UnREAL, back on Lifetime for its third season, centers on the behind-the-scenes drama of Everlasting, a Bachelor-esque reality dating show run by sociopaths. Its producers—who don’t pull the strings of their contestants so much as yank them maniacally—would likely kill each other if not for Jay, the show’s queer black moral arbiter.
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, the co-creator of UnREAL, originally conceived Jay as a slippery womanizer for the series’ pilot, but she quickly realized the actor she’d cast for the role did not fit the bill. Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman first came out to his agent when he was 21, not long after he’d started auditioning for parts. “I knew 10 years ago that I primarily wanted to play queer characters,” he says. “The few times I played straight it was just so obvious how uncomfortable I was making the producers.”
His character now exists, he says, to inject diversity into the show-within-the-show. “He feels a responsibility—that if he wasn’t there, having contestants’ backs, particularly female contestants of color, things would be worse. I don’t think he’d be able to walk away knowing they’d be systematically destroyed.”
In the new season, which features all-male contestants, Jay aligns himself with ruthless puppet master Quinn (Constance Zimmer) with hopes of creating his own TV empire. He also finally bags a mate. “He has to be the hero to his contestants, but at the end of the day, he’s a human being,” Bowyer-Chapman says. “It’s important to show that he can break, lean on a partner for emotional support, and be vulnerable.”
While Jay is “constantly in a state of having to survive,” the actor portraying him seems to be doing just fine. When we speak at his home in West Hollywood, he’s preparing for a trip to Joshua Tree with his boyfriend, Andrew Fitzsimons (a hairstylist for the Kardashian clan), and Zimmer, his boss on UnREAL and friend in real life. His living room is overtaken with books, their spines color-coded, and what look like makeshift shrines. Crystals sit atop a copy of Larry Kramer’s Faggots and Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road.
“We’re renting a house in Yucca Valley,” he says, offering a smoothie with vegan protein powder. “We’re going to Two Bunch Palms for mud baths and then to the Integratron, a sound bath owned by these two hippie sisters. They make you feel like you’re levitating.”
Hippie sisters, sound baths, and the Yucca Valley are miles away from the small town of Rimbey in Alberta, Canada, where Bowyer-Chapman grew up. Raised by adoptive parents, he remembers not having any black gay role models.
“I’d be watching TV with my white friends and they’d be able to say, ‘Oh, that’s me, I’m just like her, I’m just like him,’ ” says Bowyer-Chapman, who originally trained to be a gymnast and worked for years as an international model. “I never saw myself in mainstream representations.”
Landing a gig as a major gay character on an Emmy-nominated series has been a coup for him personally, and another sign of progress for queer black representation in television. But Bowyer-Chapman doesn’t think everyone’s gotten the memo. One of his friends, an acting coach, still gets calls from agents who want him to teach his clients to present as “less gay” so they can book straight roles.
He isn’t interested in playing that game — he’d prefer that all his future characters be queer. But, he adds, “even if I never played a gay character again, I’d find another platform to use my voice.” Last year he helped create a scholarship with BGB, an acting school in L.A., for LGBTQ people of color; the recipient is awarded an eight-week acting course. He also wants to highlight the past work of queer black people in Hollywood, some of whom have only recently stepped out of the shadows.
“There were so many queer black bodies in the industry that didn’t feel safe coming out and being themselves for fear of physical safety or abandonment,” Bowyer-Chapman says. “They were living in a state of self-protection. That hasn’t been studied enough, but it’s time we started documenting it. And living openly.”
You can watch Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman on unREAL every Monday on Lifetime. You can also listen to his new, episodic conversational podcast series JBC PRESENTS: CONVERSATIONS WITH “OTHERS," exploring the concept of “otherness” and finding the strength and beauty in our differences and connectivity.
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