FAJO’s Power Series
The water is ready. Waiting for the tea to steep, I take in my surroundings of this prime Bloor Street West condo in Toronto. The large handcrafted mask on the wall, the life-sized wooden palm tree in the middle of the living room and other African-inspired items hint at the owner’s adventurous spirit.
This is the apartment of Mike Chalut. He is on the phone, wearing all black. The only pop of colour is the red wooden bead necklace tucked into his tank.
The first time I met Chalut, three years ago at the FCKH8 charity event, he was wearing all purple and posing for pictures with shirtless Adonises covered in glitter. I had no idea he would one day be making me tea and telling me his life story.
The way the journey started
The Proud FM radio host and TV personality is a staple of Toronto culture and one of the pillars of the Church & Wellesley gay community. But it wasn’t always like this. Just a few years earlier, Chalut was living in Toronto, bartending at a strip club. Denying the rumours back home about being gay, petrified of his parents’ reaction and trying to party the pain away, his story could have been very sad had his father not turned up at his doorstep one day, and said the words that turned it all around.
Chalut was born to the kind of family that plays hockey all day and goes to church on Sundays. “I’m from a super-religious family,” he tells me. “My Dad’s a guy’s guy — a total dude. Because of my dad’s reputation, I did all the sports and leadership activities throughout high school, went to church, held hands and said, ‘Our father, where art thou in heaven…’ And the whole time I was battling my homosexuality, because from what I understood at that time you’re not supposed to be gay. So I buried it.”
Every summer since he was 17, Chalut worked at Canada’s Wonderland. During the rest of the year, he studied drama and communications at the University of Windsor. “My Dad said you can do whatever you want in your life, as long as you have a degree,” he explains.
The aspiring entertainer would come to the city to pursue his passion for performing. “I sang and danced my guts out,” he says. He decided to move to Toronto with his girlfriend at the time, who had no idea about his sexuality. When she realized he was gay, she was devastated and ended up telling everyone back home.
A turning point in an entertainment career
Not wanting to go home and face the rumours, on top of having to cover his living expenses, Chalut began working at Fantasies, a strip club where men dance for women. Even though he was constantly auditioning, nothing seemed to stick. “I was auditioning as the young Dad, the guy next door or the beefcake dude. Meanwhile, I wanted to wear a boa and scream, ‘I’m gay!’ the entire time.”
Chalut explains that being gay in showbiz was less accepted then than it is now. “So, I basically shut off from the world, got heavily into drugs and partied my guts out. I was just trying to fill a void.” The void could not be filled. Not until he could admit to himself who he really was. “For seven or eight months, I didn’t speak to my father, brothers or sister. My Mom didn’t understand why I wasn’t speaking to her, because I hadn’t come out yet. They had heard the rumours, and I was like, deny, deny, deny.”
A special moment
Eventually, as if sensing his son’s inner SOS call, Chalut’s father came to Toronto and knocked on the door. And then, amazingly, the “jock-Dad-basketball-Windsor-dude” said, “Tell me, so I can tell you that I love you.” As Chalut started to apologize, his Dad continued: “Son, I don’t have a gay son, I have a son that I love. So let’s move on.” That was the moment that changed everything. He stayed for a week to help his son start rebuilding his life. First, he gave the following advice: “What happens behind closed doors doesn’t define you. That’s not who you are — you’re Mike Chalut.”
Then, after several auditions, Chalut got his first gig as a Nick Carter impersonator, which eventually led to a solo act as Ricky Martin. But he still had not officially come out, not to anyone other than family and close friends. “I thought I couldn’t be an out performer and still make it. When people asked me, I was like, ‘I’m straight, I’m straight.’ Again, constantly lying. These lies always set me back.”
The next big moment happened one day at the Exhibition Place.
“About 12 years ago I’m doing La Vida Loca with my show girls, and a water bottle comes flying at my head! I was like, ‘She bangs, she bangs,’ and boom! A kid had screamed, ‘Ricky Martin is a faggot!’ and thrown the bottle. It was funny, because all this time I kept lying about who I was, and here was a kid calling me out while I was performing. And I needed that water bottle to my head to go ‘I AM a gay performer! I AM! That’s it.’ So I talked to my agent and told her Ricky Martin was done.”
For the next few years, Chalut dedicated himself to roles on the shows Queer as Folk, Kim’s Rude Awakenings and Wedding SOS. Although he had never planned a wedding, Chalut decided to adhere to the philosophy of “say you can and figure out later.” The majority of the job consisted of purposefully screwing things up for the host, Jane Dayus-Hinch. According to him, he did this too well —and no amount of “But Jane… it’s an act! I’m not that dumb!” ever rectified the situation.
Chalut had finally made it. Being on TV, living in Las Vegas with his Cirque de Soleil-performer boyfriend and vacationing in Hawaii seemed like a dream. All until the world came crashing down. “I’ll never forget this. January 28th, four years ago, right before my 30th birthday. The producers of Kim’s Rude Awakenings called to say, ‘The show’s been cancelled,’ click!” Apparently, the universe felt that Chalut needed more problems to overcome, because within the next week his boyfriend called to break up, and the government notified him that he owed substantial tax money.
Of course I can!
The next three days, his best friends were cigarettes, vodka-nothing drinks and the brown leather couch in his living room, next to that wooden palm tree. Then Proud FM called. Chalut had never done radio, but just as before he decided to “figure it out later” and replied, “Yeah, I know radio!” After a month of auditions and writing every single talking point, he got the job.
Today, Chalut’s going into his fifth year as a radio host. He is one of the most recognized MCs in the city and a well-known host of some of the largest fashion events in Toronto. He also frequently interviews fashion and beauty personalities on his Proud FM show.
Meeting four people a day on the show, the host has figured out that the key to making people comfortable is getting everyone on the same page and being up-front with who you are. The magic phrase seems to be his famous hashtag “#loveyourguts.” “I love people’s souls and guts,” Chalut explains, “It seems to break the ice. People ask, ‘You love my what?’ and then the pressure’s gone.”
Aside from his show, Chalut hosts various events in Toronto and internationally. One of his proudest moments was hosting World Pride 2012 in London, England. “It was a dream come true,” he says. Chalut vividly remembers how he was about to go on stage, and when the crowd saw him “it was like The Field of Dreams. They were so excited to see someone from TV. The doors opened and it was like whaaa (cheers)! So I told the security guard, ‘This never happens to me in Canada, I’m milking it for what it’s worth.’ It took me 25 minutes to get to the stage, and I posed for every single picture. And when I went home to Toronto, I couldn’t even get a taxi! Reality bites!” he says, laughing.
Going through this journey from closeted Wonderland performer to gay and proud TV and radio personality, Chalut not only evolved as a person, but also stylistically. “As soon as I realized I was gay, I was in Poom Poom shorts wearing glitter, and my hair was blonde! You go through stages. I wanted everyone to know I was gay! I was like, ‘I’m here!’” Eventually he realized that he “didn’t have to wear a boa to show that he was gay.” Now he prefers Italian shoes, Diesel denim, and, in today’s case, trendy black pieces.
Filled with energy and humour, Chalut says that if anything were to happen to his career, his secret dream is to work for the Toronto Transit Commission. “I’m obsessed with the TTC! I just feel that it connects everything. I love it!”
Mike Chalut today