GARY LEE BOAS

Interview by Jop van Bennekom

Hello!! Who did not buy, or at least see, Gary Lee Boas’ amazing book Starstruck when it came out a few years ago? Since the age of 14 Gary has taken thousands and thousands of pictures of stars — traveling from city to city hunting down celebrities while making his money managing a porn store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the small city where he was born and still lives. Starstruck brought Gary out of his anonymity and put him on the map. But hey, there’s more… His second book, New York Sex 1979—1985, documents the Times Square scene of porn stars and hustlers. These days, Gary is multitasking as an artist, beefcake photographer and professional celebrity snapper. I spoke with Gary in Amsterdam where he was staying at his friend Xaviera Hollander’s hostel. Gary is good fun, he’s super upbeat.

Jop: How’s life in Lancaster?
Gary: I like it. It’s a bit small-minded but a very friendly place. When you come there you step back in time for what America has to offer. You don’t see a lot of things that actually show you the time period you’re in. It’s a bit of ‘untouched America’. I do travel a lot. I’m actually only three hours out of New York, an hour out of Baltimore, and an hour and a half out of Philadelphia, so I can go to every major city and not feel all caught up in whatever. Been there, done that.
Have you lived in Lancaster all your life?
Yep, it’s where I’m from. Actually, I live in the same house where I was born. My mother passed away when I was 24 years old and I inherited the house. I was living back and forth between New York or wherever I found myself, and the house was the only thing I could always go back to.
Is it one of those American wooden houses with a porch? I love those.
No, no, it’s a three-story brick house, a typical East-Coast semi-detached house. They’re called row houses. I bought the house next door to me and I bought the house across the street from me, like a little local Donald Trump.
Your art career must be going well.
No, no, they’re cheap. If you want to live there you can get a house for $60,000, $65,000. And in Pennsylvania you have the Dutch! You’d even be able to talk to someone in your language. There are loads of Amish people in Pennsylvania — it’s the main Amish hub, and Lancaster is the heart of it. So I’ve even got that going! We’ve got the biggest community of Amish, bigger than anywhere else. It’s an interesting community, especially for me, being a photographer. You can’t photograph them! I do respect that — I don’t even try to sneak a photo. I guess that’s why I learned how to work a subject into agreeing. You don’t see the Amish that much in town. The city itself is just like any city, but as soon as you’re on the outskirts, you see their cow farms and dairy farms — very much like how I imagine Holland to be, because the Amish are Dutch.
Aren’t they mostly German?
German-Dutch. They speak a type of Dutch. I mean, that’s my descendancy as well. I’m German-Dutch. My mother was a Mennonite, an offshoot of the Amish, but they’re milder.
The Amish get to choose whether or not they want to stay in the community, right?
Yes, at 18 you can choose. You can go and have a wild year, get it all out of your system. What you choose to do with that year is up to you. But then when you come back you have to do what they expect you to do to be Amish. Or you can leave the community.
If Amish men have a beard it means they’re married?
If they have a beard they’re married, if they don’t they’re not. If they have a covered carriage they’re married; an open carriage means they’re courting or single. The funny thing is, they fuck like rabbits. And the government was on them for a while because they were fucking relatives and cousins and didn’t realize that they were creating freaks, midgets and dwarfs and hermaphrodites. So now they can’t marry any relatives anymore. And they can’t come into the city limits with their horse and carriage. Things are starting to change a bit, although they still don’t pay any taxes. They’re tax exempt.
Really? It all sounds so 18th century. How did you start doing photography?
I stumbled into it when I was 14. I was walking downtown one day and I passed our local hospital where I saw all these people gathered around a car. I saw this man get out and all these women with purses were getting all excited, getting his autograph and taking pictures of him. I recognized him as a singer from the Mike Douglas Show. That was my first picture. Back then, a lot of stars would come and do regional theater. So I started photographing stars that came to Lancaster and Philadelphia and, later on, New York. It was fun. You just wanted to end up with a picture or an autograph. There was nothing worse than coming home totally defeated. Just by fate, like, you had the wrong door, the wrong entrance, whatever. Or, sometime it was just too cold outside and the pen was literally frozen to my hand and I couldn’t hand it to the star for an autograph.
Were stars more accessible back then?
Definitely. They would tour and do local theater because they were still humble enough. Back when I started, celebrities didn’t say ‘no’ to having their picture taken. I might have gotten some attitude from somebody, but a ‘no’? I’ve never had a ‘no’. Well, Greta Garbo isn’t going to stop and give an autograph. That’s not going to happen. You see her, you take that picture, and you become a paparazzo for a moment. I always have to capture the moment. She’s here, I’m here, this is happening.
That’s what’s so beautiful about your pictures of celebrities. They’re so spontaneous. I think these days, the paparazzi are all wanting to get something out of the celebrity. It’s kind of set up.
I know. If you’re standing with 10 people waiting for a celebrity to come out, you’re standing with seven autograph dealers and three true fans.
Are you still shooting celebrities?
Yes, of course. Besides being an artist, I go to Los Angeles and shoot the events. I go to the Vanity Fair party, I go to the SAG Awards, I go to the…
…as paparazzo?
No, red carpet.
So you have become a professional photographer, with a press pass and all that?
Yes, I went from being a fan to a pro in 1986. A friend of mine at a photo agency said, ‘Gary, you’re out there taking these pictures anyhow. The stars are relaxed with you. You should really sell them.’ I mean, I was this guy the stars would see year after year after year. They’d see me in Philadelphia, they’d see me in New York, they’d see me in L.A., and they were like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ I was everywhere. I never gave up. Some stars have seen more of me over a year’s time than their own family. They come to trust your face. It becomes kind of familiar to them.
Like Elizabeth Taylor, you’ve shot her quite a few times.
Yes, yes. Now it’s, ‘Hello Elizabeth’ — ’Hi Gary.’ When Starstruck came out, the celebrities who got it or saw it put two and two together about who I was and there was nothing but admiration. How touching! (laughs)
Does fame rub off on you?
Well, here I am being interviewed! (laughs)
Right, I should ask you for an autograph when we’re finished!
But yeah, it does rub off a bit. I became friends with some stars and got a lot of press myself when Starstruck came out. The first time I was in London, like seven years ago, I was walking down the street in Soho, checking all the stage doors at the theaters, and George Segal happens to come walking out of one. I took out my camera out real quick and said, ‘Would you mind?’ So I took his picture, and the next day I’m doing a talk show with him on the BBC. Imagine me sitting in the Green Room with George Segal! I’m actually doing a talk show with George Segal! He recognized me from the day before and asked, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m on the show too.’ (laughs)
You’re a bit of a stalker, aren’t you?
I’m actually very shy, and I still don’t have what it takes to go up and take pictures of the people I really want to photograph, like, I don’t know…Diane Arbus.
Have you ever had the fantasy of doing a proper shoot with a celebrity?
I can’t say that I wouldn’t want to, but I’ve never really had the opportunity. Although I have done my beefcake images and a little bit fashion.
I haven’t seen your beefcake images. Are they porn?
It’s not like people having sex. But a hot guy posing naked, masturbating. I’ve done a lot of spreads for magazines like Mandate. I still shoot for them. I absolutely love doing it. I love to meet people and you really meet people when they’re naked.
They’re quite vulnerable.
Yes, they’re very vulnerable. They talk about things they normally wouldn’t talk about because most people are usually nervous — unless they’re nudists or exhibitionists. Most people I photograph are just venturing into it. They’ve got a mental erection as much as they’ve got a physical erection, if they have a physical erection at all because sometimes the one is outdoing the other. Of course, I try to relax them and not put too much pressure on them, because nothing’s worse than getting a model that can’t get it up. I’m not a fluffer, I’m a photographer.
I know a lot of porn and beefcake photographers won’t have sex with their subjects. But I read that you’ve had sex with a lot of the porn stars you were friends with.
Have I? No, not at all. I’d be lying out of my ass if I said so.
Literally, you said somewhere you’d had sex with half of them.
I said that? I mean, I never used my camera to get at them. A lot of times I didn’t fuck the porn star, I fucked the friend. If you meet a porn star you meet two people. So I had to shut the porn side out.
How is it to fuck with a porn star you’ve probably seen in a movie and jerked off to ten times before?
At first, I’m thinking, ‘Oh, why me?’ because I feel uncomfortable with myself. ‘He could have sex with anyone. Why would he want me?’
Yes, why would he?
Well, I get to photograph pretty boys all day long, but the porn models and stars never get to choose who they fuck. That’s the saddest part.
And that’s where you come into the picture?
Yeah, maybe. I became friends with lots of people in the porn business and, crazy as it sounds, I would have the hottest boy at the party and all the other pretty boys would be running around thinking, ‘How the hell did he get him!’
How’s your sex life these days?
Horrible! (laughs)
Why?
Well, where do I go? Do I call a rent boy? I don’t do the things I would have done in the 80s for numerous reasons. I travel so much and it does fuck up your sex life. If you’re not anywhere long enough — it’s wham bam thank you ma’am. If it’s a quick pickup, you’re almost borderlining as to whether it’s a rent boy or not. I’d call a rent boy to photograph him but I’ve never paid for sex.
Oh, that’s good. Are you in a relationship right now?
No. I had a lover for 20 years. He was kind of my childhood sweetheart, and he was bisexual. While I was away he would have his heterosexual things going on and I’d come home and we’d play lovers again. He got married at one point. And my second boyfriend was also bisexual, we were together for 13 years. He has a girlfriend and two kids now.
He turned straight?
You know, they flip-flop back and forth in Lancaster. (laughs)
So all together you had 33 years of bisexual relationships?
I’ve never dated a gay guy.
Oh wow. How did you get involved in porn?
I worked as a manager in a sex store in Pennsylvania. Imagine working in a porn store in a small sexually-repressed town… I was like Dr. Ruth, like a sex therapist to talk to. When you work in a porn store you’re the only outlet some people have for whatever it is they’re experiencing. They had nowhere to go in a bible belt community to exercise whatever they were into.
How long did you work at the store?
A looooooong time. I maybe worked there for about ten years the first time, and then about 4 years ago I worked there for another 2 years. I was the first manager of the store. I was there when it opened.
Would people have sex at the store? Were there cabins or a cruise maze?
No, no cruising maze, just cabins where you could watch whatever you were into.
Would guys go into a cabin together?
Well, we were supposed to discourage that. The laws changed and became much more strict. We couldn’t act dumb and turn our heads and say, ‘I didn’t know they were together.’ So it was: ‘One person only!’ So you couldn’t really loiter or hang out. Some people would come in and go out 4 or 5 times a day.
There’s always a weird form of discretion at sex shops.
Well, a lot of people would chat with me. It’s either one or the other. Either they talk a lot because they want to feel like they’re familiar with you and they want an excuse to hang out even longer. Or they completely ignore you. That was the only insulting thing, especially those last two years I worked there, because I was traveling around the world as Gary Lee Boas doing my art thing. Everybody treated me so great as an artist, but when I was back working at the store they wouldn’t say hello outside the store, they wouldn’t talk to me for fear of whoever they were with: the girlfriend, the boyfriend, the wife or whatever.
How did you start to meet porn stars?
I was in New York a lot shooting celebrities in the theatre district and I started to recognize the porn stars that were hanging out in the same area. They had porn strip joints on 42nd Street and 8th Avenue and as I was passing theaters I’d see familiar names of so-and-so ‘appearing live’ or ‘in person’. I knew their names because of the porn store. I became friends with lots of porn stars and some would come over to Lancaster. The sad part is that my house was some kind of rehab center for the longest time because they would live real hard, performing, drugs and alcohol, whatever they did to get through the week. Some prostituted themselves, some didn’t. I’m making a book about that period in my house in Lancaster.
And would you end up in threesomes with your lover in your Lancaster rehab center?

I like the subtle way you brought up that question! What makes you think I’m into threesomes?
I don’t know, sorry.
And did my lover get involved, is that what you’re asking? No. The only time we got close was when Marc ‘Mr. 10½’ Stevens was coming to my house and he brought this female porn star along. Unfortunately my boyfriend still had a little bit of that hick-country thing thinking it was going to be a fuck-a-thon. Because, of course, what else do porn stars do but fuck? Even though I kept telling him it’s the last thing they wanna do when they are not working, he told me he wanted to have a foursome. I said, ‘Well, OK, do you really want to do this with someone who has a 10½ inch dick? Maybe that’s not the best way to start? This is a really big dick! So they showed up and the girl had a drastic cold and she wasn’t up for anything but bed and some cold syrup!
So it never happened.
No, it ended up the three of us sitting around all night chatting. Marc Stevens was very sexual, but for some reason he wasn’t taking it to that level, he was just not going there. And we couldn’t figure out why. It turned out that — for the first time in his entire career — he had gonorrhea, and he had discovered it while traveling to Lancaster. And he was freaking, because he’s in fucking Lancaster, Pennsylvania, so where do you go?
Was ‘Mr. 10½’ bisexual as well?
Believe it or not, Mark made all straight films, but was gay in real life, and he thought that was his way of separating going to work and coming home.
And he could pull it off?
Oh yes, he could stay hard forever.

End