When hunky Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas came out at the height of his sports career, he became one of the very few openly gay active professional athletes in the world.
Since his retirement from his sport last fall, Thomas was voted the most influential gay person in the UK, receiving Stonewall’s hero of the year award in 2010, and proved his credentials as a positive role model during his time in the Celebrity Big Brother house earlier this year.
His inspirational story is now being made into a feature film with Oscar nominee Mickey Rourke as star.
But before then, he is making wishes come true starring as the genie in a pantomime production of Aladdin.
The out and proud star will be polishing his lamp and flexing his acting skills, among other things, especially for the traditional British festive show at the Stiwt Theatre in Wrexham.
Gay Star News chatted to Thomas about his latest career move as a panto hero.
Are you excited about your acting debut in panto?
When they first rang me about the part my first reaction was ‘no chance’ because I’ve never done it before and never thought I would get to do it. But when I spoke to my family and they told me how much they liked panto and how much fun it is at Christmas.
When you’ve finished doing something all you’ve ever wanted to do, it’s good to try and step outside of your comfort zone and challenge yourself. That’s how you find out what you want to do for the rest of your life. It’s all about having fun and making people laugh. So why not give this opportunity a crack and who knows what it may bring in the future?
How are your acting skills?
Panto is less about acting and more about not taking yourself too seriously. People come in with a smile on their face and expect to leave with a bigger smile on their face. You can’t dress up in silly costumes and tell gags if you take yourself seriously. I want people to laugh along with me.
Since you retired from professional rugby, you appeared in Celebrity Big Brother. For many the reality show has been career suicide. Has it helped or hindered you?
I don’t care about what other people think of me. I do what is exciting to me. I’ve learnt in my life that you can’t please everybody and the only people that matter to me are those that are close to me, my family and friends. If they don’t mind what they do, if they think it’s good for and fun, then it’s their opinion which matters to me.
Celebrity Big Brother was a fantastic experience for me. I learnt a lot about myself and I made some really good friends. Now I’m doing panto. Some people may say, ‘Why are you doing panto?’ You know what, it’s because I want to and I want to have a laugh. When I go in my box at the end of my life, maybe panto could have been the worst thing I did in my life but it may have been the best thing. There’s only one way to find out and that’s by doing it.
I’ve done everything I wanted to do in rugby, so I can’t just sit on my arse in my nice little house and watch life go by. I want to carry on living my life. I’m 38 and loving everything I do. I’m challenging myself and doing things I never ever thought I would do. People think if you’ve done this, you should automatically do that. But I say balls to that. If it puts a smile on my face, I do it regardless.
One positive thing which came out of you starring on Big Brother was that you gave many young people a positive gay role model...
On TV sometimes gay people are portrayed as a stereotype. A big thing about me going into the Big Brother house was showing people who I was and how I am. There’s nothing wrong with being a stereotype either but a lot of people only see that. So they never get to see any other type of human being.
It was a good thing for me and it was an education to a lot of people who realized that there are not only different types of straight people but there are also different types of gay people.
A lot of gay athletes wait until retirement before they come out publicly. Why did you decide to do it while you were still playing the game?
Children are usually sent the message that it’s ok to come out in sports but not until you have retired. But I wanted to show that you don’t have to stay hidden when you’re playing sports. I hid for a long time because I chose sport before I chose my life. But I matured to a point where I decided that I wanted to do both. I didn’t know if the sport would allow me too but I am blessed that it did.
It’s not just me that was the positive role model though, it was also the sport and the team that I was with and played against. That’s what makes me proud to say that I was a sportsman who was able to be myself. I wanted to show that you don’t have to hide because sport is sport, regardless of gender and sexual orientation. As long as you are good at it, people will respect you for that.
There was a lot of criticism during the Olympics that there weren’t enough out gay athletes. Do you think sport in general is still homophobic?
I don’t think it’s homophobic inside sport. But I think the terraces and sometimes the crowd give an intimidating atmosphere. I wouldn’t want to play rugby if I thought I would have to go to a grounds where I would get abused from the crowd because I can’t focus on the game.
I’ve never come across any homophobia in changing rooms or elsewhere within the game. There only place I have experienced it is on the terraces or in the crowds. But within the game it’s all about what you contribute to the team as a professional athlete not what you do behind closed doors.
How important is it to have more out gay athletes?
I do think it’s important but I think it’s more important that they’re positive role models. For me, the reason my story is positive is not the fact that I’m gay but because of my story and what I do after. It’s my acceptance of people, going into the Big Brother house and starring in panto. Who really cares if the person is gay?
If I read that Justin Fashanu came out as gay and killed himself for his football, what message does that send? If I read that Gareth Thomas came out as gay, he carried on playing and his life was great, people accepted him and he can walk on the street with no bother, holding his head high for the next 15 years. That to me is what it’s all about. People have changed their lives and come out because my story was positive.
Your story is going to be told on the big screen in an upcoming Hollywood biopic. How do you feel about Mickey Rourke being chosen to play you?
I don’t give a shit what I look like. I look in the mirror and I don’t care. I’ve trained hard in my life and worked hard to be good at my career. People say Mickey doesn’t look like me but that’s because I don’t care what I look like. I care more about how people portray the way I am, the way I treat people and the way I talk to people. Who I am inside and what I’ve been through is what’s important.
To me, there’s not a fucking actor in this world that can touch Mickey Rourke for playing emotional roles. I’ve spent time with him and he knows me inside out. I’ve told him things that nobody has ever been told. Maybe when they watch the movie at first they will say, 'Fuck, he looks nothing like Gareth', but then after, because my story is not about what I look like, it’s about what I’ve been through, I think people won’t even see it, they will see an emotional rollercoaster ride.
I want them to see where I’ve come from and where I’ve come to, as well as all the shit that’s happened in between. That’s emotions, not taking my top off and standing in front of the mirror. I’m a guy who has been an emotional wreck and at the same time has been the happiest man alive. To try and get that across takes one hell of an actor.