When I think about celebrities who dedicate their energies to issues of social justice, I think of the wonderful Richard Skipper. I was immediately drawn to Richard’s kindness, but I have to admit it was also because of his amazing performance as Carol Channing, whom I’ve always loved. Carol had me completely as Muzzy in Thoroughly Modern Millie! When Richard and I became friends on Facebook two years ago, the first thing he did was to send me a message asking for my address, so that he could send me a Christmas card. As I have grown to know Richard and watch how his blog continues to evolve, I knew he was perfect for TSM—he is a compassionate soul who works for the greater good of humanity.
Richard was gracious enough to do this interview with me and talk candidly about his life, marriage, career, and social justice. He is originally from a small town just outside of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Richard is the eldest of four children. He left the South and moved to New York at 18 to start his career in show business.
What was your family like?
I never really felt I got the support from my family. I knew when I was very young I wanted to be an entertainer. I grew up in an era of variety shows; that was the world I wanted to be a part of. I started acting when I was 13 years old. It was at that time I told my family that in five years I would move to New York. Many times my father was verbally abusive to me. When I left to New York in 1979, I feel now in hindsight that just as much as I was running towards a goal, I was moving away from the past. I also feel that if I had come from a nurturing home I don’t think I would have stayed in New York. Not having anything to go back to I had to survive in New York.
Did you grow up religious?
My grandparents on my father’s side I was very close to and really bonded with. My younger sister was very sick when she was three years old with liver and kidney disease and living in a hospice, so I stayed with my grandparents and I got very, very close to them. They called my sister the miracle baby. No one thought she would live. My grandparents were very religious. I grew up Methodist. Ironically, now we live across the street from a church. I was very active in our church growing up. Currently, I consider myself a very spiritual person. However I have many issues with organized religion. I do respect people’s belief systems, but I also have a problem when people do not think for themselves. I respect people’s religious beliefs but I believe people are taught to hate. (Richard was quick to talk about his very passionate feelings about how he believes people are taught to hate and talked about different types of oppression based on color, gender identity, and sexual orientation)
Age you knew you were gay?
As a teen, I never dated, ever. I never had girlfriends or boyfriends. I was 21 years old when I realized I was gay. When I was a teenager I was called “sissy” and all the other names associated with being gay. I was an innocent child and now I think back about that time in my life and my heart goes out to all those kids that get bullied. I was constantly told, “Be a man and fight back.” Fighting is not a part of who I am.
When I finally did come out, it was not a painful experience for me, but seemed to me at the time as the progression of who I am. I became my authentic self and as that progressed I became more comfortable in my own skin. I reflect and think, “What took me so long?”
Can you talk about Marriage Equality in New York?
My partner and I have been together for 21 years. It is only now that we finally were able to get married. Interestingly enough, most of our friends are heterosexual couples. To look at ourselves, most people would probably think we are just kind of mundane; we are not mundane because we have a great social life. My husband, Dan, is a landscape architect (another sneaky way of undermining heterosexual marriages through making the world beautiful). We entered the lottery. (Because of the large numbers of couples they were expecting to turn out the first day marriage equality was legal, a lottery was set up.) When I got the call saying that we could get married, I told Dan, “why don’t we just elope,” which is what we did. We were one of the first 100 people to get married. We are planning a party in the near future to exchange our vows again with our friends present.
It feels like a dream, I love seeing the marriage license. We have that validation. I was talking with a friend of mine who happens to be a lesbian and just married her long-term partner when it became legal in Massachusetts that said you will feel different when you finally are able to get married. And I will be damned but she was right—it is validating. I live a very full life and I don’t worry about other people’s lives, so it seems odd that people would worry about my marriage. I recently wrote a blog celebrating straight marriage and I chose five people that I felt would be the perfect role models. They were: Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Judy Garland, and Liza Manelli. Between them there were 35 marriages and yet two people in a committed relationship are being denied that right.
Why do you use your celebrity for social justice?
I have to—it is an obligation. In the world we live in now, people feel comfortable to speak out. I know careers can be broken for speaking out. I have never said to another person I hate you and I have never written about people’s private lives—that to me is sacred. I feel that all of us in this age of bloggers have to be careful. I am always careful not to offend.
Having read Richard’s blog, I have to say he is exceedingly respectful and seems determined to want to find the best in all humans and then showcase how talented people are. Click here to see Richard’s blog.
What inspired you to start the blog?
Because of issues I’m dealing with professionally, I wanted to cast a wider net. When I first started writing, I would write every five days. Then back in December or January I stopped writing because I was afraid I would write about the circumstances I was going through professionally at that time. In late February I was asked once again to be the Associate Producer for the BISTRO awards. As we got closer to the actual awards ceremony in late April, I decided to focus; I decided to focus on three people each day that were receiving awards. Then I started writing every day. I also wanted people to be recognized for the work they are doing.
Richard has been performing professionally as Carol Channing since 1994. Richard told me that the first time he performed for her, that if she did not like what he was doing that he would never do this again. Fortunately she loved the show and the rest is history.
What do you want as your legacy?
That I care for people. There should be a statute of limitations for how long you can hold on to any anger caused by past situations. I do a lot of benefits to raise money for the arts and I give my money to support Carol Channing’s Foundation to support the arts. I worry that we are so quick to condemn people. I think everyone has something to offer! If you are interested in learning more about the Foundation, please go to Channingarts.org
Thank you, Richard for all of the great work you do and for this interview. Richard is truly a person who sees the interconnectedness of oppression. How lucky we are to have his talent, his voice, and his dedication to making the world a better place.