Talks To Mister V

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Bruce Vilanch’s Gay Reality
by Joey Guerra, March 21, 2006

The answer is yes. Bruce Vilanch has indeed kept up with the heart-healthy regimen first laid out for him on VH1’s popular Celebrity Fit Club. The show chronicled the weight losses and dramatic gains of a motley crew of music, TV and movie stars including Vilanch. The cheerful comic scribe didn’t lose the most weight, but he did arrive at the show’s finale 25 pounds lighter than his whopping starting weight of 315 pounds.

“It is something I’m still sticking to. I’m still working out, and I’m still on Zone food. I’m still losing weight,” Vilanch says, calling from his Los Angeles home.

The 57-year-old, openly gay entertainer indulged in daily hilarity as a late ‘90s Hollywood Square and also served as the show’s head writer. His career was documented in the 1999 documentary Get Bruce!, and Vilanch makes occasional stops around the country with his one-man show, Almost Famous. He’s also responsible for much of the funny in Bette Midler’s career, having written material for her concert tours and television specials.

“I knew (Celebrity Fit Club) was going to be tough. I’d been on eight million different weight-loss programs. Exercise–I had a trainer and done that kind of stuff, but I hadn’t done any kind of team sports or any of that kind of crap,” Vilanch says. “Every single other person on the show had, at one point or another in their life, been in shape. I had never been in shape. I was coming from way far behind, and I was also the oldest. I knew that I had all kinds of limitations.”

Fit Club offered viewers a peek at Vilanch’s hilarious, often huggable, personality. Fellow Fit Clubbers Tempestt Bledsoe and Countess Vaughn poured on the drama; while Kelly LeBrock and Gunnar Nelson took on the challenge with admirable seriousness. Vilanch, however, managed a nice balance of humor and heart–and still lost an impressive amount of weight.

The “reality” of reality television, however, is something Vilanch isn’t keen on revisiting anytime soon.

“The experience altogether–it was a nightmare,” Vilanch says. “The losing weight, the diet and the working out–it was great. It was reality television that sucked. Reality television is where they say to you, ‘That was great. Now can you do it again, but angrier?’ I said, ‘No, that’s called acting. I get paid more for that.’

“The whole goal of reality television is to heighten reality, is to set up a situation and then make it as ridiculous as they can. They want you to be angry. They want you to go to extremes. They’re goading you into extreme behavior, and they’re pitting you against other people with the hopes that they can get some good footage out of it. It’s the exact opposite of reality.”

Vilanch says he wasn’t a fan of the genre before Fit Club, and he has no plans to join any other reality-show circuses anytime soon, unless “they paid me more” or an elusive offer comes from Tyra Banks and America’s Next Top Model. (“I wouldn’t mind,” he jokes.)

“It’s nerve-wracking to be part of the process,” he admits. “Nobody will tell you anything, and they basically want your reaction to things … on camera … as extreme as it can be. It’s not particularly pleasant.”

More enjoyable for Vilanch was his stint as Edna Turnblad in the musical version of John Waters‘ Hairspray. He tackled Broadway and toured with the show for more than a year. He lost some weight then, and it first inspired him to appear on Fit Club.

“I knew as Hairspray was winding down, I would segue into couch potato. I just thought what can I do to keep up some kind of physical exercise, and that was when the Fit Club offer came along,” Vilanch says. “I said this was God’s way of telling me, ‘You can get paid to lose weight.’ Who am I to fly in the face of fate?”

The recently announced casting of John Travolta as the housecoat-wearing Edna in the big-screen musical version of Hairspray raised a few eyebrows, but Vilanch wasn’t too surprised at the decision and thinks the Grease star will “do fine.”

“They want to have a big movie star in that role. I’m sure a lot of other people were considered. He wouldn’t be anybody’s first thought,” Vilanch says. “People forget that he has musical-comedy chops. He comes from musical theater, from Broadway. That’s where he began, and so he has a sense of that style. It certainly is a great big acting leap for him. It’s going to be interesting to see how he does it.”

It’s unlikely Vilanch himself would have time to take movie offers. He did much of the writing for the recent Academy Awards telecast and has penned comic material for more than a dozen Oscar-casts, as well a number of Tony, Grammy and Emmy awards.

This year’s show, featuring Daily Show host Jon Stewart and so much Brokeback Mountain brouhaha, provided Vilanch with a unique opportunity to showcase his comic chops.

“It was tremendous fun. I knew Jon Stewart a little bit before, but I hadn’t really worked with him. He was just delightful. His group was great. They flew in a week early from New York, where they were cranking out The Daily Show every night, and they kind of blended with all the people who work on the Oscar show,“ Vilanch says.

“I think it paid off, because he was very effective. I think he’ll be asked back. I think he struck the proper note. The nice thing about that show, and Jon in particular, is he had lots of opportunities to kind of comment on what had just come on. And because (Jon) wasn’t around, and we didn’t have to work every day, I had more time to focus on some of the presenters, like Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin.”

Brokeback Mountain did end up winning three major awards, including Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, but it lost Best Picture to aggressive race-relations drama Crash. Vilanch, who has been vocal for several months about his support for Brokeback Mountain, has his own thoughts on the matter.

“Crash is a movie about middle-class, Los Angeles people who are having a struggle with race–and that more or less defines the Academy. They are middle-class, Los Angeles people who are having a struggle with race, so the picture played directly to them, probably more than played to anybody else in the world. I think that was what did it,” he says.

“Certainly, there was a combination of the fact that the Crash people really marketed their movie very, very well. Also, I’m sure there was what they call the Tony Curtis factor, which is that some older Academy members just didn’t want to see Brokeback Mountain win, no matter what, because they just didn’t want to watch a movie like that.”

For the uninformed, silver-screen legend Tony Curtis announced a few months back that he has not seen Brokeback and had no plans to. He also believed the same was true for other Academy members.

“This picture is not as important as we make it. It’s nothing unique. The only thing unique about it is they put it on the screen. And they make ’em cowboys,” Curtis was quoted as saying. ” Howard Hughes and John Wayne wouldn’t like it.”

Even country superstar Alan Jackson let the narrow-mindedness regarding Brokeback spew during a recent show at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo. The singer managed a cheap dig during a cover of Hank Williams Jr.’s Texas Women. He inserted the line, “I’m a cowboy fan/Not a Brokeback man,” which drew cheers from the crowd of more than 57,000 fans inside Reliant Stadium.

“That’s why we did those film clips, making fun of the ‘gay’ western icons, to address the criticism of, ‘Oh, they trampled on the American cowboy,’” Vilanch says. “A country singer in a red state is certainly going to get that reaction from his audience. People who are homophobic are typically sexually insecure. It wouldn’t matter to them so much.”

Now that winners have been crowned and Brokeback heads to DVD, Vilanch can look forward to other projects. He will host the upcoming GLAAD Media Awards, but homebound hobbies are a bit more difficult to come by.

“I’m so into show business that I wind up reading and writing and going to the movies. I have no particular passion,” he says. “I don’t do macrame, and I’m not a NASCAR driver. My life and my work are sort of intertwined, so it’s wonderful.”

He does, however, admit to a pooch passion of sorts.

“I’ve got puppies. I’m spending a lot of time with them. Pugs–I’ve never had small dogs. I decided if I was going to do puppies at this point in my life it would have to be something slightly less destructive than a 100-lb. German Shepherd,” Vilanch says. “They’re incredible. I got two of them so they could amuse each other. They’re fabulous.”

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