Bruno Tonioli was 17 years old when he met the great Italian director Franco Zeffirelli. He was visiting the coastal resort of Positano for an arts festival, a teenage dreamer raised by poor, hardworking parents -- peasants, really -- whose greatest hope was to see him qualify as an accountant. Instead, there he was at the home of the great Zeffirelli, a pretty boy plucked from the crowd to please and flatter the aging queens and their friends. Liza Minnelli was there. Laurence Olivier too. I was shitting myself, Tonioli recalls from a distance of 30-plus years. I didnt know which spoon to use, which glass to drink from. I was wearing a lace shirt and very tight jeans. I knew I looked good, but I was totally out of my element.
As it happened and, in the fateful way that can rearrange lifes options, Tonioli was seated alongside a director for a French dance company, then enjoying tremendous success with a cross-dressing revue of the kind that could exist only in the 70s. Nowadays people would say What the fuck is that? says Tonioli, who soon after found himself cast as Jesus in the same show -- yes, Jesus, what a debut! -- thanks to a combination of luck, skill, and sheer ambition.
The guy who had been playing this role was a big French diva, Tonioli recalls. And he stormed off for some reason, and the director said, Can you do this? and I said yes -- no fucking idea if I could. They used to teach me a number in the morning, and Id perform it that night; the next day Id learn the second number so that by the end of the week I knew the whole show.
That was in Milan, but the show had legs. Paris first, then London, where Tonioli met the legendary British dancer Lindsay Kemp -- I have one of his paintings that he gave me for my 21st birthday. Can you imagine? 21! -- and finally, inevitably, New York and the Great White Way. He saw the original production of A Chorus Line and was bowled over. He studied with Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey. He danced and he sang and he acted; he was the kind of multi-talented hoofer on which the industry relies. He was never not working. There are many people who are not actually famous but have a successful career, he says. You dont know who they are, but they are the meat and potatoes -- they keep this thing going. I was, for many years, one of them. I had a comfortable life without the famous thing.
A summons from the BBC four years ago changed all that. Envious of the success of the U.K.s Pop Idol (the show that spawned American Idol here), the channel was looking to find someone to do for amateur dance what Simon Cowell had done for wannabe pop stars. Enter Tonioli, the loquacious Italian with the booming laugh who knew what it was to dream of waltzing and fox-trotting and cha-cha-ing across a ballroom floor, who grew up watching Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly double bills with his father every Sunday -- dubbed in Italian. Can you imagine? Elizabeth Taylor dubbed in Italian. And if he didnt have Cowells facility for the razor-edged put-down, he had something else: a big, flamboyant personality that was a perfect complement to the razzmatazz of televisions campiest show. He can swivel his hips, throw his arms in the air, and shout, Youre bringing sexy back (to High School Musicals Monique Coleman) all at the same time.
The show was called Strictly Come Dancing, and although it had the structure of a reality show -- B-list celebrities learn to dance at the hands of experts and then face a weekly elimination challenge -- it had much more in common with old-fashioned variety shows and the genre of dance-off movies that includes Saturday Night Fever, Flashdance, and Baz Luhrmanns fabulous Strictly Ballroom. It struck a chord immediately, quickly surpassing the success of Pop Idol and catching the attention of ABC in the process. Rebranded Dancing With the Stars, the U.S. series aped the success of the British; season 6, which ended in May, regularly pulled in more than 20 million viewers. A seventh season will premiere this month, with Tonioli once again playing court jester.
OUT: So lets go back to the beginning.
BRUNO TONIOLI: I grew up in Ferrara, in Italy, a small town north of Bologna, very pretty, Renaissance-medieval style. Nothing happens; boring as hell.
OUT: You probably feel differently about it now.
BT: No, I cant stand it. It gives me anxiety. I never go back. Its pretty, but I dont think you can ever go back. I became myself, really, in London. I always had dreams, but I never knew how to achieve self-expression until I came here.
OUT: Your rsum includes a long list of credits, from Bananarama and Elton John to choreographing Anne Hathaway in Ella Enchanted. You obviously had a lot of experience with celebrities before you became one.
BT: I think thats what grounds me. Its a great learning curve to watch how people handle fame. You see people reacting to it in different ways, and a long part of my life is like being a doctor. Theres a certain code, and you dont discuss what you see on the set, because basically you will never get employed again. Its part of your professional ethic. Maybe because I come from this background of so much theater as a kid, I have that kind of peer respect even when they behave like assholes. I dont think it makes you look good to gossip anyway. Its very easy to be nasty about Madonna -- its very easy to be nasty about anyone. But look at the good things first. Who else has had that kind of career, been able to really tap into the mood of her audience constantly over, what, 25 years now? So, OK, she cant act, she cant do films, but I think when you become such a product of your own making, that youre so, so designed, so contrived, it works within the pop industry. Acting is the opposite -- there has to be an element of revealing yourself. In acting you really have to get rid of all the shit and connect with the truth. Cher can do it, but you cant do everything.
OUT: When did you realize you were gay?
BT: Oh, I dont think Ive ever been in. Ive never liked being ghettoized in any way. I cant stand that. I think people should interact regardless of sexuality, race, religion -- by now we should be well beyond that. In my hometown I used to go out with straight people. I didnt have gay friends because I didnt know them. That only happened when I went to Paris and I was in this theatrical environment and it was the 70s -- that was another world. And it was brilliant. But it wasnt so much about going to gay places, because the clubs then didnt have all this bullshit there is now. You had models, actors, gay, straight, and anything goes. And if you liked somebody at the end of the evening, you might or might not spend the night with them. But it wasnt a meat rack. And it didnt matter if you were famous or not -- you didnt have to worry that someone was going to sell the story for $100,000 the next day. Now people are so fucking desperate, if theyve got something on somebody, theyre going to sell it. Its almost like soliciting -- its like getting into the trash of somebody with ulterior motives. A lot of people make their careers out of defamation.
OUT: Have you had that experience?
BT: Unfortunately, Ive been so busy! [Laughs] Id love to have a bit of defamation! Bring it on! But there isnt much to say -- all Ive been doing is working.
OUT: As a gay judge on a major television network, do you encounter any resistance?
BT: No! Never ever, but I think everybodys gay any way! I meet some actors and think, Youve got to be a queen, cmon! They are so plucked and moisturized. I am actually the worst person because I get it wrong. [Laughs] But I always put the talent and the person first because you can be gay, straight, black, white, but if youre a piece of shit, youre a piece of shit regardless. I was going to say cunt. I love that word. You know why? Because it makes people laugh! They just fall apart! I heard Elizabeth Taylor is the same. And Judi Dench. I love when people talk blue -- it makes me laugh. Swearing like a sailor.
OUT: Or a trooper, even. So youve never felt that your sexuality has held back your career?
BT: Obviously, Ive never been offered a film as a leading man. But then again I do understand that there is still a perception of what a leading man should be. I dont think the public in general is yet ready. In England on television its not an issue. It shouldnt be an issue. It should be about your work and how good you are at your job. Look at John Barrowman -- hes wonderful -- hes just brilliant. You should just be allowed to be yourself regardless. Are you good at that? Can you play the part? It shouldnt be Oh! Hes gay! He could never play this part.
OUT: Were you funny as a kid?
BT: Yeah, Ive always had a sense of humor -- laughing at yourself helps get you through the bad days. They call it bipolar now -- everyones bipolar. Its all bullshit. Its life, honey -- cope with it. Because therell be bad days, and therell be good days. The bad days will come, so dont be shocked. Youll be better tomorrow. You have to laugh about it.
OUT: What were the bad days?
BT: When my parents died. The 90s were a really hard time because of the deaths, the enormous, terrible dark cloud of AIDS. I lost so many friends. Of my generation there are very few people left -- all my best friends in the company, beautiful dancers, actors. There was a time when nearly every week -- it was very difficult to keep positive, to keep going. And then my mother died suddenly. My grandmother died. My grandfather died. My father died. My best friends wife. I thought, This is crazy! All through the 90s it was one thing after another. It was very hard emotionally to cope because -- and obviously I had to work. Eventually, we all have to face certain things. People die. It wasnt easy, but I survived.
OUT: Its 2008, and youre still standing, as Elton would say.
BT: Its really become my kind of my leitmotif -- my life motif -- and look what happens? Its very easy with things like that to retreat, and thats the wrong thing to do. You have to go and work. If not, you find yourself in a deep well and youll never be able to get out. And the hard truth is that shit will happen. You cannot avoid shit at any level. You can be the biggest star in the world and shit will happen. Always.
OUT: Five years ago, did you imagine this is the direction your life would take?
BT: I always dreamt it, but I never thought Id be in Hollywood at this stage in my life. Its really a dream come true, but you can never tell how life is going to turn out. If something comes your way, you just have to grab it. And take the good with the bad. Because its still hard work. Its bloody hard, Im telling you -- doing two shows on two continents at the same time --
OUT: I take it you dont have time for relationships.
BT: I havent had one, but Im open! [Laughs] I tell you, I need one desperately.