Thursday, June 21, 2007

John Travolta curiously asked about gay "rumors"

Some journalists just sort of bury uncomfortable history when interviewing celebrities -- and won't even go near the "gay" question with the tape running. Of course, that might not be of their own choosing, necessarily.

In an interview in W, John Travolta, promoting his new film Hairspray (which some activists have actually asked people to boycott), says he's not bothered by gay "rumors," as the interviewer puts it, even though there's no discussion of what those rumors are or were. And we're told the tape was turned off, so it's just a little murmur of a question, since, I suppose, "rumors" aren't dignified enough for the tape.

But they weren't "rumors," if that means some shadowy whisper campaign in the back alleys of Hollywood. They were actual reports, including one with an on the record source, Paul Barressi, a former personal trainer and porn actor, back in 1990, who said he and Travolta had an ongoing sexual relationship. Barressi's accounts were reported in a supermarket tabloid and then picked up in mainstream media outlets, which also reported Travolta's denial.

A year later, in 1991, Time magazine published a lengthy cover story on Scientology, headlined "The Cult of Greed and Power." (Scientology filed a libel suit against Time, seeking 416 million dollars for what they saw as numerous examples of libel; the decade-long case was eventually dismissed and Time's story upheld).

The Time story stated that "high-level defectors claim that Travolta has long feared that if he defected, details of his sexual life would be made public." William Franks, the Church of Scientology's former chairman of the board, told Time that Travolta "felt pretty intimidated about this getting out and told me so," adding that "there were no outright threats made, but it was implicit." Time also noted that "the church's former head of security, Richard Aznaran, recalls a Scientology [leader] repeatedly joking to staffers about Travolta's allegedly promiscuous homosexual behavior." (All of this is reported on in my first book, Queer in America, where I also have a lengthy interview with Barressi and with gay men who came out of Scientology.)

Why don't reporters just ask Travolta about these and other actual incidents, and with the tape on? Probably because his handlers don't allow it according to the ground rules of the interview, as is the case with a lot of other celebrities (read: Jodie Foster), and Travolta has both Hollywood handlers and church officials to do that kind media control. The W interviewer was probably lucky just to get the "rumors" question in after the tape was shut -- he'll likely not be on the interview list again.