Beyond reality: Jai Rodriguez sets the record 'straight'

To Jai Rodriguez life is a cabaret.
Photo credit:
Jai Rodriguez - Facebook

Jai Rodriguez isn’t about to let a little show called “Queer Eye” define who he is, or who he was. The handsome out gay actor was a Broadway star way before the show premiered on Bravo in 2003, and he continues to shine in spite of his circling culture vulture status.

“My experience on Queer Eye is very different than what people would have assumed to be,” he told me. “And I honor the show, And I love what it did for society and I’m proud for being a part of it, but it was not an easy process for me; I was the only person who didn’t do on the show what I do for a living.”

Approaching 40, Jai has made a very nice career for himself, and he is proud of every step in this long entertainment journey, including that of the gay guy helping pop-challenged straight men better communicate with their significant others.

I for one was guilty of associating him entirely with that show, until I watched a gay thriller called Kiss Me, Kill Me last year in which he plays a streetwise detective investigating the murder of a West Hollywood producer.

I was unaware of his versatility until I looked at his long list of roles and projects that began when he was right out of high school playing Angel in Rent on Broadway.  

He went on to do movies such as The New Kid and The Producers.

Perhaps his most extensive body of work lies in television with, among others includes appearances in All My ChildrenOne Life to LiveBones, and How I Met Your Mother.

In 2012, he starred in the Reba McEntire ABC sitcom Malibu Country, playing the no-nonsense record producer Geoffrey. A reality icon turned major network sitcom star is no small feat, just ask any Bravo alumni.

Jai is currently getting through pilot season in Hollywood. It’s a busy time spent pitching shows to various bigwigs in Hollywood and afterward pulling out your phone every time it vibrates in hopes of getting greenlit.

It’s a stressful time, but the actor is easing some of the pressure by appearing at San Diego’s Martinis Above Fourth for his one-man cabaret show called As Seen On.

“This is my 20th year being a professionally working actor,” he says. “I got my first job at eighteen on Broadway. The show is really just a comedic reflection of all these highs and lows, and things that I don’t normally talk about, but now I’ve learned that it’s fine to talk about some of these things.”

Hollywood can be a vengeful monster; it hates to be talked about behind its back and there are eyes and ears in every corner. So talking about anything behind-the-scenes can be a treacherous endeavor, however Jai seems to know how to appease the beast by keeping it personal.

“It’s like the rated-R ninety-minute ‘Glee’ version of my life,” he said. “But nothing is off-limits and I will be talking about ‘Queer Eye’ probably in a way that people would say that I shouldn’t but I have always managed to speak about that show and with a lot of integrity and I wouldn’t disparage the brand. However, the journey is my own and it’s mine to share and with that I balance respecting the brand and also tell my story and how I feel about what is happening now, and it’s really funny.”

The history of Jai Rodriguez could probably be a movie of its own, growing up in a religious household, the thought of coming out wasn’t really something he was prepared to do and role-models weren’t repeating  “it gets better” at the time.   

In terms of being openly gay in the industry, he was forced into doing that for Bravo if he wanted the gig. 

“I think when you grow up the way I did which was extremely Pentecostal, born-again Christian, Evangelical, I had no exposure to anything LGBT at all. Really my point of reference was Ru Paul and Elton John.

“I had to learn who I was,” he says. “However, when Queer Eye came out I had played a succession of gay characters, but I also played a straight dad on All My Children, so I remember when my agent said to accept this role on this makeover show you’re going to need to be openly gay.”

At a crossroads, Jai had to make a decision and weigh in on what being fully out in the industry would ultimately do to his career and if it was going to be something he could endure throughout his profession.

“I thought well, what network is it on? And they said Bravo and I said, ‘oh that’ll be fine no one watches that. At the time the biggest show they had was Inside the Actor’s Studio, and that was really their big claim to fame.”

But it was the little show that could and not only did it open up the Bravo brand as reality TV central, it also put Jai in the spotlight as a gay household name.

“I didn’t anticipate it being a show that would have such global, political impact. For me that was a surprise. So from that, I have to say that I did take pause. And certainly, with a show with the word “queer” in it and being referenced as ‘that queer guy.’”

After the initial shock of being labeled as “queer” to millions of people, Jai embraced the term and continued on with his life. He seems to be that kind of person who can incorporate new details of his life and set forth to making them just another part of who he is. He has the ability to singe the contents of his resume with a desirable nuanced flame.

“It took a while, but now, the funny thing is the roles such as in Kiss Me, Kill Me, those are the roles I get now. I am the inmate, I am the husband, I am the lawyer, I am the DA, I am the detective. That’s sort of where I’m at right now.”

He says the recent announcement of the Queer Eye’s return to television is in perfect timing with what he talks about in his cabaret show.

Jai’s been fortunate enough to star in plenty of shows after the reality stint. He played a straight Latin male in Hamilton author Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights in San Diego. He was also hand-picked by the late Gary Marshall to star in his Falcon Theatres' production of Buyer and Cellar off-Broadway.

Being a person of color, Jai tells me there aren’t a lot of roles out there for “beige” people even though there seems to be an upswing of color-blind casting. He feels lucky that there are shows such as Hamilton; a play he hopes to act in one day, but for now he wants to concentrate on his small screen career.

“I have been doing so well on television and diversifying my career that way,” he said. “Whether it’s creating programing as an executive producer or acting on camera; I’ve found a way to make life work for me.”

With all of this going on and barely time to take a breather, I asked the star if he was making time for love, settling down with that special someone and enjoying that side of life.

He’s very meticulous, but in the long run he wants the same things the rest of us do. He says he more open to that prospect than ever before.

“I had been seeing a really great guy in San Diego and we just kinda evolved into more of a friendship,” he says. “I spent a lot of time in San Diego, and once that happened I realized how open I was to the notion. I always said, you know I’m this Bohemian actor and I’ve got a gazillion jobs – I’m doing this and that. I think in my industry I am always meant to be together and strong and seem like everything’s going great, but realistically there are times when it’s not, and you know, I think I look for someone who has compassion for that and not judgment.

"That’s a tricky balance for a lot of people because when we’re out, I put on my Jai Rodriguez hat and give the people what they need and I’m performing on stage. But when I’m home you know I’m a very chill, relaxed person and sometimes it’s tricky to put my needs before everyone else’s.

"So I need a partner who will be able to do that and hang with that, so I am more than ever before really open and have learned about myself. I always say, I used to never understand the word 'partner,' never understood it.

"When I younger I used to think it sounded so impersonal and now as a grown-up I get it. Because I would love nothing more than a partner in crime to do all the crazy wonderful, wild basic and fun, exciting things that my life is. I would love to share that. Whether it’s just sitting home watching TV or traveling to Raleigh North Carolina for Gay Pride. It’s just more fun to do it with someone.”

I asked him if he ever wanted kids. 

“I don’t want to be a single parent, my mom did that and it was tricky. So I know I can’t. I’m not strong like that, so I would have to be so certain that my partner is in it for the long-haul and that he would want to co-parent in a way that I thought was strong enough to bring in a life. I think if I found my rock in that way, sure I think I would be able to do it.”

Which brings us to his cabaret show As Seen On coming to San Diego on February16, at Martinis Above Fourth.

In my interview with Jai we touched on a lot of things that have made him who he is and who he wants to become.

His cabaret show will expound upon all of this and more.

“I’ve been doing cabaret shows since 2005, I had my first big one at the Hudson Theater in New York City, I think I was 25-years-old at the time and I wanted a way to tell my side of my story, because people were like ‘what’s that kid’s deal?’

"I thought it was an important story to tell, so I got to do that, and then ever since then it’s been something I’ve kinda toured with here and there. I had a show in San Diego called 'Dirty Little Secrets' which was basically all the things I was taught to be ashamed of but later in life it served me quite well owning them.”

This San Diego show also contains something special which he won’t give away.

“There’s a very interesting, in the middle of the show, surprise that happens which I think is pretty fun and unexpected. The L.A. people were like, I did not see that coming which is always a great thing.”

He warns that the show can be a bit naughty in spots and if you’re not prepared it may come as a bit of a shock, but he says it’s fun in “that Bette Midler kind of way.”

As he waits for pilot season to pass, Jai already has projects in the can as they say.

He is appearing in Grey’s Anatomy for a dramatic role and gets a guest spot on Syfy’s breakout hit The Magicians.

I learned a lot about Jai in our conversation. He is always ready to work and slowly adds those experiences to the Jai Rodriguez gestalt. 

He is a professional who is smart enough to know that reality can’t be captured by a crew of people following you around with a camera, but must be seen within your own eyes. And maybe the definition of that could be a Queer Eye for the queer guy, all of which culminates into something that cant be produced or set into motion with a clapper board, but experienced on journey one must travel for themselves; the very definition of reality. 

However Jai knows that even though his observations are unique, there is something among them that will ultimately click with others. And even if that’s not the case, at least the world will have a better understanding of who he is and who he is not.

“No matter what profession, no matter who we are we have a lot of shared experiences," Jai says. "And I think that’s what defines us all, and we are a lot more alike than we are unalike.”

You can see Jai in his cabaret show called As Seen On at Martinis Above Fourth, on the second floor, Thursday, February 16, at 8 pm. 

Martinis Above Fourth is located at Plaza On Fourth, 3940 Fourth Ave, San Diego, 92103

Click HERE for tickets. 

Timothy Rawles  is Community Editor of SDGLN. He can be reached at editor@sdgln.com, @reporter66 on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.