Interview with Rib Hillis
Checking in with his one-time Colorado neighbors at the Matthew Shepard Foundation, Rib Hillis from the design team of ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition spoke earlier this fall with the staff of Matthew’s Place about bullying, homophobia and being an ally to the LGBT community.
Matthew’s Place: So how are you doing today?
Rib Hillis: I am super wicked awesome!
MP: That sounds even better than normal awesome!
RH: It’s a vestige from growing up in Boston, when everything’s kind of wicked this, and wicked that, but once I started saying super wicked awesome, then people go “Wow, that’s fantastic!” They start smiling, so it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy for me to be super wicked awesome every day.
MP: Cool! So, a lot of readers here at Matthew’s Place use this site as a resource for growing and facing adversity. Whether you’re LGBT or an ally, bullying usually affects us all. So I was wondering if, while you were growing up, did you ever feel different or picked on?
RH: You know, it wasn’t when I was a little kid. When I was younger, I had an older brother a year and a half older than me, so we always had each other, and I felt very fortunate in that regard. I also was the biggest kid in school. By my junior year of high school, I was an athlete, so I didn’t get picked on, per se, when I was in high school. I think there was one day, when I was a tiny little kid I think — I was about seven or eight years old — when this older kid picked on me inside of this ballpark. And I ran into him in high school when I had grown and gained 50 or 60 pounds, so the tables had turned a bit. But I was very fortunate. I had a great group of friends in my life, and family, and so I felt a sense of safety and belonging that … as you grow older, you realize that not everybody does feel that. And there’s particular certain groups of kids who always feel like outsiders. But I was very fortunate.
MP: So do you ever feel like there’s a disconnect with those people?
RH: For me, what was important was that I always felt like I had a group, that I had a coterie of friends. And I suppose if you’re someone who might be on the fringes — if you’re someone who’s gay, bisexual, a transgender youth, or lesbian — you may not feel like you can reach out to someone. Because people are shy. People are afraid to express themselves. I live in southern California, and the community here is very open. There’s a large gay community. I can imagine that if you’re a kid growing up somewhere, where you might be gay or you think you’re gay, but you don’t know who else would be … you become very closeted. Like I said, it’s not something I’ve experienced, but I can certainly sympathize with that, and that sense of feeling alone. It was later in my life that I got that sense of being alone. When I moved up to California on my own, it was similar in the way that I didn’t know who I could reach out to, but I was able to find friends. … I’m a huge supporter of the NOH8 campaign out here in California, because I find it just obscene, it’s obscene that we have something that is like a sanctioned discrimination. You can’t discriminate against someone because of their race, color, or religion, but you can discriminate against someone because of their sexual preference, I find it to be abhorrent. I have 8-year-old twins, and I want them to grow up in a world where they can be anyone they want without any shame, without holding back, without being judged for it. You can judge someone for their merit. I might be color-blind, but I’m [jerk] sensitive. I can meet someone, and be like “I don’t really like you, but I’ve judged you on your behavior,” but to judge someone right off the bat and say I don’t like you because of your sexual preference, I think is ridiculous, and I don’t like the fact that the government has gotten involved in that sort of thing.
MP: So would you see yourself as an ally to the LGBT community?
RH: Oh, I see myself as a huge ally! Again, I’ve done campaigns for the NOH8 campaign out here, I did an “It Gets Better” PSA last year, I’m a supporter of Fred Karger. I don’t know if you know who he is; he’s the first openly gay presidential candidate, and I did a fundraiser for him out here in California. Yeah, I’m a huge supporter, because I think everyone should have the right and the ability to live their lives how they want, and I don’t agree with people being allowed to discriminate. But it exists, and that’s what’s unfortunate. I think when you’re a kid somewhere, and you feel a little bit disenfranchised, you might feel alone — things could get a little scary. It was terrible a few years ago when it was in the press so much about kids who were committing suicide, and that’s where the “It Gets Better” Campaign came out of, because if you don’t feel like it’s ever going to get better, and if you don’t feel like there’s a community out there that you can be welcomed into, you might not see some day it will get better. But I’m not afraid to say that that’s where I feel my role is. I get the opportunity to be interviewed by you guys, I get the chance to work in a [prominent] industry, and if I talk, for better or worse, people listen. And this is one of those causes that I’m definitely a huge supporter of.
MP: So I get the sense that you’re very moved by news coming out about LGBT suicides, and bullying, etcetera. In your personal life, or perhaps in “$100 Makeover,” or in “Extreme Makeover,” did you ever meet or work with any gay or lesbian people who influenced you?
RH: [Laughs] Are you kidding me? In my career, I started out as a model. I ended up moving to Europe straight out of college. I went to school in Boulder, Colorado.
RH: Yep, I went to school in Boulder, Colorado. I was actually, I’m trying to think, when it was that Matthew was killed, I feel like I may have been in college at the time.
MP: In 1998.
RH: In ’98? Where was I then? I think I was out in California then. Yeah, I would’ve been out in California at that time. But I just remember being sickened by the idea that that would happen, and that was something that I will never forget, to hear that story. But as I went on through my life and career, I certainly worked with so many amazing, talented, and incredible people who also happened to be gay or lesbian, both in the modeling world and in my television career. And I just have tremendous respect for them, and I have amazing relationships with them. And that’s where it comes from for me — I couldn’t imagine not having those people in my life or having those people in my career, because they’ve been so incredible and so talented. Their sexual preference was an afterthought from where I was sitting, and it was just amazing to be able to work with them.
MP: Yeah, I think it’s different when people can put a face to a cause, and maybe that’s what some people lack sometimes.
RH: And ignorance! There’s just so much ignorance and hate, and hate stems from fear. A lot of those people are insecure in their own skin. I was talking about it the other day, it seems so … I don’t know if it’s ironic or appropriate, but the ones who seem to scream the loudest, and hate the most, seem to be the ones who are kind of hiding the most in their closets. Know what I mean? They’re the ones who end up getting arrested for soliciting sex in bathrooms, that kind of thing. It’s like, really, now it kind of makes sense, you have a lot of self-loathing because of your own sense of feelings that you’re dealing with, so you lash out at others. And Matthew and his story and what happened to him, and the Foundation, we’ve got to break down that wall. I am very fortunate. I live and work in a world and a community where I don’t experience it a lot, my friends don’t experience it, my gay and lesbian friends. It’s wonderful, but I think this interview is to go out to those other communities that might be a little more closed off.
MP: So if you were to talk to somebody who is more insecure and fearful of lesbian and gay people, what would you say to them?
RH: Oh gosh. It’s a tough one, because these are those hot button topics — how do you change someone? I guess I would try to explain to them some of the relationships I’ve had with some of my friends and discuss how incredible they are, and how taleneted they are, and how successful they are, and how they take care of their friends and their families, and then at the end maybe explain, “Oh yeah, by the way, they happen to be gay, or they happen to be lesbian”. If you can associate all the good things a person does, then I imagine it’s going to be a lot harder to judge them. Look at them, they’re a good parent, they’re a good friend, a good brother, or a good sister. It’s hard for me to get my head around, because it stems from sort of deep fear, or I don’t know. What is this fear, what are people afraid of?
MP: To be honest, I feel so far removed from it. I was kind of homophobic when I was younger, but then I came out, and just kind of … yeah, I’m not sure?
RH: I think some of it is religious based, and that’s a tough one, because you’re not going to change that so easily, when it’s deeply rooted in someone’s religious faith. But I think we can aspire to respect people’s religious faith, and that they can respect our freedom to choose. And that’s what I think people would go for. So, “Great! You can believe what you believe, but just don’t put it on me”.
MP: Do you think that perhaps faith should — because faith is a big evolving thing — do you think they should grow in their beliefs, I guess?
RH: Again, I’d love to think that they could and they will, but I’m not naive. I’m don’t know if they’re going to, and that was almost like if we’re asking for them to change and grow, it’d be like them turning around to ask someone who’s gay to change their belief. I think it might be an easier start to say, let’s respect each other enough to not try to change each other. You can have your beliefs and have your faith, but don’t try to impose it one me, and vice versa. I was on a cruise ship once, and we had, I think it was three things we couldn’t talk about, it was religion and politics … No, it was just two, because we could talk about sex. So it was just religion and politics we couldn’t talk about, because on those topics, you’re not going to change someone’s mind, you’re just going to end up in an argument. Either you’re going to agree with each other and have this mutual self-love society, or you’re just going to argue.
MP: That seems true. So, going back to LGBT bullying and things like that in the media. That’s been covered a lot, and victims are covered a lot by the media, but a lot of times, the parents are kind of left out of the picture. I know you’re a father of twins; if your kids were being bullied or harassed, how would you feel?
RH: Ah! It just made me bristle just hearing it! They’re my babies, I would protect them at all costs. I think, first and foremost, I would speak to my children about how it’s not their fault that they’re being bullied. It’s the insecurities and the ignorance of the other person. I would encourage my children to protect themselves if there’s any sort of physical abuse against them. I would definitely go speak to the perpetrator, and if the perpetrator was a child, I’d speak to their parents. But I … Oh my God, I don’t know what I’d do if I was privy to watching my kids being bullied! I would do what any parent would, I’d be like a grizzly bear protecting his cubs. Again, I had such a wonderful upbringing, and I always felt safe and protected. My dad is 6’6″ and 280 pounds, so I basically felt protected, and I aspire to have my kids feel the same way. We live in a great community down here in southern California, and I haven’t seen them subjected to any bullying or anything like that, and I think that’s how every kid should have a chance to grow up, to grow up innocent and see the world through a child’s eyes.
MP: Yeah, that would definitely be nice. Do you have any idea where bullying comes from? Since you come from a community where it sounds like there’s almost no bullying, or no sort of negative …
RH: You know, I don’t feel like I was ever subjected to it, and I don’t witness it in my day-to-day. I think bullying comes from a person’s feeling of self-worth, and so what you do is you find out where you are in a totem pole, and you may slide in somewhere in the middle. So you say, “OK, well there’s all these other people who I respect and admire, and there’s all these people below me, so I’m going to put on them this sense that they’re inferior and I’m going to belittle them, and that’s going to raise my stature.” And you see it all the time. Picking on another person in their mind justifies and makes their stature higher. People do it interracially. It’s amazing how every race, every culture seems to have a culture they pick on. So they go, “Well, at least we’re not them.” I think it stems out of laziness. If you feel like you’re not where you want to be in your life, rather than step on someone else’s, raise your stature. Even though [bullying] doesn’t actually raise your stature, it might make you feel that way. Take the time and effort to better yourself. Maybe it’s an economics or an education thing, so you’re going to pick on people who didn’t graduate high school, but you graduated high school, but you didn’t graduate college. What about the person who graduated college who picks on the person who just graduated high school, and what about the person with the Ph.D., and so forth? It creates a pecking order. That’s a pretty benign pecking order; I don’t think you have Ph.D.s running around in a gang picking on regular just bachelor degree people, but…
MP: [Laughter] Well, they’re forming one.
RH: Well, I better get back in school then! But I think it stems from that. In a strange way, it makes them feel better about themselves. Back with racism, and you had the Ku Klux Klan and such, they would point the finger and say, “Black people, they’re the worst, we’re going to keep them down and hold them in their place.” They didn’t change their own place in society, but they felt some superiority, and I think that’s completely misplaced.
MP: So you mentioned about the world you’d want your kids to live in, and stuff like that. If you could change one thing about the world right now, what would you change?
RH: What would I change about the world? I feel like a Miss America pageant contestant right now. At the risk of sounding cliche, I think hate and fear is a limiting factor. Especially about the topic we’re talking about. Matthew was killed out of hate and fear, and it happens all the time. It’s such a high-profile case, but it happens everywhere, and it holds people back. One of the things I admire Fred Karger for is that he’s taking a stance saying you shouldn’t be afraid to go run for any office, including president of the United States, because of your sexual preference. Think of all the amazing people we would be losing if people were afraid to take chances. So hate and fear, and I think they both go hand in hand. The hateful people put fear in other people.
MP: Is there anything exciting we should look forward to from you in the future?
RH: There’s a project that I’m working on. It’s in the development stages right now, but it was a book that was brought to me, and it’s a book that deals with L… Forgive me with the acronym, it’s LGBT… A?
MP: Technically, it’s LGBTQI… IA? Or something like that … No, sorry it’s LGBTQQIA, forgive me.
RH: It’s a mouthful!
MP: It is!
RH: But I got a book that deals with being gay, and it’s a gay-themed story, and it deals with hate, and it deals with ignorance, insecurity, and I recently went to the OutFest here in Los Angeles. Saw a great movie there … Anyway, while I was there I met this producer, and we started talking about it in the beginning stages of work trying to get this book into a screenplay, and hopefully turned into a film. I would love for it to get out there, and for the same reason as this interview, to show those people who are out there that might be feeling alone and disenfranchised that yeah, there’s other people out there like you, and share that story, and also try to shed a little light on some of the ignorant and fearful people. There’s a character in it, and I love this character because I hate this character. He is trying to eradicate all of the homosexuals in this town in 1950s Boise, Idaho. It’s a true story, and he basically tries to go on a witch hunt. Secretly as it turns out, he has his own skeletons in his closet, because he loves to dress up as Eleanor Roosevelt. So you get to see the great character of someone who openly is standing on the soapbox preaching hate and everything, and in his private life he has his own desires, but he’s afraid to express them. It’s a complicated story, but I think it’s a good one. So we’re trying to get that developed right now.
MP: Sounds awesome, Rib. What else can you tell us about your upcoming sci-fi flick? We’ll give you a little plug here.
RH: Oh, Piranhaconda. I don’t know if there’s a lot of hate and discrimination in that, except Piranhaconda hates and wants to kill everyone. It was just fabulous, I think it should be out in October is what we’re looking at. I’ve seen a rough cut of it, and it is fun and funny, kind of tongue-in-cheek, doesn’t take itself too seriously as these sci-fi, monster movies tend to do. I got to work with some amazing people: Teri Ivens, my co-star, and Michael Madison was in it, Rachel Hunter. It should be a lot of fun. It certainly was a lot fun to shoot it, two weeks in Hawaii, which did not suck. I was like, “Wow, I should do this again and again and again!”. It was a lot of fun, we were not making “Schindler’s List” here, it was just as the director said, something the whole family can enjoy.
MP: Well Rib, we’re definitely appreciative of you spending some time with us today.
RH: Wonderful, I really appreciate you taking the time and having me do this.