Three years before former 'N Sync member Lance Bass publicly came out as gay in 2006, Bravo aired a short-lived dating show called Boy Meets Boy with the aim of finding one gay bachelor a potential match. The show's actual premise, though, was a setup, because as it turned out, not all of the suitors were gay. (The show never made it past a season.) Thirteen years later, Bass is set to host the first authentic gay dating show, Logo's Finding Prince Charming, which premieres September 8. He'll play the Chris Harrison to a group of 13 men vying for the heart of the show's Prince Charming, Robert Sepúlveda Jr., whose past has recently added an unwanted level of drama that most other reality shows would happily script themselves. Ahead of that truth bomb, Bass dropped by the New York office on little sleep the afternoon after the VMAs ("Ariana Grande knows how to throw a party," he quipped) for a lengthy conversation about sexual representation on TV, the election, the death of Lou Pearlman, and how his life has changed after a decade of living out of the closet.
What made you want to be a part of such a historic moment for reality TV?
Brian Graden, who produces the show, called me up one night and said, “Look, I have the show for you.” He told me about it and I immediately said yes. I’m obsessed with television and some of my favorite shows are The Bachelor, Big Brother, A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila. It’s fascinating to see the social experiment of shows like this.
Do you know how they chose Robert for Prince Charming?
They said a friend of a friend suggested him, I think. Casting a first season is always hard because no one knows what the show is. I imagine people would think things are fake and it’s probably really scary if someone says, “Hey, there’s this show that’ll make you move into a house and date random guys.”
The Bachelor is rightfully criticized for not casting people of color, while FPC has a Latino star and a few black suitors. Do you think that casting was intentional?
I do. I think Logo had a lot to live up to with this first season, and they didn’t want to exclude anyone. Now, you have to remember: All these guys were selected for Robert. So it’s his taste. Every season, the guys will change slightly, depending on the different Prince Charming. But I love the diversity that they chose; that’s something I was hoping would be there before I even signed on. I’m very happy they have all flavors of rainbow in this house [laughs].
If the show gets renewed, could it be open to gay women and other queer identities outside of gay men?
I hope so. I doubt they would let me host that one — they’d probably get some wonderful lesbian — but I hope this spins off. I would love to see a lesbian version of this or a bisexual one like they did with Tila Tequila. There’s so many types of LGBT members and I would love to see all of them find love. Of course, it all comes down to ratings.
What kind of host did you envision yourself?
Going into it, I wanted to be a different host than what I actually ended up doing. I’m more of a Cat Deeley, I’m very much this bubbly and happy guy. But the tone of the show gets pretty serious, so there were a lot of times where the director would be like, “You have to do that again, but stop smiling.” I had to bring myself down and make it more serious because there are a lot of elements in the show that do get real. And I guess they wanted the host to have a more adult sound to him.
There’s a lot of stigmas in our community. Just being able to have an open dialogue with all these guys in a house is great to see because so many things we talk about among ourselves, we don’t really talk about in public — things like femme versus masculine, tops and bottoms, and the stigma of HIV/AIDS.
So the show is candid about people’s statuses?
It is, which is great. I’m from a small town in Mississippi where I thought I was the only gay. And I think the majority of gay men grew up hating themselves because everyone was confused. What’s wrong with me? Why does everyone hate me? We’re very warped in our brain about what dating really is because we all started so late. If I were a little kid again and was able to see something like this on TV, I would’ve felt a lot better about myself. I would’ve loved myself a lot earlier.
In the pilot there's contention within even this microcosm of the gay male community over what it means to be gay. Almost immediately, the suitors are self-stereotyping and clashing with each other.
That self-hatred carries on into adulthood. You see this in the house where the ones that would be offended by a more femme guy, it’s like, “Why are you so offended?” It’s because their whole lives, they were picked on for being gay and just automatically [emasculated]. There’s all these deep-rooted issues that come out in a lot of these guys.
Sexuality aside, how exactly does FPC differ from The Bachelor?
For one, you never know if one or more of the suitors might fall in love with each other in the house. That’s very valid and something we wouldn’t interfere with. I know Robert thinks the same way: If someone fell in love with another suitor, that’s great that this show brought them together. Also, no one’s getting engaged on this show. We have a little bit more realistic expectations. It’s not really a game of who can get down on one knee, it’s just trying to find the perfect match for you and start that exclusive relationship and build into that marriage. Proposing in the end has got to be weird, and then it just becomes fake. Especially in four weeks, that’s a little ridiculous. Though just the fact that they can get married is amazing. Also, our eliminations are definitely unique to the show. It’s kind of sexy.
Before you were out, how did you date?
I didn’t really date. I was very lucky to be so busy with 'N Sync that I always had an excuse not to have to date. I was in the closet, didn’t like myself, and I went to bed every single night praying that I would wake up liking women. I had dated girls and I had girlfriends, but I was so busy that I never had to really date girls.
You could just present it as truth without evidence.
Exactly. Once I was 21 or 22 and I came out to my friends, I was able to date. And it was still hard because, publicly, I never admitted it and I was always afraid that my career and the 'N Sync guys would hate me if anyone found out. I kept that very private, even from the guys. But I had several boyfriends — some amazing relationships, some terrible — so I’ve been through it all.
If you were single, would you consider going on a show like this?
Probably, yeah. But I'd have to be Prince Charming for sure [smirks]. It’d be so weird to know that I’m fighting for this guy and they’re going on all these romantic dates. I would be way too jealous for that. But to have 13 guys fighting over me, yeah, that’d be nice.
You also attended the Democratic National Convention. Are you #WithHer?
I am. I started out a Bernie supporter, but I’m an independent. I don’t like parties. They dig their heels in and that’s just terrible to me. I’ve voted for Republicans and Democrats, but this year, I see this political revolution that’s started and I love it. I think it started with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump — that’s the one good thing about what he’s done this campaign. People see that we can change things, and it needs to be more transparent. It’s a little too late for this revolution to get the right people in office, but I think the only person who’s going to continue this revolution is Clinton in office. A lot of the things that I’d like to see change — money out of politics — that’ll never happen with this Republican nominee in office.
After the Orlando tragedy, you attended a fundraiser for the victims. How did that hate crime affect you, as a gay man, personally?
The tragedy itself was awful and horrible, but it’s a bigger picture, too. It represents so much that the community’s gone through in history. When that happened, every LGBTQ member felt it. It happened to you. I also went to Orlando, I went to Pulse, and it was just overwhelming. You can’t describe the feeling when you step out onto that sidewalk. And hearing the victims’ stories was heart-wrenching, but there’s also a lot of hope: We’re in it together, and you don’t feel alone when something like this happens. You realize how many people do love you for being who you are.
Do young gay people often confide in you?
A lot of young gay people do look up to me, and a lot of them have come out because of my story. I hear that daily. My favorite is when they come out at 8 or 9 years old because of me. Imagine being my true self at such a young age! How different would I be today if I could’ve just been like, “Yeah, that’s me.”
I wonder how life changing it could’ve been for so many millennials to have grown up idolizing an openly gay boy bander. For that to be normalized.
I so wish I could’ve done that. But on the other hand, what would have happened if I came out? [Pauses.] Maybe we would’ve been the most hated band in the world and it would’ve destroyed us. Who knows. It was just a different time.
Do you think both getting older and moving away from the boy-band image has afforded you more political agency?
It’s true. I love that I have the time do this now. With 'N Sync, we spoke out a lot about what we truly believe in. We were lucky to have a lot of eyeballs on us and you need to make sure that the things you say are true, and you understand that you can influence a lot of people.
I imagine the group's ex-manager Lou Pearlman’s death was bittersweet for all of you.
It’s hard to know how to feel. Because of Lou, I met my four brothers. He was a big part of backing us at the beginning, so I’ll always be grateful for that. He was a terrible businessman and obviously very shady to us and had no love for us, but I forgave him a long time ago. I could never have it in my heart to just hate someone. When he passed, I had peace. It was an end of a chapter for sure, but I would never speak ill of the dead. The worst way to go is dying in prison, so if you believe in karma, then you believe he got his. The last time I saw him, he was in court trying to say that he was 'N Sync. And the judge was like, “Oh, so it’s you and not the five guys that my daughter has her wall? Huh.” He was quite the character, reminds me of someone else who’s staring at me right now [glances at New York’s Donald Trump cover on the wall].
There are more queer characters on TV now than ever, but not a lot of queer people. Are you expecting pushback?
Anything dealing with “gay,” half the people are gonna hate it. It’s just vile what people can say. But I hope what people can take away from this is you finally know a gay person. All I can ask is that people have an open mind and get over those fears — gay people, too. Get over those stigmas of femme guys gross me out. Gay people are a fickle, fickle audience, but what’s fun about this show is half the gays are going to love to watch it because it’s just a good, dramatic reality show. And the others are going to watch it just because they wanna hate-watch it. Either way, everyone’s gonna watch!
The show is open about sexuality, will it also openly show as much sex as Logo permits?
Visibility is what we’re trying to do. People still, even in our community, get weirded out about holding hands in public. I do the same thing. I still have this weird wall sometimes when I grab my husband’s hand, like who’s watching? It’s something you’ve grown up with. We’re just now getting over that so we need to see it more and more on television. The first time you saw two guys kiss on TV, people went crazy and the world is ending. When you see it the fifth and sixth time, you’re like, “Eh, okay.” It becomes normal to you and we want to try to normalize dating in the gay world to everyone. Even today, when a lot of people see an interracial couple, they still stare. We have a long way to go, but at least we’re taking this baby step into beginning to get over that weirdness of seeing two guys together.
FPC follows RuPaul’s Drag Race. What do you think of the twist?
I love it! They needed something different. I love when shows keep evolving because it can get stale after a while. The Bachelor to me was getting so stale. Big Brother does a great job of mixing it up. It’s gonna be a fun two hours. It’s officially Thursgays now — just a back-to-back punch of amazing gayness.
July was the tenth anniversary of your coming out. What has a decade of being an openly gay man taught you?
Everything’s changed. Once you’re able to be your true self, everything from your family, friends, to your environment changes. When you come out, everyone else comes out. You can kind of compare it to a death in the family because everything really does just turn on a dime, especially a place where I’m from. People were going up to my mom and saying “I’m so sorry.” Like I had died. But you no longer have to worry about telling lies and creating this life that’s just not yours. Being able to let that all off my shoulders is so relaxing. I’m just a way happier person. Being gay is very special because it makes you look at the whole world a different way, especially minorities. I’m so glad that I wasn’t the typical Southern white guy who had privilege and would never know other people’s struggles because I’m so blind to it. Thank God that I had something that was not the norm. Now I just wanna help and educate people, and I don’t think I’d be in that place if I wasn’t an out gay man.
This interview has been edited and condensed.