Jai Rodriguez: A Look Beyond the Culture Vulture

It’s the beginning of the year and that means all new great television–be it network or streaming! With the binging being the main reason to stay home and avoid working off those holiday calories, there’s one guy that is happy you’re looking to chill–Jai Rodriguez.

Photo by Storm Santos

Best known for his role as the original Fab Five ‘Culture Vulture’ in the Emmy Award-winning show “Queer Eye For The Straight Guy,” Jai Rodriguez has been shaping American culture for nearly two decades–way before streaming television. Jai’s illustrious career began at age 18, when he was cast as ‘Angel’ in the critically acclaimed musical “RENT”making him the youngest actor to be cast in a leading role.

With a career that has taken him from Broadway, to television and film, and most recently radio, Jai is showing that there’s more than culture that meets the eye for the just-turned-40 artist. Jai recently hosted The Morning Show, the first nationally syndicated LGBTQ radio show on Channel Q, but stepped away to focus on an upcoming Cabaret tour. If you’ve kept up with him on social media, you’ll wonder how he even has time to make it to the gym with all the projects he juggles.

But he does!

 

Before the Queer Eye today’s generations know from Netflix, Jai was part of the phenomenon that was 2003’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, a show that set precedent for LGBTQ in mainstream media and that introduced the world to the fact that a little gay sparkle goes a long way. Following his fame from Queer Eye, Jai starred opposite Lily Tomlin and Reba McEntire in the hit comedy “Malibu Country.” He also appeared in numerous TV shows such as ABC’s “Detroit 1-8-7,” “Days Of Our Lives,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Are You There Chelsea?,” “Bones,” and as a trans woman in NBC’s “Harry’s Law.

Many of the opportunities that Jai has been presented are undoubtedly possible due to his hard work and his dedication to entertainment. Because he started in the industry so young, he has learned how difficult it is to stand out in while keeping your voice intact. In spite of this, Jai has remained at the forefront of LGBTQ representation in the media and continues to use his voice to uplift those who may not always feel heard.

I had the privilege of speaking with Jai late last year and got a perspective of the Culture Vulture that many may not know. Read on to learn about Jai’s career and the obstacles he has surpassed in order to share a bit of who he is with the world and that yes, all things just keep getting better!

DAVID LOPEZ: How would you describe your journey in your career of media and entertainment?

JAI RODRIGUEZ: 

Unexpected! I’ve checked almost every box. I started on Broadway and while I was there I did everything I wanted to do. I was 21 starring in a play at Lincoln Center with no music and I thought I would just be ping-ponging between Broadway shows and SVU–and that’s where I thought my career was headed. Doing RENT 6 days a week lead to my own show called XL–basically it was all the numbers you’d see a drag queen perform, I performed as a cisgendered guy at a gay bar. It showed me what is possible–doing music outside of RENT. And then when Queer Eye came along, I thought I was just going to take a little break from RENT. I requested six months off to do a teeny tiny show on a network that no one was watching–but then Queer Eye sort of defined the Bravo network for the next year. I went back to RENT just to have a nice farewell. The bad thing about Queer Eye is that, unlike the other guys, I was not doing on the show what I do for a living. While I was utilizing the lifeskills you gain from  being a performer, I wasn’t the one walking away from Queer Eye with multi-million dollar endorsement deals for my area of expertise–because that was so broad. Being so young when I moved to Los Angeles in 2006, I was immediately told ‘you need to step away from the non-scripted space’, because it was the height of the actors’ union strike and it was all the table-flipping reality that we know–it was the beginning of that era. And I did. I said ‘No’ to so many big projects that were along the lines of Queer Eye because I was told not to align myself with my former job. So I started from scratch in L.A. Ryan Murphy actually cast me in Nip/Tuck–which was the first time that agents saw that I could act, too. Thankfully that was the beginning of things for me. I took Queer Eye off my resume and really created my own lane after being told by numerous agencies “I don’t know what you want to be, but you’re not going to be the next Antonion Banderas.” As if that were the goal–thank you for pigeonholing me! And I always remember that because I did become the first male to garner fame off of reality television when I became a series regular on Malibu Country, opposite of Lily Tomlin. That wasn’t an offer–I auditioned just like everybody else–and I’ve had so many other moments like that. Now I’m going to be on a big project in 2020 that I can’t talk about yet, and I’m on Eastsiders on Netflix, and now Dollface on Hulu. I’ve done sitcoms, multi-cam comedies, stage–my career has been unexpected because of a lot of things that I have been aggressively told I would not be allowed to do. When I moved to L.A. they told me ‘pick a lane’ and I’m glad I didn’t.

Photo by Storm Santos

DL: In your career are there any projects you regret not taking?

JR:

Early on I had to make some tough choices. When I was in RENT I was offered to do workshops that were yet to be produced, one of them was Hairspray, and I was asked to join the cast of that and we all had plans for that. I thought I was going to do that, but I’m glad I didn’t because I was already playing a lead character on Broadway in RENT so to have joined the ensemble in Hairspray would have been really tricky for me. Those are the types of jobs that I wonder ‘what if?’ During Queer Eye there were moments where it was chaotic and I felt like I had lost myself to become a persona that was required of me and in life I had always worked on scripted pieces so I saw my wardrobe on Queer Eye as costumes–which was a problem because when I left the show people didn’t have a sense of who I was aesthetically–and I don’t think I did either because I treated the wardrobe like it was a costume the character wore and I didn’t know it would lead people to think who I was a person. When I watched the new Queer Eye one thing that caught my eye is Karamo being able to wear those fitted caps because I certainly was not allowed. Usually everyday I have a Yankees or New York fitted cap on–it’s kind of my look and it has been for over two decades–but I was not allowed. And I had to wear a blazer. There are just so many opportunities I didn’t delve into because of the messaging I received early in my career–which was to pick a lane.

DL: If you could go back into your career, would you do anything differently?

JR:

Yes, I would have. We on Queer Eye were part of an incredibly powerful and groundbreaking show. We were the beginning of what is considered reality, or unscripted programming, and there were a couple of things I struggled with now that I see the new version. When I look back at the time, I wish I would have spoken out more about the things I knew to be true. I wish I hadn’t allowed certain producers to diminish my voice. I’ve been working with adult professionals since I was in high school, but on Queer Eye I took a literal and figurative HUGE backseat. I had been the star of everything I had been a part of, but to be this secondary creature I lost my voice to gentlemen who are older than me and who I admire and respect. I also had a very confusing category, which at the time I could not do what Karamo is doing this time around. I was told you need before and after visual things for you to do in your category–which was culture. And so much of what I see Karamo do now may not have been sense coming from a 23 or 24 year old, but I think it is more appropriate for what the lane is. His therapeutic angle is everything I wish the category would have been, but anytime we went that way it was a constant ‘No’. I still have the emails where they said, ‘It needs to be something tangible’. In terms of culture, I was a replacement, there was a guy named Blare who was the culture guy prior to me joining the cast. I know it was a confusing category for many people and they didn’t know what they wanted. But I still think my only regret is to not have spoken my truth more and to have given a bit more push back and really carved out more defined things to do on Queer Eye that relate to my strengths as a performer.

Photo by Storm Santos

DL: I bet it was a really confusing time for you because you just excited to do it!

JR:

100%! You’re running around backstage with people like Beyonce and at different award shows and kikiing and you’re not even thinking about it! It’s humbling. I will say the experience of meeting celebrities and hanging out with stars like JLo really did unify the idea in my mind that we are literally all the same, some people just have more visibility than others. Once we were on the cover of Entertainment Weekly–all of a sudden I’m overnight famous–I didn’t understand the cultural significance of it at the time. My world was always different. It was always queer. It was always full of trans folks. So for me, I was shocked that we got so much attention. But looking back now–we were the first makeover show to makeover a trans person, which was a really interesting introduction to the trans community for the world to see. I was really happy to see that the reboot for Queer Eye did take a page from our book and makeover a trans man.

 

DL: Is there any project you would jump on right away, if you had the opportunity?

JR:

Part of me just really wants to get back to New York and do a show like Hamilton or any other show that has a strong book and score. When I was living in New York the roles were too few and far between for someone who looked like me.

DL: You celebrated your 40th birthday a few months ago–what are your goals for this next stage in your life?

JR:

That is a constant refrain that has been clicking in my head all year. It’s not necessarily that I felt the number called it, but the number somehow highlights where you thought you’d be and what you want to be doing. I’m lucky to have a career that has let me sample many different forms of art, but it’s really been trying to balance that with a sustainable happiness. What I mean is, the hustle is so great when you’re jumping from gig to gig, and the panic and anxiety of where the next job is so real that it can inhibit you from actually looking at the now and taking in the moments that really matter. Some of us are so forwarding thinking that we don’t even lean into the moments that are happening now. So for my 40th I want continued stability, I plan to continue on with television and film–pilot season is here and I’ll be recurring on a couple of series. The balance between life and work is really something I have struggled with my entire life–I’m taking my first vacation ever!

 

DL: Is there anything else you’d like to share with the Instinct readers?

JR:

I’ve been such a longtime fan of the publication and certainly now that I have been on The Morning Beat on Channel Q, it’s been one of the resources I’ll pull from–you guys do great stories. I want to commend you for keeping the narrative inclusive. Growing up I don’t remember seeing anyone that looked like me in the magazines–it was always a cisgendered white, buff guy that we were all trying to aspire to look like. That was the only thing that we were told was hot and attractive. In media, I feel a strong responsibility to be inclusive with my storytelling. And if you ever want to reach out, slide into the DMs at @jairodriguez I’m open and available. For so many people Queer Eye was part of their upbringing and I’ve received so many beautiful messages over the years!

Author’s Note: This interview was edited for clarity and length.

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