to be searching for less-skilled dancers." Fair enough.
(For the record, while taking a break from writing this piece, I walked my dog by the AIDS hospice on East 86th Street in Manhattan. A middle-age woman told me to keep my pug away from the building's entrance. When I asked her why, she said, "They keep AIDS patients in there. You never know what might happen to your dog." This is 2009, this is New York City, and this woman was nicely dressed and looked like the kind of person who might sit down and catch an episode of the fun and fluffy "Dancing with the Stars" on Monday nights.)
After Greg and I talked about the subject of HIV and "DWTS," he agreed that it could be a wonderful educational experience for all involved. "If it needs to be discussed, great," he replied. He told me about the Summer of '88, and how people later chided him for not revealing his HIV status. During the preliminaries, and in the Clip Seen Around the World, Greg bumped his head on the diving board and spilled blood in the pool. You never know...
"There was a lot of heated debate over what my responsibility was. But what people needed to understand was how you get it, and how you don't get it. It mattered in the sense that there was discussion going on. If I was the brunt of it, great. Education was happening."
The education of Greg Louganis is another story, one that mirrors the Over 40 Gay Man in America. A drunk-driving arrest a few years back sent him to AA, and dating was problematic. "I don't drink, so bars aren't real comfortable," he said, before jumping in with the only intensified comment during the interview. "I went out with a guy for a while, who said to me, 'You're the first person I've ever dated who comes with a manual.' He was referring to my autobiography. I don't live in that book. It's what I went through. A big part of writing it was to let it go."
The man who raped Greg, and who he refers to only as "Tom" in his book, fits a pattern that used to be ascribed only to women -- at least publicly. "Fear," he says, kept him from leaving. "He was about control. I thought I was worthless, couldn't manage on my own. I saw the world through his eyes." The two met at a bar when Greg was 23, so I asked if it was a physical attraction that caused the initial spark. "I don't know that there was an attraction. Who knows."
Greg also doesn't know if he's still considered the Greatest Diver in the World, nor does he seem caught up in the label. "I guess so" is the unsurprising, and sweet, response. He hasn't been on a diving board, or in a Speedo, in over ten years; in part, he says, laughing, "because I might get hurt." Like many athletes and performers, he also says that training was the most exciting part of competition. "Diving was my sanctuary."
What I think Greg does know is the present; his boyfriend, his dogs, seeing his friends perform, and turning 50 in a world that doesn't always invite gay men to age. I no longer envy Greg, but not because of anything I've read about him, or that he's told me -- quite the contrary. I don't envy Greg for the same reason I don't envy Barry; the only stories to be believed are the ones we write for ourselves.
As for endorsement deals that Greg may have lost, or could have been secured had he hired a girlfriend, the response was positively Louganian. "I did what I was comfortable with. It may have cost me, it may have not." Now that Ellen has her own show, David Geffen's scooped up half of Hollywood, and that new swim-dude Michael Phelps received an estimated $5 million in endorsements in 2008, I had to ask Greg how things might be different if it were all happening today.
"I have no idea. I'm not there. I'm where I am."
And so are we.
...and if we don't get Greg on this Fall, we'll be back!