As the elevator soars up the many floors of Frankie Grande's Manhattan apartment building, my mind is reeling with questions about the entire summer he just spent in CBS's Big Brother house. Like many fans of the series, I'm most fascinated by his involvement with fellow houseguest Zach Rance, the other half of “Zankie,” a hetero-homo relationship that stormed the reality TV world and sparked a cultural conversation about male bonds previously unseen on network television.
But first, it turns out, I interrupt his sister, Ariana Grande, and her team as she preps for her musical guest appearance on that night's season premiere of SNL.
Unsurprisingly, the Grande machine is hard at work, with two celebrity siblings at the center of a formidable team, juggling intense schedules of interviews and appearances. Despite the insanity of the sheer number of people involved, there's a calm in the air that can only come from what everyone appears to be: an enormous extended family doing exactly what they want—and loving every second. Leading this family is Joan Grande, Frankie and Ariana's impressively astute and aware mother—but more on her in a bit.
When I finally find Frankie, he bounds over to a sofa and leaps onto it. He's wearing short shorts and a tank top that reads: “Shine Bright Like a Frankie.” He's barefoot, sitting cross-legged facing me, and I feel somehow overdressed in my jeans and short-sleeved top (and shoes). We waste no time jumping into giddy talk of how he lasted until the final week of a full summer under 24-hour surveillance (with no access to the outside world), and what his relationship with Rance means to a gay community no longer satisfied by seeking mere tolerance.
Out: You applied to Survivor in the past and I watched your audition tape. Why do you think Big Brother took you first?
Frankie Grande: I hosted a Survivor finale/Big Brother premiere party in my apartment last year and an associate casting director of Big Brother came. I showed my Survivor audition tape, and he was like, “Why not Big Brother?” I said: “I don’t know why not! I love Big Brother!” And that was it. I submitted a tape and I went through the entire process like any other fan. With his recommendation.
Do you still want to play Survivor?
Yes! I want to do Survivor desperately. And I want to do Amazing Race! Everyone’s talking about Zankie doing Amazing Race. I think I could do even better in Survivor. The physical exertion may be greater than Big Brother since you’re not eating and you’re not sleeping (which I didn’t really do much in the house anyway), but the mental exertion would be less.
When you entered the house, you established yourself right away as a big personality—a showman. Was that you working, or are you always so colorful, over-the-top, and enthusiastic?
That’s 100-percent who I am. Inside this house, outside this house…oh my god, I’m not in the house anymore! But no, that’s exactly who I am. I’m completely up all the time.
So often, gay male reality contestants team up with women as an easy alliance, or something people expect gay men to do. We did see you go up to a couple of the girls as soon as you all burst into the house, but you ended up in an all-guy alliance very quickly. Did you plan that?
That was my strategy going in: Team up with the jocks. I’m a Sigma Phi Epsilon brother and there was only one other gay brother when I pledged, but he graduated so I was the only gay male in the fraternity for a very long time. I have a really wonderful bond with straight guys. I have a fraternal way of relating to them, and I wanted to infiltrate the jock alliance [from the start]. But it was handed to me after I won that first Head of Household competition and I showed, up front, that I’m a person to beat.
You were very hands-on and physical with everyone in the house, especially the guys. And it helped. Why do you think these sorts of social interactions are more accepted inside the Big Brother house than in the real world?
That’s part of how I behave in life because of theater. There’s no faux pas with us being lovey-dovey and touching each other in theater, so that was my attitude inside the house, and outside. That’s what I do always, so I don’t know that it is more or less accepted in the real world because that’s how I always am. I was happy it was well accepted, though. My philosophy with straight men is that if you tell me you’re straight, I completely honor and respect that, and I’m never going to try to change that. That’s in your hands, I love you for everything you are, and I hope that you love me for everything that I am.
So obviously we’re going to talk about Zankie.
Initially Zach irritated you. How quickly did he go from someone who was this annoying guy to one of your best friends in the house?
Extremely quickly. When you start, you’re going in with guns a-blazin’. Zach was like, “I’m gonna cause so much trouble in the house.” So, he just had this character that he wanted to show the world, and I fell in the line of fire. But as I started to hang out with him, that completely melted away. He was so genuine, and very early on, we established that, A) we wanted to work together, and B) we really liked each other. Within the first week.
In the beginning of Zankie becoming a phenomenon, people thought he might be using you. And then it became clear that you were kind of using him. How consciously aware were you that he was actually attached to you?
Honestly, in that house you can never trust or believe anyone, which is terrible and hard, so there was always a part of my mind—a shadow of a doubt—thinking it was possible that he was using me. That never went away. Of course I didn’t want to believe that because I truly did have feelings for Zach—I truly still do—but [the game is] designed for you to never fully believe anyone. When he started to turn on me, there was no option. I had to get rid of him. So sad.
So you couldn’t sense at all that everything you did affected him? He practically couldn’t get out of bed for two days because of you at one point.
I didn’t actually realize what my actions were doing to him, or how big of an impact I was having on his life. It’s sad. You never have a real sense of what’s actually happening. That was a big problem, I think, because both of us were trying to figure out what our relationship was. I never knew how he actually felt about me, and I don’t’ think he knew how I felt about him, obviously.
Not to say you have to define feelings, but let’s try it anyway: What were your feelings for each other?
I would say they are genuine, and there’s definitely an attraction. Absolutely.
Both ways. For sure. Zach kept saying, “I wish I were gay so I could be with you,” and I was eventually like, “Yeah, I wish you were gay, too.” That’s unique for me. I usually turn off the switch if you tell me you’re straight. I don’t pine after people I don’t have a chance of being with. But in this situation there was no other option, and it was like, “I see you every single day and I enjoy being with you, so I want to be with you all the time.” I don’t know how else to define it. Curiosity on both sides. I became curious
How do you think Zach would answer that? Would he say there was an attraction both ways?
I think so. He has said, since he left the house, that there was definitely some sort of attraction, even if he couldn’t put his finger on it. I feel like it’s been so overwhelming for him since he reconnected with the real world. I can’t imagine what that must be like for him. He isn’t gay, but there’s all this attention on our relationship. I don’t know if he’s sat down and tried to dissect and figure it out, but there was definitely an attraction there. Society tries to put us into social norms, right? If he felt a certain way in the house, it’s very possible that society could change the way he felt. There’s so much pressure to be one or the other, and I feel like he and I are in such a unique place. There’s no definition for this. There’s no “previously on Big Brother” for Zankie. This is the first.
The fans were obsessed with you two. Even your family was involved. Your mothers were tweeting, your sister said she wanted you two to live together with her… [Enter Joan Grande, who'd been making fruit salad in the kitchen]
Joan Grande: Zankie meant a lot to me and to Ariana. The show did, actually, because of how welcoming it was. I was nervous because Frankie is such an amazing personality and when I saw the cast and all these rugged guys, I felt like, “Oh my gosh.” And then the second day, Caleb (Reynolds) embraced him after they both won Head of Household, and they slept in the same bed. I think what Frankie did for Big Brother and the gay community was overwhelming. I think the whole Big Brother audience was rooting for a beautifully warm, wonderful, and accepting relationship between a gay man and…Zach. Undefined. No one should be defined in my opinion. Everyone should be able to be who they want to be. Zankie, to me, represented such growth in our country. I loved it. It meant the world to me. And I loved the fact that the men in the house were so warm, and grabby, and touchy, and loving. I think it says a lot. And I am very proud that Frankie is the person who brought it. [Exit Joan Grande.]
Frankie, we have lots of bromances between hetero men in film and TV, we have more gay relationships now, but this is one of the first times we’re seeing a serious, strong love between a straight man and a gay man that goes far beyond tolerance—and it's on network television. What does it mean for younger people to see that this type of non-threatening relationship can exist, and that it can be normal?
It’s representative of progress for sure. I was shocked by how many people all over the world were rooting for two boys to fall in love on TV, even if not necessarily a physical love. I am kind of honored to have been a part of it, and I think it’s a great thing for kids to see. I think it shows strides toward acceptance of homosexuality in many forms. I think people just saw how genuinely we felt about each other. It was a non-threatening love. Even though I didn’t know it was genuine, the world did, and I think because of that people started to root for it and get behind it.
Would you have taken Zach to the end if he didn’t get so emotional and destructive?
Everything that Zach did in that house was detrimental to my game. Everything. As much as I would have liked to, I really couldn’t have brought him to the end. And he didn’t win anything! He didn’t win a damn thing! How can you go to the end with someone who can’t pull out any competitions?
What kind of relationship do you think you’re going to have with Zach now?
We’re extremely close. We’ve been talking and texting every minute since we’ve been out of the house. But I’ve never been alone with Zach. Ever. He and I have never been in a room together without cameras, so I have no idea. I don’t know what that’s going to be. I’m excited to find out. I’m hoping it's just a continuation of what we had in the house during our best times. I want to relive those moments. We were the happiest people.
How about a Zankie reality show?
Yes, absolutely. I think it would be great. I think we’re funny together. I have no idea what the show would be, though. We’re so opposite in personality that we could be an Odd Couple type, but talking about gossip? I don’t know. He’s so aggressive and sharp, and I’m totally the opposite. I’m all happy, and bubbles, and cheer.
And what’s next for Frankie J. Grande?
I would love to host. To talk. To be a panelist on The Talk, a panelist on Fashion Police—poor Joan Rivers! I can’t! don’t even want to think about that now. But I would love to do that. That’s what I want. To be Frankie, everywhere. I want to influence the world and the people in it by being true to who I am, everywhere.
Catch one of many Zankie moments below:
Follow Brandon Schultz on Twitter @BrandonAlexandr