December 14, 1959– Bob Paris:
“Every gay person who has been lucky enough to survive the turmoil of growing up is a survivor. Survivors always have an obligation to those who will face the same challenges.”
Robert Clark Paris was an American actor, model, fashion designer, public speaker, Civil Rights activist, a regular guest on talk shows including Oprah, and professional bodybuilder. Now, he is a Canadian poet who lives in bucolic bliss on a remote island in British Columbia. Yet, in the 1980s, he reached the pinnacle of fame as Mr. Universe and he was the second most famous body builder in the world. He became the first athlete to come out as gay while still competing in his sport. He was on the cover of magazines and was much photographed by important photographers such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Herb Ritts, and Bruce Webber who devoted an entire book to his pictures.
Before finding serenity and contentment in his island life, Paris published autobiographical fitness and self-improvement books, including Natural Fitness, Beyond Built, and Generation Queer.
Those who have known me for just the past half a decade might be surprised to discover that there have been stretches of time, entire eras actually, when I was in spectacular physical shape with a lifestyle dedicated to eating well and exercising. The secret to my success was simply replacing bad addictions to alcohol or drugs with a focused compulsion to exercise.
One of those eras was the first half of the 1980s. 1981-1986 found me at the gym at least two hours a day, six days a week. Obsessive/Compulsive as always, I read books and magazines on weightlifting and diet. For that short time, Bob Paris was one of my inspirations, with his books tossed casually on the coffee table of our Capitol Hill apartment in Seattle.
On our 19th anniversary, in 1998, The Husband and I saw Paris make his NYC stage debut, starring at Carnegie Hall opposite Bea Arthur, Sandy Duncan, Michael Jeter, Philip Bosco, Alice Ripley and Tyne Daly in a new production the Cole Porter musical, Jubilee. His character was frequently shirtless and Paris at 40-years-old continued to inspire.
Paris was born into a very tough set of circumstances in small town Indiana. His father was an alcoholic who was physically abusive to his family.
Paris first began lifting weights in his sophomore year of high school. After graduating, he moved to California to go after his love of bodybuilding. He also thought that he might be interested in becoming an actor. Paris had heard that Santa Monica and Venice Beach were places a guy might live to pursue both careers.
Paris began to compete in bodybuilding competitions. Then, he began to win them. He realized when he was very young that he was gay. In the bodybuilding community his gayness was only speculated on. Paris didn’t comment on it and he didn’t deny it.
Young Paris was especially good-looking and muscular. I remember him being described as “The Tyrone Power Of Muscles”. Although the bodybuilding world recognized that he was gay, the sport’s promoters always paired him with women at receptions, galas and charity events.
From 1981-1983, Paris competed aggressively and he placed first in five out of seven of the amateur bodybuilding competitions he entered. 1984-1991, Paris competed professionally in the Mr. Olympia competitions but never came in above seventh place. However, he’s entered and placed in 19 total professional competitions.
Paris first came out to his parents and then became open about being gay in the media. He formally came out of the closet in a 1989 issue of Ironman Magazine. Later that year he married the equally pretty Rod Jackson. They became “Bob and Rod”, the most fabulous title for a gay couple of all time. Their union made headlines, but both their professional careers suffered.
Being a couple in the spotlight is never easy, but considering that they were a same-sex married couple in the 1980s, it took real bravery. In the 1980s, Paris was a celebrated bodybuilder, a magazine cover boy with the title of Mr. Universe, but it was also an era when gay men were dying at an alarming rate, hundreds a week, taken by the new plague. At the time, 70% of Americans believed that homosexuality was a sin. Yet, Paris could find the strength to tell all to God, and by God, I mean Oprah, on national television. Bob and Rod were the first modern gay male couple, more famous together than separate. The husbands become symbols of hope in the fight for Marriage Equality, but it was career suicide for Paris.
“You fall in love. When Rod and I met, we found a spiritual bond between each other. If you bastardize it and you stick it in your back pocket where no one can see it, then pretty soon you chip away pieces of that bit by bit, until you have absolutely nothing left. For me, the repercussions of coming out were tremendous. I lost about 80 percent of my business. Literally had doors closed in my face. There were a number of times where my life was threatened. Some death threats came by phone, by mail.”
Paris was also suddenly no longer winning the bodybuilding competitions, even though he was in the best condition of his career. He was booed and called names from the crowds. He finally had enough and retired from bodybuilding in 1991. After leaving the sport, he was blacklisted by the body building powers, whatever that might mean.
But now, Flex Magazine ranks Paris as the Number One Aesthetic Athlete in the history of bodybuilding. Famous for his artistic approach toward the sport, Paris also was dedicated to advocating for the rights of athletes and he was spoke out forcefully against steroid use in his support for drug testing in the professional world of bodybuilding.
But, by 1994, Paris and Jackson were living in separate parts of their house. The Bob And Rod Show ended in divorce in 1995. Rumors swirled, and Paris sent out a press release:
“While our marriage was lived in the public eye for many years, its demise is not a subject either of us can expand upon in the media.”
They both remain mostly silent about the breakup. Together, they had written a book about their relationship and its struggles, Straight From The Heart: A Love Story (1989). They were also the subjects of two awesome volumes of photographs, Duo by the great Herb Ritts, and the slightly dirty, but still artful, Bob And Rod by Tom Bianchi.
Paris writes that he kept working on the relationship because felt that he would be contributing to a negative image of gay people if they were to break up.
Paris has written seven books including Prime: The Complete Guide To Being Fit, Looking Good, Feeling Great (2002), I own a copy which I perused while eating donuts this morning. It’s a big book, so I did do some lifting.
In the late aughts he had a recurring role on the ABC series Defying Gravity. But mostly, Paris spends his time on that island near Vancouver, BC with his husband, Brian Le Ferguey and their standard poodle. The pair has been together for 20 years and legally married in 2003 after Canada enacted Marriage Equality.
I have become rather comfortable in my old age lumpiness, Paris still looks like a champion, of course.