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Culture

Sally Jessy Raphael, Accidental Gay Icon

We spoke to the talk show legend about paternity tests, gay fans and her iconic red glasses.

by Mitchell Sunderland
19 May 2014, 5:00am

(Photos by Matthew Leifheit)

Children of the 90s didn't have to look far if they wanted to learn about Siamese twins, incest and out-of-control teens. The Clinton years saw an incredible array of TV talk show hosts of varying degrees of respectability – Jerry Springer, Oprah Winfrey, Ricki Lake, Jenny Jones, Maury Povich – and if your parents didn’t monitor what you watched too closely, you could spend a lot of time learning facts of life that would never be taught in your sexual health class.

Like many future gay men, my favourite talk show host of the bunch was Sally Jessy Raphael. From 1983 to 2002, the motherly redhead hosted Sally, a popular daytime talk show that discussed gay-to-straight conversion therapy, Jews for Jesus, the Church of Satan, paternity tests and a variety of other topics that seemed geared toward 13-year-olds eager to learn about the wider world.

I would rush home after school to catch Raphael, whose particular talent was that she never seemed to patronise or judge any of her guests. When she read paternity tests, you could tell she never judged the mamas or the potential papas. Whether she was discussing child support battles or a man who was putting his dick up butts for money, she never came off as patronising. She resembled John Waters urging Divine to eat dog shit, if Waters was a grandma with red hair. This has made Raphael an icon to gay men of all ages – though she hasn’t courted her homosexual fan base directly, a lot of us feel incredibly close to her.

“You were an integral part of my childhood, and also sort of taught my entire family that my being gay was perfectly normal. I owe you a debt of gratitude,” one gay fan tweeted at her last year.

So when Patrick Hartz, who has been Raphael’s manager and producer for nearly four years, invited me to her house last month to talk to her about her life and career, I could barely contain myself. Hartz understood my excitement because he’s another one of Raphael’s gay fanboys. When he was studying at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania in 2000 he scored an internship on her show, which was basically a dream come true.

“I always wanted to work in talk and I was so adamant about working on her show because I was addicted to it and I grew up with it – I loved her,” he said. 

Despite Raphael’s cult-like fan base, she has rarely appeared on television since Sally ended. This year Hartz and his production company Spinboi Films – which he owns with his partner Jason Fine – are trying to resurrect the 79-year-old’s career with Sally Jessy Rides, a new webseries from the gay network Logo where Sally travels on various modes of transportation as she interviews gay icons.

On the first episode, Perez Hilton taught Raphael how to use a stripper pole on a party bus. “Imagine there’s some sexy music playing,” Hilton said before he ripped off his jacket and then started humping the pole and rubbing his butt on Raphael’s lap. Afterwards, Raphael asked Hilton in-depth questions about how he became a blogger.

“We loved talking with Sally so much!!!” Perez Hilton wrote about the encounter later. “We got some exercise in on the stripper pole and we even got to show off pictures of our totes adorable son, Perez Jr.!!!”

The show’s concept didn’t work on every episode. When Raphael tried to interview GBF star Paul Iacono on a mechanical bull, she struggled to climb onto it and eventually settled on interviewing him at a table. 

When we met at her apartment she was dressed like a society matron – black dress shirt, silver necklace and (of course) her iconic red glasses – but had the blunt speaking style of a construction worker or old-timey newspaperman.

It was a little incongruous, then, when I discovered that Raphael’s home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side looks gayer than a RuPaul’s Drag Race reunion hosted on Fire Island on the Fourth of July. Raphael decorates her house with figurines and gaudy painted portraits of her family, and mirrors cover her downstairs bathroom from floor to ceiling. Raphael attributes the mirrors to the former owner, Jerry Herman, the composer of Hello Dolly! and La Cage Aux Folles, but takes credit for the figurines and books on the second floor, where she keeps several first-edition Mark Twains and children’s novels from the 30s and 40s that have titles like The Perfect Daddy. The books, Raphael told me, “represented a world that did not exist ever – dad went to work, mum wore an apron and the kids were perfect”.

She grew up in a working-class family in Pennsylvania, but Raphael has always been connected to show business – her mother performed as a dancer and her father worked for the Orpheum Circuit, a chain of vaudeville theatres. Raphael scored her first show business job at age six when she starred on the NBC radio show Quiz Kids.

Perhaps because of those roots, Raphael never saw show business as anything but a job like any other. “It’s a working-class thing,” she said. “Do whatever they’re buying – not very glamorous, but that’s the way it is.”

She began her career as a journalist when working for a wire service or newspaper was still a working-class profession. She attended the Columbia School of Journalism, received a graduate degree in journalism from the University of Puerto Rico and covered Central and South America for the Associated Press and Reuters.

During the 60s and 70s, Raphael bounced around from journalism job to journalism job, taking whatever she could get. After she broke up with her first husband, Andrew Vladimir, she moved from Puerto Rico to Miami with her new partner, Karl Soderlund, her two daughters and a foster son. From 1969 to 1974, she hosted a morning television show in Miami, and when that gig ended she moved to New York, where she hosted a radio advice show.

Talk show legend Phil Donahue heard Raphael and then helped her land her own talk show. According to Hartz, they filmed a test version of Sally – originally titled The Sally Jessy Raphael Show – in Saint Louis, and the show was an instant hit. For the next several years, Raphael travelled between New York and Saint Louis until the show moved to New Haven, Connecticut, and then to New York, where she taped the programme for its last 12 years. 

Raphael envisioned the show as a continuation of her work as a journalist. For 15 years, Raphael spoke to experts about topics rarely covered by mainstream media in the 80s and 90s, such as breast cancer and troubled children. “People got a feeling of community and learned something,” Raphael said. “That was 15 years of broadcasting, and that’s not bad.”

Things changed in the late 1990s, when, Raphael said, her producers decided to chase the ratings of trashier talk shows like The Jerry Springer Show and Maury, forcing Raphael to host episodes where she sent kids to boot camp and revealed the results of paternity tests on air. Raphael hated these episodes, although her gay fans love them to this day.

“Wasn’t there anything about the paternity tests or boot camps that you did like?” I asked her. “You were very good at them.”

“Yes. Thank you. That’s nice of you, hipster,” she said, mocking in the manner of a mum telling a 16-year-old boy to cover his boxer shorts and pull up his trousers. Raphael hated what she sees as the show’s descent into sleaze, because she despises it when people capitalise on the problems of others. 

But though talk shows during that era trafficked in trashiness, they also gave a voice to the lower classes who were rarely seen on TV. “On talk shows, whatever their drawbacks, the proles get to talk,” cultural critic Ellen Willis wrote in The Nation in 1996. “The rest of the time they're told in a thousand ways to shut up. By any honest reckoning, we need more noise, not less.”

In retrospect, Raphael thinks she could have averted the show’s so-called decline if she pulled an Oprah – by hiring lawyers and insisting she own the show and take on a producing role – when the show’s ratings were rising. But, Raphael told me, her working-class attitude prevented her from staging this ballsy move.

“I have worked my whole life getting a paycheck on Friday,” Raphael said. “I was perfectly happy with having a salary and doing that, because I thought that people would be responsible – it turned out that people at NBC Universal were not responsible.”

In 2003 they cancelled the show because of low ratings. Although Raphael’s procession of teen sluts and other misfits was in many ways the predecessor of today’s reality TV shows, Raphael believes that those programmes are what’s wrong with television today.

“If you’re talking about people, people don’t change – I can give you a Justin Bieber through the ages. Television changed,” she said. “Television thinks it’s going to lose its money, and it deserves to – most of it. They go to these cheap forms of entertainment called reality shows, which have as much reality as me going for the heavyweight champion of the world.” 

Raphael has spent much of her time post-Sally with her two adult children and her two teenage grandkids. She’s also been busy with Camp Sally, a summer camp for troubled children that she runs out of her home in Upstate New York. Originally, she only let underprivileged children attend the camp, but now she mostly takes in spoiled rich kids, who she finds are often more fucked up than their impoverished peers.

“The reason for that is over-privileged children, many times, have a sense of entitlement and they become brats,” Raphael said. “I’m a very strict disciplinarian so I frighten them the first day. You would say, 'They will never come back.' Why wouldn’t they come back? They’ve got somebody like me telling them what to do – they love it. Children love discipline!”

Raphael thinks that television needs discipline and guidance as well. She wishes the US government would copy France, where Raphael lives part-time, and the UK by funding journalism and entertainment rather than letting the market decide which shows succeed and which fail. Raphael wishes it were different, and told me she loves that France has a channel for classical music.

“Can you see trying to sell that in America? Doing a music video for Beethoven’s Fifth?” she asked me. “Well it’s there [in France], and it’s on, and I’m pretty sure the cultural administration pays for that kind of thing.” 

Despite her grievances with American TV, Raphael hasn’t given up on the medium. In fact, she has spent the last decade labouring towards a comeback. “I started working when I was about six. I think that becomes a habit that you always go to work every day,” she said. “It’s wonderful not to work, but you kind of miss it. You miss the adventure of making people laugh or talking to people or helping.”

She’s developed at least two other shows besides Sally Jessy Rides. Raphael’s favourite failed pilot, 2011’s I’m Still Sally, parodied the reality shows Raphael hates. Raphael was surprised nobody picked up the show, but from the few clips on YouTube it’s pretty clear why networks passed. In “Sally Spoofs ‘The Jersey Shore’”, she appears as Sally J, a Snookie clone who wears sunglasses and a tight black dress, and says, “I want to get my drink on, so I say to my boo Karl, whom I call K Wow, ‘It’s time for us to get smashed and suck face all night!'” The show has some camp value – it’s sort of funny to watch Raphael try to act – but the jokes fall flat.

Raphael, though, blames the pilot’s failure on ageism. “America has an age problem,” she said. “Gay people don’t, but America does.”

Raphael got her current show thanks to her gay fanbase. She regularly watches and livetweets RuPaul’s Drag Race, which brought her to Logo’s attention. “Spinboi Films saw an opportunity there and pitched the Sally Jessy Rides concept to them,” Hartz said. “They commissioned five webisodes and are determining whether or not to order more.”

For the first time in her career, Raphael is consciously courting her gay fans, though it may feel odd to her to go after a demographic like that. The way the entertainment industry treats gays as a discrete segment of the market goes against what Raphael has thought about gays since she met her parents’ homosexual friends.

“I just [see] people,” she said. “I never thought about it, and still don’t unless somebody comes and says, ‘Look, I’m gay!’” That attitude is part of the reason gay men love her so much, but she told me her status as a hero to homosexuals may come from a deeper identification.

I was expecting to be a decent reporter and to do a good show, and to earn money and not to be famous, but to be a working journalist. Whether it was radio, print, television, I just wanted to be a journalist,” Raphael told me. “But maybe [gays related to] me being a minority when I did my shows – I was the only woman on the air, on radio, on station after station. That’s rejection. That’s having a hard time – gays have always had a hard time.”

@mitchsunderland / @matte_mag