This Charming Man

This Charming Man

"I feel like the drink of choice at this hour really changes peoples perspective on you, Pete Wentz says, settling in for lunch at a swank Hollywood hotel. I like to give a piece a good intro: And then he had a beer.  His prefab opening anecdote fits particularly well with the sweatpants hes wearing. Oops, he jokes, predicting my editors reaction to his straight-dude shtick before settling on an iced vanilla latte.

Wentz also suggests two sidebars for this article (a thermostat of my gayness and a quiz with real and fake quotes about his sexuality) and asks if him being in Out is akin to the Beastie Boys doing Vibe. Will you get flak for having someone like me on the cover? he asks, sounding more concerned for the magazines reputation than his own.

Like a line he wrote in Sugar, Were Goin Down, the bands 2005 breakout hit -- Ive been dying to tell you anything you want to hear -- Wentz seems all too aware of how his words and actions will play on the page, not to mention the entertainment TV shows and blogs that eagerly mine his confessional, sensationalist tendencies. But he draws the line at painting a self-portrait thats easier for his more narrow-minded detractors -- or even fans -- to swallow.

What Wentz wants us to see is a complex, sometimes contradictory image. Im like the boy next door, he quips, but just a little bit off.

But while he may have a bulldogs attitude and more than a dozen tattoos, Wentz isnt intimidating enough to stop the hate parade. When Im going down the street I get called a fag all the time, he says. Instead of bothering to deny it, he shifts deftly to mocking the bullies Neanderthal mentality: We have iPhones, and Im still getting called the same names as when I was 13. Its a 10-second sound bite so succinct in its disdain hell use variations for months in blog posts and other interviews.

He readily cops to having appropriated queer culture, just as early white rock and roll artists ripped off black music and went mainstream. If I was gay, he says, and I saw people playing with it, being ambiguous, I dont really know how I would feel. I look back at Elvis and Im like, Was Elvis a dick?

Even with 6 million Fall Out Boy albums sold worldwide, another 5 million by bands signed to his own label, a pop princess on his arm, a baby on the way, and a new deal to sell his clothing line at Nordstrom stores, Wentz remains impulsive and profane. Hes also transparently annoyed at friends who warned that whatever sexually suggestive comments he makes will feed tabloid headlines for a year. Theres part of me thats like, Fuck you, I do what I want, he says with a curled lip.  Dont do that? Now Im just going to do that 10 times in a row.

Like his friend Kanye West, hes found that whenever you say that homophobia is stupid, you just get called gay. Lucky for us, he sees his ever-growing audience as an opportunity to fuck with the minds of anyone who thinks theres something wrong with that. Homophobia is the last acceptable hatred, he says and writes, frequently and wearily.

People treat sexuality the same way that [during] Jim Crow [white] people treated African-Americans, he tells me. Its totally dehumanized. It could be his view from the stage -- Fall Out Boy audiences skew toward teenage girls, and dudes who like mosh pits and teenage girls -- but Wentz shrugs off the idea that whatever bias remains will survive another generation. The actual acceptance of gay marriage is inevitable, he says. Its just like how the next generation of kids are going to all have tattoos.

Before Wentz, 29, covered his skin with an inked collar of thorns and portraits from Tim Burton cartoons, he was just the oldest of three children growing up in the wealthy northern suburbs of Chicago. He says his liberal parents never shoved any particular politics down his throat, except, like, Kenyan food. A star soccer player in high school but also an intensely unhappy and angry kid, he did time in a teenage disciplinary boot camp, bounced from one punk band to another, and eventually left DePaul University a semester shy of a political science degree to play bass full-time.

His new career was Fall Out Boy, a pop-punk band that left the local hardcore scene for more melodic rock pastures, in part because the homophobic violence they witnessed at shows pissed them off. After hauling ass cross-country in a beat-up van to play tiny, shitty venues, their indie-produced album, 2003s Take This to Your Grave, landed them a deal with Island Records. From Under the Cork Tree sold 3 million copies in the U.S., and last years Infinity on High topped the Billboard chart, spawning two top-10 pop singles.

Wentz doesnt sing on stage. (He occasionally screams into the mike between spinning around in crazed circles, caroming off amps like the stage is a skate park.) But its his lyrics, mid-show demands of their faithful audience, and thousands of interviews as the bands front man that have shaped Fall Out Boys image. Even in radio-friendly major-label land theyve hewn close to their do-it-yourself punk roots, routinely exposing the man behind the curtain by explaining contract details or backstage drama that most bands are too intimidated by record company power to bring to light.

Wentzs quest to cut out the middleman seems inspired as much by innate business savvy as impatience. Totally in love with a band no one else wants to sign? Start your own label. Harassed by kids at shows who want to wear the shirt you made in your parents basement? Start a clothing line. Sick of getting elbowed by VIPs at clubs you think suck? Open a bar with your friends.

And if people are confused about Wentzs sexuality, he deserves at least half the credit for that too. Onstage hell lick a stripe up the neck of his bass or his bandmates guitars. He hooks his chin over singer Patrick Stumps shoulder, mouthing his own words against Stumps cheek. When they covered the Killers Mr. Brightside on a recent tour, he would punctuate the line it was only a kiss by aiming with varying success somewhere in the vicinity of Stumps mouth. In Sugar he boasts of always sleeping in and sleeping for the wrong team; the line He tastes like you, only sweeter in Thnks Fr Th Mmrs paraphrases whats spoken by a female character in the play and (by Julia Roberts) in the movie Closer. It loses any jealous, alpha-male edge when repeated over and over as the songs key emotional refrain. Eventually, I point out to him, it just sounds, well, gay.

It is pretty gay, Wentz easily agrees, grinning as we discuss how the crowd still sings right along. A big portion of our fan base are these white-hat jock dudes who maybe actually have some kind of homoerotic behaviors, he says. Theyre so violent -- but they feel pretty free at Fall Out Boy shows. So does he: Its all because I know Im going to get a reaction -- but its all things that I believe anyway. I dont get on stage and give a social diatribe. I am a performer and an entertainer.

Its a convincing performance. Even his longtime manager, Bob McLynn, says he spent at least a year wondering. I thought maybe Pete was actually gay, McLynn says. I know guys who are gay who would sleep with girls. I wouldnt have been that surprised. Asking Wentz did nothing to clear things up: He would try to act like he was to push my buttons.

Then there are the interviews in which Wentz refers to himself as half gay, says anything above the waist is fair game, and boasts of making out with boys, even when corporate sponsors or fans parents balked or boycotted. The more uncomfortable or conservative his audience, the less likely he is to give them an easy out. Plus, few reporters ask for further clarification when confronted with an ambiguous, moody rock star, so single sentences wind up as stand-ins for self-defining declarations.

He doesnt seem to think he has much to prove to Out, and I ask a lot of follow-up questions. Wentz answers them all, even when hes not sure Ill like the answers. When I said that I make out with dudes, there was a slight sense of sexual rebellion in that, he admits. And I probably even made it a bigger deal than it was. He thinks the first time he kissed a guy was when he was 16 or 17, probably on a dare at a party: Like, You make out with this dude and well make out.  And of later experiments, at 18 or 19, he says it was more like, Im going to try this thing. And most recently? He actually apologizes before responding. A long time ago, he says with a slight wince. Probably when I was 22?

Asked to describe his sexuality in his own words, he shrugs and says, Ive always felt this relentless heterosexual drive. Theres a heavy, ambivalent weight to the statement, like maybe he would have been happier without the painful series of dysfunctional relationships that fueled lyrics for three hit albums but also scores of lonely, sad blog entries posted in the middle of the night. He told National Public Radio last year that a part of him wished he were gay. I have a bit of a consummate victim in my head, he says now. Thats who I identify with throughout history. When I was 10 I would draw black eyes on myself because I thought it was cool. Youre so into people who are tragic. You want to be that so badly. But you probably arent really the tragic genius that you think you are.

He has no qualms talking about his attraction to men (including a big, stupid crush on John Mayer), which still puts him on a very short list of famous young male musicians and actors who havent been convinced that confession is in and of itself a career killer. But as he said in The Advocate in 2007, the stopping point truly does come when the action strays below the belt. Its really about the equipment, he tells me, gesturing at his crotch with a grimace. (Decide for yourself: The first unfiltered hit for an image search on Wentzs name still yields the shots he took of his equipment in hand, which leaked from his Sidekick in 2006.) I really dont think its an attractive quality. Thats what it comes down to. I dont even like my own. Like, I really dont like it. I dont like anything about it.

Maybe youre a lesbian, I suggest, and he punches the air in triumph. Yes! he crows. Ive still got the cover!

But even Wentz cant make too much of a joke on this point. Our culture bombards us with this idea that youre not that, and if you are that, theres something wrong with you, and then were going to call you that, and then its an insult, he says. There is a sense of self-empowerment or recapturing who you are by people calling you fag, and being like, Yeah, I am a fag. Even though youre not. What does somebody respond? That dude has nothing to say about that again. He stops, and this time he is at least a little worried for his own rep. Am I going to catch flak for saying fag in a magazine? (Only when we put it on the cover, Pete.)

Catching flak is a nice way of saying that now -- especially as his relationship with singer Ashlee Simpson quickly escalated from rumor to engagement to marriage -- Wentz cant leave the house without being trailed by paparazzi or bombarded by his fans or hers.

It hasnt always been easy to adjust to the added level of attention. He approaches interviews with a shifting set of emotional and professional boundaries, and starts more than a few stories with a publicists worst nightmare: I probably shouldnt tell you this, but...

Even a man who never seems to consider the potential business blowback of his quick-trigger tongue worries what his in-laws think, though, and Simpsons parents are not only her managers but religious and conservative. One seemingly believable rumor that made the tabloid rounds last winter: Her father, Joe, had told Ashlee not to bring Wentz home for the holidays after an interview in Blender discussed Wentzs possible bisexuality.

That one was such bullshit, Wentz says, and tells me eventually he and Joe even joked about it. He was like, We should take a picture in front of the Christmas tree holding hands. Joe, an ordained Baptist minister, even officiated at their May wedding. Still, Wentz concedes, There are definitely ramifications for what you say.

Every joke Wentz makes about, say, running around his house in Jessica Simpsons line of high heels gets printed verbatim -- with a humorless warning (from gossips) to Ashlee to watch out for her mans other possible deviant tendencies. Ambiguity makes you a lightning rod for people to hate you, he says. Some days I wake up and I couldnt be bothered at all. Some days you Google yourself and you cant eat.

Of course, no matter how many kids Wentz has with Ashlee, he knows plenty of people think its all a big lie. Yeah, Shes his beard,  he anticipates, rolling his eyes.

But then he gets quiet, staring out over the hotel pool, and his voice is full of empathy. I couldnt imagine living a double life for this long, he says. (A) you would just get caught so bad. And (B), I would be in a car in that swimming pool right now. How do you not just do drugs and live in South America? It would make you crazy.

Thats if all the is-he-or-isnt-he rumors dont drive you nuts first. Theres a little bit of a gay witch hunt, he says, pointing particularly at gay bloggers such as his sometime ally Perez Hilton. I dont know if its to bust homophobia wide open or get more attention. Its like, This persons gay, this persons gay, this persons gay. I get it -- were, like, all gay. Kind of. Theres a little bit of it thats probably deserved.

The impact, especially on young fans, is ultimately worth the circular, reductive debates. Being ambiguously flamboyant really does help, he says. Ive had so many people come up to me and be like, I felt OK to come out of the closet after you said this. And Im like... He looks shocked, even overwhelmed. When someone says that to me -- its not an event Ive ever been through, so I dont know what to compare it to. I dont think I even understand how important that is to someones life.

A dude in a band who dares to dream a little bigger than sold-out tours gets compared, on a good day, to a hip-hop impresario such as Jay-Z. Wentz would rather take his cues from the queer king of mass-marketed pop culture: Andy Warhol.

Warhol impacted you in the 80s whether you wanted or not, he says, but after seeing Piero Manzonis Merda dartista (literally, cans allegedly filled with artists shit) as a kid, he followed the theme to Warhol. Tributes to his hero fittingly run the gamut, from T-shirts -- one has Warhols name across the chest of a baseball-style jersey; another is a set of cartoon monster portraits with Warholier than thou as tagline -- to a new bar with an underground space modeled after Warhols less glamorous hangout, Maxs Kansas City.

Wentz says he most admires how Warhol gave shallow, timeless quotes without ever really answering whatever question hed been asked. His favorite: Being famous isnt all that important. If I werent famous, I wouldnt have been shot for being Andy Warhol.

Its the most contradictory statement on the planet: that Andy Warhol didnt want to be famous, he says, laughing. Wentz definitely wants to be famous -- he often declares, not jokingly, that Fall Out Boy will one day be the biggest band on the planet -- but hed rather get there with a gang of collaborators. In one video posted online, he and Gym Class Heroes Travis McCoy holed up in Wentzs Los Angeles home, churning out paintings as McCoy joked hes playing Warhol to Wentzs Basquiat.  Cause Im black, McCoy deadpanned.

The ideas that have worked best over the last five years have given Wentz the industry cachet to be taken seriously. His eclectic record label, Decaydance (an imprint of indie Fueled by Ramen), signed the theatrical young band Panic at the Disco, whose first album was made for $10,000 and sold 2.5 million copies worldwide. Their Beatlesque follow-up debuted at number two. On what would be the other end of the radio dial for any other A&R guy are the hip-hop rockers Gym Class Heroes, whose Cupids Chokehold was a top-five hit last year.

Wentzs dive-chic bar in New York Citys East Village, Angels & Kings, has spawned a spin-off in Chicago, with outposts in Las Vegas, Miami, and Los Angeles planned. And after three years as an online-only enterprise, Clandestine Industries -- a media and clothing company -- opened a flagship store in Chicago and signed a major deal to sell its apparel at Nordstrom; Clandestine has outsold expectations and proved a crossover success. Even Nordstrom has been surprised how many dudes are going into the [juniors] section and rocking the hoodies, says Stephen Westman, Wentzs gay business partner.

All of these enterprises have brought together a group of artists who seem equally excited to embrace a Wentzian brand of ambiguity. When the 80s-inspired dance-rock band Cobra Starship got heckled by kids at one show, singer Gabe Saporta yelled back, I may be a fag, but I do the fucking around here. Come on up, dude. Like Wentz, hes as comfortable talking sexual politics as trash. We use language and tags to make things fit into boxes, he says. Something like sexuality isnt so easily defined.

Asked by reporters what rumors the members of Panic at the Disco have heard about themselves, they cite the frequent speculation theyre all dating each other. Whats the problem if Ryan [Ross] and Brendon [Urie] were actually dating, you know? the bands bassist, Jon Walker, told Out last year in reference to the bands guitarist and singer, who on one tour acted out a love story on stage. Drummer Spencer Smith jumped in to say, Because they might be.

Theyre more gay in a totally other way, Wentz says cryptically, with a proud parents smile.

Unlike the usual runaround music execs give when asked -- even hypothetically -- whats keeping a band with out gay musicians from major crossover success, Wentz says Decaydance could easily handle the challenge. Fourteen-year-old girls are really into just about anything thats earnest, he says. Im sure that if it was the right song, theyd be into it.

Hes also unfazed by potential hurdles if one of the acts hes already signed came to him wanting to go public in more defiant, unambiguous terms. I think that I do have, maybe people on the label, but [also] definitely friends who are gay and dont know they are, he says. Ive never had someone be like, Just so you know, Im gay. Ive never had that. I dont think people really need me to care about it, because they know I dont really care.

Bob McLynn, whose Crush Management reps most of the Decaydance stable, doesnt hesitate when asked how the company would react: Wed support them 100%. If he wanted to speak out in the press, we would, and if he didnt, we wouldnt. Then he shrugs. I dont know if anyone offhand [on the label] is out. But itd be a lot easier in our scene than it was for Rob Halford and Judas Priest.

Like Warhol, Wentz has already achieved one major pop culture milestone: Hes made himself impossible to avoid, and hes all but guaranteed every move he makes turns into a headline. People hate grand ideas, he says, ready and waiting for the critics. They love when they fall apart. Everyone likes to see the Titanic go down -- especially if its in front of [paparazzi haven] Hyde.

Even so, Clandestine plans to expand its menswear collections in 2009 with more high-end, less dude-like apparel, though even Wentz admits, I dont know that men want to wear clothes inspired by someone who only inspires a legion of 14-year-old girls. Fall Out Boys CD/DVD of a live show in Phoenix, called **** (Warhol made a 25-hour movie called Four Stars too), spawned the most audacious and unlikely of hits: a cover of Michael Jacksons Beat It.

Like, who says you shouldnt do that? he asks, of whatever that is on a given day. Everyone on the Internet, of course. But all those people would do it if they could. Nobody ever gives a good reason why you shouldnt, other than People will laugh at you. 

Pete Wentz doesnt care -- today, at least -- if you laugh at him, if you call him a fag, or that other f word: a failure. So maybe its time for a little fuck-you of our own, at least to the idea that a guy cant be a good queer role model unless he actually has sex with men. Wentz could be the worlds best spokesman to a generation of kids who grew up with gay-straight alliances but havent all made the leap to full acceptance. No matter how much older or famous hes gotten, he hasnt stopped speaking their language. And he certainly isnt going to shut up anytime soon.

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