LAKEWOOD, CO—Gene Podrewski, a Denver-area optometrist and father of two, expressed befuddlement Monday over his status as a gay camp icon.
"I'm not exactly sure why I have this huge gay following," Podrewski said. "I'm a likable enough guy, but I've never been particularly glamorous or charismatic. I'm not in showbiz, and I don't act or sing. But, for some reason, gay men put me up there with Judy Garland and Cher."
Over the past several years, Podrewski, 44, has cultivated a large and devoted following among gay men nationwide, and the whirlwind of attention and adoration perplexes him.
"Not The Advocate again," said Podrewski, checking his voicemail messages at work. "How many times do I have to tell them I have no opinion on the Bea Arthur one-woman show? And the photo shoot David LaChapelle wants to schedule for July totally interferes with my family's vacation. I don't care if that's the only time he's available."
Podrewski first discovered his popularity with gays in June 1998 while shopping for a birthday gift for his wife Marsha in Congress Park, a trendy Denver neighborhood known for its cluster of gay bars and boutiques. In the window of a gay-themed bookstore was a life-size cardboard cutout of Podrewski.
"I couldn't believe what I was seeing: There it was, an image of me in the window of a gay bookstore, right next to a poster of Bette Davis," Podrewski said. "I immediately went in and asked the clerk where they got it. When the clerk saw me, his eyes widened and he screamed, 'Oh, my God! I can't believe it's you!'"
Further evidence of Podrewski's gay appeal soon emerged. The day of the 1998 Denver Gay Pride Parade, Podrewski and his family found themselves serenaded outside their suburban home by worshipful fans. Invitations to fashion shows, theater premieres, and exclusive nightspots poured in. The gay punk band Pansy Division featured Podrewski's face on an album cover.
"It's very nice of them, and I have nothing against anyone, but I just don't feel comfortable being the focus of all this attention," Podrewski said. "I don't mean to snub people, but I have my own life. Between my career and family obligations, I'm extremely busy. I'm sure John Galliano is a very talented designer, but I have a church potluck to attend the day of his runway show."
Podrewski may be mystified by the attention, but Rod Martinez is not. The author of two unauthorized biographies of Podrewski, Gene!: The Eyes Have It and Gene!: The Eyes STILL Have It, Martinez said he has a keen grasp of Podrewski's cult appeal among gays.
"It's difficult to explain to straight people," said Martinez, seated in his San Francisco apartment below an oversized, wildly colored silkscreen print of Podrewski's face. "Gene is adorable, sure, but it's not really sexual. It's more because that man has been to hell and back. He's no saint, and he has a lot of self-destructive impulses, but he's dealt with his personal demons with courage and a wicked sense of humor. He's a survivor in the truest sense and an inspiration to the gay community, which has seen its own share of pain, misunderstanding, and heartbreak."
Martinez was alluding to the many tragedies and heartaches to have befallen Podrewski over the course of his life. At age 6, it was discovered that Podrewski was allergic to penicillin. When he was 12, his family relocated from Estes Park, CO, to nearby Glen Haven, a move that traumatized the boy for several weeks. In 1981, he received a graduate degree in optometry, but that triumph was tainted by a broken engagement with radiologist Kathy Hearn and a recurring sinus infection.
In 1990, Podrewski married the love of his life, the former Marsha Rubin, with whom he went on to have two children, Lauren and Michael. His domestic bliss proved short-lived, however: In 1992, less than a year after the birth of Lauren, he was hit with a devastating series of misfortunes: a prized heirloom mirror broken during a crosstown move, an ankle sprained while playing softball at a picnic, and a pet salamander dead before its time.
But, as Martinez pointed out, Podrewski always prevails in the end.
"It took Gene nearly three years to pay off his student loans, often going without cable TV to do so," Martinez said. "But he did it, like the born fighter he is."
Podrewski's popularity is evidenced by the ever-growing heaps of merchandise he has spawned. In gay-themed gift shops, Podrewski refrigerator magnets, snow globes, and glitter T-shirts are as ubiquitous as Wizard Of Oz and I Love Lucy memorabilia. Podrewskimages, a handsome coffee-table photo book, is selling well at exclusive bookstores across the country despite its $150 price tag.
For the past two years, Fagatha Christie, a Los Angeles-based lounge singer and drag queen, has honed his Podrewski impression, which he performs along with those of Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli. Christie said impersonating Podrewski is harder than it looks.
"A lot of Podrewski impersonators mean well and have a lot of enthusiasm," Christie said, "but doing Gene just doesn't work unless you have the right props onstage. You absolutely need a T-type applanation tonometer. Period. That's the kind Gene uses at work. And what's with the cheesy 1940s-era doctor forehead reflectors some of these queens use? Gene has never, ever worn one. Hel-lo?"
Though flattered by the adulation, the living legend remains uneasy.
"Again, why me?" Podrewski said. "Heterosexuals don't have this fixation with me. In fact, when they learn I'm a gay icon, they look at me all strange. To them, I'm just a regular guy."
"Sometimes," he continued, "I think [the gay community's] love of me is not about the real Gene Podrewski, but of some artificial, mythical image of Gene Podrewski that they project their own hopes and dreams onto. Then again, maybe there is something special about me that I'm just not seeing."