Friday, January 3, 1997

Kelso Talks: Exclusive Twin Cities Interview with Supermodel Steve Kelso

(Published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #42, January 3, 1997)

“If I’m going to have this fame, I might as well use it for something good.”

He’s manly, he’s hairy, he’s supermodel Steve Kelso. Leather types love him because he wears their favorite material so well. Bears love him because he’s furry. Lots of other men seem to love him, too, as evidenced by the fact that in all their years of operation Colt Studios never devoted an entire calendar, one whole year’s worth of pictures, to any single man until Kelso came along.

It was a fundraiser for the Aliveness Project that brought Steve Kelso (and his manager, Jeff Adams) to Town House Country in St. Paul the night of Friday, December 13. The bar was jam-packed with Kelso fans, who waited patiently (in a very long line) to meet the legend. Kelso autographed their calendars and posed with them for Polaroid photos from the camera of Thomas Fleisher. Lady Monique Champagne entertained, and two autographed portraits of Kelso by local artist Damon Thrift were sold to the highest bidder. By closing time over $1500 had been raised to benefit the Aliveness Project’s Holiday Basket Program, and hundreds of Kelso fans had experienced an evening they’d remember for a long, long time.

Before meeting his public, Kelso graciously allowed me to interview him. For forty-five minutes, in a basement office at Town House Country, we talked about everything: his childhood and teenage years, how he became the icon of masculinity he is today, and what he’d like to do in the future. We talked about AIDS, politics, sex, nudity, celebrity, romance, and the Marlboro man. He impressed me as witty, intelligent, gregarious, unassuming—an all-around nice guy, a regular Joe who lives on a farm in New Jersey. Who just happens to have one of the most gorgeous and celebrated furry bodies in history. And who doesn’t quite understand what all the fuss is about.

How exactly do you describe what it is you do? Do you call it physique modeling, beefcake, erotica, porn—what is it?

I’m not sure what the classification is. I just call it nude modeling. It, uh, gets me by.

How did you get into this? The story is that you submitted photos to Colt on a dare. What’s the real story?

No, it wasn’t a dare, that was a misquote. Actually, when I was out in California I met Rip Colt (photographer and owner of Colt Studios), we hit it off talking and he asked me if I’d like to pose. So I ended up posing. They flew me out for the first photo shoot, which ended up being the cover of the 1993 calendar, and from there on I guess sales were real good. Why I don’t know, it’s all a mystery to me—I think of myself as just a normal, everyday person.. But it caught on, so they started doing calendar after calendar after calendar. This year I did my own calendar with Eagle Studios that I produced with Jeff Adams, and a lot of the monies are going to AIDS charities. I felt if I’m going to have this fame and people are going to come out to see me, I might as well use it for something good, which is something I’d like to see a lot more of the porn industry do.

You just said “porn industry.” Why do I not think of what you do as porn?

It still gets classified as porn. I mean, no matter how you personally might look at it, most people look at it as porn. It doesn’t end up on the cover of Newsweek magazine because, you know, there’s obviously penises—HUGE penises, I might add. So, that’s why I classify it as porn. But nude modeling basically is all it is, because it doesn’t depict sexual acts, there’s no contact with anyone else.

Did you have to think long and hard (so to speak) about doing this, or have you always had an exhibitionistic streak about you?

I think everybody’s got a little bit of an exhibitionistic streak in them. I first started out being very, very fat, drunk and falling down all the time, and I went to a certain extreme. I did drugs, I got fat, I looked terrible, and I felt awful. So I thought, “What would it be like if I went to the OPPOSITE extreme? So, being the extremist that I am, I started working out and feeling real good about myself. So, naturally, I just kinda felt posing with my clothes off would be cool to do. As I said, I never thought it would turn into what it’s turned into.

You clean up very well.

What do you mean?

That’s a Twelve Step expression. Recovering alcoholics say, when they’re talking to one another, “You clean up very well.”

But that’s the way I think everybody should look at their lives. If you’re unhappy with your life, if you’re fat, if you’re too skinny, then change it. It’s not an easy process by any means. For me, it took four or five years of constantly working out and dieting. But all of a sudden people started to notice me, whereas before I had problems getting a date. I have to admit it’s very nice now that the tables are turned.

And all those people who wouldn’t date you years ago are KICKING THEMSELVES!

KICKING THEIR ASS! Yes! I was about fifteen when I started going out to the bars—I actually started working when I was a little underage because I looked like I was forty, you know, with the fur and everything—and I went through the same thing most kids go through doing drugs, not excessively, but to the point where I was unhappy with myself. And not hard drugs like heroin, or anything like that. Maybe a joint or things like that. Drinking, mostly, because you were partying with your friends. And I was getting fat, and I just wasn’t real comfortable in my jeans, basically.

Are you clean now?

Oh, yeah. It’s very difficult, because I like to drink. I mean, I LOVE to drink. I’m Italian and Irish, which means my ass is gonna get very huge and I like to fall on the ground drunk. So, I work out and try to stay in shape. It’s hard when I’m on the road, obviously, but when I have to do photo work, I mean, the camera doesn’t lie. It puts ten pounds on you, so you have to try to deduct as much as possible.

How long did you think this would last when you got started?

I didn’t think it would go anywhere, to tell you the truth.

Did you think Colt would take one roll of film, and maybe some people would buy the pictures, but you’d never hear from them again?

That’s what I thought, and they pre-warned me that sometimes pictures sell and sometimes they don’t. And if they didn’t, you know, I shouldn’t take it to heart. But I thought, well, it’s just an interesting thing to do. And they ended up putting me on the cover of the Colt Calendar and from there the sales just went right through the roof. I was the first guy in a long time, maybe ten years, to come in with the fur and the mustache, ’cause they get all the California bodybuilders who shave their chests and cut their crotch hair back. I guess it was just at the time when fur was becoming popular and the whole Bear craze started. And I mean, they’re my biggest fans, the leather crew and the Bears.

Who masterminded your rise to the top? You, Rip Colt, someone else, or did it just take off, and both you and Rip Colt are mystified?

Like I said, it was one of those things. You can’t predict anything. I mean, I’ve seen very attractive, hunky bodybuilder kids, and their pictures just don’t sell, they just don’t go. I don’t know what the actual mystique is. Also, I was basically the first one that they could send out on the road, because I could speak and tie my shoes at the same time—

Most of them can’t?

Most of them can’t.

Do you know any other Colt models? Care to dish?

No. All the models are flown in from different locations, so I’m pretty much out of touch with them.

What’s Rip Colt like to work with?

He’s great, he’s great. He’s an older gentleman, I guess 40’s—KIDDING, KIDDING. That’ll make it nice for him and piss off 40-year-olds. But, he’s great to work with, he really is. It’s very, very easy, there’s no pressure, and it’s usually an assistant and the model and himself.

Have you ever been featured in a book by Jim French?

Oh, the art books? No, no. Art doesn’t sell. That was one of his quotes, too. More people buy the more erotic-looking stuff. The artsy stuff is nice, but it doesn’t sell as well, so they never really put me into those kinds of poses or anything.

They put you in the poses?

Well, basically it’s kind of a mutual thing. A model can be very stiff, and can just be standing there looking dead straight at the camera, expressionless, and Rip will have to tell him how to pose. That’s one of the crafts that Rip says I had, the fact I knew how to turn and look at the camera, to change the expression, instead of looking straight ahead and scared.

And that was natural?


Like they say, “The camera loves you.”

It’s real weird, I get very friendly with it. You don’t look at it as a piece of machinery, you just look at it as if you’re looking at somebody or you’re speaking with somebody, and you want to get a reaction from them. That’s how you treat the camera.

What happened with Colt? Are you still with them at all?

I’m actually with my own company now. I’m going to work with that and get that off the ground, primarily using it for generating cash for AIDS organizations and things like that.

Did you leave Colt on good terms?

Oh, yeah, we’re all still good friends.

Who is the most popular male skin model of all time? Do you know, and is it maybe you?

I don’t think it’s me. Bruno, who used to be a Colt model, was very popular. Again, he had the fur, the mustache, and then that fell out of play when the trend swungto the body builders with the shaved chests. And I guess when I came in, I brought that back.

According to the Colt Anniversary Collection, which I just happen to have here, Bruno dates from 1973. I have a picture right here . . .

See the similarities? The hair, the mustache.

You Italian guys. If he cut his hair to the same length as yours, you could be brothers.

But at the time the style was the longer hair. And Bruno’s not overly built, but he’s very masculine.

Did you grow up looking at pictures of naked men?


Did you ever imagine one day you’d be one of them?


It never occurred to you?

Never occurred to me. I knew I was gay when I was nine years old. My mother had died when I was ten, and I was fooling around a year before that. So I started out before I had hair and could count.

Where did you get your pictures to look at?

Every place imagineable. At a newsstand, you opened a magazine and there’s the Marlboro cigarette guy, who I thought was just a hot stud.

Did you look at Playgirl when it was new?

Sure, when I could get my hands on it.

And the physique magazines? Well, actually, that would probably pre-date you. That was before they showed dick.

Before they showed dick? Well, actually, nowadays they try, but a lot of guys don’t show dick because they don’t have dick, basically. Take steroids and you deduct balls, you know. A lot of people think that I do steroids, but you can’t do them unless you’re overly hung, (which I’m not, you know) and I’d be afraid if I took steroids my balls would shrink up and my dick would be gone.

You don’t have a steroid body—

No, no, it’s not overly built—

You’ve got a NICE body.

I try to keep it toned, and that’s it.

Do you work out on your own, or do you have a trainer?

I work out on my own.

You probably have to watch what you eat. I think we already covered that.

Yeah, diet’s rough.

So—what’s your favorite food?

Ice cream, candies, beer, wine, sangria . . .

Do you ever see yourself on a Wheaties box someday?

On a Wheaties box? That would a nice twist—Cathy Rigby flipping off bars and my ass posted right on a Wheaties box. That would be fantastic!

It would make breakfast a lot more interesting.

At least for gay people.

What’s it like being a megastar?

Well, it’s interesting, it’s interesting. I can see how people would want to be noticed and would want the attention. See, I was always just the opposite, I was used to NEVER being noticed and always just in the crowd. So it was definitely an eye-opener for me. It’s very flattering when fans come up, but when it happens on such a regular basis (because I travel mostly in gay communities and gay locations), when you’re eating and you have people coming up to ask for an autograph and stuff it gets a little tiring.

Does that happen a lot?

Yeah, it does.

How well-known, how notorious are you?

It’s pretty world-wide. I’ve just gotten on the Web to find I’ve gotten mail from Honduras, from Africa, places you would never think of. China—they love me over in China.

Because of the fur, I suppose. But I’ve always had the feeling that there’s this little segment of society that loves Rip Colt’s photography and that knows you, but that the other 99.99% isn’t into that. So you could go to, say, Disneyland and nobody’s gonna know who you are.

See, that’s what amazes me. I thought the same way, I thought there was a specific type of person who bought the Colt material. But I’m finding out as I do more traveling, plus interviews and promoting and going around doing a lot of AIDS benefits, I’m getting pretty well-known. It’s fanning out—people are talking to me and are finding out, “Well, he’s not a douche bag like we suspected he’s gotta be,” so they end up telling a friend, and then it just kind of spreads like that. I guess. That’s what I’m assuming.

Why do you continue to do this?

Well, my reason now is, like I said, I put together this new studio, and I’m going to get gay models and other people who are interested in doing the same thing Colt does, but using more of the monies to benefit AIDS causes.

(This interview will be continued in the next issue.)

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