In 2004, the high school comedy Mean Girls cemented its status in pop culture, becoming a perennial cinematic indulgence for teenage girls and gay men alike. In a cast of over-the-top, colorful characters, one of the most beloved among the motley crew of North Shore High was the chubby, “almost too gay to function” Damian Leigh, close friend of the film’s main character Cady and the goth girl Janis. Damian was played by 25-year old actor Daniel Franzese. Fast forward to 2018, and Mean Girls the movie lives on as a cult classic among… (altogether now!) teenage girls and gay men alike. The comedy is now enjoying a new incarnation as Mean Girls, The Broadway Musical, which officially opened in New York City on April 8. Now 38 and living in Los Angeles,, Franzese is busier than ever as actor, LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS activist, speaker on the college circuit, and creator of his own one-man comedy show, YASS! You’re Amazing!
At a celebration at New York City’s Tuscany Steakhouse on Tuesday, Franzese spoke about his character Damian’s legacy:
When I did Mean Girls, my character represented chubby gay kids in a way that they were never really seen on screen before: being accepted, being ‘part of the gang’, and able to be themselves without being bullied too harshly; they got the same treatment as anybody else! Maybe they wrote about Damian in the ‘The Burn Book’, but other than that, he was able to co-exist. I had someone write me a letter on the movie’s tenth anniversary. I was closeted until then… and this person wrote, “When I was in eighth grade I was beat up for being chubby, and I was beat up for being a sissy.. but then your movie came out, and the popular senior girls were like, ‘You’re like Damian. Come sit with us!’ You drastically changed my high school career, and I just want to thank you for that.” It brought me to tears, and I realized how important it was to be authentic– and how much representation matters. I don’t know why I always play these characters who are under-represented, but I’ve taken it on as what my legacy should probably be. So, going forward, I’m very choosy in picking things that represent something impactful. It means a lot to me, and that’s what my fans look to. As I’ve been doing this college tour and my comedy show, when I do my Q&A at the end, I specifically look for the ‘creators’ among the students in the audience– and I tell them, “If you see something about yourself that isn’t represented in the art that you’re creating, do it! Because, there are others just like you with eyes that are longing to see themselves.” For the people who aren’t creators, I tell them, “If you see yourself represented, tweet about it or write about it– because that stuff matters. And, thank them for representing you– because, representation makes people feel confident; it makes them feel SEEN. That’s a really important thing in this world.”
In 2014, Franzese took the role of Eddie, an HIV-positive Bear, in the HBO series Looking. Franzese’s Eddie was significant in the history of HIV positive characters on TV. Many TV shows throughout time had episodes with HIV/AIDS themes or an occasional appearance by an HIV- or AIDS-affected character, but this part was different. Franzese tells me, “Back in the day, a lot of them told stories about tolerance and acceptance and understanding, but not about where we are with prevention and treatment.” Whereas many of those aforementioned characters had an aura of tragedy about them, Franzese’s Eddie was more a story about hope. “That’s one thing that made me want to do this,” the actor tells me. “When I was approached about playing the character of Eddie, they told me, ‘We want you to play this character, and he’s going to be HIV-positive, but he will never be sick. It will celebration of how healthy he is. It’s not like he’ll be loved in spite of it; he might be loved because of it.’ Oh my God! That just hit me so hard. I had to do this! I was very excited to play that role.”
Franzese became a GLBTQ icon with his roles in Mean Girls and Looking, but the actor also dedicates his time and energy to more than performing: He is an HIV/AIDS activist, and an official ambassador to the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF). Although he never got the chance to meet Ms. Taylor personally, Franzese is committed to keeping the legendary actress and humanitarian’s mission alive: He tells me:
I had a friend who lived in my building who found out that he was HIV-positive. He didn’t take medication and locked himself in his apartment, never leaving it. Elizabeth’s grandson Quinn Tivey and I are good friends. I knew of Quinn’s involvement with charity. When I saw that my friend was not taking care of himself, I called Quinn and asked if there was anything we could do– like, maybe getting meds delivered to him. Quinn said, ‘I’m in L.A. right now, and I’m headed to go meet the new Managing Director, Joel Goldman. Do you want to come?’ I said, ‘Yes!’ I raced over there, met Joel, and they found my friend the best doctors. They helped him get his medication. He’s now undetectable, healthy, and happy. Right at that time, I had just booked Looking. I wasn’t allowed to tell anybody, but I whispered it to Joel. Joel Goldman helped me get a lot of our messages about HIV and AIDS into Looking. We connected HBO to the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. Then, GLAAD asked me if I would present the media playbook on HIV/AIDS to MSNBC… because I was the first HIV-positive character in scripted TV since Gloria Reuben’s Jeanie Boulet on ER. That was a six year gap on television. The indicator of this was 9/11. People stopped wearing red ribbons when 9/11 happened. There was a weird culture shift in the causes that we were representing. The stories on TV had kind of changed. During that gap, there were huge advances in prevention and treatment… but the narratives weren’t being told, so people weren’t getting those messages. Since we first found out what HIV was, every single year there had been a lowering of new infections. But once it stopped being on TV, infections started rising again. The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, GLAAD, and I joined together to ask Hollywood to re-commit themselves and to start telling more stories. Since then, we’ve seen so many more stories. We’ve definitely had a big hand in that: helping to bring HIV/AIDS back into the forefront. I’ve joined ETAF in AIDS Walk every year, I’ve talked to Congress, and I re-opened relationships from my youth in Florida. I had lived in Florida when I was younger, and they really need a lot of help there now! I have been talking to Debbie Wasserman Schultz and to different Congresspeople in Florida to try and re-invigorate some comprehensive sexual education for minors and that kind of stuff. So, I’ve been greatly involved with the cause since!
Most recently, Daniel Franzese has been in the middle of a 50 college speaking tour as well as performing YASS! You’re Amazing!, his one-man standup comedy show. He tells me, “The show got its name because that’s what everyone says now. We use ‘amazing’ to describe everything. I appreciate my audience, and I actually think my audience is… well, amazing! The fact that I’m able to have a voice, and be able to get up there and be funny, and have people show up– to me that’s actually amazing!” Without giving too much away, what can the audience expect from the show? Franzese responds, “People know a lot about my mom because I did a series called Daniel Franzese’s Italian Mom… so I talk about my mom a lot! I also talk about my fiancée, Joseph Bradley Phillips, which is really cool. I talk about my fears, my hopes, and my life.”
Franzese now boasts an impressive body of accomplishments in the worlds of performing and activism. But does the woofy star ever get tired of being so closely identified with his character from Mean Girls from 2004? He tells me:
Three years in, I grew my beard and wondered, ‘Is anyone ever gonna know me for anything else?’ Then, seven years in, I was like, ‘Well, this is gonna be a part of my life. I have to accept it.’ Now, ten years in, I’m like, ‘Oh s**t, I’m a gay icon! I’ll take it!’ (Laughs) People started coming to me about making appearances and talking about it, and the ten year mark kind of made it a classic in a lot of people’s eyes, instead of just making it an ‘old movie’. I’ve heard from a lot of adult men who were younger at that time– and all kinds of queer people, actually– who hadn’t seen a queer character portrayed that way before. That’s a real testament to Tina Fey’s writing and to Mark Waters’ direction. Damian was a queer character who was cool– and we hadn’t seen a lot of that in 2004. As a matter of fact, I didn’t work for many years afterward because the roles that I was being offered were all these stereotypical ‘making fun of gay people’-type roles that I really felt were backwards from Damian. So, I’ve probably turned down more money than I’ve made in life– but I don’t regret it! I waited around for Looking. I waited around for the right thing. And that’s what I’m doing now. I’d rather write my own show and tour it than do something superficial or not really servicing the community in any way. I don’t have to play a specifically gay role, but if you’re giving me one and I’m gonna be repping my community, I’m gonna make sure it’s something people are gonna be proud of. I played the first gay President’s son on Conviction in my last role. I thought that was cool; something we hadn’t seen before. I strive to look for things that will push the envelope until I can find the one that opens it: the envelope that says ‘You win the Emmy!’ or ‘You win the Oscar!’ I’ll wait for that one too!
So will we!
Daniel Franzese presents YASS! You’re Amazing! on Wednesday, April 11 at 7pm at The Laurie Beechman Theater inside West Bank Café, 407 West 42nd Street, New York City. To purchase tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit www.SpinCycleNYC.com. For more information, visit www.Facebook.com/events/220367088706008/
- Ryan Shea of Manhattan Digest and Daniel Franzese
- Daniel Franzese and fiancée Joseph Bradley Phillips
- Daniel Franzese and fiancée Joseph Bradley Phillips
- Daniel Franzese and Jed Ryan