Making the A-List: Behind the scenes of Logo’s hit reality series
Perhaps because it’s been such an arduous winter. (snow, cold, more snow, more cold on what seemed an endless loop), Manhattanites haven’t been able to leave the comfort of their man caves and explore everything that this incredible metropolis has to offer. And why bother? Be pummeled by a falling Spider-Man or Justin Bieber in 3-D? No thanks.
It wouldn’t be so bad really if there was a bit of something to pass the time with, but since the guilty-pleasure that had us glued to our flat screens -- I’m referring to The A-List: New York wrapped its season -- there hasn’t really been anything worth chatting about over the water cooler.
Who could have imagined that when Logo debuted the reality soap opera drama it would become a topic of centrifugal debate across the gay community. With either side debating the pros and cons of the diatribe captured for the cameras of a group of well-privileged, well-connected urban-dwellers who strive to prove they are the elite among elitist. Whether the cast that was selected is a proper diorama of gay men in New York City and beyond, is really not the argument. Whether the show is good television is another.
Lifting the veil
With the show on hiatus, the time seemed right to catch-up with Dominick Pupa, co-executive producer of The A-List: New York and lift the veil behind the show shaking our gay foundations.
One wonders, what came first? Was the idea something that the network was floating, or was it someone’s singular brainchild. "This docu-soap format is such a hit with gay audiences," Pupa explains, "it just made sense to have one with gay cast members. It wasn’t under the conceit of trying to do it; and by the time the idea floated to Logo...it just kinda happened."
The approach to marketing the show as a "docu-soap" and not specifically a reality series allows the breath of tension among the cast to unravel before the cameras on a weekly basis. "The show is reality-based - but you know it’s a docu-soap." Dominick Pupa has established a career in television producing hit shows like The Real Housewives of Atlanta. "It’s not a competition based show...it highlights the drama in someone’s life."
And drama it is! Even the show’s title has popularly been ripped apart. "We’ve gotten a lot of slack for calling the show The A-List," Pupa laughs. "But it’s the conceit of the show that these are the lives that these guys lead, but the ’A’ really stood for ’access’," he insists. "As in: do these guys have a lifestyle that is perceived as "fabulous" - and they definitely do."
Looking for ideals?
Certainly how the A-Listers were assembled is a curiosity. Most of the guys, at the time when the show launched shared an obscure notoriety at best. With the exception of celebrity photographer Mike Ruiz and Reichen Lehmkuhl they were relative unknowns. "There was a definite thread between them all," reveals Pupa. "One of the things that influenced the casting was how well they guys all knew each other before we started - that was important."
That they live a life of glamour and excess that could will be out of reach for the rest of us, is also a contemptuous topic across blogs and message boards. "These guys do lead an A-List lifestyle." Pupa goes on to elaborate, "but in the confines of New York City...we all live an A-List lifestyle, but to someone else in another city this would be extreme living."
It didn’t go unnoticed that the same week the show was set to premiere was perhaps one of the most tragic in a long time within the gay community. That week five gay youths committed suicide due to the excessive bullying they had experienced. Five young lives didn’t see any other alternative to living, certainly not as an opening gay person and decided to end their lives before they even had a chance to begin them. "That was a huge part of why the show was taking a lot of shit in the beginning," Pupa conjunctures, "it debuted literally 10 days after vigils were being held for those kids."
Some people thought it was irresponsible. "We kinda had to," Pupa says. A new sense of urgency emerged from the tragedies. "These guys are living a life unafraid of being who they are - that they are gay is incidental. Except for the episode focused on the Pride Parade, we don’t bring up that they are gay. They are six guys living their lives."
That, in itself, should have been seen as serving an example; and in hindsight perhaps the tide has turned. "I think people are changing their minds...people initially were talking about what a disgrace the show was."
It didn’t go unnoticed by Pupa and rest of the production team that the reality soap would be controversial. "I knew people would hate it without watching it." Pupa suspects, "People would have wanted to see the ideal, but that’s not necessarily an accurate portrayal of gay people. I felt a responsibility to show real gay people - and not the ideal. What people consider the ideal of any community (be it gay or straight) is one-half of one percent of the population. But the show is not about the gay community - it’s about six gay guys that live in New York."
Gay-styled Real Housewives?
A lot of people have made a name for themselves by trashing the show - and that’s fine by Pupa. "They say they don’t like the show, accept that they are publicizing their own addiction to it every week. The A-List is no worse for the gay community than the Real Housewives is for the straight community."
Among the cast of fellows that have worked their way into our event viewing on Monday nights on Logo, everyone has the token character that they most identify with. Whether it’s Ryan’s desire to fix everything, Derek’s search for Mr. Right(now) or MIke Ruiz’s matriarchal voice of reason, everyone has a favorite. "They are all my favorites," Dominick diplomatically expresses, "everyone in their own way." But let’s be serious here...Austin and Derek are pretty out there, and certainly Austin’s antics could easily have branded him, at least on the first season of this dynasty, the show’s budding Alexis Carrington. "I don’t want to offend any of them, but in my life I’ve never met anyone like Austin," Pupa tells me, "who cared less what people thought about him - it’s a quality to envy about him."
And as Pupa and team gear up for the upcoming new season of the show, the cast has been very busy turning their newfound celebrity into various opportunities. Most recently, the cast was basking in the limelight of the red carpet at OUT Magazine’s Out 100 celebration. TJ Kelly had this to offer: "Yes...The A-List has caused quite a splash. I always knew we should be on television." Fellow cast mate, Ryan Nikulas, thrilled to be there supporting Out 100 honoree Mike Ruiz, was not immune to the show’s heady scrutiny "It’s a very touchy time in our community," Nikulas noted, "from the teen suicides, to the bullying -- but as soon as I get up tomorrow I’m heading to my old high school to speak out against bullying." Each of the A-List cast turning their attention to giving back to and stepping up in their community as role-models.
Aware of scrutiny
I wondered if Pupa and the rest of the production team were concerned with dealing now with a more media-savvy group once the cameras went back into action. "It would be silly to say ’no’," he says, "but most of these guys have always been involved publicly in their community - they either contribute to a charity or sit on the board. Before the show was even on the air the had already shot and recorded a PSA speaking out against bullying and addressing teen suicides. This is what these guys are like - this is what their friendship is like."
With the reality soap format having already proven such a success, and television audiences and centrifugal roles skewing younger, I ask Pupa if perhaps a show about gay teens may be worth pursuing. To which he agreed, "There’s a me in every high school across the country. That would be something that gay kids could watch. That’s totally different from our show, but certainly it would have an audience." And about the future of the A-List franchise, rumors abound that the show is ready to spin-off with looks into the lives of the gay elite in Los Angeles and another in Dallas. Without revealing too much Pupa admitted "We’re thinking about it - but we just don’t know."
Instead Dominick Pupa is focused on his New York cast. "It’s great - it’s better than we ever expected, and it’s taken on a life of its own." Excited by the potential yet to come. "They are very aware that people have their eyes on them. We’re catching their best and worst moments. There are some people who would lose their minds," he reveals, "the cast of The A-List: New York has seen this as an opportunity both personally and publicly." To the audience, it’s a bit of escapism and entertainment, that makes us all a part of the A-List, if even for one night of the week.