Karl: It’s Sunday, April 17th, 2011. I’m having lunch at Basix with Los Angeles Publicist, Steve Valentine, producer of West Hollywood’s Gay Ballroom.
Steve: Did you want to take a look at the menu before we get started?
Karl: I always get the same thing, so go ahead. I go with the salmon omelet.
Steve: Oh, you’re getting breakfast?
Karl: Well, I’m drinking a mimosa, so why not?
Steve: This is it, I’m going to have a bagel today, and then I’m back on the diet. I haven’t eaten for weeks because I was getting ready for the LA Weekly photo shoot.
Karl: Well, the shoot is over so you can kind of go nuts, right?
Steve: But we’re getting ready to start competing again so I’m just going to go nuts for a little while.
Karl: *laughs* Good for you. Cheers.
Karl: So, when people ask you your occupation, how do you define yourself?
Karl: Approximate age?
Steve: I would say, late forties. I’m actually fifty.
Karl: No way!
Steve: Thank you. I think it’s the dancing. I’m passionate about what I do, so that helps. Everyone has a bad day, but I’m a very positive person, I always have been.
Karl: Are you training constantly? Is there anything outside of work and dancing?
Steve: I’ve always danced. When I was a kid, I would organize dance parties around my house. My dad didn’t really like that, he was uncomfortable with it, but my mom was a great dancer. She taught me all of those old dances from the 60s like “The Jerk” and all that stuff. In college, I started taking formal classes like jazz and ballet. I’m usually dancing at least once a week with Robert, my coach and dance partner. And we usually do at least a couple of hours when we’re not training to compete.
*waiter asks for orders*
Karl: Where do you like to go out?
Steve: You know what? It’s hard in LA because the places you can go out to dance are just the bars and clubs. When I was coming up, I did a lot of disco dancing. I loved that era! I loved the stainless steel dance floors, the lights, the pretty clothes, and the beautiful music. I danced with women then, and now I’m doing it with a guy. A few years into college, I came out to the woman I was with who was very supportive. I always wanted to rekindle that love of dancing with someone else because I think it’s a really beautiful art form. When I started thinking about doing same-sex dancing, I was really concerned about it not looking effeminate. I knew it wasn’t something that was traditional, and being in PR, I was concerned at how people would react to it. So I wanted to make sure people would be comfortable. I wanted to show them that it was cool, beautiful, sexy and fun. I wanted my passion and enthusiasm to come through and I think it really has, and that’s why we’re winning. I’m not the best dancer in the world. I’ve only been competing in ballroom since April of last year. I think it’s because I’m a showman and I can perform.
Karl: I saw you started Gay Ballroom in 2007, but that wasn’t ballroom dancing?
Steve: Yes, but I was producing the classes. I wasn’t teaching them. I wanted to be the producer. I always thought of Gay Ballroom as a business first, and the competing grew out of it. I had never considered it until I met Robert. I wanted to learn how to do it myself, so I asked, “How do I do this? I have to find someone who can be my dance instructor, and why don’t I offer it to the city?” So that’s how it started. The first instructor I met was really cool. I met him while I was having a margarita at Border Grill in Santa Monica. I saw this beautiful guy at the Dance Doctor, (the dance studio across the street on 4th). He was teaching this straight couple and I thought, “Wow, he’s really cute! Maybe I could dance with him.” I think he thought I was a stalker at first because I left this weird card with a note, so I’m glad he finally called. I said, “I just want to dance.” Because like I said, where do you go, where do you dance? He was my first instructor back in 2007. He went to do a project in Japan or something. So then I had a bisexual woman teaching the class. She was great, mostly salsa and cha-cha. And then I did an ad on CraigsList trying to find an instructor, and that’s how I found Robert.
Karl: Yeah, it seems like you two really connect.
Steve: Yes. He has the experience and the credentials to teach everything that I wanted to offer. And he’s a Taurus like I’m a Taurus. Crazy! He started to encourage me, saying, “You should compete!” So we started doing Pro-Am, which is a professional and amateur dancing together, and then we started entering all the different competitions. Right now we’re the Canadian champions. We would have to go back to Montreal in May to defend our title, but of course the Gay Games won’t happen for another 4-years, so I have that title for another 3-years.
Karl: Where do you like to go out socially?
Steve: Well, I love the O-Bar. I’m a very high-aesthetic person. I love beautiful things and I love modern. I’ll go to the Abbey because everyone goes there. I know the guys at SBE really well, I’ve done some PR projects for them. You know where I’ve been going, that’s in Hollywood, is Supper Club. I’ve been doing some PR stuff for them. They’re great guys and they’re very accepting of anything that comes in. It can be gay, drag-queen, straight, everything, and it’s just a very cool, welcoming environment. It’s beautiful because you eat dinner in a bed. I’m a regular guy too, I love going to Houston’s. I love going to Tender Greens. I was so glad when they came here.
Karl: Are you single? What’s your relationship status?
Steve: I’m in a relationship. I’ve been with a guy for four years in July. He’s really cool. He’s the total opposite of me. He’s a dancer too, but he’s into computer technology. So we live in different worlds. He starts talking about applications and servers and I start glazing over. I met him in West Hollywood at Republic.
Karl: So what brought you from Mississippi to Los Angeles?
Steve: The girl that I was dancing with. She was originally from Orange County. I was teaching disco classes in Oxford, Mississippi, and this really pretty Japanese woman and her sister started taking the class. She was pretty – very sensible jeans and decent shoes. So I started using her for some of my promotions. (You know, I’m always the PR guy, always the promoter). We started dancing together with friends, and we became lovers, and I was with her for ten years. Her mom had gone to Mississippi to retire. But her family ended up moving back to California, so I came out here with them.
Steve: Now they’re all back in Mississippi again.
Karl: When was that?
Steve: Oh my God… *thinks* I graduated college around ’84, so I came out here in the mid 80s.
Karl: Where did you go to school?
Steve: I went to Ole Miss, and I graduated high-school in Alabama, near Birmingham. I’ve lived in Florida, I’ve lived in Key West… Orlando when I was a kid.
Karl: All warm climates.
Steve: Yeah, it’s too bad. I have a lot of sun damaged skin that I’m paying for now from growing up on the Gulf Coast. We’d go to the beach everyday. I was hooked. So now I have to deal with that stuff.
Karl: Can you describe some of the changes you’ve seen over the time that you’ve been here?
Steve: Obviously there’s just so much more congestion. I notice it more because my boyfriend hates traffic. He doesn’t like living in Los Angeles, which is why he has a house in Arrowhead. So I notice it a lot because he’s always complaining about it. I don’t mind it so much, I know its part of being in a city. I just think we’re getting a lot more populated. There’s good and bad to that. It’s bringing in a lot of new business and restaurants from New York like Fig & Olive. But at the same time it makes it a little harder. It takes longer to get things done. There’s a lot of waiting in line. That’s the only challenge I see of everyday life in West Hollywood.
Karl: As an entrepreneur, does that make things more difficult for you?
Steve: I think it makes it better for me. The more people, the more energy that’s coming into Los Angeles. It’s more opportunity for me to tap into new industries. If this city is buzzing and busy, I can be busy too, so I welcome that. The Beverly Center has really changed even from a few years ago. It was once considered just a mall, now it’s considered a high-end luxury center with Prada and Tiffany.
*Food is delivered to table*
Steve: Our mass transit is really slow-going but there are some things happening. I’m even considering moving downtown so I can be closer to mass transit. Especially with gas prices now. West Hollywood is very aggressive in trying to bring business in. The Chamber of Commerce is really good about bringing the community together and trying to get businesses to link together and be part of the community. There are so many things that this small town can provide. It really is a creative city, and the marketing that’s done to bring people to this city is great.
Karl: Have you been over to the Pacific Design Center recently? It’s really taking shape.
Steve: I have not, but I’ve seen the red building going up. I haven’t seen the new library but I know there’s new parking now. Do you live near by?
Karl: We live down the road a ways, near Kings Road Park.
Steve: We teach at Plummer Park. We’ve had a lot of interest. The Executive Producer of “So You Think You Can Dance” called me up and they filmed us for a long time. They filmed me at my job, and did the whole, “He’s a business guy, and then has this other stuff going on.” They took so much footage, for months, and they were interested in doing some kind of show. They didn’t know what they wanted to do and then it all kind of fizzled out. But I’m currently optioned with a company called “Flytrap Entertainment,” and they’re doing a show called “Ballroom Bitch.” They want me to be a judge. So I hope that project goes through. That would be a lot of fun.
Karl: What an opportunity.
*pauses to chew*
Karl: How would you describe the attitude here to people outside of West Hollywood?
Steve: I think a lot of people outside of Los Angeles think that we’re very laid back, that we don’t work. Angelenos work as hard as New Yorkers. Everyone in this town is very driven. Because of the industries that do well out here – entertainment, design and fashion – people think that’s sort of a ‘soft’ category. We’re not on Wall Street, we’re not in banking, or we’re not known for those things. But everyone here works really hard. If there’s any misconception, it’s that we’re just laid back and want to go to the beach all day. It’s not true. People think PR people throw parties. I’m a salesman. I’m pitching all the time. I’m pitching to get my clients noticed on TV and in magazines. What’s great is that we are in an idealistic environment. It’s ideal weather, we go to the beach, we go to the mountains. People outside of LA think it’s somewhat of a paradise, and I agree. It is a paradise – so many options. People also think we’re very liberal, which is also true for the most part, even to the point of being eccentric. But that’s what makes this town run – people like me that have ideas and aren’t afraid to make them happen. People are sitting around in the MidWest, and even on the East Coast that have ideas, or they don’t have ideas, I don’t know, but we come out here to make things happen. We’re doers.
Karl: Well, I’ve lived in New York, and I’ve never met people as die-hard as the people I’ve met out here. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen such incredible back-stabbing either.
Steve: I have a beautiful story about that. I launched Eva Mendes. The actress was my secretary. I found her through AppelOne. I was using her temporarily, and I liked her, so I hired her full-time. You know, you pay a fee. I thought she was great, we got along wonderfully, and she was my assistant. We had accounts like a fashion account, a shoe account – I had Campari at the time. I made her the spokesmodel. So when we would do an event, I would have her serve the drinks. I was also handling Denzel Washington’s restaurant at the time, Georgia, which was on Melrose. So I kept putting her out there and she kept saying, “I want to be an actress, I want to be an actress.” And I was getting good feedback. When I would send her out on something, people would call me and ask, “Who is that? She’s fabulous!” So I started managing her. I was getting the breakdowns and I was sending her out everyday. I was letting her use my car to go on auditions, because she had a beat-up old Mustang. Meanwhile I’m sitting there answering my own phone, bringing her frappaccinos. So I started getting her gigs. I used all my resources, photographers, make-up artists, got her everything for free, got her gorgeous pictures, wardrobe. I got her one of the “Children of the Corns.” I got her an “ER.” I signed her with LA Models talent division. The turning point was when I booked her for an Aerosmith video with Propaganda Films, and the Director was Antoine Fuqua when he was directing music videos. She played a wonder woman or something, and I got a call from the set. She said, “Steve, I met someone on the set and they said they can do x, y, and z for me.” And my mistake is that I didn’t go to the set. I don’t know why I didn’t. Probably because I was working, I was doing the PR thing. And she said, “I’m going to go with them,” and blah blah blah. I destroyed my office that day. I was so mad. This is a woman who said, “You’re family, I’ll take care of you, you take care of me.” All that kind of stuff. Really smart girl. So Antoine Fuqua would later use her in Training Day with Denzel. People remind me that I introduced her to Denzel. I don’t really remember it, but she was working with me around the time I had his restaurant. I don’t remember. I connect people, I do it all the time, it’s second-hand for me. So I think those things that came together are what launched her. But she totally stabbed me in the back, just like you said. I’ve never seen her since.
Karl: I’m sorry. You two don’t stay in touch, huh?
Steve: But, what you said happens, and I actually met with some friends of mine that were managers, and they said, “Steve, everyone leaves their first manager.” But it was hard because I’d be watching TV and I’d see a promo, or I’d go to the grocery store and she’d be on a magazine cover. Imagine breaking up with someone and seeing them everyday. It was awful. I know I can’t give any more energy to that, but for many, many years, it was really hard to get over. I think this is my time, and this is why I’m very passionate about doing my ideas that I want to do like the Ballroom. I realized that I gotta take care of myself first and then do things for other people.
Karl: Tell me what you would like to see more of here.
Steve: In the gay community, I would like to see more upscale places where we can congregate. The Abbey is fine, Micky’s is fine, but I like places like the O-Bar and Supper Club. I like places where you can talk and lounge, and you don’t have music pounding. We’ve got great restaurants, great hotels, but maybe a really cool place where you can dance. What would be great would be to see West Hollywood continue to evolve to be able to have same-sex partners get married. This is a great time to be in West Hollywood. That’s why I wanted to do Gay Ballroom with the City of West Hollywood because it’s known worldwide as a gay mecca. What else do I want to see more of? I don’t know, more hot men, that’s always fun.
Karl: Well, maybe the new upscale clubs will bring ’em in.
Steve: Yeah. Maybe.
Karl: How about less of?
Steve: I’ve had a lot of clients in West Hollywood. I don’t know if it’s because I know how to negotiate with people, or I’m diplomatic, or I understand that you need to create relationships with people to get what you need. But I’ve always worked hard to create those relationships, so when I need something, it’s easier. So I would say this city has been supportive of everything I’ve needed to do. The perfect point of that is when I wanted to do Gay Ballroom, that was an immediate, “yes.” I would’ve liked a little more help promoting it. I did all of the promotion myself. The Parks and Recreation doesn’t have big budget to promote their facility, so it’s up to the people they have there to get the word out. That’s the only thing I would’ve liked to have seen more of.
Karl: That must be difficult as a publicist to know all of the things that should be happening and seeing none of that taking place.
Steve: It is. That’s the only thing I would’ve liked to have seen more of.
Karl: So you’re happy here? The city has been good to you?
Steve: Yes. Very. I’m an openly gay man, and I’ve never had any problems or issues with safety or anything. Some people have, but I never have, I hope I never do.
Karl: Tell me what you see for us ten to twenty years from now.
Steve: There will have to be more mass transit. That has to be completed. It’s really obvious right now with the gas problems that things are going to have to change. It’s going to save the residents money and it’s going to ease congestion. There are plenty of people who want to do business here so they can be selective about the kind of mix of business that they bring in. This is why I think West Hollywood is the little jewel that it is. I also hope in another 10-years, the City of West Hollywood will legalize gay marriage. I hope we’re there by then, if not way before.