Playgirl Centerfold - And Gay Editors Got Over It. Dirk Shafer Based His Film On It.

Posted: July 11, 1996

LOS ANGELES — It's little wonder that women across America responded with ardent enthusiasm when presented with Dirk Shafer as the ideal man.

Named Playgirl's 1992 ``Man of the Year'' after appearing as the magazine's centerfold, Shafer had plenty going for him: boyish, chiseled good looks; the physique of a Greek statue; an outgoing yet reflective demeanor that radiated both self-assurance and gentleness. Superbly mediagenic, he even dared to venture where Freud had feared to tread, speaking out on the question of what a woman wants.

There was just one hitch.

Shafer was resolutely gay. Which can be hazardous to your job security when you're getting paid to star as every female's dream guy.

``When it started really snowballing, I thought, `Well, I'm an actor. No big deal,' '' says Shafer, 33, drinking mineral water in a fashionable West Hollywood cafe called Buzz.

``Next thing I know, my lover has to pretend like he's my roommate. My best friend has to pretend like she's my girlfriend. My parents are just getting used to the idea of me being gay, and now they're seeing me on TV being straight, and they're confused.''

He never lied about his sexuality, Shafer points out. The fact is, up until the end, nobody asked him point-blank. But the fact of his gayness was like a time bomb waiting to detonate.

All this could have amounted to little more than a heroically stressful year in one man's life. But Shafer was an aspiring filmmaker who had learned the ropes of movie making at the University of Oklahoma. And when it was over, he realized that he'd been handed the perfect premise for his first feature.

The result is Man of the Year, a mock documentary Shafer shot in 13 days on a $20,000 budget. It has played festivals both general and gay, and has received enthusiastic notices for its whimsicality and the deft way it deflates gay stereotypes. More significantly, Man - which screens tomorrow and Saturday at the Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival - stands to position Shafer for the filmmaking career that had been so elusive.

``You see so many gay stereotypes in the movies,'' Shafer says. ``I mean, Birdcage was funny, but it was really nothing more than a gay minstrel show. . . . The people I know are very integrated into mainstream life. They're not necessarily doing drag, or getting tattooed or pierced. I wanted to set up the stereotype of being a gay man, as well as an `ideal man,' and skew it from my own point of view.''

There's a margin of dramatic license in the spoofy portrayal of his year in the spotlight, says Shafer, the film's star and director. But he insists that in terms of incident, ``it's 99 percent accurate.'' Most of the characters are real, though a handful are composites and, with few exceptions, they were played by actors. ``I wanted to skew them, and I couldn't get that out of real people,'' he explains.

How did the actual people feel about that?

``Well, my mother's response was, `Couldn't I have been a little more glamorous?' I think she would have preferred Donna Mills. My father liked the guy playing him and enjoyed the movie. He just wishes it were about other people.''

``The whole mess,'' as Shafer refers to it, started when, unbeknownst to him, a woman friend sent his photo to Playgirl. Several months and a centerfold later, the struggling screenwriter found himself well into a modeling career.

But trouble was soon brewing. Friends lobbied Shafer to declare his sexuality on one of his many TV talk-show appearances. And the militant gay group Act Out dispatched an outing squad to dog Shafer. Striving to get the goods on him, group members studied videos of his appearances, hoping to decode his choice of gender pronouns when he discussed personal relationships.

``That was at the time when they were outing everyone,'' says the Oklahoma native. ``It's died down now, and I'm glad. I can see outing a person if they're being hypocritical and doing something to hurt the gay agenda, but otherwise it's a gay person's own decision.

``Anyway, it got to the point where I quit going to any gay functions at all for a year - no bars, no charity function - because I was afraid I'd be coming up against it more and more.'' Every show he appeared on, from Donahue to Jerry Springer, ``upped the odds that I'd be outed.''

In the meantime, Shafer found himself in phone relationships with several women via Playgirl's ``Man of the Year'' phone line, which offered women recorded Dirk fantasies. ``I would respond to a lot of them - it became part of my research,'' he says. ``Although some of them got really sick and demented.''

Shafer was three weeks from completing his ``Man of the Year'' stint when, moments before appearing on a now-defunct New York talk show, he was confronted directly about his gayness by a producer.

``I panicked,'' he recalls. ``I didn't know what to say, didn't want to lie. I just ended up running from the scene.''

But the show's producers kept quiet as regards to Playgirl, and it wasn't until Shafer's film was in the works that editors discovered the truth about their man.

``At first they wouldn't talk about it, and they were real upset with me,'' Shafer says. ``But as the film started getting attention, they finally embraced it and went on Donahue with me. They've been really gracious.''

The publicity, says Shafer, has forced Playgirl to acknowledge its substantial gay readership. ``It's an issue that's been in the closet for a long time,'' he says. ``It's like they were embarrassed about it. But now it's, `Yeah, we've got a gay readership, so what?' ''

These days Shafer is keeping a busy schedule, attending openings for the film and trying to get his next project off the ground. He's nursing several possibilities, the foremost being a script he wrote about a ``dysfunctional Oklahoma family that runs a trout farm and restaurant.''

``I've been advised not to do another gay project next,'' Shafer says. ``But it's so damned tough . . . to get anything made, if I had a gay project I could take to the bank, I would do it.''

And by the way, just what is it that women want, anyway?

``Women,'' says Shafer, ``want to be listened to.''

IF YOU GO * Man of the Year will be shown at 9:45 p.m. tomorrow at the Ritz at the Bourse, 4th Street between Market and Chestnut, and 2:30 p.m. Saturday at the Ritz Five, 214 Walnut St. Dirk Shafer will attend both screenings. Tickets: $6.50. Information: 215-893-1145.

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