A Boy Named Phyllis is a wonderfully hilarious, touching, and original coming-out memoir about the pains of growing up very gay in an Italian-American household in suburban New Jersey. Witty, raucous, peppered with one-liners, wacky situations, and wackier characters, the book is a minefield of belly laughs. Whether he is discussing true love in coordinate geometry class, true lust for David Cassidy, the truly trying pains of sissy-torture, the truly tasteless glory of '70s pop-culture, or the true idiosyncrasies of his family, Frank DeCaro has created a frothy memoir readers aren't likely to forget.
Frank DeCaro's work has also appeared in a number of magazines including Vogue, Newsweek, Out, Elle, Spy, and Esquire. He is also a contributing editor to Martha Stewart Living. His award-winning weekly column, "Frank's Place," appeared in New York Newsday and made him one of the first openly gay writers to have a regular column in a mainstream daily newspaper.
Recently I had a chance to talk and giggle over coffee with the man "who put the boy in flamboyant" and found him every bit as charming and entertaining in person as he was on the page.
[Since this interview, DeCaro has published a lavishly illustrated biography, Unmistakably Mackie: The Fashion and Fantasy of Bob Mackie (2000). He spent seven years as a regular on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He currently hosts his own live national talk show every weekday on Sirius Satellite Radio.]
Keehnen: What did you want to accomplish with A Boy Named Phyllis?
DeCaro: Two things. On a very selfish level, I wanted to make peace with my past and be able to go back to New Jersey and not think of it as the vortex sucking me back in. And on a more altruistic level, to let kids who are gay or who aren't but who feel like misfits know that people went before them and had a lot of problems, and that we had happy endings.
Keehnen: Does seeing your story in print give your past some sort of closure?
DeCaro: Yeah, it does. To me the book is my two-year-old baby because that's how long I was working on it. It's gone out in the world now and come back with a glowing report card so I'm very happy. What really brought a sense of closure was the reading in my hometown. I expected things like rocks through windows and signs of "Stay Out, Homo," and instead it turned into a community event. In my mother's words, "Your book is a sensation!"
Keehnen: Though the circumstances of your youth are often painful, they're made positive by humor. Is laughter the miracle survival tactic?
DeCaro: For me it was. I don't know how people get through life without laughter and making sport of it all. For me it's not only the way I dealt with my past but also the way I deal with my present. It's a rough time to be a gay guy. Laughing and poking fun at ourselves is a great way of being comfortable with ourselves. I also think it's a great way to build bridges to the mainstream community. If you're funny and charming, people will open their arms to you and not be quite so scared. I see that as my challenge. I've always worked in the mainstream, and if you take people by the hand, show them a good time, and make them laugh along the way, a lot of them will come with you. I think that's how you open people up.
Keehnen: Do you think being gay and growing up with the perspective of an outsider is at the core of your sense of humor?
DeCaro: I think so. There's a lot of pain in my humor. I believe in that old chestnut that comedy is tragedy plus timing. It was horrible going through those years and knowing every day, except snow days, I was going to be called a faggot. I grew up with this sense that I had to carry my books the right way, hang around with the right people, sit and walk the right way, my clothes had to be right. Now I just sort of move through the world as me. Now I can get up and wear leopard print if I feel like it or a white oxford shirt and khaki pants. Part of this has to do with living in New York City. You can't shock anybody there. You can try, but you just can't. The one question people never ask in New York is "Where would I wear it?" Whether it's a backless white gown or a harness, there's always somewhere to wear it.
Keehnen: Do you think being an only child enhanced your apparent observer perspective?
DeCaro: I think so. As an only child I was never asked to leave the room, so I was always the little kid getting to watch the adults do whatever they were doing. You do get that voyeuristic perspective and also a sense of being a commentator sitting by the wayside and watching.
Keehnen: Rather than changing some things and writing a novel, you boldly chose a memoir format with the brassy comment, "I didn't want to do a thinly veiled anything. I thought I might as well go forth naked to the world." Do you still feel the same after the fact?
DeCaro: Yeah. When I read a roman à clef, I always spend too much time trying to figure out who everyone is, and most people don't know anyone in this book so it didn't seem appropriate to fictionalize anything. What was odd was that in the original manuscript I didn't change any of the names. When they "lawyered" the book, they said you have to protect the guilty and not the innocent. You could use the real names of the kids who were tormented, but not their tormentors.
Keehnen: Have any of your tormentors come forward and apologized since reading the book?
DeCaro: The kid upon whom "Chooch" is based called me and apologized and explained what his situation was in those days. He had enough material to write a tormented childhood book himself. He said he was shaking when he read those parts and was sorry that he'd made my life a living hell.
Keehnen: Going back to being "naked to the world," thanks for the Honcho and Mandate mentions as part of your gay experience.
DeCaro: Oh, my God! It's true! You write for those, don't you! Those magazines are still in the top drawer of my bureau at home.
Keehnen: The same ones? Oh baby, you need a porn makeover!
DeCaro: That's definitely true. It's funny though--the best thing about writing the book was having people say, "How do you remember these things?" There is no trick involved. I just go back to the house. Everything is the way it was. It's like walking into a time capsule.
Keehnen: What has been the reaction from relatives? Have Frank Sr. and Marian taken it in stride?
DeCaro: The story I'm telling is true. I gave my parents the manuscript right before Thanksgiving, and two weeks later they were both in the hospital hooked up to heart monitors. I don't think it was because of the book . . . though they did have problems with page 177.
Keehnen: The sex page!
DeCaro: They knew I was out. My father said, "What am I supposed to tell people, that my son is a cocksucker?" And I said, "Dad, if you tell anyone, just tell them I'm good at it," and he shut up. But now they are both basking in the celebrity of it.
Keehnen: Do you have any theory about where you got your skill for developing such unforgettable characters with just a few pithy comments?
DeCaro: I don't think I created them; I just got them down on paper. When I was in New Jersey, I said to the audience, "You all make some great fodder for books." They were very colorful people. I was impressed with them, so it was easy. God, if I could make up dialogue as juicy as some of the things my grandmother spit out, I'd be making a lot more money.
Keehnen: What is unique about coming of age in an Italian working class household?
DeCaro: I think the grand opera of it. There's a tremendous history of how much we can possibly overreact to information that we already know. It was like being Elton John born into an Italian-American Archie and Edith Bunker household. They know how to say things in a huge well-rehearsed manner. For a heterosexual man, my father is a big drama queen in a lot of ways.
Keehnen: You so lovingly embrace the stereotypes of gay likes and behavior and icons--from an aversion to sports to a love of fashion and disco and Bette Midler and Broadway musicals . . . .
DeCaro: I think in our haste to get to the point of equality some people are willing to throw away behaviors deemed stereotypical. I find this very upsetting. I encourage people when I'm before a large group to be gayer than they were yesterday. When I hear people say, "I was going to kill myself because the only role models I had were Liberace and Elton John . . . ." I didn't kill myself because of those people. People who are that flamboyant should be encouraged, not squelched. I don't just want a place at the table, I want to pull my chair up to the buffet. It upsets me when people want to prove we're as boring as everyone else--the mission should be to open your eyes to how interesting everyone is.
Keehnen: Pop culture is a big part of the book, with oodles of references from Rhoda's transformation to The Munsters to The Cher Show to disco. How did popular culture shape your world as a budding Nancy-boy?
DeCaro: I was a product of television and I still am. I know The Munsters cold. I can almost do the dialogue along with them. That was a huge influence. Pop culture was a way for me to escape because it seemed so interesting, and there was a lot of fantasy programming during my most formative years--The Munsters, Bewitched, H. R. Pufnstuf--they were all very funny, full of schtick, and surreal. They shaped the way I saw my family. I pretended my parents were The Munsters and my Grandma was Grandpa Munster with a permanent wave. I miss her; Grandma was the NC-17 version of Sophia from The Golden Girls.
Keehnen: In the book you describe the budding joy of making people laugh in the Paul Lynde role in your high school production of Bye Bye Birdie. Does the rush from writing A Boy Named Phyllis feel similar?
DeCaro: In a way it does. I've been fortunate enough to have positive reinforcement since the Bye Bye Birdie episode. This book is huge thrill for me, but not quite as unexpected. Getting into theater was great for me; it was like moving to New York because, thankfully, every freak ended up there. I felt a team feeling there that I'd never felt before.
Keehnen: You're now planning a sequel to A Boy Named Phyllis covering the ages of 17 to 34. What will be the biggest change readers will see in the adult Frank DeCaro?
DeCaro: It's going to be called Love Handles to Die For: The Grown Up Adventures of a Boy Named Phyllis. I find that a lot of it is going to be about the search for family. Also I think much of the book will be about capturing one's sexuality. It's something I've only really been exploring fully in the past couple of years. One of the chapters in the upcoming book will definitely be called "Absence of Phallus." I spent a lot of years not having sex, but not any more. I used to be like Spock: once every seven years I had to mate. One of the by-products of growing up tormented in a sexually repressive household is that you are a homo with no sexual to speak of. I tell people that New York now feels like the '70s with condoms.
Keehnen: You also wrote the "Frank's Place" column every Tuesday in New York Newsday and were one of the first openly gay columnists to write about gay issues in a mainstream daily newspaper. By doing that did you feel pressure to be a role model?
DeCaro: I think I could have, but like a good only child, I usually do things to amuse myself. I really don't write for anyone but me and hope people find it funny. Besides, the column was called "Frank's Place" not "Gay Issues," so it was all about me; and I have very little trouble with self-aggrandizing behavior.
Keehnen: You've written for a number of prestigious periodicals. One of your plum journalistic assignments is your current job as a contributing editor of Martha Stewart Living. Would you care to say a few words about your boss?
DeCaro: People laugh when they hear I work for Martha Stewart Living, and I don't understand why. She's a nice girl from Jersey; I'm a nice girl from Jersey. She's a real icon. I admire her tremendously and really think she's changed our lives for the better by making it okay to pay attention to things that should have been paid attention to all along.
Keehnen: How does it feel to be called the New Wave Erma Bombeck?
DeCaro: I love that. She took incredibly banal things and made them funny and found the truths in suburban living. She was one of the reasons I wanted to be a journalist. I found her delightful. No one before her admitted to being a non-perfect parent or housekeeper.
Keehnen: What do you consider the biggest benefit of writing?
DeCaro: It helps me make sense of things. Confessing (a Catholic word) helps me to clarify. It's how I cope with the world. When you write, you create a persona--a thought-out and more confident version of you. In writing you meet yourself and realize who you really are, and you've just got to hope you like the person.
Keehnen: That's an interesting take on the issue. Thanks, Frank, and congratulations on the book. I'm looking forward to reading the sequel.
DeCaro: Nice talking to you, too, Owen.