‘NY Ink’s’ Robear adds a queer twist to the straight tattoo universe
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
When Robear, the manager of the tattoo parlor at the center of the TLC series NY Ink, began to be recognized as a reality TV star, the first thing his friends noticed was that he didn’t use his last name.
“Who do you think you are, using one name — Cher?” he says in a heavy Noo Yawk accent, repeating the allegation leveled good-naturedly at him. “It wasn’t that, I just didn’t want to use it!”
But the man born Robert Chinosi (“Robear” was a nickname given to him by a girlfriend 20 years ago, reflecting his furry body) doesn’t have much to hide. As one of the employees on the show, which aired its season finale Thursday, Robear stands out for being a contradiction of stereotypes — as he puts it: “A big, burly, masculine but slightly feminine gay guy, heavily tattooed in the straight culture.”
Robear came to tattoo culture fairly recently. He held jobs in the corporate world in design and construction until 2007, when he was laid off. A girlfriend who owned a tattoo parlor on Long Island “did me a favor and asked me to run her shop,” he says. He got his first tattoo at 17, so it wasn’t wholly new to him, though immersing himself in the culture was eye-opening.
“Tattoo art is a small niche in the art community, but they are so famous in this world!” he says incredulously of his co-workers.
Robear ended up on the TV show almost by accident. His employer heard about the casting call and wanted to audition for NY Ink; he agreed to come along for moral support only.
“The casting agent loved my looks, and took my hand and threw me in the [audition] room. I had no head shots or applications filled out but they didn’t care. It was destined to happen in a weird, funky way.”
A few weeks later, TLC showed up at his doorstep. Before long, he found himself filming 14 hours a day.
“I never watched reality TV, even Miami Ink or L.A. Ink, so I thought, ‘How could this possibly be real?’ But it’s not scripted — you’re spending so much time with these people, more even than your own family, every day for three months. I’ve had a lot of positive responses, though I really am just being who I am. My parents and friends watch it and when I say something, they say, ‘That’s you.’”
The gay community, he says, has been especially supportive: He’s been recognized at Gay Pride events in New York, and was recently asked to do an appearance at a Chelsea gay bar. Oddly, he doesn’t understand fully why gays are attracted to him … though he has a few theories.
“I’ve been more embraced by the gay demographic because people say I look like Freddie Mercury, though I don’t see,” he says. (They’re right — he’s a dead ringer.) “Maybe it’s because I’m breaking some stereotypes. I’m a secondary character [on the show], but a rarity in this straight, macho world: I’m 6-foot, 245 lbs. and heavily tattooed but I have a swish in my walk. Some of the [straight men on the show] test me emotionally and physically, because straight men still think since you carry a man-bag and talk with a higher voice that that’s a type of weakness. But I grew up with two older brothers and a dad right off the boat from Italy, so I was surrounded with a lot of testosterone. I have a high tolerance of pain and I won’t take shit from anybody.”
Trust us, Robear — you’re the last gay we wanna meet in a dark alley — man-bag or not.
Lifetime’s series Drop Dead Diva — a body-switching comedy where a zaftig female lawyer Jane (Brooke Elliott) secretly holds the soul of a hot bottle blonde — already enjoys a strong gay following, what with Margaret Cho in a supporting role. But it’s aiming for even deeper appeal with the upcoming episode “Prom.” In it, Jane agrees to represent two teenaged lesbians whose high school refuses to let them attend prom as a couple.
The episode (airing Sunday) pulls out all the stops, with a guest cast that includes Clay Aiken, Wanda Sykes and Lance Bass, pictured left, as well as a subplot about modeling that includes some beefcake. In typical Drop Dead Diva fashion, though, the plotting is two dimensional and the storyline fairly tamed down (the lesbians may love each other but they never kiss). Nevertheless, it’s great to see a show on the “Network for Women and Gay Men” get political about gay issues in a (serious-for-them) way.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 22, 2011.