Introducing the Stromo! Why Straight Male Stars are Going Gay(ish)
Channing Tatum, Nick Jonas, Chris Hemsworth and others have moved beyond metrosexual. Think of these stars as "straight" plus "homo" — modern, lady-loving male actors who amp up their appeal to gay audiences for pride and profit.
This story first appeared in the July 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
On June 14, a warm Sunday, hunkily dressed Channing Tatum, Matt Bomer and Adam Rodriguez cruised the WeHo streets on an LA Pride parade float, kicking up their heels and waving to a crowd of very appreciative male onlookers. Yes, they were promoting the second installation of Magic Mike XXL, but it wasn't the Warner Bros. marketing team or even publicly out Bomer who made that call: It was straight, married Tatum who rang Bomer last minute and suggested the idea.
On the day before in Pittsburgh, Nick Jonas, a man of many girlfriends of the model-actress-Miss Universe variety, performed at the city's LGBT Pride festival. It seems these days that straight male stars aren't stressed out at being perceived as gay or extremely gay-friendly. Far from feeling stigmatized, they welcome the gay gaze, staring invitingly and modeling shirtless on the covers of such gay magazines as Out and The Advocate, or both. With the current crop of "straight homos" — call them "stromos" — some very blurred lines have emerged.
These are not your mother's metrosexuals, a term coined in 1994 by British social critic Mark Simpson, who called out straight men for indulging in feminine-seeming pedicures and hair products. Today's stromos are the flip side of gay actors who want to read straight for their careers: They are straight actors striving to read gayish to optimize their appeal — and maximize the number of butts, gym-molded or otherwise, in movie theater seats.
The number of straight actors who have appeared on Out covers — Chris Hemsworth, Chris Pine, Kit Harington and Josh Hutcherson, among others — has jumped in recent years. In 2011, there were two out of 12 covers; in 2012, three. By 2013, there were five, nearly half of the year's available covers. "When Channing Tatum did the cover for Magic Mike for the June 2012 issue, it opened the door for other guys," notes Out editor-in-chief Aaron Hicklin. "We've had straight men who are comfortable with their sexuality on the cover before. Keanu Reeves was on the cover of our 20th anniversary issue in 1995. Now a lot more straight guys are playing gay roles than ever before — and are happy to be on our covers. They request our covers, gay role or not."
This might have a little to do with the first Magic Mike bringing in more than $167 million worldwide. "Studios are realizing that gay people don't just go to gay movies. We go to every movie," says Craig Karpel, owner of the Karpel Group, which conducts promotional campaigns to connect movies to the LGBT market. "For basically straight films, we're hired to do gift bags at nightlife events, festivals, parades, gay bars and clubs. The competition for clients to market in gay clubs is fierce — it's a captive audience."
Slate PR founder and co-owner Simon Halls (clients include Tom Ford, Ryan Murphy and Ridley Scott), who is married to and raising three sons with Bomer, ponders what has changed since Woody Harrelson posed in 1997 for an Out cover promoting The People vs. Larry Flynt. "This isn't just a sexuality comfort issue," says Halls. "It's also a demographic shift. If you look at polls, many people over 60 have all kinds of prejudices; under 40, everyone supports gay rights and most people don't care about labels anymore. Not only that, magazines that cater to the gay community guarantee beautiful shots. Publicists love beautiful covers as much as stars do."
Gaydar increasingly is feeling broken in Hollywood and New York and is a dead issue in Europe. "It's a common question at parties: 'Is he gay — or European?' " laughs Details editor-in-chief Dan Peres, describing both civilian and celebrity stromos. "His suit is more tapered, he owns a yoga mat. Adam Levine has made it safe for straight guys to wear deep V-necks. Now gay and straight men shop at the same stores, go to the same hairdressers and tailors. Straight men want the same things as gay men — except the gender of their sexual partners."
Cornell University psychology professor Ritch Savin-Williams begs to differ even on that point and has said partner-gender preference isn't as clear as it used to be for "mostly straight" young men who consider LGBT equality the movement of their generation. On the Kinsey heterosexual-homosexual sliding scale, established by sex researcher Alfred C. Kinsey, Savin-Williams calls men who fall within heterosexuality but toward the gay side of the scale "Kinsey 1's," explaining: "Their primary object of desire is women. They're not giving that up — they're adding to it." Just ask ultimate stromo James Franco, who recently announced, "I'm gay in my life up to the point of intercourse." Other presumable Hollywood Kinsey 1's: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who never refutes gay innuendos ("That would be really tacky," is his sentiment); and Tom Hardy. Now married to Peaky Blinders actress Charlotte Riley, the Mad Max star has shared that he experimented with men when he was younger.
Stromos don't necessarily have to walk the walk but can talk a good game about their man-crushes: Ryan Reynolds admits that if he were gay, it would be with Robert Pattinson. Daniel Radcliffe says he would fancy Ryan Gosling (who wouldn't?). In times past, when Marlboro men and tough-guy icons like Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro reigned, bromance subjects Pattinson and Gosling might have sued or worse at any implication of gayness. That's not the case today.
"The current straight actors are more than comfortable with gay men desiring them," explains Out's Hicklin. "My straight friends love it when gay men flirt. What else is acting but a bid for attention?" Social critic Simpson agrees: "The male desire to be desired is more rampant than ever. Today's men are shameless hussies. That's a problem for actors: Young straight male moviegoers are so image-conscious and keen to attract the eye, the man onscreen has to go the extra mile with harder workouts. As their audience becomes 'gayer,' they have to become gayer or end up looking dad-ish." (Note the viral term 'dad bod' for anyone without a six pack.)
Ergo, appearance still makes the stromo. Primo stromo David Beckham may be among the first U.K. footballer to give interviews to gay magazines and may have expressed pride in his gay-icon status, but he's equally if not more famous for braiding his hair, painting his nails and posing in Emporio Armani underwear in a 2009-2010 campaign for a reported 20 million pounds. Slender and big-lipped former model Eddie Redmayne, who plays a transgender woman in The Danish Girl, out this fall, also is an exemplary stromo. Confesses male-celebrity hairdresser Sean James: "I'm not sure when gay and straight looks swapped, but men in general are marketing themselves much more these days so they can have the perfect dating profile picture for Tinder to meet girls or guys."
Services have followed accordingly. Today in Los Angeles, there are nail salons just for men (Hammer & Nails on Melrose), straight guys going for eyebrow shaping (brow queen Anastasia Soare says, "Male stars come in the salon all the time and are fine if someone takes their picture") and the pursuit of the gay male-body ideal. "Shredded trumps pumped," says celebrity trainer Jason Wimberly. "Young Hollywood is packing yoga classes and spin studios to create a longer leaner physique than body proportions of yore." Adds Jodi Shays, owner of the Queen Bee waxing chain, who has seen her male clientele increase 35 percent this year: "We are seeing more men do fingers and toes, bum cheeks, male bikini lines and the full bro-zilian. Our straight guys versus gay guys is an even split."
Simpson sums up the reason for the rise of stromos: "Men increasingly want to present themselves as available for fantasy to both sexes — especially if they're heterosexual." Echoing a June 18 comment by actor-of-the-moment Chris Pratt (who wants to "not objectify women less but objectify men just as often"), Simpson adds: "Women no longer own that province of objectification. Straight men now want to be sex objects — and what better way to get objectified than by other penised human beings?"