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PR Vet Simon Halls, Matt Bomer’s Husband, on Helping Stars Come Out

PR Vet Simon Halls, Matt Bomer’s Husband, on Helping Stars Come Out

I came of age in my personal and professional life at a time when AIDS, that other pandemic, also came of age. Those were scary times. You couldn’t be your true self back then and if you tried, chances are the virus would find you. Almost everyone I knew during my coming out process are no longer here. I had an internship in public relations at Warner Bros. while in college, and after I graduated from USC, I got an opportunity to live and work in Russia where you couldn’t and wouldn’t talk about your sexuality, and you never asked anybody about theirs because of the threat of capital punishment.

I went about my business and shut off that part of my brain until I came back to Los Angeles to work for a dear friend, the late Nanci Ryder, who was the most gay-friendly person on the planet. She lived in West Hollywood, had Sunday brunch with the boys and often went to Motherlode. She once said to me, “Simon, be careful with sharing your story.” There were certain clients, very famous people, that Nanci wanted me to work with, but they refused because I was gay. It was the early ‘90s and while the majority didn’t care, there were definitely some you had to be very cautious around.

As I made my way in the business, I started getting calls from managers asking for help with clients as they faced truly awful situations. Talented people like veteran actor Michael Jeter and choreographer Michael Peters, men who were gay and had gotten sick with active AIDS. Tabloid reporters threatened to report on it, but some members of the men’s families didn’t know they were gay. What I tried to do was bring as much calm and comfort to folks who were really going through it while helping them get the message out to the world on their own terms. Not to get too controversial, because it has changed, but at the time, it wasn’t just the tabloids that acted in such a way, it was the gay press as well. Back then, our community did not celebrate our own at all.

That changed with Ellen DeGeneres. I knew her manager at the time, Arthur Imparato, and, of course, her publicist Pat Kingsley, who was my boss at the time, and they brought me in to help with the process of her coming out. While there were some on her team who pushed back by saying that coming out would kill her career, there were many more celebrating and encouraging her by saying, “Do it. You’ve got to live your truth.” No matter what anyone says or thinks of Ellen, I will only ever look at her as a hero because she had worked so hard to get to where she was, and she faced down all kinds of odds along the way. She was able to come out in such a proactive, positive way. It was such a life affirming moment for so many people to see her on the cover of Time with the tagline, “Yep, I’m Gay.” She really moved the ball forward in such a big way. I give all credit to Pat Kingsley who had these really deep, robust relationships with editors at all of the big publications at the time and she said, “This is what we’re going to do, and this is how we’re going to do it.” Pat and Ellen made that decision, and it was very bold and very brave. It was a huge professional lesson about being proactive and never lying while also being a great personal lesson to know that you can speak your truth and affect change. It was a very meaningful experience.

Ellen DeGeneres’ cover of Time magazine on April 14, 1997, in which she came out. “Ellen is an absolute hero,” says Halls.

Courtesy

I remember being at the Vanity Fair Oscar party that same year. At the end of the night, a friend of mine and a longtime client, Anne Heche, came up and told me she had just met the love of her life. I said, “That’s great! Who is it?” Anne said, “Simon, it’s Ellen.” It was a surprise to me and to many people in her life as she had only been in relationships with men before that. But they had fallen madly in love and wanted to celebrate it. Anne’s career was at an interesting point as she had just released Donnie Brasco starring Johnny Depp and was about to see the release of Volcano starring Harrison Ford. I wasn’t very popular with the agent, manager, and lawyer on Anne’s team because I advised her to live in her truth and own her relationship. I said, “Ellen has done it, you should do it, too. If you’re in love, who cares?” But there were people in her life that thought it would kill her career and that she shouldn’t come out. Harrison Ford had a lot riding on that movie and I’m not sure if he’s ever been thanked publicly for what he did, but he deserves to be. Without revealing too much about a private conversation, he stepped up and said, “I got your back, kid.” He’s a hero.

I started working with Nathan Lane in the mid-1990s. He had enjoyed all kinds of success on Broadway and TV and had always been openly gay around his friends and in the theater community. Then he got this breakout role in 1996’s The Birdcage, and everybody at the time, from his agents and manager to the studio, told him that he didn’t owe the public any comment on his personal life. However, Nathan really felt that he had to do something. But naturally, he was scared. It was a different time back then and his career was just starting to move in a different direction with this Mike Nichols movie and there was Oscar talk and awards buzz. Nathan was trying to get his bearings and own his story despite reporters trying to push him in one direction or another. I remember there was a press junket at which one reporter, a gay man, repeatedly kept poking at him regarding his sexuality. It was so upsetting. Nathan later said, “I’m 40, single and work a lot in musical theater. You do the math.” That was his way of standing up to the bullies. Everyone should be allowed to navigate through life on their own terms and be in control of their story.

Nathan Lane in 1996’s The Birdcage.

Courtesy Everett Collection

I once met with an actor who wasn’t ready to come out, and he was scared about being asked about his sexuality in interviews, especially since he was starring in a gay-themed project. He asked me, “What would be the ideal way?” My response was that in a perfect world, the ideal would be something like this: A New York Times feature that covers your projects, resume, history and some of your life, and then in the 17th paragraph, it is written that you live in New York with your partner/husband/wife, children or dogs. Something as simple as that is the goal. A life like everyone else is allowed to live. It’s worth noting that the actor was later responsible for introducing me to a man named Matt Bomer, who became my husband. It is also worth noting that when this actor finally did come out publicly, his NYT feature followed the playbook we had hoped for all those years ago. His personal life was an afterthought!

Ironically, while my husband Matt’s coming out was the one that impacted my life in the biggest way, it was one that I had very little to do with. From the very outset of our relationship, Matt and I had decided to separate church and state from a business perspective. Meaning, he had an amazing rep, Jennifer Allen, who was entirely capable of running that side of his life. So, when he publicly thanked me and the kids at the Desert AIDS Project event in front of a thousand people, I was surprised, touched and wholly unprepared for the worldwide attention that it would receive. To me, it was a lovely gesture. To the media, it was a bit of a firestorm. But Matt handled it all with impeccable grace, and after the 24-hour news cycle died down, he went back to living his life as a working actor, unaware that he had touched the lives of so many young LGBTQ kids around the world.

Simon Halls and Matt Bomer at the Vanity Fair Oscar party in 2018, six years after the actor came out publicly.

John Shearer/Getty Images

While we as a community met with so many detractors along the way, I am happy to say there were a lot of heroes who have contributed to the sea change of acceptance we have experienced as a culture. Ryan Murphy, a client and a dear friend, who has long championed gay stories and issues through so much of his work. Actors Peter Frechette and David Marshall Grant, two openly gay actors who braved all kinds of pushback when they had one of the first gay kisses on primetime TV in thirtysomething. Greg Berlanti, another longtime client, who lobbied for network TV’s first romantic kiss between two men on Kevin Williamson’s Dawson’s Creek. Ang Lee, another longtime and straight client, who broke barriers with Brokeback Mountain and won an Oscar for that film — he had also directed the most beautiful LGBT coming out story himself with The Wedding Banquet. Veteran journalist Jess Cagle who, while he was the editor of Entertainment Weekly, wouldn’t put out an issue of the magazine without championing something LGBTQ-related in the issue. CAA partners Bryan Lourd and Kevin Huvane who have guided the careers of so many beloved performers while being openly out in the testosterone-fueled agency business; and so many more.

Ellen is an absolute hero. And you cannot underestimate the power of Max Mutchnick and David Kohan whose Will & Grace became “must-see TV” and was such a non-threatening way for people to be exposed to gay characters. People fell in love with Will, played by Eric McCormack, and Jack, played by Sean Hayes. How could you love them so much and still be homophobic? Another major star and dear friend fits in the same category: Neil Patrick Harris was a beloved child star who became a beloved adult actor thanks to his role as the ladies’ man on How I Met Your Mother. He grew up in front of America and when he fell in love with David Burtka, he didn’t want to hide. When you’re in love, you want to celebrate it and you don’t want to associate it with any kind of shame. His became a very positive story that helped break down a lot of walls because people considered him like a kid brother.

It all contributed to a constant pounding at the door of acceptance, and with more pounding comes less resistance. These are people who didn’t have to do the knocking, but they did. That required real bravery. It’s become much, much more palatable and accepted in the mainstream. There will always be people on the fringes, obviously, who don’t respect the way that we live or who we are. But I can tell you, as someone who has now done this for a long time, it’s a fraction of what it used to be. Now there are openly gay actors leading television shows or feature films, whether its Jonathan Bailey in Fellow Travelers or Bridgerton, or Andrew Scott with Ripley and the beautiful All of Us Strangers, who discuss their lives in a matter of fact way and nobody bats an eye.

Because I now have teenage children, I can see firsthand how their peers respond to sexual orientation or gender fluidity. Kids are so much more accepting today. It’s so stunning to me. Heartstopper is one of the most popular shows on Netflix and it’s simply about young love. It doesn’t matter that it’s gay or straight. Love and heartbreak happen at any age. As a father, I’m so happy that the world that my kids get to inherit is so completely different than it was when I was coming up.

And what I would tell anyone who is ready to share their story, I’m here to help. And I know I have several colleagues, gay and straight, who would do the same. It’s not that scary here. I promise that it can be celebrated because this is a time for celebration. But it should only be done in an elegant way that you feel comfortable with. If you want it on a placard, great, or if you want to say it as an aside, that’s great, too. It all helps push the culture forward in our world. After the countless terrible events the LGBTQ community has survived — we have faced some truly unimaginable things — being able to contribute to something positive makes it all worth it. As someone who has been of service and helped along the way, believe me when I say it: You can do this.

This story first appeared in the June 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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