Saturday, March 12, 2005

Blast From The Past: The Sophia Article

Before the next episode comes on this Monday (tentative title: "Dead Dan Walking"), I thought that I could share some old stuff with you.

The year is 2001. I'm taking one of my final graduate courses at NYU. I'm supposed to write a profile for the class. In a half-court jump shot at the buzzer, I try and contact Sophia Pasquis. At the time, Road Rules: The Quest had just finished airing. Sophia was not only a cast member, but also the first openly gay character in the show's history. The way I had figured, she seemed nice on television, and she was based in New York. And yeah, the gay thing made for a great hook. Seriously, how could I have sold a story on, say, Katie? Or Ellen?

I ended up interviewing Sophia twice, and wrote an article about it. Yeah, I tried getting a hold of production and castmates, but that didn't pan out. This article never got published, since I tried selling it to gay & lesbian magazines (I am a bit of an idiot, am I not?). This is all 2001, so the current stuff is out of date. Those who see me at TWoP can probably guess that watching her break down during Battle of the Sexes 2 was freakin' brutal for me to watch. Here it is...enjoy!

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Imagine, if you will, that for ten weeks, you get to go to exotic locations. You experience such thrills as rappelling down steep mountains, charming cobras, and bungee jumping with complete strangers. Now imagine if there was something more terrifying than anything, something that is on your mind during the journey, and that a cable television audience would be watching your every move. For Sophia Pasquis (pronounce "pass-key"), that dread was telling her parents that she was a lesbian.

In early 2001, Sophia became the first openly gay cast member of the MTV reality show, "Road Rules." The show, which began production in 1996, revolves around six young adults as they compete in various events as a group. This season, "The Quest," was held in Morocco and Spain over a 10-week period, as the sextet played for pieces of a crest, which would allow them to win an often-mentioned "handsome reward" at the end of the journey. However, she had not told her parents about her sexuality until after her trip, just before the episodes began to air.

Sophia was born on June 22, 1977, in Jamaica, Queens. She lived in Haiti with aunts and uncles before coming back to America when she was 5. After living in Queens for six months, her family moved to Elmont, N.Y.

It wasn’t until high school that Sophia began to question her sexual preferences. "I was like, ‘Nah, I’m just going to shake it off, this is wrong, this is wrong.’ But I didn’t come to terms with it until I went to college at [the age] of 18. By 19, that’s when I like, ‘you know what? That’s it.’ I came out to myself and I became comfortable with it."

Her first real experience came with a kiss with another girl at a movie theater; they were each other’s "first" (which she described as "awkward at first, but then it was okay.") She began to date other girls, slowly coming out the closet. After some time, she felt comfortable telling her friends about her new identity, starting with Jeff, her best friend. "Jeff was laughing at me," she reminisced. "He told me I never ceased to amaze him, I’m the only person in the world that can shock and amaze him at the same time. But then he was cool about it and he was happy."

However, she decided against telling her parents, given the family’s Catholic background. "In Haiti, your name means everything," she said. "You can have all the money in the world, but if you have a bad name, they’re not going to respect you. They’ll respect the name more than the wealth. If I make them look bad, it will affect them, and all their friends will be like, "Ooooh, that Pasquis family.’"

In 2000, Sophia graduated from SUNY-Albany with a communications degree along with a theater minor. She wanted to travel, since she would have the rest of her life to work. She worked as a groundskeeper at Albany, as well as an event coordinator, planning parties and bar mitzvahs in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. While working with a film crew in Maryland as a production assistant, a friend told her about auditions for "Road Rules" which were being held in Boston.

"On a whim, I was like, ‘Hey, why not?’" she said. "I never been to Boston, so I get to see the city. Even if I don’t make it, I figured at least I got to see Boston."

Before long, Sophia passed through round after round of auditions. On December 15, 2000 she arrived in Palm Springs, Ca., alongside 27 other hopefuls for "Road Rules" and "The Real World," MTV’s reality television mainstay, which was casting for their tenth season (to be filmed in New York City.) There, casting directors interviewed them once more, as well as putting them through games of "Show & Tell" and "Truth Or Dare" in order to gauge their interaction with one another.

Many of the would-be cast members attempted to figure out who among them was gay, given the appearance of open and potentially closeted gay people in past seasons of "The Real World" (which had had eight confirmed gay people in its history, including three in the last two seasons). None of them suspected Sophia. On the third day, during "Show & Tell," she outted herself to the others.

"It was like a manhunt," she recalled. "They were like, ‘Do you think he is?’ ‘Do you think she is?’ And I was thinking, ‘Wow, that’s really bizarre.’ I’m looking at all these people trying to figure out who’s the one. That was kind of interesting and sad at the same time."

In the end, Sophia was chosen to be on "Road Rules: The Quest." Among her closest friends on the trip was Jisela Delgado, a 20-year-old from Tampa. Their friendship would prove to be short; an added quirk in the show called for the cast members to vote somebody out upon a failure of a mission. After balking over rappelling down a mountain, Jisela was voted off, 4-2, with Sophia refusing to vote for her. During their time together, viewers got the idea that Sophia was interested in Jisela as more than just a friend.

"We have interviews every one to two weeks that last three and a half hours long where they ask us questions about the missions and what’s been going on in the R.V.," said Sophia. "They asked Jisela, ‘Do you think Sophia is a really good friend with you because she has a crush on you?’ Now Jisela thought that I may have said something about that in my interviews, so she got a little paranoid and started becoming distant with me. I asked her what was wrong and she told me. I told I didn’t have a crush on her, that they were misleading her, trying to make her think something that’s really not there."

At one point, the cast members went on blind dates in Altea, Spain. Sophia was set up with Kelly, an au pair from St. Louis. The date, which Sophia had been nervous about when she found out she had to go, was chronicled on the show. Sophia had been given cash and a curfew of 11 p.m. for her date. However, since she didn’t speak Spanish, the couple ended up lost.

"We got lost for a good hour-and-a-half," she remisiced, "Because I made [the taxi driver] drop us off at the wrong place. In the whole hour-and-a-half, she was so cool. We just talked and laughed. I felt so much better, because any other date would be like, ‘Oh, this girl doesn’t know where she’s going’ and be really snotty, but she was really cool and laid back, especially by the time we found the restaurant.

"I was kind of glad because to have one other person to relate to who can understand where I am coming from. It was nice and refreshing."

At the end of the ten weeks, Sophia, along with her castmates, received the vaunted "Handsome Reward": a 2001 Suzuki Grand Vitara suv. Since the final destination was New York City, she traveled the shortest distance home. Before long, she would break the news about her sexuality to her parents.

"I couldn’t quite get the words out," she said, remembering how she broke the news to her mother. "I was really scared and nervous. So she started guessing. ‘Sophia, are you pregnant?’ I’m like, ‘No, Mom, I’m not pregnant.’

"‘Oh, Sophia, are you dying?’ She thought I was dying. ‘No, Mom, I’m not dying.’"

Sophia laughs when she finishes the story. "She said, ‘Are you gay?’ And I said, ‘Yes!’ And she said, ‘Oh, Sophia, I wish you would told me that you were pregnant.’"

Sophia had especially dreaded telling her father the news; on the show, she had expressed fear that the news would kill him. "He took it really hard," she said. "He was crying for about an hour in front of me, which was the hardest thing to sit through. This man, I’d never seen him cry in all my life. The fact that I made him cry was really disturbing and upsetting.

"He couldn’t look at me in my face too much for about a week. I knew there was hope; he called to wish me a happy birthday, and that made me feel better because this was going to take time and he’ll be okay. Now we talk more, we joke around, and things are a lot better now."

Today, Sophia resides in Wantagh, N.Y. with a cousin. She works as a substitute teacher in District 29. She has traveled a lot in the past several months, visiting San Francisco and Tampa. She also visited St. Louis, meeting Kelly twice, in addition to talking on the phone with her once a week. Her future plans include traveling cross-country, reuniting with her fellow cast members from "Road Rules" and well as a few roommates from "The Real World" (including a stop in Tampa for Jisela’s 21st birthday), visiting friends and family in Arizona and New Mexico, and stopping in San Francisco, where she plans to live there for a while.

In addition, she is preparing to go on the lecture circuit, talking about her experiences in her life and on the show. Gay-oriented publications have sought out her story. She often gets recognized while out in public (as she puts it, "It’s the afro, man, it kills me.")

"Some people cry, which is shocking to me," she said. "They tell me that [my experiences] helped them a lot to realize a lot about themselves and my struggles affected them so much. It makes me feel weird because here I’m being put in a role model position, when all I was doing was just living my life. I appreciate it and I don’t hate it, but I just see myself living my life."

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Did you like that? I have two more articles to show you, then.

Dorothy Hui: The whole story on how we met? Totally true. I've run into her a few times afterwards, including two TARCons. I'm hoping that Mole 2 gets the DVD treatment down the road, because she was fun to watch.

John Vito Pietanza & Jill Aquilino: Another Hail Mary interview. I had gotten a hold of their up-and-coming web site with their e-mail address. I had to do it over the phone, with a CBS official overseeing (overhearing?) the process. The story got published a week after the finale. And yeah, they are lovely people. As adorable and studly as Kris & Jon, but without all the public displays of affection.