Defining Homes • cougar’s DEN

‘Big Rich Texas’ star Leslie Birkland found house shopping in Dallas easy — with some high-end help, of course

Cameras follow Leslie Birkland, right, and goddaughter Kalyn Braun in ‘Big Rich Texas’ which also features Birkland’s new Dallas-area estate.

By Rich Lopez

 

Being blonde and beautiful never hurts — especially in Dallas. Blonde, beautiful and rich is even better. Leslie Birkland dealt with some hefty drama in the just-finished season of Big Rich Texas, but maybe the biggest drama was finding a new home in the area to partake in Dallas society, men and the pageant scene. Birkland calls Big D home, for now, and becoming a denizen wasn’t so difficult.

“My house was pretty easy to find and prices are just right now,” Birkland says. “I kept hearing Dallas hadn’t been hit really in the [economic] crisis.”

She was a bit overwhelmed upon coming to the city to join her cousin (and castmate) Connie and to oversee her goddaughter Kalyn’s pageant career.

Thinking the idea was to settle in Dallas proper, she found that wasn’t reasonable to live a certain lifestyle and be comfortable. She found she didn’t have to live in Highland Park.

“Everyone was so willing and a lot of Realtors were coming out of the woodwork quickly to help out,” she says. “But it was Connie’s husband John that pointed me elsewhere to look.”

For anyone looking to buy another home, she says once you’ve done it, you know how to negotiate what you need and it goes far easier the second time. Although she won’t divulge exactly where she lives, she describes it as about 45 minutes northwest of Dallas. As for the house — well let’s just say she’s kept up with the Joneses just fine, if not blowing them out of the water.

“It’s about the same 6,000 square feet as my house in Washington with eight bedrooms and three kitchens,” she says. “It’s pretty grand! It’s so elegant and beautiful with these big columns. That’s new to me. And sometimes when you want a bit more land, you have to go out to where it’s spread out. I love it.”

But Birkland’s celebrity going to be an issue with the neighborhood? She says no. As the cameras are rolling for Big Rich Texas, the Style Network has stayed out of sight of the neighbors or respected their privacy as well. In turn, Birkland says the people around her seem not to care all that much about the little piece of TV reality happening right next door.

“They see what’s going on and they may ask, but it’s no thing for them,” she laughs.

For the average person, that amount of square feet seems like a daunting task to move in to. But rich folks do it differently. Birkland has no projects for the house per se. Updating a room with paint or doling pieces of furniture among eight rooms isn’t necessary. Higher end homes with specific interiors come as an entire package. Basically, this is not a fixer-upper.

“Yeah, I’m not doing anything,” she chuckles. “With homes like these, there are furnishings specifically designed for the house, so there’s nothing I’m doing in that regard.”

As for getting used to Dallas, Birkland is dealing with learning a new city, navigating high society and handling some real-life drama all in front of a camera. Before she moved here, she researched maps, but found it difficult to gauge distance from the heart of the city.  Initially, she leased a house just a couple of miles from her cousin in Highland Park.

“People would ask me where I lived and I didn’t know,” she says. “Then I’d just say Highland Park, but where I was wasn’t Highland Park and that was a whole thing!”

She takes it all with a sense of humor. Especially since she’s been labeled the cougar of the show. Romancing the likes of Anthony Dorsett Jr. (son of the former Dallas Cowboy) and a young golf pro known only as A.J., she’s definitely a connoisseur of the younger man, but for her cougar-dom, she seems to roll her eyes at her cougar-dom.

“I do like men that are younger. but I didn’t realize I was a cougar,” she says. “It’s funny, but definitely not icky. There’s a line not to cross. I never want to be old enough to be their mother. I already have three sons! But the men I date are just about 10 years younger. If it was 15 or 20 years difference, then I could see that.”

The next season hasn’t started filming yet and Birkland is just fine with that right now. She has enough on her plate to keep her busy supporting her lavish lifestyle, whether it’s business or fun.

“Through my property investments and CDs, I have a comfortable lifestyle,” she says. “Plus, I’m very conservative with money and do some modeling on the side. As for being here, well, it’s only been six months and I’m not used to the roads, but I’m learning the neighborhoods and getting familiar with them.” DH

For more about the show, visit MyStyle.com/BigRichTexas

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 7, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Johnny Weir shocks the world and comes out

Johnny Weir

In the most shocking coming out since Sean Hayes confirmed he was gay a year ago, U.S. figure skating champion Johnny Weir came out this week. Weir had never denied being gay. He had just never confirmed it.

Weir has not avoided the LGBT community at all. In October, he was presented with the Human Rights Campaign’s Visibility Award and had also been given a similar award by Equality California.

He has raised money for the Trevor Project and appeared on Kathy Griffin’s My Life on the D-List.

Last year, Weir was on the U.S. Olympic figure skating team for the second time. He and Michelle Kwan are the only two skaters to ever be named Skater of the Year more than once. In 2001, he earned the title World Junior Champion. He was U.S. National Figure Skating Champion three times from 2004 through 2006.

Weir has a new book coming out Jan. 11 called Welcome to My World.

—  David Taffet

Playing the waiting game — again

For the second time, RafiQ Salleh sits in Singapore waiting for a visa renewal as his business, his spouse in Dallas suffer from the separation

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer taffet@dallasvoice.com

FORCED SEPARATION  |  Cannon Flowers, left, is back home in Dallas, waiting for the U.S. Embassy in Singapore to once again clear his partner RafiQ Salleh, right, to return to the U.S. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)
FORCED SEPARATION | Cannon Flowers, left, is back home in Dallas, waiting for the U.S. Embassy in Singapore to once again clear his partner RafiQ Salleh, right, to return to the U.S. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

RafiQ Salleh has lived in the United States legally since moving here in 1998 with his partner Cannon Flowers. But now, for the second time in two years, Salleh has been prevented from returning to the U.S. after returning to his native Singapore to pick up his visa.

In 2008, Salleh opened Chill Bubble Tea across the Tollway from the Galleria in North Dallas. He was approved for an E2 entrepreneurial visa, had to return to his home country to pick it up.

He traveled to Singapore but was stopped before returning because his name appeared on the terrorist watch list.

Flowers, who had accompanied his partner to Singapore, was forced to return to Dallas alone. He said after his return, it only took 20 minutes researching online to discover that the RafiQ Salleh on the terrorist watch list is a Pakistani who was already being held in Guantanamo.

It took the State Department almost two months to figure out the same information.

Flowers met Salleh when he was working for Texas Instruments and was based in Singapore. When Flowers moved back to Dallas, Salleh accompanied him on a student visa.  His stay was extended on a practical training visa and then again on an H1B three-year work visa, which he could renew once.

Flowers emphasizes now that Salleh’s residence in this country has always been legal.

To remain in the U.S., Salleh invested in a new business and qualified for an E2 entrepreneurial visa. That document can be renewed an unlimited number of times but expires every two years.

To renew it, Salleh must travel to Singapore for an interview at the consulate where the visa is issued.

The 2008 trip delayed the opening of his business — a costly setback — and it took congressional intervention and pressure before the embassy acknowledged that the Guantanamo prisoner from Pakistan and the gay entrepreneur from Singapore were two different people.

In April of this year, Salleh applied to renew his visa again.

“RafiQ and I traveled to Singapore on Sept. 7,” Flowers said. “RafiQ appeared before the U.S. consulate in Singapore on Sept. 14. An interview was conducted and he was informed that he would hear back from the consulate within four to six weeks but processing could take up to six months.”

And once again, because his shares a name with an incarcerated terrorist suspect, Salleh was not able to return.

“I feel it is even pointless to inquire about my status,” Salleh said, speaking this week from Singapore.

The consulate made it clear to not contact them for at least the first four weeks, Flowers said, because doing so would slow down the process and cause the embassy to view Salleh’s application in a less than favorable light.

“Homeland Security has already approved the visa, stateside,” Flowers said. “However the consulate has the final say and there is no appeal process to their decision.”

He said the problem is the two-track visa approval process between the State Department and Homeland Security. Neither wants to be accused of being the gatekeeper who let terrorists into the country, Flowers said.

“There needs to be one immigration approval process,” he said.

The current system that could keep a businessman out of the country up to six months once every two years makes running a business in this country extremely difficult.

“Physically I assumed I could take care of business from this end,” Salleh said. “But realistically it is affecting me [and]  I can honestly say I am so out of touch.”

He said it is difficult to run a business when he’s starting his day just as his employees are ending theirs. He has tried to adjust his schedule to Dallas time.

“It is possible but physically draining,” Salleh said.

Flowers said the waiting period is emotionally difficult. Salleh has been trying to keep busy in Singapore.

“The first two weeks I was focused on taking care of my family matters for my dad,” Salleh said.

His mother died earlier this year and he helped his father change the title on her property in neighboring Malaysia.

“RafiQ has been doing volunteer teaching at the art academy he once attended,” Flowers said. “He is also spending time with his many nieces and nephews.”

But Salleh acknowledged that the long wait is disheartening.

“Slowly as it creeps into the third, fourth, and now fifth week, I felt very discouraged,” he said.

Although family and friends in Singapore surround him, they have no idea “how much it is affecting my emotional well-being,” Salleh said.

Immigration problems are common for binational same-sex couples. About 40,000 such couples live in the United States.

According to the group Immigration Equality, 19 nations allow their citizens to sponsor their same-sex partners for immigration benefits. The U.S. is not among them.

Henry Velandia and Josh Vandiver were married in Connecticut in August. That state allows same-sex marriage. However, the marriage is recognized only on a state level and not by the federal government under the Defense of Marriage Act.

A ruling by a Massachusetts judge declared DOMA unconstitutional but that rulling has little effect so far as it is making its way through the appeals process.

Vandiver was born in Venezuela and his residency visa has expired. He will appear before an immigration judge on Nov. 17. The couple hopes deportation will be delayed until after the Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of DOMA.

“Asking for a stay is a good strategy,” Flowers said. “I believe they’ll get it.”

“The judge and the government attorney have discretion here,” said Lavi Soloway, Velandia’s attorney.

He said that the couple has not made contingency plans if Velandia is forced to leave the United States.

“For many couples, the only option is finding a third country and becoming refugees,” he said.

Flowers said he and Salleh will be together even if they have to find another place to live.

The Uniting American Families Act would prevent this type of deportation. American citizens would be allowed to sponsor a same-sex partner for residency and citizenship. Heterosexual couples who marry can apply for permanent residency for their spouse. This would give same-sex couples an equal right.

That bill along with the Dream Act, which would give people who came to this country illegally as minors a path to citizenship, are stalled in Congress.

Soloway said his focus right now is on DOMA. If the Supreme Court finds that law unconstitutional, marriages such as his clients’ would be recognized and Vandiver could sponsor his spouse.

Flowers said the treatment of binational couples amounts to nothing more than another form of bullying.

“I believe those that bullied us when we were young have simply grown up and continue to bully us in our grown up lives,” he said.

He said there are many forms of bullying including “don’t ask, don’t tell” and employment discrimination as well as forced separation due to discriminatory immigration laws.

Flowers said he always wakes up at 4 a.m. and that’s when he feels loneliest. It’s 5 p.m. in Singapore, the time when the U.S. embassy closes. If he hasn’t heard anything by then, it will be at least another 24 hours before he hears whether he and his partner of 14 years will be reunited.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 29, 2010

—  Kevin Thomas

Angela Hunt says her separate entry in Sunday’s gay Pride parade was ‘not a political statement’

For Angela Hunt, it’s times like these that owning a convertible comes in handy.

Some may be wondering — as we were — why Dallas City Councilwoman Angela Hunt had a separate entry in Sunday’s gay Pride parade instead of riding on the city of Dallas float with other councilmembers. Hunt’s separate entry prompted at least one local gay Republican to post a photo of the city float on his Facebook page and suggest that Hunt, whose district includes half of Oak Lawn, had missed the parade. That’s not true, of course. Hunt’s entry — consisting of her car, her husband and herself — came near the end of the procession.

Our first thought, to be honest, was whether this was an indication that Hunt plans to run for mayor next year. We thought maybe she was trying to show up current Mayor Tom Leppert, who was absent from Pride for the second time in four years. But it turns out Hunt’s separate parade entry wasn’t at all politically motivated, or even intentional.

Hunt explained to Instant Tea Tuesday morning that she missed the shuttle that takes councilmembers from Lee Park to the parade lineup. She was told initially that the shuttle would be returning for her, but it never did, and the parade start time of 2 o’clock had come and gone. Hunt said she and her husband began to panic. They quickly jumped in their car and hit the car wash (she says her husband insited that they couldn’t take the car in the gay parade without washing it). They then made a quick visit to CVS to pick up some poster board, magic markers and streamers. Hunt called parade organizer Michael Doughman and explained that she would be cutting him a check for the $250 entry fee.

“It was great fun but slightly stressful,” Hunt said. “I couldn’t miss the parade. My husband and I have been in it for five years, and we were determined not to miss the parade. It’s not a political statement, and I hated not getting to ride with my colleagues.”

—  John Wright

Leppert to miss gay Pride parade

Mayor Tom Leppert appears in the Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade in 2007.

For the second time in four years, Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert will miss Dallas’ gay Pride parade. Chris Heinbaugh, Leppert’s openly gay chief of staff, told Instant Tea that Leppert has a “longstanding personal commitment” on the day of the parade, Sept. 19.

Leppert, a political conservative, surprised some when he appeared in the parade his first year in office. He became only the second Dallas mayor ever to appear at gay Pride, after Laura Miller. Leppert missed the parade in 2008 due to a family matter, but attended the parade again last year.

Heinbaugh declined to elaborate on Leppert’s “personal commitment” this year. Heinbaugh said he believes all 14 of the other council members, with the exception of Vonciel Jones Hill, have said they plan to appear in the parade this year.

Last year, all but two council members, Hill and Carolyn Davis, were at Pride.

—  John Wright